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In Greek mythology, Phoebe was the Titaness of prophecy and oracular intellect. She was a first generation Titan. While not one of the major Greek goddesses, Phoebe featured in many myths as a side character.
Who Was Phoebe?
Phoebe was one of the 12 original Titans born to the primordial deities Uranus (the personification of the sky) and his wife Gaia (the goddess of the Earth). Her name was derived from two Greek words: ‘phoibos’ meaning ‘radiant’ or ‘bright’ and ‘phoibao’ which means ‘to purify’.
Her siblings, the original Titans, included Cronus, Oceanus, Iapetus, Hyperion, Coeus, Crius, Themis, Tethys, Theia, Mnemosyne and Rhea. Phoebe also had several other siblings, including the three Hecatonchires and the Cyclopes.
Phoebe married her brother Coeus, the Titan god of intellect and inquisitive mind. Together they were said to have been a good match with Phoebe representing bright intellect and Coeus representing inquisitiveness. According to certain sources, Phoebe did develop lustful attractions to several mortal men, but she loved her husband so much that she never acted on her impulses.
The Offspring of Phoebe
Coeus and Phoebe had two beautiful daughters: Asteria (the Titaness of prophecies and oracles) and Leto, the Titaness of motherhood and modesty. In some accounts they also had a son Lelantos but he wasn’t as famous as his sisters. Both daughters played important roles in Greek mythology and both were loved by Zeus, the god of thunder.
Through these children, Phoebe became grandmother to Artemis and Apollo who were born to Leto and Zeus, and to Hecate who was born to Perses and Asteria.
Depictions and Symbols of Phoebe
The goddess of prophecy is always depicted as an extremely beautiful young maiden. In fact, she was said to have been one of the most beautiful Titan goddesses. Her symbols include the moon and the Oracle of Delphi.
Phoebe and the Rebellion of the Titans
When Phoebe was born, Uranus was the ruler of the cosmos but he didn’t feel secure in his position. Afraid that his children would one day overthrow him, he imprisoned the Cyclopes and Hecatonchires in the depths of Tartarus so that they wouldn’t pose any threat to him.
Uranus underestimated the strength and power of the Titans however, and allowed them to roam freely, which later turned out to be a bit mistake. In the meantime, his wife Gaia was hurt by the imprisonment of her children and she plotted with her Titan children to overthrow Uranus.
Gaia’s Titan sons ambushed Uranus when he came down from the heavens to meet his wife. They held him down and Cronus castrated him with a sickle his mother had given him. Although Phoebe and her sisters played no active role in this rebellion, they did benefit greatly from the results.
The Role of Phoebe in Greek Mythology
When Uranus retreated to the heavens, he’d lost nearly all his powers so Phoebe’s brother Cronus took over the position of Supreme God, the god of all gods. Then, the Titans divided the universe amongst them and each was given a specific domain. Phoebe’s domain was prophecy.
In Ancient Greece, the Oracle of Delphi was regarded as the most important shrine and the center of the world. Phoebe became the third goddess to hold the Oracle of Delphi, a position that was originally held by her mother Gaia. Gaia passed it on to her daughter Themis who then passed it on to Phoebe. In some accounts, Phoebe found the responsibility too much of a burden to bear and passed it on to her grandson, Apollo, as a gift on his birthday.
Some sources claim that Phoebe was also the goddess of the moon, while others say that she was being confused with other goddesses, possibly her grandchildren.
Phoebe in the Titanomachy
According to the myth, the age of the Titans soon came to an end, just as the age of Uranus and the Protogenoi did. Cronus was overthrown by his own son, Zeus (the Olympian god), like he had done to his own father. The war between the Titans and the Olympians, known as the Titanomachy, lasted for ten years. All the male Titans fought in the Titanomachy but Phoebe and the rest of the female Titans took no part in it.
The Olympians won the war and Zeus took up the position of the Supreme deity. All the Titans who had fought against him were punished and most of them were imprisoned in Tartarus for all eternity. Since Phoebe hadn’t taken any sides during the war, she escaped punishment and was allowed to remain free. However, her status was reduced since her spheres of influence were divided amongst the other deities. Apollo had taken over prophecy and Selene, Phoebe’s niece, had become the primary goddess of the moon.
The result was that Phoebe’s powers gradually began to diminish and her fame began to decrease steadily.
Although Phoebe was once a prominent figure who held her own significance in ancient Greece, today she remains one of the least known goddesses. However, the role she played in the myths of her children, grandchildren and siblings makes her an important part of Greek mythology.