When we think about the Greek god associated with light, Apollo is the one that comes to mind. But before Apollo, there existed, within Greek mythology, another figure who was linked with all forms of celestial light. This was the Titan Hyperion, a figure of mystery even now, who is known for being the father of the forms of celestial light available to us today.
The Figure of Hyperion: Greek Mythology
Today, the figure of Hyperion remains rather nebulous. Not much is known about the god, other than the fact that he was one of the Greek Titans, the ancient and primordial beings who predate the much better known Greek gods and goddesses that came later, the most famous being the Twelve Olympian gods.
Hyperion does not play a major part in any of the myths and all that is known about him is that he was probably one of the Titans who supported his brother Cronos’ reign. The story of Hyperion ends before humankind even came into existence, with the fall of the great Titans after the great war known as the Titanomanchy. But bits and pieces of knowledge about him have been eked out from the few sources that remain about him.
The High One: Titan God of Heavenly Light
The name Hyperion is derived from the Greek word meaning ‘the high one’ or ‘he who watches from above.’ This is not a reference to the position of power that he held, but rather his physical position. Since Hyperion was the god of celestial light, it was believed that he himself was the source of all illumination.
Hyperion is not a sun god or the god of any specific source of light, which had not been created yet. Rather, he was a representation of the light of the heavens that illuminated all of the universe in a more general sense.
The Theory of Diodorus Siculus
Diodorus Siculus, in his Library of History, Chapter 5, says of Hyperion that he may have been the first to watch the movements of the celestial bodies like the sun and moon and this is why he became known as the father of the sun and moon. His observations of how these affected the earth and life on it and the time periods they gave birth to gave him an insight into a great fount of knowledge that was hitherto unknown.
The Titans of Early Greek Myth
Hyperion was one of the 12 great Titans, the children of the earth goddess, Gaia, and the sky god, Uranus. The Titans, as can be conjectured by their names, were of giant stature. Of these great gods and goddesses, whose names have fallen into disuse with the rise in power of their children, the ones who are still widely known are Cronos, Mnemosyne, and Tethys.
The myths that Hyperion mostly appears in are the creation myths about the Titans and the myths about the Titanomachy. He, alongside his brothers and sisters, fought to first overthrow their tyrannical father and then in the long wars with their nephews and nieces, the younger Greek gods.
The Creation Myth
Hyperion, like the other Titans, lived during the Golden Age, before the coming of humankind. The six daughters of Gaia and Uranus were sometimes called the Titanides by the Greeks. There were also six other sons, other than the six Titan brothers. These were the three Cyclops and the three Hecatoncheires, huge monsters who offended their father by their very appearance and size.
The Pillars of Heaven
It is believed that four brothers, Hyperion, Coeus, Crius, and Iapetus held aloft the four pillars of heaven that were situated on the four corners of the earth and held the sky up. Hyperion was charged with being the guardian of the Pillar of the East, as that is the side that the sun and the moon, his children, rose from.
This is strange mythology to emerge from Greece since the Greeks are believed to have known that the Earth was round.
The War against their Father
Disgusted by the monstrous looks of the Cyclops and the Hecatoncheires, Uranus imprisoned them within the earth, deep within Gaia’s womb. Upset by this treatment of her children, Gaia called upon the Titans to kill Uranus and set their brothers free.
Some stories say that Cronos alone was brave enough to take up arms against his father and that Gaia aided him by giving him an adamantine sickle and helping him set a trap for Uranus. But other stories reference the four brothers who held the pillars, saying that they held Uranus off Gaia to give Cronos enough time to castrate Uranus with the sickle. If so, Hyperion was obviously one of those who aided Cronos against their father.
The Reign of Cronos
The Reign of Cronos was known as the Golden Age. When Cronos came to know that he would be overthrown by his son, just as he had overthrown his father, he killed five of his six children as soon as they were born. Only the sixth, Zeus, was saved by the quick thinking of his mother Rhea.
The Titanomachy and the Fall of the Titans
When Zeus was grown, he resurrected his five brothers. Then began the Titanomachy, the war between the younger Greek gods and the older Titans. This war continued for a decade, as the two sides fought for supremacy.
