Cronus (also: Chronos, Cronos, Saturn in Roman mythology) was the Titan son of Uranus, the sky, and Gaia, the earth. He was also the father of Zeus and his siblings: Hades, Hestia, Hera, Poseidon and Demeter.
Cronos is described as being unruly and strong willed, and succeeds in overthrowing Uranus and Gaia as king of Titans and all creation.
After hearing a prophecy that one of his own children will usurp him, Cronus devours all of his offspring, with the exception of Zeus, as a way to preserve his power.
After Zeus achieves adulthood, he frees his brothers and sisters and overthrows his father to become king of all gods and creation.
Backstory: Cronus usurps his parents, Gaia and Uranus
Night and Erebus (both sprung from Chaos) united and produced Aether (the bright upper atmosphere) and Day. Gaia (also sprung from Chaos) first of all brought forth Uranus (Heaven or Sky) “equal to herself so that he might surround and cover her completely and be a secure home for the blessed gods forever.”
Gaia thus produced Uranus alone, and also brought forth Mountains and Pontus (the sea). But then Gaia lay with Uranus and bore the Titans.
The Titans, offspring of Uranus and Gaia, are twelve in number: Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Tethys, and the last-born, Cronus, “wily and most terrible, who hated his lusty father”.
The Titans are for the most part deifications of various aspects of nature, important for their progeny, although a few assume some significance in themselves. Duplication of divinities is common in the early scheme of Greek mythology; they may exist side by side, or their names and personalities may be confused. Very often the younger generation will dominate the older and usurp its power.
In addition to the Titans, Uranus and Gaia bore Brontes (Thunder), Steropes (Lightning), and Arges (Bright), who were called Cyclopes (Orb-Eyed) because they each had only one eye in the middle of their forehead. The Cyclopes, in their might and skill forged the “thunder and lightning”.
Uranus and Gaia also bore Cottus, Briareus, and Gyes, who were even more overbearing and monstrous than the Cyclopes, they each had a hundred arms and hands and fifty heads and were named the Hecatonchires (hundred-handed or -armed). These were the most terrible children of Uranus and Gaia, and from the beginning their own father, Cronus, hated them.
Hesiod has this to say about Uranus’s treatment of his children:
As each of his children was born, Uranus hid them all in the depths of Earth and did not allow them to emerge into the light. And he delighted in his wickedness.
But Gaia in her distress groaned within and devised a crafty and evil scheme. At once she created gray adamant and fashioned a great sickle and confided in her dear children.
Sorrowing in her heart she urged them as follows:
“My children born of a presumptuous father, if you are willing to obey, we shall punish his evil insolence. For he was the first to devise shameful actions.” Thus she spoke.
Fear seized them all and not one answered. But great and wily Cronus took courage and spoke to his dear mother:
“I shall undertake and accomplish the deed, since I do not care about our abominable father. For he was the first to devise shameful actions.” Thus he spoke.
And huge Earth rejoiced greatly in her heart. She hid him in an ambush and placed in his hands the sickle with jagged teeth and revealed the whole plot to him. Great Uranus came leading on night and desirous of love lay on Gaia, spreading himself over her completely.
And his son from his ambush reached out with his left hand and in his right he seized hold of the huge sickle with jagged teeth and swiftly cut off the genitals of his own dear father and threw them so that they fell behind him. And they did not fall from his hand in vain.
After the deed was done, Cronus and his sister Rhea usurped the powers and the functions of their parents, Uranus and Gaia.
Zeus’s motivations and why he wanted to kill his father
Cronus and Rhea then mated, and gave birth of their important offspring: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus, only for Cronus to devour all these children, except Zeus.
Great Cronus swallowed his children as each one came from the womb to the knees of their holy mother, with the intent that no other of the illustrious descendants of Uranus should hold kingly power among the immortals.
For Cronus learned from Gaia and starry Uranus that it was fated that Cronus be overcome by his own child. And so, Cronus kept vigilant watch and lying in wait he swallowed his children.
A deep and lasting grief took hold of Rhea and when she was about to bring forth Zeus, father of gods and men, then she entreated her own parents, Gaia and starry Uranus, to plan with her how she might bring forth her child in secret and how the avenging fury of her father, Uranus, and of her children whom great Cronus of the crooked counsel swallowed, might exact vengeance.
And they readily heard their dear daughter and were persuaded, and they counseled her about all that was destined to happen concerning Cronus and his stout-hearted son, Zeus.
And they sent her to the town of Lyctus in the rich land of Crete when she was about to bring forth the youngest of her children, great Zeus. And vast Gaia received him from her in wide Crete to nourish and foster.
