Goddess of the Week: Nyx (Night)

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), Night (1883), oil on canvas, 208.3 × 107.3 cm, Hillwood Museum, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Now usually thought of as a personification rather than a goddess, Nyx or Night is one of the first well-known goddesses to emerge from the primordial Chaos (or Chasm, as the original Greek name refers to a gap rather than disorder) of the origin of the Universe. Among the first of the children of Chaos are Erebus (Darkness) and Nyx. Erebus then engages in the first sexual union with Nyx, who bears the children of Aether (Brightness) and Hemere (Day).

Nyx also produces a string of children without the involvement of anyone else. They include Moros (Doom or Destiny), Ker (Destruction and Death), Thanatos (Death), Hypnos (Sleep), the Oneiroi (Dreams), Momos (Blame), Oizus (Pain and Distress), the Hesperides, the Moirai (Fates), the Keres, Nemesis (Indignation and Retribution), Apate (Deceit), Philotes (Love), Geras (Old Age), and finally Eris (Strife).

Nyx is consistently described as being dark or black, wearing a cloak as dark as she is, and is given a four-wheeled chariot in which to travel across the sky. Homer, in the Iliad, describes Nyx as the subduer of the gods, as she represses the spirit.

She doesn’t appear in many paintings until the nineteenth century, when she came into vogue.

Luca Giordano (1634–1705), Charon’s Barque, Night and Morpheus (1684-86), fresco, dimensions not known, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Luca Giordano’s fresco of Charon’s Barque, Night and Morpheus (1684-86) in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence, Italy, is a notable exception. Although there’s a lot of vagueness in written accounts about Nyx’s home, she’s normally associated with Tartarus, part of the Underworld. She’s therefore an appropriate goddess to feature in the sky above the boatman Charon as he ferries the dead across to the Underworld.

As shown in the detail below, Nyx appears with a couple of owls on her head. The painting’s title claims that it is Morpheus rather than Erebus next to her, which is plausible from the fact that he appears to be in a deep sleep. There may be some confusion here, as it is Erebus who is normally associated with the Underworld, not Morpheus. Surrounding the couple is a dark blue cloak covered with the stars of the night sky, but there’s no chariot in sight.

Luca Giordano (1634–1705), Charon’s Barque, Night and Morpheus (detail) (1684-86), fresco, dimensions not known, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.
Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Night (c 1850-55), oil on canvas, 76.2 x 45.7 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. The Athenaeum.

Gérôme’s Night from about 1850-55 is one of the earliest of the run of nineteenth century paintings of Nyx. It appears to have been completed by several different hands, and may have been intended as a small aesthetic diversion rather than a faithful evocation of myth. She is shown bearing one of the signs of night in the days before outdoor lighting, the burning brand. The red poppy flowers on her dark blue cloak come not from myth, but a later association with Morpheus and sleep which was made clear in Virgil’s Aeneid.

In Book 4, line 486:
hinc mihi Massylae gentis monstrata sacerdos,
Hesperidum templi custos, epulasque draconi
quae dabat et sacros servabat in arbore ramos,
spargens umida mella soporiferumque papaver.
haec se carminibus promittit solvere mentes
quas velit, ast aliis duras immittere curas…

Translated (at Perseus at Tufts University), this reads:
From thence is come
a witch, a priestess, a Numidian crone,
who guards the shrine of the Hesperides
and feeds the dragon; she protects the fruit
of that enchanting tree, and scatters there
her slumb’rous poppies mixed with honey-dew.
Her spells and magic promise to set free
what hearts she will, or visit cruel woes
on men afar.

Spargens umida mella soporiferumque papaver is conventionally translated as “scattering moist honey and sleep-inducing poppy”, and describes well the effects of the opiate drugs derived from opium poppies, which were popular – and readily obtainable – at the time.

Auguste Alexandre Hirsch (1833–1912), Nyx (1875), oil on canvas, 105 x 168 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Auguste Alexandre Hirsch made this more romantic in his Nyx from 1875, which must have set all the old men gawping when it was shown in the Salon that year.

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), Night and Sleep (1878), oil on canvas, 42 × 62 cm, The De Morgan Centre, Guildford, Surrey, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Three years later, Evelyn De Morgan paired Nyx with Morpheus in her Night and Sleep (1878), although her use of colour is more idiosyncratic. The furher figure is a young woman (probably) wearing long red robes, her eyes closed, clutching a large brown cloak with her right hand. That cloak floats above the couple. Her left arm is intertwined with the right arm of what is probably a young man, who wears shorter brown robes. He also has his eyes closed. He clutches a large bunch of poppies to his chest with his left arm, while his right scatters them, so that they fall to the ground below.

Although it has been stated that this painting was inspired by the flight of Zephyr and Chloris in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (c 1486), I think that may have been largely compositional, and the figures are Nyx and Morpheus, as implied by the title.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Nyx (Night Goddess) (1880), watercolor and gouache on paper, dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1880, Gustave Moreau painted this watercolour portrait of Nyx surrounded by associated symbols and objects. These include bats, daemons and stars, but not her chariot.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), Night (1883), oil on canvas, 208.3 × 107.3 cm, Hillwood Museum, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau flies his owls in support of his portrait of Night (1883). These night birds are invariably shown in dark plumage; there is no role here for the white spectre of the barn owl, for example.

Nyx has parallels in most other mythologies. Among these is the Norse goddess Nótt.

Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892), Nótt riding Hrímfaxi (1887), other details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Nótt riding Hrímfaxi (1887) is Peter Nicolai Arbo’s visualisation of the goddess. Nótt is given as the daughter of Nörvi; her third marriage was to Dellingr, the issue of which was Dagr (Day).