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In Greek mythology, the Titans (Greek: - Ti-tan; plural: - Ti-tânes), were a race of powerful deities that ruled during the legendary Golden Age. Their role as Elder Gods was overthrown by a race of younger gods, the Olympians, which effected a mythological paradigm shift that the Greeks may have borrowed from the Ancient Near East.

The Twelve

There are twelve Titans from their first literary appearance, in Hesiod, Theogony; Pseudo-Apollodorus, in Bibliotheke, adds a thirteenth Titan Dione, a double of Theia; both names simply signify "the Goddess". In Greek the six male Titans are the Titanes, and the females are the Titanides ("Titanesses"). Most of the Titans were associated with various primal concepts, some of which are simply extrapolated from their names: ocean and fruitful earth, sun and moon, memory and natural law. The twelve first-generation Titans were ruled by the youngest, Cronus (Roman Saturn), who overthrew their father, Oranos ('Sky'), at the urgings of their mother, Gaia ('Earth').

Several Titans produced offspring who are also known as "Titans." These second-generation Titans include the children of Hyperion (Helios, Eos, and Selene), the daughters of Coeus (Leto and Asteria), and the sons of Iapetus (Prometheus, Epimetheus, Atlas, and Menoetius).

The Titans preceded the Twelve Olympians, who, led by Zeus, eventually overthrew them in the Titanomachy ('War of the Titans'), a second shift in the power structure of the gods. The Titans were then imprisoned in Tartarus, the deepest part of the underworld, with a few exceptions, explained by their having been those who did not fight against Zeus.

In Hesiod

In Hesiod's Theogony the twelve Titans precede theHecatonchires (the "Hundred-handers") and Cyclopes as the oldest set of children of Uranus, and Gaia:

"Afterwards she lay with Uranus 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 Cronus the wily, youngest and most terrible of her children, and he hated his lusty sire."


Uranus kept all of Gaia's children trapped within her womb, and Gaia groaned from the strain. Eventually, Cronus , her youngest child at the time, volunteered to set upon his father, castrating him with a sickle she provided him, thereby freeing Gaia's children and setting himself up as king of the titans with Rhea as his wife and queen.

Rhea gave birth to a new generation of gods fathered by Cronus, but, in fear that they too would eventually overthrow him in turn, he swallowed them whole one by one; Hades he flung into Tartarus, Poseidon into the sea. Only Zeus was saved: Rhea gave Cronus a stone in swaddling clothes in his place, and placed the infant Zeus in Crete to be guarded by the Kouretes. Hyginus' version of the myth of Zeus raised by the nymph Amalthea, has her hiding the infant Zeus by dangling him by a rope from a tree so that he was suspended, neither on the earth, in the sea, or in the sky, all of which were ruled by his father, Cronus. Still other versions of the tale say that Zeus was raised by his grandmother, Gaia.

Once Zeus reached adulthood, he subdued Cronus by wile rather than force, using a potion concocted with the help of Metis, goddess of prudence, to force Cronus to vomit up Zeus's siblings. A war between younger and older gods commenced, in which Zeus was aided by the Hecatonchires and Cyclopes, who had once again been freed from Tartarus. Zeus won after a long struggle, and cast many of the Titans down into Tartarus.

Yet the older gods left their mark on the world: Oceanus continued to encircle the world, and the name of "bright shining" Phoebe was attached as an epithet to effulgent Apollo, "Phoebus Apollo". The epithet was also associated with his sister, Artemis, who has also been called Phoebe. Some of the Titans, it was affirmed, had not fought the Olympians, which justified their roles as key players in the new administration: Mnemosyne as a Muse, Rhea, Hyperion, Themis, or the "right ordering" of things and Metis.


Titanomachy

Greeks of the Classical age knew of several poems about the war between the gods and many of the Titans, the Titanomachy ("War of the Titans"). The dominant one, and the only one that has survived, was in 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. The Titans also 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.

