Who is Cronus in Greek Mythology?
In Greek mythology, CRONUS was the son of Uranus (also known as Ouranos), the sky god of heaven, and GAIA, the earth mother. With the help of Gaia, Cronus emasculated Ouranos and seized control of the universe.
He then married his sister Rhea and followed the example of Uranus in disposing of his children by swallowing them because he had been warned that he would be displaced by one of his sons.
The Greeks did not believe that the gods created the universe. It was the opposite—the universe created the gods.
Before there were gods, heaven and earth had been formed. They were the first parents. The Titans were their children, and the gods were their grandchildren. These are the words by Edith Hamilton, in her book Mythology, Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, and it’s a perfect introduction for us as we embark on an epic voyage of our own through the world of Greek mythology.
In Greek mythology, we are treated to a coloured and vibrant range of gods, goddesses, heroes, and monsters. A sum that seemed larger than life in their vivid personalities and epic exploits.
Unlike modern religions, the tales of the gods are not confined to a single book. But were instead something of an old tradition as spread during the Bronze Age. Those that were much later written into literature.
Many will be familiar with the poet Homer, who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey’s epics and the poet Hesiod and the Theogony. Both of which recounts some of the most remarkable Greek mythological tales that we know today and the stock morals that are littered throughout each telling.
Much wisdom can be divided from the stories we are told about the gods, and this is partly because the gods demonstrate some very human tendencies. In effect, they are like humans themselves, capable of experiencing jealousy, hatred, scorn, and sadness.
They did not present themselves as all-powerful and all-knowing beings, nor deny the attempt to hide their emotional dispositions. For this, they become far more relatable to us than most ideas of god for today’s mainstream religions, in that the Greek gods and the other associated characters from the mythology are essentially a reflection of ourselves.
For this reason, choosing one of these characters to start this series off will prove to be a difficult decision. But when we think about a character who embodies the personality, the motives, and the fears of man, the Titan Cronus certainly springs to mind.
Not only does Cronus appeal to us as a hero, who thwarted his father’s tyranny, but we also see him demonstrate hubris and a hunger for power that essentially turns him into that which he was asked to stop.
Cronus is a perfect example of a man striving hard for what he wants with the utmost good intentions, but then once he gets it, he becomes someone else—someone far darker than he was before.
It’s a sign of the many pitfalls that man must deal with when it comes to success, in that sometimes, men lose himself once they’ve made it, or they forget who they were and, more often, turn against that which they fought so hard against.
In a way, like with Cronus, it is the achievement of his mission which changes him, and some of us may have seen this same shift in attitude with people who, in a sense, forget where they came from.
Success, in some cases, transforms their principles, alters their thought process. It might even have them succumb to greed as they want for more and more.
The Harvey Dent once told us from The Dark Knight, “you either die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” But how does this all take place in the stories from Greek mythology?
The Beginning of Cronus
Our story begins with the primordial deity known as Uranus, the god of the sky, and the primordial deity known as Gaia, the goddess of the earth. The two deities were husband and wife, and Gaia, sometimes seen as Uranus’s mother, would bear 12 children. These being the original 12 Titans of Greek mythology.
The Titans would be those who preceded the Olympians that we are more familiar with, such as Zeus and Poseidon, and it was these tough titans who were worshipped as the divine leaders. Those that also walked amongst the mortals in what was deemed the Golden Age of men.
The Titans were what many considered to be the old gods and were enormous and full of strength. Amongst the Titans being born were the Giants, the Cyclopes, and Hecatoncheires—unlike the Giants, these were thought by their father, Uranus, to be repulsive-looking creatures and once he couldn’t stand the sight of.
Each time Gaia gave birth to one, Uranus served them back into the womb, inflicting unbearable pain upon the goddess. In some variations, Uranus stuffed the Giants deep within the earth—which she might have said was Gaia herself.
In a place known as Tartarus—an abyss used to imprison the hideous creatures—grief-stricken that her children were being treated so, as well as being in excruciating pain, Gaia hatched up a plan to free her children. She fashioned a sickle out of adamantine and demanded her titan children to come to her aid, to put an end to their father’s awful rule and to take his place.
Amongst the Titans though, none were so bold as to go against their father, none except Cronus.
We immediately begin to get a sense of a hero in Cronus. Not only see they only want to stand up for his mother amongst his siblings, but he’s also the youngest sibling. Furthermore, highlighting how brave he is, how virtuous he is in comparison to his older siblings and how righteous he is. Yet, despite the magnitude of the task, he is still prepared to do it.
The Hatred From Cronus Against Uranus
Interestingly, it is believed that Cronus hanged about in Tartarus, where he moved about cursing the name of his father, Uranus. So, you might say that his motivations for killing his father came about because of a hatred for his father and not because he was brave at all.
