Familiar as we are with the names of the major Olympian gods like Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Aphrodite, and Hades, it does come as something of a surprise when we learn that these mighty gods were not the originals.
There existed before them an entire race of beings, immense in both stature and power, who were in essence the fathers and uncles of the Greek gods and goddesses that we are more familiar with. These were the Titans.
Rising to and falling from power well before the birth of humankind, these magnificent beings ruled over the heavens and the Earth in an age of violence and brutality that makes the ancient Greeks seem civilized and meek. Of these great and terrifying Titans, Iapetus was one.
Who was Iapetus?
Iapetus is a name that is virtually unknown in the modern day, outside of astronomy circles. However, he was one of the original twelve Titans, descended from Gaia and Uranus., and is known as the Greek titan god of morality.
The parents of Iapetus were mythic figures even in Greek mythology, having existed long before Zeus and the other Olympians came to power. While the powers and domains of these Titans remain rather vague to modern audiences, Iapetus was generally considered to be the god of mortality.
Origins of Iapetus
Iapetus was one of the six sons of the primordial deities, the sky god Uranus and the earth and mother goddess Gaia. In some ways, Gaia was the grandmother of every mortal and immortal being and the beginning of everything, according to Greek mythology. It was no fluke that she was given the title of the Supreme Earth Mother.
Apart from the twelve Titans, her children included the three one-eyed Cyclops and the three Hecatoncheires or Giants with Uranus as well as five sea deities with Pontus, Uranus’ brother. Thus, many of the stalwarts in Greek mythology can be said to be the siblings of Iapetus.
The Twelve Greek Titans
According to Greek poet Hesiod’s Theogony, the original twelve Titans, also called the Uranides, were the six sons and six daughters of Uranus and Gaia. They were called Titans both because of their massive size and the scope of their powers, which while slightly ambiguous in nature, was nevertheless believed to be much superior in scale to what their children later wielded.
Giant statures seemed to be the norm in those days, since the other children of Gaia are also said to be massive. However, it can be assumed that the Titans were more beautiful than the Giants and Hecatoncheires and therefore did not offend their father’s senses. It still did not save Uranus from defeat and overthrow at the hands of his sons, led by the youngest Titan Cronus.
The Titans were said to practice ancient magics and rituals and their physical strength was just as extraordinary as their magical powers. They lived on top of Mount Othrys, just like the later generation of Greek gods lived on Mount Olympus.
The Titan God of Mortality
The powers of the ancient Titans are ambiguous and mysterious. The domains they ruled over, like heavenly light or memory or sight, can be difficult to understand for us, particularly as so little information exists about them. However, most sources agree that Iapetus was the god of mortality. What that means is not really clear. One would assume that it makes Iapetus the most violent and destructive force among the Titans and that he was the one who was connected to death.
But his scope seemed to be wider than that. Through his sons, Iapetus is the Titan who has the strongest connection to mortal life and mortals in general, that is, human beings. Indeed, he is considered the father or grandfather to the human race. Thus, it is perhaps fitting that the Titan most associated with mortals should be the god of mortality.
Meaning of the name Iapetus
The etymology of ‘Iapetus’ is not certain. It may be derived from the Greek word ‘iaptein,’ which means ‘to hurl’ or ‘to injure.’ Thus, this could be a reference to Zeus hurling Iapetus and his brothers into Tartarus. But it could also mean that Iapetus is the one to wound or injure his opponents.
Another explanation might be that ‘Iapetus’ or ‘Japetus’ predates the ancient Greeks. This name then establishes a connection between the Titan and the biblical Japheth, who was the third son of Noah and was himself considered to be the progenitor of the human race. Japheth was believed to be the common ancestor of the people of Europe in the same way that Iapetus, as the father of Prometheus who created mankind, was the ancestor of humanity at large.
The more brutal and violent meaning behind the name ‘Iapetus’ is the belief that it derives from the Greek ‘iapetus’ or ‘japetus,’ meaning ‘to pierce,’ assumedly with a spear. This makes Iapetus the aggressor and indeed The Piercer is the title that he is most commonly known by. While the texts about the Titanomachy are few, some sources say that Iapetus was one of the generals in the war against the younger gods and that he was finally defeated in a one-on-one combat with Zeus himself. This visual of Iapetus as a fierce warrior and fighter lives up to both his title of The Piercer and his status as the god of mortality and violent death.
However, another interpretation exists for this moniker which names Iapetus the god of craftsmanship. If he did indeed play this role, then the duality of Iapetus would be an interesting aspect of the god. However, there is very little evidence for this and in most texts he is designated the god of mortality.
Iapetus in Greek Mythology
The role and mentions of Iapetus in Greek mythology is intricately entwined with the deeds and roles of his brothers. They were all involved in the two major wars and upheavals caused by the shift in power first from Uranus to Cronus (also called Kronos) and then to Zeus. Given his role in these wars and the sons that he fathered, Iapetus played a small but significant role in Greek mythology.