These Greek myths of the Titanomachy fall into a class of similar myths of a War in Heaven throughout Europe and the Near East, where one generation or group of gods largely 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 might include the wars of the Æsir with the Vanir and Jotuns in Scandinavian mythology, the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish, the Hittite "Kingship in Heaven" narrative, the obscure generational conflict in Ugariticmarker fragments, and the rebellion of Lucifer in Christian mythology.

In Orphic 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 Cronus, so that he becomes drunk upon fermented honey. Rather than being consigned to Tartarus, Cronus is dragged — still drunk — to the cave of Nyx (Night), where he continues to dream and prophesy throughout eternity.
Rhea, Cronus' wife, one of the Titans
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 in a number of Orphic texts, which do not.

One iteration of this story, that of the Late Antique NeoPlationist philosopher Olympiodorus, recounted in his commentary of Plato's Phaedrus, affirms that humanity sprang up out of the fatty smoke of the burning Titan corpses; some scholars consider that Olympiodorus's report, the only surviving expression of this mythic connection, embodied a tradition that dated to the Bronze Age, while Radcliffe Edmonds has suggested an element of innovative allegorized improvisation to suit Olympiodorus's purpose. Other early 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 this refers to a sort of "original sin" rooted in the murder of Dionysus is hotly debated by scholars.


In the 20th 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.

She also points out that the word "Titan" comes from the Greek τιτανος, signifying white earth, clay or gypsum, and that the Titans were "white clay men", or men covered by white clay or gypsum dust in their rituals. Other scholars believe the word to be related to the Greek verb τέμνω (to stretch), a view which Hesiod himself appears to share: "But their father Ouranos, who himself begot them, bitterly gave to them to those others, his sons, the name of Titans, the Stretchers, for they stretched out their power outrageously." (Hesiod, Theogony, 207-210).

The scholar M.L. West also points this out in relation to shamanistic initiatory rites of early Greek religious practices.

The element titanium is named for the titans.

Out of confusion with the Gigantes, various large things have been named after the Titans, for their "titanic" size, for example the RMS Titanicmarker or the giant predatory bird Titanis walleri.

In the Disney animated film Hercules there are but four Titans, each embodying one of the four classical elements. They terrorize the earth until Zeus imprisons them.

Notes

  1. See Walter Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age (Harvard University Press) 1992:94f, 125-27.
  2. The number seems to have been canonic before the individual Titans received names: the obscure Delphic figure Phoebe, Wilamowitz considered "eine leerer Füllfigur", an empty complement to fill out the Twelve, drawing her name from her successor at Delphi, Apollo (but see M.L. West's brief note on "Hesiod's Titans", The Journal of Hellenic Studies 105 [1985:174-75], making a case for the origins at Delphi of Phoebe and Koios/Coeus.)
  3. Hyginus, Fabula 139: "since Saturn had cast Orcus under Tartarus, and Neptune under the sea, because he knew that his son would rob him of the kingdom"; noted by Karl Kerenyi, The Gods of the Greeks, 1951:93 and note 227.
  4. Seversl mountains in Crete are associated with the infancy of Zeus: Mount Ida, Mount Aigaion (Hesiod, Theogony]] 481).
  5. Hyginus, Fabula 139: "Amalthea, the child’s nurse, hung him in a cradle from a tree, so that he could be found neither in heaven nor on earth nor in the sea."
  6. Olympiodorus, In Plat. Phaededr. I.3-6.
  7. M.L. West, The Orphic Poems (Oxford, 1983); Albert Bernabé, "La toile de Pénélope: a-t-il existé un mythe orphique sur Dionysos et les Titans?", Revue de l'histoire des religions (2002:401-33), noted by Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, "A Curious concoction: tradition and innovation in Olympiodorus' creation of mankind".
  8. Jane Ellen Harrison, Themis, p. 16ff. "The Titans then, the white-clay-men, are real men dressed up as bogies to perform initiation rites. It is only later when their meaning is forgotten that they are explained as Titanes, mythological giants."[1]
  9. West, The Orphic Poems 1983.


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