Goddess of childbirth
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|Ancient Greek religion|
Eileithyia or Ilithyiae or Ilithyia (//; Greek: Εἰλείθυια; Ἐλεύθυια (Eleuthyia) in Crete, also Ἐλευθία (Eleuthia) or Ἐλυσία (Elysia) in Laconia and Messene, and Ἐλευθώ (Eleuthō) in literature) was the Greek goddess of childbirth and midwifery. In the cave of Amnisos (Crete) she was related with the annual birth of the divine child, and her cult is connected with Enesidaon (the earth shaker), who was the chthonic aspect of the god Poseidon. It is possible that her cult is related with the cult of Eleusis. In his Seventh Nemean Ode, Pindar refers to her as the maid to or seated beside the Moirai (Fates) and responsible for creating offspring. Her son was Sosipolis, who was worshiped at Elis.
The etymology of the name is uncertain. R. S. P. Beekes suggests a not Indo-European etymology, and Nilsson believes that the name is Pre-Greek. 19th-century scholars suggested that the name is Greek, derived from the verb eleutho (ἐλεύθω), "to bring", the goddess thus being The Bringer. Walter Burkert believes that Eileithyia is the Greek goddess of birth and that her name is pure Greek. However, the relation with the Greek prefix ἐλεύθ is uncertain, because the prefix appears in some pre-Greek toponyms like Ἐλευθέρνα (Eleutherna); therefore it is possible that the name is pre-Greek. Her name Ἐλυσία (Elysia) in Laconia and Messene, probably relates her with the month Eleusinios and Eleusis. Nilsson believes that the name "Eleusis" is pre-Greek.
According to F. Willets, "The links between Eileithyia, an earlier Minoan goddess, and a still earlier Neolithic prototype are, relatively, firm. The continuity of her cult depends upon the unchanging concept of her function. Eileithyia was the goddess of childbirth; and the divine helper of women in labour has an obvious origin in the human midwife." To Homer, she is "the goddess of childbirth". The Iliad pictures Eileithyia alone, or sometimes multiplied, as the Eileithyiai:
And even as when the sharp dart striketh a woman in travail,  the piercing dart that the Eilithyiae, the goddesses of childbirth, send—even the daughters of Hera that have in their keeping bitter pangs;— Iliad 11.269–272
Hesiod (c. 700 BC) described Eileithyia as a daughter of Hera by Zeus (Theogony 921)—and the Bibliotheca (Roman-era) and Diodorus Siculus (c. 90–27 BC) (5.72.5) agreed. Also, a poem at the Greek Anthology Book 6, mention Eileithyia as Hera's daughter. But Pausanias, writing in the 2nd century AD, reported another early source (now lost): "The Lycian Olen, an earlier poet, who composed for the Delians, among other hymns, one to Eileithyia, styles her 'the clever spinner', clearly identifying her with Fate, and makes her older than Cronus." Being the youngest born to Gaia, Cronus was a Titan of the first generation and he was identified as the father of Zeus. Likewise, the meticulously accurate mythographer Pindar (522–443 BC) also makes no mention of Zeus:
— Seventh Nemean Ode, Line 1, Translated by Diane Arnson Svarlien, 1990
Later, for the Classical Greeks, "She is closely associated with Artemis and Hera," Burkert asserts (1985, p 1761), "but develops no character of her own". In the Orphic Hymn to Prothyraeia, the association of a goddess of childbirth as an epithet of virginal Artemis, making the death-dealing huntress also "she who comes to the aid of women in childbirth," (Graves 1955 15.a.1), would be inexplicable in purely Olympian terms:
When racked with labour pangs, and sore distressed
the sex invoke thee, as the soul's sure rest;
for thou Eileithyia alone canst give relief to pain,
which art attempts to ease, but tries in vain.
Artemis Eileithyia, venerable power,
who bringest relief in labour's dreadful hour.— Orphic Hymn 2, to Prothyraeia, as translated by Thomas Taylor, 1792.
Thus Aelian in the 3rd century AD could refer to "Artemis of the child-bed" (On Animals 7.15).
