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Who Were the Twelve Titans?

The twelve Titans were the gods who came before the gods of Mount Olympus. So who were these earlier rulers of the Greek universe?

According to Greek legends, the gods they worshiped were actually the third generation of deities.

The oldest were the primordial gods. These were elemental beings who brought all of creation into existence.

Next came the Titans, the first generation of gods to have human-like forms and personalities. These were the children of Gaia, the primordial earth goddess, and Ouranus, the god of the heavens.

Some historians believe that the Titans were the primary gods of an earlier religion. Others claim that they were written to bridge the broad domains of the primordial deities with the highly-specific ones of the Olympians.

Little is known about many of the Titans, who played little role in most myths. Their greatest influence was not due to their own powers, but the prominence of their descendants.

Cronus and Rhea

The king of the Titans was also the youngest of them. Cronus had earned the throne by being the only one of his brothers who was willing to attack and overthrow their father, Ouranus.

He had done so at the behest of his mother, Gaia, who was angry with her spouse for imprisoning six of her more monstrous children. Some ancient writers, however, also said that Cronus was jealous of his father’s power.

Most accounts seemed to agree that Cronus grew as tyrannical as his own father had been. He did not share power equally, particularly with the younger generations of gods.

His greatest crime, however, was the treatment of his wife and children.

Cronus married his sister Rhea, who was often seen as a mother goddess in the same vein as Gaia. She was a loving and nurturing goddess.

Rhea did not get the opportunity to raise her own children, however. Cronus had been told that one of his offspring would someday overthrow him as he had done with his own father, so he vowed never to let that happen.

Cronus demanded that Rhea bring him each of his children as soon as he or she was born. He swallowed them whole so they could never grow to challenge him.

Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Poseidon, and Hades were all swallowed in this way when Rhea became pregnant for a sixth time. Desperate to save her child, she turned to her own mother for help.

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Gaia was sympathetic as a fellow mother who was separated from her children. She helped Rhea to give birth in secret and hide her new son, tricking Cronus into swallowing a stone instead.

Zeus grew up in hiding and eventually rose to challenge his father and the Titans as had been foretold. With the help of one of his aunts, Themis, he tricked Cronus into drinking a purgative that forced him to vomit up his children.

Zeus and his siblings, together with allies among the younger Titans and the children of Gaia, fought a ten-year long war against the Titans. Cronus was eventually defeated and overthrown.

With the other Titans who had fought against the younger gods, Cronus was imprisoned in Tartarus. Some sources said that he tried to rule there as a king because he no longer had any power on earth.

Later legends claimed that Zeus eventually took pity on the Titans and released them when they no longer posed any threat to his rule. In these stories, Cronus was made the king of the Isles of the Blessed, an elevated position that still kept him at a distance from the real seat of power.

Like most of the female Titans, Rhea largely disappeared from prominence. She and her sisters appear to have been integrated into the pantheon of Mount Olympus and she still enjoyed some cult status as the mother of the Olympian gods.

Oceanus and Tethys

The second most prominent couple among the Titans were Oceanus and Tethys.

Oceanus was usually said to be the oldest of the Titans. He was the god of the wide river that encircled the world.

He married his sister Tethys. In some traditions, she seems to have been revered as a major mother goddess.

Together, Oceanus and Tethys had thousands of children who were mostly linked to water in some way.

Their daughters were the Oceanids, a group of goddesses that was virtually innumerable. These included minor nymphs of water, rain, flowers, and nature as well as more prominent goddesses.

Their eldest daughters were counted among the younger Titans rather than the nymphs. These included Metis, the mother of Athena, and Thetis, another of Zeus’s loves.

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Their daughter Amphitrite was usually considered to be the queen of the sisterhood. Although she was not prominent in mythology, she gained importance through her marriage to Poseidon as the mother of all sea creatures.

The sons of Oceanus and Tethys were the river gods. There were nearly as many of these as there were Oceanids.

Oceanus was notable in the legend of the Titans because he did not appear to have sided with his brothers during the war between the Titans and the gods of Olympus. Unlike them, he was not imprisoned in Tartarus.

One source claimed that Oceanus had remained relatively neutral. Both the female Titans and the Olympian goddesses had taken shelter in his realm during the fighting.

Coeus and Phoebe

Little is known of Coeus. His name meant “questioning” or “intelligence,” giving some insight into his possible function.

He married his sister Phoebe, “The Shining.” Together, they seem to have represented aspects of knowledge and fate.

Some scholars also believe that Coeus was the Titan god of the earth’s axis. This is largely based on the identity of his Roman equivalent, Polus, the god of the poles.

Coeus and Phoebe were, like many Titans, most notable for their children.

Only two offspring are named from their marriage. These were two daughters, Leto and Asteria.

Zeus supposedly loved Asteria, whose name implied that she was a goddess of the stars. She threw herself into the sea to escape his advances, however, so he turned his attention to her sister.

Leto was, by most accounts, the first mistress that Zeus took after his marriage to Hera. As such, she bore much of the goddess’s wrath when she fell pregnant.

Despite Hera’s attempts to prevent their birth, Leto became the mother of twins. Apollo and Artemis became two of the most prominent deities in ancient Greek religion.

The famous grandchildren of the Titans seem to have inherited some of their grandparents’ qualities through their mother.

They were sometimes called Phoebus and Phoebe after their grandmother. The epithets of “Shining” denoted their roles as deities of light and the sun and moon, respectively.

