Cronus – Leader of the Titans

Cronus, also known as Kronos, god of time and destruction as well as the god of harvest, was the son of Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (Sky) and the leader of the original Titans. He rebelled against his father Uranus and dethroned him. For a brief period, known as the Golden Age, he was the ruler of the universe. Cronus was the father of the Olympian gods who started a war and eventually overthrew him.

Key Facts

Family tree

ParentsGaia and Uranus
Partner(s)Rhea
SiblingsTitans, Hekatonkheires, Cyclopes
OffspringHestia, Hades, Demetes, Poseidon, Hera, Zeus, and Centaur Chiron

Names

Roman NameSaturn
Other NamesKronos
Ancient GreekΚρόνος
The God ofGod of time, fertility and the harvest
SymbolsHarpe, grain, snake

Origins

Cronus origin
Numérisation, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When Gaia, the earth, married the god of sky Uranus, they produced three sets of children: the Titans, the Cyclops, and the Hecotoncheires. Gaia and Uranus decided after the birth of Cronus that no more Titans were going to be born.

Uranus loathed his monstrous children the Cyclops and the Hecotonchieres so banished them to the underworld. The Titans, too, were banished to the Underworld as Uranus feared being overthrown by them. This caused Gaia great pain.

She created flint and made a sickle from it. When she asked each of her Titan sons, in turn, to fight against Uranus, Cronus was the only one who agreed. He castrated Uranus with the sickle and threw his severed organs into the sea, where the goddess of love Aphrodite was born from them. The castration separated the earth and the sky. Furious Uranus made a prophecy that Cronus would one day be treated the same way by his own children.

Cronus became the ruler of the universe. He married his sister Rhea and his Titans brothers and sisters became his court. This period of happiness and prosperity for gods and humans alike became known as the Golden Age. Unfortunately, it was cut short thanks to Cronus’s fear of his children the Titans.

Uranus prophecy

Uranus made a prophecy that Cronus’s children would one day treat him in the same way as he had treated his father. To render the prophecy impossible to fulfill, Cronus would swallow each of his children as soon as Rhea gave birth to them. However, Rhea gave him a stone to swallow instead of her sixth child, Zeus. The baby grew up in a cave on mountain Ida in Crete supported by his grandmother Gaia and protected by Rhea’s assistants, the Curetes. Adult Zeus received a potion from Gaia which made Cronus disgorge in the reverse order whatever he had swallowed, starting with the stone.

There followed a long war between Cronus and his children. The Olympians were led by Zeus and recruited help from Cronus’s siblings the Cyclopes and the Hecotoncheires.

Cronus was finally overpowered and overthrown by his children, the Olympians. He was banished for the rest of eternity to Tartarus, the underworld.

Name and epithets

  • Cronus is also referred to as Kronos.
  • The name is possibly derived from the Indo-European root ker meaning “to cut”. 
  • This name was often confused with the Greek word for time, “Chronos” and therefore was also sometimes referred to as Old Father Time and depicted respectively.
  • He was also sometimes referred to as “Patron of the Harvest”.
  • The Cartheginian chief god Vaal is the equivalent of Cronus.
  • Chronus was later identified with the Roman god Saturn.

Family tree

Cronus was the son of Gaia, goddess of earth and mother of all life, and Gaia’s son Uranus, the god of Sky. He was the youngest of the Titans and would become their leader. He had five male siblings (Oceanus, Hyperion, Coeus, Crius, and Iapetus) and six female siblings, Titanides (Mnemosyne, Tethys, Theia, Phoebe, Themis, and Rhea). Apart from that, he also had half-siblings which included one-eyed Cyclopes Brontes, Arges and Steropes and Hecatoncheires (monstrosities with a hundred hands each) Kottos, Briareos and Gyges.

Cronus married his sister Rhea and they had six children: Hestia, Hades, Demeter, Poseidon, Hera and Zeus.  

Cronus also had a son with Oceanid Phylira, the centaur Chiron.

The grandchildren of Cronus as mentioned by ancient authors are Athena, Eres, Ares, Hephaestus, Apollo, Artemis and Here.

Domains of power

Cronus was one of the most powerful deities and the king of Titans, the most prominent in his generation. He was almost omnipotent. Cronus controlled earth and vegetation and was celebrated as the god of the harvest.  At the same time, however, Cronus was responsible for the destruction caused by time. 