In the ‘Mythos’ by Stephen Fry, Fry refers to Cronus as Hamlet (given his introspections) with a bit of Macbeth (given his later ambition) as well as a bit of Hannibal Lector.
Considering Cronus’s burden of killing someone, his desire to maintain his eventual throne and the sadistic way he proceeds to rule, I’d say these comparisons are right on the money.
Gaia convinces Cronus to do away with his father, and this is Cronus castrate Uranus with the sickle. In some variations, Gaia hides Cronus in her womb, and when Uranus comes for sex, Cronus reaches out and dismembers him. Uranus gave a loud shrieking cry and immediately flew up to the sky, never to return to his former glory as of the king of all gods.
He bled profusely during his time, and his severed testicles were cast into the ocean by his usurper son.
From the blood that spilt on the earth, more came forth of the Giants and the Erinyes, also known as the Furies, female deities of vengeance and the Meliae, which were minor female deities associated with the ash tree and better known as Nymphs.
Amongst those born was also the goddess Aphrodite, the goddess associated with love, beauty, pleasure, passion, and procreation.
In the wake of this, Cronus declares himself the king of all gods. He receives no retaliation from his father, who retreats to the sky, perhaps, ashamed and in too much pain to do much about it.
Cronus’s victory is absolute. He’s held as a hero for his deception, for the relieving of his mother’s pain, and the saving of his giant brothers and sisters that were imprisoned in Tartarus. His status as a noble, courageous protagonist is firmly established here, and we recognize him the virtues of a man overcoming the odds, standing up for his mother and liberating those down unfairly imprisoned.
Here, Cronus demonstrates traits that we would undoubtedly find attractive in other people and is here that Cronus is held at the pinnacle of our celebration. That soon changes, though.
Cronus marries his sister, Rhea, and for a while, everyone seemed content. Gaia was free from the pain of having her children stuffed back into her womb and was, therefore, had more Liberty to produce an abundance of crops for the humans.
Living with the Humans
The humans appear to be living in a time of peace, where there was no war, no famine, and no plagues, and for the most part, it appeared to be a blissful time to be alive.
Some also believed that the Titans themselves lived amongst the humans. Man, and deity coexisted like neighbours. But by this point, it appears that Cronus grew too used to being the king. He learned to enjoy the comforts that ruling gave him, allowed himself to become frightful in its position and shuddered at the thought of losing everything he had gained.
In this, he became most protective over his throne, so much so, that the mere suggestion that he would lose it saw him change into a most violent god. In some stories, Uranus and Gaia spoke to Cronus, telling him that one of his sons will usurp him at some point.
Cronus’ Obsession Over Power
This suggestion plants doubt in Cronus’s head, causing him to become obsessed with maintaining that which he had. In other versions, Uranus curses Cronus after he has castrated him. Damning him to be betrayed by his children the same way his child had betrayed him.
Cronus then grew paranoid in the wake of this declaration, and as a result, he wants again imprisoned the Cyclopes and Hecatoncheires in Tartarus, the same way his father had done before him.
He even goes a step further by placing the female Dragon Campe to guide Tartarus to ensure none of them escapes. This simply shows how far Cronus was willing to go to protect his status and how of a failure he was becoming.
He is no longer heroic in such a short space of time but instead an insecure and malicious figure who might be worse than his father.
Remember, Uranus only imprisoned the Giants because he thought they were ugly. But Cronus is far more devious and far more calculating. He does this said that his rulership isn’t threatened. Cronus shows us a side to him that is much uglier than his father’s, and that he betrays those he had once saved for totally selfish reasons.
Furthermore, he becomes so affected by the prophecy of being usurped by his children that he begins to swallow them as quickly as his wife Rhea gives birth. In this, we see that Apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
Rhea is not blind to Cronus’s transformation and likely saw him the same way Gaius or Uranus. He is, after all-consuming her newly-born children right in front of her, denying her of motherhood, all so that he may keep his kingdom.
The fact that he’s even willing to do this to his children shows us what type of character Cronus becomes—a villain of the foulest kind.
The Birth of Zeus
Rhea is at a loss over what to do. She learns that she’s pregnant with her sixth child and of course fears for his fate. She had no choice but to turn to Gaia for help. Gaia urged Rhea to flee to Crete, where she gave birth to a son in secret. A son who will be named none other than Zeus.
Like clockwork, it wasn’t long before Cronus’s appetite for babies came over him, and he came to swallow the boy, just like he’d done with the rest of Ria’s children as Rhea hid the child and instead wrapped up a large stone in cloth before handing it to Cronus. Mistaking this bundle for the baby, Cronus swallowed it whole and was none the wiser that Zeus was still alive.
