Aeolus: Three Connected Figures in Greek Mythology
As if it wasn’t confusing enough to have three characters in Greek mythology with the same name, ancient writers figured out a way to link them all together. Here are the three stories of characters named Aeolus.
Sometimes in Greek mythology, minor characters share a name. Since Greek names almost always had specific meanings, it isn’t surprising that sometimes names were duplicated.
This may be frustrating for modern readers, but the Greeks were hardly alone in copying names. If you’ve ever studied English history, for example, you know the struggle of trying to separate one John or Elizabeth from another.
If anything, the Greeks were more bothered by these duplicate names than we are today. With minor characters it could be dismissed, but when more major figures shared a name there had to be a reason.
Three characters named Aeolus appear in different Greek myths. As founding fathers of nations and a named character in the Odyssey, they were more important and widely-known than some of the more minor characters that had shared names.
So the Greeks did the logical thing and sought a way to connect these three unrelated stories. The result was a sometimes confusing mythological genealogy.
Keep reading to find out more about the three characters named Aeolus and how Greek writers tied them all together!
The first Aeolus of Greek mythology was one of the sons of Helen. Helen, who gave his name to the term Hellenic, was the ancestor of all Greek-speaking peoples.
Aeolus had two brothers who each went on to found kingdoms within their father’s territory. Dorus was the ancestor of the Doric people, while Xuthus ruled the Peloponnesian and the Ionian and Achaean nations.
Aeolus was the father of the Aeolian people, who lived in what would later be called Thessaly.
These four tribes formed the major divisions between the Greek people throughout the ancient period. The smaller countries that rose up within each of those regions recognized a shared ancestry and culture from their ancient progenitors.
All were Hellenic, descendants of Helen, but each group recognized themselves as belonging to one of the four ancient groups founded by Helen’s sons.
The number of sons said to have been born to Aeolus and his wife varied. While many early sources gave only four sons, more names were added as all the city-states of Thessaly sought to trace a direct lineage to the region’s founder.
The most famous, or infamous, son of this Aeolus was probably Sisyphus. The founding king of Ephyra, possibly the early name of Corinth, one of his great crimes against sacred law was the plot to assassinate his brother Salmoneus.
The second legendary Aeolus was born two generations later. His mother, usually named as Arne, was the daughter of Aeolia’s founder.
This was a later addition to the myth, as earlier stories had already named the children of the firest Aeolus. Arne was added as an illegitimate daughter to avoid changing the important lineage of Thessaly’s noble families.
Arne’s mother was a daughter of the famous centaur Chiron, and Arne was born as a foal instead of a human child. She was restored to human form and entrusted to the care of someone named Desmontes.
This did nothing to hide her from Poseidon, however. The sea god appeared in the form of a bull and fathered twin sons with Arne, Aeolus and Boeotus.
In one version of the story she was blinded and entombed by Desmontes, but rescued by her sons when they had grown. She went on to marry the Icarian king and Poseidon restored her vision.
In another version, however, her father did not believe that the children had been fathered by a god and sent her in disgrace to the court of the king of Icaria. The boys were raised by the king but his wife, Autolyte, treated Arne cruelly.
Eventually, Aeolus and Boeotus killed Autolyte to protect their mother and fled the kingdom with Arne. Beoetus and Arne went south to found the land of Boeotia, while Aeolus took to the sea.
This version of the tale makes the second Aeolus either a close ancestor to or the same individual as the third famous Aeolus of Greek mythology.
The final Aeolus named in Greek mythology is a character in one of the culture’s most famous tales. In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero lands in the Aeolian Islands and meets the eponymous ruler of those lands.
We came to the Aiolian (Aeolian) island (nesos Aiolios); here lived Aiolos (Aeolus) Hippotades (son of Hippotas); the deathless gods counted him their friend. His island is a floating one; all round it there is a wall of bronze, unbreakable, and rock rises sheer above it. Twelve children of his live in the palace with him; six are daughters, six are sons in the prime of youth; moreover the king has given his daughters as wives to his sons. These all hold a continual feast with their dear father and much-loved mother; countless dainties are there before them, and through the daytime the hall is rich with savoury smells and murmurous with the sound of music.
