In Greek mythology, Telephassa's claim to fame is that she is, going by the commonest version of the genealogy, the mother of Kadmos [Cadmus], who built the citadel of Thebes in Boiotia [Boeotia]; of Europa, after whom the continent of Europe was named; and of Phoinix [Phoenix]. She bore these children to her husband Agenor, the king of the region which would later be named Phoenicia, from their son Phoinix, after he had succeeded Agenor on the throne.

As far as I have known, there is no ancient mention of Telephassa's own parentage, but according to the Wikipedia article on her, "She was the daughter of Nilus, god of the Nile, and Nephele, a soft cloud Oceanid." The source cited for this is Stephen Fry's book Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold. (See p. 182 of the 2019 Chronicle Books edition thereof, under the alternate title of Mythos: The Greek Myths Reimagined.)

According to Pherecydes, Agenor had two wives, the first of whom, Damno, was also his own niece, and is the one who bore him Phoinix. It was the second, named Argiope, who bore Kadmos and, according to Hyginus (Fabulae 178), Europa as well. This Argiope, says Pherecydes, was a daughter of the Nile River.

Even though no ancient source seems to do this, Robert Graves fairly explicitly equates Argiope with Telephassa, essentially saying that the former is an alias of the latter (p. 194 of The Greek Myths: Complete Edition, 1992, Penguin Books). And all of that being as it may, Argiope's mother is still nowhere mentioned.

The only interaction aside from any of the above that I have encountered between an Oceanid and the River Nile comes from Servius' Commentary on Virgil's Aeneid 4.250, which gives us yet another cloud-nymph, namely Chione, as the daughter of the River Nile and the Oceanid Callirrhoe.

One might perhaps assume that Callirrhoe is the wife of the Nile and/or that she gave birth to (at least some of) his other children, including Argiope, who (if we follow Graves) is = Telephassa. From there, one might grant that perhaps when Fry mentions Nephele here, he simply means "an Oceanid", since the word literally means "Cloud," and is a more generic term for this class of nymph, who personified the clouds.

Beyond all this attempted puzzle-piece-sorting, Telephassa's pedigree in Fry's Mythos seems to me very much like an innovation on his part, and an almost completely arbitrary one at that. Is there any ancient (or even mediaeval) source that explicitly names Telephassa as a daughter of Nephele (and of the Nile)?

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    To confirm that "Nephele, literally 'Cloud,' is a . . . term for Oceanids," see Aristophanes Clouds 275ff., in which the play's eponymous chorus, in their opening lines, refer to Oceanus as "father." Nov 13, 2021 at 17:47
  • Right you are. It seems that my intention of making that point was stated a bit obscurely: I was trying to suggest that maybe Fry is using the word less as a character's proper name rather than simply a different way of saying "an Oceanid." I think that's still a stretch, but there it is; I've Edited accordingly.
    – Adinkra
    Nov 13, 2021 at 20:38

1 Answer 1


Given its absence in Gantz and Bell, I'm inclined to say that there is no ancient source.

Graves is highly imaginative, and makes these equations and other assumptions without real evidence outside his intuition, which he had in the past admitted to.

Fry is of course a comedian and not a Classicist, so he might have gotten it from somewhere, but not in any ancient source as far as I can tell.

In fact, it makes no sense at all, considering that Nephele was married to Athamas, who left her for Ino, Cadmus' daughter. That's probably where the story got intertwined with Telephassa, but the only two children of Nephele's were Phrixus and Helle.

  • Oh, kudos on noting the connection between Cadmus and Athamas; I'd completely neglected to consider that. Yes, indeed, if Fry's Nephele = the mother of Phrixus & Helle, then that would mean that Athamas divorced Nephele in order to marry her own great-granddaughter Ino! It wouldn't be the strangest thing to happen in Greek myth (esp. allowing that Nephele is likely supposed to be immortal), but in the absence of any sources for this, it's a pretty bizarre connection for Mythos to make.
    – Adinkra
    Nov 13, 2021 at 21:19
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    @Adinkra I think especially given the silence. The Greeks weren't always consistent with chronology, but something of that caliber would have been noticed, mentioned, and perhaps dramatized by Euripides.
    – cmw
    Nov 13, 2021 at 22:30
  • @cmw In this case I would say that Graves' equation Telephassa=Argiope is somewhat justified. Even Kerenyi accepts it, pointing out that they are both lunar names. Nov 14, 2021 at 11:50

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