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Greek Gods and Goddess: Phrixus

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The story of Phrixus and Athamus has so many parallels with the myths in the Bible, it could lead you to speculate, who really wrote the Bible, did Moses the author copy the Greeks, or did the Greeks copy Moses, or the Egyptians? But you cannot express a view either way without reading what follows.

The birth of Phrixus

He was a son of the Boeotian king, Athamas [high reaper] who was a brother of the cursed Sisyphus, and Cretheus, and husband of Nephele [the goddess of clouds, and rain], whom Zeus had created in the likeness of his jealous and spiteful wife Hera, which he used when he wished to deceive Xion, the wheel of time. But Hera realising he would use it to cover- hide from her eyes what he was doing ordered Athamas to marry her, and foil her husbands plan. But while Nephele had no choice but to comply and would do her duty as wife, she detested him.


Hera the wife of Zeus was a personification of the sky-Atmosphere, she was quite naturally the wife of the Sun god Zeus; we may better understand this if we remember that Ra, the Egyptian sun god, was woken by the love making between Geb the Earth and his mother Nut, the ocean space, he fearing that this incestuous relationship could bring about the birth of other Ra’s, Kings, who could or would challenge his authority as the first born sun, opened his eye and sent forth his rays of light, to see what was causing the infernal noise that had so rudely awakened him, he instantly saw the problem and ordered Shu, the rays from his great eye to burn the Earth, killing Geb, and thus ending the relationship. But Nut instantly felt the rays of Shu shooting through her body and warned Geb, her son and lover, of what was about to happen. Geb, absolutely terrified, began to sweat, he sweated so much that the entire earth was covered by swirling mists, as the clouds of sweat obscured the face of Geb, the Earth, and Geb, called her Tefnut [the un-burnable one, the quencher of heat, she was the first water goddess, whose forms were seemingly endless, and she would have many children by Shu, including, water, mist, ice, snow, rain, hail, fog, sweat, but greatest and most beautiful of all was her first daughter Atmosphere. For Shu utterly beguiled by Tefnut, who danced naked, veiling herself in the swirling cloudy mists, was instantly smitten, and Tefnut with him also, and they instantly had union, and as I stated, Tefnut conceived and brought forth Atmosphere, and who can deny, for without her, you would not exist. As for Athamas, he worshiped the moon as the queen of harvest

The deception of Athamas

Athamas knew that Nephele did not love him, and when he met Ino, (she was a goddess of the harvest moon, or corn goddess) the daughter of Cadmus, he fell in love instantly with her, and she with him, but he dared not risk Hera’s anger, for her dogged determination to destroy those who upset her was well known. So, he brought Ino secretly back with him and kept her in another part of his palace. Ino soon conceived and bore him two children, Learchus [leader of people], and Melicertes [sweet power].

Nephele eventually found out about her rival from the palace servants and went straight to Hera on Mount Olympus, complaining bitterly to her about her husband’s deception. Hera herself always having to deal with her husband’s constant infidelities, and who had overseen the marriage was enraged and vowed to bring eternal vengeance on the house of Athamas. Nephele then returned to Boeotia and made a public plea for the death of Athamas for his adultery. But the menfolk feared Athamas more than Hera, and Ino had already won the hearts and devotion of the women.

Ino’ revenge

Now Ino, [she who makes sinewy] who it was pretended was at first mortal was later called Ino Leucothea (the white goddess) I suspect she was a personification of the moon, as Virgo. Anyway, incensed by Nephele’ actions Ino who already hated Athamas’s children, Phrixus, Leucon [white] and Helle by Nephele and devised a cunning plan to have Phrixus killed. Firstly, she roasted or persuaded the local women to roast the seed that had been kept for the next year sowing. Then when in the spring the sown seed did not sprout, the local people and farmers fearing a famine sent men to consult the Delphic oracle, but then Ino put the second part of her plan into action, and bribed those sent to say that the oracle had said that Phrixus should be sacrificed to Zeus in order for the land to regain its fertility. After they had returned and reported this to Athamas he reluctantly agreed to it. And to make things worse Cretheus’s wife Biadice [justice by force] had fallen in love with Phrixus and when he rejected her advances, she made it public that he had tried to rape her, which only served to make the Boeotians adamant that he should be used as a sin offering to Zeus.