Cronus possessed incredible strength and resilience. He grew extremely fast as a child.  He did not age since reaching adulthood and could not die by conventional means. Cronus was immune to all earthly diseases or injuries.

Cronus was able to speak with animals as well as with men and gods. 

Symbolism

Cronusu sickle
RootOfAllLight, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Symbol of Cronus is a sickle (scythe). It symbolizes at the same time the castration of Uranus and the resulting split between the sky and the earth. The sickle also symbolized Cronus’s connection to the world of farming. 

This god was associated in the later eras with another deity, Chronos, the god of time. He was therefore often depicted as “Father Time”, an old man with a scythe controlling the passing of the seasons.

Cronus is also sometimes depicted holding a scepter, especially when represented on the throne with his spouse Rhea. This alludes to him being the king of the universe during the Golden Age.

His other symbols are harpe, grain, and snake.

Classical literature on Cronus

  • Cronus features in Homer’s Iliad as the father of the Olympian gods Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, and Hera. 
  • His origins, rise to power and downfall are recounted in detail in Hesiod’s Theogony.

“She lay with Heaven and bare 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.”


My children, gotten of a sinful father, if you will obey me, we should punish the vile outrage of your father; for he first thought of doing shameful things.’ (Gaia to her children, Theogony)

  • According to some sources, Cronus was a central figure in the early epic Titanomachy, which was subsequently lost.
  • There are passing references to Cronus in the Homeric Hymns, poems of Pindar, as well as later Orphic Hymns. 

Place in ancient Greek religion

Cronus engravings
Illustrated by Engravings on Wood, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Greeks worshiped Cronus as an agricultural god and sometimes regarded him as the ruler of the Isles of the Blessed. His festival, the Cronia, was celebrated in several Greek cities. In Athens, the Cronia was associated with harvest and therefore celebrated in autumn. This festival took place in the temple of Cronus, and its atmosphere was that of a carnival. Social order would be temporarily suspended, masters were feasting together with their servants. 

The God of Harvest was also honored at other festivals associated with harvest. An example of these are initiation festivals held during “dog days”, i.e., the hottest and most uncomfortable days of summer, but also sometimes in spring. In the region of Elis, Cronus received sacrifices during the special month of Kronion, around the time of the spring equinox. Later, recognized in Rome as the god Saturn, this god was celebrated by the festival called Saturnalia. 

Although Cronus was normally worshipped as the god of harvest and associated with the Golden Age, there was also a darker side to his worshipping. The Greeks attributed the practice of human sacrifice to the Phoenicians, particularly the Carthaginians. Ancient Greek sources claimed that Carthaginians in particular were sacrificing children from noble families by putting them on the extended arms of a mechanical statue of Baal, the Carthaginian equivalent of Cronus. The statue then rolled the child into a bronze pan where it was burned alive.

The Greeks claimed that they never practiced such barbaric rites. However, there are also accounts confirming that they, too, practiced human sacrifice to Cronus.

Temples

Cronus had several temples dedicated to him. One of them was in Athens, associated with the larger temple of Zeus. His temple in Olympia was thought to be built by the mythical golden race that lived before humans. As explained in a myth, the temple was built on a site of a wrestling match between Cronus and Zeus. 

There were mountain sanctuaries dedicated to Cronus in Greece, Sicily, and Italy.

The stone that was believed to have been given to Cronus by Rhea and which he later disgorged before disgorging his children was placed in Apollo’s temple in Delphi and referred to as omphalos or navel. Ancient Greeks believed that Delphi was the center of the world, while the omphalos was its ultimate center.

Myths where Cronus plays a part

Uranus, Gaia and Cronus

Gaia bore Uranus three sets of children, the Titans, Cyclops and Hecatombieres. Uranus feared and loathed them. He banished his children to Tartarus, or the underworld, causing Gaia great pain. She created flint and made a scythe. Her youngest son Cronus was the only one who agreed to castrate Uranus with the scythe. 

Gaia and Cronus set up an ambush. When Uranus came down at night to lay with Gaia, Cronus grabbed his father and castrated him, throwing the severed genitals into the ocean.

The Erinyes, the Giants and the Meliae were born on the stop where Uranus’s spilled blood touched the earth. When Uranus’s Cronus severed genitals fell into the sea, where they floated past Crete and blended with the sea foam to produce the goddess Aphrodite.

After his castration, the Uranus (Sky) came no more to cover the Earth at night but held to its place. The sky was forever separated from the Earth.

