The most familiar stories drawn from Greek mythology involve the Olympian pantheon. Most people recognize at least a few tales of Zeus, his fellow Greek gods, and all their various feats and foibles. Many have heard at least something about heroes like Hercules, Perseus, and Theseus, or of terrifying monsters like the Medusa, the Minotaur, or the Chimera.
But ancient Greece also had stories of an earlier pantheon, the Titans. These primordial gods of the earth preceded and ultimately gave rise to the Greek gods more familiar to us today.
The names of many of these Titans continued to be woven into the fabric of Greek mythology, and they connect with the stories of the Olympians in sometimes surprising ways. Some of them are recognizable names, such as Cronus, the father of Zeus.
But there are other Titans who have fallen more into obscurity, even though their stories still tie into the myths and genealogies of many of those more familiar gods and heroes. And one of these, seldom talked about in the study of Greek myths and culture – yet still richly connected to the broader span of Greek myths – is Tethys, the Titan goddess of the waters.
The Genealogy of the Titans
Most sources place the start of this earlier pantheon with two Titans – Uranus (or Ouranos), the god or personification of the Sky, and Gaea, the Greek goddess of the Earth. These two were the Protogenoi, or primordial gods of Greek mythology from which all else derived.
As to their origins, Gaia is most commonly described as coming into being first, either born out of chaos or simply coming spontaneously into existence. She then gave birth to Uranus, who became her consort or husband.
These two would then go on to have, in most versions of the story, a total of eighteen children. Most importantly, the two produced twelve Titan children – their sons Cronus, Crius, Coeus, Hyperion, Iapetus, and Oceanus, and their daughters Rhea, Phoebe, Themis, Theia, Tethys, and Mnemosyne.
Their union also produced two sets of monstrous giants. The first of these were the Cyclopes Brontes, Arges, and Steropes, followed by the even stranger Hecatonchires, or “hundred-handed ones,” Cottus, Briareus, and Gyges.
Initially, Uranus kept all their children sealed up inside their mother. But Gaea aided her son Cronus by creating a stone sickle with which he could ambush his father. Cronus castrated Uranus, and where his father’s blood fell still more creatures were created – the Erinyes, the Gigantes, and the Meliae.
This assault freed Cronus and his siblings and let them – with Cronus at their head – ascend to be the rulers of the cosmos. Of course, this cycle would later repeat when Cronus’ own son, Zeus, would similarly depose him to raise up the Olympians.
Tethys and Oceanus
In this family tree of Greek gods, Tethys and her brother Oceanus were both seen as deities associated with water. Oceanus was connected with the great ribbon of freshwater which the Greeks believed circled the earth beyond the Pillars of Hercules. Indeed, he was so strongly associated with this mythic river that the two seem to have been often conflated, with the name Oceanus seeming many times to describe a location more than an actual deity.
Tethys, on the other hand, was considered the font through which fresh water flowed into the world, the channel by which Oceanus’ waters reached men. She was also, in various times, associated with the shallow seas and even the deeper ocean, and in fact her name, Tethys, was given to the Tethys Sea that was just beginning to separate the continents that formed Pangea in the Mesozoic era.
Alternate Family Trees
But not every version of the Titans’ story starts off this way. There are some versions, notably in the Deception of Zeus, in Homer’s Iliad, in which Oceanus and Tethys were the primordial pair instead of Uranus and Gaea, and who then in turn gave birth to the rest of the Titans.
It seems possible that this is a version that may be related to the earlier Mesopotamian myths about Apsū and Tiamat, and there are notable parallels. Apsū was the god of the sweet waters under the earth – similar to Oceanus’ mythical distant waters. Tiamat, the goddess, was associated with the ocean, or with the waters that were within the reach of man, much like Tethys.
Other versions of the story from Plato put Oceanus and Tethys in the middle, as the children of Uranus and Gaea but the parents of Cronus. Whether this was yet another version of the myth that was actually circulated or simply Plato’s literary attempt to reconcile the other variations is a mystery.
It is, however, interesting to note that the goddess’ name, Tethys, is derived from the Greek word têthê, meaning grandmother or nurse. While this would seem to add weight to the idea of Tethys as having a more central place in divine lineage, other elements in her myth likely account for the association.
Depictions of Tethys
While most goddesses in Greek Mythology are either revered for their beauty, such as Aphrodite, or regarded as monstrous like the hideous Erinyes, Tethys occupies a rare middle position. In the depictions of her that exist, she appears as a somewhat plain woman, sometimes shown with a winged forehead.
Not that depictions of Tethys are common. She had little if anything in the way of direct worship, despite her connection to so many gods and goddesses, and artwork featuring her mostly appeared as decoration for pools, baths, and the like.
These depictions are infrequent until later centuries, notably in the Roman era through about the Fourth Century CE. By this time, Tethys – even as she was increasingly showing up in artwork – was also being increasingly conflated and replaced by the Greek goddess Thalassa, a more general personification of the sea.
Tethys married her brother, Oceanus, thus joining together the two water-gods among the Titans. The two were a fertile pairing, with tradition holding they produced at least 6000 offspring, and quite possibly more.
The first of these were their sons, the 3000 Potamoi, or river gods (though that number may be higher, or even endless by some counts). Myths relate that there were river gods for each of the rivers and streams, though the Greeks could list nowhere near that number of waterways. Only a little over a hundred Potamoi have been specifically named in Greek myths, including Hebrus, Nilus (i.e., the Nile), and Tigris.
The Potamoi were themselves the fathers of the Naiads, or nymphs of the flowing waters, who figured prominently in Greek mythology. Thus, Tethys’ identity as “grandmother” is firmly established, whatever her order in the genealogy of the Titans themselves.
Tethys’ 3000 daughters, the Oceanids, were also nymphs, and while their name suggests a connection to the sea and salt water to modern ears, this isn’t necessarily the case. Oceanus himself, after all, was associated with a freshwater river, and the distinction between salt and fresh waters regarding the nymphs seems to be nebulous at best.
The recorded names of the Oceanids include not only those associated with the sea, such as the Sirens (though these are not always described as daughters of Tethys) but also with nymphs associated with springs, rivers, and other freshwater bodies. Indeed, some Oceanids are recorded as having different parentage, such as Rhodos, said to be a daughter of Poseidon, and others seem to be conflated with Naiads of the same name, such as Plexaura and Melite, making the Oceanids a somewhat poorly defined group.
Tethys in Mythology
Despite being one of the twelve Titans and producing so many offspring who pervaded Greek mythology, Tethys herself plays very little role in it. There are surprisingly only a relative handful of stories concerning her personally, and while some of these reinforce her connectivity to the broader pantheon, others are little more than passing references.
Tethys the Nurse
When her siblings Hyperion and Theia gave birth to Helios, the Greek sun god, and Selene, Tethys nursed and cared for her sibling’s children. Helios would go on to consort with many of Tethys’ daughters, the Oceanids, notably Perseis (most commonly described as his wife), but also Clymene, Clytie, and Occyrhoe, among others. He similarly consorted with some of her granddaughters, the Naiads. A number of significant figures, including Pasiphae (mother of the Minotaur), Medea, and Circe, were produced by Helios’ dalliances with his nursemaid’s offspring.
And during the Titanomachy (the ten-year war of Zeus and the Olympians to supplant the Titans), Tethys and her husband not only took no active role against the Olympians, but actually took in Hera as a foster daughter at the request of her mother, Rhea, for the duration of the conflict. Hera, of course, would go on to weigh heavily on Greek mythology as the wife of Zeus and mother of Olympians like Ares and Hephaestus, as well as the monstrous Typhon.
Callisto and Arcas
Stories of Tethys in mythology are so rare that only one notable chapter stands out – Tethys’ connection to the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor and their movement through the sky. And even in this case, her role in the story is somewhat marginal.
Callisto was, by some accounts, the daughter of King Lycaon. In other versions, she was a nymph and hunting companion of the goddess Artemis, sworn to remain pure and unwed. In still other versions, she was both.
In any case, Callisto caught the eye of Zeus, who seduced the maiden, causing her to give birth to a son, Arcas. Depending on which version of the story you read, she was then turned into a bear as punishment by either Artemis for losing her virginity or by the jealous Hera for seducing her husband.
Zeus managed to forestall such punishments against the son initially, but in the tradition of Ancient Greek myths, circumstance ultimately intervened. By some mechanism or another, Arcas was set on a path to unknowingly hunt and encounter his own mother, with Zeus intervening to stop the son from slaying Callisto by transforming him into a bear as well.
Both Callisto and Arcas were then placed among the stars as the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor to keep them safe. However, Hera beseeched Tethys for one last punishment for her husband’s lover – she asked that Callisto and her son should be barred from her foster parents’ watery realm. Thus, Tethys made it so that the two constellations would never dip below the horizon into the ocean as they moved across the heavens but would instead circle the sky continuously.
The only other account of Tethys playing an active role in stories of myth is found in Book 11 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This account involves the goddess intervening in the tragic story of Aesacus, the illegitimate son of King Priam of Troy and the Naiad Alexirhoe.
As a product of the king’s infidelity, Aesacus’ existence was kept secret. He avoided the city of his father and preferred life in the countryside. One day as he wandered, he came upon another Naiad – Hesperia, daughter of the Potamoi Cebren.
Aesacus was instantly smitten with the lovely nymph, but Hesperia rejected his advances and fled. Frenzied with love, he pursued the nymph but as Hesperia ran, she stumbled upon a venomous stake, was bitten, and died.
Wracked with grief, Aesacus intended to kill himself by throwing himself into the sea, but Tethys prevented the young man from taking his own life. As he fell to the water, Tethys transformed him into a diving bird (likely a cormorant), allowing him to plummet into the water harmlessly.
Exactly why Tethys intervened in this particular story is not explained in Ovid’s account. While Aesacus’ mother and her sister were both her daughters, there is an argument that Tethys could have prevented Aesacus escaping his grief to punish him for the death of Hesperia.
However, there are no stories of Tethys involving herself in the fates of her other daughters in this way, and Ovid’s version of the story could well be his own invention rather than any collected story from popular myth. This lack of information, and of companion stories, just highlights again how little Tethys is represented in the mythology of which she is, indeed, one of the significant grandmothers.