Rhea was the wife of Cronus, the king of the Titans. When he swallowed her children at birth so his reign could never be usurped, Rhea and Gaia formulated a plan to save her youngest son.
Instead of the infant Zeus, Rhea tricked her husband into swallowing a stone. Zeus grew up to free his siblings and take his father’s place as king of the gods.
After the Titanomachy, Rhea’s role in the mythology of Greece was relatively minor. Her purpose had been to be the mother of the gods and, with that duty completed, she was no longer active in many of the major legends.
As the mother of gods, however, Rhea fit into an important archetype. The Mater Theon was an abstract maternal deity that was variously associated not only with Rhea, but with many other Mediterranean goddesses as well.
According to Greek legends, the Titans were the twelve children of Uranus and Gaia. There were six males and six females.
The Titans married one another. Rhea was married to her brother Cronus, the youngest of the twelve.
Although Cronus was the youngest of the Titans, he was the only one willing to help their mother overthrow Uranus. He castrated his father and became the new ruler of the gods.
Gaia, however, had a dreadful prophecy for her son. She warned that one of his children would someday be stronger than any of the Titans and overthrow his rule just as he had done to his own father.
Cronus was determined to maintain his hold on power, so he made sure that none of his children would ever grow to challenge him. He ordered Rhea to bring each of her newborn children to him as soon as they were born and he swallowed them immediately.
Rhea lost five children in this way. Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Poseidon, and Hades were all swallowed by their father on the day they were born.
With each lost child, Rhea grew more despondent and desperate. When she fell pregnant for the sixth time, she went to Gaia to ask how she could save her next baby.
Gaia hid her daughter on the island of Crete, where she gave birth in secret. Instead of taking the baby to Cronus she entrusted him to the nymphs and wrapped a rock in blankets to trick her husband.
Zeus grew up in secret and, as the prophecy had foretold, returned to challenge his father. He freed his siblings and together they overthrew the reign of the Titans.
After the war between the gods, the Titans were imprisoned in Tartarus. Their sisters and daughters, however, became allies of the Olympians.
While the female Titans were not considered to be gods of Olympus themselves, they remained closely associated with them. Many became lovers and mistresses of the new gods, while others faded from the record.
Rhea, however, held a different position than her sisters and nieces. While they became the mothers of younger gods, she was already the mother of the six original Olympians.
This position as a goddess of motherhood put Rhea in good company. In fact, it made her very closely associated with the other great goddesses of the Greek pantheon.
Rhea had little cult or worship of her own. Once Zeus was saved from Chronus and the prophecy fulfilled, her function in Greek mythology was more or less completed.
In most of Greece she was acknowledged as a mother goddess but, unlike the Olympian goddesses, was thought to have little power in the world. Eileithyia was the goddess of childbirth and Hera represented wives, but Rhea was more abstract and removed.
Some ancient writers linked her name to the Greek rheo, or “flow,” an etymology that made her a goddess of menstruation, birth waters, and breastmilk. Modern historians, however, believe it originated with the pre-Greek era, or “earth.”
Rhea was closely linked to the earth as the daughter of Gaia. But it is also possible that she was, at one time, another aspect of the earth mother archetype herself.
Rhea and Gaia were both pre-Olympian deities who were the mothers of gods. They gave birth to an equal number of male and female children who in turn procreated amongst themselves to create the next generation of deities.
Many goddesses in Greek mythology shared the traits of the mother earth figure. Because Greek mythology borrowed figures and legends from so many sources, it is widely believed that many goddesses of the pantheon were originally mother earth goddesses in separate belief systems.
As Greek religion adopted from more sources and the mythology became more complex, different aspects of the earth mother were separated as individual goddesses. Gaia remained the primordial mother earth while goddesses like Rhea became mothers in different contexts.
This idea is supported by the fact that many local legends associated Rhea with other goddesses in the pantheon who share qualities of the mother archetype.
In Samothrace, for example, she was conflated with her daughter Demeter in many stories. On Crete, the site of Zeus’s secret birth, it was even said that she instead of Demeter was the mother of Persephone by Zeus.
She was particularly identified with the Anatolian goddess Cybele. Worship of Cybele was incorporated into Greek culture in such a way that the two goddesses were usually considered to be one and the same.
Together, Rhea and Cybele were worshipped under the name Mater Theon, Mother of the Gods. While neither the Titaness nor the Lydian mother goddess were often referred to individually, Mater Theon had many cult sites throughout the Mediterranean.
The title of Mother of the Gods only further emphasizes how much the various mother goddesses of Greek mythology were connected to one another, however. Mater Theon could refer to Rhea, Cybele, Gaia, Leto, or any number of other goddesses.
Mater Theon was sometimes said to be the lover of Anchises rather than Aphrodite. In Asia Minor she was seen as a female equivalent of Dionysus, inspired by the similarly frenzied worship of the native Cybele.
Rhea, therefore, did not remain important in Greece because of her own story. She served as part of an archetype of motherhood that was also embodied by many other goddesses of the pantheon.
Rhea played an important role in Greek mythology as the mother of Zeus and the first Olympian gods and goddesses. Like many mothers in ancient myths, though, her role was largely relegated to that of wife and mother.
Rhea was a mother goddess who the Greeks vaguely associated with the concept of flow and liquids. She sometimes appeared as a supporting figure in myths, but had few legends of her own that were widespread.
In local traditions, though, it was obvious that Rhea was on aspect of the great mother goddess archetype.
Gaia was the Greek mother earth, but there were many other goddesses in their pantheon who fit the general type. Because Greek mythology was so heavily influenced by others, Gaia and Rhea were joined by many other distinct by related goddesses.
Together, these figures were known by the title of Mater Theon. As the Mother of the Gods, Rhea’s stories were sometimes conflated with those of other mother goddesses like Cybele, Demeter, and even Aphrodite.