Midwives of Light: Eileithyia and Juno Lucina

Before Christmas I wrote about Holda, Berchta and Perchta, who led the wild hunt and perhaps received children in the afterlife. For the new year, I want to look at another trio of goddesses, who oversaw birth, and the infant’s journey into the light of life.

Eileithyia

The Greek goddess Eileithyia was a goddess of birth, who could hasten or delay the birth of a child, and make it more or less painful. She held a torch, which represented both light and the burning pains of labour, or else held her hands up to present the child to the light.

Sometimes the myths split her into two goddesses, one helping and one hindering the birth. Earlier sources, like the Iliad, often do this. But generally, people saw her as helpful goddess, and thanked her for safe births:

Come again Eileithyia, answering the prayer of Lykainis, thus alleviating the birth pangs and producing a fortunate delivery. Just as you have now received this, mistress, as thanks for a daughter, so will your fragrant temple receive something else for a son.
(quoted in Ammeran: 131)

She used both her powers in the story of Hercules, delaying his own birth and hastening that of his half-brother, who was born prematurely so that he could claim Zeus’ blessing. Apollo, too, had a long birth after Hera (again!) delayed the birth-goddess on her way back from Hyperborea.

In the Iliad Homer sometimes refers to her as one goddess, sometimes as two. Either way, he always calls her the goddess of “bitter travail”, mogostokos, who was there when the mother knelt to deliver her child. In art, she often appears at a more unnatural birth, that of Athena from Zeus’ head.

Eileithyia at the birth of Athena. She stands behind Zeus, making the

Eileithyia at the birth of Athena. She stands behind Zeus, making the “epiphany gesture’ with her upraised hands. (Theoi.com)

Athena would have been her half-sister, as most sources make her the daughter of Hera and Zeus. (The war-god Ares and the cupbearer Hebe are the others.) However, Pausanias mentions a tradition that she was older than Cronos, Zeus’ father.

Ancient Goddess

Eileithyia is old in another sense as well, since her name appears in Linear B, the Mycenaean script used before the Classical Greek civilization began. The tablet was found at Knossos, and a cave in nearby Amnisos was believed to be her birthplace. (The Odyssey mentions it.)

In Walter Burket’s book Greek Religion he describes the cave as having a stalagmite shaped like a seated woman towards the back, with a crude altar stone in front of it. He says that the figure was worn smooth, probably touched and rubbed by many hands.

Just inside the entrance is another rock formation that looks like a swollen belly, which perhaps suggested the goddess to visitors. Pools at the back of the cave held water for pilgrims to take home with them, like Lourdes water today.

The Linear B tablet I mentioned records an offering of honey to the goddess’ cave, and many other items were left here, but nothing metal, only pottery. (Although the story of Apollo’s birth says that the other gods pitied Leto in her labour, and sent Iris to bring Eileithyia back from Hyperborea, with a golden necklace as the birth-goddess’ payment. So she may well have received richer offerings.)

Her birthplace was on the island of Crete, and it wasn’t her only sacred site there. In later times she had another sacred cave at Lacos, along with shrines in the cities of Lato and Elutherma. (The latter’s name suggests that the city was a centre of her worship, although this is speculative.)

We know that she was an important goddess to the Cretans, as she featured in a number of treaties as witness to the oaths, and the decrees of 201 BCE concerning Teos had to be published in her temple, and other decrees about negotiations between the cities of Lato and Olous had to be announced there as well. (Willetts: 223)

On the mainland, she had shrines at Olympus and Athens, as well as Tegea and Argos. The shrine at Athens had wooden images (xoana) of the goddess which were said to have been brought from Crete, her home. A story about one of those images tells how Erysichthon brought it back from Crete but died, still childless, on the return journey. The other two came with the princess Phaidra, a Cretan who married the Athenian Theseus. (Hand/Rose?)

Over time the cult of Eileithyia was absorbed by her mother, Hera, and half-sister Artemis. As Hera Eileithyia or Artemis Eileithyia people called on them to bring children safely into the world.