War against Uranus and the Golden Age
When Uranus became offended by his unsightly children, the Cyclops and the Hecatoncheires, he imprisoned them deep inside their Earth Mother Gaia’s womb. Enraged at this act, Gaia sought the help of her sons to take vengeance on Uranus. She created an adamantine sickle which she gave to her youngest son. When the sky god arrived to force himself on Gaia, four of her sons (Hyperion, Crius, Coeus, and Iapetus) are said to have held him off while their brother Kronos castrated him. Humiliated and defeated, Uranus fled, leaving Cronus the ruler of the Titan gods.
Iapetus stood beside Cronus during the Golden Age and seemed to have supported his reign whole-heartedly. This is perhaps unusual in that Cronus was the youngest son among the Titans and by all accounts his elder brothers did not challenge his right to rule. This is a tradition that can, interestingly, be seen continued with the younger gods, since Zeus was also the youngest of the six children of Cronus and Rhea.
The Four Pillars
After the defeat of Uranus, Iapetus became one of the four pillars at the four corners of the world that held the sky or the heavens up from the earth. Iapetus represented the pillar of the west, while Hyperion was the pillar of the east, Crius the pillar of the south, and Coeus the pillar of the north. The four brothers did not just hold the pillars up but were actually considered to be personifications of the pillars themselves, representative of when they held their father off their mother as Cronus warred against him.
The Titanomachy was the war that kicked off when Cronus ate his children by Rhea out of paranoia that they would usurp him. When Rhea managed to save the youngest child Zeus, he grew up to defeat his father and rescue his brothers and sisters from their father’s belly. Then the younger gods went to war against the elder Titans.
Some of the other Titans, particularly the younger generation, seem to not have taken part in the war or had taken part on the side of the Olympians. Iapetus’ son Prometheus fought on the side of the Olympian gods, although that did not prevent him from getting on Zeus’ bad side later. His other son Atlas, however, was the leader of Cronus’ troops and for this he was given a punishment that was strangely different to what his father and uncles faced.
It cannot be known what Iapetus thought of Cronus’ actions but he fought by his brother’s side and was defeated just the same. Having lost the war, he was thrown into Tartarus.
Banishment to Tartarus
Tartarus was the deepest part of the underworld, according to Greek mythology, the prison where the gods locked up their enemies. It was the Greek counterpart to the biblical hell dimension. Iapetus is the only Titan other than Cronus who was specifically mentioned to be locked away in Tartarus by the famous epic poet, the Greek Homer of Iliad and Odyssey fame. While the participation of the other Titans in the war is simple conjecture, the role of Iapetus is thus confirmed.
The Titans had a large family and given how intertwined their myths are, it makes it difficult to talk about one without mentioning the roles of the others. However, what the relationships of Iapetus was like with his parents or brothers and sisters cannot conclusively be determined. The strange thing about Titan myths is that the beings existed more as the fathers and mothers of the more famous later generations than as people in themselves. Their roles seem to have been primarily to produce the younger generation of Greek gods and deities.
Relationship with Brothers and Sisters
The relationships between the Titan and his brothers seem to be close and supportive, which is quite unusual by the standards of the Greek gods. What is clear is that Iapetus stood by Cronus when his children went to war against him and that he worked well with the rest of his brothers as the four pillars holding up the heavens. Even though Iapetus was the only other named Titan to be banished to Tartarus, the lack of mention of the other brothers in the later Greek myths seems to imply that they were all imprisoned at Tartarus as well.
The fates of his sisters, Theia or Tethys or Phoebe, seems uncertain. Some of the Titanesses were still important in the later eras as it is clear Themis and Mnemosyne still remained the goddess of justice and memory respectively. In fact, both Themis and Mnemosyne are said to have had children with Zeus. Perhaps the Greek god forgave them for their transgressions against him or perhaps they did not rise in rebellion against him alongside their brothers.
The Possible Consorts of Iapetus
Many of the original twelve Titans married among themselves, brother and sister, like Cronus and Rhea or Hyperion and Theia. However, according to most sources, Iapetus did not follow in the footsteps of the other Titans. The Theogony names Clymene, one of the daughters of Iapetus’ brother Oceanus and his sister-wife Tethys, as his consort.
As per the Greek myths, Iapetus and Clymene had four sons together, each significant in their own ways. According to other sources, the consort of Iapetus may have been Asia, which seems to have been another name for Clymene.
However, Aeschylus in his play, Prometheus Bound, names Themis the mother of Prometheus. This would make her one of the consorts of Iapetus. This has not been verified by any other texts and differs sharply from Hesiod’s version of the Prometheus myth, as much of Aeschylus’ play does.
