Chronos: The King of the Titan Gods
Chronos was the son of the first king of the gods, who challenged his father to become king himself. He was at the center of a violent cycle, though, when he in turn fought his own son for power.
Sometimes thought of as the god of time, and at other times seen as a force of destructive power, Chronos rose from being the youngest son of the ruling god to being the king of all the deities.
Both he and his father were undone by the same oversight, however. Chronos and Uranus both attracted the ire of Mother Earth and had their children turn against them because of their lust for power.
As the center of a violent cycle of succession, Chronos was both a conqueror and the conquered. Only with his son would the pattern end and, after many ages had passed, bring peace to the king of the Titan gods.
The Greek story of creation did not begin with a single god, or even with a pair. It began with Chaos.
Chaos slowly formed the primordial gods from itself. They emerged from the void of Chaos.
These deities represented the earliest, most basic parts of the creation of the universe. They included Tartarus, the underworld, and Nyx, the night.
One of the earliest offspring of Chaos was Gaia, the Mother Earth, who became the creator of many of the first living things. Some she formed from herself, but she also mated with the other beings that existed in the primordial universe.
With Tartarus, she gave birth to the first giants and with Oceanus she created water beings and monsters. With Uranus, the heavens, she gave birth to the first gods.
Her most famous children were those she had with Uranus. The twelve Titans were beings of immense power, although their father limited how much they were able to exercise it.
While later gods often had very specialized roles, the Titans ruled over broader domains. They would go on to create the deities that ruled over specific aspects of these fields.
The youngest of the twelve was Chronos. He was a being of both time and destruction, although that identification was perhaps more complicated than it first appears to be.
The mythology of Chronos is complicated by the fact that the name can, technically, refer to two different beings.Chronos, also spelled Cronus or Cronos, was the name of the Titan who was born to Gaia and Uranus. Click To Tweet
However, Chronos was also the name of the personification of time.
It is unclear whether the identification between Cronus and Chronos was an accidental one caused by the similar sounds and spellings of their names or whether it was an intentional link.
Cronus the Titan was associated with the ravages of destruction. Allegorically, this destructive nature could refer to the way in which time eventually destroys all things, even gods as his story showed.
Chronos the god of time was said to be an ancient, primordial being. He was among the first generation of gods, like Cronus, although some philosophers considered him to be older than Gaia rather than one of her children.
Even in ancient Greek literature, it is often impossible to tell whether Chronos and Cronus were being referred to as separate gods or just aspects of the same deity. This is especially true because written Greek had no standardized spellings and the subtle difference between the names could easily be lost in certain dialects.
Over time, the Titan and the personification of time became so closely linked that they were virtually inseparable. Their names, already very close, became interchangeable.
This identification was already common in the ancient world, and later writers and artists expanded on it. Chronos as the separate god of time all but disappeared, while Cronus the Titan was given the same spelling and pronunciation when translated from the original Greek language.
In the Renaissance, this conflagration of the two led to the development of the image of Father Time. Chronos was shown with the attributes of the god of time while placed in the context of the Titan’s myths.
Today, there is almost no distinction made between the two. The name of the Titan is often very often given as Chronos, although that spelling properly belongs to the personified spirit of time.
Chronos the Titan is usually identified as one and the same with the god of time, representing the destructive nature of time’s passage and one of the earliest parts of creation.
Chronos and the other Titans were not the only children of Gaia and Uranus, however. Her other offspring would, inadvertently, lead to their father’s downfall.
Gaia gave birth to six children with Uranus other than the mighty Titans. Her other offspring, however, were far less godly.
The three Hecatonchieres were monstrous beings with a hundred hands each. The three Cyclopes were giants with a single eye.
Uranus was displeased with these six monsters and hid them away. He buried them deep within Gaia herself, where she could not see them but could feel them clawing away at her.
Gaia was furious over the imprisonment of her children. She resolved to have them freed.
The mother earth went to the Titans to beg them to help her strip Uranus of his power and get justice for their siblings. According to most writers, Chronos was the only one willing to challenge his father’s rule.
But vast Gaia … made the element of grey flint and shaped a great sickle, and told her plan to her dear sons. And she spoke, cheering them, while she was vexed in her dear heart: ‘My children, gotten of a sinful father, if you will obey me, we should punish the vile outrage of your father; for he first thought of doing shameful things.’
So she said; but fear seized them all, and none of them uttered a word. But great Kronos (Cronus) the wily took courage and answered his dear mother: ‘Mother, I will undertake to do this deed, for I reverence not our father of evil name, for he first thought of doing shameful things.’
So he said: and vast Gaia (Earth) rejoiced greatly in spirit, and set and hid him in an ambush, and put in his hands a jagged sickle, and revealed to him the whole plot.
-Hesiod, Theogony 147 ff (trans. Evelyn-White)
Although he was the youngest, Chronos and his mother devised a plan that would allow him to take power from his father.
Gaia gave her son a sickle made of adamantine that was strong enough to cut through anything. He lay in wait for a time when his father was most vulnerable.
That time was when Uranus came to visit Gaia. When the heavens and earth grew close to one another, Chronos attacked.With a swing of his weapon, Chronos castrated his father. The attack weakened the god of the heavens both literally and metaphorically. Click To Tweet
According to some versions of the story, Chronos retreated and never came to Gaia again. Others claim that Chronos, now with the help of his brothers, bound their father and pushed him away.
However Uranus was dealt with, his hold over the Titans was gone. Chronos, as the one who had defeated him, assumed the mantle of leadership.
It soon became evident, however, that Chronos would be every bit as tyrannical as his father had been.
Chronos married his sister, Rhea. They would eventually have six children.
However, he proved himself to be no more of a fair father, or king, than Uranus had been.
As a king, he gave his siblings no more power or autonomy than they had been given under their father’s control. He never freed Gaia’s other children, either.
But for his own children, his cruelty went far beyond imprisonment.
Shortly after he and Rhea were married, Chronos received a prophecy. It said that he would one day have a child who would challenge his rule and defeat him, just as he had defeated his own father.
Chronos was determined not to lose his position as ruler, so he resolved that none of Rhea’s children would be given the opportunity to grow strong enough to defeat him.
As each of his children was born, the king of the Titans swallowed it whole.
Rhea, however, was distraught at the loss of her children. As she carried her sixth child, she asked her mother for help in saving the baby.
When her youngest son was born, Rhea hid on earth. She gave Chronos a stone wrapped in a baby’s blanket instead of the newborn.
Chronos never investigated the bundle and swallowed it just as he had the five children that came before. His youngest son, Zeus, remained free.
Zeus was raised in secret on the island of Crete. Giant guardians banged their shields and yelled to cover the sound of the baby’s cries so Chronos would not find him.The king of the Titans remained unaware that he had a son who had not been swallowed. Click To Tweet
When Zeus had grown to adulthood, he returned to the Titan’s home on Mount Othrys in disguise. Passing himself off as a cup bearer, he avoided Chronos’s suspicion.
With the help of Metis, one of the daughters of his uncle Oceanus, Zeus was able to get close to Chronos. He served him a bowl of wine that the Titaness had laced with a powerful purgative.
The drug forced Chronos to vomit violently. He soon coughed up the stone that he had swallowed in place of his youngest son, then one by one purged his other children. They were:
- Poseidon – He became the god of the seas.
- Hades – The oldest son of Chronos and Rhea became the ruler of the underworld.
- Hera – The youngest daughter of Rhea eventually married Zeus.
- Demeter – She would be the goddess of grains and the harvest.
- Hestia – The oldest child of the Titans, she never married but became the goddess of the hearth.
With his siblings freed, Zeus was able to challenge his father. Just as Uranus had faced the wrath of a son for imprisoning his other children, so too did Chronos face his youngest son.
Unlike the quick ambush that Chronos had set alone, however, the fight Zeus waged for power would be a long one with many players.
Zeus’s brothers quickly grew strong enough to assist him in the challenge against their father. What’s more, Zeus had help from other deities as well.
When he challenged his father, Zeus announced that he planned to be a much different sort of ruler. He would share power more evenly than his father and grandfather ever had.
The youngest son of Chronos asked the other gods to come to his side. He promised that any who already had positions would keep them and, moreover, that any who had been denied a position under Chronos’s reign would gain one.
A few of the elder Titans joined his cause, or at least remained neutral. Oceanus and Tethys, for example, were said to have given shelter to the younger goddesses who were not involved in the fighting.
The children of the other Titans, however, also joined the younger gods. While many remained loyal to Chronos some, such as Prometheus and Metis, sided with Zeus.
Each of the gods, therefore, had an army. Unlike the solitary ambush that had given Chronos power, the fight between him and his son would be an all-out war.
The conflict was called the Titanomachy, the War of the Titans, and it would last for years.
According to the playwright Aeschylus, while the Titans had the advantage of strength the younger gods were more clever. Prometheus, who had the gift of foresight, advised Chronos that he could not win through strength alone but was ignored.
The war dragged on, with neither side able to gain a decisive upper hand. The two sides were evenly matched and locked in a stalemate.
The eventual downfall of Chronos, however, would come from the same source as that of his father before him.
Gaia had not forgotten about her other children. She had urged Chronos to overthrow Uranus to free the Cyclopes and Hecatonchires, but he had never done so.
Once again, Gaia decided to help a younger god prevail over an older one so that her children would be freed.
With Gaia’s help, Zeus and his allies found the giants she had borne with Uranus and freed them. With six strong new allies, the balance of power shifted to give the younger gods the upper hand.
The Hecatonchieres were strong fighters. With three hundred hands between them, they were able to continuously pelt the Titan fighters with crushing boulders.
