In Greek mythology Iris was the messenger of
the gods (a female counterpart to Hermes), symbolized by the rainbow (she
was the personified goddess of the rainbow) which touches both heaven and
earth, the connection between gods and mortals. She is regarded as the
messenger of the gods to mankind, and particularly of the goddess Hera
(who was the wife and sister of Zeus, Queen of Heaven) whose orders she
brought to humans. It is told that she used to sleep under Hera's throne
with her winged sandals on, ever ready to bear messages. In ancient
Greece, every time a rainbow appeared, it was believed that a message was
being carried from Olympus to a mortal or to a God who was away. She is
often shown gliding down a rainbow to deliver her messages to mortals, who
looked on her as a guide and adviser. Her name also means "rainbow," thus
implying that her presence is a sign of Hope.
She plays an essential role in The Iliad as
the messenger of Zeus. She is also loyal to other immortals, such as
Aphrodite. When Aphrodite was wounded at Troy, Iris helped her into
Aires's war chariot and drove the injured goddess to Olympus to be treated
for her wounds.
Among the duties of the Greek Goddess Iris
was that of leading the souls of dead women to the Elysian Fields. In
token of that faith the Greeks planted purple Iris on the graves of women.
The Greek symbolism for the iris comes down to us by word of mouth in the
form of a myth that was old in Homer's day. In Hesiod's works, at least,
she had the additional duty of carrying water from the River Styx in an
ewer whenever the gods had to take a solemn oath. The water would render
unconscious for one year any god or goddess who lied. Farmers paid tribute
to her for lifting water from lakes or streams to the clouds so it could
fall again to water their crops.
In surviving ancient Greek art, she appears
mainly on Greek vases. She is often portrayed as a young woman with wings
and her attributes are a herald's staff and a water pitcher. She was
frequently represented with golden wings wearing a long flowing tunic with
a rainbow above her or wearing winged sandals much like Hermes with a
According to Hesiod, she was the daughter of
Thaumas and the ocean nymph Electra. Iris is also a sister of the
Harpies and in some literary works called Thaumantias. Some literature has
Iris, married to Zephyrus, the west wind; other works mention her as the
counterpart of Hermes only.