The Offspring of Iapetus
Iapetus, like most of his brothers and sisters, is succeeded by much more famous and well-known children. In his case, these children are not Olympians but a younger generation of Titans. Interestingly enough, the children of Iapetus found themselves on opposite sides of the Titanomachy. Two sons, Prometheus and Epimetheus, seem to have fought for the Olympian gods while the other two, Atlas and Menoitios, fought against them. But all of them suffered the wrath of Zeus and were punished by him at one time or another. All four were the progeny of Iapetus and Clymene.
Iapetus’ most famous son, Prometheus, is well-known for creating humankind out of clay according to the orders of Zeus and then going against the Greek god to give fire to the humans. The two primary accounts that we have of Prometheus are Hesiod’s Theogony and Aeschylus’ epic poem, Prometheus Unbound. Prometheus Unbound paints a rather different picture of the young Titan than Hesiod does, making him out to be a sympathetic and kind figure instead of the sly, wicked, scheming Prometheus of the Theogony who attempted to trick the king of the gods and caused the humans to lose the favor of the Greek gods.
For his trickery, it was ordered that Prometheus be chained to a rock and for an eagle to tear open his stomach and eat his internal organs everyday. Prometheus healed quickly, making this form of eternal torture a brutal punishment indeed. It is not difficult for sympathetic poets to paint Prometheus as the aggrieved hero and Zeus the villain in this story, which is exactly what Aeschylus did.
The brave and warlike son, Atlas, was supposedly the general of the Titan forces during their war against the Olympians. Once defeated, his punishment was different from that of his fathers and uncles. Atlas was given the duty of holding off the sky from the earth, a job that had been done by his father and three uncles before him. Even now, Atlas is most recognizable for this heavy burden that he had to bear all by himself.
Modern art depicts Atlas with the Earth on his shoulders but this seems to have been born out of some misunderstanding, since it was the heavenly spheres and not the globe that he was expected to hold up.
Epimetheus was believed to be the more dimwitted foil to the clever Prometheus. The husband of Pandora, of Pandora’s Box notoriety, he was tricked by Zeus into accepting a wife who was created to wreak vengeance against mankind. Epimetheus and Pandora were the parents of Pyrrha who, along with her husband Deucalion, the son of Prometheus, helped re-establish the human race after the Great Flood, according to Greek myth.
Menoitios was perhaps the least known son of Iapetus and Clymene. Angry and prideful, he sided with the Titans during the war and was struck down by one of Zeus’ lightning bolts. This, according to different versions, either killed him or bore him down to Tartarus to be imprisoned alongside the rest of the Titans.
The Grandfather of Human Beings
Iapetus is considered the common ancestor of human beings for a variety of reasons. This may be because as the father of Prometheus and Epimetheus, the sons who helped create man, he was indirectly responsible for the birth of man. It may also be that it was because the daughter and son of those two were the ones who repopulated the world after the Flood. However, a simple explanation that is generally accepted is that Iapetus passed on, through his sons, the negative character traits that human beings possess even today, an explanation that was popularized by Hesiod.
Prometheus and Epimetheus by their different natures passed on to human beings trickery, crafty scheming, and cunning on one hand and dullness and foolish stupidity on the other. From Iapetus’ stout-hearted son Atlas, human beings are said to have got excessive daring and recklessness. And from the often forgotten Menoitios, they are said to have gotten rash violence.
Modern Legacy of Iapetus
Not much is known of Iapetus now, apart from some myths regarding his sons. However, one moon of Saturn is named after him and so the name of Iapetus lives on in one way.
Iapetus in Literature
The Titan Iapetus is one of the characters featured in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series and The Heroes of Olympus series. He is one of the anti-heroes in the books and battles Percy Jackson and his friends, almost winning until Percy throws himself and Iapetus into the River Lethe. Having been imprisoned there, Iapetus shows great knowledge about Tartarus and leads Percy and his friends through the prison dimension.
Iapetus in Astronomy
Iapetus is the name of the third largest moon of Saturn and it is named after the Titan Iapetus. It was discovered in 1671 by Giovanni Cassini. Saturn’s largest moon was called Titan and the two seem to have a resonance with each other, which means that they speed up or slow down when they are near each other.
Giovanni Cassini correctly noted that Iapetus could only be seen on the west side of Saturn and that the moon always showed the same face to Saturn. Perhaps this is why the moon was named after Iapetus, the Pillar of the West. Iapetus also had one side that was more dark than the other. There are many theories about the dark material of Iapetus and why one side is darker than the other. Theories include an influx of dark material from other sources and the warming up of said dark material which causes uneven heating over parts of Iapetus. The Cassini Mission, named after Giovanni Cassini, is famous for its many years of study of Saturn and its moons, including Iapetus.
A fascinating piece of information is that Iapetus is supposedly the only large moon of Saturn from which you can get a good view of the rings of Saturn, since it has an inclined orbit. Iapetus is sometimes called Saturn VIII, which is a reference to its number in the order of the moons revolving Saturn. The geological features of Iapetus, which includes an equatorial ridge, get their names from a French epic poem called The Song of Roland.