Shakespeare's Myths

ServiusIn Aeneidos (end of 4th century), VI, 286 [brief mention of the cloud episode]; VI, 601 [brief summary of main elements, from Jupiter’s friendship to Ixion’s punishment]


ServiusAd Georgica (end of 4th century), III, 38 [Ixion bound to his wheel with snakes]


Lactantius PlacidusCommentary on Statius’ Thebaid (late 4th century-early 5th century), IV, 539 [Gives a summary of the myth]


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

[Ixion, from axioma (“worth”, “high rank”, “dignity”), desires Juno, or continuing rule, and only finds a cloud, or momentary temporal power, which is illusory. He was a king who gathered a hundred horsemen called centippi (centum, “a hundred”, and hippos, “horse”), with whom he took power by violence. His condemnation to the wheel means that once he had reached the summit of power, the wheel brought him down again.]


BoethiusDe Consolatione Philosophiae (1st quarter of 6th century), III, xxiv:

[Orpheus’ music relieves Ixion, Tantalus and Sisyphus from their torments. On William of Conches’s interpretation of Boethius’ Ixion in the 12th century, see Chance 1994, 403-08.]


First Mythographer of the Vatican (c. 875-1075), I, xiv (also II, lx, 3):

[Ixion is a giant who desired to lie with Juno; instead of her, a cloud was placed in front of him; as he boasted he had made love with Juno, he was sent to hell and condemned to push up a mountain an ever revolving wheel with intertwining snakes.]


Second Mythographer of the Vatican (11th century?), CVI, “Ixion” and CVII, “Interpretation of the fable”:

[Dignity, in search of power, only gets its pretence. Ixion surrounded himself with a hundred horsemen, called centauri [centaurs], of centum armati [a hundred armed men]. But he soon lost his power and fell a victim to the wheel turning full circle. Such is the punishment of those who acquire power violently. Expanded from Fulgentius, The Mythologies, II, xiv.]


Bernard Silvester of Tours. Super sex libros Eneidos Virgilii (12th century), ad Aen. VI, 286:

[Ixion, meaning super omnia (“above everything”), is the sun, which illuminates all things. Juno, from juvans novos (“helping new things”), is the earth. Ixion (the sun) sends his heat on Juno (the earth), who interposes clouds. The heat of the sun and the moisture of the clouds produce temporal goods (centaurs), half rational, half vicious.]


Liber de Natura Deorum (12th century), CXXXIII, “De Ixione”:

[Ixion, from anxion, is the anxiety of who pursues Juno, or active life; the cloud represents riches, which cast a veil over heart and eyes.]


Third Mythographer of the Vatican (second half/end of 12th century), IV, vi, “On Juno”:

[From Fulgentius, The Mythologies, II, xiv and Second Mythographer of the Vatican, CVII]


Ovide moralisé (early 14th century), X, 307-40.

[Attributes Ixion’s wheel to Sisyphus, whose stone, rolling down after reaching the summit, is an image of the wheel of Fortune]


Giovanni BoccaccioGenealogia (1350-1374), IX, xxvii,  “On Ixion, son of Phlegyas”.

[Jupiter took Ixion to heaven to make him his and Juno’s secretary; after his attempt to seduce Juno, he was chased from heaven; as he boasted about his relation with Juno, Jupiter struck him with lightning and sent him to hell, where he was bound to an ever turning wheel that was full of snakes.

Ixion was king of the Lapiths and tried to install tyranny. Juno can be taken as queen of the air, or queen of the earth, of kingdoms and riches. As queen of the earth and earthly kingdoms, she seems to favour stability; as queen of clear air, she seems to add splendour to a reign, which, however, is ephemeral and easily falls into darkness. The cloud represents what is possessed by violence, but only affords a semblance of power. The difference between a king and a tyrant is as great as between clear air and cloud. The centaurs are blackguards in the service of the tyrant. Jove’s lightning and the infernal wheel are the preoccupations and anxieties which torture the tyrant’s mind.

