Cronus: The Titan King

We all know and love the mighty gods that make up the classical Greek pantheon, but how much is known about their predecessors, the Titans? 

Not to be mistaken with the bone-chilling Titans of the hit anime Attack on Titan, with their disturbing appearances and soulless eyes, these powerhouse gods ruled the world for eons before the more famous Olympian gods took the helm. The Titans existed before Zeus was king. 

A baby-eating, patricidal god, Cronus ruled over all after deposing his father from the throne. A generation of trauma ensued that ended with Cronus’ youngest son (that’s Zeus) eating one of his wives . All in all, it’s a bit hard to think of the world in tranquility with all that was happening on Mount Othrys, the Titan stronghold.

Anyways, it’s safe to say that Cronus (spelt alternatively as Kronos, Cronos, or Chronos) ruled with an iron fist – or, more appropriately, an iron jaw. Oh, and an unbreakable blade made of a legendary metal. 

This great-grandaddy of the Greek gods acts as a vessel for a human tale; a fantastical warning: do not try to escape time, for it is inescapable. 

What is Cronus the God of?

Thanks to the ambiguity of the role of the Titans in the larger scheme of things, Cronus is a bit of a lesser-known god. However, despite living in the shadows of more widely admired deities, he is one of the most influential gods out there.

Cronus is the god of time; more specifically, he is the god of time as it is seen as an unstoppable, all-consuming force. This concept is represented in his most famous myth, when he makes the decision to swallow his children – don’t worry, we’ll touch on this later. 

His name is a literal translation of the Greek word for time, Chronos, and he oversaw the progression of time. 

After the period of Antiquity (500 BCE – 336 BCE), Cronus became viewed more so as the god that keeps time orderly – he keeps things in chronological order. 

At this stage in the Titan’s development and portrayal, he is viewed as much less of a spooky, breathing-on-your-neck character. He is more welcomed than before, as it is he who keeps innumerable life cycles going. Cronus’ influence was significantly felt during periods of planting and periods of seasonal change, both of which in turn made him the ideal patron of the harvest. 

Who is Cronus?

Besides being the god of time, Cronus is the husband of his sister, Rhea, the goddess of motherhood, and the infamous father of the gods Hestia, Poseidon, Demeter, Hades, Hera, and Zeus in Greek mythology. His other notable children include the three unwavering Moirai (known also as the Fates) and the wise centaur, Chiron, who spent his years training a host of celebrated Greek heroes. 

Despite being a criminally bad father, husband, and son, Cronus’ rule was marked by the starry-eyed Golden Age of man, where men wanted for nothing and lived in bliss. This age of bounty ended soon after Zeus took control of the universe.

The Golden Age of Cronus

For some quick background, the Golden Age is a period of time when man first inhabited Earth as creations of Cronus. During this gilded time, man knew no sorrow and the realm was in a state of constant order. There were no women and no such thing as social hierarchy or stratification. More importantly, there were devout men, and there were acknowledged – and very much praised – gods. 

According to the inimitable Roman poet, Ovid (43 BC – 18 AD) in his work The Metamorphoses, there were four unique ages that mankind’s history could be divided into: the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age (the age which Ovid places himself in). 

The Golden Age that Cronus reigned during was a time when there was “no punishment or fear, nor could there be threats printed in bronze, nor a crowd of pleading people feared the words of his judge, but they were all safe even in the absence of any authority.” 

From this, we can gather that the Golden Age was a utopian time for mankind walking Earth-side, even if things were pretty hectic in the heavens. Whatever was going on upstairs had no particular influence on the course of man. 

Furthermore, Ovid notes that men were more or less completely ignorant to things out of reach, and harbored no curiosity to discover or desire to wage war: “Pinewood did not descend on the clear waves to see the world, after being cut from its mountains, and mortals knew nothing beyond their own shores. Steep ditches still did not surround the cities.”

Unfortunately – or fortunately – everything changed when the god of thunder attacked.

What is a Titan in Greek Mythology?

By ancient Greek standards, a Titan is best described as one of the twelve children of the primordial deities known as Uranus (the sky) and Gaia (the Earth). They were a set of Greek deities identified by their massive power and size, being directly born from an all-powerful, ever-present primordial god. 

