Nyx: Greek Goddess of the Night

Have you ever looked at the night sky to marvel at its beauty only to be unnerved by its vast, unending darkness? Congratulations, you’ve had the same thought process as someone in ancient Greece. Maybe even a god or two. 

(Sort of.) 

In ancient Greece, the night was accepted to be a beautiful goddess named Nyx. She was there at the dawn of creation as one of the first beings to exist. Impressive, right? After some time passed, Nyx ended up settling down with her edgy brother and they had a few kids. 

In all seriousness though, Nyx was the only goddess capable of striking fear into the hearts of both gods and man. Amongst her children were beings of death and misery: all creatures that were emboldened by the night. She was revered, feared, loathed. 

All of this, we know…and, yet, Nyx remains an enigma. 

Who is Nyx?

Nyx is the Greek primordial goddess of the night. She, like Gaia and the other primordial gods, emerged from Chaos. These other gods ruled the cosmos until the 12 Titans staked their claim. She is also the mother of many children, including the god of peaceful death, Thanatos, and the god of sleep, Hypnos. 

The Greek poet Hesiod describes Nyx in his Theogony as “deadly night” and as “evil Nyx,” cementing his opinion of her early on. We can’t blame the guy. At the end of the day,  you probably wouldn’t refer to the mother of evil spirits as “lovely”…or, would you?

Anyway, Hesiod’s Theogony further notes that Nyx resides in a cave within Tartarus, the deepest level of the Underworld. Her abode is surrounded by swirling dark clouds and just generally unpleasant. It is thought that Nyx doles out prophecies from her home and is a fan of oracles.

What does Nyx Look Like?

According to myth, Nyx is as beautiful as she is macabre. Few vestiges of her likeness can be found on a few Greek artworks. Most of the time, she is shown to be a regal, dark-haired woman. A painting on a terracotta oil flask from 500 B.C.E. shows Nyx drawing her chariot across the sky as dawn breaks.

An orb of darkness rests above her head; dark mists trail behind her. Both of these characteristics identify Nyx as working hand-in-hand with Erebus.

In all, ancient art depicting Nyx is uncommon. This is not to say that the likeness of Nyx was never taken in the ancient world. A first-hand account from Pausanias in his Descriptions of Greece recite that there existed a carving of a woman holding sleeping children in the Temple of Hera at Olympia. 

The carving which appeared on an ornate cedar chest belonging to Cypselus, the first tyrant of Corinth, had an accompanying inscription describing the two children as being Death (Thanatos) and Sleep (Hypnos), while the woman was their mother, Nyx. The chest itself acted as a votive offering to the gods.

What is Nyx the Goddess of?

As the personification of the night, Nyx was the goddess of just that. Her dark veil would shroud the world in darkness until her daughter, Hemera, would bring light back at dawn. At daybreak they would go their separate ways. Nyx returned to her Underworld-dwellings while Hemera brought the world day.

When the evening rolled back around, the two would switch positions. This time, Nyx would ascend to the sky while Hemera nestled down into cozy Tartarus. In this way, the goddesses were eternally at opposing ends. 

Usually, Nyx’s name is brought up when the discussion of powerful gods comes around. Sure, she doesn’t have a cool, zapping weapon to smite folk with (that we know of), nor does she go out of her way to flex her power often. So, what’s the hype around Nyx? 

Well, one of the more signifying things about Nyx is that she doesn’t rely on a celestial body. Unlike the day, which relies on the sun to define it, the night doesn’t need the moon. After all, we’ve had moonless nights, but we have never had a sunless day.  

Is Nyx the Most Feared Goddess?

If you are familiar with Greek mythology, you already know that the other Greek gods and goddesses mean business. Mortals wouldn’t dare cross them. But, Nyx? She made even the mighty gods quake with fear.