The balance of power shifted from primordial deities to the next generation, the Titans. Cronus became the leader of the Titans and ruler of the whole universe.

Rhea, Cronus and Philyra

On the days when Cronus ruled the Titans together with his consort Rhea, Rhea once surprised him in the act with Oceanid Philyra. He then galloped off in the form of a long-maned stallion. As for Philyra, she gave birth to the Centaur Chiron, the wisest of all Centaurs.

Cronus and the Golden Age

Gods and men alike lived blissfully under Cronus’s rule during the Golden age. There was no pain, death, disease, hunger, or any other evil. Children were born autochthonously, which means out of the soil, testifying to Cronus’s importance as the god of the harvest. This happy period ended with Zeus coming to power. 

Rhea, Cronus and Zeus

The Golden Age was short-lived. Cronus became obsessed with his power, suspicious and cruel. He started off by banishing his siblings the Cyclopes and Hecatoncheires to Tartarus. His parents Gaia and Uranus had warned him that one day he, just like Uranus, was going to be overthrown by one of his own children. Determined to make this prophecy impossible to fulfill, Cronus would devour each of the children that Rhea bore him as soon as they were born. It lasted until the birth of Rhea’s sixth baby, Zeus. Rhea was prompted by her parents Uranus and Gaia to bring Cronus a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes. Unsuspicious Cronus swallowed the stone. Zeus grew up in the sacred cave on mountain Ida in Crete, supported by his grandmother Gaia. 

Once Zeus was old enough, he was given a potion by Gaia that made Cronus disgorge whatever he had swallowed. It came out in reverse order, the stone first and then Rhea’s other children.

Zeus and his siblings, a group that later became known as the Olympians, went on to rebel against their father. They fought a long war against Cronus, which came to be known as Titanomachia. The Olympians eventually won it after receiving help from the Cyclopes and Hecatoncheires who they freed from Tartarus. 

After Zeus became the new king of the gods, he banished Cronus and the other Titans, except for Rhea, to Tartarus. They were destined to suffer for all eternity. Following this, Cronus completely fades out of the mythology.

Cronus flees to Latium

According to the ancient Romans, Cronus fled to Latium after his army of Titans was defeated by the Olympians. He went on to rule righteously and introduced the people to an era of peace and prosperity. This explains why Saturn (the Greek name for Cronus) was celebrated every year in a festival called Saturnalia.

Depictions in Art and Pop Culture

In Greek Art:

Cronus depiction in cultures
Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Cronus was typically depicted as a mature male with curly hair and a big beard, often bare-chested, similar in appearance to his sons Zeus and Poseidon. Muscular in appearance, he is often depicted as mercilessly devouring a child. It is not clear at which point his depictions started featuring a mantle or veil pulled over his head. 
  • However, he is also often depicted as an elderly man holding a scythe or sickle in his hands. He had long grey, curly hair and a grey beard. Sometimes, Kronos is represented as having white, angelic wings across his back. 
  • On the 469-450 BC Greek vase that is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, He is depicted as receiving the omphalos stone from Rhea. This theme is repeated on several surviving Greek vases.
  • A Pompeian fresco from the 1st century AD depicts Saturn (Cronus’s equivalent) holding a scythe.
  • Goya’s famous mural “Saturn” transferred to canvas is part of the collection of the Prado museum. 

In Pop Culture:

  • Cronus features as a recurring character in the God of War video game series. He represents a major antagonist in God of War III (2010). 
  • In the book series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians he appears as Kronos, an evil character, embittered after the thousands of years that he spent in Tartarus. He gathers an army of monsters and leads them to Mount Olympus to try and overthrow Zeus and other Olympians.
  • The Planet Saturn is named after Cronus’s Roman equivalent.
  • Cronus features in Freud’s writings in connection with the “castration complex”, as linked to the Oedipus complex. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Cronus the god of?

Cronus was the King of the Titans and the god of time, in particular time when viewed as a destructive, all-devouring force, but also the god of the harvest.

Is Cronus evil or good?

Cronus never embodied evil. He was an ancient force who fell to natural cycles of power in the Greek eyes, which is also proved by him being the god of the harvest.

Did Cronus eat Zeus?

Cronus was tricked by Rhea into swallowing a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes instead of Zeus.

What are Cronus symbols?

Grain, sickle, scythe.

Featured Image Credit: Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons