The ancients derive her name from the verb ἐλεύθειν (eleuthein), according to which it would signify the coming or helping goddess. She was the goddess of birth, who came to the assistance of women in labor; and when she was kindly disposed, she furthered the birth, but when she was angry, she protracted the labor and delayed the birth. These two functions were originally assigned to different Eileithyiai (Εἰλειθυίαι).1 Subsequently, however, both functions were attributed to one divinity, and even in the later Homeric poems the Cretan Eileithyia alone is mentioned.2
According to the Iliad the Eileithyiae were daughters of Hera, the goddess of marriage, whom they obeyed.3 According to Hesiod,4 Zeus was the father of Eileithyia, and she was the sister of Hebe and Ares.5 Artemis and Eileithyia were originally very different divinities, but there were still some features in their characters which afterwards made them nearly identical. Artemis was believed to avert evil, and to protect what was young and tender, and sometimes she even assisted women in labor. Artemis, moreover, was, like Eileithyia, a maiden divinity; and although the latter was the daughter of the goddess of marriage and the divine midwife, neither husband, nor lover, nor children of her are mentioned. She punished want of chastity by increasing the pains at the birth of a child, and was therefore feared by maidens.6 Frequent births, too, were displeasing to her.
Her worship appears to have been first established among the Dorians in Crete, where she was believed to have been born in a cave in the territory of Cnossus. From thence her worship spread over Delos and Attica. According to a Delian tradition, Eileithyia was not born in Crete, but had come to Delos from the Hyperboreans, for the purpose of assisting Leto.8 She had a sanctuary at Athens, containing three carved images of the goddess, which were covered all over down to the toes. Two were believed to have been presented by Phaedra, and the third to have been brought by Erysichthon from Delos.9 Her statues, however, were not thus covered everywhere, as Pausanias asserts, for at Aegion there was one in which the head, hands, and feet were uncovered.10 She had sanctuaries in various places, such as Sparta,11 Cleitor,12 Messene,13 Tegea,14 Megara,15 Hermione,16 and other places.
The Elionia, who was worshiped at Argos as the goddess of birth,17 was probably the same as Eileithyia.
Eileithyia is portrayed as woman with raised arms, summoning the child into the light. She is also seen carrying a torch, which may represent the burning pains of childbirth. An Attic amphora (ca. 450 BCE) depicts her in a embroidened peplos with a wreathed head observing -- with an surprised look on her face -- the birth of Athena.
- Homer. Iliad xii, 270 xvi, 187, xix, 103; comp. Pausanias. Description of Greece i, 44.3; Hesychius s.v. Εἰλειθυίαι.
- Homer. Hymn to Delian Apollo, 98 ff.; Odyssey xix, 188.
- Homer. Iliad xix, 119; comp. Pindar. Nemean Odes vii, init.; Ovid. Metamorphoses ix, 285 ff.; Antoninus Liberalis, 29.
- Theogony, 922.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library i, 3.1.
- Theocritus, xxvii, 28.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece i, 18.5. ix, 27.2.
- Herodotus. Histories iv, 35.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece i, 8.15.
- ibid. vii, 23.5.
- ibid. iii, 17.1, 14.6.
- ibid. viii, 21.2.
- ibid. iv, 31.7.
- ibid. viii, 48.5.
- ibid. i, 44.3.
- ibid. ii, 35.8.
- Plutarch. Quaestiones Romanae, 49.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.