Eileithyia, Goddess of Childbirth

‘Εἰ λείθυια’, (Eileithyia)is related to the word ‘ἐλυθ’ which is a participal form meaning she that relieves. This could be from Indo-European ‘ei-‘,’To go’ and legwh-‘, ‘Light, having little weight’. The nearest English word seems to be ‘alleviate’. This suggests that this goddess comes from the Indo-European tradition rather than a Minoan one.

Eileithyia (Eileithuia, Eleithyia, Eilethyia, Eleutho) is the goddess of childbirth in the classical Greek pantheon. She is closely associated with Hera and Artemis. She is sometimes shown with two torches and can be confused with Hecate but Hecate seems to have multiple arms when she carries two torches.

Among the oldest literary references Hesiod in the Theogony states that Eileithia is the daughter of Hera and Zeus and the sister of Hebe Theogany, line 922. All the references to her by Homer in the “Iliad” suggest that she assists in childbirth. Homer suggests that she might be a double goddess and that both are daughters of Hera. Homer also suggests that she must be present for the birth to occur since Hera is able to delay birth by keeping her away. This is what happens in the birth of Apollo from Leto. In the Odyssey Homer merely makes reference to the cave of Eileithyia at Amnisos. In Pindar Eileithya is connected to the Moirai and this may be because all are concerned with the child at the beginning. In Art she is often connected with the birth of Athena.

There is evidence that Eileithyia was worshipped at a number of sanctuaries on Crete. During the early Iron Age votives were left that the cave that are consistent with worship of a female deity by female worshippers. These votives include expensive gold jewelry, ivory figurines, female heads, and terracotta figurines. Many of the figures include images of pregnant women.

The suggestion is that Eileithyia had a more significant role in Crete than in Greece proper. In fact, the way that Homer references her as multiple could have been a way of reducing her status. Eileithyia is mentioned in the Linear tablets from Knossos in a way that suggests she has a Minoan origin. But the ‘Great Goddess’ figures in Minoan cannot be perfectly identified with Eileithia. For one thing no image of a nursing female is associated with the Great goddess while these are later associated with Eileithyia. But some cult sites in Crete are associated with springs and Eileithyia is one of the goddesses that are connect with springs in later classical myth.

In his book The Mycenaean World by John Chadwick states this about Eleuthia: “Another group of documents at Knossos with religious associations ar the honey tablets. They are not well preserved but we cannot failt to recognize … at Amnisos Eleuthia, who also receives wool (Od. 714, 715, 716). Now Eleuthia is a known dialect form of a name variously written in alphabetic Greek, but most familiar in its Homeric form, Eileithuia, the goddess of child-birth; for Homer (Od. 19.188 speaks of ‘Amnisos where is the cave of Eileithuia’, and the actual site on the hill behind the port has been excavated. It was continuously used from Minoan down to Roman times.”

This statement may give support to the female emphasis attributed to the Minoan religion. Since the contribution of the male sperm to the childbirth was not realized the importance of the birth of the child might have been more important than its conception. Hence Eileithyia would have been more important to the Minoans and less to the Classical Greeks. This may also establish a connection between one goddess of the Minoans and the pantheon of classical Greece.

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Including Amazons, Goddesses, Nymphs, and Archaic Females from Mycenaen and Minoan Cultures