Astraios: Father of the Stars

Astraios was one of the Greek Titans, the older gods who ruled before Zeus and the Olympians. His name means “Of the Stars”, and he was the father of the stars and winds. Astrology was one of his specialties, but he was also connected to the seasons and possibly navigation.

Astraios (Roman Astraeus) was the father of all the stars, both the “fixed” stars that moved through the sky together, and the planetes, or “wanderers” who moved about freely: Phainon (Saturn), Phaethon (Jupiter), Pyroeis (Mars), Eosphoros/Hesperos (Venus), and Stilbon (Mercury).

He was also considered the god of dusk, when the stars first appear, while his wife Eos appeared at dawn, when the stars set.

Ancient astronomy and astrology set great store the appearance of stars at twilight and dawn, so it makes sense that the deities in charge of them were associated with those times. (The astrological signs, for example, take their dates from when their constellations appeared on the horizon at sunrise.)

The Titans

From Hesiod’s Theogony we know that Astraios was one of the second generation of Titans, cousin to the sun, moon and dawn:

And Theia was subject in love to Hyperion and bore great Helius (Sun) and clear Selene and Eos (Dawn) who shines upon all that are on earth and upon the deathless Gods who live in the wide heaven. And Eurybia, bright goddess, was joined in love to Crius and bore great Astraeus, and Pallas, and Perses who also was eminent among all men in wisdom. And Eos bore to Astraeus the strong-hearted winds, brightening Zephyrus, and Boreas, headlong in his course,  and Notus,—a goddess mating in love with a god.
(Evelyn-White, 375-80)

In this version he and the dawn-goddess Eos were the parents of the four winds, although Eos later pursued her own erotic career, picking out young men and heroes who appealed to her for her lovers. (The unfortunate Tithonus was one, the hunter Orion was another.)

The later writer Apollodorus gives a similar list in his Library, which like Hesiod’s book begins with the first children of Gaea and Ouranos and proceeds to the Titans’s children:

Now to the Titans were born offspring…to Crius and Eurybia, daughter of Sea (Pontus), were born Astraeus, Pallas, and Perses… and to Dawn and Astraeus were born winds and stars…
(Library: 1.2.2, trans. James George Frazer)

As with many of the Titans, Astriaos doesn’t seem to have had any worshippers, although his wife Eos was worshipped alongside the sun and moon. Their children were far more popular.

Astraea and the Winds

Neither Hesiod nor Apollodorus mention Astraea, the Golden Age goddess who appears in the sky as the constellation Virgo. The astronomer Aratus, writing in the 3rd century BCE, seemed unsure about it as well:

The [Constellation] Maiden [Astraia (Astraea)], who in her hands bears the gleaming Ear of Corn. Whether she be daughter of Astraios (Astraeus), who, men say, was of old the father of the Astra (Stars), or child of other sire, untroubled be her course!
Aratus, Phaenomena 96 ff (trans. Mair) (Greek astronomical poem C3rd B.C.)

This may be because other sources, including Pseudo-Hyginus, she was the daughter of Zeus and Themis, a prophetic goddess who instructed humans in law and proper conduct. Her differing origins may reflect different priorities: if a writer wished to emphasize her heavenly origin, Astraios and Eos would be good parents, whereas if they saw her as a goddess of justice the two deities identified with law would be a better fit.

Her brothers, the winds, were less moral (Boreas and Zephyrus had a habit of kidnapping mortal women, perhaps inherited from their mother) but also famous. It is not surprising that the Greeks and Romans, who used the Mediterranean as their highway, considered the winds important. They had their own cult and sacrifices, and the four brothers had their own names and characters:

From Astraeus and Aurora [Eos] [were born], Zephyrus, Boreas, Notus, Favonius.
Pseudo-Hyginus, Preface Fabulae

Boreas, as the north wind, was the wind of cold and winter, while Zephyrus brought the breezes of spring and early summer, and Notus brought the heat of midsummer and storms of autumn. Eurus, as the east or south-east wind was more commonly known, wasn’t part of the original set, but added later for completness.

As father of the winds, Astraios was sometimes conflated with Aeolus, who could control the winds.

colourful-astrolabe

The Sea and the Ram: Astraios’ Parents

Krios, his father, was one of the four Titans who castrated Ouranos and put their brother Kronos (Saturn) on the throne of heaven. Since his name means “Ram” he may well have been associated with the constellation Aries. The Greek year began in spring, when Aries rose in the south, and the Theoi.com site associates Krios with the south, and his brother Koios with the north.

Aries may well have been a seasonal signal of some sort, which would explain why starry and sea deities are so intermingled in this family. Astraios’ mother was Eurybia, whose own parents were Pontus, the primeval ocean, and Gaea, the Earth.

The Theogony is ambivalent about her, calling her “shining among goddesses”, but also “Eurybia who has a heart of flint within her”. Her family included Nereus, the original Old Man of the Sea, Thaumas or Wonder, Phorkys (Seal?) and his sister-wife Ceto (goddess of sea-monsters). Eurybia, like the sea itself, was beautiful but deadly.

Astraios and Astrology

Astraios was, naturally, the god of astrology. A long-winded passage from Nonnus’ Dionysiaca tells how Demeter sought him out to learn Persephone’s fate (I’m only including the relevant bit here):

Nor did old Astraios refuse. He learnt the details of the day when her only child was new born, and the exact time and veritable course of the season which gave her birth; then he bent the turning fingers of his hands and measured the moving circle of the ever-recurring number counting from hand to hand in double exchange [reckoning the number of days in the years of her life on his fingers]. He called to a servant, and Asterion lifted a round revolving sphere, the shape of the sky, the image of the universe, and laid it upon the lid of a chest. Here the ancient got to work. He turned it upon its pivot, and directed this gaze round the circle of the Zodiac, scanning in this place and that the planets and fixt stars. He rolled the pole about with a push, and the counterfeit sky went rapidly round and round in mobile course with a perpetual movement, carrying the artificial stars about the axle set through the middle. Observing the sphere with a glance all round, the deity found that Selene the Moon at the full was crossing the curved line of her conjunction, and Phaethon [Helios] the Sun was half through his course opposite Mene the Moon moving at his central point under the earth; a pointed cone of darkness creeping from the earth into the air opposite to the Sun hid the whole Moon. (Book VI:1)

(He foresees that Persephone will bear a child with Zeus, who will come to her in the form of a serpent.)

Astraios and Navigaton

The stars, the winds and the sea all come together in one place: a ship.

Sailors have been navigating by the stars since at least the Phoenicians, and the people who populated Australia and New Zealand probably did too, to travel so far from any landmarks. Polaris, the north star, is an obvious guide, and Canopus in the south (visible from most of Greece, but not farther north).

Legend has it that the mathematician Thales of Miletus first taught the Ionians to measure by the Little Bear, judging by its relative height in the sky. This can be judged by such low-tech means as laying one finger atop another to gauge the distance from horizon to stars, so it was simple to use.

While the ancient Greeks may not have had the whole system of 57 stars used by later navigators, they had their own lore about many of the bright stars. (The Hyades were the rainy stars, for example, because the rose in time for the rainy season, and Sirius was the dog star because it presaged the hottest part of summer.)

While it’s easy to think of the Titan gods as abstract powers or personifications, their powers were useful to people, even in everyday life, even if the gods and goddesses themselves seemed remote from human concerns.


Navigating By the Stars (links):
Sailing by Starlight
Space.com: Navigating by the Stars
Nova: Secrets of the Ancient Navigators
The Pirate King: Ancient Navigation

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