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In Greek mythology, Amalthea or Amaltheia (Template:Lang-el) is the most-frequently mentioned foster-mother of Zeus. Her name in Greek ("tender goddess") is clearly an epithet, signifying the presence of an earlier nurturing goddess,[1] whom the Hellenes, whose myths we know, knew to be located in Crete, where Minoans may have called her a version of "Dikte".[2] Amalthea is sometimes represented as the goat who suckled the infant-god in a cave in Cretan Mount Aigaion ("Goat Mountain"),[3] sometimes as a goat-tending nymph[4] of uncertain parentage (the daughter of Oceanus, Haemonius, Olenos,[5] or - according to Lactantius — Melisseus[6]), who brought him up on the milk of her goat.[7] Having multiple and uncertain mythological parents, indicates wide worship of a deity in many cultures having varying local traditions. Amalthea becomes blurred with Adamanthea at times.

In the tradition represented by Hesiod's Theogony, Cronus swallowed all of his children immediately after birth. The mother goddess Rhea, Zeus' mother, deceived her brother consort Cronus by giving him a stone wrapped to look like a baby instead of Zeus. Since she instead gave the infant Zeus to Adamanthea to nurse in a cave on a mountain in Crete, it is clear that Adamanthea is a doublet of Amalthea. In many literary references, the Greek tradition relates that in order that Cronus should not hear the wailing of the infant, Amalthea gathered about the cave the Kuretes or the Korybantes to dance, shout, and clash their spears against their shields.[8]

Horn of AmaltheaEdit

The presence of Amalthea is signalled by the cornucopia overflowing with fruits and grain. The goat Amalthea's horn, according to the Alexandrian poet Callimachus (Hymn to Zeus) was the original of the much earlier drinking vessel called a rhyton, an inverted horn-shape in its most basic form, with an outlet hole in the pointed base—the very horn from which the child Zeus drank.


Alternatively, the sacred goat having broken off one of her horns, Amalthea filled it with flowers and fruits and presented it to Zeus, who placed it together with the goat amongst the stars.

According to another story, Zeus himself broke off her horn and, in an example of mythic inversion, gave it to Amalthea, promising that it would supply whatever she desired in abundance. The goat-nymph, however, was older than the Olympian. Amalthea was a goddess who traditionally provided plenty as part of her nature before the cult of Zeus existed. Amalthea, in this tradition, gave her horn to the river-god Achelous (her reputed brother), who exchanged it for his own horn, which had been broken off in his contest with Heracles for the possession of Deianeira. According to ancient mythology, the owners of her horn were many and various as one tradition was integrated into another. Speaking generally, Amalthea's horn was regarded as the symbol of inexhaustible riches, the horn of plenty or cornucopia, and became adopted as the attribute of various divinities— of Gaia, Demeter, Cybele, of Hades in his manifestation as Plouton, the bringer of wealth, and of rivers as fertilizers of the land.

The term horn of Amalthea is applied to any especially fertile district. An estate belonging to Titus Pomponius Atticus was called Amaltheum. Cretan coins represent the infant Zeus being suckled by the goat Amalthea; other Greek coins exhibit him suspended from her teats or carried in the arms of the nymph.[9]

Amalthea and the aegisEdit

Amalthea's skin, or that of her goat, killed and skinned by the grown Zeus, became the protective aegis in some traditions, a vivid enough metaphor for the transfer of power to this Olympian god from that of the goddess who preceded his cult.

Amalthea placed among the starsEdit

"Amaltheia was placed amongst the stars as the constellation Capra — the group of stars surrounding Capella on the arm (ôlenê) of Auriga the Charioteer."[10] Capra simply means "she-goat" and the star-name Capella is the "little goat", but some modern readers confuse her with the male sea-goat of the Zodiac, Capricorn, who bears no relation to Amalthea, no connection in a Greek or Latin literary source nor any ritual or inscription to join the two. Hyginus describes this catasterism in the Poetic Astronomy, in speaking of Auriga, the Charioteer:

Parmeniscus says that a certain Melisseus was king in Crete, and to his daughters Jove was brought to nurse. Since they did not have milk, they furnished him a she-goat, Amalthea by name, who is said to have reared him. She often bore twin kids, and at the very time that Jove was brought to her to nurse, had borne a pair. And so because of the kindness of the mother, the kids, too were placed among the constellations. Cleostratus of Tenedos is said to have first pointed out these kids among the stars.

But Musaeus says Jove was nursed by Themis and the nymph Amalthea, to whom he was given by Ops, his mother. Now Amalthea had as a pet a certain goat which is said to have nursed Jove.[11]


  1. "...the business of Amaltheia, caves and the nurturing of Zeus lands us squarely in Minoan times," John Bennet remarked in passing (Bennet, "The Structure of the Linear B Administration at Knossos" American Journal of Archaeology 89.2 [April 1985:231-249] p. 107 note 39); cf. M.P. Nilsson, The Minoan-Mycenaean Religion and its Survival in Greek Religion (1950:537ff).
  2. An Egyptian inscription of Amenhotep III (1406-1369 BCE) discussed by Michael C. Astour, "Aegean Place-Names in an Egyptian Inscription" American Journal of Archaeology 70.4 (October 1966:313-317), "shows that the Egyptian scribe conceived the Minoan form of Diktê as the Northwest Semitic word dqt... Aigaion oros=Diktê may well be a Graeco-Semitic doublet, for in Ugaritic ritual texts dqt (literally 'small one') was the term for 'female head of small cattle for sacrifice' and a goat rather than a sheep. Dqt is also found as a divine name in a Ugaritic list of gods, which reminds us of the goat that nourished Zeus in the Dictaean cave." (p. 314).
  3. Hesiod. Theogony, 484.
  4. For the primitive Amalthea as the goat rather than the goat-herding nymph, see R.W. Hutchinson, Prehistoric Crete (1962:202).
  5. In Hyginus' Poetical Astronomy II.13 as the nymph Aega or Aex ("she-goat"), daughter of Olenos: see Aega (mythology); in Hyginus Fabulae, 182.
  6. The early fourth-century Christian apologist Lactantius (Institutiones I.22) makes the father of Amalthea and her honey-providing sister Melissa, a Melisseus, "king of Crete"; this example of the common Christian Euhemerist interpretation of Greek myth as fables of humans superstitiously credited with supernatural powers during the passage of time does not represent the actual cultural history of Amalthea, save in its synthesised reflection of an alternative mythic tradition, that infant Zeus was fed with honey: see Bee (mythology).
  7. Legendary infancy episodes of some historical figures — and poetical figures, such as Longus' Daphnis — were suckled by goats, and the actual practice lingered in Italy into the nineteenth century: see William M. Calder, III, "Longus 1. 2: The She-Goat Nurse" Classical Philology 78.1 (January 1983:50-51).
  8. Kerenyi, p. 94.
  9. Ovid. Fasti, V. 115; Metamorphoses, IX. 87.
  10. Theoi Project: "Amaltheia"
  11. Theoi Project: on-line complete text in English translation

See alsoEdit

  • Auðumbla, primeval cow in Norse folklore who fed the patriline to the king of the gods on her breast milk


  • Kerenyi, Karl. The Gods of the Greeks. London: Thames & Hudson, 1951.

External linksEdit

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