Here we might recall the situation of Jacob’s son Joseph who was taken to Egypt, and bought as a slave by Pharaohs captain of the guard called Potiphar, when his master wife tried to seduce he rebuffed her every move, but when she could not get her way, she accused him of trying to rape her. Potiphar put him in prison, but what else is interesting is that Pharaoh eventually had two dreams, which none of his wise men could interpret. In the first seven fat healthy cows came up out of the Nile and browsed amongst the reeds, then seven ugly and very thin cows came out of the river and devoured the healthy cows; in the second dream, seven heads of good grain came up on one stalk, but after that seven thin heads of grain sprouted scorched by the East wind, and devoured the seven healthy heads. So, in both stories we have the scorched or roasted grain, which could not grow, causing famine, and a scorned wife of another, accusing the man of rape. (Gen. 39 and 41)

The sacrificial Ram

At this, Athamas was greatly upset, but led Phrixus up the mountain to the sacrificial altar, when Athamas was about to cut Phrixus’s throat with the sacrificial flint knife, Herakles who by luck was nearby, rushed up and wrestled the implement from the king’s hand, exclaiming that his father Zeus did not accept human sacrifices. Yet Athamas would have tried to complete the task, if Hera, or Hera in the guise of Nephele, had not ordered Hermes to send a flying golden ram to rescue Phrixus and his sister Helle; although some say the ram was supplied by Zeus the deliverer, himself. Unfortunately, Helle fell off the back of the ram and drowned, and the sea where she fell was named Hellespont in her honour. Phrixus survived though, and came to Aeetes kingdom, where he sacrificed the Ram to Zeus.


Here it seems we can hardly avoid remembering the myth of Abraham and the sacrifice of his beloved son Isaac, which the Lord stopped at the last moment providing a ram for sacrifice. (Gen 22, 1 to 13.) But the myth also relates to a battle between rival beliefs, in both cases. For anciently the sacred king was the one who would have been sacrificed, later a boy child, dressed in a ram’s fleece was substituted, then a living ram replaced the child, which probably means that the Boeotians under king Athamas worshiped and made human sacrifices to the moon goddess, and that the Solar- sun based beliefs, which did not require human sacrifice under Zeus, where taking over, and eventually replaced the moon based beliefs altogether. For both the boy substitute Phrixus, and the king Athamas were saved from being sacrificed as we shall see.

Phrixus meets Aeetes

King Aeetes welcomed Phrixus to his court and gave him his daughter Chalciope [brazen face] in marriage, and she bore him several children named as, Argus [bright hound], Phrontis [care], Cytisorus [clover season], Melas [black] and possibly Presbon [right of inheritance]. In gratitude for Aeetes kindness, he gave him the Golden Fleece from the ram and Aeetes hung in from a tree in the sacred grove of Ares, which was within his kingdom.


The sacrificial ram substituted for Isaac was caught in thicket as if hanging from a tree, but what Abraham named the place is also interesting, he called it ‘The Lord will provide’, and it was reported that Zeus, under his title ‘Zeus the deliverer’ who provided the golden ram, both for the rescue and sacrifice.

Ino’ plot revealed

Meanwhile the Boeotians who had brought back the false message from the Delphic Oracle, stunned by the miracle on the mountain, and fearing the gods revenge admitted they had been bribed by Ino; and soon enough the lies of Biadice were revealed, and once again Nephele made a public plea for the death of Athamas, who was shortly thereafter led up the mountain and the sacrificial fillet was placed on his head, but he too was saved by the timely arrival of Herakles who had remained nearby.

Athamas’ madness

But Hera was even more enraged that Athamas had escaped twice from her promised vengeance for his deeds, but if that wasn’t bad enough Athamas had aided and abetted Ino, in hiding the bastard son of Semele [moon,] Dionysus, by her adulterous husband Zeus, who was living in the palace disguised as a girl. Hera brought madness upon him, and suddenly grabbing his bow, he shouted that he could see a white stag, pushing past those near him he aimed and let an arrow fly, his son Learchus by Ino, dropped to the floor transfixed and shaking in the throes of death, and Athamas started to ripe him apart. Ino grabbed her other son Melicertes and ran, but only escaped because Dionysus temporarily blinded him, and he attacked a female goat thinking it was her.

