- For the moon of Saturn, see Titan (moon). For other uses of the word, see Titan (disambiguation).
In Greek mythology, the Titans (Greek Τιτάν, plural Τιτᾶνες) are among a series of gods who oppose Zeus and the Olympian gods in their ascent to power. Others who opposed the gods include the Gigantes, Typhon, and Ophioneus.
The Greek myth of the Titanomachy (the war with the Titans) falls into a class of similar myths throughout Europe and the Near East, where one generation or group of gods opposes the dominant one. Sometimes the Elder Gods are supplanted. Sometimes the rebels lose, and are either cast out of power entirely or incorporated into the pantheon. Other examples include: the wars of the Aesir with the Vanir and Jotuns in Scandinavian mythology, the Babylonian Enuma Elish, the battle between El and Baal, the Hittite "Kingship in Heaven" narrative, and Jehovah and Lucifer. Greeks of the Classical age knew of several poems about the war between the gods and Titans. The dominant one, and the only one that has survived, was the Theogony attributed to Hesiod. A lost epic Titanomachy attributed to the blind Thracian bard Thamyris, himself a legendary figure, was mentioned in passing in an essay On Music that was once attributed to Plutarch. And the Titans played a prominent role in the poems attributed to Orpheus. Although only scraps of the Orphic narratives survive, they show interesting differences with the Hesiodic tradition.
The Titans in Hesiod
In Hesiod's Theogony the twelve Titans follow the Hundred-handers and Cyclopes as children of Ouranos, heaven, and Gaia, the Earth:
"afterwards she lay with Heaven and bore deep-swirling Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne and gold-crowned Phoebe and lovely Tethys. After them was born Cronos the wily, youngest and most terrible of her children, and he hated his lusty sire."
Ouranos considers his offspring monstrous, and so imprisons them in the bowels of the Earth. But Kronos, encouraged by Gaia and aided by the Hundred-handers and Cyclopes, sets upon his father, castrates him, and sets himself up as king of the gods, with Rhea as his wife and queen.
Rhea bears a new generation of gods to Cronus, but in fear that they will overthrow him, he swallows them all one by one. Only Zeus is saved: Rhea gives Kronos a stone in swaddling clothes in his place, and places him in Crete to be guarded by the Kouretes.
Once Zeus reaches adulthood, he subdues Kronos by force, and cuts open his father's belly to free his siblings. A war between the younger and older gods commences, in which Zeus is aided by the Hundred-handers, Gigantes, and Cyclopes, who have once again been freed from Tartarus. Zeus wins after a long struggle, and casts the Titans down into Tartarus.
And yet the older gods leave their mark on the world. Some of them - like Mnemosyne and Metis - had not fought the Olympians, and become key players in the new administration. The Titans also leave behind a number of offspring, some of whom may also be counted as Titans, most notably the sons of Iapetus - Prometheus, Epimetheus, Atlas, and Menoetius.
Many ancient sources follow Hesiod closely, with minor variations: Apollodorus adds Dione as a thirteenth Titan.
The Titans in other Greek sources
Hesiod is not, however, the last word on the Titans. Surviving fragments of Orphic poetry in particular preserve some variations on the myth.
In one Orphic text, Zeus does not simply set upon his father violently. Instead, Rhea spreads out a banquet for Kronos, so that he becomes drunk upon honey. Zeus chains him and castrates him. Rather than being consigned to Tartarus, Kronos is dragged – still drunk – to the cave of Night, where he continues to dream and prophesy throughout eternity.
Another myth concerning the Titans that is not in Hesiod revolves around Dionysus. At some point in his reign, Zeus decides to give up the throne in favor of the infant Dionysus, who like the infant Zeus is guarded by the Kouretes. The Titans decide to slay the child and claim the throne for themselves; they paint their faces white with gypsum, distract Dionysus with toys, then dismember him and boil and roast his limbs. Zeus, enraged, slays the Titans with his thunderbolt; Athena preserves the heart in a gypsum doll, out of which a new Dionysus is made. This story is told by the poets Callimachus and Nonnus, who call this Dionysus "Zagreus", and also in a number of Orphic texts, which do not.
One iteration of this story, reported by the Neoplatonist philosopher Olympiodorus, writing in the Christian era, says that humanity sprung up out of the fatty smoke of the burning Titan corpses. Other earlier writers imply that humanity was born out of the blood shed by the Titans in their war against Zeus.
Pindar, Plato and Oppian refer offhandedly to man's "Titanic nature". Whether or not this refers to a sort of "original sin" rooted in the murder of Dionysus is hotly debated by scholars.
The Titans in the twentieth century
Some scholars of the past century or so, most eloquently Jane Ellen Harrison, have argued that an initiatory or shamanic ritual underlies the myth of Dionysus's dismemberment and cannibalism by the Titans.
Out of confusion with the Gigantes, various large things have been named after the Titans, for example the RMS Titanic.
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