-Homer, Odyssey 10. 1 ff (trans. Shewring)
Homer describes the Aeolus encountered by Odysseus as the son of Hippotas, which contradicts later claims that he was the same character as the earlier Aeolus, who was a son of Poseidon.
Aeolus in the Odyssey is a mortal man, but a friend of the gods. As such, he is given a serious task.
On the small chain of islands he controls, Aeolus is the keeper of the storm winds. Zeus entrusted him with the task of controlling and commanding the winds.
Odysseus and his men spent a month in the company of Aeolus and his family. The keeper of the winds lived a comfortable life with his six sons and six daughters, who had married one another.
He asked Odysseus many questions about his journey and the Trojan War, and the hero was more than happy to answer them all. At the end of the month, however, Odysseus told Aeolus that it was time for them to depart.
Aeolus did not only allow Odysseus to leave his island, but he helped him on his way.
He gave the Ithacan king a tightly-sealed bag into which he had placed all the winds at his disposal. Only Zephyros, the West Wind, was left free to blow the ship toward its destination.
Odysseus’s ship was blown steadily toward Ithaca until they were so close they could see the lights of the port. The great bag proved too tempting for the crew, however.
When their captain fell asleep, the men began to question what great riches the bag might hold. They quietly opened it, expecting to find gold or jewels.
Instead, they released all the winds at once. A great storm arose, nearly destroying the ship and driving it away from Ithaca once again.
Odysseus found himself back at the Aeolian Islands. When the king asked why they had returned, Odysseus told him that faithless and greedy crewmen had betrayed his trust.
He asked Aeolus, as a friend, to once again control the winds to guide them home. He was refused, however.
The failure of the journey proved to Aeolus that Odysseus was cursed by the gods. He was forbidden to help anyone who did not have the gods’ favor, so he ordered Odysseus to leave his island immediately.
A much later story gave Aeolus another reason for refusing to help Odysseus again. A love poem from the 1st century BC claimed that Odysseus had begun an affair with one of Aeolus’s daughters and was shunned from the island so she could marry her brother instead.
Later historians have noted that Aeolus bears several similarities to a much older figure in Greek mythology. In many ways, his character parallels that of Uranus.
At a glance, the mortal keeper of the winds and the primordial god of the heavens have little in common. There are many details, however, that show a possible link between the two.
- Both Uranus and Aeolus had twelve children, six sons and six daughters. The twelve children of Uranus were the Titans.
- In both cases, the sons and daughters married one another. This type of incest was relatively common among the gods, but by the time of the Odyssey was taboo even among royalty.
- Both imprisoned forms of storms. Aeolus controlled the winds that, if left unchecked, would cause tempests. Uranus imprisoned the Cyclopes, the giants who created Zeus’s thunderbolts.
- The Greek word aeolus translates as “glittering,” and was often used to describe the sky, ouranos, at night.
There is a possibility that the character of Aeolus as he appears in the Odyssey was Uranus himself in an earlier tale.
Homer’s stories did not come from his own imagination, but from a long tradition of oral history being passed down through the generations. It is possible that in a much older version of the story it was Uranus who helped Odysseus early in his journey.
If that was the case, the story would have changed as other stories of the gods evolved. By the time of Homer it was believed that Uranos was forever separated from the surface of the earth and most of his sons were imprisoned in Tartarus.
The episode of Aeolus in the Odyssey may, therefore, provide a small glimpse into how Greek mythology evolved before it was written down.
After the Odyssey, Greek readers were faced with a dilemma – how to reconcile three very different characters that shared the same name.
This was not an entirely unusual situation in mythology. Many minor characters had similar or identical names, but in the case of Aeolus, the characters were too prevalent to ignore.
It was clear that the founder of Aeolia, the brother of Boeotus, and the keeper of the winds were very different characters. So the Greeks had to find a way to reconcile the stories.
