Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow

Maybe you’ve noticed the abundance of rainbows that appear each June for pride month and wondered what the symbol meant in the past. Or perhaps you’ve wondered where the purple iris flowers got their name. The answer is found in Greek mythology, with a lovely and often overlooked goddess, named Iris.

Jupiter sending Iris by Domenico Podestà, 1817

According to Aaron J. Atsma with the Theoi Project, “Iris was the goddess of the rainbow and the messenger of the Olympian gods. She was often described as the handmaiden and personal messenger of Hera. Iris was a goddess of sea and sky–her father Thaumas “the wondrous” was a marine-god, and her mother Elektra “the amber” a cloud-nymph. For the coastal-dwelling Greeks, the rainbow’s arc was most often seen spanning the distance beteween cloud and sea, and so the goddess was believed to replenish the rain-clouds with water from the sea. Iris had no distinctive mythology of her own. In myth she appears only as an errand-running messenger and was usually described as a virgin goddess. Her name contains a double meaning, being connected with both the Greek word iris “the rainbow” and eiris “messenger.”

Iris is depicted in ancient Greek vase painting as a beautiful young woman with golden wings, a herald’s rod (kerykeion), and sometimes a water-pitcher (oinochoe) in her hand. She was usually depicted standing beside Zeus or Hera, sometimes serving nectar from her jug. As cup-bearer of the gods Iris is often indistinguishable from Hebe in art.”

According to Eric W. Edwards “The wife of Zephyrus, the God of the West Wind, she was the mother of Eros, and some say Pothos. Other sources claim her brother was Hydaspes. Her sisters were the Harpies or Harpiae, the ‘Storm Winds’ called Aello and Ocypete.

In Homer’s Iliad (1871) she is described as the messenger of the gods, meaning she could journey at will to and from the Underworld, through the heavens and the deep seas. As the agent and winged messenger of Hera (Hesiod, 1981) and Zeus (Homer, 1871), she carried the caduceus or herald’s staff.

For Iris the rainbow was a bridge and the highway she used on her travels and errands between heaven and earth. When not delivering messages, Isis was the ‘bedmaker’ who slept under the bed of Hera and Zeus. As the goddess of the rainbow Isis was the link, the mediator with the gods, who restored peace to nature, and who joined the heavens to the mortal world.

Called a Virgin Goddess she was the source of the high waters who supplied the clouds with rain. Isis was also referred to as a ‘Mother of Love’ who gathered the souls of women as the carrier of the divine will to mankind. This suggests a close association or affinity to Hecate and indicates a duality, a darker side to her role as a goddess of hope.”

According to the amazing ‘The Eclectic Light Company’ (check out this wonderful blog if you love mythology in art) “Her most characteristic attributes are the rainbow or an arc formed from her billowing clothing. She is often shown with wings, which may be iridescent like those of some insects, rather than birdlike or feathered.”

Antonio Palomino (1655–1726), Allegory of Air (c 1700), oil on canvas, 246 x 156 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

“Antonio Palomino’s Allegory of Air from about 1700 shows Iris to the right, pointing to her rainbow, with Hera sat in her chariot which is drawn by a pair of peacocks. Both goddesses are making the sign of the bow using their garments, which contrast in their colors.” The Eclectic Light Company

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