More than anything, most of the Greek deities just didn’t want to mess with her. Her cosmological implications alone were enough for other deities to just go “nope” and walk the opposite direction. She was the goddess of the night, daughter of Chaos, and mother of a whole lot of stuff you want nothing to do with. For these reasons, Nyx is described as having “power over gods and men” by her son Hypnos in Homer’s Iliad and no, we won’t question that observation.

Why is Zeus Scared of Nyx?

Zeus is scared of Nyx for obvious reasons. She’s a shadowy figure: the literal personification of the night.In fact, she is the only goddess that Zeus is on the record fearing. This says a lot, since the King of the Gods didn’t even fear the wrath of his begrudging wife, Hera.

A prime example of Zeus’ fear of Nyx crops up in Book XIV of Homer’s epic, the Iliad. At some point in the tale, Zeus’ wife Hera reaches out to Hypnos, a son of Nyx, and requests that he puts her husband to sleep. The god then recounts how he had played a role in one of Hera’s machinations against Heracles, but was unable to keep Zeus under a deep sleep. In the end, the only thing that stopped Zeus from drowning Hypnos into the sea was a simple act: Hypnos sought refuge in his mother’s cave. 

It is safe to say that half of Zeus’ fear stems from Nyx being an ancient being, while the other half comes from her wielding immense power. That is to say, Nyx is one powerful god. A primordial entity of any mythology generally held gargantuan power over any other gods within the pantheon. 

To put Nyx’s power into perspective, even the Olympian gods struggled with their predecessors from a mere generation before them for a decade. The only reason the Olympians won that war was because of their allying with the Hecatonchires and Cyclopes. We can assume that if the gods – allies and all –  picked a fight with a primordial being directly, it would be over before it even began.

Do Hades and Nyx get Along?

Now that we’ve established Zeus is spooked by Nyx, how does the isolationist King of the Underworld feel? If we ask the Roman poet Virgil, he would claim them to be lovers and parents of the Erinyes (Furies). However, Greek mythology has a much different interpretation of the relationship between Hades and Nyx. 

Being the King of the Underworld, Hades rules over the realm in which Nyx and her children reside. Since they are Underworld denizens, they are subject to the rules and laws of Hades. That is to say, even the dreadful, black-winged Nyx, is no exception. 

In a complicated way – and despite being Hades’ great aunt – Nyx is a bit of a co-worker. She envelops the world with dark mists, allowing some of her more malevolent children to run rampant. Now, when we consider that a number of her offspring were in some way connected to death and dying, it totally works out.

Who was Nyx in Love With?

When Nyx emerged from the yawning maw of Chaos, she did so alongside another being. Erebus, the primordial god and personification of darkness, was both Nyx’s brother and consort. They worked together to shroud the world in darkness at the end of the day. 

Out of their union, the couple produced a number of other “dark” deities. The two also ironically produced their opposites, Aether and Hemera, the god of light and the goddess of day. Despite these exceptions, the brood of Nyx and Erebus frequently played a significant role in fueling the nightmares of mankind.  

Children of Nyx

Nyx has given birth to several children from her relationship with Erebus. She is also thought to be able to produce offspring on her own accord. This is where lines get blurred, as different sources cite different circumstances of birth and parentage.

We’ve already established that Nyx had given birth to Thanatos, Hypnos, Aether, and Hemera. She also gets credited as being the mother to a handful of dark spirits, like the Keres who were drawn to notably bloody conflicts. Her other children are as follows:

  • Apate, the goddess of deceit
  • Dolos, the god of trickery
  • Eris, the goddess of strife and discord
  • Geras, the god of old age
  • Koalemos, the god of stupidity
  • Momus, the god of mockery
  • Moros, the god of a doomed fate
  • Nemesis, the goddess of retribution
  • Oizys, the goddess of misery and misfortune
  • Philotes, a minor goddess of affection
  • The Erinyes, goddesses of vengeance
  • The Moirai, the goddesses of destiny 
  • The Oneiroi, the gods of dreams

Of course there are also variations based on Orphic tradition. In Orphism, Nyx was the mother of Eros, the god of desire, and Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft. 

