Greek Mythology >> Nymphs >> Pleiades >> Maia


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Nursing Mother (maia)

Apollo, Zeus, Maia and the infant Hermes | Caeretan black-figure hydria C6th B.C. | Musée du Louvre, Paris
Apollo, Zeus, Maia and the infant Hermes, Caeretan black figure hydria C6th B.C., Musée du Louvre

MAIA was the eldest of the Pleiades, the seven nymphs of the constellation Pleiades. She was a shy goddess who dwelt alone in a cave near the peaks of Mount Kyllene (Cyllene) in Arkadia where she secretly gave birth to the god Hermes, her son by Zeus. She also raised the boy Arkas (Arcas) in her cave whose mother Kallisto (Callisto) had been transformed into a bear.

Aiskhylos (Aeschylus) apparently idenifies Maia "the nursing mother" with Gaia "the Earth." On several occassions he calls the earth-goddess Gaia Maia (Mother Earth) and pairs her with Hermes Khthonios ("of the Earth").



[1.1] ATLAS (Hesiod Theogony 938, Hesiod Astronomy Frag 1, Homeric Hymn 17.3, Simonides Frag 555, Virgil Aeneid 8.134)
[1.2] ATLAS & PLEIONE (Apollodorus 3.110, Hyginus Fabulae 192, Hyginus Astronomica 2.21, Ovid Fasti 4.169 & 5.79)


[1.1] HERMES (by Zeus) (Hesiod Theogony 938, Hesiod Astronomy Frag 1, Homeric Hymns 4& 17, Alcaeus Frag 308, Simonides Frag 555, Aeschylus Libation Bearers 683 & Frag 212, Apollodorus 3.112, Philostratus Elder 1.26, Ovid Fasti 5.79)


MAIA (Maia or Maias), a daughter of Atlas and Pleione (whence she is called Atlantis and Pleias), was the eldest of the Pleiades, and in a grotto of mount Cyllene in Arcadia she became by Zeus the mother of Hermes. Arcas, the son of Zeus by Callisto, was given to her to be reared. (Hom. Od. xiv. 435, Hymn. in Merc. 3; Hes. Theog. 938; Apollod. iii. 10. § 2, 8. § 2; Tzetz. ad Lycoph. 219; Horat. Carm. i. 10. 1, 2. 42, &c.)

Source: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.


Hesiod, Theogony 938 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or 7th B.C.) :
"And Maia, the daughter of Atlas, bare to Zeus glorious Hermes, the herald of the deathless gods, for she went up into his holy bed."

Hesiod, Astronomy Fragment 1 (from Scholiast on Pindar's Nemean Odea 2.16) (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or 7th B.C.) :
"The Pleiades whose stars are these :--‘Lovely Teygata, and dark-faced Elektra, and Alkyone, and bright Asterope, and Kelaino, and Maia, and Merope, whom glorious Atlas begot . . . In the mountains of Kyllene (Cyllene) she [Maia] bare Hermes, the herald of the gods.’"

Homeric Hymn 4 to Hermes 1 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C7th to 4th B.C.) :
"Hermes, the son of Zeus and Maia . . . whom Maia bare, the rich-tressed (euplokamos) Nymphe, when she was joined in love with Zeus,--a shy goddess, for she avoided the company of the blessed gods, and lived within a deep, shady cave. There the Son of Kronos (Cronus) used to lie with the rich-tressed Nymphe, unseen by deathless gods and mortal men, at dead of night that sleep might hold white-armed Hera fast. And when the purpose of great Zeus was fulfilled, and the tenth moon with her was fixed in heaven, she was delivered and a notable thing was come to pass. For then she bare a son, of many shifts . . .
Born with the dawning, at mid-day he played on the lyre, and in the evening he stole the cattle of far-shooting Apollon on the fourth day of the month; for on that day queenly Maia bare him. So soon as he had leaped from his mother's heavenly womb, he lay not long waiting in his holy cradle, but he sprang up and sought the oxen of Apollon. But as he stepped over the threshold of the high-roofed cave, he found a tortoise there."