The primordial deities themselves can be described as the first generation of Greek gods, embodying natural forces and foundations like the earth, sky, night, and day. The ancient Greeks believed that all the primordial gods came from a primal state called Chaos: or, a distant void of nothing. 

So, the Titans were a bit of a big deal. 

Though, unlike the crude and malicious Titans that are spoken about today, the Titans were quite similar to their divine descendants. The title “Titan” was essentially a means for scholars to classify one generation from another and acted as a clear indication of their immense power.

How did Cronus come to Power?

Cronus became King of the Universe by a good, old-fashioned coup d’état

And by coup d’état, we mean Cronus cut off his own father’s members at the behest of his dear mother. A classic!

You see, Uranus made the mistake of getting on Gaia’s bad side. He imprisoned their other children, the huge Hecatoncheires and Cyclopes, in the abyssal realm of Tartarus. So, Gaia implored her Titan sons – Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, and Cronus – to overthrow their father.

Only Cronus, her youngest son, was up to the task. As fate would have it, young Cronus was already boiling over with jealousy at his father’s supreme power and was itching to get his hands on it. 

So, Gaia hatched a plan that went like this: when Uranus would meet with her in private, Cronus would jump out and attack his father. Brilliant, really. Though, first she needed to give their son a weapon befitting of a godly usurper – no plain steel sword would do. And, Cronus can’t just come out with bare fists swinging at Uranus.

In came the adamantine sickle, which would later become Cronus’ signature weapon. The unbreakable metal is referenced in multiple Greek legends, having been what made Prometheus’ punishing chains and the towering gates of Tartarus. The use of adamantine in Cronus’ rise to power hits home just how determined he and Gaia were in ousting the old king.

Cronus Attacks His Father

Cronus attacks his father, Uranus

When it came down to business and Uranus met with Gaia in the night, Cronus attacked his father and castrated him without hesitation. He did so effortlessly, effectively instilling a newfound fear in his male relatives and sending a clear message: do not cross me. Now, scholars argue about what happens next. It is debated whether Cronus killed Uranus, if Uranus absconded from the world entirely, or if Uranus fled to Italy; but, what is certain is that after dispatching Uranus, Cronus seized power.

Next thing the universe knows, Cronus marries his sister, the fertility goddess Rhea, and mankind enters a virtuous Golden Age of order. 

At some point during the coup, Cronus actually freed the Hecatonchires and Cyclopes from Tartarus. He needed the man-power, and he had made a promise to his mother. Though, leave it to Cronus to go back on said promise. 

Any sort of freedom afforded to the hundred-handed and one-eyed giants was short-lived.

Instead of permitting his ill-starred siblings absolute freedom, Cronus re-imprisoned them in Tartarus once his throne was secured (a choice that will come back to haunt him later). To add insult to injury, Cronus had them further guarded by the venom-spitting dragon, Campe, as if unbreakable adamantine jail cells weren’t enough. It is safe to say that at this point, Cronus knew what destruction his siblings were capable of.

The unceremonious re-imprisonment of the Hecatonchires and Cyclopes likely led to Gaia’s aiding of Rhea later on down the line, when the troubled goddess came to her concerned about her husband’s appetite for their newborns.

Cronus and His Children

Yes. In all surviving myths, Cronus did eat the children he had with his sister, Rhea. It has been the subject of terrifying paintings and disturbing statues, including Saturn Devouring His Son by the Spanish Romanticist painter Francisco Goya.

As a matter of fact, so famous is this myth that a statue made its way into the popular video game Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, where it was fictionally erected in the very real-life sanctuary of Elis in Western Greece.

In all encompassing depictions, Cronus borders on monstrous, devouring his children indiscriminately and in a rabid fashion. 

Oh yeah, they’re as bad as they sound. If you’re feeling queasy, they might just make you feel worse. 

It is quintessentially the myth that speaks the most volumes into just how paranoid Cronus was over the stability of his reign. He overthrew his own father fairly easily after Gaia created the adamantine sickle – it wouldn’t be too far-fetched for Cronus to think that his own son or daughter was capable of overthrowing him as well.