Death of Ino

Ino ran to the Molurian rock and jumped into the sea with her son, and they both drowned. This was the place where the savage bandit Sciron [parasol] would sit, and when strangers came past he would require them to wash their feet as they bent down to do it, he would kick them off the cliff. However, Zeus remembering Ino kindness to his son Dionysus deemed that they should not languish in Hades and deified them, Ino, was renamed Leucothea (the white goddess) and Melicertes became known as Palaemon [the wrestler].


I spoke of the battle between the two beliefs, that based on the moon, and it being replaced by the Solar one, in the death of Ino and her son we see the final triumph of the sun over the moon cult, as Ino (a moon goddess) dives into the sea and drowns at the very place where the sacred sun king would have been thrown to his death, it is symbolic of the moon, as on the seas horizon it appears to disappear into and sinks below the waves.

Athamas exile

Athamas now childless as his only other son Leucon [white, which might imply he had leprosy] had become ill and died, was banished for his deeds by the Boeotians. Athamas went to the oracle of Delphi and asked where he should go, to which came the reply, that he should settle where the wild animals feed him. He with a few loyal companions headed northwards but they soon had no food or drink, then they wandered into Thessalian, and came upon a pack of wolves devouring a flock of sheep, they frightened them away and feasted on the meat that was left. Remembering the words of the Oracle he decided to found the city of Alos, he also adopted his apparent great nephews Haliartus [bread of the sea] and Coronea [of the crows]. But Haliartus, was a town called Aliartos today, and Coronea is now called Koroneia, although judging by the names meaning, the original Haliartus, may have been closer to the Corinthian gulf, and that they may have relied on fishing? However, Alos, which is roughly ten km south from the modern town of Almyros on the Pagasitic gulf, would seem too distant from Haliartus and Coronea, although it may simply mean they became allies. And quite why Athamas should call he founded as Alos, is not obvious unless, it carries the meaning Aloeus, threshing floor, which would make some sense, as he worshiped the harvest goddess, the high reaper. Anyway, apparently Athamas then married Themisto and started a new family, odd then, that it should be the advice of the Oracle of Delphi led him to that place, and then he married a woman whose name Themisto, means Oracle?

Last word on Phrixus

As for Phrixus, we know little of his demise, it is recorded that Aeetes did eventually kill him, and apparently his body was not buried, thus his ghost plays a part in the story of the golden Fleece; and despite this his wife Chalciope chose to remain with her father when he was overthrown and exiled by his own brother Perses.

Athamas revisited

Other sources give a variation on Athamas’ story, completely leaving out his marriage to Nephele, and her children.

According to them Ino was Athamas’ first wife, and sometime, but not long after the birth of Learchus and Melicertes, Ino went out hunting and did not return, and when a torn and bloodstained tunic that she had been wearing was found he assumed she had been killed and eaten by wild animals. After a suitable period of mourning Athamas married Themisto [oracular] and later she bore him twin sons, Orchomenus and Sphingius. But Ino was not dead, she had been attacked by a lynx, which had sent her into a Bacchic frenzy and she strangled it and tore the pelt from the beast with her teeth, and nails, and then discarded her tunic, donned the skin and went off to Mount Parnassus to make merry. Soon enough Athamas found out she was still alive, and sent for her, then placed her in the palace nursery, and fetching Themisto, he told her that she had been captured in a recent raid he had led on Mount Cithaeron, and he thought she would make a good nursemaid for their children. But the other maids were not fooled, for they been there when she was queen and they told Themisto. So, Themisto went to the nursery pretending not to know who she was; she told the new maid to make ready a set of white woollen garments for her sons, and a set of mourning garments for the unfortunate sons of my predecessor Ino, for they are to be worn tomorrow. The following morning Themisto ordered the guards to break into the nursery and kill the two children in black garments, but spare the two in the white. But Ino had outguessed her, and had dressed the children the opposite way around; and the guards killed Themisto’ children and spared Ino’s. when the news reached Athamas he went insane; shot and killed his son Learchus thinking he was a stag, and Ino escaped with Melicertes and jumped off a cliff, drowned and was made immortal.


