Rhea: The Mother Goddess of Greek Mythology

If you think really hard about it, you might conclude that the process of birth is something that’s really divine. 

After all, why shouldn’t it be?

As you might have guessed, this painstaking act of creation doesn’t come for free like charity. After 40 weeks of anticipation comes the date where the child must finally make its grand entry into the world. After almost 6 hours of labor, it ultimately takes its first breath and lets out the cries of life.

This is one of the most precious moments of life. To a mother, there is no greater joy than seeing her own creation burst into existence. Suddenly, all the pain experienced during those 40 weeks of painful endeavor is worth it.

Such a distinctive experience must be naturally preserved within an equally distinct persona. In Greek Mythology, this was goddess Rhea, mother of the gods, and the original Titan of female fertility and childbirth. 

Otherwise, you might know her as the goddess that gave birth to Zeus.


 

Who is the Goddess Rhea?

Let’s face it, Greek mythology often gets  confusing. With the newer gods (Olympians) having high libidos and an urge to tangle things up through a complex family tree, it is not easy to grasp for newcomers trying to get their feet wet in the mythic Greek world. 

That being said, Rhea is not one of the Twelve Olympian gods. In fact, she is the mother to all of them, hence her title “the mother of the gods.” Every famous Greek god you probably know about in the Greek pantheon: Zeus, Hades, Poseidon, and Hera, among many others, owes their existence to Rhea.

Goddess Rhea belonged to a sequence of gods and goddesses known as Titans. They preceded the Olympians as the ancient rulers of the Greek world. However, it can be said that the Titans were chronically forgotten over time due to the surplus of myths surrounding the Olympians and their impact on Greek mythology. 

Rhea was a Titan goddess, and her influence over the Greek pantheon can’t go unnoticed. The fact that Rhea gave birth to Zeus speaks for itself. She is, quite literally, responsible for giving birth to the god that ruled over ancient Greece, human beings and gods and goddesses alike.

What Does Rhea’s Name Mean?

As the goddess of childbirth and healing, Rhea did justice to her title. In fact, her name comes from the Greek word ῥέω (pronounced as rhéo), which means “flow.” Now, this “flow” could be connected to many things; rivers, lava, rain, you name it. However, Rhea’s namesake was far more profound than any of these.

You see, due to her being the goddess of childbirth, the ‘flow’ would’ve simply come from the source of life. This pays homage to a mother’s milk, a fluid that sustained the existence of infants. Milk is the first thing babies are fed through their mouths, and Rhea’s watch over this act solidified her position as a motherly goddess.

There are a couple of other things this ‘flow’ and her namesake could also be connected to.

Menstruation was yet another fascinating topic to ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle, as superstitiously portrayed in one of his texts. Unlike some regions of modernity, menstruation wasn’t as much of a taboo. In fact, it was studied extensively and was often tethered to being the gearwheels of the gods and goddesses. 

Hence, the flux of blood from menstruation is also something that can be traced back to Rhea. 

Finally, her name could’ve also simply come from the idea of breath, the constant inhalation, and the exhalation of air. With air being in plenty, it is always vital for the human body to ensure a consistent flow. Due to her healing attributes and life-giving characteristics, Rhea’s divine powers of calming vitality stretched far and wide over Titan Greek myths.

Rhea’s Celestial Drip and How She Was Portrayed

The Mother of the Gods did, in fact, have some swagger to her.

After all, it is not every day that a goddess is flanked by lions.

That’s correct; Rhea was often portrayed in sculptures as having two monstrously large lions by her side, protecting her from danger. Their purpose was also to pull a divine chariot upon which she sat graciously. 

Talk about having a good Uber. 

She also wore a crown in the shape of a turret representing a defensive citadel or a city wrapped by walls. Along with this, she also carried a scepter that flexed her status as the Titan queen.

She was portrayed as being similar to Cybele (more on her later) due to the same persona that both of these deities seemed to harbor equally. 

Cybele and Rhea

If you see a striking similarity between Rhea and Cybele, the Phrygian Anatolian mother goddess harboring the same prowess, then congratulations! You’ve got a great eye. 

Cybele is actually similar to Rhea in many ways, and that includes her portrayal as well as the worship. In fact, people would worship Rhea the same way Cybele was honored. The Romans identified her as “Magna Mater,” which translates to “Great Mother.” 

Modern scholars consider Cybele the same as Rhea as they had solidified their positions as the exact same motherly figures in ancient mythology.

Meet Rhea’s Family

After creation (we will save the entire story for another day), Gaia, Mother Earth herself, appeared out of nothingness. She was one of the primordial deities preceding the Titans who were the personifications of metaphysical attributes such as love, light, death, and chaos. That was a mouthful. 

After Gaia created Uranus, the sky god, he went on to become her husband. Incestuous relationships were always a distinctive characteristic of Greek mythology, so don’t be too surprised.

As Uranus and Gaia joined hands in matrimony, they began to produce their offspring; the twelve Titans. The Mother of the Gods, Rhea, was one of them; that was how she set foot into existence. 

