Iapetus God of Death and Craftsmanship

Iapetus was the ancient Greek god of death and the personification of one of the four pillars holding apart the sky and the earth. According to some myths, he was specifically the god of violent death, but he was also worshiped as the god of craftsmanship. The role of the pillar of the west was subsequently passed on to Iapetus’s son Atlas.  Iapetus was one of the five Titan brothers that dethroned their father Uranus. The four brothers representing the four corners of the earth – Iapetus, Crius, Coeus and Hyperion, held Uranus down when Cronus castrated him with a flint scythe. 

Key facts

Family tree

ParentsGaia and Uranus
Partner(s)Clymene
SiblingsTitans Cronus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Oceanus, Rhea, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Theia, Themis, and Tethys, as well as half-siblings: one-eyed Cyclopes Brontes, Arges and Steropes and Hecatoncheires (monstrosities with a hundred hands each) Kottos, Briareos and Gyges.
OffspringPrometheus, Atlas, Menoetius, Epimetheus

Names & Others

Roman NameIapetus
Other NamesJapetus, The Piercer (Greek name Iapetus is derived from iaptein – to hurl, to wound
Ancient GreekΙαπετός
The God ofTitan god of Violent death and craftsmanship
SymbolsSetting sun, spear

Origins

Iapetus origin
Photo Credit: the2tinkers

When Gaia, the Earth, married the sky god  Uranus, they produced three sets of children: the Titans, the Cyclops and the Hecotoncheires. Iapetus was one of the strongest and most destructive Titans.  

He was banished to the underworld together with his siblings by Uranus, who feared being overthrown by the Titans. The youngest of the Titan brothers, Cronus, castrated Uranus with a scythe that Gaia gave him. To help, his four brother Titans, pillars of the earth Iapetus, Coeus, Crius, and Hyperion held their father down so he couldn’t resist. 

The liberation of the Titans by Cronus started the Golden Age, a time of prosperity for gods and men alike. Cronus and his consort Rhea ruled the universe, while other Titans were their court.

The Golden Age was cut short by Cronus, who feared that his children would overthrow him as had been predicted by Uranus. Cronus swallowed five of his children, but the sixth one, Zeus, was hidden by Gaia. Upon reaching adulthood, Zeus started a war against Cronus and other Titans, the Titanomachy. Iapetus was one of the Titans that actively participated in the Titanomachy on the side of Cronus. Moreover, his sons Atlas and Epimetheus followed their father and also joined the war.

Imprisoned in Tartarus

They were all imprisoned in  Tartarus by Zeus when Zeus won the war. Iapetus was described as seated next to Cronus in the pit of the Tartarus, which, according to ancient authors, was a void between the foundations of the Cosmos where earth, sea and sky have their roots.

Apart from the myth about the castration of Uranus, it was through his four sons Prometheus, Epimetheus, Atlas and Menoetius that Iapetus made the strongest impact in Greek mythology. The four sons of Iapetus were the ancestors of humans who passed on to them some negative characteristics. It was thought that clever Prometheus passed to humans scheming; Epimetheus, who was not intelligent, passed stupidity; powerful Atlas passed excessive daring; and Menoetius passed to them arrogance.

Iapetus and his wife, Oceanid Clymene, also had a sinister role as deities associated with death and were regarded as spiritual mothers and fathers of mortality. While Clymene was a chthonian, or netherworld, goddess, Iapetus, also nicknamed The Piercer, was considered the god of violent death. 

Name and epithets

The name Iapetus is derived from the Greek word that means “pierce with a spear”, as well as iaptein – to hurl, to wound. According to some sources, it refers to Iapetus being hurled down, and expelled to  Tartarus by Zeus. Other scholars link the name to Biblical Japeth, 3rd son of Noah, the progenitor of the human race, which corresponds to the sons of Iapetus being ancestors of the humans.

Family tree

Iapetus belongs to the first generation of twelve Titans and was the son of Gaia, goddess of earth and mother of all life, and Gaia’s son Uranus, the god of the Sky. Iapetus had five male siblings (Cronus, Hyperion, Coeus, Crius, and Oceanus) and six female siblings, Titanides (Mnemosyne, Tethys, Theia, Phoebe, Themis, and Rhea). 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.

He married the Oceanid Clymene and became the father to Atlas, Prometheus, Epimetheus and Menoetius. Some myths also refer to Iapetus as the father of Buphagus, an Arcadian hero known for sheltering Epicles (Heracles’s brother) in his house and of the Cretan nymph Anchiale, goddess of heat and fire.