Homeric Hymn 4 to Hermes 142 ff :
"[After stealing the cattle of Apollon, the infant god Hermes returns to his cradle in the cave of Maia :] Then the god went straight back again at dawn to the bright crests of Kyllene (Cyllene) . . . And luck-bringing Hermes, the son of Zeus, passed edgeways through the key-hole of the hall like the autumn breeze, even as mist: straight through the cave he went and came to the rich inner chamber, walking softly, and making no noise as one might upon the floor. Then glorious Hermes went hurriedly to his cradle, wrapping his swaddling clothes about his shoulders as though he were a feeble babe, and lay playing with the covering about his knees . . . But the god did not pass unseen by the goddess; but she said to him : ‘How now, you rogue! Whence come you back so at night-time, you that wear shamlessness as a garment? And now I surely bnelieve the son of Leto will soon have you forth out of doors with unbreakable cords about your ribs, or you will live a rogues's life in the glens robbing by whiles. Go to, then; your father got you to be a reat worry to mortal men and deathless gods.’
Then Hermes answered her with crafty words : ‘Mother, why do you seek to frighten me like a feeble child whose heart knows few words of blame, a fearful babe that fears its mother's scolding? Nay, but I will try whatever plan is best, and so feed myself and you continually. We will not be content to remain here, as you bid, alone of all the gods unfee'd with offerings and prayers. Better to live in fellowship with the deathless gods continually, rich, wealthy, and enjoying stores of grain, than to sit in a gloomy cave: and, as regards honour, I too will enter upon the rite that Apollon has . . .’
With such words they spoke together, the son of Zeus who holds the aigis, and the lady Maia."

Homeric Hymn 17 to Hermes 3 ff :
"He [Hermes] was born of Maia, the daughter of Atlas, when she had mated with Zeus, a shy goddess she. Ever she avoided the throng of the blessed gods and lived in a shadowy cave, and there the Son of Kronos used to lie with the rich-tressed (euplokamos) Nymphe at dead of night, while white-armed Hera lay bound in sweet sleep : and neither deathless god nor mortal man knew it. And so hail to you, Son of Zeus and Maia."

Alcaeus, Fragment 308 (trans. Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric I) (C6th B.C.) :
"Greetings [Hermes] ruler of Kyllene (Cyllene)--for it is of you that I wish to sing: you who Maia bore on the very mountain-tops, having lain with Zeus Kronides (Cronides), king of all."

Simonides, Fragment 555 (trans. Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric III) (C6th to 5th B.C.) :
"Hermes, lord of contests, son of mountain (oureia) Maia of the lively eyes : Atlas fathered her, outstanding in beauty, among his seven dear violet-haired daughters who are called the heavenly Peleiades (Pleiades)."

Aeschylus, Libation Bearers 783 ff (trans. Weir Smyth) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.) :
"May Maia's son [Hermes] . . . lend his aid."

Aeschylus, Fragment 212 (from Scholiast on Pindar, Pythian 2. 18) (trans. Weir Smyth) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.) :
"O Hermes, lord of games (enagônios), son of Maia and Zeus!"

Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 110 (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"To Atlas and Okeanos' (Oceanus') daughter Pleione were born on Arkadian Kyllene (Arcadian Cyllene) seven daughters called the Pleiades, whose names are Alkyone, Merope, Kelaino, Elektra, Sterope, Taygete, and Maia."

Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 112 :
"The oldest daughter Maia, after her intercourse with Zeus, bore Hermes in a cave on Kyllene (Cyllene). Though he was laid out in swaddling-clothes with her winnowing basket for a cradle, he escaped and made his way to Pieria, where he stole some cattle that Apollon was tending . . . Apollon learned who the thief was by divine science, and made his way to Maia on Kyllene to charge Hermes. Maia, however, showed Apollon the baby in his swaddling-clothes, whereupon Apollon took him to Zeus and demanded his cattle."

Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 101 :
"As Kallisto (Callisto) died [i.e. she was shot in the guise of a bear], Zeus seized his baby and handed it to Maia to rear in Arkadia (Arcadia) , giving it the name Arkas (Arcas)."

Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 1. 26 (trans. Fairbanks) (Greek rhetorician C3rd A.D.) :
"[From a description of an ancient Greek painting at Neapolis (Naples) :] Birth of Hermes. The mere babe still in swaddling clothes, the one who is driving the cattle into the cleft of the earth . . . Hermes, when Maia bore him, loved thievery and was skilled in it . . .
He is born on the crest of Olympos, at the very top, the abode of the god . . . There the Horai (Horae, Seasons) care for Hermes at his birth. The painter has depicted these also, each according to her time, and they wrap him in swaddling clothes, sprinkling over him the most beautiful flowers, that he may have swaddling clothes not without distinction. While they turn to [Maia] the mother of Hermes lying on her couch of travail, he slips out of his swaddling clothes and begins to walk at once and descends from Olympos. The mountain rejoices in him--for its smile is like that of a man--and you are to assume that Olympos rejoices because Hermes was born there . . .
Now what of the theft? . . . Apollon comes to Maia to demand back the cattle, but she does not believe him and thinks the god is talking nonsense. Would you learn what he is saying? For, from his expression he seems to me to be giving utterance, not merely to sounds, but to words; he looks as though he were about to say to Maia, ‘Your son whom you bore yesterday wrongs me; for the cattle in which I delight he has thrust into the earth, nor do I know where in the earth. Verily he shall perish and shall be thrust down deeper than the cattle.’
But she merely marvels, and does not believe what he says. While they are still disputing with one another Hermes takes his stand behind Apollon, and leaping lightly on his back, he quietly unfastens Apollon's bow and pilfers it unnoticed."

Pseudo-Hyginus, Astronomica 2. 7 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Others say that when Mercurius [Hermes] first made the lure on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia, he made it with seven strings to correspond to the number of Atlantides [Pleiades], since Maia, his mother, was of their company."

Ovid, Metamorphoses 2. 836 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"Your [Hermes'] mother's [i.e. the Pleiad Maia's] star high in the southern sky."

Ovid, Fasti 4. 169 ff (trans.Boyle) (Roman poetry C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"The Pleiades will start relieving their sire's [Atlas'] shoulders. Called seven, they are usually six, wither because six of them entered a god's embrace . . . Maia, Electra, Taygete [lay] with Jove [Zeus]."

Ovid, Fasti 5. 79 ff :
"Pleione couples with sky-lifting Atlas--so the story is--and bears the Pleiades. Of these, Maia surpassed (they say) the beauty of her sisters and lay with supreme Jove [Zeus]. She bore, on the cypress-clad ridge of Cyllene, one whose winged feet plucks paths of air [Hermes] . . . The exile Evander came from Arcadia to Latin fields, and ferried his gods her . . . You [Hermes], inventor of the curving bow and patron of thieves, gave the [Roman] month [of May] your mother's name. This was not your first pious act. You gave the lyre, it's thought, seven strings, the Pleiades number."

Ovid, Fasti 5. 663 ff :
"[Hermes] glorious grandson of Atlas, Pleiad child of Jove [Zeus] on Arcadia's hills."

Virgil, Aeneid 8. 134 ff (trans. Day-Lewis) (Roman epic C1st B.C.) :
"[Aeneas addresses King Evander of Latium :] ‘Now Mercurius [Hermes] is your father--Mercurius whom fair Maia conceived and bore upon the snowy peak of Cyllene. But Maia, if we believe at all the tales we have heard, was begotten by Atlas, the Atlas who props the starry sky.’"

Virgil, Georgics 1. 204 ff (trans. Fairclough) (Roman bucolic C1st B.C.) :
"If for harvest of wheat and for hardy spelt you ply the ground, and if grain alone is your aim, first let the daughters of Atlas [the Pleiades] pass from your sight in the morn . . . Many have begun ere [the Pleiad] Maia's setting, but the looked-for crop has mocked them with empty straws."

Nonnus, Dionysiaca 47. 665 ff (trans. Rouse) (Greek epic C5th A.D.) :
"[Hermes addresses Dionysos :] ‘She [Ariadne, whose crown was placed amongst the stars] will be seen near Maia my mother among the seven travelling Pleiades.’"


Aeschylus, Libation Bearers 30 ff (trans. Weir Smyth) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.) :
"Intending to ward off evil with such a graceless grace, O mother Earth (gaia maia), she [Klytaimnestra (Clytemnestra)] sends me forth [to pour libations to the dead]."

Aeschylus, Libation Bearers 126 ff :
"O Hermes Khthonios (Chthonius, Of the Nether World), come to my aid, summon to me the [ancestral] spirits beneath the earth to hear my prayers, spirits that watch over my father's house, and Gaia (Earth) herself, who gives birth to all things, and having nurtured them receives their increase in turn."

Aeschylus, Libation Bearers 783 ff
"May Maia's son [Hermes], as he rightfully should, lend his aid."





Other references not currently quoted here: Horace Odes 1.10.1 & 2.42, Macrobius Saturnalia 1.12, Gellius 13.22, Servius on Virgil's Aeneid 8.130.


A complete bibliography of the translations quoted on this page.