Who is Hyperion in Greek Mythology?
HYPERION, in Greek Mythology, is the Titan god of heavenly light, son of Uranus (Ouranos, Heaven) and Gaia (Gaea, Earth). He is one of the 12 Titans of Greek mythology and attributed the characteristics of the “God of Watchfulness, Wisdom and the Light”. At the same time, the latter became the physical incarnation of the Sun.
Amongst the 12 titan children of Uranus and Gaia, none shine so brightly as the child Hyperion. That would make sense, given that Hyperion, otherwise known as the high one, was referred to as the god of heavenly light—a grand title that not even many of the Olympians could ever hope to hold.
Yet, despite such a glorious name, very little is known about Hyperion, and he is featured even less, perhaps, not at all in the actual mythology. Others refer to him as the ‘father of the lights of heaven,’ yet another significant title that promotes not only his godliness but also how glorious this creature may have appeared to be to the ancients when the titans were the rulers.
To the later ancient Greeks, Hyperion’s title of heavenly light would be interpreted with a far more practical sense, in that he would be known as the father of Helios, the god of the sun, Eos, the dawn, and Selene, the moon.
To many, his father-ship over these entities, entities which were also seen as personifications for earth’s most essential features, would be Hyperion’s most crucial role. A role so vital that it would overshadow anything else that the titan might have achieved or had set about doing. This would justify why there is so little documented about him when we consider the mythology.
Yet, there is something about this god of heavenly light that marks him out from his titan brothers and sisters. Perhaps it is the angelic vibe he gives off in his relation to this heavenly light that makes him more relatable to today’s audience. After all, his name can be translated to mean “The Watcher from above,” certainly a title that seems relatable with that of an angel or even a guardian angel.
Those of you more familiar with the Enochian legend will know that the watchers were another term for a group of angels sent to survey the world during the age of early men. Or maybe it is the various works by poets like John Keats, which have been fascinated by Hyperion. Those who aim to paint the titan as a tragic hero and as one of the titans who, along with Cronus, wasn’t about to lie down for Zeus during the Titanomachy.
We know that from mythology, Hyperion was one of the original 12 titans. One that may have had a more significant role than others in the deposing of Uranus. When Cronus made moves to castrate his father, he would learn that his father was far too large and powerful to achieve that feat entirely alone.
We are told in some versions that when Uranus came to lie with Gaia, it was Hyperion and his brothers Crius, Coeus and Iapetus who seized hold of him by an arm and a leg each and kept him bound to his spot, enabling Cronus to castrate him with his sickle and topple him from his throne.
Without the assistance of Hyperion, Crius, Coeus and Iapetus, we are led to believe that Cronus would not have had the same success and would not have ascended to fill his father’s shoes. With this in mind, there is an idea that Hyperion came to personify one of the four pillars that held up heaven from the earth or held up the entire cosmos in the same way they held down their father.
As these cornerstones, their importance to the world was paramount. It can be said that Hyperion, among his brothers, were responsible for the rise of Cronus and for creating or maintaining the conditions of the world in which he would come to rule. It might also be said that these four brothers held up Cronus and enabled him to lead in the age before the Olympians.
This is especially true for Hyperion, whose name could also be interpreted as ‘he who goes above.’ The idea can be interpreted as Hyperion going above and beyond his duty and becoming a cornerstone of the very world itself. For he was indeed doing more than was requested or expected of him. It also suggests that without Hyperion and his brothers, Cronus’s rule would not have been so absolute and that he may have threatened to fall had any one of them chosen to slack.
This brings up another interesting discussion, ‘is it Cronus who was all-powerful or was it the combined efforts of his brothers that allowed him to exhibit such power.’
Other ideas suggest that Hyperion could have been viewed as a primal god, who decided upon the sun’s cycle, the moon and the dawn, given that they were his children and thus, obedient or influenced by his instructions.
This would provide the ancient Greeks with an idea of how the rhythm of days and months was established. On the other hand, his close brother Crius presided over the heavenly constellations and so almost complementarily set the cycle of years and seasons.
Another idea, which deviates somewhat from Prometheus’s creation of man, is that the titan brothers bestowed upon men a certain quality. In Hyperion’s case, the gift of eyes and sight.
The ancient Greeks would once believe that it was the eyes that emitted light, and some might have said that this was the gift given by Hyperion, allowing man to see. Being associated with being a watcher, he might also have given some credence to this belief, but this cannot be substantiated.
Along with his sister-wife Theia, she was considered ‘the lady of the Aithre’, ‘the shining blue within the sky,’ both entities were closely associated with the heavens and the light which shone upon the earth.
When we consider the light shining upon the earth, it’s easy for us to think of the sun. But whilst Hyperion might have once considered being a representation of the sun, at least because of the light it provides, it was his son Helios who would become more commonly associated as the god of the sun or the sun itself.
But when we look at Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey sources, we see Homer refer to the sun as ‘Helios Hyperion’, almost suggesting that Hyperion was in part a representation of the sun or maybe just responsible for it. You might say that this is further reinforced by Hesiod theogony, where the sun is referred to as Hyperionides, or the son of Hyperion—allowing for a clear distinction between the two.
In the following texts, Hyperion would be established as a god representing a more fantastical heavenly light or merely a god of vigilance, wisdom and watchfulness. Whilst Helios became the physical incarnation of the sun.
We know little about the actual character of Hyperion from the mythology. We can gather that he supported his brother Cronus’s rule and that when Zeus challenged him, Hyperion remained loyal to his kind. We know even less about his relationships with anyone, least of all, his sister-wife Theia. From whom she bought him the children, Helios, Eos and Selene.
Perhaps, one of the only things we can gather about Hyperion was his fate and that, like many of the other titans, was cast into the pits of Tartarus, a void beneath the foundations of everything.
Some sources state that this was the final resting place of the titans and that beyond this, they became mere shadows in the pantheon and were ditched in favour of the more popular Olympians. Most notably by ancient Greek poet Pindar or by Aeschylus in Prometheus Unbound, other ideas suggest that Zeus eventually took pity on the titans and released them.
While Hyperion does not appear to be mentioned during the war between Zeus and Cronus, an unfinished poem by John Keats titled Hyperion seeks to establish him as a primary player during the conflict. We see Keats attempt to characterize Hyperion as a tragic hero. One who refuses to go down without a fight during the Titanomachy and one who gives his full support to Cronus or Saturn—his roman counterpart.
We learn in the poem that Cronus or Saturn has already lost the war to Zeus or Jupiter and grieves this loss and the loss of his power. Amongst him are the other titans who sit miserably in their defeat, futilely theorizing whether it would be best to rebel against the usurpers or concede to them.
However, Hyperion is not present but appears to be in his palace—the only titan who has not been felt by Zeus and one who still maintains most of his power. Uranus, who appears to bear no ill will to his son for aiding his brothers in his castration, visits Hyperion and tells him that he ought to go to Cronus and surrender with the others.
We do not get to know of Hyperion’s decision, given that Keats never finished the poem. But in a passionate monologue by Hyperion, I think we get the gist that he would have fought against Zeus to the very end, with or without his titan brothers and sisters. He states,
I think it’s safe to say that, had Hyperion gone toe to toe with Zeus, he would have been thwarted just like the others. Whilst it may have been a glorious battle, there is some indication in his earlier statements of his monologue that make me think he already knows the battle is lost, such as where he asks if he is to fall as well. Suggesting that he is unsure of himself or notices that he can see nothing but darkness despite being the god of heavenly light.
His final spurt of energy where he defies the infant thunderer, Zeus, seems more to me like a burst of false confidence. He is almost trying to excite himself up for a battle that he knows cannot be won. Not only had his brothers and sisters already been defeated, but his father comes to pretty much tell him it’s over and that he too should surrender before the new ruler.
Homer and Hesiod’s mythological tales make no reference to Hyperion being this spunky, prideful rebel that Keats portrays him as. Quite the contrary, they describe him as a vigilant watcher and an observer.
It’s likely that he, with his wisdom, would have been one of the first to conclude that Zeus’s power was unmatchable, and he may very well have been one of the first to realize that the reign of the titans was at its conclusion.
Still, Homer and Hesiod indicated that Hyperion did not have such a role within the mythology, but this does not mean he was not an important figure to the ancient Greeks. You might say that Hyperion was one of, if not the very first source of light when life was created from chaos, and that light to us represents safety and warmth—something that would have been imperative to the early man.
His fatherhood over Helios, Selene and Eos, the sun, the moon and the dawn, also make him responsible for creating the night and day cycle, and thus, a way in which the ancient Greeks could measure time itself.
Image Sources: Aramisdream, Wikipedia