Mount Parnassus was sacred to Dionysus, and the Dionysian Mysteries, which were no different than those of Bacchus, although generally associated with wine, they also used certain varieties of mushrooms, just as even today people use the likes of magic mushrooms. It is therefore more likely that Ino’ Bacchic frenzy was brought about by her eating mushrooms while she was out hunting, as one would have thought she was sober when she went out hunting. On feast days the drunken, high as kite followers would wind or stagger their way up the sacred mountain, drums, sistrums and the like banging as they went till they reached the place designated, driving themselves into even greater frenzies, calling to the god, and abandon all moral ethics, in a dancing, orgy of lust and ecstasy and euphoria. Mount Parnassus was also sacred to the Corycian nymphs who were often found at the springs inside the Corycian cave which was on the same mountain, and was a favourite haunt of the Muses, which made it very attractive to Apollo, he seduced the Corycia (sometimes called Dapnis, but I think that is only because it means Laurel which was sacred to Apollo), and she bore him Lycoreus, now Mount Parnassus was named after Parnassus the son of the third Corycian nymph called Cleodora (Kleodora [famed gift]) who was seduced by Poseidon, although some the father was Kleopompos, he founded the city of Parnassus at the bottom of the mountain, but it flooded, as the people escaped they ran up the mountain following a pack of howling wolves, and there the built a new city and called it Lykoreia, which is the same as Lycoreus, and means the howling of wolves. Apollo also seduced another of her sisters Melaina [black one]. So, it is possible that Ino was a priestess of Bacchus or Dionysus, and she may have been away on duty, which might explain why Athamas was happy to have her back.

During the practices of the sacrifice of the sacred king, or the boy substitute, the priests those involved wore white sheep or ram’s skins, those who were to sacrificed wore dark or black hides, which explains the command of Themisto to Ino, over the woollen garments the boys were to wear.

The 3rd version of events

This version is more like prophetic dream, it goes like this. One day when the children of Nephele and Ixion, Phrixus and Helle were out walking in the woods, when their mother appeared before them, leading a golden ram by the horns, she was in Bacchic frenzy or trance like state, and she babbled to them, ‘look, here is a son of your cousin Theophane. She had too many suitors so Poseidon turned her into a ewe, and himself into a ram, and seduced her on the island of Crumissa.’ Her daughter Helle asked her what happened to her many suitors, and she replied, ‘they turned into wolves, and howl for Theophane all night long. Now ask no more questions, but climb up onto the rams back, the both of you and ride away to the kingdom of Aeetes, the son of Helios. As soon as you arrive, sacrifice the ram to Ares. When they arrived Phrixus did as his mother had instructed, and hung the fleece in the temple of Ares, where it was guarded by a dragon, and many years later one of his sons coming to Orchomenus [strength, or rank, in battle] from Colchis, rescued Athamas as he was being sacrificed for a sin offering.


Theophane whose name means, appearance of a goddess, is a personification of the moon, whom wolves do have a habit of howling at. I must say I was foxed by this myth initially, but Crumissa is not an Island, but is in Greater Greece, Magna Graecia, part of the foot of Italy, so it would seem that the original people who lived in this area, which included Sicily were considered uncivilised and still followed the moon cult religions, and were still in the habit of Sacrificing the sacred king of the year, for why else would Athamas need saving from being sacrificed. As for wolves, well it was a wolf that fostered Romulus and Remus, who supposedly founded Rome. The idea that one of Phrixus’s sons was coming to Orchomenus from Colchis, may indicate that a force from Colchis, was coming to make war, or colonise parts of Italy, it is reported that the Greek hero Philoctetes, came to these parts after the end of the Trojan war, together with a force of Rhodians, and founded the city of Crumissa. The Rhodians were by faith Dorian, their most revered god was Helios, they themselves it seems, still practised the ritual sacrifice of the sacred king, which could explain why Athamas needed saving again.

The last words

Once again it seems the myth is concerned with a battle over beliefs and the practices associated with them, the bringing of the golden ram, to replace the sacrifice of the sacred king, or a child substitute, seems to be the real story behind the myth. And there I will take my leave of the story of Phrixus and Athamas, although Phrixus, as the man said, ‘I will be back.’ As a ghost in nothing else, in the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece.