Arke – The Forgotten Twin of Iris

An image of a nude woman from the waist up and seen from behind. She reaches back behind her head to her shoulder blades. Done on scratchboard by Bronwen MacDonald
“Who am I? I am Arke” by Bronwen MacDonald. 2021. Scratchboard.

Who was Arke?

According to Greek mythology, Arke or Arce (in Greek:  Ἄρκη) was the twin sister of Iris. Iris (not to be mixed up with the Egyptian Isis) was the more famous of the pair, known for being the rainbow messenger goddess of the Olympian Gods.

Arke is only mentioned once in a very late source. Photius’ Biblioteca, written in the 9th century CE, summarizes the 2nd century CE author Ptolemy Hephaestion who outlines the tale of Arke. He uses this story to provide an etymological explanation of an epithet often used to describe the Greek hero Achilles’ famous swiftness: podarkes ‘feet of Arke’. His mother, Thetis, attaches them to his feet as a youth.

“…Arce [Arke] was the daughter of Thaumas and her sister was Iris; both had wings, but, during the struggle of the gods against the Titans, Arce flew out of the camp of the gods and joined the Titans. After the victory Zeus removed her wings before throwing her into Tartarus and, when he came to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, he brought these wings as a gift for Thetis. (Photius’ Biblioteca cod. 190. Trans Freese, J. 1920.)

(Photius’ Biblioteca cod. 190. Trans Freese, J. 1920.)

What defines us?

When I first read about Arke, I was struck by the horror of Zeus tearing her wings off. It was an image of such terrible violence that I couldn’t get out of my head for a long time. Despite bothering me so long, I could never put it into images. Recently, however, I have done a lot of work with iconography on my master’s thesis, especially regarding correcting incorrect identifications of the Etruscan winged afterworld goddess, Vanth.

As all of this settled, I happened to stumble on the tale of Arke for a second time. I looked at the story from a completely different angle – perhaps no less violent, though. I asked myself: why are there no images of Arke? Pictures of her sister, Iris, abound in Greek art. Perhaps it is just the simple answer: that Arce is a much later imaginary addition that never existed in Greek mythology of the times at all.

But what if that isn’t the answer. What if Arke is there, and we cannot see her? How does one know that they are looking at an image of Iris? First and foremost, because she is winged. If we saw a female figure without wings, don’t we assume at first that she is simply a mortal woman?

Somehow the idea of Arce simply becoming invisible through the loss of her wings is even more terrifying than the violence inflicted on her by Zeus to remove them. It is not only a removal of a body part but, in a far more profound sense, a removal of self. Of the thing that makes Arce who she is. Her wings define Arce, and that definition of herself is torn away by someone else, after which she ceases to be.

What things do we allow to define ourselves? What things do we let other people tear from us, incise from ourselves with bitter thoughts and unkind words? And if those things are lost, will we, too, simply disappear?


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