Hyperion: The Titan God of Light
In Greek mythology, Apollo is the god most often associated with light. While he was not the god of the sun, he was closely identified with it and other forms of light.
But before Apollo, there was another god who had the power of heavenly light.
Hyperion was one of the original Titans. As the first god of light, he was the father of the familiar forms of illumination that followed.
After the Titans lost power, the children of Hyperion continued to provide light to the world.
So who was Hyperion and what happened to him? The Titan god of light may have illuminated the universe, but his story is shrouded in mystery.
Hyperion is named as one of the twelve Titans born to Gaia and Uranos. This first generation of gods served under their father when the universe was still new.
Gaia, the earth mother, and Uranos, the heavens, had many children together.
Their six daughters were the female Titans, called the Titanides by the Greeks.
Altogether they had twelve sons. The six oldest of these were the Titans. The other six, the three Cyclopes and the three Hecatoncheires, were monsters. Uranos shunned them and imprisoned them deep within Gaia.
While the Titans lived in splendor on Mount Othrys, the Cyclopes and Hecatonchieres were locked away in the dark. Gaia could not see where they were, but she could feel them clawing deep inside of her.
Gaia was greatly angered by this. As a protective mother goddess, she was furious that six of her children had been so badly mistreated by their father and wanted nothing more than to see them freed.
She begged her children to help her overthrow their father. According to most accounts, Chronos was the only one of the twelve who was willing to take the risk.
He succeeded in taking away his father’s power by lying in wait until he had the opportunity to catch Uranus unaware and castrate him. Uranus was locked away in the pit of Tartarus and the Titans took control of the universe.
Chronus became the new king of the Titans, and proved to be every bit as tyrannical as his father had been. While the Titans were gods with great power, Chronus limited how much they were allowed to use it just as their father had.
While the later Olympians usually had very specifically delineated roles, the Titans were not as clearly defined. The world was still being made, so their domains were more far-reaching and general than those of later gods.
This began to change with the younger generations of Titans that were born from the original twelve. The twelve siblings intermarried among each other and began to have many children.
Altogether, they had thousands of children that began to take on much more specific roles than their parents.
Eventually, the six children of Chronos would bring an end to the Titans’ rule.
According to some legends, this was the result of a curse uttered by Uranus as the Titans dragged him to Tartarus. He told Chronos that someday the same would happen to him, and he would be overthrown by his own son.
Each of the Titans had power over a particular aspect of the universe, just as their father had. Chronos, for example, was the Titan god of time and Oceanus was the god of waters.Hyperion was the primordial god of light. Click To Tweet
Unlike the sun or moon, the light of Hyperion was not fixed to any definite source. Those specific light sources had not been created yet.
Instead, he represented light in a more general sense. His was the light of the heavens that illuminated the entire universe from all directions.
Hyperion married his sister, Thea. Like him, she was a goddess of light and also came to represent the blue sky.
Thea was also the deity that gave gold, silver, and precious gems the luminescent radiance that made them so valued.
It is unsurprising, then, that the pair produced three children who were all associated with the lights of the heavens.
Their daughter Eos was the first to appear each day. She was the goddess of the dawn.
Eos represented the warm light that rises above the horizon before the sun appears. She announced the coming of her brother.
Next was their son, Helios. He was the god of the sun, who drove across the sky each day in a golden chariot drawn by three horses.
Helios was often conflated with his father as a god of light. Hyperion is sometimes given as an epithet to Helios.
Last there was Selene, the goddess of the moon. The counterpart to her brother, she travelled by night.
Helios and Selene would later come to be associated with Apollo and Artemis. The twin Olympians shared many of the attributes of the other brother and sister pair, but Helios and Selene remained separate entities.
Hyperion’s name means “he who watches from above” or more generally “he who goes above.”
From his vantage point in the heavens and because he brought light to dark places, Hyperion could see everything that happened on the earth below.
Of Hyperion we are told that he was the first to understand, by diligent attention and observation, the movement of both the sun and the moon and the other stars, and the seasons as well, in that they are caused by these bodies, and to make these facts known to others; and that for this reason he was called the father of these bodies, since he had begotten, so to speak, the speculation about them and their nature.
-Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 5. 67. 1 (trans. Oldfather)
Hyperion spent so long watching the movements of his children and the other celestial bodies that he began to recognize their patterns. He watched how these affected the earth below and came to a greater understanding of how the world as a whole worked.
His watchfulness and careful observations earned him dominion over the realm of knowledge as well.