On that note, this whole eating babies thing started when Gaia had a prophecy: that one day, Cronus’ children will overthrow him as he did his own father. After the revelation, fear seized Cronus. He became unreachable.

Then, as one terribly concerned with the state of their dynasty does, Cronus took to devouring each of his and Rhea’s children as they were born – that is, until the sixth child. That time around, he unknowingly ate a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes.

Cronus and the Rock

As the story goes, once she counted one too many red flags, Rhea sought Gaia and her wise guidance. Gaia suggested that Rhea should give Cronus a stone to consume instead of her to-be-born child. This was sound advice, naturally, and in came the omphalos stone. 

Being the Greek word for navel, omphalos was the name used to refer to the stone swallowed by Cronus in place of his youngest son. 

Most myths point to the omphalos being the lofty, 3,711 foot Agia Dynati mountain in Kefalonia, Greece. Alternatively, the omphalos that Cronus ate can also be associated with the Delphic Omphalos Stone, an oval-shaped marble rock that dates back to 330 BC. 

This carved stone was placed to indicate the center of the Earth at Zeus’ behest and was used by the Oracles of Delphi as a hotline to the Greek gods themselves. 

Consequently, the only issue faced is that since a rock isn’t really the same as even the heftiest of newborns, Rhea had to figure out a way to trick her husband into eating it. 

The ancient Greeks then believe that the pregnant goddess situated herself in Crete leading up to the birth. It was there in the Idaean Cave on Mount Ida – Crete’s tallest mountain – that Rhea charged a tribal group known as the Kouretes to make tons of noise to drown out the cries of her sixth child and baby, Zeus, once he was born. This event is memorialized in one of the Orphic poems dedicated to Rhea, where she is described as “drum-beating, frantic, of a splendid mien.”

Next, Rhea handed Cronus this totally not suspiciously silent rock-baby and the satiated king was none-the-wiser. It was at Zeus’ birthplace on Mount Ida that the young god was brought up under the nose of his power-hungry father, Cronus. 

Indeed, the lengths at which Rhea hid the existence of Zeus were extreme but necessary. More than having a prophecy to fulfill, she wanted her son to have a fair shot at living: a dear concept that Cronus stole from her.

So, Zeus was raised in obscurity by nymphs under Gaia’s guidance until he was old enough to become a cup-bearer for Cronus and…that’s how Cronus ate stone wrapped in swaddling clothes.

How did the Children get out of Cronus?

After eating what he thought was his own son, Cronus’ rule returned to its regularly scheduled programming. Him and the rest of the Titans lived peacefully for years until his wife convinced him to take in a young man as his cup-bearer. 

Historically, a cup-bearer is a high rank to hold in a royal court. Bearers were trusted to guard the monarch’s cup against poison and were occasionally required to test the drink prior to serving it. This means that Cronus absolutely trusted Zeus with his life, which says a lot since the man was practically obsessed with keeping his crown.

Now, whether the trust came from Rhea’s very vocal support of the young god or by Cronus’ own – albeit poor – judge of character, Zeus became a part of his estranged father’s inner circle very quickly. 

Zeus knew about his parentage. It was not a fact he was ignorant of. More than that though, he knew his siblings were trapped in the gut of their father, long-since grown and ready to break free. 

Coincidentally, the Oceanid Metis, daughter of Oceanus and Tethys, had taken to Zeus and admired his ambitions. She advised him against challenging the aging king without powerful allies. Pretty much, a one-on-one with Cronus was a suicide mission. Thus, Metis gave Zeus some mustard to mix in the king’s wine to hopefully force Cronus to throw up his other kids.

At last, what happened next made for one of the craziest dinner party stories ever: when Zeus handed Cronus the concoction he drank it and then threw up the omphalos stone he swallowed years ago. Yikes.

Yet that wasn’t it. 

Next, he regurgitated his other five kids. Following what must have been one of the most insane escape room scenarios, these other Greek gods were guided to safety by Zeus, who promptly became their de facto leader despite his standing as the baby of the bunch.

