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Amalthea (mythology)

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Amalthea (mythology)

Infancy of Zeus, by Jacob Jordaens, early 1630s (Louvre Museum).

In Greek mythology, Amalthea or Amaltheia (Greek: Ἀμάλθεια) is the most-frequently mentioned foster-mother of Zeus. Her name in Greek ("tender goddess") is clearly an epithet, signifying the presence of an earlier nurturing goddess,[1] whom the Hellenes, whose myths we know, knew to be located in Crete, where Minoans may have called her a version of "Dikte".[2] Amalthea is sometimes represented as the goat who suckled the infant-god in a cave in Cretan Mount Aigaion ("Goat Mountain"),[3] sometimes as a goat-tending nymph[4] of uncertain parentage (the daughter of Oceanus, Haemonius, Olenos,[5] or—according to Lactantius—Melisseus[6]), who brought him up on the milk of her goat.[7] The possession of multiple and uncertain mythological parents indicates wide worship of a deity in many cultures having varying local traditions. Other names, like Adrasteia, Ide, the nymph of Mount Ida, or Adamanthea, which appear in mythology handbooks,[8] are simply duplicates of Amalthea.

In the tradition represented by Hesiod's Theogony, Cronus swallowed all of his children immediately after birth. The mother goddess Rhea, Zeus' mother, deceived her brother consort Cronus by giving him a stone wrapped to look like a baby instead of Zeus. Since she instead gave the infant Zeus to Adamanthea to nurse in a cave on a mountain in Crete, it is clear that Adamanthea is a doublet of Amalthea. In many literary references, the Greek tradition relates that in order that Cronus should not hear the wailing of the infant, Amalthea gathered about the cave the Kuretes or the Korybantes to dance, shout, and clash their spears against their shields.[9]

Amalthea and the aegis

Amalthea's skin, or that of her goat, killed and skinned by the grown Zeus, became the protective Aegis in some traditions, a vivid enough metaphor for the transfer of power to this Olympian god from that of the goddess who preceded his cult.

Amalthea placed among the stars

"Amaltheia was placed amongst the stars as the constellation Capra—the group of stars surrounding Capella on the arm (ôlenê) of Auriga the Charioteer."[10] Capra simply means "she-goat" and the star-name Capella is the "little goat", but some modern readers confuse her with the male sea-goat of the Zodiac, Capricorn, who bears no relation to Amalthea, no connection in a Greek or Latin literary source nor any ritual or inscription to join the two. Hyginus describes this catasterism in the Poetic Astronomy, in speaking of Auriga, the Charioteer:

Parmeniscus says that a certain Melisseus was king in Crete, and to his daughters Jove was brought to nurse. Since they did not have milk, they furnished him a she-goat, Amalthea by name, who is said to have reared him. She often bore twin kids, and at the very time that Jove was brought to her to nurse, had borne a pair. And so because of the kindness of the mother, the kids, too were placed among the constellations. Cleostratus of Tenedos is said to have first pointed out these kids among the stars.

But Musaeus says Jove was nursed by Themis and the nymph Amalthea, to whom he was given by Ops, his mother. Now Amalthea had as a pet a certain goat which is said to have nursed Jove.[11]

See also

  • Auðumbla, the primeval cow in Norse folklore who nourished Ymir and Búri
  • Amalthea disambiguation page, for Amalthea in astronomy and other subjects


  1. ^ "...the business of Amaltheia, caves and the nurturing of Zeus lands us squarely in Minoan times," John Bennet remarked in passing (Bennet, "The Structure of the Linear B Administration at Knossos" American Journal of Archaeology 89.2 [April 1985:231-249] p. 107 note 39); cf. M.P. Nilsson, The Minoan-Mycenaean Religion and its Survival in Greek Religion (1950:537ff).
  2. ^ An Egyptian inscription of Amenhotep III (1406-1369 BCE) discussed by Michael C. Astour, "Aegean Place-Names in an Egyptian Inscription" American Journal of Archaeology 70.4 (October 1966:313-317), "shows that the Egyptian scribe conceived the Minoan form of Diktê as the Northwest Semitic word dqt... Aigaion oros=Diktê may well be a Graeco-Semitic doublet, for in Ugaritic ritual texts dqt (literally 'small one') was the term for 'female head of small cattle for sacrifice' and a goat rather than a sheep. Dqt is also found as a divine name in a Ugaritic list of gods, which reminds us of the goat that nourished Zeus in the Dictaean cave." (p. 314).
  3. ^ Hesiod. Theogony, 484.
  4. ^ For the primitive Amalthea as the goat rather than the goat-herding nymph, see R.W. Hutchinson, Prehistoric Crete (1962:202).
  5. ^ In Hyginus' Poetical Astronomy II.13 as the nymph Aega or Aex ("she-goat"), daughter of Olenos: see Aega (mythology); in Hyginus Fabulae, 182.
  6. ^ The early fourth-century Christian apologist Lactantius (Institutiones I.22) makes the father of Amalthea and her honey-providing sister Melissa, a Melisseus, "king of Crete"; this example of the common Christian Euhemerist interpretation of Greek myth as fables of humans superstitiously credited with supernatural powers during the passage of time does not represent the actual cultural history of Amalthea, save in its synthesised reflection of an alternative mythic tradition, that infant Zeus was fed with honey: see Bee (mythology).
  7. ^ Legendary infancy episodes of some historical figures—and poetical figures, such as Longus' Daphnis—were suckled by goats, and the actual practice lingered in Italy into the nineteenth century: see William M. Calder, III, "Longus 1. 2: The She-Goat Nurse" Classical Philology 78.1 (January 1983:50–51).
  8. ^ Bernard Evslin, Gods, Demigods and Demons: A Handbook of Greek Mythology: s.v. "Adamanthea", "Amalthea"; Patricia Monaghan, Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines, 2009, s.v. Adamanthea".
  9. ^ Kerenyi, p. 94.
  10. ^ Theoi Project: "Amaltheia"
  11. ^ Theoi Project: on-line complete text in English translation


  • Kerenyi, Karl. The Gods of the Greeks. London: Thames & Hudson, 1951.

External links

  • Theoi Project - Aix Amaltheia
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