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Of the Hellespont

Athamas, Phrixus, Helle and the Golden-Fleeced Ram | Lucanian red-figure lekanis C4th B.C. | Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge
Athamas, Phrixus, Helle and the Golden-Fleeced Ram, Lucanian red-figure lekanis C4th B.C., Harvard Art Museums

HELLE was the goddess of the Hellespont, a body of water bridging the Aegean and Black Seas.

Helle was once a mortal princess, a daughter of King Athamas of Boiotia by the cloud-nymphe Nephele. Her jealous stepmother Ino tricked Athamas into offering Helle and her brother Phrixos up as a sacrifice to the gods, but Nephele sent the flying, golden-fleeced ram to their rescue. During their flight to safety Helle grew weary and fell from the back of the beast into the sea. Some say she drowned, while others say she was rescued by Poseidon who transformed into a sea-goddess. The sea was named Hellespontos "Sea of Helle" after her.

Helle's step-mother Ino ("of the Ionian Sea") and half-brother Melikertes (Melicertes) were also turned into sea-gods.



[1.1] ATHAMAS & NEPHELE (Hesiod Catalogues Frag 38, Apollodorus 1.80, Hyginus Fabulae 1-3)
[1.2] ATHAMAS (Ovid Heroides 18.136, Tryphiodorus 218)
[1.3] NEPHELE (Ovid Metamorphoses 11.195)


[1.1] ALMOPIA, PAIONIA (by Poseidon) (Stephanus Byzantium s.v. Almopia)


HELLE (Hellê), a daughter of Athainas and Nephele, and sister of Phrixus. (Apollod. i. 9. § 1; Apollon. Rhod. i. 927; Ov. Fast. iv. 909, Met. xi. 195.) When Phrixus was to be sacrificed, Nephele rescued her two children, who rode away through the air upon the ram with the golden fleece, the gift of Hermes, but, between Sigeium and the Chersonesus, Helle fell into the sea, which was hence called the sea of Helle (Hellespont; Aeschyl. Pers. 70, 875). Her tomb was shown near Pactya, on the Hellespont. (Herod. vii. 57.)

Source: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.



Hesiod, Catalogues of Women Fragment 38 (from Erastothenes, Catasterismoi 14. 124) (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or C7th B.C.) :
"The Ram (Krios). This it was that transported Phrixos (Phrixus) and Helle. It was immortal and was given them by their mother Nephele, and had a golden fleece, as Hesiod and Pherekydes say."

Herodotus, Histories 7. 58. 1 (trans. Godley) (Greek historian C5th B.C.) :
"The Khersonese (Chersonese) [in Thrace], with the tomb of Athamas' daughter Helle on its right and the town of Kardia (Cardia) on its left."

Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 1. 80 (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Athamas, lord of Boiotia (Boeotia), sired by Nephele (the Cloud) a son Phrixos (Phrixus) and a daughter Helle. Then he took a second wife, Ino, by whom he had Learkhos (Learchus) and Melikertes (Melicertes). Now Ino, as a plot against the children of Nephele, persuaded the women to parch the wheat, which they did without the men knowing. So the earth, sown with parched wheat, failed to produce its yearly harvest. Ino persuaded the messengers to report that the oracle prophesied an end to the dearth if Phrixos were to be sacrificed to Zeus. When Athamas heard this and was pressured by the joint efforts of the inhabitants, he had Phrixos placed on the altar. But Nephele seized both him and her daughter, and gave them a golden-fleeced ram which she had received from Hermes, by which they were borne through the sky over and across the land and the sea. But as they reached the sea that lies between Sigeum and the Kherronesos (Chersonese), Helle slipped into the depths; from her death the sea was called the Hellespontos (Hellespont) after her."

Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 1. 255 ff (trans. Rieu) (Greek epic C3rd B.C.) :
"[Thessalian womenconversing at the launch of the ship Argo :] ‘How I wish that the dark waves in which the lady Helle perished had closed over Phrixos and his ram [the Golden-Fleeced Ram] as well.’"

Pausanias, Description of Greece 9. 34. 5 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"When Athamas was about to sacrifice here [Mount Laphystios in Boiotia] Phrixos (Phrixus) and Helle, a ram with his fleece of gold was sent by Zeus to the children, and that on the back of his ram they made good their escape."

Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 47. 1 - 4 (trans. Oldfather) (Greek historian C1st B.C.) :
"Phrixos (Phrixus), the son of Athamas, the myths relate, because of his stepmother's plots against him, took his sister Helle and fled with her from Greece. While they were making the passage from Europe to Asia, as a kind of Providence of the gods directed, on the back of a ram whose fleece was of gold (krios khrysomallos), the maiden fell into the sea, which was named after her Hellespontos (Hellespont). Also the account of Phrixos underwent a similar working into a myth. For, as some men say, he made his voyage upon a ship which bore the head of a ram upon its bow, and Helle, being troubled with sea-sickness, while leaning far over the side of the boat for this reason, fell into the sea."

Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 2. 15 (trans. Fairbanks) (Greek rhetorician C3rd A.D.) :
"In Kolkhis (Colchis) is preserved a golden fleece, the fleece of the ancient ram that ferried Helle with Phrixos (Phrixus) across the sky, as the story goes."

Tryphiodorus, The Taking of Ilias 218 ff (trans. Mair) (Greek epic C3rd or C4th A.D.) :
"They sailed away in their ships from the Rhoeteian shore to a haven over the sea in fair-crowned Tenedos, ploughing the grey waters of Helle, daughter of Athamas."

Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 1 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Athamas, son of Aeolus, had by his wife Nebula (Cloud) [Nephele], a son Phrixus and a daughter Helle."

Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 2 :
"Ino, daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia, wishing to kill Phrixus and Helle, Nebula's [Nephele's] children, formed a plan with the women of the entire tribe, and conspired to parch the seed grain to make it unfertile, so that, when the sterility and scarcity of grain resulted, the whole state should perish, some by starvation, others by sickness. With regard to this situation Athamas sent a servant to Delphi, but Ino instructed him to bring back a false reply that the pestilence would end if he sacrificed Phrixus to Jove [Zeus]. When Athamas refused to do this, Phrixus voluntarily and readily promised that he alone would free the state from its distress. Accordingly he was led to the altar, wearing fillets of sacrifice, but he servant, out of pity for the youth, revealed Ino's plans to Athamas."

Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 3 :
"While Phrixus and Helle under madness sent by Liber [Dionysos] were wandering in a forest, Nebula [Nephele] their mother is said to have come there bringing a gilded ram, offspring of Neptune [Poseidon] and Theophane. She bade her children to mount it, and journey to Colchis to King Aeetes, son of Sol [Helios], and there sacrifice the ram to Mars [Ares]. This they were said to have done, but when they had mounted, and the ram had carried them over the sea, Helle fell from the ram; from this sea was called Hellespont."

Pseudo-Hyginus, Astronomica 2. 20 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Constellation Aries. This is thought to be the ram which carried Phrixus and Helle through the Hellespont . . . Many have said that Helle fell into the Hellespont . . . Stirred by this report [i.e. a false accusation that Phrixus assaulted his wife], Cretheus, as was fitting for one who deeply loved his wife and was king, persuaded Athamas to put Phrixus to death. However, Nubes [Nephele] intervened, and rescuing Phrixus and Helle his sister, put them on the ram, and bade them flee as far as they could through the Hellespont. Helle fell off and paid the debt to nature, and the Hellespont was named from her name. Phrixus came to the Colchians, and, as we have said, hung up the fleece of the slain ram in a temple."

Ovid, Fasti 3. 853 ff (trans.Boyle) (Roman poetry C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"The seeds were burnt by the wicked stepmother's [Ino's] trick and no customary grain had sprouted. A messenger visits the oracle to fetch Delphi's sure help for the barren earth. Corrupt like the seed, he reports the oracle seeks the deaths of Helle and young Phrixus. People, time and Ino compelled a stubborn king to endure the unspeakable orders. Phrixus and his sister, headbands scarfing their brows, stand at the altars and wail their joint fate. Their mother [the cloud-nymph Nephele] sees them as she hangs upon the air, and hammers her naked breast in shock. She dives into the Dracon-born city [Thebes], enveloped in clouds, and snatches her children away. She provides a Ram shimmering with gold for their escape: it carries the two across the wide seas. They say the girl's left hand clutched the horn weakly, when she named the water after herself. Her brother almost died with her, as he tried to stop her falling and offered his outstretched hands. He wept that he lost his partner in twin peril, unaware she had joined the blue god [Poseidon]."

Ovid, Heroides 18. 117 ff (trans. Showerman) (Roman poetry C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"[Leandros (Leander) prays as he prepares to swim across the Hellespont :] ‘I return to the Maiden's sea.’" [N.B. The maiden is Helle.]

Ovid, Heroides 18. 136 ff :
"The sea of Athamantis (Athamas' child) is foaming white with immense billows, and scarcely safe is the keel that remains in its own harbour; such were these waters, I judge, when first they got from the drowned maid the name they bear. This place is of evil fame enough for the loss of Helle, and, though it spare me, its name reproaches it."

Ovid, Heroides 19. 123 ff :
"With what great waves the shores [of the Hellespont] are beaten, and what dark clouds envelop and hide the day! It may be the loving mother [Nephele the Cloud] of Helle has come to the sea, and is lamenting in downpouring tears the drowning of her child--or is the step-dame [Ino], turned to a goddess of the waters [Leukothea (Leucothea)], vexing the sea that is called by her step-child's hated name? This place, such as ‘tis now, is aught but friendly to tender maids; by these waters Helle perished, by them my own affliction comes."