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They also inherited control of the Oracle of Delphi from her. Like Coeus, Phoebe appears to have been linked to ideas of knowledge and searching for wisdom.

Some scholars believe that the oracle’s power came, at least in part, from its position along the earth’s axis. The ability that Phoebe gave her grandson to speak truth from that site may have been rooted in her husband’s role as a central part of the world.

Hyperion and Theia

Hyperion, “The High One,” is another Titan about whom little is known for sure. Both his name and his offspring indicate that he was a god of the sky.

He married his sister Theia. Her name simply meant “Goddess” or “The Divine,” leading some to interpret her as an early archetypical deity.

Theia was later given the epithet Euryphaessa, or “Wide Shining.” She was usually depicted with rich gold, silver, and gems and was said to give them their brightness and value.

Together, the two gave birth to children who embodied both their mother’s divine brightness and their father’s lofty position.

Their son was Helios, the god of the sun. He was sometimes called by his father’s name and the two were occasionally conflated in some stories.

The Titans also had two daughters. Selene was the goddess of the moon and Eos was the goddess of the dawn.

Iapetus and Crius

Two of the Titan gods did not marry their sisters.

Iapetus’s role was not clear in Greek mythology. His name meant “The Piercer,” but whether this was related to war or had a more symbolic meaning is unknown.

Instead of a sister, he married one of his nieces. His wife was an Oceanid named either Clymene or Asia depending on the source.

Iapetus was the only Titan specifically mentioned in the Iliad, besides Cronus, as being in Tartarus. While his loyalty was obviously with his brother, his sons were more divided.

Atlas and Menoetius joined him in fighting for the Titans. According to many sources, Atlas was one of their strongest warriors.

Prometheus and Epimetheus, meanwhile, joined Zeus and the younger gods. Although he was valuable in the conflict, Prometheus ultimately earned Zeus’s ire.

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Many legends claimed that Prometheus had created mankind. He was also their earliest patron, intervening on their behalf many times. When he stole fire to help them, he was cruelly punished.

Epimetheus married Pandora, the first woman. According to some accounts their daughter was the wife of Deucalion, who was a son or grandson of Prometheus.

Deucalion and his wife were among the only survivors of the flood that destroyed the people of the Silver Age. They repopulated the earth by creating new men and women from stones, making Iapetus and his descendants the progenerators of all mankind.

The final Titan god was Crius. Even less is known about him than most of his siblings.

Crius is so poorly attested in surviving sources that some modern historians believe he may have been an afterthought altogether. The little-known Titan may have been, they think, added just to ensure an even number of deities on each side of the Titanomachy.

Themis and Mnemosyne

The two Titan sisters who did not marry their brothers were both consorts of Zeus.

Themis remained prominent in Greek mythology as the goddess of natural law and order.

As such, she was not concerned with the laws of men. Her rules were divine natural ones that ensured the proper ordering of society, the world, and the cosmos.

She and Zeus had many children together. Their daughters were personifications of the laws and order that both of their parents represented.

The Horai were the goddesses of the seasons, although their role eventually changed to reflect more precise divisions of time. They ensured that the flow of time was consistent and properly ordered.

The Moirai were not always said to be their daughters, but many Greeks believed they were. These were the three goddesses of Fate who kept the lives of men to their apportioned times.

Themis was one of the few Titans known to have had her own cult following. While her temples were often within those of Zeus, she was worshiped in her own right as a goddess of divine law and natural order.

Mnemosyne was one of the most frequently invoked goddesses in Greek literature. This was because, as the goddess of memory, her intervention was necessary for poets who recited their works.

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According to legends, she and Zeus had an affair that lasted for nine nights. As a result, nine nymphs were born.

These were the Muses, the goddesses who gave inspiration to poets and musicians. Their roles were eventually expanded to include playwrights, philosophers, and mathematicians.

The Legacy of the Titans

The Titans were the children of Gaia and Ouranus. After overthrowing their father, Cronus took control as the king of the Titan gods.

There were twelve Titans, six male and six female. While some historians believe that they represented earlier versions of the gods, others think that most Titans were created to provide parallels to the existing gods of Mount Olympus.

Like Cronus, many of the Titan gods married their sisters. He and Rhea were the parents of the Olympians and Oceanus and Tethys were the ancestors of many nymphs and the river gods.

Some Titans were less prominent but remained important because of the descendants.

Coeus and Phoebe had just two daughters, but their grandchildren were Apollo and Artemis. Hyperion and Theia may have once been revered on their own, but the Greeks knew them as the parents of Helios, Eos, and Selene.

Iapetus was the ancestor of mankind through his sons, Prometheus and Epimetheus. His brother Crius, on the other hand, is virtually unattested.

The Titans were imprisoned after their war against the Olympians, with the exception of Oceanus. Their sisters remained free, however, and were typically more prominent.

Two of them, Themis and Mnemosyne, were consorts of Zeus rather than of their brothers. Themis was the goddess of law and the mother of the Horai and the Fates, while Mnemosyne ruled over memory and was the mother of the Muses.

By and large, the Titans played no major role in Greek mythology. They did not have their own cults and many had no clear domain or purpose.

Instead, their importance was due to their descendants. The legacy of the Titans in Greek mythology was as the ancestors of the later gods and, eventually, mankind.


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My name is Mike and for as long as I can remember (too long!) I have been in love with all things related to Mythology. I am the owner and chief researcher at this site. My work has also been published on Buzzfeed and most recently in Time magazine. Please like and share this article if you found it useful.

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