It may seem strange for a virgin goddess to concern herself with birth, but Artemis was a goddess of transitions, especially those of girls, and a protector of the young. (In fact, someone asked this very question on the Mythology Stack Exchange, inspiring this post.)

Fate and Birth

Three days after Eileithyia saw the child into the world, the Fates came to determine its destiny. As goddesses of the beginning and end of life, they had both Eileithyia and the Furies and Keres (spirits of violent death) as their companions.

Many sources describe the Moriai and the birth-goddess as companions, and Pausanias says of her:

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.

Pindar, too, describes her as “maid to the throne of the deep-thinking Moirai.” We see them working together in one of his Odes:

And she let fall her crimson girdle and bore a son, inspired of heaven. And to serve at her side Apollon, god of the golden locks, sent Eileithyia the kindly goddess, and the Moirai divine. And from her body’s travail and the pains that were but sweet delight, was born Iamos.

Lucina

Eileithyia’s Roman equivalent was the goddess Lucina, whose name derives from Latin lux, lucis, light. She also presided at weddings, to bless the union with children. Her temple was on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, and no one with knots in their clothing could enter.

Terracotta statuette found at Le Châtelet-sur-Meuse bearing the inscription pistillus. Lucina is an epithet referring to Juno as goddess of childbirth.

Terracotta statuette found at Le Châtelet-sur-Meuse bearing the inscription pistillus. Lucina is an epithet referring to Juno as goddess of childbirth.

Little terracotta votives of women holding swaddled infants were offered to Lucina, often in her later guise as Juno Lucina. (Like her Greek counterpart, she faded out with time, and Juno Lucina and Diana Lucina took her place.) These are very like the images the Celts offered to their goddess, Matrona, and they probably saw them as similar goddesses.

Juno Lucina’s festival, the Matronalia, was on the first of March. It was dedicated to wives and mothers, an early version of Mother’s Day.

Candelifera

This minor birth-goddess “held the candle” either to light the nursery or to assist at birth. She was one of many minor deities or spirits associated with this important and dangerous time. The night-light may be hers, too, as they were lit to protect children from child-snatching demons. The later image of St. Lucy with her head-dress of candles may have been influenced by Candelifera.


References and Links:
Wikipedia
Theoi.com
St. Lucy traditions

Ammerman, Rebecca Miller 2007: “Children at Risk: Votive Terracottas and the Welfare of Infants at Paestum”, Hesperia Supplements, Vol. 41, Constructions of Childhood in Ancient Greece and Italy: 131-151. (JSTOR)
Burkert, Walter 1985: Greek Religion, Harvard University Press. (Google Books)
Hand, Robin 2004: The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology, Routledge. (This is a revised edition of H. J. Rose’s earlier book.) (Questia)
Jameson, Michael 1960: “Mycenean Religion,” Archaeology 13/1 (March 1960): 33-9. (JSTOR)
Lawler, Lilian B. 1948: “A Necklace for Eileithyia,” The Classical Weekly 42/1: 2-6. (JSTOR)
Willetts, R.F 1958: “Cretan Eileithyia,” The Classical Quarterly 8/3-4: 221-3. (JSTOR)

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7 thoughts on “Midwives of Light: Eileithyia and Juno Lucina

  1. redseedsgatherer

    Thankyou for this ..you words are always so rich of information and meaning …. your work inspires me on many levels . I Love your page and we seem to share the journey of the feminine through words and artwork ….. blessings for these new days x

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    1. solsdottir Post author

      Thanks so much – I enjoy your art too. It’s great to see women studying and making art inspired by the feminine divine. Looking forward to your posts in the year ahead.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  2. riverrockcomics

    This is fascinating! I just found your blog because you posted on another blog I was reading about comic books and I am so glad I checked your work out. I can’t wait to keep reading your work.

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    Reply
    1. solsdottir Post author

      Thanks! I see you’re starting your own comics company – I’ll be watching out for new titles. You’re certainly breaking new ground with the first one.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
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