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Cronus

In Greek myth the Titan Cronus, was ruler the heavens and king of the gods prior to the ascent of Zeus. Cronus ruled over the golden age of humankind when suffering was unknown and death was but a gentle dream.  Yet there was a darkness behind the reign of Cronus, a terrible stain upon the sickle which was his emblem.  Even while Cronus ruled heaven, he knew that he would end as a maimed wretch cast down into the underworld. A dread augury had revealed that he would fall at the hands of a son more powerful than he–and his personal history convinced him the prophecy was sooth.

Cronus was the most powerful son of Uranus, the original god of the primordial heavens. At the beginning of all things Uranus ruled as king of the gods and the firmament–but Uranus was displeased by the Hekatonkheires, hundred handed monsters born to him by his spouse Gaia. Despite Gaia’s pleas, Uranus imprisoned these monstrous sons in the dark prison of Tartaros.  Incensed by the haughtiness of her spouse, Gaia crafted a great flint sickle from her own bones.  Only Cronus had sufficient ambition, nerve, and cruelty to wield the sickle.  He ambushed Uranus and cut him into bloody pieces.  Gods and monsters were born of the hewn apart body of Uranus.  Unfortunately for Gaia’s plans,  Cronus saw no reason to free the Hekatonkheires, the Cyclops (one eyed monsters), or the other “undesirables” Uranus had already locked away and thus he, in turn, incurred the wrath of Gaia.

Cronus devours one of his offspring (Peter Paul Rubens, 1636, oil on canvas)

Having committed such an act, Cronus could not rest easy with his own children.  Whenever his wife, the Titaness Rhea, bore a son or daughter he snatched the baby away and swallowed it whole.  The mighty immortal Olympians, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Hestia, and Poseidon all started their lives as prisoners in their father’s gullet. Just before Zeus was born, Gaia whispered a plan to Rhea.  Rhea dressed a stone in swaddling clothes and gave it to her husband in place of their newborn child.  Cronus gulped down the rock and was none the wiser.  The baby grew to adulthood tended by Nymphs and fed by the divine goat Amalthea. When Zeus had grown powerful he made allies with Gaia and he took a first wife, Mètis, the goddess of wisdom, deep thought, and cunning.  Mètis gave Cronus a purgative of wine and mustard which caused the Titan to hurl up the five fully grown siblings of Zeus.  Together the Olympians, in alliance with the various sorts of imprisoned monsters, made war on the Titans (except for Prometheus, who could see the future and joined Zeus).  This epic battle, the Titanomachy, reshaped the landscape of the world (particularly that of Thessaly), but when it was over, the Olympians were victorious.  Cronus was cast down and Zeus locked him in Tartarus along with the other Titans except for Prometheus (and strong Atlas—who suffered his own punishment).  Zeus incurred the wrath of Gaia for imprisoning the Titans, who were also her children, and she began plotting against him and bearing further monsters to end his reign.

The Battle Between the Gods and the Titans (Joachim Wtewael, 1600)

Thus Zeus became king of the gods, but prophecy whispered that he would one day be supplanted by a stronger son….

What about Cronus? In classical myth, gods are immortal. The maimed Cronus could not die.  In some traditions he was imprisoned for a time in Tartaros with his siblings.  Mystery cults asserted that he recovered some of his regal glory: the Greek dithyrambic poet  Pindar wrote of how Cronus was elevated to be ruler of Elysium, that portion of the underworld reserved for heroes. According to the Orphic poems, Cronus is imprisoned for eternity in the cave of Nyx.  In the abject darkness, drunk on soporific honey, he cries out sometimes–for he is troubled by dreams of horrors yet to come.

Painting by Fantalov

Halloween is approaching and, in the spirit of the season, I would like to present some great artworks of magnificent monsters from classical mythology (an exercise which should also help flesh out the deities of the underworld category).  Leading up to October 31st I am going to highlight paintings of the different offspring of Echidna, the “mother of monsters,” whose brood cast a long, many-headed shadow over Greek mythology. But we come to an immediate problem: Echidna herself is under-represented in art (indeed her whole story is shrouded in uncertainty).  Likewise, Typhon, Echidna’s husband and the “father of monsters,” is not as familiar to artists or poets as his dark progeny.

Echidna was an offspring of Ceto and Phorcys, primordial sea gods who ruled the ocean before the Olympian gods seized power.  Possessing the body of a snake and the torso of a woman, Echidna was a fearsome creature in her own right. When Gaia, the great Earth mother, gave birth to her last and greatest child, the monstrous giant, Typhon, Echidna wed him and joined his rebellion against the Olympian Gods.  This was a very bold romantic choice because Typhon was no Adonis.  The giant has been described as being as tall as the stars with a hundred snakes in lieu of each arm.  His legs were two enormous viper coils.  His beard was a monstrous mop of ragged hair–which was presumably fire proof since flame flashed from his eyes.  Typhon’s body was covered with wings and his voice was an unearthly combination of beast noises.

Typhon

For a while it looked as though Tiphon would overthrow the Olympians: the great monster tore off Zeus’ muscles and kept them hidden in a cave. Only with the wily intervention of the trickster gods Pan and Hermes did Zeus recover his strength.  In a final conflict of power, the King of the Gods hurled the mountain Etna upon Typhon, imprisoning the giant beneath the great mass.  To this day the volcano heaves and belches flame. Echidna escaped (to rear her children sired by Typhon) and Zeus allowed her to do so in order that the monsters would provide a future challenge to heroes and demi-gods.  The offspring she had are as follows:

I think you will like the family pictures from this group!

Echidna Nursing her Brood (from D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths)

In some stories Echidna preyed on mortals until finally the hundred eyed giant Argus put an end to her (I wish someone painted that fight!).  In other tales she escaped to a lair deep beneath the earth where she bides her time, waiting to avenge her husband and her children. As a last peculiar note, that lovable and peaceful monotreme the echidna is named after her, not because of its ferocity, but because it was so strange and alarming to European taxonomists…

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