Iris: Greek Rainbow Goddess and Messenger Between Heaven and Earth
Anyone interested in Greek mythology will probably tell you it's like going down the rabbit hole. Whilst most people are familiar with the major Greek gods and myths, the Greek pantheon is nearly endless and there are so many minor major gods and goddesses. And some of the least known gods and goddesses played outsized roles in key myths and other stories. And Iris, The Rainbow Goddess, is a perfect example. She’s a minor character but she played major roles in more than two bigger-than-big Greek events.
Who was Iris, the Greek Rainbow Goddess?
- Aphrodite: The True Origins of the Greek Goddess of Love, Sex, and Beauty
- Hermes: Messenger of the Gods and Patron of Traders, Travelers, and Thieves
Iris was usually depicted in Greek art as a beautiful young woman with wings. She was often seen as the wife of Zephyrus (one of the wind gods) and is sometimes depicted as being the mother to Pothos (one of the sexual gods attached to Aphrodite).
Whilst Iris doesn’t have much mythology of her own, she still played an important role in Greek mythology. Several key Greek myths wouldn’t be the same without her. Iris also appears, as a messenger, in countless Greek tales and epic poems. Below are some of the best-known roles of Iris the rainbow goddess and messenger to Hera.
The Battle Between the Gods and the Titans, painted by Joachim Wtewael in 1600, is connected with Iris or, better said, Iris’s sister Arke. (Joachim Wtewael / Public domain)
Iris’s Role in the Titanomachy Through Her Sister Arke
The Titanomachy is an early Greek myth that centers around the war between the gods and the Titans. In this story, Iris travels on a rainbow whilst carrying messages between the gods and mortals. Whilst not a heavy hitter in the tale Iris still plays an important support role.
In most versions of this story, Iris has a sister called Arke. In the story, Arke betrays the gods and becomes a messenger for the Titans. After the war ends, Zeus rips off Arke’s wings. He then gifts the wings to Peleus at her wedding. Peleus in turn gifted them to her son Achilles.
- Battle of the Gods, When Titans Took on Zeus
- Unravelling the Roots of Hera, the Wrathful Goddess of Marriage
Morpheus and Iris, a painting by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833). (Pierre-Narcisse Guérin / Public domain)
Iris and the Abduction of Persephone
Another well-known Greek myth is the story of Hades and Persephone. Hades (the god of the underworld) abducted Persephone (daughter of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture) and made her his queen of hell.
Demeter responded by causing a great famine that began killing off mortals at an alarming rate. Fewer mortals meant fewer sacrifices to the gods. This led Zeus to send Iris to Demeter, demanding she rejoin the gods and lift her deadly curse.
Since Hades hadn’t returned Persephone to her, Demeter refused. In the end, a compromise was reached where Persephone spent half the year with Hades (autumn and winter) and half the year with her mother Demeter (spring and summer). And Iris was key in the overall success of this arrangement.
Iris Sparks the Trojan War
Of all the tales she appears in, Iris played her biggest role during the Trojan War (depending on the version, of course). In Cypria, an epic poem by Stasinus, it is Iris who informs Menelaus the Spartan king that his wife has run off with Paris the Trojan prince. It is this act that sparks the entire war.
Iris also appears in Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Iliad. In book five of the Aeneid, Iris shapeshifts into the body of a Trojan woman. She then riles up the local mothers and gets them to burn Aeneas’ ships.
Iris is all over the place in the Iliad and is mentioned frequently. She plays her usual role of relaying messages between gods and goddesses and mortals. When he wrote the Odyssey however Homer seems to have decided this role needed more star power.
In the Odyssey, the role of the messenger is played by Hermes. The depictions of Iris and Hermes in the Iliad and the Odyssey are pretty much the same. So, Iris was almost the messenger in the Odyssey, but, in the end, Homer opted for a more well-known god.
A marble sculpture carved in 1841 of Iris as the rainbow goddess on display at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. (Manfred Werner/Tsui / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Cult of Iris
Most important Greek gods had cults. In this context, a cult just means worshippers without all the modern connotations. Greeks would worship specific gods, build temples in their names, and make sacrifices to them. This was done in the hope of receiving specific boons. For example, Aphrodite for fertility, Demeter for a good harvest, Ares for success in battle, etc.
No temples or sanctuaries in Iris’ name have been found. However, she may have had a minor cult. In Scholars at Dinner Athenaeus ( a Greek writer) writes that people in Delos made sacrifices to Iris. They offered a type of cheesecake called basyniae in her name.
Iris’ role in many tales means she also appears on lots of vases and bas-reliefs. However, there are very few statues to be found of her. These were normally reserved for the bigger names.
Iris was, Above All, a Connected and Gifted God Messenger
As mentioned earlier Iris appears in many more myths than those listed here. Admittedly she isn’t terribly interesting in her own right. She is little more than a minor character who zips around myths and epic poems delivering messages. She is essentially an Olympian telephone line.
However, for anyone interested in learning more about Greek mythology a character like Iris can be key.
Reading about Iris leads to a deeper knowledge of the Greeks overall because her story is woven into bigger stories like the Aeneid, Iliad, and the Odyssey.
So, by learning more about Iris, you learn more about the Titanomachy, and the Oceanids, Hades, Persephone, and much more.
And before you know it, it’s 2 am, and you’re down the rabbit hole with a head full of ancient Greek goddess, gods, and their incredible adventures.
Top image: Iris Carrying the Water of the River Styx to Olympus for the Gods to Swear By Guy Head. Source: Public Domain
Greek Mythology. 2018. Iris. Available at: www.greekmythology.com/Other_Gods/Iris/iris.html
Smith. W. 1873. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Mythology. London.
Wichmann. A. 2022. Iris, The Greek Goddess of the Rainbow. Available at: https://greekreporter.com/2022/05/30/iris-the-greek-goddess-of-the-rainbow/