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Iris, the Greek Goddess of the Rainbow

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“Iris” by John Atkinson Grimshaw. The Greek goddess of the rainbow is often depicted with wings. Credit: Public Domain

Iris, the Greek goddess of the rainbow, also served as a messenger of the gods. Although now a little known member of the pantheon, Iris was a prominent figure in many ancient myths and is now even a character in Jack Riordan’s “Lightning Thief” book series.

The Greek goddess was the daughter of Thaumas, whose name means “miracle” or “wonder” in Greek, an old and powerful sea god who was linked to the wonders of the sea, and Elektra, a sea-dwelling nymph.

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Her sisters were the terrifying Harpies Ocypete and Aello — fearsome creatures that were half-women, half-birds, who represented the storm winds.

During the Titanomachy, when the Olympian gods fought against the Titans, the old gods, Iris became the messenger for the Olympians and her sister, Arke, delivered messages for the Titans. Arke betrayed the Olympian gods, and became the rival to her sister.

From this point on, Iris served as messenger to the gods, making her the female counterpart of Hermes, who is more widely known for the role.

Iris, Greek goddess of the rainbow and messenger to the gods

While Iris is found throughout Homer’s Iliad, an epic poem that details the story of the Trojan War, and serves as a divine messenger, she is not mentioned in the Odyssey, his later poem which tells the story of Odysseus’ return home from the war.

Hermes is the messenger of the gods in the Odyssey.

In addition to her role as messenger, Iris is known to serve the gods their nectar from a large chalice she is often depicted holding.

Much like a rainbow, Iris was linked to the sea and sky, and serves as a link between the gods and humanity.

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Iris shown on pottery from the 5th century BC. Credit: Public Domain

In myth, she frequently travels to the ends of the world using the speed of the wind on her wings, and even ventures to the depths of the sea and through the underworld, often taking the trips to deliver important messages.

In antiquity, when one saw a rainbow, it was also believed that they were witnessing Iris traveling across the world or through the sea to deliver a divine message to a mortal.

The goddess of the rainbow was described and depicted either as a rainbow or as a stunningly beautiful winged woman, often carrying a staff with wings as well.

Along with her winged staff, Iris was said to carry water from the River Styx, or the river that led to the underworld, at the command of Zeus. She was to use this water to put anyone who lies to her to sleep. This was used when gods made solemn oaths to each other.

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One of the few sculptural depictions of Iris, the Greek goddess of the rainbow, on the west pediment of the Parthenon. Credit: Public domain

In some myths, Iris is considered one of the most beautiful of all of the Greek goddesses.

She conceived a child with Zephyrus, one of the Anemoi, or the Greek gods of the winds. The child was Pothos, the god of sexual desire and longing.

Despite her prominent role as divine messenger, there were no known temples built to Iris and experts suspect there was little cult activity to the goddess, apart from records of Delians offering cakes made of wheat, honey, and figs to Iris.

Although described as extremely beautiful, there were also very few statues created depicting Iris. She was frequently shown in vase paintings, however. One of the few ancient Greek sculptures of Iris is found on the west pediment of the Parthenon.

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