Whoever tries to acquire in effect what he possesses in hope necessarily falls from bright into agitated thoughts.

According to Macrobius (Commentary on Scipio’s Dream, I, x, 14), those who are bound to the spokes of the wheel are those who, without the help of counsel, reason and virtue, are slaves of the fortuitous accidents of Fortune.

Ixion is Jupiter and Juno’s secretary, or an augur.

Boccaccio then repeats Fulgentius’ interpretation of the centaurs as a hundred horsemen (The Mythologies, II, xiv, wrongly attributing to him the derivation of centauri from centum armati (Second Mythographer of the Vatican, CVII)]


Coluccio SalutatiDe Laboribus Herculis (early 15th century), III, xii:

[Analysis mostly based on Servius, Fulgentius, Lactantius Placidus, Boccaccio, Virgil and Ovid]


Thomas WalsinghamDe Archana Deorum (early 15th century):

[I, v: from Third Mythographer of the Vatican; I, vi and I, xxx: Ixion represents merchants who are subject to the storms and vicissitudes of Fortune]


Ovide moralisé en prose (c. 1466-1467), IV, 20:

[Ixion exemplifies the vices that come with wealth: pride, scorn of God and his commandments, ambition to dominate others, and undisciplined yearning for earthly goods and carnal delights. These vices sent him to Hell, together with Tityus, Tantalus and Sisyphus. Because she refused to lie with him, Ixion raped Juno, who punished him by sending him to Hell.]


Thomas ElyotDictionary (1538) (STC 7659):

Ixion was king of Thessaly, who falsely broke the promise that he made to his wife’s father, and threw him into a pit of fire. He also, called by Jupiter unto a feast, stirred Juno to commit adultery, which Jupiter perceiving, he made a cloud like unto Juno, and delivered her to him, on whom he gat [begat] the people called Centauri, but when he advaunted [boasted] that he had companied with Juno, he was driven down into hell, and there was bound to a wheel, always turning and full of serpents, as poets feigned.

[Text repeated in Thomas Cooper, Thesaurus, 1565]


Natale ContiMythologia (1567), VI, xvi, “On Ixion”:

[When Juno complained to Jupiter about Ixion’s importunity, he wouldn’t believe her and remembered that both Bellerophon and Hippolytus had been similarly accused, but wrongly. He made a cloud in Juno’s shape to be able to see the seduction by himself. After begetting the centaurs and boasting about his good fortune, Ixion was tied to an iron wheel, with snakes coiling around it.

After a development on the centaurs, Conti gives a “historical” version of Ixion’s story, involving a slave girl called Nephele, who took Juno’s place. His punishment consisted in losing the king’s favour and being tortured by frustrated pride and ambition. Conti quotes Plutarch, Parallel Lives, “Agis”, 1: “Not without reason do some suppose that the fable of Ixion (how he embraced a cloud instead of Juno and begat the centaurs) applies to lovers of glory. Such men, consorting with glory, which may be called an image of virtue, produce nothing of true lineage, but much that is bastard and monstrous, in their attempts to satisfy desire and passion”.

It is an abominable crime to repay received benefits by injury. Kings often find those they favoured plotting against them.]


Charles EstienneDictionarium (1553):

[Ixion’s story applies to tyrants, ambitious, and restless men in the State; and to sophists and heretics in the Church]


Jasper HeywoodHercules Furens (1561, 1581), III:

Theseus: Ixion, roll’d on whirling wheel, is toss’d and turned high.


Thomas Cooper.  Thesaurus (1565) (STC 5686):

Ixion: A king of Thessaly, who falsely broke promise with his wife’s father, and threw him into a pit of fire. He also, called by Jupiter unto a feast, stirred Juno to commit adultery, which Jupiter perceiving, made a cloud like unto Juno, and delivered her to him, on whom he begat the people called Centauri. But when he had avaunted [boasted] that he had companied with Juno, he was driven down into hell, and there bound to a wheel always turning and full of serpents, as poets feign.