He learned to trace how the movements of his children, the sun and the moon, made the cycle of days, months, seasons, and years. He was the first to make the distinction between these time periods.
He also saw how Selene affected Oceanus and made the tides rise and fall. This knowledge represented the very earliest stages of the information the Greeks would need to be a seafaring people.
In many of the stories of the Titans, Chronos and Gaia work alone to take power away from Uranus.
The story is usually told that Chronos was the only one of the Titans who was willing to challenge his tyrannical father. Gaia, seeking revenge for the imprisonment of six of her children, pushed him toward revolt.
She armed her son with an adamantine sickle and helped him set a trap. They waited until Uranus came down from the heavens to mate with Gaia, when he would be most vulnerable.
Chronos took his father’s power away by castrating him with the sickle his mother had given him. This made him the new king of the Titans.
In other versions of the story, however, his brothers were willing to offer their help. Four of them took positions on the corners of the earth.
When the time came to attack, the four brothers pulled Uranus off of Gaia and held him up to keep them separated. This gave Chronos space to use his sickle.
This sequence of events references Near Eastern mythology, in which the heavens are held up and away from the earth by four massive pillars.
There was significant overlap between the mythologies of Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Greece. The cultures in those regions were known to adopt and adapt one another’s gods and legends.
The brothers that participated in the uprising against their father were:
- Hyperion – As the father of the sun, moon, and dawn, he took the pillar of the East where his children appeared from.
- Coeus – The North pillar was held by the Titan of resolve and intelligence.
- Crius – The Titan of the constellations and seasons of the year went to the South.
- Iapetus – The god of mortality took the West, where the sun sets.
The image of the four pillars holding the corners of the sky away from the earth occasionally persisted in Greek mythology. After the Titans were imprisoned and defeated, the job of holding the dome of the heavens away from Gaia’s surface fell to the vanquished Titan general Atlas.
Early writings sometimes referred to the sun god Helios as “Helios Hyperion.” Examples of this epithet attached to his name occur in Homer, Hesiod, and in the hymns of the same era.This has led some scholars to theorize that Hyperion and Helios were, in fact, one and the same. Click To Tweet
However, reading other works by the same writers shows that this is not the case.
In the same collection of hymns, for example, the sun is called Hyperionides, or “the son of Hyperion.”
Helios and his father were intrinsically linked, however, and there is evidence that the conception of Hyperion eventually faded and was replaced entirely by his son.
In addition to sometimes receiving his father’s name as an epithet, Helios also inherited his father’s position as Panoptes, or All-Seeing. When Hyperion was no longer active as a god, Helios was the deity whose position in the sky allowed him to observe everything that happened on the surface of the earth below.
This was how Helios came to be the god that had information on where Persephone had gone when she was abducted by Hades. He also told Hephaestus about his wife Aphrodite’s affair with the god of war, because he had seen her and Ares together from his position high above.
When the Olympians overthrew the Titans, the vast majority were shut away in Tartarus. Only a handful of the younger Titans had sided with the new gods in the Titanomachy.
There are no myths that specifically mention the role Hyperion played, if any, in the war between the generations of gods. As one of the twelve elder Titans, it would be likely that he remained loyal to Chronos and was imprisoned beside him.
Some sources claimed that Chronos, who had been unable to hold on to power in the world above, made himself king of the pit of Tartarus.
The Titans remained imprisoned for many ages. Eventually, Zeus permitted them to be freed from their prison.
Even after they were freed, little was said of the Titans. Chronos was sometimes mentioned as inhabiting or ruling over other parts of the afterlife, but his generation of gods largely faded from importance.
Not much is said of Hyperion after the Titanomachy. It is probable that, like his siblings, he suffered a long imprisonment before being released into a universe that was now ruled by his children and grandchildren.
With the lack of documentation about his involvement in the Titanomachy and afterward, Hyperion largely faded from memory. Even in the ancient Greek world, he was essentially a former god that no longer had any real purpose.
It is not even clear whether his powers continued after he and his siblings lost control. He is described as the light of the heavens, but most people associate such light with his children, the sun and the moon.
It is possible, then, that Hyperion was the god of a different sort of light altogether. Before Helios and Selene drew their chariots, perhaps the entire sky was lit by their father’s power instead of the single sources they gave.
Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing exactly what kind of power Hyperion had or whether he maintained any of it after the rebellion of the Olympians. The few sources that remain about him give only a glimpse into the family of Titans who ruled the cosmos before the gods of the Greeks.