Ovid, Heroides 19. 163 ff :
"Why, though Phrixus and Phrixus' sister both rode this way [across the Hellespont], did the maiden [Helle] alone give name to these wide waters?"

Propertius, Elegies 2. 26a (trans. Goold) (Roman elegy C1st B.C.) :
"Helle tossed on the purple waves, whom the Golden Ram carried on his fleecy back."

Seneca, Troades 1034 ff (trans. Miller) (Roman tragedy C1st A.D.) :
"Phrixus mourned because Helle fell, when the flock's leader, resplendent with golden fleece, bore brother and sister on his back together, and in mid-sea lost half his burden."

Nonnus, Dionysiaca 9. 303 ff (trans. Rouse) (Greek epic C5th A.D.) :
"The bed of his [Athamas'] first wife Nephele had given him two children."

Nonnus, Dionysiaca 10. 67 ff :
"[Ino fleeing from her murderous husband Athamas cries out :] ‘I know where this disaster came from, rolling upon your mother: I know! It is Nephele sends the Erinyes (Furies)after me, that I may die in this sea where maiden Helle fell.’ . . . [Ino then leaps into the sea and is transformed into a sea-goddess.]"


Ovid, Metamorphoses 11. 195 (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"The side of Helle Nepheleis' (Daughter of Nephele's) narrow strait."

Ovid, Fasti 3. 853 ff (trans.Boyle) (Roman poetry C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"[The Golden-Ram] carries the two [Phrixos and Helle] across the wide seas. They say the girl's left hand clutched the horn weakly, when she named the water after herself. Her brother almost died with her, as he tried to stop her falling and offered his outstretched hands. He wept that he lost his partner in twin peril, unaware she had joined the blue god [Poseidon]."

Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 2. 585 ff (trans. Mozley) (Roman epic C1st A.D.) :
"But lo! As dawn was breaking, the waves opened and scared the flying ship [of the Argonauts], and there stood before them Helle [i.e. the sister of Phrixos (Phrixus) who fell from the Golden-Ram and became goddess of the Hellespont] chapleted, the sister now of [the Nereides] Panope and Thetis, and holding in her left hand a golden sceptre. Then she lulled the waves, and looking upon the captains and their leader accosted Jason with gently words : ‘Thou too art being driven from Haemonia [Thessaly] across strange seas by an unfriendly kingdom at home and a destiny like mine; once more doth Fortuna (Fortune) banish the offspring of Aeolus, and you, ill-starred folk, are seeking the Scythian river. A vast land is still before thee, a measureless sea (falter not in what thou hast begun), and Phasis itself lies far off, yet it will grant thee entrance. In that spot is a secret glade, and twin altars piles of turf; there pay the first rites to Phrixus as is due, and I pray you, bear these words to his dust : "My brother, I wander not, as thou fanciest, through the silence of the Stygian shore; vainly, dear one, doest thou search the paths of empty Avernus. For no storm bruises me tossed upon rocks and waves; straightway as I fell, Cymothoe [a Nereid] and Glaucus came swift to my succour; this abode too, this realm the father of the deep himself awarded me, willing justly, and our gulf envies not Ino's sea [the Gulf of Corinth]."’
She ceased, and with a sigh hid her sad countenance beneath the calm waters, as the thought of her father's grief came back to her. Then the prince [Jason] poured wine upon the sea, and thus began : ‘Daughter of Cretheus, pride of the sea and of our stock, open to us our path, and, O goddess, prosper our voyage!’
Then onward he steered the ship, and flew on between cities on either hand."

Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 5. 195 ff :
"[In Kolkhis (Colchis) stands] the tomb of Phrixus, beside whom stands wrought in marble his sister [Helle], ill-starred companion, dreading on this side her cruel-stepmother [Ino], on that the sea, and afraid to put her hands upon the Ram [of the Golden-Fleece] . . .
Himself [Jason of the Argonauts] duly bearing in a heavy bowl the sacred offering of wine calls to the shade [of Phrixus] and thus speaks at the alta r: ‘. . . Be favourable, Phrixus, and in kindly mood remember thy native land. Do thou [Helle] too now, who wert vainly laid in an empty tomb [i.e. a tomb was built for her by Phrixus who believed she had drowned when in fact she had been transformed into a goddess], goddess of the sea, and aid the cause of thy kinfolk.’"

Statius, Thebaid 1. 23 ff (trans. Mozley) (Roman epic C1st A.D.) :
"Helle, deep sunk below the sea and now a Nereis (Nereid), holds sway over the detested waves [of the Hellespont]."





Other references not currently quoted here: Stephanus Byzantium s.v. Almopia.


A complete bibliography of the translations quoted on this page.