Kratos: The Spirit of Strength
Kratos, also spelled Cratus, was a rarely-mentioned member of the Greek pantheon. He was a minor god with a very specific job.
Kratos was the personification of strength. In the ancient myths, he specifically represented the might and sovereignty of Zeus, the king of the gods.
He used his singular power to enforce the laws and decrees of Zeus, often harshly.
As a personification, Kratos was not a major figure. He appeared as a character only a few times, and always in the execution of his duties.
Despite his infrequent mentions, however, Kratos is still a fascinating character. As the embodiment of Zeus’s strength, the character of Kratos says a lot about the character of the king of the gods.
Kratos was one of the children of the Titans Styx and Pallas.
As the Titan god of warcraft and military campaigns, Pallas played an important role in the war between the Titans and the Olympians. According to some sources, he was defeated in battle by Athena during the Titanomachy.
Styx, meanwhile, was one of the daughters of Oceanus. She was the goddess of the underworld river that bore her name and formed the boundary between the lands of life and of death.
Styx and her children managed to avoid the fate of the other Titans. While most of them, particularly of the older generations, were imprisoned in Tartarus after Zeus won the war, Styx remained free.
When Zeus first challenged his father, Chronos, for rule over the cosmos he sought to turn some of the Titans to his side.
He promised that those who joined him would keep whatever positions they had held before, but with more rights and freedoms than Chronos had been willing to give. Additionally, those without an existing position would be given one.
Although Pallas fought against the new gods, Styx took the opportunity to change allegiances. She took her children and offered to serve Zeus instead of the old regime.
According to Hesiod it was her father, Oceanus, who advised his daughter to pledge to Zeus. As Oceanus remained free after the Titanomachy, and according to some sources housed the goddesses during the fighting, it is assumed that he also did not fight for his brother Chronos’s cause.
Styx, however, was the first of the Titans to pledge her allegiance to the new gods, so Zeus gave her special recognition. Styx and her children would be honored members of his own household.
For being the first to pledge to him, Styx also became the goddess of oaths of allegiance, beginning her family’s tradition of serving as embodiments of the things most important to Zeus. Oaths sworn in her name or on the waters of her river were held to be especially sacred.
So it came to be that Kratos lived not just at Olympus but within Zeus’s household. He and his siblings would grow to be the most devoted servants of the king of the gods.
Kratos was what the Greeks referred to as a daimon. Although the word “demon” came to have a negative connotation, in the ancient Greek religion it was not connected to good or bad.
The daimones were spirits that personified a particular idea. A daimon could represent an emotion, ideal, physical attribute, or state of being.
The daimones were minor gods in the pantheon, with much more specialized and specific roles than the more major gods.
These personifications shared their names with their attributes. Kratos the daimon was the word kratos, meaning strength.
Like Kratos, the daimones were often associated with a more powerful god whose powers they aligned with. Kratos was not just the embodiment strength in general, he specifically represented the strength of Zeus.
The Greeks believed in dozens, if not hundreds, of daimones. Virtually every aspect of life had a spirit associated with it.
While the Latin version of the word, daemon, eventually came to mean an evil entity, the Greek daemones could be either benevolent or benign. Kratos himself, in representing Zeus’s strength, could certainly be either or both.
As with most of the daimones, there are no myths that feature Kratos as a central character. As a personification of a trait, he did not have a mythology separate from his function.
One arena in which the daimones could be shown as independent characters, however, was in the theater. Playwrights of the ancient world often included personifications in their works.
Thus, the most well-known story of Kratos appears in a play. In Prometheus Bound, written by Aeschylus in the 5th century BC, Kratos appears in his role as a servant of Zeus.
Prometheus was another of the Titans who pledged allegiance to Zeus. After the war, however, he earned the god’s ire by helping humanity survive after Zeus had pledged to destroy the race.
For stealing fire from the gods and returning it to humankind, Prometheus was sentenced to be tortured for all eternity. Hephaestus, the smith, was charged with making unbreakable chains to bind the Titan to a mountainside.
According to Aeschylus, however, Hephaestus was reluctant to take part in the punishment of Prometheus. While the gods had little choice but to obey their king’s commands, the smith felt pity for the doomed Titan.
Prometheus Bound shows the binding of Prometheus. Hephaestus is accompanied by Kratos and Bia, the personification of Force, who hold Prometheus between them.
When Hephaestus hesitates to chain Prometheus up, Kratos replies with a brutal lack of mercy.
Kratos: Well, why delay and excite pity in vain? Why do you not detest a god most hateful to the gods, since he has betrayed your prerogative to mortals?
Hephaistos: A strangely potent tie is kinship, and companionship as well.
Kratos: I agree; yet to refuse to obey the commands of the Father; is this possible? Do you not fear that more?
Hephaistos: Yes, you are ever pitiless and steeped in insolence.
Kratos: Yes, for it does not good to bemoan this fellow. Stop wasting your labor at an unprofitable task.
Hephaistos: Oh handicraft that I hate so much!
Kratos: Why hate it? Since in truth your craft is in no way to blame for these present troubles.
Hephaistos: Nevertheless, I wish it had fallen to another’s lot!
Kratos: Every job is troublesome except to be the commander of gods; no one is free except Zeus.
-Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 1 ff
In this scene, Kratos displays absolute obedience to Zeus and his laws. He believes pity is a waste of time and sees the brutal punishment of Prometheus as just another job to be done.