And then Rhea wrapped up a great stone in infant’s coverings and gave it to Cronus, who at that time was the great ruler and king of the gods. Then he took it in his hands, poor wretch, and rammed it down his belly.
Cronus did not know in his heart that there was left behind, in the stone’s place, his son unconquered and secure, who was soon to overcome him and drive him from his power and rule among the immortals.
How Zeus overthrew his father
When Zeus had grown to maturity, Cronus was tricked into bringing up all that he had swallowed, first the stone and then Zeus’s brothers and sisters.
Zeus, alongside Poseidon, then waged war against his father with their other disgorged brothers and sisters as allies: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and.
Allied with him as well were the Hecatonchires and the Cyclopes, for he had released them from the depths of the earth where their father, Uranus, had imprisoned them because of his hatred.
The Hecatonchires were invaluable in hurling stones with their hundred-handed dexterity, and the Cyclopes forged for him his mighty thunder and lightning.
On the other side with Cronus were the Titans with the important exception of Themis and her son Prometheus, both of whom allied with Zeus. But Atlas, the brother of Prometheus, was an important leader on the side of Cronus.
The battle was of epic proportions, Zeus fighting from Mt. Olympus, Cronus from Mt. Othrys. The struggle was said to have lasted ten years, the traditional length for a serious war, be it this one or the famous conflict of the Greeks against the Trojans.
Description of the war between Titans and Gods
An excerpt from Hesiod will convey the magnitude and ferocity of the conflict (Theogony 678-721).
The boundless sea echoed terribly, earth resounded with the great roar, wide heaven trembled and groaned, and high Olympus was shaken from its base by the onslaught of the immortals; the quakes came thick and fast and, with the dread din of the endless chase and mighty weapons, reached down to gloomy Tartarus.
Thus, Gods and Titans hurled their deadly weapons against one another. The cries of both sides as they shouted reached up to starry heaven, for they came together with a great clamor.
Then Zeus did not hold back his might any longer, but now immediately his heart was filled with strength and he showed clearly all his force.
He came direct from heaven and Olympus hurling perpetual lightning [created by the Cyclopes], and the bolts with flashes and thunder flew in succession from his stout hand with a dense whirling of holy flame.
Earth, the giver of life, roared, everywhere aflame, and on all sides the vast woods crackled loudly with the fire. The whole of the land boiled, and as well the streams of Ocean, and the barren sea.
The hot blast engulfed the earth-born Titans and the endless blaze reached the divine aether; the flashing gleam of the thunder and lightning blinded the eyes even of the mighty. Unspeakable heat possessed Chaos.
The sight seen by the eyes and the sound heard by the ears were as if Earth and wide Heaven above collided; for the din as the gods met one another in strife was as great as the crash that would have arisen if Earth were dashed down by Heaven falling on her from above.
The winds mingled the confusion of tremor, dust, thunder, and the flashing bolts of lightning (the shafts of great Zeus) and carried the noise and the shouts into the midst of both sides.
The terrifying clamor of fearful strife arose, and the might of their deeds was shown forth. They attacked one another and fought relentlessly in mighty encounters until the battle was decided.
The defeat and imprisonment of the Titans
Cottus, Briareus, and Gyes, thirsting for battle, were among the foremost to rouse the bitter strife; they hurled three hundred rocks, one right after another, from their staunch hands and covered the Titans with a cloud of missiles and sent them down far beneath the broad ways of the earth to Tartarus and bound them in harsh bonds, having conquered them with their hands even though they were great of spirit. The distance from Earth to gloomy Tartarus is as great as that of Heaven from Earth.
The fate of Cronus
There are multiple versions that describe what happened to Cronus and the other Titans after their defeat at the hands of Zeus and his allies:
- The most commonly accepted version is that the Titans, along with their Cronos, were locked away in the depths of Tartarus and will remain there for all eternity.
- Another common version is that Zeus released the Titans after some time. However, the Titans (including Cronos) were banished to the ends Earth and rendered powerless. There they lived apart from the world of men and gods and did not interfere in their affairs.
- In yet another version, some time after defeating the Titans, Zeus decided to make Cronos the king of Elysium. This was described as a mythical island and an afterlife paradise for worthy humans, chosen by the gods for their great deeds in life.
- In a Roman version of events, Cronus is described to have fled Greece and arrived in the Latium region of Italy. There he ruled Italy, and throughout his reign there existed a Golden Age.
Theogony by Hesiod
Classical Mythology by Mark Morford