Zeus was left with the nymphs at Crete, and it was then that they would raise him. He would eventually overthrow the mad Cronus.
It’s hard to see Cronus at this point as anything other than insane. The prophecy of his downfall had indeed compromised his mental well-being. For he becomes so absolutely fixated on preserving his rule, that he would do anything. It’s almost as if he is an entirely different person—certainly no longer a hero but a desperate god who was trying his best to cling on to the vestiges of his power.
We can certainly see how human Cronus is, and he becomes blinded by his desires and insecurities. Something which causes him to act so absurdly. We frequently see this sort of behaviour in humans, where one may make a rash decision or even a reckless decision when their back is against the wall.
The Downfall of Cronus
We see it often in people who become obsessed with a particular fear or worry, and anxiety eats away at them from the inside out, causing them to act a little crazy. It further illustrates how much the gods in Greek mythology are reflections of ourselves. While they may have such extraordinary powers, they too are felt by the same emotional and mental vices as us.
Many years would pass before Zeus would have his moment to strike. Having acquired a vomit-inducing beverage from the titan Metis, Zeus would infiltrate Cronus’s Kingdom and disguise himself as his cupbearer.
When Cronus summoned his wine, Zeus handed him the concoction prepared by Metis, which would see Cronus vomiting up all the children he had consumed. Amongst those disgorged where the gods and goddesses, Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades and Poseidon. All of whom were vexed for having been swallowed by their father.
Together with Zeus and the combined efforts of the imprisoned Cyclopes and Hecatoncheires, they would seek Cronus’s worst fear become a reality. In an event, Hesiod referred to as the TITANOMACHY.
Here Cronus is defeated and overthrown by his children, much like he had overthrown Uranus. Although, there was no castration going on this time. Instead, we are given two versions, where either Cronus could escape to the Italian city of Latium, now known as Lazio, or he was shown the same fate he had shown the Giants and placed into Tartarus himself along with the rest of the Titans too.
This would see the rise of Zeus and his siblings, who overthrew the titan rulership and set in the age of the Olympians.
Cronus’s ultimate fate varies depending on who you ask. Some believe that he remained in Tartarus with his Titan brothers and sisters for eternity. Others think that he redeemed himself and was soon promoted to the ruler of the islands of the Blessed or Elysian Fields—a heaven-like place that served as a stage to receive the souls of the greatest heroes.
Perhaps like us, Cronus was able to recognize his follies and where he had lost his hint and was able to make amends somehow—again, demonstrating some of those heroic tendencies that we had seen when he was much younger.
Once more, the gods embodied the human trait of resilience, and I guess rebirth, in that we do possess the power to turn our lives around and become better people, perhaps as Cronus does here.
Cronus In Roman Mythology
Meanwhile, the Romans, who would refer to Cronus as Saturn, believe that he established yet another great Golden Age in Rome after escaping to Italy. Now, he was widely celebrated, particularly in a winter festival known as Saturnalia.
During this time, all public businesses were suspended, Wars and executions were put on hold, gifts were exchanged between citizens, and even slaves were granted some temporary luxuries, which included being served a feast by their masters. Additionally, Saturn would have far more of an impact on the Romans at the time than Cronus ever had for the Greeks.
The entire story of Cronus eating his children has many interpretations. Still, one of my favourites is the idea that Cronus represents the destructiveness of time, in that time swallows everything, including entire generations.
Cronus here becomes a metaphor for time, or that Cronus represents the sorrow of the older generation in their attempts to suppress the younger one. Funnily enough, Cronus is often confused with the entity known as the personification of time. That being also known as Chronus (Khronus)—buts spelt ever slightly different.
As already mentioned, perhaps a fascinating thing about Cronus is the duality of his personality. What once appeared to be a noble, brave hero, that works to save his mother’s life becomes a vengeful, fearful tyrant who disrespects his mother just as much as his father did.
He also carries this abuse into his wife’s relationship and acts out his evil tendencies upon his helpless children. Regardless of his sense of righteousness, and in this place becomes a scheming and ambitious god, one who is desperate enough to do anything to preserve his status.
The idea that Cronus is redeemed when he becomes the overseer of the Elysium fields only further adds to his complexity as a character. He demonstrates the ability to change and reform here too.
Almost like, he, despite being a god, is continually evolving or trying to get better—much like with us, as we age, we become wiser and perhaps not able to atone for the mistakes in our youth or at the very least learn from them so that we do not repeat them.
Once more, we see the humanity in Cronus, almost like a man himself who once had nothing gained everything, only to lose it all the same because of his insecurities.
The moral of the story is not to forget who you are and to be observant of who you are becoming. For it is straightforward for us to want to do the right thing, only to succumb to the pitfalls of indulgence, greed, and power along the way.