As told in the tales of ancient Greek mythology, there was a unique group of divine sisters known as the Graiai who were included among the ranks of the gods. These Graiai were daughters of the sea-god, Phorcys, and they inherited his water divinity classification. The collective name of Graiai connotated shades of grey and white, and association with those colors narrowed their watery jurisdiction to seafoam. Yet, from their connection to grey, they also took on qualities of age, experience and knowledge. Keeping with their theme, the Graiai all were born with silvery hair, and due to this attribute, they came to be called the Old Women. The poet Hesiod (c. 8th century), our most ancient known source on the Graiai, claimed that all that was “Old”, per se, about the Old Women was their hair. Hesiod wrote, “with fair faces and gray [hair] from birth…these the gods who are immortal and men who walk on the earth call Graiai, the gray sisters, Pemphredo robed in beauty and Enyo robed in saffron” (Hesiod, Theogony 270 ff, trans. Evelyn-White)). Unfortunately, the writers who succeeded Hesiod would be far less kind in their descriptions of the Graiai.
By the time of the Eleusinian playwright, Aeschylus (c. 525-456 BCE), and the Lyric poet, Pindar (c. 518-446+ BCE), the reputation and community image of the Graiai had taken a noticeable dive. They were starting to take on the sinister aura of their aquatic clan of supernatural creatures, which had many monsters in the family tree, including Scylla and the Gorgons. Through the latter of these kinswomen, the Graiai became linked into the myth of the hero, Perseus, who slew the mortal Gorgon, Medusa. As the myth of Perseus was told and retold, references to the Graiai became more and more unflattering. Pindar might have made the earliest written reference to the Graiai being blinded by Perseus, writing, “He had made blind the grim offspring of Phorcys” (Pindar, Pythian Ode 12. 14). Aeschylus, however, went further in depicting the total reshaping of the Graiai image. He expanded them to be three in number and introduced the idea that they were largely eyeless and toothless. Additionally, in the playwright’s depiction of the Graiai, their age was not restrained to their hair, but to their bodies too. Instead, in their reimagined form, the Graiai’s only beauty came from their bodies being oddly fused with the shapes of swans. Aeschylus wrote, “[the Graiai are] ancient maids, three in number, shaped like swans, possessing one eye amongst them and a single tooth; neither does the sun with his beams look down upon them, nor ever the nightly moon” (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 788 ff (trans. Weir Smyth)).
Centuries later, in the time of the scholar, Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st and 2nd century CE), the Graiai’s swan shapes had been erased and all that was left of their image was their designation as largely eyeless and toothless elderly women. Apollodorus did, however, record a new name for one of the Graiai. He wrote, “Enyo, Pemphredo, and Deino. Daughters of Phorcos [aka Phorcys] by Ceto, they were the sisters of the Gorgons, and had been old women from the time of their birth. The three of them had only a single eye and a single tooth, which they exchanged in turn between themselves” (Apollodorus, Library, 2.4.2). Besides Deino, the name Persis also came to be associated with the Graiai troupe. Curiously, in contrast to the increasingly frail and wizened bodies that these names were attached to, the meanings of the Graiai members’ personal names were anything but weak. Enyo’s name harkened to war, while Persis alluded to destruction and Deino reflected terror. Only the Graiai goddess, Pemphredo, had a peaceful-sounding name, with a meaning that loosely translated to “She Who Shows the Way.” Nevertheless, despite their empowering names and sea goddess natures, the Graiai were unfortunately stereotyped as the old crones of Greek mythology that had to share an eye and a tooth.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Cropped Perseus and the Graiai, by Walter Crane (English, 1845 – 1915), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and Artvee.jpg).
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.