[From Thomas Elyot. Dictionary, 1538]



Marcello Palingenio StellatoThe Zodiake of Life [Transl. Barnabe Googe] (1565), II, “Taurus” (STC 19150):

[a wealthy man]                … an Ixion is he just,

Who, with a cloud, as hath been told, performing filthy lust,

Begat a son of double form; wherefore he then was judged

Of gods upon a snaky wheel for ever to be turned.

For what is riches but a thing which aptest we may like

Unto a cloud, which Boreas if descending hap to strike.

Thou shalt behold whereof it came, to smoke resolved then.

Of riches, monsters he begot, that have the face of man.

Than outward face of wealthy man what thing doth more excel?

But when the course of all his life we once have marked well,

We shall behold the hinder parts to differ far away

From those that we did first discern, whom Fortune, without stay,

Doth turn about upon her wheel; the carks and cares be snakes,  [cark: care, heed, pains (OED 4)]

Which always gripe and gnaw his heart with sorrows that he takes.


John StudleyAgamemnon (1566, 1581), I.i (STC 22221):

[Thyestes’ description of hell]

Where Ixion’s carcass, linked fast, the whirling wheel doth rack,

And rolleth still upon himself.


John StudleyMedea (1566, 1581), IV.ii (STC 22221):

Medea: Cause ye the snaggy wheel to pause, that rends the carcass bound,

Permit Ixion’s racked limbs to rest upon the ground.


John StudleyHercules Oetæus (1566, 1581), II.i (STC 22221):

Deianira: This witchcraft Nessus taught,

Whom Ixion engendered of a misty groaning cloud,

Where Pindus’ haughty hill his top among the stars doth shroud.


John StudleyHercules Oetæus (1566, 1581), III.ii (STC 22221):

Deianira: And thou that racks Ixion, king of Thessaly, O thou wheel,

My heinous hands deserved have thy swinging sway to feel.


Thomas NuceOctavia (1566, 1581), III.i.53-54 (STC 22221):


And Ixion’s painful wambling wheel about, [wambling: rolling unsteadily, perhaps with a suggestion of nausea]

That teareth all his body’s parts throughout.


Arthur GoldingMetamorphoses (1567): IV.571-72, 575-76; VIII.728; IX.146-48; X.47; XII.236, 558-60.


Thomas UnderdowneOvid his invective against Ibis (1569), sig. C3v-C4r (STC 18949):

There Sisyphus doth roll the stone,

and Phlegyas is there,  [Ovid does not name Ixion. Underdowne may be taking Phlegyas from Virgil’s Aeneid VI, 618-19, where he appears not far after Ixion]

Fast tied unto a turning wheel

that doth his members tear.

Phlegyas for despising the Gods, was tied to a wheel in Hell. See the sixth of Virgil’s Aeneid.

Some will understand this to be spo[ken] of Ixion, who desired to lie with Juno, or as Homer saith, with Latona. [A possible confusion with Tityus, punished for raping Leto, Odyssey, XI, 582-92] Which thing Jupiter perceiving, turned a cloud into the likeness of her, with which Ixion companying, engendered thereof the giant like centaurs, for which sin, Jupiter thrust him into Hell. His punishment was, as saith Virgil, in the sixth of Aeneid, in this sort.

[Later (sig. C5iir), Underdowne translates “Versabunt celeres nunc nova membra rotae” (Ibis, 192) as  “New members shall turn round on wheels / that run about so fast” and adds in a marginal note: “He alludes to the stories afore of Sisyphus, Tantalus, Phlegyas, Tityus”, once more substituting Phlegyas to Ixion.]


John FlorioFlorio his firste fruites (1578), XXVI, “On Fortune”, p. 48v (STC 11096):

You may see in this world, how some being hungry, are feeding on the table of Tantalus, and never are satisfied. Some, that sweat to roll the stone of Sisyphus; some do labour with the burden of Atlas; some that force themselves to fill the buckets of Belides; some that annoy themselves, to turn the wheel of Ixion. Oh vain world, full of misery, in which is found no rest at all.


