Who is Iapetus in Greek Mythology?
IAPETUS, in Greek mythology, was the Titan of mortality, craftsmanship, and the pillar of the west, the last of the four pillars who aided in dethroning their father and who hold the universe firm. He consorted with the Oceanid Clymene and fathered Prometheus (the Titan of forethought), Epimetheus (the Titan of an afterthought), Atlas (the Titan of strength), and Menoetius (the Titan of violent anger).
In some mythological tales, the Titan the Iapetus was the god who presided over the mortal lifespan. A deity who assigned mortal creatures their finite existence. Much like his brothers Coeus, Crius, Hyperion and Cronus, Iapetus was considered a god who oversaw time itself. And one of the gods who might have taken pleasure in the dethroning of their father, Uranus.
Homer describes the Iapetus by name in the Iliad, and he is thought to have been one of the more destructive of Titans. One who did not shy away from his duty in restraining Uranus so that he may be castrated and dethroned. Where the other brothers may have been reluctant and seen the overthrowing of their father as a necessary evil, there’s a chance going by Iapetus’s reputation as being the piercer that he might have been entirely up for it.
Homer continued that Iapetus was seated beside Cronus in Tartarus when the Olympians had overcome the Titans. This would indicate that Zeus saw Iapetus in the same vein as Cronus and reserved for them the same punishment level for their tyranny. Homer tells us,
Other iterations of Iapetus paint him as the god of violent death, furthermore establishing him as a being who lived to bring not just an end to one’s life but a terrible one at that. As others mentioned, he was referred to as the piercer. Perhaps on the account that he’s often depicted as wielding a spear, but also probably because it is with this spear that he brings painful death upon those whose life has reached its end.
Another idea regarding the piercer moniker is that he might have been a god of craftsmanship and that the spear was a representation of a tool and not a weapon. Interestingly, both violence and craftsmanship appear quite prominently in the sons of Iapetus, those he bought with the Oceanid and Titan goddess Clymene. These, of course, were Prometheus, Epimetheus, Atlas and Menoetius.
The Lovers and Children of Iapetus
As Hesiod in the theogony tells us, “now Iapetus took to wife Clymene, daughter of Oceanids, and went up with her into one bed and she bares him a stout-hearted son, Atlas. Also, she bears very glorious Menoetius and clever Prometheus, full of various wiles and scatter-brained Epimetheus.”
The sons of Iapetus would embody the worst of human traits, something you might say that Iapetus passed down to them and then to us through Prometheus, the father of humankind. Prometheus would come to demonstrate a sly and crafty streak as he deceived Zeus. Epimetheus would prove to be a retrospective fool. Atlas was too daring and ultimately witless, whilst Menoetius was angry and quick to action.
All in all, these traits would facilitate their downfall, and it was these traits, amongst the more wholesome ones, that would be inherited and demonstrated by humankind. Therefore, Iapetus or humankind’s grandfather, in a sense, was responsible for the more dubious aspects of our nature.
The Greek poet Pindar tells us,
In other versions, Iapetus was also named the father of Buphagus—an Arcadian hero who once gave Heracles’ brother Iphicles sanctuary when he was injured before being killed by the goddess Artemis after he tried to court her. Ultimately, it would seem that the sons of Iapetus—regardless of which version of mythology we look at—had ill-fated lives and journeys.
Another child linked to Iapetus is Anchiale (Ankhiale), a titan goddess of heat and fire—though variations of these are few and far between. Iapetus’s role within the mythology goes similarly to the previous Titans we’ve covered; in that, he doesn’t appear to do much except father the sons who would have a heavy influence in the coming conflict of the Titanomachy—a war between the Titans and the Olympians for supremacy.
Like his brothers, he was one of the four pillars that held the heavens and the earth apart after their father, Uranus, was disposed of. This alone establishes him as a prominent figure in early mythology.
Iapetus Involvement with Cronus’ Takeover
When Uranus descended from the heavens to lay with his wife Gaia, Cronus and his brothers ambushed him. But due to his sheer size, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion and Iapetus were posted at the four corners of the world, where they would seize him and restrain him. There, Cronus castrated him, and the sky god retreated to the skies, never to bother the world or his wife with his authoritarian rule again.
When Cronus assumed rulership, his brothers swayed into the peripherals of the narrative and are usually seen after that as more abstract representations for the pillars of heaven. It is believed that Iapetus would become responsible for the pillar of the west, a position that in some versions is taken over by his son Atlas, who becomes the sole carrier of the cosmos.
This is quite symbolic for the concept of inheritance or the son inheriting the father’s sins, as Atlas is sentenced to be the bearer of such tremendous weight. Hesiod would describe the role of the Titan brothers once they were cast into the void of Tartarus as shifting from physical supports of heaven to more abstract bearers of the entire cosmos. Here, Atlas would become the face of this burden in an earthlier sense—a tangible god who the mortals could perceive, whilst the titans faded into a more metaphysical sense and responsible for a more cosmological level.
What sets Iapetus apart from his brothers is the idea that he was a violent god. Not at all like the beacon of light Hyperion, nor the wise and contemplative Coeus, but instead, something more akin to the later Cronus, who would extend such violence upon his mother, wife and children.
Iapetus’ Involvement in the Titanomachy
We know that during his rule, Cronus would come to act not so much differently from his father after learning of a prophecy that one of his children would usurp him. After this revelation, he descended into madness and proceeded to consume all the children that his wife Rhea bore him.
One child, however, that being Zeus, was smuggled out of Cronus sight and switched for a rock bundled in clothing. Zeus would return to free his brothers and sisters, the Olympians, from the guts of Cronus and would declare war on the Titans in a battle for the ages.
But details of Zeus’s battles with each Titan are not focal points. Some attribute that Iapetus’s son Atlas was a general in the war and that he was of great concern to Zeus because of his colossal size and strength. Others such as Valerius Flaccus, in his Argonautica, indicated that Iapetus and Zeus went head to head in a fight and that Zeus himself declared,
Here, Zeus confirms that the Iapetus was a general himself and refers to the Titan as fierce, suggesting that this was a thunderous encounter between the deities. He also seems to set Iapetus’ defeat as the condition for how he became the ruler of the universe, noting that it was only after this encounter that he was considered worthy by Olympus.
In another account, we see Iapetus referred to as ‘a Giant’ by Gaius Julius Hyginus, who speaks of Iapetus, not as a titan born from Uranus and Gaia but as a child of Tartarus itself.
While we cannot know Cronus’s brothers’ thoughts and feelings during his reign, it would appear that they did not oppose him and remained content to support his tyranny as these very cornerstones. Iapetus, if we can assume, he was violent and thrown to dishing it out, was probably able to relate to Cronus and, in some ways, probably saw more of himself in the young Titan than in any of the others.
Remember, according to Homer, Zeus set Iapetus beside Cronus in Tartarus, implying that he believed they were both as bad as each other. While Iapetus’s fate is up for some debate, there are variations where he and all the other titans are released from Tartarus by Zeus after acts of compassion.
Aeschylus in Prometheus Unbound tells us that Cronus’ sons were released from their bonds, but their activity beyond that is unknown.
But here are some questions for you:
- Do you think that Iapetus might have had an active role in the conflict with Zeus?
- Do you think that he was a violent god of death who might have bitten off more than he could chew or maybe he was simply a craftsman who got a bad rap from his involvement in the castration of Uranus?