The Titans were gigantic beings who, according to Greek mythology, created the universe and ruled it until the time of the Olympian gods. They were the children of Oranos, lord of the heavens, and Gaia, mother of the earth. The Titans came to power after Cronos emasculated his tyrannical father Oranos with a sickle provided by his long-suffering mother Gaia. This theme of parent-child conflict was a recurrent one for the Titans. Cronos in his turn swallowed all his children, except Zeus, who was raised in secrecy after his mother Rhea presented a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes to Cronos instead of the infant god (the Titans weren’t known for their intelligence). The eventual battle between the two races of gods, the Titans led by Cronos and the Olympians led by Zeus, lasted ten years and shook the universe like no other conflict. Afterwards, the victorious Zeus threw down the Titans who had opposed him and imprisoned them in the depths of Tartarus, deep beneath the underworld. For all we know today, that is where the Titans remain, although their names and feats are remembered with dread and awe. Apart from Oranos, Cronos and Gaia, other famous Titans included Prometheus, the changer; Oceanus, the mariner; Leto, the deceiver; Hyperion, the watcher; Theia, the seer; Helios, the sun; Hekate, the witch queen; and Atlas, upon whose broad shoulders the world itself rests.
The Titans appeared early in the development of mythology in the eastern Mediterranean and in parts of Asia Minor. Most personified natural forces such as the sun (Helios), the seas (Oceanus) and the earth (Gaia). Although the generation of gods that the Titans produced, the Olympians, were to become more influential than them in Greek mythology, the stories of the Titans had great significance. Many common themes of classical mythology derive from the tales that were told: notably the idea of a family of gods; of divine intermarriage; and of power-sharing co-existing with competition for power. The characters of the Titans are not as carefully delineated as those of the Olympians and other later gods. The few tales involving them usually serve to explain the nature of the physical world or the origins of the dominant generation of gods. This is true, for example, of Atlas, whose myth explains important aspects of geography and cosmology. As punishment for taking the side of the Titans in the war between them and the Olympians, Atlas was condemned in perpetuity to hold up the sky and prevent it from falling to the earth. According to one account, the range of mountains in northwest Africa that carries his name was created when he was turned to stone so that he would be strong enough to bear this oppressive burden.
While Oranos faded into the background and seems to have played no further role in classical mythology following his overthrow by Cronos, the same cannot be said of Gaia. Although some of her roles and functions were adopted by future consorts of the principal god, she herself continued to be worshipped, particularly in Greece, where she was a giver of oracles. Consequently, she appeared infrequently but importantly in many later stories, often as an adviser to the gods or as a surrogate mother to them. Belief in Gaia may even pre-date that of the Titans: archaeological evidence suggests that a female earth divinity was worshipped in the Mediterranean from the earliest times. In some parts of Greece, as well as in Rome, she continued to be revered after the establishment of the newer pantheon of Olympian gods. Although the Greeks and Romans in some ways had differing conceptions of Gaia’s son Cronos, both agreed that he was proud and confident. After the defeat of Oranos, he refused to bow to the wishes of his mother, who subsequently supported the Olympians in their war against the Titans because of this.
The story of this war – called the Titanomachy – reflects in some ways contemporary attitudes towards warfare. The ancient Greeks were themselves continually engaged in wars, between one city state and another or against foreign enemies such as the Persians, and they valued courage and military skill highly. At the same time they were, however, suspicious of bloodlust and a mindless enthusiasm for destruction. Consequently, their heroes were often those who used guile or knowledge, rather than sheer physical strength, to achieve their ends. This theme emerges clearly in the tale of the battle of the Olympians against the Titans. Success for the younger gods depended on co-operation and careful planning, while the cruder Titans were defeated despite their greater strength. Another theme that seems to emerge from the Titanomachy is that of war breeding further conflict and evil – as exemplified by the many dark forces that were created during the violent wars of the gods. Some of these survived the struggle and continued to haunt and endanger humanity.
There were the Gorgons, for example, three sisters with hideous faces and snakes instead of hair, who had the ability to turn any man who looked upon them into stone. The sisters of the Gorgons were the Graeae, hideous hags, grey-haired from birth, who shared only one eye. Echidna was an impossible monster, a beautiful woman from the waist up, below a terrible serpent. She gave birth to a series of unnatural offspring by mating with Typhon, another monster created by Gaia to fight against Zeus after she felt that he had betrayed her. Echidna’s children included Cerberus, the three-headed hound of hell, who guarded the gates of the underworld; the fire-breathing Chimera, part lion, part serpent and part goat; the Sphinx, which had the head of a woman and the body of a lion; and the Nemean Lion. Many of these monsters allied with the giants in a second great war involving the Olympians, this one known as the Gigantomachy, for it primarily pitted gods and giants against each other. This ended with the utter defeat of the giants following Zeus’s victory in one-to-one combat against Typhon, despite the fact that the monster had 100 dragon heads, coiling serpents for legs and hundreds of hands. Zeus drove Typhon out of Greece and then crushed it under the volcanic Mount Etna. With Typhon’s destruction the remaining Titans finally acknowledged the supremacy of the Olympians and faded out of classical mythology, to be remembered only in nightmares, corny movies and the occasional episode of Supernatural!