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Divine personification of the breeze in Greek and Roman mythology
Nonnus' tells the story of the rape of Aura, by Dionysus, in the final book of his epic poem the Dionysiaca (early 5th century). In this account, Aura is the nymph daughter of the TitanLelantos. Nonnus seems to imply that Aura's mother was the wife of Lenatos, the Oceanid nymph Periboia, although elsewhere, he calls Aura the "daughter of Cybele".
Aura was a resident of Phrygia and companion of the goddess Artemis. She was "Aura the Windmaid", as fast as the wind, "the mountain maiden of Rhyndacos", a "manlike" virgin, "who knew nothing of Aphrodite", and huntress, who "ran down the wild bear" and "ravening lions", and "kept aloof from the notions of unwarlike maids".
Nonnus describes Aura as follows:
Then [Dionysus] left the halls of Pallene and Thracian Boreas, and went on to Rheia's house, where the divine court of the prolific Cybele stood on Phrygian soil. There grew Aura the mountain maiden of Rhyndacos, and hunted over the foothills of rocky Dindymon. She was yet unacquainted with love, a comrade of the Archeress. She kept aloof from the notions of unwarlike maids, like a younger Artemis, this daughter of Lelantos; for the father of this stormfoot girl was ancient Lelantos the Titan, who wedded Periboia, a daughter of Oceanos; a manlike maid she was, who knew nothing of Aphrodite. She grew up taller than her yearsmates, a lovely rosy-armed thing, ever a friend of the hills. Often in hunting she ran down the wild bear, and sent her swift lance shooting against the lioness, but she slew no prickets and shot no hares. No, she carried her tawny quiver to shoot down hillranging tribes of ravening lions, with her shafts that were death to wild beasts. Her name was like her doings: Aura the Windmaid could run most swiftly, keeping pace with the highland winds.
One day, angry at Eros ("Desire") and "Sleep" and "Dream" for forcing upon her an unchaste dream, Aura goes hunting with Artemis. For relief from the midday heat, the hunting party stops for a swim. Aura then teases Artemis, saying that her breasts were better than Artemis's, since hers were small and round like a man's, while Artemis's were large and voluptuous like a woman's, and so belied Artemis' supposed "unviolated maidenhood". Deeply offended, the angry Artemis goes to Nemesis, the goddess of divine retribution, who arranges for Aura to be raped. Dionysus is made mad with desire for Aura, by an arrow from the bow of Eros. But knowing that he will never be able to seduce the obdurately virginal Aura, Dionysus drugs Aura with wine, ties her up, and rapes her while she is unconscious and unmoving. When Aura awakes, discovering she is no longer a virgin, but not knowing who is responsible, enraged, she proceeds to slaughter every man she finds. When she realizes she is pregnant, she tries to kill herself but is unable. Aura finally gives birth to twins boys. She gives them to a lioness to eat, but it refuses. So Aura seizes one of the boys, flings it high into the air, and after it falls back to hit the ground, she eats it. However, Artemis spirits the other child safely away. Aura then drowns herself in the river Sangarios, where Zeus turned her into a spring:
her breasts became the spouts of falling water, the stream was her body, the flowers her hair, her bow the horn of the horned River in bull-shape, the bowstring changed into a rush and the whistling arrows into vocal reeds, the quiver passed through to the muddy bed of the river and, changed to a hollow channel, poured its sounding waters.
According to Nonnus, Aura's surviving child by Dionysus, is Iacchus, a minor deity connected with the Eleusinian mysteries, although other accounts have Iacchus, when not identified with Dionysus himself, the son of Demeter or Persephone.
In the Metamorphoses, Ovid has Cephalus tell how it was his habit, that after finishing a hunt, he would seek out the cooling breeze:
"I wooed the breeze, blowing gently on me in my heat; the breeze I waited for. She was my labour's rest. 'Come, Aura,' I remember I used to cry, 'come soothe me; come into my breast, most welcome one, and, as indeed you do, relieve the heat with which I burn.' Perhaps I would add, for so my fates drew me on, more endearments, and say: 'Thou art my greatest joy; thou dost refresh and comfort me; thou makest me to love the woods and solitary places. It is ever my joy to feel thy breath upon my face.'
But one day, as Cephalus tells: "Some one overhearing these words was deceived by their double meaning; and, thinking that the word 'Aura' so often on my lips was a nymph's name, was convinced that I was in love with some nymph." When Cephalus' words were reported to his wife Procris, she was stricken with grief and fear, over, according to Cephalus, a "mere nothing" and "an empty name". The next day after a successful morning's hunt, Cephalus cried out again: "Come, Aura, come and soothe my toil" but when he said this Cephalus thought he heard a groan and called out: "Come, dearest". Then hearing the rustle of leaves, he threw his javelin, at what he thought was some animal, but was instead Procris, who had come to spy on her husband. With her dying breath Procris says: "By the union of our love, by the gods above and my own gods, by all that I have done for you, and by the love that still I bear you in my dying hour, the cause of my own death, I beg you, do not let this Aura take my place." And Cephalus says: "And then I knew at last that it was a mistake in the name".
Extant images of Aura from antiquity are rare. There are only two which can be identified as Aura by inscription. The oldest is a fifth-century BC skyphos from Taranto, now in the Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney (53.30), which shows a figure labeled "Aura", seated on a rock by the sea, with velificatio, a billowing garment that forms an arch overhead. The other is found on a volute-krater funerary vase (c. 370–350 BC), now in the British Museum (F277). Depicted on its neck is a polos-crowned head with curls, and the inscription "Aura" above the polos crown.
Pliny describes two statues of Aurae with velificantes sua veste, "spreading their cloaks like sails", at the Porticus Octaviae in Rome. Influenced by Pliny's description, a pair of velificantes (figures framed by a velificatio) that appear on the Ara Pacis Augustae ("Altar of Augustan Peace") have often been identified as Aurae, although this identification has been criticized, and many other identications have been proposed.
Aurae can resemble Nereids, from whom they are distinguishable mainly by the absence of marine imagery. The female figures with wind-blown drapery, which adorned the Nereid Monument at Xanthos, though usually identified as Nereids, have sometimes been identified as Aurae.
^Spaeth, pp. 67, (with nn. 11–15), 77; de Grummond, p. 669. For identifications as Aurae see for example Zanker, pp. 174-175; Simon, p. 27. According to de Grummond, this identification [as Aurae] "rests on a thin foundation", pointing out that the mere presence of a velificatio is not definitive as many other figures are shown with them. Spaeth, p. 78, asserts that the identification as Aurae "may therefore be rejected". Other identifications for the pair, mentioned by Spaeth, p. 67, are "an Aura and a Nereid; nymphs; a nymph and a Nereid; a Muse and a sea divinity; the celestial and marine aspects of Venus; and the Horae." de Grummond identifies the pair as Horae, while Spaeth, p. 78, identifies the pair as "a Nereid, or a sea nymph, and a Naiad, or freshwater nymph".