The name Amaltheia, in Greek "tender goddess", is clearly an epithet, signifying the presence of an earlier nurturing goddess, whom the Hellenes, whose myths we know, knew to be located in Crete, where Minoans may have called her a version of "Dikte".
There were different traditions regarding Amaltheia. Amaltheia is sometimes represented as the goat who nurtured the infant-god in a cave in Cretan Mount Aigaion ("Goat Mountain"), sometimes as a goat-tending nymph of uncertain parentage (the daughter of Oceanus, Helios, Haemonius, or—according to Lactantius—Melisseus). The possession of multiple and uncertain mythological parents indicates wide worship of a deity in many cultures having varying local traditions. Other names, like Adrasteia, Ide, the nymph of Mount Ida, or Adamanthea, which appear in mythology handbooks, are simply duplicates of Amaltheia.
In the tradition represented by Hesiod's Theogony, Cronus swallowed all of his children immediately after birth. The mother goddess Rhea, Zeus' mother, deceived her brother consort Cronus by giving him a stone wrapped to look like a baby instead of Zeus. Since she instead gave the infant Zeus to Adamanthea to nurse in a cave on a mountain in Crete, it is clear that Adamanthea is a doublet of Amalthea. In many literary references, the Greek tradition relates that in order that Cronus should not hear the wailing of the infant, Amalthea gathered about the cave the Kuretes or the Korybantes to dance, shout, and clash their spears against their shields. Still a baby, Zeus would have broken off one of Amalthea's horns while playing, which would become the cornucopia, and turning Amalthea into the first unicorn, a reference used by Peter S. Beagle in his novel The Last Unicorn, as Schmendrick, the magician, called the main character "Lady Amalthea", without giving any explanation to his choice.
Amaltheia's skin, or that of her goat, taken by Zeus in honor of her when she died, became the protective aegis in some traditions.
Among the stars
"Amaltheia was placed amongst the stars as the constellation Capra—the group of stars surrounding Capella on the arm (ôlenê) of Auriga the Charioteer." Capra simply means "she-goat" and the star-name Capella is the "little goat", but some modern readers confuse her with the male sea-goat of the Zodiac, Capricorn, who bears no relation to Amaltheia, no connection in a Greek or Latin literary source nor any ritual or inscription to join the two. Hyginus describes this catasterism in the Poetic Astronomy, in speaking of Auriga, the Charioteer:
Parmeniscus says that a certain Melisseus was king in Crete, and to his daughters Jove was brought to nurse. Since they did not have milk, they furnished him a she-goat, Amaltheia by name, who is said to have reared him. She often bore twin kids, and at the very time that Jove was brought to her to nurse, had borne a pair. And so because of the kindness of the mother, the kids, too were placed among the constellations. Cleostratus of Tenedos is said to have first pointed out these kids among the stars.
- Auðumbla, primeval cow in Norse mythology who nourished the primordial entities Ymir and Búri
- Romulus and Remus, suckled by a she-wolf
- "...the business of Amaltheia, caves and the nurturing of Zeus lands us squarely in Minoan times", John Bennet remarked in passing (Bennet, "The Structure of the Linear B Administration at Knossos" American Journal of Archaeology 89.2 [April 1985:231–249] p. 107 note 39); cf. M.P. Nilsson, The Minoan-Mycenaean Religion and its Survival in Greek Religion (1950:537ff).
- An Egyptian inscription of Amenhotep III (1406–1369 BCE) discussed by Michael C. Astour, "Aegean Place-Names in an Egyptian Inscription" American Journal of Archaeology 70.4 (October 1966:313–317), "shows that the Egyptian scribe conceived the Minoan form of Diktê as the Northwest Semitic word dqt... Aigaion oros=Diktê may well be a Graeco-Semitic doublet, for in Ugaritic ritual texts dqt (literally 'small one') was the term for 'female head of small cattle for sacrifice' and a goat rather than a sheep. Dqt is also found as a divine name in a Ugaritic list of gods, which reminds us of the goat that nourished Zeus in the Dictaean cave." (p. 314).
- See Smith, "Amaltheia".
- Hesiod, Theogony 484.
- For the primitive Amalthea as the goat rather than the goat-herding nymph, see R. W. Hutchinson, Prehistoric Crete (1962:202).
- Hyginus, Fabulae 182 (Smith and Trzaskoma, p. 158. An outdated Latin text of Hyginus' Fabulae has Althaea, see Smith and Trzaskoma, p. 191 endnote to 182; West, p. 133); Smith, "Amaltheia", which cites Schol. ad Hom. II. 21.194.
- Gee, pp. 131–132, which cites the epitome of Eratosthenes Catasterismoi 13.
- Apollodorus, 2.7.5.
- The early fourth-century Christian apologist Lactantius (Institutiones I.22) makes the father of Amalthea and her honey-providing sister Melissa, a Melisseus, "king of Crete"; this example of the common Christian Euhemerist interpretation of Greek myth as fables of humans superstitiously credited with supernatural powers during the passage of time does not represent the actual cultural history of Amalthea, save in its synthesised reflection of an alternative mythic tradition, that infant Zeus was fed with honey: see Bee (mythology).
- According to Aratus of Sicyon, the Achaeans believed that his happened in their capital Aegium (Strabo, Geography, VIII 7,5). Legendary infancy episodes of some historical figures—and poetical figures, such as Longus' Daphnis—were suckled by goats, and the actual practice lingered in Italy into the nineteenth century: see William M. Calder, III, "Longus 1. 2: The She-Goat Nurse" Classical Philology 78.1 (January 1983:50–51).
- Bernard Evslin, Gods, Demigods and Demons: A Handbook of Greek Mythology: s.v. "Adamanthea", "Amalthea"; Patricia Monaghan, Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines, 2009, s.v. Adamanthea".
- Kerenyi, p. 94.
- David Leeming, The Oxford Companion to World Mythology (Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 13; Robert Parker, Polytheism and Society at Athens (Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 422.
- Theoi Project: "Amaltheia"
- Theoi Project: on-line complete text in English translation
- Apollodorus, Apollodorus, The Library, with an English Translation by Sir James George Frazer, F.B.A., F.R.S. in 2 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1921. Online version at the Perseus Digital Library.
- Gee, Emma, Ovid, Aratus and Augustus: Astronomy in Ovid's Fasti, Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 9780521651875.
- Hesiod, Theogony, in The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914. Online version at the Perseus Digital Library.
- Hyginus, Gaius Julius, Fabulae in Apollodorus' Library and Hyginus' Fabuae: Two Handbooks of Greek Mythology, Translated, with Introductions by R. Scott Smith and Stephen M. Trzaskoma, Hackett Publishing Company, 2007. ISBN 978-0-87220-821-6.
- Kerenyi, Karl. The Gods of the Greeks. London: Thames & Hudson, 1951.
- Smith, William; "Amaltheia", Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, London (1873).
- West, M. L. (1983), The Orphic Poems, Clarendon Press. ISBN 978-0-19-814854-8.
- Media related to Amalthea (mythology) at Wikimedia Commons