Cronus, now aware that his treacherous cupbearer was in fact his mighty son Zeus, cried out for war. All gloves were off, thus ushering in the 10 years known as the Titanomachy.

What was the Titanomachy?

The Titanomachy – known also as the Titan War – came about immediately after Cronus vomited out his five divine children. Naturally, the five freed gods – Hestia, Hades, Hera, Poseidon, and Demeter – sided with their youngest brother, Zeus. He was the most experienced among them all and had already proven himself more than capable of leadership. Meanwhile, the majority of other Titans (likely fearing Cronus’ wrath) sided with the sitting king. 

It is noteworthy that the Titanesses remained relatively neutral in the conflict, and that Oceanus and Prometheus were the lone Titans to not side with Cronus. Moreso, Metis, the Oceanid that had advised Zeus on Cronus’ poisoning, acted as the opposition’s war councilor.

Subsequently, for 10 whole years the two generations clashed on the battlefield alongside their allies, throwing the world in the middle of one of the most violent family feuds ever.

The Greek poet Hesiod’s masterwork Theogony encapsulates the event brilliantly:

“The boundless sea rang terribly around, and the earth crashed loudly…Heaven was shaken and groaned, and high Olympus reeled from its foundation under the charge of the undying gods, and a heavy quaking reached dim Tartarus…then, they launched their grievous shafts upon one another, and the cry of both armies as they shouted reached to starry heaven; and they met together with a great battle-cry.”

At this point, things drew to a stalemate. Both sides exhausted their resources. Then, in came Gaia.

Already revered for her unique ability of foretelling, Gaia informed Zeus of his impending victory. But, there was a catch. To finally defeat his sinful father, Zeus needed to free his family banished away in Tartarus. 

Why Zeus didn’t do this sooner, who knows! It would have certainly helped things along much quicker.

After receiving this sound advice,  Zeus released his hundred-handed and one-eyed family members from Tartarus and slew the jailer dragon, Campe. Luckily for Zeus, the Cyclopes turned out to be splendid smiths. They proceeded to craft Zeus’ iconic thunderbolts, Hades’ distinguished helmet, and Poseidon’s signature trident. 

As for the Hecatonchires, they were practically walking, breathing catapults hundreds  – if not thousands – of years before catapults were even a thing.  With his newfound allies, Zeus absolutely got the advantage and it wasn’t long before he successfully overthrew Cronus.

The Death of Cronus

Interestingly enough, although there is tons of animosity between Zeus and his father, he didn’t kill him. Cut him up, yes, but kill him? 

Nope!

Turns out that after crushing the other Titans and their allies, Zeus chopped up Father Time and tossed him into the pits of Tartarus, never to see the sun again: a bit of poetic justice for the Hecatonchires and Cyclopes. Another win came as the Hecatonchires were charged with guarding the gates to Tartarus, acting now as jailers to their former oppressors.

The fall of Cronus indicated the end of the illustrious Golden Age, with Zeus’ reign encompassing the rest of humankind’s known history.

Did Cronus Cause the Titanomachy?

The Titanomachy is arguably caused by a number of things, but there is no denying that Cronus brought it upon himself. He was a seasoned tyrant at this point, intimidating his entire family into submission. Legitimately, who wanted to step up to the guy who mutilated his own dad without a second thought and eats his babies?

Definitely not the Titan brood.

Cronus’ brothers feared the same fate as Uranus, and none of his sisters had enough sway to do much in the way of compiling an opposing front. In short, even though the Titans may not have necessarily agreed with the way Cronus governed, they couldn’t bring themselves to really do much about it. In this way, Zeus was a bit of a Godsend by the time he tricked Cronus.

To address the root of the issue directly, the Titan War was caused by an instability within an aging king that originated from a very personal fear of betrayal. As things fell apart in the Heavens, it became widely known that the glaring lack of security that haunted Cronus’ waking hours was a direct result of his own decisions. He made the choice to consume his children; he made the choice to keep his other siblings in Tartarus; he is the one who caved to the pressure that came with the crown. 

