Iris Greek goddess of the rainbow and winged messenger goddess of the Olympian gods. Daughter of Electra (daughter of Oceanus) and Thaumas (son of Gaia and Pontus). Sister to the Harpies, who are also winged. Classical sources are the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (102–114), Apollonius of Rhodes’s Voyage of the Argonauts (2.283– 300, 4.753–779), Callimachus’s Hymns (4.228– 239), Hesiod’s Theogony (265–269, 780–787), Homer’s Iliad (3.121– 140, 8.397–425, 15.143– 217, 18.165–202), and Virgil’s Aeneid (4.693– 705, 5.605–615, 9.1–25). Next to Hermes, Iris is the most important herald of the Olympian gods. Hesiod, Homer, and the Homeric Hymns give her the epithet “swift” or “swift-footed.” Iris flies across the sky delivering messages or providing summons to immortals and mortals (she will at times assume mortal shape for this purpose). In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, she conveys the wishes of both Zeus and Hera, but in the Aeneid, she is the particular envoy of Hera. In the Theogony, Iris has a specific ceremonial function, in a ritual oath of truth telling. She travels to the river Styx and brings its waters back to Olympus in a golden jug. The waters are used as a libation by which the gods swear an oath of truth. In the Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo, the goddesses assisting Leto during her labor persuaded Iris, with the promise of a necklace of golden thread, to summon Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth, whom Hera had kept away until then to prevent the births of Apollo and Artemis. But in the same episode recounted in Apollonius of Rhodes’s Voyage of the Argonauts and in Callimachus’s Hymns, Iris is shown to be loyal to Hera; in the latter, Iris does not leave Hera’s side except at her command. Her loyalty to Hera is again shown in Euripides’ Heracles, where, on Hera’s behalf, Iris commands Lyssa, daughter of Nyx and goddess of madness, to afflict Zeus’s son Heracles with a fit of madness during which he murders his sons. In the Iliad, by contrast, Iris represents Zeus’s interests against Hera and Athena, who support the Trojans. Also in the Iliad, Iris answers Achilles’ prayers to summon Boreas, the North Wind, and Zephyrus, the West Wind, to ignite the funeral pyre of Patroclus. Given that her domain is the sky, Iris is associated with the Anemoi, or winds. One source attributes the parentage of Eros to Iris and Zephyrus, but in other texts, she has no love interests. In Apollonius’s Voyage of the Argonauts, Iris defends her sisters the Harpies from the Boreadae Calais and Zetes. She is treated satirically in Aristophanes’ The Birds and comically in Lucian’s Dialogues of the Sea- Gods. In visual representations of antiquity, Iris can be identified either by a pair of winged sandals or by wings sprouting from her back. She sometimes carries a messenger’s staff, or kerykeion, and is fully clothed, as in an Attic red-figure stamnos from ca. 480 b.c.e. (Louvre, Paris) in which Zeus is flanked by Iris and Hermes. She appears on the François Vase from ca. 570 b.c.e. (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Florence) carrying a staff and accompanying Chiron. In postclassical periods she is shown with her attribute the rainbow, as in François Le Moyne’s Juno, Iris, and Flora from ca. 1737 (Louvre, Paris).
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