Essay on the Hesperides titled: The Importance of the Evening Light in Hellenic Culture

From the classical period to the modern era, the Hellenic culture has preserved the importance of the evening, and especially, the evening light in cultural and religious thought. Before I go into the pre-Christian aspect of this cultural continuation, I would like to share a hymn from my childhood as an Orthodox Christian. It is the Φς λαρόν, Fόs Ilarόn (O Gladsome Light) and is the oldest extant Christian hymn outside of the Bible that is still in use today.

Φῶς ἱλαρὸν ἁγίας δόξης ἀθανάτου Πατρός,

οὐρανίου, ἁγίου, μάκαρος, Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ,

ἐλθόντες ἐπὶ τὴν ἡλίου δύσιν, ἰδόντες φῶς ἑσπερινόν,

ὑμνοῦμεν Πατέρα, Υἱόν, καὶ ἅγιον Πνεῦμα, Θεόν.

Ἄξιόν σε ἐν πᾶσι καιροῖς ὑμνεῖσθαι φωναῖς αἰσίαις,

Υἱὲ Θεοῦ, ζωὴν ὁ διδούς· διὸ ὁ κόσμος σὲ δοξάζει.

Transliteration (into reconstructed Classical Greek pronunciation as opposed to that of the time period in which it was written)

Phôs hilaròn hagías dóxēs, athanátou Patrós,

ouraníou, hagíou, mákaros, Iēsoû Christé,

elthóntes epì tḕn hēlíou dýsin, idóntes phôs hesperinón,

hymnoûmen Patéra, Hyión, kaì Hágion Pneûma, Theón.

Áxión se en pâsi kairoîs hymneîsthai phōnaîs aisíais,

Hyiè Theoû, zoḕn ho didoús, diò ho kósmos sè doxázei.

Verbatim translation

O Light gladsome of the holy glory of the Immortal Father,

the Heavenly, the Holy, the Blessed, O Jesus Christ,

having come upon the setting of the sun, having seen the light of the evening,

we praise the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: God.

Worthy it is at all times to praise Thee in joyful voices,

O Son of God, Giver of Life, for which the world glorifies Thee.

As you can see, the evening light was attributed to the new God being worshipped by the Byzantine Christians, but the first words were still talking about the holy nature of the light and praising not only the ending of the day, but the beginning of the new one as both the Jews and Greeks of the period actually counted the day as beginning at sunset, unlike the Romans who began their day at sunrise, or indeed modern people who count the day as beginning at midnight.

This speaks to the deep importance that the evening light had for the Hellenes of the pre-Christian period because a hymn like this would not have been written if that importance had not existed. And it is interesting that it is dedicated to a Trinity of beings instead of being like some of the other early Christian hymns that emphasize Jesus or the Holy Spirit.

This, to me, mirrors the classical Hesperides who guarded the Golden Apples of Hera. In myth, they were either the daughters of Nyx (Night) or Atlas by Hesperis. I tend to favor the first because of two reasons. The first is that there are more sources in the mythography for this ancestry; the second because there is a natural and visible connection between evening and night.

The Hesperides in ancient art are depicted as bringing ambrosia to the Theoi at feasts such as the marriage of Thetis to Peleus. The apples they guarded were the ones that Gaia gave to Hera on her marriage to Zeus. Apples were considered by the Classical Greeks to be a sacred fruit for marriages, and as such the guardians of the tree of Hera’s Golden Apples would be of great importance.

This importance is reflected in their names. The names that they were called by as the daughters of Nyx were: Αιγλη/Aegle (Sunlight, Radiance), Ερυθεια/Erythea (Red), and σπερεqουσα/Hesperethusa (Evening-Swift) which are reflective of the way that the evening light appears. The names as daughters of Atlas were: Λιπαρα/Lipara (Perseverance), Αστεροπη/Asterope (Starry-Faced) and Χρυσοθεμις/Chrysothemis (Golden Custom).

The Pleiades are tangentially connected with the Hesperides in myth as well due to their being the children of Atlas who held Earth and Heaven apart close enough to their garden for Heracles to temporarily take the place of Atlas in his labor to get the Apples of the Hesperides. This is also supported by the fact that during the winter months from November until April, that the Pleiades are readily visible in the evening sky with November being known by some as the “Month of the Pleiades” because of their presence in the sky throughout the night.

The Goddesses of the evening light would be important to the Hellenes because they signal the ending of the day’s work and the time when the oikos would gather for their evening meal and storytelling. This is important in the sense of this being the time that communities are bound together and marriages were celebrated during the period.

The Goddesses of the Evening, although not honored after the advent of Christianity in Greece, were still remembered when people would recount the old myths, as well as in both painting and sculpture during the Italian Renaissance. It is safe to say, that their light has never truly been forgotten.     

One thought on “Essay on the Hesperides titled: The Importance of the Evening Light in Hellenic Culture

  1. Inspiring! Makes me think of the evening light in a new way, and for sure there is something holy about it. Thanks for sharing!

    Like

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