On that note, whether or not Zeus would have overthrown Cronus if he didn’t swallow his siblings is certainly up for debate, but considering the vast power difference between the two (as is addressed by Metis), whatever coup held would be likely unsuccessful. It is also worth adding that it is unlikely for the other Titans to so willingly double-cross their youngest brother if he hadn’t progressed his reign the way he did. 

Cursed by Uranus

While we can point to Cronus’ outstandingly awful treatment of his children or instead Gaia’s prophecy, there is a possibility that Cronus was actually cursed by his father, Uranus. 

As he was understandably reeling from the betrayal and seething with bitterness, Uranus cursed Cronus and told him that he too would see his downfall at the hands of his own children born by Rhea. Whether or not this was just Uranus wishfully thinking or just a coincidence, we can say for certain that this foreshadowing did a number on Cronus’ inflated ego.

What is Elysium?

Elysium – known also as the Elysian Fields – is a blissful afterlife that the ancient Greeks developed prior to the 8th century BCE. Said to be a sprawling, bountiful field in the sun, the afterlife known as Elysium can be compared to the Christian interpretation of Heaven, where the righteous ascend to after their passing. 

The concept of this peaceful life after death was originally thought to be a physical location found on the western banks of Oceanus at the ends of the Earth, but over time became a plentiful – but otherwise unreachable – plain that those favored by the gods went to once they died. 

Furthermore, Elysium was believed to be a realm entirely separate from the Underworld. This means that Hades had no sway there. Instead, the ruler has been claimed to be a myriad of different individuals over time. 

While the poet Pindar (518 BCE – 438 BCE) claimed Cronus – long since forgiven by Zeus – was the ruler of the Elysian Fields with the demi-god ex-king of Crete Rhadamanthus as his sage councilor, the famous Homer (~928 BCE) contrarily states that Rhadamanthus was ruler alone.

Honestly, it would be nice to imagine that Cronus was eventually forgiven for his trespasses and that the all-devouring god turned a new leaf. The change would also count Cronus as a chthonic deity, much like his son, Hades, the god of the underworld, and his daughter-in-law, Persephone.

How was Cronus Worshiped?

For being the epitome of a big bad in early myths, it may be surprising to find out that Cronus had any kind of mass worship. Alas, even mythical villains that swallow rocks and cut off their father’s genitals need a bit of love too.

Worship of Cronus was widespread for a time, with his cult centralizing in pre-Hellenic Greece before losing momentum. Eventually, the cult of Cronus extended out to the Roman Empire following occupation with Cronus being equated to the Roman deity Saturn, and combined with the cult to the  Egyptian god Sobek– a crocodilian fertility god – in Greco-Roman Egypt.

The Cult of Cronus

The cult of Cronus was arguably far more popular in Greece before the major integration of Hellenism, aka a common Greek culture. 

One of the more significant accounts of Cronus’ worship was by the Greek historian and essayist Plutarch in his work De Facie In Orbe Lunae, where he had described a collection of mysterious islands inhabited by devout worshippers of Cronus and of the hero Heracles. These islands resided in a twenty-day seafaring journey away from Carthage. 

Referred to only as the Cronian Main, this area is mentioned in the myth surrounding the legendary musician Orpheus when he saves the Argonauts from siren song. It is described as having “dead waters,” likely explained away by innumerable rivers and overbearing mud, and is a speculated alternative prison for Father Time: “For Cronus himself sleeps confined in a deep cave of rock that shines like gold – the sleep that Zeus has contrived as a bond for him.”

By Plutarch’s account, these Cronian worshippers took 30-year sacrificial expeditions out after a select few were chosen at random. After attempting to return home following their service, some men were reportedly delayed by prophetic spirits of Cronus’ former allies conjured by the dreaming Titan.

The Kronia Festival

It’s time for some good old-fashioned nostalgia. 

The purpose of the Kronia Festival was to have citizens relive the Golden Age. Accordingly, celebrants feasted. They bid adieu to social stratification and those who were enslaved were granted complete freedom for the celebrations. 

Likewise, wealth became insignificant as everyone came together in mass to eat, drink, and be merry. The Kronia became representative of this fervent admiration and deep yearning to return to these early golden years, of  which predated the “hierarchical, exploitative, and predatory relationships” that riddled society. 

