Phanes (mythology)

This article is about mythology. For other uses, see Phanes (disambiguation).
A 16th-century drawing of Phanes by Francesco de' Rossi.

Phanes (Ancient Greek: Φάνης, genitive Φάνητος),[1] or Protogonos (Greek: Πρωτογόνος, "First-born"), was the mystic primeval deity of procreation and the generation of new life, who was introduced into Greek mythology by the Orphic tradition; other names for this Classical Greek Orphic concept included Ericapaeus (Ἠρικαπαῖος or Ἠρικεπαῖος "power") and Metis ("thought").[2]

In these myths Phanes is often equated with Eros and Mithras and has been depicted as a deity emerging from a cosmic egg, entwined with a serpent. He had a helmet and had broad, golden wings. The Orphic cosmogony is bizarre, and quite unlike the creation sagas offered by Homer and Hesiod. Scholars have suggested that Orphism is "un-Greek" even "Asiatic" in conception, because of its inherent dualism.[3][4]

Time, who was also called Aion, created the silver egg of the universe, out of this egg burst out the first-born, Phanes. Phanes was a uroboric male-female deity of light and goodness, whose name means "to bring light" or "to shine"; a first-born god of light who emerges from a void or a watery abyss and gives birth to the universe.[5]

Many threads of earlier myths are apparent in the new tradition. Phanes was believed to have been hatched from the World-Egg of Chronos (Time) and Ananke (Necessity or Fate) or Nyx in the black bird form and wind. His older wife Nyx (Night) called him Protogenus. As she created nighttime, he created daytime. He also created the method of creation by mingling. He was made the ruler of the deities and passed the sceptre to Nyx. This new Orphic tradition states that Nyx later gave the sceptre to her son Uranos before it passed to Cronus and then to Zeus, who retained it.

According to Aristophanes, whence he is called Eros, he was born from an egg created by Nyx and placed in the boundless lap of Erebus. After which he mates with Chaos and creates the birds.[6] This passage seeks to demonstrate that the birds are considered older than all other living creatures, even older than the other gods.

The "Protogonos Theogony" is known through the commentary in the Derveni papyrus and references in Empedocles and Pindar.

According to Damascius, Phanes was the first god “expressible and acceptable to human ears” (πρώτης ητόν τι ἐχούσης καὶ σύμμετρον πρὸς ἀνθρώπων ἀκοάς ).[7]

Another orphic hymns states:[8] "ὄσσων ὃς σκοτόεσσαν ἀπημαύρωσας ὁμίχλην πάντη δινηθεὶς πτερύγων ῥιπαῖς κατὰ κόσμον λαμπρὸν ἄγων φάος ἁγνόν , ἀφ ' οὗ σε Φάνητα κικλήσκω." "You scattered the dark mist that lay before your eyes and, flapping your wings, you whirled about, and throughout this world you brought pure light. For this I call you Phanes.".

The Derveni Papyrus refers to Phanes:"Πρωτογόνου βασιλέως αἰδοίου∙ τῶι δ’ ἄρα πάντες ἀθάνατοι προσέφυν μάκαρες θεοὶ ἠδ̣ὲ θέαιναι καὶ ποταμοὶ καὶ κρῆναι ἐπήρατιο ἄλλα τε πάντα , ἅ̣σσα τότ’ ἦγγεγαῶτ ’ , αὐτὸς δ’ ἄρα μοῦνος ἔγεντο.” "Of the First-born king, the reverend one; and upon him all the immortals grew, blessed gods and goddesses and rivers and lovely springs and everything else that had then been born; and he himself became the sole one".[9]

Dionysus of the Orphic tradition is intimately connected to Protogonos. In the Orphic Hymn 30, he is given a list of epithets that also allude to Protogonos: "πρωτόγονον, διφυῆ, τρίγονον, Βακχεῖον ἄνακτα,ἄγριον, ἄρρητον, κρύφιον, δικέρωτα, δίμορφον" "Primeval, two-natured, thrice-born, Bacchic lord, savage, ineffable, secretive, two-horned, and two-shaped".[10]

In the Orphic tradition, Dionysus-Protogonos-Phanes is a dying and rising god. Eusebius tell us the story of his death and recreation. The Titans boil the dismembered limbs of Dionysus in a kettle, they roast him on a spit and eat the roasted “sacrificial meat”, then Athena rescues the heart (that still beats)[11] from which (according to Olympiodorus)[12] Zeus is able to recreate the god and bring him back to life. Kessler has argued that this cult of death and resurrection of Dionysus developed the 4th century CE; and together with Mithraism and other sects this cult formed, were in direct competition with Early Christianity during Late Antiquity.[13]


  1. William Smith, ed. (1870). A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. Perseus Project.
  2. Thomas Taylor (1824). The Mystical Hymns of Orpheus (Second ed.). Chiswick. p. XV.
  3. David Livingstone (2002). The Dying God: The Hidden History of Western Civilization. iUniverse. p. 110. ISBN 0-595-23199-3.
  4. Jeffrey Burton Russell (1987). The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity. Cornell University Press. p. 137. ISBN 0-8014-9409-5.
  5. Liz Greene (2000). The Astrological Neptune and the Quest for Redemption. Weiser Books. pp. 78–79.
  6. Aristophanes, The Birds 690–702
  7. Cf. B. 75-80, K. 54
  8. Orphic Hymn 6; trans. Athanassakis 1977
  9. Kouremenos, Parássoglou, and Tsantsanoglou 2006
  10. Orphic Hymn 30 Trans. Athanassakis 1977, 43
  11. Euseb. Praep. ev. 2.3.25 (K. 35)
  12. Olympiod. in Plat. Phaedon. 2.21 (K. 220)
  13. E. Kessler, Dionysian Monotheism in Nea Paphos, Cyprus Symposium on Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire, Exeter, 17–20 July 2006 Abstract

Mario Iozzo, “La kylix fiorentina di Chachrylion ed Eros Protogonos Phanes”, in Antike Kunst 55, 2012, pp. 52–62

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