He even goes so far as to mock Hephaestus, one of the Olympians and the son of Zeus’s wife, Hera.
The Greeks may have viewed this level of punishment as proper, regardless of how unnecessarily cruel it may seem to a modern reader. For breaking the laws of Zeus, Prometheus was deserving of harsh punishment.
Kratos, as he was envisioned by Aeschylus, makes it clear that there was little room for interpretation or extenuating circumstances in Zeus’s laws. The king decreed what was just and what was wrong, and everyone else was expected to adhere to his rules.
The power of Zeus was absolute. It was enforced, quite literally in the binding of Prometheus, by strength and force.
As shown in Prometheus Bound, Kratos was an enforcer of Zeus’s laws. As the personification of the god’s strength, Kratos had the ability to bring even the most powerful transgressors to justice.
He was not the only daimon to work alongside Zeus, however. The king of the gods had many enforcers to ensure that his will was carried out.
Chief among these were the three siblings of Kratos. As members of Zeus’s household they were some of his most trusted and loyal associates.
- Bia – She was the personification of force. In her few appearances in written works, she was usually silent.
- Zelus – The brother of Kratos, his name meant dedication or rivalry. The English word “zealous” is derived from zelus.
- Nike – The personification of victory, she was the last daughter of Styx. While she served Zeus, she was also associated with deities of war, particularly Athena.
Of course, Zeus had many other beings that enforced his will. The Erinyes and Harpies brought wrongdoers to justice and all the gods were bound to obey his commands.
But the children of Styx had a special association with the king of the gods. They were not just his servants, they personified essential aspects of his nature.
Some modern historians have given a very specific interpretation to the services that the children of Styx gave to their king.
Victory, personified by Nike, was the first thing a new leader needed. But after that, he would need strength, force, and dedication to establish his laws and hold on to his new power.
Kratos and his siblings did not just represent aspects of Zeus. They represented the aspects that were essential for him to hold on to the throne he had won from his father.
Like many of the personification spirits, Kratos is named infrequently in written mythology.
Because he shared his name with a commonly used noun, kratos appears often as a word. However, as a character it is only attested to in a few instance.The story of how Kratos, his mother, and his siblings came to join Zeus’s court was told in Theogony, an 8th century poem by Hesiod. Click To Tweet
It would be another three centuries before a surviving source mentioned him again in Prometheus Bound.
Aeschylus mentioned Kratos again in another play, Libation Bearers, although he did not appear as a character. In the play, Electra invoked the name of Kratos, along with Zeus and Dike (Justice) to support vengeance for the murder of her father, Agamemnon.
Plato may have alluded to Kratos and his siblings when he mentioned the “guards of Zeus” being so frightening that Prometheus chose to steal fire from Athena and Hephaestus instead of Zeus’s palace. The guards are not named, however.
Kratos is even more rare in visual representations of mythology. The only known example that survives today is a single fragment of pottery from the late 5th century BC.
The wine cup that shows Kratos depicts a scene that is not in any of the written works. On it, the spirit of strength participates in the punishment of another breaker of Zeus’s laws, Ixion.
Ixion was a mortal man who, despite having broken sacred law by killing a family member, was a favorite of Zeus. The god took pity on him when he was made an outcast for his crime and invited him to Olympus.
Instead of being grateful, however, Ixion schemed to assault Zeus’s wife, Hera. When Zeus tricked him with a double of the goddess made of a cloud, Ixion bragged about his actions.
In the only artistic representation known of Kratos, the personification of Zeus’s might takes part in the punishment of Ixion. He is shown binding Ixion to a fiery wheel on which the wicked man was doomed to spent eternity spinning in circles.
In the 21st century, Kratos is rarely remembered as a Greek daimon. However, his name lives on in a modern take on ancient mythology.
Many modern audiences are more familiar with Kratos as the protagonist in the God of War video game franchise than they are with his mythological origins. However, the game character was not based on the Greek figure.
The protagonist of the game franchise was, in fact, more closely based on the mythology of Heracles. The game developers chose the name from the Greek noun to denote the character’s might, not realizing that it was shared by a deity.
Therefore, the Kratos many people are familiar with today has little in common with his namesake. Instead of a loyal servant of Zeus, the Kratos of God of War becomes an enemy of the gods and brings about their destruction.
The confusion between Kratos the character and kratos the attribute is common for personifications in Greek mythology. As shown by the game developers, it is often difficult to tell whether an ancient work is referring to a god or just an idea.
Kratos in Greek mythology is not a sympathetic character. He has no use for mercy or pity.
In Prometheus Bound, Kratos is downright cruel. The clues given by other sources suggest that the was a common view of him.Kratos, however, never acted cruelly of his own accord. Everything he did, his very nature, was a reflection of Zeus. Click To Tweet
As the king of the gods, Zeus was responsible for law, justice, and the determination of right and wrong. His justice was enforced by strength, force, and zeal.
Looking at the personifications of Zeus’s justice reveals a great deal about the king of the gods and about the culture that worshipped him.
Zeus was the standard for kingship and power on earth as well as on Mount Olympus. Greek kings emulated his laws and the way he enforced them.
To the Greeks, breaking the king’s laws required harsh punishment. There was no room for pity or mercy, and the best way to ensure people followed the law was through fear.
In using Kratos to enforce his will, Zeus followed an adage that would not be coined for another two thousand years: Might makes right.