In particular, the Athenians celebrated Cronus towards the end of July in relation to the mid-summer harvesting of cereal grains 

What Are Symbols of Cronus?

Most ancient gods have symbols that are closely related to them, whether they take the form of creatures, celestial bodies, or everyday items. 

When looking at the symbols of Cronus, his symbols largely relate back to his underworld and agricultural ties. It is equally important to note that many of Cronus’ symbols are derived from his Roman god equivalent, Saturn. 

Saturn himself is a god of wealth and of plenty, and the more specific god of sowing seed as it relates to farming. Both are accepted as gods of harvest and share similar symbolism.

A symbol that didn’t make it to the following list is the hourglass, which has become a symbol of Cronus in more modern artistic interpretations.

The Snake

By ancient Greek standards, snakes were usually symbols of medicine, fertility, or as messengers on behalf of the Underworld. They were largely viewed as chthonic beings that belonged to the Earth, slithering in and out of cracks in the ground and beneath rocks. 

Looking to Cronus, the snake could be tied to his role as a general harvest deity. History has shown time and time again that when there is plenty of food and other necessities around, populations sky-rocket – this sort of thing usually occurred in the aftermath of an agricultural revolution. 

Meanwhile in Greco-Roman Egypt, Cronus was equated with the Egyptian Earth deity Geb, who was the acclaimed father of snakes and the pivotal ancestor of other gods that made up the ancient Egyptian pantheon. 

Other gods in Greek mythology related to snakes include the fun-loving Dionysus and the healing Asclepius.

READ MORE: Snake Gods

A Sickle

Best known as an early farming tool to harvest wheat and other grain crops, the sickle is a reference to the adamantine sickle given to Cronus by his mother, Gaia, to castrate and overthrow his father, Uranus. Otherwise, the sickle can be interpreted as the prosperity of the Golden Age which Cronus ruled.

Occasionally, the sickle is replaced with a harpe, or a curved blade that is reminiscent of an Egyptian khopesh. Other interpretations replaced the sickle with the scythe. This gave Cronus a more haunting look, as scythes today are related back to an image of death: the grim reaper. 

Grain

As a widespread symbol of sustenance, grain is usually associated with a harvest god like Demeter. However, the comfort of the Golden Age meant that bellies were full, and since Cronus was king during that time, he naturally became related to grain. 

To a greater extent, Cronus was the original patron of the harvest prior to Demeter’s acquisition of the title. 

Who was Cronus’ Roman Equivalent?

In Roman mythology, Cronus was closely associated with the Roman deity, Saturn. On the contrary, Cronus’ Roman variant was much more likable, and acted as a city god of a hot-spring town named Saturnia, located in modern Tuscany. 

The ancient Romans held the belief that Saturn (as did Cronus) oversaw the time known as the Golden Age. His associations with prosperity and plenty lead to his very own Temple of Saturn in Rome acting as the Republic’s personal treasury. 

Further on this, the Romans believed that Saturn arrived in Latium as a god seeking refuge once he was deposed by his son, Jupiter – an idea that is echoed by the Roman poet Virgil (70 BCE – 19 BCE). However, Latium was being ruled by a two-headed god of new beginnings known as Janus. Now, while this may have been viewed as a road block by some, it turns out that Saturn brought agriculture with him to Latium, and as a thanks he was rewarded by Janus with co-rulership of the kingdom.

The most anticipated festival of Saturn was known as Saturnalia, and would be held every December. Festivities included a sacrifice, massive banquets, and silly gift-giving. There would even be a man crowned the “King of Saturnalia” who would preside over the merry-making and deal out light-hearted orders to those in attendance. 

Although Saturnalia drew tons of influence from the earlier Greek Kronia, this Roman variant was much more hyped-up; the festival was an unquestionably massive hit amongst the populace and was extended out to be a week-long party that stretched from December 17th to the 23rd.

Also, the name “Saturn” is where we modern folk get the word “Saturday” from, so we can sort of thank the ancient Roman religion for the weekend.

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