Iris was the Greek goddess – or, better yet, personification – of the rainbow, and a messenger for the gods. A daughter of Thaumas and Electra, it seems that Iris was the only divine messenger in the earlier days, but at a later time, when Hermes assumed that function as well, she became Hera’s faithful servant. Her sisters were the Harpies, and her husband was sometimes said to be Zephyrus.
The Dual Function of Iris · The Meaning of Her Name
Iris was both a personification of the rainbow and a divine messenger. The Ancient Greeks combined these two functions in Iris, since, as a meteorological phenomenon, the rainbow appears to connect heaven and earth, and, by extension, it was only suitable that its spirit should serve as the link between the gods and the mortals. Just as natural was the choice of the goddess’ name: iris is the Greek word for “rainbow,” still surviving in English in words such as “iridescent,” defined by OED as “displaying colors like those of the rainbow.”
Parents and Portrayal
Iris was the daughter of the obscure Titan Thaumas and the Oceanid Electra and the sister of the Harpies. Described as “wind-footed” and “storm-footed,” as well as “golden-winged” and “dewy,” just like her male counterpart Hermes, Iris was often portrayed with winged sandals (talaria) and a messenger’s staff (kerykeion).
The Original Messenger: Iris Compared with Hermes
Interestingly enough, even though Hermes ended up being the more famous one of the two messengers, it seems that it was Iris who monopolized the function in the earlier days. In fact, in Homer’s “Iliad,” she is the only one relaying messages from Zeus – and, once, Hera – to other gods or mortals, with Hermes being given the much smaller role of guide and guardian. A startling case in point can be found in the last book of the “Iliad,” when Zeus sends Iris to inform Priam about his merciful decision concerning his son’s dead body, and Hermes to merely conduct the Trojan king unnoticed to Achilles.
During this period, Iris is reported as performing many vital tasks, such as informing Menelaus of Helen’s abduction or even autonomously granting Achilles’ prayers and summoning the winds to ignite the funeral pyre of his friend Patroclus. However, already in the “Odyssey,” the role of the divine messenger is taken by Hermes in its entirety, and Iris is never mentioned.
Iris’ Loyalty to Hera
At a later date, the poets tried differentiating between the functions of Hermes and Iris, making the former the messenger of Zeus (and most of the other gods), and turning Iris into a loyal servant of Hera. Callimachus, a Greek polymath of the third century BC, goes so far as to even compare Iris to a hunting hound of Hera, in that she was always seated by Hera’s throne and her ears were erect at all times to receive her calls. This is why, on Hera’s behalf, in Euripides’ “Heracles,” Iris commands the reluctant Lyssa – the spirit of frenzy and mad rage – to afflict Heracles with a fit of madness which causes him to murder his sons. In Virgil’s “Aeneid,” Iris is explicitly portrayed as Hera’s envoy.
Iris and Her Family
It is said that Iris saved the lives of her sisters, the Harpies, when she restrained Zetes and Calais, from killing them by promising the Boreads that the Harpies will not bother Phineus anymore. However, she wasn’t this protective of her fraternal twin Arce (a goddess of the faded rainbow invented at a later date), since she sided with the Titans during the Titanomachy.
Probably because of the connection between rainbows and rain, Iris was sometimes said to have been the wife of Zephyrus, the rainy West Wind. Some even say that she bore him none less than Eros, but if they did have a son, it was most probably just Pothos, one of the Erotes.
Iris frequently appears in Homer’s “Iliad,” relaying messages to Helen, scolding gods for meddling in the Trojan War against Zeus’ orders (especially Poseidon) or encouraging Achilles to retrieve the body of his dead friend Patroclus from the battlefield. Iris is also mentioned in the third “Homeric Hymn to Apollo” in connection with the delayed birth of Apollo and Artemis.