To the crisp post-Enlightenment mind which abhors uncertainty, the Horai (Greek Ὧραι), known to the Romans and more generally as the Horae, are impossible. Their name is literally translated as seasons, but they’re usually known as the hours, and one set of individual names refers them to mortal virtues rather than divisions of time. They’re sisters of the Moirai, with parents Zeus and Themis.
Depending on the classical period in which they appear, and the author, they could be almost anyone and anything, it seems. Their numbers range from three to over a dozen, and in paintings they’re usually identified by a process of elimination. If there’s one or more dancing young women, who aren’t Graces or Muses – who tend to appear in sets – then they could well be the Horai. Hesiod names them as Dike (Justice), Eirene (Peace), and Eunomia (Lawful Government), but they could be Thallo (Flora/Spring), Auxo (Growth/Summer) and Carpo (Harvest/Autumn), or simply the four seasons of the year.
Timothy Gantz summarises their different roles as “doorkeepers on Olympus, adorners of beauty (and supporters of the young?), promoters of social order, and representatives of the seasons.” This omits their most common role in paintings in accompanying the sun chariot, to mark the passing of time during the day.
I’m glad that’s clear, then.
One of the Horai is believed to appear in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Blowing Aphrodite to the shore are Zephyros (Latin Favonius), the west wind, harbinger of Spring, and Aura the personification of lighter breezes. At the right, welcoming Aphrodite to land with clothing is one of the Horai representing the season Spring, and there are Spring flowers blowing across the painting. That could make her Thallo or Thalatte (Latin Flora), who is featured in Botticelli’s Primavera.
For Peter Paul Rubens, in The Fall of Phaeton, which he started in about 1604 and reworked over the following three or four years, the Horai accompany Phaëthon in his father’s sun chariot. Some are shown with butterfly wings, as they’re thrown into turmoil, causing time to fall out of joint.
Nicolas Poussin’s brilliant Dance to the Music of Time (c 1634-6) shows four young people dancing, who are sometimes interpreted as being the seasons, but this is probably not the case: they are most likely Poverty (male at the back, facing away), Labour (closest to Time and looking at him), Wealth (in golden skirt and sandals, also looking at Time), and Pleasure (blue and red clothes) who fixes the viewer with a very knowing smile. Opposite Pleasure is a small herm of Janus, whose two faces look to the past and the future.
Above them, in the heavens, Aurora (goddess of the dawn) precedes Apollo’s sun chariot, on which the large ring represents the Zodiac. Behind the chariot are the Horai.
At about the same time, Poussin painted Helios and Phaeton with Saturn and the Four Seasons (c 1635) which shows the scene in which Phaëthon visits his father in the Palace of the Sun before coming to grief in the sun chariot. This may seem puzzling, as Poussin doesn’t actually show a palace as such, although Phaëthon is on his knees in front of Phoebus (Greek Helios), pleading with him to be allowed to take charge of the chariot of the sun, shown behind and to the left.
Poussin seizes the opportunity to depict the four seasons in detailed personifications. Spring is Flora-like in front of Phaëthon, wearing a crown of flowers. Summer sits to the left, next to some ripe corn. Autumn is the older man slumbering in the right foreground, with fruits. Winter is opposite him, frosty and shivering in front of a small brazier.
William Etty painted this curious combination of myths in his Pandora Crowned by the Seasons in 1824.
My last painting is perhaps the most wonderful of them all, although it stretches the Horai to represent not the seasons but the hours of the day, who could number anything from ten to twenty-four.
Gaetano Previati’s Dance of the Hours from 1899 shows the Horai dancing in the air around a golden ring, with the orbs of the moon in the foreground and the sun far beyond. Every fine brushstroke is rich in meaning: in the Horai they give the sensation of movement (detail below). Elsewhere they form the third dimension, or give texture to the ether.
There seem to be at least a dozen of them in this dizzying spectacle.
Wikipedia’s compendium of different Horai.