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What’s a Titan?

Greek mythology seems to give a clear division between titans and gods, even having a massive battle between titans and gods known as the Titanomachy. So that begs the question: what’s a titan? We all know this word, mostly. And we know it comes from Greek mythology. But that’s about it for most of us. So let’s explore what it meant in mythology.

They’re not monsters, like most movies about Greek mythology show them to be.

Titans are an early generation of gods, predating the Olympians and ultimately overthrown by them. They weren’t the first generation; Gaia, Eros, Nyx, Erebus, and Tartarus were the first, born directly of Chaos. The titans came from that generation, from Gaia and Ouranos.

Titans don’t differ much from the ordinary gods, save that they came earlier and, if their domains are given, they’re often more abstract concepts like “Memory” or Thought” as opposed to plant life or engineering. Let’s take a look at Hesiod’s Theogony for some more information.

Table of Contents

Who are the Titans?

τοὺς δὲ πατὴρ Τιτῆνας ἐπίκλησιν καλέεσκε
παῖδας νεικείων μέγας Οὐρανός, οὓς τέκεν αὐτός:
φάσκε δὲ τιταίνοντας ἀτασθαλίῃ μέγα ῥέξαι
ἔργον, τοῖο δ᾽ ἔπειτα τίσιν μετόπισθεν ἔσεσθαι.

Hesiod, Theogony 207-210

The father, great Ouranos, called the children
that he had engendered by the title ‘Titan.’
He said they, straining with wickedness,
had done great deeds, and vengeance would come afterward.

Hesiod is saying they’re called ‘Titans’ because Ouranos said they were straining (titanontas) to commit wicked acts. Take a look at this chart. While there are other members of the group, titans named by other authors, the main ones from the earliest point we can trace are the 12 children of Gaia and Ouranos. They had other kids, but these 12 are the titans specifically:

Chart of the main twelve titans

There’s no real reason why this group of 12 are titans, and the other six children they had weren’t, though they were the first.

That’s not all, though. There were a few generations of them, at least as we now classify them. Atlas, for example. And Prometheus. Eos is also considered a titan.

Check this out:

Titans Family Tree

There are a lot of well-known names there.

Aside from Cronus, all of the titans’ descendants tend to be grouped as later generations of titans, though Hesiod doesn’t call them as such. And Hard notes that the titans themselves didn’t receive worship as far as we know, aside from Cronus, Rhea, and perhaps Iapetus, and existed only for genealogical purposes as part of the succession myth:

The other Titans in Hesiod’s list are obscure deities who are of genealogical significance alone; none have any recorded tales, and they may well have had no stories even in Hesiod’s time, being remembered only as parents or ancestors of more important deities (if they were not invented by the poet himself, as is possible in one or two cases). (29)

For the first generation, this is true, but the second and third play roles in stories and receive worship. I suppose that whether or not they count as titans is a matter of debate and likely hinges on how you define it. Being called a titan might require being one of the 12, or being descended just from the 12, save Cronus and Rhea, who created Zeus and his siblings. Though this is all conjecture and the ancient Greeks were largely okay with ambiguity.

As Simon Price notes in Religions of the Ancient Greeks:

There was no one canonical ancient version, and the Greeks were not bothered whether or not Poseidon was a first cousin of Demeter. What mattered was that they were related, that they all lived together on Mount Olympus, and that there were other ‘chthonic’ (chthpn = ‘earth) gods who lived beneath the earth (12).


However you define it, though, they certainly aren’t…giant elemental monsters

What happened to them?

Mostly imprisonment.

ἔνθα θεοὶ Τιτῆνες ὑπὸ ζόφῳ ἠερόεντι
730 κεκρύφαται βουλῇσι Διὸς νεφεληγερέταο
χώρῳ ἐν εὐρώεντι, πελώρης ἔσχατα γαίης.
τοῖς οὐκ ἐξιτόν ἐστι. θύρας δ᾽ ἐπέθηκε Ποσειδέων
χαλκείας, τεῖχος δὲ περοίχεται ἀμφοτέρωθεν.

Hesiod, Theogony 729-733

There the titan gods, by will of cloud-gatherer Zeus<
are hidden in the murky nether darkness
in a dark place at the edge of huge land.
They cannot come out of this place;
Poseidon placed a copper door with an encircling wall.

The common view is that all were imprisoned in Tartarus, far below the underworld, which is basically what Hesiod says. That’s not completely true. Most of them were, but not all titans sided with Cronus.

Are there any left?

Yeah. Nothing in Greek mythology is very clear-cut. The Titanomachy gives a clear division of sides, but some titans stood with Zeus, and several of the first generation show up later. We know for example that Themis had several children with Zeus, and this seems to have happened after the Titanomachy. The same is true for Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses. And presumably, Oceanus stuck around, being the embodiment of the ocean and all. And, as far as I know, the majority of the second and third generation weren’t imprisoned.

Bibliography

  • Hard, Robin. (2019) The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology. Routledge.
  • Hesiod, Theogony (Greek)
  • Price, Simon. (1999)Religions of the Ancient Greeks. Cambridge University Press.

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