The Myth Of Iris, Goddess Of The Rainbow, Explained

The ancient Greeks and ancient Romans had gods for all manner of natural phenomena, all the way from Zeus, the god of storms, down to the nymphs who represented the spirit of each individual tree. So naturally, they had a goddess of the rainbow, an extremely visible natural phenomenon that has carried a lot of symbolic weight for all sorts of civilizations and communities across time. 

This goddess was Iris, who as the personification of the rainbow represented a connection between Heaven and Earth just as the literal rainbow forms a bridge of light between sky and ground. With this metaphor as her basis, Iris served as a messenger and conciliator for the gods, as well as a conveyor of water. If you're unfamiliar with this relatively minor goddess, here is basically everything there is to know about her, as well as how to recognize her when you see her in art.

The other messenger of the gods

In the world of ancient Roman and Greek mythology, Iris was a divine messenger and personification of the rainbow. Specifically in Homer's "Iliad," Iris serves as the deliverer of messages between the gods as well as from the gods to men. Throughout the "Iliad," Iris' role includes carrying messages from the home of the gods on Mount Olympus to the peaks of the sacred Mount Ida near Troy, where the gods posted up to watch the Trojan War unravel. In this poem, Iris appears frequently and is most often the servant of Zeus, though Hera engages her services as well. However, as time goes on, even as early as Homer's "Odyssey," the role of the primary messenger of Zeus and the Olympians falls to Hermes, so in later writings, Iris becomes specifically the messenger of Hera.

Her ability to travel swiftly across the world and between realms was used for more than simply delivering messages, however. Whenever the gods swore their unbreakable oaths on the River Styx, it was Iris' job to swiftly fly down to the infernal river and retrieve a pitcher full of its waters for them to swear by. If the god or goddess who swore the oath broke their promise, the water would be poured on them, rendering them helplessly unconscious for a full year.

The double meaning of Iris

The meaning of the name Iris is simple enough. In Ancient Greek, the word just meant "rainbow," which is what the goddess was the personification of. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the Greek word descends ultimately from an older root meaning "to bend" or "to turn," which makes sense in conjunction with the curved shape of the rainbow. English has borrowed the Greek word to use as the name of both a colorful flower and the colored part of eyes, both of course in connection with the colors of the rainbow. From that same Greek word also stems the English word "iridescent," meaning having a shimmery rainbow color, and the chemical element iridium, which apparently produces a lot of colors when it's dissolved in acid.

William Smith says in his Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, however, that ancient writers commonly connected the derivation of Iris' name not to bending like the rainbow arch, but rather to either the verb "eiro." This means "to speak," thus making her the speaker and highlighting her role as a messenger. It has also been linked to a verb meaning "to join," indicating that in her role as messenger, she would also serve as a joiner or conciliator, connecting two parties, just as the rainbow connects the sky and the earth. Following this etymology, the name Iris would be related to the Greek word "eirene," meaning peace, which is kind of nice to think about.

Iris' divine and monstrous family

Various sources across classical mythology name Iris as the daughter of Thaumas and Elektra. Thaumas, whose name means "wonder," was a minor sea god who generally represented the wondrous, amazing things of the sea — hence the name. Elektra, meanwhile, not to be confused with the arguably more famous human daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, was an Oceanid, one of the nymph daughters of Ocean, the primordial river that surrounds the earth. Her name means "amber," and may suggest that she was a cloud nymph, with her name representing the way clouds glitter in the sun after a storm. Elektra was also known by the name Ozomene, meaning "many branches," possibly also referring to a cloud. This couple represents a nice metaphor for the rainbow, then, which is the connection between the sky and sea. Iris, in her role as the rainbow, was thought to refill the clouds with water from below.

Iris was not the only child of Thaumas and Elektra, however, as various mythological sources say that her sisters were the Harpies, monstrous beings with the heads of women and the bodies of birds who represented the fierce storm winds. Depending on the source, the individual Harpies may be named Aello, Ocypete, Podarce, Celaeno, or other spellings. The poet Nonnus adds that Iris was also the sister of the river god Hydaspes.

Recognizing Iris in art

In ancient art, the heroes and gods of mythology are usually rendered recognizable by the use of iconography, or certain visual elements that help identify a certain figure. While some works of art like vases and jugs do occasionally literally label the figures on them with names, iconography helps make the gods familiar even to those who can't read. 

William Smith explains that while there are no surviving ancient statues of Iris, the rainbow goddess, she is commonly depicted on vases and reliefs. In these depictions, you can usually recognize Iris as she wears a long tunic with some kind of light covering on her upper body, but also, more notably, huge golden wings on her shoulders. To signify her role as a herald and messenger, she may also be shown with the kerykeion, also known as a caduceus or herald's staff. She is sometimes also depicted flying with wings on her feet or sandals, both of which were also common to the other messenger god, Hermes.