The Cyclopes, meanwhile, had become skilled artisans during their confinement. They presented Zeus and his brothers with amazing, powerful gifts to help them achieve victory.
Hades received a helmet that granted its wearer the power of invisibility. Poseidon was given his trident, a great weapon that could summon earthquakes and tidal waves.
Zeus, in the meantime, was given the most powerful gift of all. The Cyclopes gave him the thunderbolts that would become his defining weapon.
With these gifts and the strength of their new allies, Zeus and his siblings were finally able to defeat Chronos and the Titans.
According to at least one source, however, the last battle between the Olympians and the Titans was not decided by armies or weapons. The final fight of the ten-year long war between the gods devolved into a wrestling match between Chronos and his son.
Zeus was victorious. The young gods seized power from the old and the newly-crowned king was determined that Chronos would never have the opportunity to challenge his rule.
The Titans who had fought against Zeus were imprisoned in the depths of Tartarus. While there was no definitive list of which Titans escaped this punishment by siding with the Olympians, there was never any doubt that Chronos was locked away.
Hades came to rule the underworld and established many regions within it. Tartarus, the primordial pit, became the deepest part of the underworld that was reserved for punishment.
Chronos and his allies were herded away into the pit. Massive bronze gates were erected to seal Tartarus off from the rest of the underworld and prevent them from ever attempting an escape.
As a final precaution, Zeus installed guards at the entrance to Tartarus. The Hecatonchieres, who had once been kept imprisoned by the Titans, now became their wardens.
As he was led away into his prison, however, Chronos gave Zeus a curse. If Zeus married the Titaness Thetis, as he had planned to do, he would suffer the same fate as his father and grandfather and be dethroned and imprisoned by his own son.
Zeus avoided this curse and other prophecies that warned against having a stronger son. He never married Thetis and prevented Metis from having a son as well.
Instead, Zeus married Hera. The cycle of conquest that had pitted fathers and sons against each other for three generations ended and Zeus ruled Olympus unchallenged.
According to many ancient writers, Chronos was not simply locked away in Tartarus. He was bound with unbreakable chains and fettered so he could not even move within the prison realm.
Still, some said, he ruled Tartarus as a king. While Hades ruled over the whole of the underworld, Chronos tried to recreate his heavenly power among the tortured souls of the dark pit.
The Titans remained in their prison for thousands of years. Their imprisonment lasted from the rise of the Olympian gods through the fourth age of mankind.
Eventually, Zeus decided to show mercy to his conquered father. Chronos and the Titans were released from their prison.
The former king of the Titans would not be given any power on Olympus, however. Zeus still preferred to keep his father removed from any position in which he could pose a threat.
Instead, Chronos was installed as the ruled of the Isles of the Blessed. This peaceful afterlife, a place for great heroes and those who lived exceptionally good lives, was much better than the torments of Tartarus but still kept Chronos removed from the seat of power.
Chronos was a central figure in a cycle of conflict and conquest that defined the legends of the founding of the universe.
The stories of how Chronos and his son rose to power are remarkably similar. In each, the youngest son challenged his father.
Chronos was one of twelve children, six males and six females. Zeus was the youngest of six, but the Olympians added to their number to eventually have twelve primary gods.
Gaia assisted each with the goal of seeing all her children freed. When the new ruler failed to do so, she changed her allegiances to another whom she hoped would help her children.
When Zeus gained power and established the gods’ new home on Mount Olympus, it seemed as though the cycle of son challenging father would continue.
Gaia again tried to undermine the king of the gods. This time the Titans, who were also her children, were imprisoned and she called up the giants to fight against the rulers.
Unlike Uranus and Chronos, however, Zeus did not lose power to Gaia’s new champions. The Olympians won their war against the giants and, for the first time, Gaia’s attempts to install a new leader failed.
Like his father, Zeus received a prophecy that his son would overthrow him. A son with either Thetis or Metis would ensure that the cycle went on through another generation.
Unlike Chronos, however, Zeus successfully avoided the curse. He swallowed Metis, just as his siblings had been swallowed, before she could conceive a son and had Thetis married to someone else rather than risk impregnating her himself.
Zeus had many sons, but never one with the power to challenge his rule. By successfully avoiding challenges from both Gaia and his own offspring, Zeus was able to end the violent cycle of succession that had defined the earlier generations of the gods.
In conclusion, Chronos was at the center of a mythological tale of succession that was marked by violence and murder within the family.
Chronos had overthrown his father and, in turn, had been overthrown by his own son. Succession by the first kings had been destructive and violent.
His son, however, was able to establish a stronger hold on power that was rooted in law instead of pure force. The gods he ruled over were able to flourish and Zeus was able to end the cycle of destroying his own children.
The final act in ending the cycle of succession was to free Chronos from Tartarus. The violence between the generations of gods was truly over when Chronos, who had been at the center of it, was given a peaceful, beautiful afterlife.