Emily investigates the legacy of our namesake, the goddess Iris, and comes up with surprising results.
Given that The Iris Project is named after the beautiful goddess Iris, I thought I’d do a bit of digging this week and see what I could uncover about her. You probably already knew that Iris was the goddess of the rainbow in ancient Greece. Maybe you also remember that she was one of the messengers for the gods on Olympus (Hermes was the other one). But did you know that there’s a statue of her right around the corner in London? Or that she gave her name to a hugely popular South Korean TV series? If not, read on – you might be surprised what you find out!
Let’s start with Iris’ name. What does it mean? Well, don’t feel bad if you don’t know – because not even the ancient Greeks could really decide! One definition said it came from the word iris, meaning ‘rainbow’. But another claimed that it actually came from the root eiro, meaning ‘I speak’ – because Iris was a messenger. Perhaps (and I’m inclined to think this is probably closer to the truth) it allowed for both meanings together, making Iris the messenger goddess who used the rainbow as her pathway to slide down to earth.
Iris was the daughter of two gods: a sea-god called Thaumas, and a cloud-nymph called Electra. The reason the Greeks gave her this lineage is simple but ingenious. The ancient Greeks believed that the clouds filled themselves up again with water by means of the rainbow, which drained water up from the sea and into the sky; so Iris, the rainbow goddess, naturally became the daughter of sea and clouds.
A rather unexpected addition to this happy family, however, are Iris’ sisters. They weren’t rain or hail, as you might expect. They were Harpies! These horrible creatures were half women, half birds, with huge wings and sharp talons. Their job was to steal people away and torture them on their way to the Underworld with cruel punishments. Iris must have had quite a hard time growing up with them for sisters!
And yet Iris might have sometimes needed to ask her sisters for directions to the Underworld; because she had another job to keep her busy, alongside her messenger duties. This was to bring sacred water from the river Styx in Hades for the gods on Olympus to swear oaths on. That’s why you often see her in vase paintings carrying a jug full of water. But Iris doesn’t just appear in vase paintings. There is also a statue of her – in London! In one of the most famous of the British Museum’s galleries, where the beautiful sculptures of the Parthenon are displayed, you can find a gorgeous depiction of Iris, just about to spring off in flight.
The Parthenon was a victory monument built on the Athenian acropolis c. 440 BCE, and had two pediments, one on each end, each of them filled with statues. The west pediment told the story of Athena and Poseidon fighting to be the patron deity of Athens, and it’s here that we see Iris, to Poseidon’s left, just about to fly off with the news of Athena’s victory. It’s a beautiful statue, even without the large wings that would have spread out behind her. Iris’ robes whip around her body and fly back in the wind as she leaps into action. Her legs spring energetically forward, and we can easily imagine her jumping off the pediment and onto her rainbow road towards the earth.
So that’s Iris in the past, then; but what about Iris now? Over two thousand years after the sculpture of Iris darting from the Parthenon was created, we still remember Iris – in some more obvious ways, and others that are harder to spot. Take the iris of the eye, for example.
We all know that the coloured part of our eye is called the iris – but did you ever think why? Well, it was named after the Greek word for rainbow, because its has so many beautiful different colours. And the iris flower was named for our goddess because of the huge range of different colours that the species displays. But there are some other, less obvious re-uses of Iris’ name. The South Korean espionage TV drama called Iris (IRIS is the code-name for a secret agency) is one example. Then there’s the Android app called Iris, a competitor to Apple’s Siri (which, by the way, is a Norwegian word for a beautiful woman – and is ‘iris’ spelled backwards!) Iris appears as a character in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. She’s the subject of a beautiful poem by Alice Oswald. And, of course, last but not least – she gave her name to The Iris Project.
So Iris is a fascinating goddess. She’s able to bridge the gap between heaven and earth as a messenger from the gods to the mortals. She can be found anywhere from a vase painting to a statue, a piece of anatomy to an Android app. She’s able to move effortlessly between the past and the present, bringing us closer to the people of the ancient world and informing and colouring ours. And that, I think, is why she’s still so appealing to us today.
Emily Hauser is an author, scholar and lover of all things ancient. She loves to tell stories and inspire young people with her passion for the classical world. For more information and for details about her new book, For The Most Beautiful, visit her website at www.emilyhauser.com.
Can YOU think of another way Iris has featured across the years? Tell us on our Facebook page!