In addition, art also commonly shows her carrying a pitcher, both hinting at her job of fetching water from the Styx and also showing her as a servant of Zeus and Hera. Sometimes she is seen pouring out nectar, the wine of the gods. Interestingly, the poet Servius says that while most authors say Iris is the rainbow herself, the rainbow is in fact merely the road that she walks upon to deliver messages.

The husband and child of the rainbow

In the various Greek and Roman texts, you can see that some authors such as Vergil and Theocritus refer to Iris as a virgin goddess, which was apparently the tradition in earlier authors as well. But by the late period of myth-writing, Iris was given a consort and a son. According to authors like Nonnus, Iris hooked up with Zephyrus, the handsome and gentle west wind associated with the mild pleasures of spring. Like Iris, Zephyrus (and the other wind gods) was depicted as having wings. However, he may not have been the greatest of husbands to Iris, as other sources say he was married to Chloris, a flower goddess, and multiple legends have him hooking up with Iris' sisters Podarce and another unnamed Harpy. For whatever reason, Zephyrus' offspring with these two Harpies were all magical horses. Mythology is wild, man.

Anyway, Iris and Zephyrus together produced Pothos, the god of sexual desire, who, like his mother and father, also had wings. Together with Himeros and Eros, Pothos was one of the three Erotes, who were more or less what you picture when you think of Cupid, and the three were frequently depicted together in art. The idea of passion being the offspring of the rainbow and a gentle wind seems to be a metaphor for the capricious, multi-faceted, and ever-changing nature of desire.

Picking sides in a clash of Titans

In the days before Zeus became king of the gods, the world was ruled by his father's generation of deities, known as the Titans. At the urging of Gaea, the Earth Mother, Zeus and his siblings decided to rebel against the Titans with the intention of overthrowing them and setting themselves up as the new power in town. The ensuing battle was known as the Titanomachy, or the war of the Titans. A Greek mythographer named Ptolemy Hephaestion relates an anecdote from the Titanomachy regarding Iris in his work "New History." In this tale, he says that Iris and an otherwise unmentioned sister named Arke were both winged messengers, but while Iris served Zeus and the Olympian gods, Arke betrayed them and went to work for the Titans.

Spoiler alert: The Olympians won the Titanomachy, and as punishment for her treachery, Zeus ripped off Arke's wings and threw her into the depths of the Underworld together with the Titans. He later gave Arke's wings as a wedding gift to Peleus and Thetis, who would go on to be the parents of the great warrior Achilles. Thetis affixed Arke's wings to Achilles' feet when he was a baby, for which reason he was known by the epithet "podarkes," meaning "feet of Arke." (This epithet, frequently used by Homer in the "Iliad," really just means "swift-footed.")

Iris remained neutral in the Trojan War

There are no extant myths in which Iris is the main character, but there are a number of famous stories in which she plays a role. She appears perhaps most prominently in Homer's "Iliad," where she is the primary messenger of Zeus and the Olympian gods. It is notable that, unlike most of the gods observing the conflict, Iris does not favor one side over the other, but rather works as the perfect tool for Zeus, aiding both the Greeks and the Trojans alike. 

For example, she advises the Trojan commander Hector to arrange the fighting squads of his allies under captains from their own nation so that there would be no language barrier when it came to following commands. But then later, she herself carries up the prayers of the Greek hero Achilles when he asks the North Wind to help light the funeral pyre of his beloved companion Patroclus.

But it's not just humans that Iris aids during the Trojan War. She also helps the gods. When Aphrodite is injured by the human soldier Diomedes while trying to protect her son Aeneas, it's Iris who helps load Aphrodite onto Ares' chariot so she can get away. Likewise, she sagely advises Poseidon not to disobey Zeus' order of non-interference among the gods, lest he suffer the wrath of the Furies.

Preventing, then helping, the birth of Apollo

One story that features Iris working specifically as an agent of Hera (and not Zeus) is that of the birth of Apollo and Artemis. There are a few passages from the "Homeric Hymn to Apollo" and Callimachus' "Hymn to Delos" that explain the situation. 

After Zeus gets the goddess Leto pregnant, his jealous wife Hera assigns her messenger Iris and her son Ares to stand guard and threaten any land that might allow Leto sanctuary in which to give birth. When Leto starts labor, she is forced by the wrath of Hera to wander from land to land and island to island looking for a place to give birth to the divine twins inside her. All the islands, under Iris' threats, refuse to allow Leto to land on them, except for the island of Delos, which felt that the reward of being the birthplace of a mighty god was worth the risk of punishment by Hera.

All of the goddesses then arrive on Delos to witness the birth of Leto's children except for two: Hera and her daughter Eileithyia, who it turns out is pretty important to the whole process, as she is the goddess of childbirth. Without Eileithyia present, Leto suffers in labor and can't give birth. After nine days and nights of labor, the other goddesses convince Iris to go fetch Eileithyia without Hera's knowledge, finally allowing Apollo and Artemis to be born.

