Shakespeare's Myths

ServiusIn Aeneidos (end of 4th century), IX, 2 [Iris takes her name from eris (discordia), because, as opposed to Mercury, she is never sent ad conciliationem (to make peace) but ad disturbationem (to make mischief).]; IX, 5 [Iris is called “Thaumantia” (Thaumas’ daughter) because her colours are a subject of admiration]


FulgentiusThe Mythologies (c. 5th-6th century), II, i, “Of Juno”:

[Iris is connected with the goddess of riches because fortune, although it seems brightly coloured, vanishes as fast as the rainbow.


Isidore of SevilleEtymologies (7th century), XIII, x, 1:

[Iris’ name comes from aeris (“of air”) because she flies through the air to descend upon earth. Her bow is produced by the sun shining upon hollow clouds; the sun’s rays upon liquid water, clear sky and dark clouds create her diverse colours.]


Second Mythographer of the Vatican (11th century?), VI, “Juno’s Iris”:

[Iris, or the rainbow, is attributed to Juno because fortune’s ornaments are as variegated as the rainbow’s, but disappear sooner. Iris is also Thaumas’ daughter because of the admiration her colours provoke. She is called Iris, of eris, that is “quarrel”, for she is never sent to make peace, like Mercury, but always to make mischief. She is not in many goddesses’ service (as Homer implies in Hymn to Apollo, 102) but often in Jupiter’s: “for Jupiter sent Iris through the air from heaven” (Virgil, Aeneid, IX, 803-04). There is no Iris without the sun, because her variety of colours is created by the refraction of its brightness on water drops.]


Third Mythographer of the Vatican (second half / end of 12th century), IV, ii; IV, vi:

[Same analyses as Second Mythographer, with more details and a few additions. Virgil’s Aeneid, IV, 701, “Mille trahens varios adverso sole colores” (“trailing against the sun a thousand variegated colours”) is quoted to underline that the rainbow is produced by the reflection of the sun on watery clouds. Two of Iris’ characteristics — she is in the service of Juno, goddess of riches; she is sent to make trouble — are connected and explained: riches often provoke quarrels.]


Giovanni BoccaccioGenealogia (1350-1374, 1472), IX, i [Iris is the daughter of Thaumas, or admiration, because of her variegated colours and the unexpectedness of her apparition. She is attributed to Juno, goddess of riches, because her various colours suggest the splendour of wealth, which can disappear as fast as Iris vanishes. She is called after eris because she is always sent to fuel discord.]


Georg PictorTheologia Mythologica (1532), XXI, “On Juno”:

[Iris presides on the humidity of the air; she is represented as a woman splendidly dressed in many colours, which symbolise one of nature’s marvels.]


Natale ContiMythologia (1567), VIII, xxi. [Iris is the rainbow; her variegated colours come from the refraction of the rays of the suns in a cloudy mass of variable density ; she is the daughter of Thaumas, whose name, in Greek, means admiration. She sometimes announces rain, sometimes fine weather.]


Charles EstienneDictionarium (1553):

[According to the poets, Iris is Juno’s messenger: Juno’s name means “air” and Iris announces rain.]


Gavin DouglasEneados (1553), IV, xii (STC 24797):

Tharfor dewy Iris throw the hevin

With hir salfron wingis flew full evin,

Drawand, quhair scho went, forgane the sone cleir,

Ane thowsand culloris of diuers hewis seir;

[Therefore, dewy iris through the heaven / With her saffron wings flew full even, / Drawing, where she went, opposite to the clear sun, / A thousand colours of many diverse hues.]


Gavin DouglasEneados (1553), V, xi (STC 24797)


Gavin DouglasEneados (1553), IX, I (STC 24797):

Hir madyne Iris from hevin sendis sche

To the bald Turnus, malapert and stout

Thamantis douchtir knelys hym befor,

I meyn Iris, this ilk fornamyt mayd,

And wyth hyr rosy lippis thus him said:

[Her maid Iris from heaven she [Juno] sends / To the bold Turnus, malapert and stout  / … / Thaumas’ daughter kneels before him, / I mean Iris, the same afore-mentioned maid, / And with her rosy lips thus him said:]


Vincenzo CartariImagini (1556), V, “Giunone” [Juno]:

[Iris is daughter of Thaumas, which means “admiration”, because her colours make her as marvellous as the riches which foolish people gape at, although they vanish as fast as the rainbow disappears.]


Henry Howard, Earl of SurreyThe Aeneid (1557), IV, 934-36 (STC 24798):

The dewy Iris thus with golden wings,

A thousand hews showing against the sun,

Amid the skies then did she fly adown.