What is Nyx like in Greek Mythology?

Nyx is a central figure in Greek myth. We’re first introduced to this shadowy figure in ancient Greece’s cosmogony where she is listed as one of the primeval gods and a daughter of Chaos. Depending on your source, she could actually be Chaos’ firstborn child, therefore being the very first being at the dawn of creation. 

Despite these massive implications, Nyx is put on a backburner while her sister, the mother goddess Gaia, steps up. From her initial introduction onwards, Nyx is usually referred to only when authors are making a genealogical connection to her potential progeny.

One of her more noteworthy mentions stems from the Titanomachy. While it is unlikely that she had anything to do with the conflict, she may have had a hand in its aftermath. Remember when Zeus chops up his dad before throwing him and his allies into Tartarus? Well, in some variations of the myth, Cronus, the tyrannical Titan king, was imprisoned in Nyx’s cave.

As the legend goes, Cronus is still there. He never is allowed to escape. Instead, he’s eternally chained up in a drunken stupor while he mutters prophecies about his dreams.

How was Nyx Worshiped?

Nyx was worshiped as a chthonic deity. Like other chthonic gods, Nyx was made offerings of black animals and had most, if not all, of her sacrifices burned and buried in an enclosed earthen pit. An example of a sacrifice to Nyx can be found in the writings of the Greco-Roman poet Statius: 

“O Nox…ever shall this house throughout the circling periods of the year hold thee high in honor and in worship; black bulls of chosen beauty shall pay thee sacrifice…” (Thebaid).

Outside of chthonic worship, Nyx didn’t have as massive of a following as other gods, especially those that resided on Mount Olympus. However, it is generally accepted that she had a small cult following. Pausanias mentions that there was an oracle of the goddess Nyx located at the acropolis at Megara, writing that from the acropolis, “you see a temple of Dionysus Nyktelios, a sanctuary built to Aphrodite Epistrophia, an oracle called that of Nyx, and a temple of Zeus Konios.” 

Megara was a smaller dependency to the city-state of Corinth. It was known for its temples to the goddess Demeter and its citadel, Caria. At some point in its history, it had close ties with the oracle of Delphi.

On the other side of things, Nyx also had a significant role in early Orphic traditions. Surviving Orphic hymns refer to her as a parent goddess, the progenitor of all life. By the same token, Orphic fragments (164-168) reveal that Zeus also acknowledges Nyx as his mother and as “highest of the gods.” For comparison, that title is usually reserved for Zeus himself.

Does Nyx have a Roman Equivalent?

As with other gods of Greek origin, Nyx does have a Roman equivalent. Another goddess of the night, the Roman goddess Nox is very similar to her Greek goddess counterpart. She is viewed with just as much suspicion amongst mortal men, if not more. 

READ MORE: Roman Gods and Goddesses

The most defining difference between the Roman Nox and the Greek Nyx is their perceived relationship with Hades, or, the Roman Pluto. As is mentioned in Virgil’s Aeneid, the Furies are repeatedly referred to as daughters of Nox, yet they are “hated by their father, Pluto.” The observance is strikingly different from Greek interpretation, which posited Nyx and Hades as being indifferent towards one another. 

How to Cite this Article

There are three different ways you can cite this article.

1. To cite this article in an academic-style article or paper, use:

Cierra Tolentino, "Nyx: Greek Goddess of the Night", History Cooperative, August 19, 2022, https://historycooperative.org/nyx-goddess-of-the-night/. Accessed September 25, 2022

2. To link to this article in the text of an online publication, please use this URL:

https://historycooperative.org/nyx-goddess-of-the-night/

3. If your web page requires an HTML link, please insert this code:

<a href="https://historycooperative.org/nyx-goddess-of-the-night/">Nyx: Greek Goddess of the Night</a>

Leave a Comment

Share
Tweet
Reddit
Pin
Email