Safe to say, Rhea had daddy issues due to Uranus turning out to be an absolute joke of a father. Long story short, Uranus hated his children, the Cyclopes, and Hecatonchires, which caused him to banish them to Tartarus, an endless abyss of eternal torture. You don’t want to read the last sentence twice.

Gaia, as a mother, hated this, and she called upon the Titans to help her overthrow Uranus. When all the other Titans (including Rhea) grew afraid of the act, there came a seemingly last-minute savior.

Enter Cronus, the youngest Titan.

Cronus managed to grab his father’s genitals while sleeping and chop them off with a sickle. This sudden castration of Uranus was so cruel that his fate was left to mere speculation in later Greek mythology.

After this incident, Cronus crowned himself as the Supreme God and the King of the Titans, marrying Rhea and crowning her as the Queen.

What a happy ending for a new happy family, right? 

Wrong. 

Rhea and Cronus

Shortly after Cronus separated Uranus’ manhood from his godbod, Rhea married him (or more like Cronus forced her to) and started what was known as the golden age of Greek Mythology.

As grand as that might sound, it actually spelled doom for all of Rhea’s children; the Olympians. You see, long after Cronus parted Uranus’ precious pearls, he started to become more insane than ever. 

It could’ve been him dreading the future where one of his own children would soon overthrow him (just like he had done to his father) that led him down this path of insanity.

With hunger in his eyes, Cronus turned to Rhea and the children in her womb. He was ready to do anything to prevent a future where his offspring would dethrone him as the supreme King of the Titans.

Cronus Does the Unthinkable

At the time, Rhea was pregnant with Hestia. She was the first in line subject to Cronus’ gut-wrenching plot of devouring his children whole to prevent the future that kept him up at night.

This is famously mentioned in Hesiod’s Theogony, where he writes that Rhea bore Cronus splendid and beautiful children but was swallowed by Cronus. These divine children were as follows: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea.

If you can count well, you might notice that we are missing the most important of her children: Zeus. You see, that’s where most of Rhea’s mythological significance comes from. Rhea and Zeus’ story is one of the most impactful sequences in Greek mythology, and we will cover it in this article shortly. 

As Cronus devoured her children whole, Rhea didn’t take it lightly. Her cries for the swallowed babies went unnoticed by the Mad Titan, who cared more about his place in court than the lives of his offspring. 

Unceasing grief seized Rhea as her children were stripped away from her breasts and into the bowels of a beast she now despised to call her own King. 

By now, Rhea was pregnant with Zeus, and there was no way she would let him become Cronus’ dinner.  

Not this time.

Rhea Looks Toward the Heavens.

With tears in her eyes, Rhea turned to the earth and the stars for help. Her calls were answered by none other than her own mother, Gaia, and the haunting voice of Uranus. 

In Hesiod’s Theogony, it is once again mentioned that Rhea devised a plan with the “Earth” and the “Starry Heavens” (Gaia and Uranus, respectively) to conceal Zeus from Cronus’ eyes. What’s more, they even decided to take it one step further and overthrow the mad Titan. 

Though Hesiod didn’t explicitly mention how Uranus suddenly turned from a joke of a father to a wise apparition, he and Gaia readily offered their help to Rhea. Their plan involved transporting Rhea to Crete, ruled by King Minos, and allowing her to give birth to Zeus away from Cronus’ watch.

Rhea followed this course of action. When the time came for her to deliver Zeus, she journeyed to Crete and was heartily welcomed by its inhabitants. They made the arrangements necessary for Rhea to give birth to Zeus and took great care of the Titan goddess meanwhile.

The King Arrives in Rhea’s Hands.

Wrapped by a formation of Kouretes and Dactyls (both inhabiting Crete at the time), Rhea gave birth to an infant Zeus. Greek myths often describe the time of labor being kept under constant watch by the Kouretes and Dactyls. In fact, they went as far as to rattle their spears against their shields to drone out Zeus’ cries so that they didn’t reach Cronus’ ears. 

Becoming Mother Rhea, she entrusted Zeus’ delivery to Gaia. Once it was done, it was Gaia who took him to a distant cave in Mount Aegean. Here, Mother Earth hid Zeus far away from Cronus’ watch.

Regardless, Zeus was secured even more by the graceful protection of the Kouretes, Dactyls, and the Nymphs of Mount Ida that Gaia had entrusted for additional security.  

There, the great Zeus lay, embraced by the hospitality of Rhea’s cave and the mythical attendants that swore his safety. It is also said that Rhea dispatched a golden dog to guard the goat (Amalthea) that would provide the milk for Zeus’ nourishment in the sacred cave. 

After Rhea gave birth, she left Mount Ida (without Zeus) to answer to Cronus because the madman was waiting for his dinner to be served, a fresh hot feast of his own child. 

Rhea took a deep breath and entered his court.

Rhea Deceives Cronus

After Goddess Rhea entered Cronus’ gaze, he eagerly awaited her to whip out the snack from her womb. 

Now, this is where the entirety of Greek mythology converges. This one moment is where all of it beautifully leads to. This is where Rhea does the unthinkable and attempts to trick the King of the Titans.  

The courage of this woman is literally brimming to her neck.  