Hyperion’s role in the Titanomachy is not clearly delineated. But as one of the oldest brothers, it is assumed that he fought on the side of his brother Cronos. Only a few of the younger Titans, like Prometheus, fought on the side of Zeus.
Imprisonment in Tartarus
The older gods were defeated and overthrown by Zeus and his followers. Following their defeat, they were cast into the pits of Tartarus. Some myths claim that Cronos crowned himself the king of Tartarus, having been defeated in the heavens. The Titans dwelled there for many years before Zeus pardoned them and freed them.
The Decline of the Titans in Greek Myth
Even after his freedom, not much was said about the first generation Titan. Like his siblings, Hyperion fell into insignificance after his long imprisonment. Perhaps there was no place for him in the new universe, ruled by his children and grandchildren.
Before his children gained prominence, he may well have lit up the entire universe with his glory. We can only conjecture since so little knowledge remains of the Titans who predated the Greek deities.
Hyperion’s Association with Heavenly Bodies
Hyperion is associated with many celestial bodies, including both the sun and the moon. One of Saturn’s moons is also named after Hyperion and is quite unique because of its lopsided shape.
Marriage with Theia
Hyperion married his sister Theia. Theia was the Titan goddess of the aether, associated with the blue color of the sky. It is not surprising that they gave birth to the god and goddesses of dawn and sun and moon .
The Children of Hyperion
Hyperion and Theia had three children together. Hyperion’s children were all associated with the heavens and illumination in some way or the other. Indeed, they are the more famous of the Greek gods and goddesses now and their father’s legacy lives on through them.
Eos, Goddess of the Dawn
Their daughter, Eos, the goddess of the dawn, was their eldest child. Thus, she is the first to appear each day. She is the first warmth of the day and it is her duty to announce the coming of her brother, the sun god.
Helios, the Sun God
Helios is the sun god of the Greeks. Mythology says he drove across the sky everyday in a golden chariot. In some texts, his name has been conflated with his father’s. But Helios was not the god of all light, only of the sun. However, he did inherit his father’s all-seeing position.
Sometimes, the sun god has been referred to as Helios Hyperion. But this does not mean he was one person. The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography by Johns Hopkins University Press says that Homer applies the name to Helios in a patronymic sense, as equivalent to Hyperionion or Hyperionides, and this is an example that other poets also take up.
Selene, the Moon Goddess
Selene is the goddess of the moon. Like her brother, Selene was said to drive a chariot across the sky every day, bringing the light of the moon to the earth. She has many children, through Zeus as well as with a human lover named Endymion.
Hyperion in Literature and Pop Culture
The Titan Hyperion appears in a number of literary and artistic sources. Perhaps because of his very absence from Greek mythology, he has become a figure of fascination for so many.
Early Greek Literature
Mentions of Hyperion may be found in early Greek literature by Pindar and Auschylus. It is from the latter’s fragmentary play, Prometheus Unbound, that we find that Zeus eventually released the Titans from Tartarus.
Earlier references are found in the Iliad and Odyssey by Homer but it is mostly in reference to his son Helios, the more important god at the time.
Early Modern Literature
John Keats wrote an epic poem for the ancient Titan, a poem that was later abandoned. He started writing Hyperion in 1818. He abandoned the poem out of dissatisfaction but picked up those themes of knowledge and human suffering and explored them in his later work, The Fall of Hyperion.
Shakespeare too makes a reference to Hyperion in Hamlet and seems to indicate his physical beauty and majesty in that passage. For a figure that has very little recorded information, it is interesting that writers such as Keats and Shakespeare were so enthralled by him.
The God of War Games
Hyperion appears in The God of War games as one of the several Titans who are imprisoned in Tartarus. While he only physically makes one appearance, his name appears several times in the series. Interestingly, he was the first Titan seen and was one of the smaller Titans featured in the games.
The Hyperion Cantos
Dan Simmons’ science fiction series, The Hyperion Cantos, is based on a fictional planet called Hyperion, a pilgrimage spot in an intergalactic civilization torn apart by war and chaos. This is a fitting tribute to the God of Celestial Light indeed.