Among the exclusive club of Greek deities that could claim to have originally been mortal humans was an interesting immortal named Leucothea the White Goddess. She began her days as a proud Greek princess in an important Boeotian city, but, after a life of tragedy and madness, she became a protective goddess of the sea.
A definitive origin story for Leucothea is difficult to pin down, as many ancient scholars and poets wrote about the goddess, using different sources for their works, and sometimes adding their own twists to the myth. Homer, the first known Greek writer to mention her, laid out the foundation for her story—he stated that Leucothea had originally been a woman named Ino, the daughter of Cadmus, the mythical founder of Thebes. In The Odyssey, Leucothea emerged from the sea to save Odysseus from a storm sent by Poseidon. Her role in Homer’s tale reflected her reputation as a goddess, for she was believed to be a deity that protected sailors in peril.
To find out why and how Leucothea became a goddess requires sources other than Homer. The generally accepted, but not unanimous, account of her origin was the one told by writers such as Ovid, Nonnus, Pausanias and Callistratus. In many ways, Leucothea’s myth was linked to that of Dionysus, the powerful earth deity of vegetation and wine. In fact, according to some of the myths, Dionysus was Leucothea’s biological nephew.
As the story goes, Ino (the mortal name of Leucothea) was one of several daughters fathered by Cadmus, the founder of Thebes. One of Ino’s sisters was Semele, a woman fancied by Zeus, the leader of the Olympian gods. In some myths, Zeus impregnated Semele with Dionysus. That version of the story ended with Hera tricking the still-pregnant Semele into asking Zeus to reveal his unfiltered brilliance, resulting in Semele being tragically burned to death by lightning. In that scenario, Zeus picked up the underdeveloped Dionysus from the ashes and sewed the baby god into his own leg until the fledgling deity could mature. In another version of the myth, Dionysus was brought into existence by Zeus and Persephone. In that tale, Hera hired titans to assassinate Dionysus after he was born, which they succeeded to do, even going so far as tearing the newborn god to pieces and eating the scraps. Fortunately, the titans left behind Dionysus’ heart, and this grisly remnant was retrieved by a goddess and brought to Zeus. At this point in the tale, Semele (who did not die in this version of the story) is brought back into the plot of the myth—using the heart, Zeus summoned Dionysus back to life and planted him inside of the Theban princess to be reborn.
In both origin myths of Dionysus, Ino became the god’s aunt and played a role in his upbringing. When Semele died, Ino took over the role of Dionysus’ nurse and acted as a foster mother. Ino’s care and devotion to Dionysus, however, dangerously courted the easily provoked wrath of Hera. Indeed, Hera eventually sent a curse of madness to infest the minds of Ino and her husband, Athamas.
At this point, some of the ancient accounts began to lead in different directions. Plutarch wrote that Ino had the greater share of madness, manifesting in an unrelenting jealousy aimed at a slave woman named Antiphera. In that story, the jealousy and madness prompted Ino to murder her own son. Plutarch, however, never wrote about Ino’s death in his comments on the story, and many other popular versions of the myths disagreed with his portrayal of the goddess.
The more common version of Ino’s fate placed most of the madness on her husband, Athamas. In this telling of the story, Athamas slew their eldest son in a rage and chased Ino, who was holding their young child, Melicertes, all the way to a high cliff. Either in terror of her maddened husband, or inspired by a madness of her own, Ino jumped from the cliff and plummeted down to the sea while still clutching her son. When she hit the waters, Dionysus successfully lobbied for Ino to be accepted into the ranks of the gods. Upon their ascension into godhood, Ino took the name Leucothea and her son became the god, Palaimon. They both inhabited the sea and served as helpful guardians for sailors.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Odysseus and Ino/Leucothea, by Alessandro Allori (1535–1607), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.