As the primary goddess of childbirth along with Artemis, Eileithyia had numerous shrines in many locations in Greece dating from Neolithic to Roman times, indicating that she was extremely important to pregnant women and their families. People would pray for and leave offerings for aid in fertility, safe childbirth, or thanks for a successful birth. Archeological evidence of terracotta votives figurines depicting children found at shines and holy sites dedicated to Eileithyia suggest that she was a kourotrophic divinity, whom parents would have prayed to for protection and care of their children. Midwives had an essential role in ancient Greek society, with women of all classes participating in the profession - many being slaves with only empirical training or some theoretical training in obstetrics and gynecology. More highly educated midwives, typically from higher classes, were referred to as iatrenes or doctors of women's diseases and would be respected as physicians.
She was invoked by women in labour, to ease the pain of labour and to further the birth. Callimachus recorded the hymn:
There were ancient icons of Eileithyia at Athens, one said to have been brought from Crete, according to Pausanias, who mentioned shrines to Eileithyia in Tegea and Argos, with an extremely important shrine in Aigion. Eileithyia, along with Artemis and Persephone, is often shown carrying torches to bring children out of darkness and into light: in Roman mythology her counterpart in easing labor is Lucina ("of the light").
The Cave of Eileithyia near Amnisos, the harbor of Knossos, mentioned in the Odyssey (xix.189) in connection with her cult, was accounted the birthplace of Eileithyia. The Cretan cave has stalactites suggestive of the goddess' double form (Kerenyi 1976 fig. 6), of bringing labor on and of delaying it, and votive offerings to her have been found establishing the continuity of her cult from Neolithic times, with a revival as late as the Roman period. Here she was probably being worshipped before Zeus arrived in the Aegean, but certainly in Minoan–Mycenaean times (Burkert 1985 p 171; Nilsson 1950:53). The goddess is mentioned as Eleuthia in a Linear B fragment from Knossos, where it is stated that her temple is given an amphora of honey. In the cave of Amnisos (Crete) the god Enesidaon (the "earth shaker", who is the chthonic Poseidon) is related with the cult of Eileithyia. She was related with the annual birth of the divine child. The goddess of nature and her companion survived in the Eleusinian cult, where the following words were uttered: "Mighty Potnia bore a strong son."
In classical times, there were shrines to Eileithyia in the Cretan cities of Lato and Eleutherna and a sacred cave at Inatos. At a sanctuary in Tsoutsouros Inatos, two small terracotta figures, one breastfeeding and the other pregnant, have been dated to the 7th century.
According to the Homeric Hymn III to Delian Apollo, Hera detained Eileithyia, who was coming from the Hyperboreans in the far north, to prevent Leto from going into labor with Artemis and Apollo, because the father was Zeus. Hera was very jealous of Zeus's relations with others and went out of her way to make the women suffer. The other goddesses present at the birthing on Delos sent Iris to bring her. As she stepped upon the island, the birth began. This hymn is contradicted by Hesiod's Theogony, where Apollo and Artemis are born before Hera's marriage to Zeus, and therefore neither Hera or Eileithyia are mentioned interfering with the birth of the twins. On Delos, Eileithyia had a shrine and was worshipped in a mid-winter festival the named Eileithyaea. It was said by Callimachus that the hymn sung during festival was the same as that sung by nymphs at Apollo's birth. This cult likely goes back to at least the Archaic period, and the cult was associated with other local Delian childbirth deities associated with Artemis, Opis and Arge.
Eileithyia had a cult south of the Mount Kounados on the Cycladic Island of Paros, where a cave with a natural spring functioned as an informal sanctuary. Numerous artifacts have been found, such as pottery, bronze pieces, and marble plaques, which indicate use of the site from the Geometric period to the Roman period. It has been theorized that the site was used for prayers for both female and male fertility, based on the type of offerings that have been found.
On the Greek mainland, at Olympia, an archaic shrine with an inner cella sacred to the serpent-savior of the city (Sosipolis) and to Eileithyia was seen by the traveler Pausanias in the 2nd century AD (Greece vi.20.1–3); in it, a virgin-priestess cared for a serpent that was "fed" on honeyed barley-cakes and water—an offering suited to Demeter. The shrine memorialized the appearance of a crone with a babe in arms, at a crucial moment when Elians were threatened by forces from Arcadia. The child, placed on the ground between the contending forces, changed into a serpent, driving the Arcadians away in flight, before it disappeared into the hill.
There was a sanctuary dedicated to Eileithyia near the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia.
|Eileithyia's family tree|