The primeval gods or “Protogenoi” of Greek mythology were the basic components of the universe which emerged at creation. They included Earth, Air, Sea, Sky, Fresh Water, Underworld, Darkness, Night, Light, Day, Procreation and Time. Nyx (Night) was born of Air (Khaos), and breeding with Darkness (Erebos) produced Light (Aither) and Day (Hemera), first components of the primeval universe. Alone, she spawned a brood of dark spirits, including the three Fates, Sleep, Death, Strife and Pain.
The earliest mentions of Nyx are, like so many Greek deities, in Hesiod’s Theogony. “From Khaos (the Gap) came forth Erebos (Darkness) and black Nyx (Night); but of Nyx were born Aither (Bright Upper Air) and Hemera (Day), whom she conceived and bare from union in love with Erebos.” It seems quite natural for Night and Darkness to love one another, but the fact that Aither and Hemera are the products of their union demonstrates an intrinsic belief in the power of the Dark. Darkness is not just the absence of Light, nor is Night only the absence of Day, rather both are seen as powerful deities in their own right.
The power of Nyx is further demonstrated in one of the most famous Greek texts of all time, Homer’s Iliad. Hypnos (Sleep), speaking of Zeus, states, “…(he) would have sunk me out of sight in the sea from the bright sky had not Nyx who has power over gods and men rescued me. I reached her in my flight, and Zeus let be, though he was angry, in awe of doing anything to swift Nyx’ displeasure.” Clearly even the most powerful of the Olympian Gods was subject to the power of Nyx. Another text refers to her as being pained in her heart over ships in trouble, revealing to sailors signs of immanent storms and providing the South Wind as a “kindness to toiling sailors” (Aratus, Phaenomena). Quintus Smyrnaeus’ Fall of Troy refers to Nyx’ kindliness in numerous places, stressing that she is the provider of the “boon of sleep to sorrowing mortals”. The whole world is under her influence once the day is ended, the time comes for rest, for play, for the pleasures of the night.
However, the night holds more than rest for the weary. For the ancients with their limited lighting, the Night was also a time of fears, personified in the dark children of Nyx. “And Nyx (Night) bare hateful Moros (Doom) and black Ker (Violent Death) and Thanatos (Death), and she bare Hypnos (Sleep) and the tribe of Oneiroi (Dreams). And again the goddess murky Nyx, though she lay with none, bare Momos (Blame) and painful Oizys (Misery), and the Hesperides . . . Also she bare the Moirai (Fates) and the ruthless avenging Keres (Death-Fates) . . . Also deadly Nyx bare Nemesis (Envy) to afflict mortal men, and after her, Apate (Deceit) and Philotes (Sexual Intercourse) and hateful Geras (Old Age) and hard-hearted Eris (Strife).” Some authors also claim the Erinyes were children of Nyx, though the most popular story gives Uranos’ castration as their cause.
Nyx was rarely worshipped alone, although according to Pausanius she had an oracle at Megara. There was also a statue of her in the Temple of Artemis, at Ephesus, most likely as an adjunct to her role as a lunar deity. However it is not necessary to have a statue or go to a temple to worship Nyx. At the end of every day as the sun sinks into the west Nyx arrives to enfold the world in her dark embrace. Her worship is as close as turning out the lights. Therefore, I would like to finish with the Orphic Hymn to Nyx (c.200BCE):
“Nyx, parent goddess, source of sweet repose from whom at first both Gods and men arose. Hear, blessed Kypris [Aphrodite], decked with starry light, in sleep’s deep silence dwelling ebon night! Dreams and soft ease attend thy dusky train, pleased with the lengthened gloom and feastful strain, dissolving anxious care, the friend of mirth, with darkling coursers riding round the earth. Goddess of phantoms and of shadowy play, whose drowsy power divides the natural day; by fate’s decree you constant send the light to deepest hell, remote from mortal sight; for dire necessity, which nought withstands, invests the world with adamantine bands. Be present, Goddess, to thy suppliant’s prayer, desired by all, whom all alike revere, blessed, benevolent, with friendly aid dispel the fears of twilight’s dreadful shade.”