Thomas Phaer and Thomas TwyneÆneidos (1584), VI, sig. K2v (STC 24802):

What pains, what world of woe there is, how each his fortune feels!

Some rolls unwieldy rocks, some hangs on high, display’d on wheels.


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

[Ixion’s wheel figures the torment suffered by restless men in the Republic. Repeats a shortened version of Charles Estienne’s interpretation in his Dictionarium.]


Abraham FlemingGeorgiks (1589), III, p. 38 (STC 24817):

Unhappy Envy sore shall fear the furies fiends below

And Cocyte rigorous rivers too, and Ixion’s writhren snakes.  

[Translates Virgil, Georgics, 37-38. Fleming’s “and Ixion’s writhen snakes” renders Virgil’s “tortosque Ixionis anguis]


Abraham FlemingGeorgiks (1589), IV, p. 73-74 (STC 24817):

[Orpheus’ descent into Hell]

The cur of hell kept his three mouths from yolping, and the wheel

Of Ixion turning round, stir’d not, but stood still with the wind.

[Translates Georgics, IV, 483-84. A marginal note gloses: “Vento, i. cum vento suo rota constitit, the wheel with his own wind being the cause of his rolling, rested and stood at a stay”]


Abraham FraunceThe Third part of the Countesse of Pembrokes Yvychurch (1592) (STC 11341):

Ixion, graced by Jove, would needs dishonour Juno; Jupiter framed a counterfeit Juno, in truth nought but a cloud, which Ixion, using instead of Juno, begat the centaurs. This is a note of ambitious and aspiring love. (p. 16 r)

Ixion … is … plagued in hell for his ambitious and aspiring arrogance. The tale is notably well told by Remy Belleau (Bergerie, Seconde Journée), beginning thus: “Je chante d’Ixion l’emprise audacieuse, / L’impudence, l’orgueil, et l’idole venteuse / De la feinte Junon, grosse de vent et d’air, / Ouvrage industrieux des mains de Jupiter”, etc. Bartholomaeus Annulus [Barthélemy Aneau], in his Picta Poesis, hereby noteth a polluted conscience, which is ever his own persecutor and tormentor, still flying, and yet still following himself, as Ixion’s wheel, that always turns about, but never turns away. (p. 29 r-v)


R. D.  Hypnerotomachia (1592) [Abridged translation of Francesco Colonna], p. 28 v (STC 5577):

[Poliphilus meets Polia]

Afterwards I thought with myself it may be that she is some creature which I may not desire, and it may be the place is not fit for such thoughts, and then it may be I have made a wise work, and spun a fair thread, if I should be punished for my impudency, like Ixion.


R. D.  Hypnerotomachia (1592) [Abridged translation of Francesco Colonna], p. 86 r (STC 5577):

[First Triumph]

This Triumph was drawn by six lascivious centaurs, which came of the fallen seed of the saucy and presumptuous Ixion.


George SandysOvid’s Metamorphosis (1632), p. 163 (STC 18966):

So Ixion, a favourite of Jupiter’s, for attempting Juno (who, instead of her, embraced a cloud in her likeness) is turned on a restless wheel in perpetual memory of such treason and ingratitude. But histories report how Ixion, having slain his father in law, detested and avoided of all men, forsook his country, and came to a certain king, by whom he was received with bounty, and made of his counsel. When Ixion, not long after, attempted the chastity of his queen; wherewith she acquainted her husband, who, hard of belief, made her seem to consent and caused a nymph called Nephele (her name signifying a cloud) to supply her place; whereupon he was said to have embraced a cloud for Juno. For this, cast out of favour, and afflicted with the horror of so foul an offence, he was feigned to suffer those infernal torments.


How to cite

Gaelle Ginestet.  “Ixion.”  2009.  In A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Classical Mythology (2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

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