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Birth of Athena (who emerged from Zeus' head) with Eileithyia on the right - black-figured amphora, 550–525 BC, Louvre(F 32)

Eileithyia [1] (Greek: Εἰλείθυια), was the Cretan goddess whom Greek mythology adapted as the goddess of childbirth and midwifery. Her name does not appear to have an Indo-European etymology, which for R. F. Willets[2] strengthens her link with Minoan culture. "The links between Eileithyia, an earlier Minoan goddess, and a still earlier Neolithic prototype are, relatively, firm," Willets wrote. "The explanation is as simple as it is important. 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". "Ilithyia" is the Latin spelling.

Hesiod (c. 700 BC) described Eileithyia as a daughter of Hera by Zeus (Theogony 921)—and Apollodorus (c. 180–120 BC) and Diodorus Siculus (c. 90–27 BC) (5.72.5) agreed. But Pausanias writing in the second 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 Cronos.” (Description of Greece 8.21.3). 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:

Goddess of childbirth, Eileithyia, maid to the throne of the deep-thinking Moirai, child of all-powerful Hera, hear my song.
—Seventh Nemean Ode.

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).

To Homer she is "the goddess of the pains of birth."[3] The Iliad pictures Eileithyia alone, or sometimes multiplied, as the Eileithyiai:

"The sharp sorrow of pain descends on a woman in labour, the bitterness that the hard Eileithyiai bring on, Hera’s daughters, who hold the power of the bitter birthpangs.”
—Iliad XI.270.[4]

Vase-painters, when illustrating the birth of Athena from Zeus' head, may show two assisting Eileithyiai, with their hands raised in the epiphany gesture.


Cult at Amnisos

The cave of Eileithyia near Amnisos, the harbor of Knossos, which the Odyssey (xix.198) mentions 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 comntinuity of her cult her from Neolithic times, with a revival as late as the Roman period.[5] 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[6] In classical times, there were shrines to Eileithyia in the Cretan cities of Lato and Eleutherna and a sacred cave at Inatos.

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 traveller 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 the Goddess and later 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 were ancient icons of Eileithyia at Athens, one said to have been brought from Crete, according to Pausanias, who mentioned shrines to Ilithyia in Tenea and Argos, with an extremely important shrine in Aigion. Ilithyia, 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").

In Greek shrines, small terracotta votive figures (kourotrophos) depicted an immortal nurse who took care of divine infants, who may be connected with Eileithyia. 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. The other goddesses present at the birthing on Delos sent Iris to bring her. As she stepped upon the island, the birth began.

She was especially worshipped in Crete, in the cities Lato and doubtless, from its etymological link, Eleuthernia, though no archaeological find has identified her there. Caves were sacred to her: the inescapable association to the birth canal can not be proved beyond a skeptic's doubt.


  1. ^ The Cretan dialect Eleuthia would connect Eileithyia to Eleusis for some scholars, such as Willetts 1958:222; other alternatives: Eilithia, Eilythia, Ilithia, Eileithyia.
  2. ^ Willetts, "Cretan Eileithyia" The Classical Quarterly New Series, 8.3/4 (November 1958), p 221.
  3. ^ Iliad xi.270; xvi.187; xix.103.
  4. ^ The plural is also given in XIX.103.
  5. ^ For the proceedings and findings of the archaeology, see Amnisos.
  6. ^ Encyclopedia Mythica - Eileithyia

External links


  • Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion, 1985.
  • Graves, Robert, The Greek Myths, 1955.
  • Kerenyi, Karl, Dionysus: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, English translation 1976.
  • Nilsson, Martin P. (1927) 1950. The Minoan-Mycenaean Religion and Its Survival in Greek Religion 2nd ed. (Lund"Gleerup).
  • Willetts, R. F. "Cretan Eileithyia" The Classical Quarterly New Series, 8.3/4 (November 1958), pp. 221-223.


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