In the case of the first two men by that name, there was a simple solution. Arne was imagined to be the daughter of the first Aeolus who, in a common tradition, named her son after her father.
Aeolus Hippotades presented a further problem, however. Homer had given him a parentage that seemingly eliminated a connection between him and the other two men who shared his name.
Some later writers chose to ignore this detail, however. They claimed that when Aeolus and Boeotus slew their stepmother and fled, they had also gone separate ways.
Aeolus had sailed to a relatively isolated island where he assumed a place as a benevolent and hospitable ruler.
When it became commonplace to try to rationalize the legendary stories of the Homeric era, Aeolus and his power to control wind were given a logical explanation. It was reasoned that the king had taught his people the technologies of sailing, harnessing the wind with their ships, giving rise to the belief that he controlled the winds himself.
The Greek language itself also lent itself to the effort to tie Aeolus into the established genealogy. The ending -es is typically translated in names as the father, so Aeolus Hippotades would be Aeolus, son of Hippotas.
Hippotades could also, however, have a more literal translation. The Greek hippo meant horse, while taden was a verb for keeping reigns tight.
The gods of the winds were very often depicted as horses. Hippotades meant quite literally that he kept the horses, the winds, on a tight rein.
Greek writers who sought to make Aeolus the son of Poseidon and Aeolus Hippotades the same character could, therefore, just point to the meaning of the name. To them, Hippotades was a description of his job, not the more common naming convention of his father.
Making the Aeolus of the Odyssey the son of Poseidon instead of a mortal also solved another issue the Greeks would have had with the character. As a demigod, his power and behavior would have been much more understandable.
Homer’s Aeolus was a mortal man, but he had the power to contain and command the winds. Such a power would have made little sense for a human to possess, even if he was a good friend of the gods.
Life on the Aeolian island would also have raised issues if he was fully human. The incestuous marriages of his sons and daughters, while common among the gods, would have been highly immoral among virtually all human cultures.
If Aeolus had once been a form of Uranus, his power and lifestyle would have been easily understood. By making him a man, however, Homer had made him an unbelievable figure.
It is unsurprising, then, that later generations imagined Aeolus as a god rather than as a mortal human man. When later writers imagined the heroes of the Argonautica and Aeneid visiting the island, they were confronted with a wind-taming god instead of a highly-favored man.
In conclusion, when one talks about Aeolus in Greek mythology it’s important to distinguish which Aeolus one means. There were three notable characters who shared the name.
The first Aeolus was a son of Hellen, the legendary ancestor of all Greek people. He and his brothers founded the four major regions of the Greek-speaking world.
Aeolus was the ancestor of the Aeolian people, who lived in the region later known as Thessaly. All later people and rulers of the area claimed a shared ancestor in Aeolus.
The second Aeolus was a mythical son of Poseidon and brother of Boeotius. He was often identified as a grandson, through his mother, of the first Aeolus.
When he had his brother fled to found the kingdom of Boeotia, this Aeolus was sometimes said to have gone in a different direction.
He became conflated with the third Aeolus, a figure from the Odyssey. After leaving the island of the cyclopes, Odysseus and his crew landed on the more pleasant and refined island kingdom of this Aeolus.
Aeolus in the Odyssey was described by Homer as a mortal, although later Greek and Roman sources took his incredible powers as evidence of godhood. Aeolus was given control over the finds and could confine or command them at his will.
Aeolus shared the island with his six daughters and six sons, who married one another. He attempted to help Odysseus by leaving only a favorable wind to guide him home, but when the crew of the ship accidentally released the other winds he took it as a sign of ill-favor and refused to help any more.
This Aeolus had many similarities to Uranus, and in much older versions of the story may have been the primordial god. By the time of Homer, however, he was a mortal man and later writers considered him a minor god.
Greek writers went to great lengths to create a familial connection to these three characters to explain how they shared the same name. The result was a mythological family tree that is sometimes confusing and contradictory.