Georg PictorApotheseos (1558), I, ii, “On Juno”:

[Paragraph on Iris mostly repeats Pictor’s Theologia Mythologica (1532)]


Arthur GoldingOvid’s Metamorphoses (1567), I, 321-22; IV, 593-94 ; XI, 679-751; XIV, 100, 959-60 (STC 18956)


Jean DoratMythologicum (c. 1569-1571):

[The names of Iris, the god’s messenger, and of Irus, the messenger of Penelope’s suitors, come from eïrô (“I say”). The interpretation derives from Plato, Cratylus, 408b]


Richard StanyhurstVirgil his Aeneis (1582), IV, 751 (STC 24806): 

The lustring rainbow      [lustring: lustrous, shining (OED); Stanyhurst uses the same adjective for Venus, I, 378: “O, gay goddess lustring”]


Richard StanyhurstVirgil his Aeneis (1582), IV, 757-59 (STC 24806):

Then, lo, the fair Rainbow saffron-like feathered, hov’ring

With thousand gay colours, by the sun contrary reshining,

From the sky down flickering.


Thomas Phaer and Thomas TwineAeneidos (1584), IV, 769-72, 777-79 (STC 24802):

Almighty Juno then, these labours hard and passage long

Lamented sore to see, and down she sent in message strong

Dame Iris high, that on the Rainbow red in heaven doth sit,

This struggling soul to take, and from these pains her limbs unknit.

Dame Rainbow down therefore with saffron wings of dropping showers,

Whose face a thousand sundry hews against the sun devours,

From heaven descending came.


Thomas Phaer and Thomas TwineAeneidos (1584), V, 653, 656-57 (STC 24802):

Dame Juno down from heaven the Rainbow red, her servant, sent,

She swiftly bent her bow, and through the clouds with thousand hews,

Full virgin-like she falls.


Thomas Phaer and Thomas Twine Aeneidos, IX, 2-5 (STC 24802):

Dame Juno down from heaven the Rainbow red, her servant, sent

To Turnus dreadless prince. King Turnus then did seat repose

In great Pilumnus’ vale, his parents’ woods whom round did close.    [Pilumnus: Turnus’ father]

To whom dame Rainbow thus, with mouth bespake as red as rose.


Georgius SabinusFabularum Ovidii interpretatio (1584), p. 158-59 (STC 18951):

[Iris is daughter of admiration because no natural phenomenon is more admirable. It is a divine sign about the past and the future: the blue in the rainbow recalls that the world once perished in the waters of the flood; the red announces that the world is to be destroyed by fire.]


Abraham FlemingThe Georgiks of Publius Virgilius Maro (1589), I, 506 (STC 24817):

The rainbow big hath drunk and soak’d up stuff enough for rain.


Abraham FraunceThe Third part of the Countesse of Pembrokes Ivychurch (1592) (STC 11341), sig. E2r:

As Mercury is Jupiter’s messenger, so is Iris Juno’s. Iris hath her name of eïrein, of speaking, for she speaketh and telleth when rain is towards. Iris is the rainbow and Juno is the air, wherein those rainy clouds are cluttered together. Iris is the daughter of Thaumas and Electra: Thaumas is the son of Pontus, the sea or water; and Electra is the daughter of heaven, or the sun. Thaumas signifieth wondring and admiration, of thaumazein, and this bow, in truth, is every way wonderful, by reason of those so many strange colours appearing therein. Electra is perspicuity, or serenity, of helios, the sun, and aïthrios, bright and serene: so this bow proceedeth from water and serenity, to weet, from the reflexion of the sun’s beams in a watery cloud.

[From Natale Conti, Mythologia, VIII, xxi]


Abraham FraunceThe Third Part of the Countesse of Pembrokes Yvychurch (1592) [The rape of Proserpine]:

Fresh-coloured meadows were over-spread with a mantle

Figured, and diapered with such and so many thousand

Nature’s surpassing conceits, that marvellous Iris

Was no marvel at all, and spotted train, but a trifle,

Proud-heart peacocks spotted train, compared to the matchless

Art, which Nature showed, in showing so many strange shows.

[Expands Ovid’s “Tyrios humus umida flores” (the well-watered ground bears bright-coloured flowers), Metamorphoses, V, 390.]


