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Thero: The Beastly Nymph

The people of Sparta claimed that Ares had been nursed by a nymph called Thero. Does their legend stand up to scrutiny, though?

Hundreds of nymphs are mentioned in Greek mythology. Some played major roles in famous stories, but others were rarely-mentioned figures.

As minor nature goddesses, belief in these nymphs was sometimes limited to a certain time or place. Often, a nymph would be known only in one region or even a single town.

Because of this, it is sometimes hard to tell how widespread any of these stories were. They may be little-known because they were so localized or simply because no records survive that told their stories.

In the case of Thero, however, one ancient source makes it clear that her story was so highly localized that it was unknown anywhere else in Greece.

Thero was supposedly the nymph who had nursed Ares as an infant, but her belief was apparently limited to a single area outside of Sparta. Otherwise, Thero’s name had a much more wild meaning.

The Spartan Legend of Thero

The name Thero was given to several minor characters in Greek mythology. The most notable was a nymph.

Thero was, according to some accounts, the nurse of Ares. She had cared for the god and fed him during his infancy.

Although Hera was his mother, Thero acted as the young boy’s caretaker.

This was common among the upper classes of many cultures. Noble women often hired wetnurses to both feed their young children and act as a nanny.

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The legend of Thero was mentioned in the writings of Pausanias, the 2nd century traveler who chronicled his journey through Greece. Pausanias, however, told the story only as he understood it from a single reference.

Pausanias was not directly told the story of Thero, but rather learned her name from an epithet of Ares.

According to Pausanias, one of the oldest sites on the road that ran between Sparta and the nearby town of Therapne was a shrine to Ares. It contained an image that, local legend claimed, had been brought from Colchis by the Dioscuri.

Colchis, on the Black Sea, was connected to Ares in many myths. His grove there was one of the god’s most sacred sites and had been the destination of Jason in his quest for the golden fleece.

The people of the region called the statue of the god Ares Theritas. They claimed that this was in honor of the nymph who had nursed him in infancy.

Pausanias, however, doubted the validity of this story. He accepted that the statue of Ares Theritas had come for Colchis, but believed that the Colchians had been mistaken in giving it the name.

My Modern Interpretation

There were several reasons that the image of Ares outside of Sparta could have been called Theritas. Pausanias doubted, however, that it had truly been named after a nymph.

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One of the most obvious reasons for the name may have been its location. Ares Theritas was on the road between Sparta and Therapne.

The statue may have once had a name that more obviously linked to the town it was near. Therapne and Theritas have some obvious similarities, so it seems likely that the name once referred to the Ares of Therapne.

The Greek language also offers another clue for how the statue got its name.

The word ther in ancient Greek meant “wild beast.” Another of the minor characters named Thero was a follower of Artemis, the goddess of wild animals, making the linguistic connection more clear.

This did not exclude the idea that Ares Therapis referred to the nearby town. Its name combined the word ther with apnoos, or “breathless.”

A reference to wild animals could have applied to the god of war in a number of ways.

Ares was known for being rash, violent, and bloodthirsty. While Athena used her wisdom and planning to strategize for war and invent new tools, Ares rushed into battle heedless of plans or the cause that was being fought for.

In this way, Ares could be compared to a wild beast himself. He thrived off mindless violence rather than the tactics of war.

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The Spartans, however, held a higher opinion of Ares than most other Greeks. They saw him as their patron god and a paradigm of the fighting spirit they valued.

It is unlikely, then, that they would have knowingly likened their patron god to a mindless beast. Ares was held in higher esteem than that interpretation would suggest.

If this is how the epithet originated, the Spartans likely would have meant it in a more respectful way. Instead of a reference to his recklessness, Ares the Beast could have honored his strength or vitality.

If the town of Therapne was named for a breathless animal, this too could connect to Ares. There may have been a story that has since been lost, and was unknown to Pausanias, in which Ares or one of his followers chased down or killed an animal near the site.

There is also a possibility that the “wild” epithet was given to the statue based on where it came from rather than who it depicted or where it sat.

The Dioscuri had supposedly brought the image from Colchia, a kingdom in what is now the country of Georgia. The far-away country was seen as foreign and barbaric to the Greeks.

The name Theritas could, therefore, refer to the wild origins of the statue itself. They may have called it Ares the Wild because it supposedly came from a wild and barely civilized land.

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From this name, the legend of Thero emerged later. The nymph was invented to give an additional meaning to a statue, perhaps after the original reason for its name had been forgotten.

The story was likely expanded to include the nearby town of Therapne. While the statue was likely named after the town, later generations would probably have said that their town was named for the shrine and the nymph whose name it bore.

Pausanias himself offered a more simple explanation. He suggested that the name may have been the result of confusion between the Spartans and the non-Greek Colchians.

He suggested that the name Theritas had a meaning to the Colchians that was unknown to the Greeks. The statue had been named in the original place of its creation and the Spartans had kept it.

Thero, he assumed, may have been a nymph whose legend was only known to the Colchians. The Spartans retained the name even though it referred to a foreign nymph.

However the statue came to have its name, Pausanias was dismissive of the idea of Thero as the wetnurse of young Ares. The Greeks, he claimed, had no knowledge of a nymph by that name and no tradition of Ares being nursed by anyone but his mother, Hera.

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In Summary

According to the travel writer Pausanias, the nymph Thero was attested to only at a single shrine outside of Sparta. She was supposedly the nymph who had nursed Ares in his infancy.

At this shrine, was a statue called Ares Theritas. It supposedly referenced the nymph and his connection to her.

Pausanias noted, however, that Thero and her legend were unknown anywhere else in Greece. He believed that the statue of Ares had been named by the Colchians, the barbarian devotees of Ares who had supposedly created it.

Linguistically, however, there is likely a Greek origin for the name. Thero comes from a Greek word for a wild animal.

The same word was part of the name of a nearby town, Therapne. The statue was likely named for the town it stood near and, over time, a mythological reason was given for its ancient epithet.

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My name is Mike and for as long as I can remember (too long!) I have been in love with all things related to Mythology. I am the owner and chief researcher at this site. My work has also been published on Buzzfeed and most recently in Time magazine. Please like and share this article if you found it useful.

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