Instead of handing over Zeus (who Rhea just gave birth to), she handed him a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes to her husband, Cronus. You won’t believe what happens next. The Mad Titan falls for it and swallows the stone whole, thinking it’s actually his son Zeus. 

In doing so, Goddess Rhea saved Zeus from rotting inside the bowels of his own father. 
A deeper look at Rhea’s deception of Cronus

This moment stands as one of the greatest in Greek mythology because it shows how the single choice of a courageous mother may change the entire course of events yet to come. Rhea possessing the wits and, above all, the tenacity to defy her husband shows the enduring strength of mothers. 

It is a perfect example of their will to break through any obstacle in their way to save their children from external threats. Rhea manages this perfectly, and her successful trickery against the most powerful god of that time has been lauded in many communities that delve into Ancient Greek culture. 

Regarding Cronus swallowing the stone, Hesiod writes:

“To the mightily ruling son of Heaven (Cronus), the earlier King of the gods, she (Goddess Rhea) gave a great stone wrapped in swaddling clothes. Then he took it in his hands and thrust it into his belly: wretch! He knew not in his heart that in place of the stone, his son (Zeus) was left behind, unconquered and untroubled.”

This basically says how Rhea rickrolled Cronus with a stone and Zeus was chilling back on the island without any worries. 

Rhea and The Titanomachy

After this point, the role of the Titan Goddess in records continues to decline. After Rhea gave birth to Zeus, the narrative of Greek mythology centralizes the Olympian gods and how they were freed from Cronus’ belly by Zeus himself.

Zeus’ ascension to the top of the throne alongside Rhea and his other siblings is marked in myths as the period known as Titanomachy. This was the war between the Titans and the Olympians. 

As Zeus slowly grew up in Mount Ida to be the hunk of a man we know him to be, he decided it was time to serve his father the last supper: a hot meal of being forcefully dethroned as the Supreme King. Rhea, of course, was there all along. In fact, she was actually anticipating the arrival of her son as it would grant freedom to all her children decaying inside Cronus. 

Then, the time had finally come.

Zeus Returns for Vengeance

With a little bit of help from Gaia once again, Rhea acquired Zeus, a poison that would make Cronus gouge out the Olympian deities in reverse order. Once Zeus cleverly managed to carry out this maneuver, all his siblings came pouring out of Cronus’ filthy mouth. 

One can only imagine the look on Rhea’s face when she witnessed that all her once-infant children had fully grown into adults during their venture inside Cronus’ caverns. 

It was time for vengeance.

Thus began the Titanomachy. It went on for 10 long years as the younger generation of Olympians fought against the Titans of yore. Rhea had the privilege of sitting by the sidelines to watch proudly as her children restored divine order to the plane of existence. 

After the Titanomachy concluded, the Olympians and their allies acquired a decisive victory. This led to control of the cosmos being regulated by Rhea’s children, substituting all the Titans that once existed. 

And Cronus?

Let’s just say he was finally reunited with his father, Uranus. Sheesh.

Time for Change

Long after the Titanomachy was over, Rhea and her children returned to their new positions of tending to the cosmos. That being said, there indeed were a lot of changes implemented due to the new Greek gods.

For starters, every Titan that held their previous post was now replaced by Olympians. Rhea’s children took over in their wake. They established control over every dominion they had expertise in while basing themselves on Mount Olympus. 

Hestia became the Greek goddess of the home and the hearth, and Demeter was the goddess of harvest and agriculture. Hera took over her mother’s post and became the new Greek goddess of childbirth and fertility. 

As for Rhea’s sons, Hades morphed into the god of the underworld, and Poseidon became the god of the seas. Lastly, Zeus established himself as the Supreme King of all the other deities and the god of all men. 

Having been gifted a thunderbolt by the Cyclopes during the Titanomachy, Zeus flexed his iconic symbol across ancient Greece as he delivered justice alongside the deathless gods. 

Peace for Rhea

For Rhea, there probably is no better ending. As records of this motherly Titan continued to dwindle in the vast scrolls of mythology, she was mentioned in many places regardless. The most significant of these was the Homeric hymns. 

In the Homeric hymns, it is mentioned that Rhea convinced a depressed Demeter to rendezvous with the other Olympians when Hades snatched her daughter Persephone away. She was also said to have tended to Dionysus when he was stricken with insanity. 

She continued to be of aid to the Olympians as all her stories slowly dissolved into history.

A delightful ending.

Rhea In Modern Culture

Though not mentioned often, Rhea was a big part of the popular video game franchise “God of War.” Her story was brought to light for younger generations through a well-crafted cutscene in “God of War 2”. 

We recommend you brace yourself for Cronus’ sheer size in that cutscene. 

Conclusion

Being the mother of the deities that rule over the cosmos is no easy feat. Deceiving the Supreme King and daring to defy him is no easy feat either. Rhea did it regardless, all to ensure the continuity of her own child. 

Everything that Rhea did is a beautiful metaphor for mothers worldwide. No matter what happens, a mother’s tether to her child is a bond unbreakable by any external threats. 

Overcoming all hardships with wits and courage, Rhea stands as a true Greek legend. Her story showcases endurance and is a testament to every mother working tirelessly for their children. 

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