Richard LincheThe Fountaine of Ancient Fiction (1599), sigs. L2v-L3r (STC 4691):

Among the Ancients it is delivered that the messenger of Juno is called Iris, by which name also the rainbow many times is understood, and that she was the daughter of Thaumas, which signifieth admiration, insomuch as the strange variety of the colours thereof possesseth the beholders’ minds with a continuing wonder and admiring continuation. And she is apparelled in loose vestures for the more nimbleness and dispatch of the goddess’s affairs and negotiations.


John HealeySt. Augustine, Of the Citie of God, with the learned comments of Jo. Lod. Vives (1610), VII, xiv (STC 916):

[Vives’s commentary. Compares Hermes and Iris] Iris also may be derived [from] eïrein, to speak, for she is a messenger also.


George ChapmanThe Iliads (1611), III, 145 (STC 13634):

 … the thousand-colour’d dame …


George ChapmanThe Iliads (1611), V, 348 (STC 13634):

She that paints the air …


George ChapmanThe Iliads (1611), V, 352 (STC 13634):

 … the windy-footed dame …


George ChapmanThe Iliads (1611), VIII, 347 (STC 13634):

[Iris,] that hath the golden wings.


George ChapmanThe Iliads (1611), XV, 139-40 (STC 13634):

Iris that had place / Of internunciess from the gods …            [internunciess: feminine of internuncio, or internuntio, defined by John Florio as “a messenger that goeth between man and man” (OED)]


George ChapmanThe Iliads (1611), XV, 152 (STC 13634):

 … the fair ambassadress…


George ChapmanThe Iliads (1611), XV, 161-63 (STC 13634):

 … and like a mighty snow, / Or gelid hail, that from the clouds the northern spirit doth blow, / So fell the windy-footed dame;


George ChapmanThe Iliads (1611), XV, 190-92 (STC 13634).


George ChapmanThe Iliads (1611), XXIII, 182 (STC 13634):

She that wears the thousand-colour’d hair …


George ChapmanThe Iliads (1611), XXIV, 92-97 (STC 13634):

… the dame that doth in vapours shine,

Dewy and thin, footed with storms, jump’d to the sable seas

‘Twixt Samos and sharp Imber’s cliffs; the lake groan’d with the press            [Imber: the island of Imbros, in the northern Aegean sea]

Of her rough feet, and, plummet-like, put in an ox’s horn

That bears death to the raw-fed fish, she div’d, and found forlorn

Thetis, lamenting her son’s fate;


Sir Arthur GorgesLucans Pharsalia (1614), IV, 171-78 (STC 16885):

Here Iris now begins to show

Some part of her half-circled bow;

But not in wonted colours dy’d,

The beauty thereof thick clouds hide.

Her thirst she in the Ocean slakes,

And to the clouds bears what she takes:

And when they are dispersed again,

They showering fall into the main.


Thomas LodgeOf Natural Questions, written by … Seneca (1614), I, iii, 1 (STC 22213):

… some parts in the clouds are more swelling, othersome more submiss [hollow], some thicker than the sun beams may be able to pierce them, othersome so thin that they pass quite through them. This inequality mixeth together this shadow and this brightness, and maketh this wonderful variety of the rainbow. … We see in it I don’t know what  yellowness, redness, green, blue, and other colours … and therein is showed the admirable work of Nature …


George SandysOvid’s Metamorphosis (1632), p. 7 (STC 18966):

All-colour’d Iris, Juno’s messenger,

To weeping clouds doth nourishment confer.

[Marginal note expounds “Iris” as “A name of the rainbow”]


George SandysOvid’s Metamorphosis (1632), “Upon the first book”, p. 31 (STC 18966):

This [the rainbow] is called Iris, the daughter of Thaumas, or wonder. Iris imports a message, because it presageth fair or foul weather, as it followeth the contrary. And therefore, the messenger of Juno, who is taken for the air where clouds are engendered.


George SandysOvid’s Metamorphosis (1632), p. 124 (STC 18966):

Well-pleased Saturnia then to heaven withdrew            [Juno]

Whom first Thaumantian Iris purg’d with dew.

[Marginal note expounds: “The rainbow, the daughter of Thaumas”]


George SandysOvid’s Metamorphosis (1632), p. 381 (STC 18966):

She [Iris], in a thousand coloured robe array’d,

Her ample bow from heaven to earth extends

And in a cloud to his abode descends.


George SandysOvid’s Metamorphosis (1632), p. 457 (STC 18966):

He puts to sea with ships well-nigh surpris’d

By Iris’ flames.

[Marginal note adds: “Who by Juno’s appointment persuaded the Trojan women to set them on fire]

How to cite

Yves Peyré. "Iris."  2009.  In A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology (2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

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