Against the Argonauts

Another famous tale from Greek myth in which Iris plays a role is the story of Jason and the Argonauts on their journey to find the Golden Fleece. This story is full of short episodes talking about the strange and magical places that the Argonauts encounter on their voyage across the sea. When the Argonauts arrive on one island, they meet Phineus, the blind king and prophet, who is being kept prisoner as a punishment for blinding his own sons (grandchildren of the god of the North Wind on their mother's side) at the behest of their new wicked stepmother. He is trapped eternally at a table laid out with a feast, but the Harpies fly down and steal or poop on all of his food, leaving him just enough sustenance to live and draw out his torture.

Winged sons of the North Wind and two of the Argonauts, Zetes and Calais, take pity on Phineus and promise to drive the Harpies away. They set a trap for the monstrous bird women and manage to chase them across the sea. They are about to tear the Harpies to pieces when suddenly Iris, the Harpies' sister, appears and tells the two heroes not to kill her sisters just for doing the job of divine punishment. Iris convinces Zetes and Calais to stop chasing the Harpies and, in exchange, the Harpies will stop tormenting Phineus.

Various adventures of Iris

There are numerous other stories where Iris appears as a minor figure, primarily serving in her role as messenger of the gods or lapdog of Hera (as she is more or less described by Callimachus). These various appearances include an episode recorded by both Vergil and Ovid, in which Iris, acting on behalf of Hera, tries to impede the successful arrival of Aeneas (whom Hera hates) and the surviving Trojans in their fated new home, the area that will eventually become Rome. While the exiles of Troy are on the island of Sicily, Iris disguises herself as a Trojan woman and convinces the other Trojan women that the hardships of their long voyage will end if they can't travel anymore. The simple solution? Burn all the ships. (Don't worry: Zeus puts the fire out.)

Elsewhere, Iris is recorded as the one who informs Menelaus that his wife Helen has been taken to Troy by Paris, kicking off the Trojan War. Iris is also the one who, at Hera's behest, transforms the Roman queen Hersilia into a goddess so that she can join her husband Romulus, who has just been deified as the god Quirinius. And in one version of events, Iris is the one who tells Herakles to go and unchain Prometheus from the rock to which he had been bound by Zeus after the thunder god has pity on the Titan.

Iris versus the birds

It's not only in epic poetry and religious hymns that we can see Iris in action, however. The ancient Greeks weren't afraid to occasionally laugh at their own gods, so the various Olympians often pop up in various roles throughout Greek comedies. One such comedy is "The Birds" by Aristophanes, which is about two men named Pisthetaerus and Euelpides who become sick and tired of Athenian politics. 

Under the advice of Tereus, an Athenian prince transformed into a bird, they build their own utopian country in the sky, which they call Cloud-Cuckoo-Land. Pisthetaerus and Euelpides believe that if they can transform themselves into birds and establish a kingdom of birds up in the sky, they can become the new masters of Heaven, starving out the gods of Olympus by intercepting the smoke of all the sacrifices made to them by their followers on Earth.

Perhaps needless to say, you can't mess with the Olympian gods with impunity. One of the gods sent to deal with these winged upstarts is Iris, who sneaks inside the walls of Cloud-Cuckoo-Land but doesn't quite understand that the birds are planning a coup. Instead, she is shocked and insulted by the rude treatment she receives from Pisthetaerus, flying off in tears to tell Zeus what she's discovered about their plans. No spoilers, but you'll probably be surprised at how this one ends.

Baking a cake for the rainbow

Since Iris is a relatively minor goddess, it probably won't come as a shock to learn that we don't have a lot of surviving information about how she was worshiped, or even to what extent. By comparison, there are numerous references throughout Greek literature to the other messenger god, Hermes, who had multiple shrines that we know of throughout Arcadia. That includes the primary one on Mount Cyllene, where he is said to have been born, and statues representing him called herms, which could be found basically everywhere in Greece. 

Basically, the only surviving information we have about the worship of Iris comes from an author named Athenaeus. In a work called "Deipnosophistae" ("Scholars at Dinner"), Athenaeus describes as part of a larger section devoted to cakes made as offerings to the gods how the people of Delos would make a kind of cheesecake called basyniae for Iris. These cakes consisted of wheat, suet, honey, figs, and nuts. That's it! That's all we know about how Iris was worshiped. Admittedly, it sounds pretty tasty.

That said, a number of epithets and other poetic names for Iris survive throughout the literary record, giving us an idea of the characteristics borne by the goddess that the Greeks appreciated. These epithets included Chrysopteron, meaning "golden-winged"; Aellopus, a name sometimes shared with one of her Harpy sisters, meaning "storm-footed"; and Thaumantia, meaning simply "daughter of Thaumas."