Domains of power

Iapetus controlled time itself together with his Titan brothers Coeus, Crius, Hyperion and Cronus. As the Ruler of the Underworld, Iapetus had the power of cutting short the lives of mortals, but also to bring them back to life. His powers got stronger closer to the center of the Western hemisphere, as he was the western one of the four pillars. At the very center of the Western hemisphere, Iapetus’s powers became stronger than those of his son Atlas, and he dominated such forces as Zephyr, and the West Wind. Since Iapetus belonged to the first generation of Titans, he possessed great strength and endurance. He had a divine authority over pain and was able to decrease or increase it.

Symbolism

Iapetus is the god of violent death, his very name means “piercer”, or “piercing with a spear”. His principal symbol is, not surprisingly, a spear. Classical artists often depicted Iapetus as wielding one. 

As for Iapetus’s other symbol, that of the setting sun, that is a common metaphor for mortality in many cultures. That Iapetus was the western pillar of the sky corresponds to the fact that the sun sets in the west.

Classical Literature on lapetus

Iapetus is mentioned often but briefly in the classic literature describing the Titans’ family, as well as myths about his sons. Myths, where he plays a significant role, are few.

Iapetus is also mentioned in the Illiad. Homer describes him as imprisoned in the pit of Tartarus next to Cronus.

And Zeus answered, “Tomorrow morning, Hera, if you choose to do so, you will see the son of Kronos destroying large numbers of the Argives, for fierce Hektor shall not cease fighting till he has roused the son of Peleus when they are fighting in dire straits at their ships’ sterns about the body of Patroklos. Like it or no, this is how it is decreed; for I don’t care, you may go to the lowest depths beneath earth and sea [pontos], where Iapetos and Kronos dwell in lone Tartaros with neither ray of light nor breath of wind to cheer them. You may go on and on till you get there, and I shall not care one whit for your displeasure; you are the greatest vixen living.”

Hesiod’s theogony tells us about the sons of Iapetus.

Now Iapetus took to wife the neat-ankled maid Clymene, daughter of Ocean, and went up with her into one bed. And she bore him a stout-hearted son, Atlas: [510] also she bore very glorious Menoetius and clever Prometheus, full of various wiles, and scatter-brained Epimetheus who from the first was a mischief to men who eat bread.

Place in ancient Greek religion

Iapetus did not have a cult, with a possible exception of the island of Imbros. There, according to some sources, he received certain religious honors.

Stories where Iapetus plays a part

Castration of Uranus

Uranus feared that his Titan children would overthrow him and banished them to the underworld. The Titans rebelled against him, prompted by their mother Gaia. Gaia created flint and made a scythe from it, which she gave to Cronus. When Uranus descended from the heavens to lay with his wife Gaia, Cronus and his brothers ambushed him. But due to his sheer size, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion and Iapetus were posted at the four corners of the world. There they could seize him and hold him down. Cronus succeeded in castrating Uranus, and the sky god retreated to the skies.

Titanomachy

Upon reaching adulthood, Zeus started a war against Cronus and the other Titans. The war, which lasted for 10 years, became known as Titanomachy. Iapetus was one of the Titans who fought against Zeus and other Olympian gods, along with two of his sons, Atlas and Menoetius,. Both Prometheus and Epimetheus remained neutral. Following the Titans’ defeat, Zeus imprisoned them in  Tartarus. However, Atlas was released after some time to take over the role of the western pillar of heaven from his father.

Iapetus achieved the greatest prominence through his sons in whose stories he features a lot.

Atlas Becomes the Western Pillar

Atlas
John Singer Sargent, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Atlas, who replaced his father as the western pillar of heaven (this is probably linked to Iapetus being banished to the pit of Tartarus), became very popular with ancient sculptors and remains so to this day.

Roman mythographer Pseudo-Hyginus provides details on the story of Atlas:

“After Juno saw that Epaphus, born of a concubine, ruled such a great kingdom, she saw to it that he should be killed while hunting, and encouraged the Titans to drive Jove from the kingdom and restore it to Saturn. When they tried to mount heaven, Jove with the help of Minerva, Apollo and Diana, cast them headlong into Tartarus. On Atlas, who had been their leader, he put the vault of the sky; even now he is said to hold up the sky on his shoulders.

Prometheus and the Creation of Humans

Prometheus, a son of Iapetus and Oceanid Clymene, who is regarded as the creator of men, became notorious for being cunning and deceitful as well as disrespectful of gods. He was eventually punished for his behavior towards Zeus whose lack of insight he ridiculed. 

His brother Epimetheus made lots of creatures on the orders of Zeus in order to populate the Earth. Prometheus however spent too long crafting a creature after the shape of the gods, which was a human. All the gifts from Zeus had therefore been spent, and the creations of Prometheus were suffering through dark cold nights. Prometheus felt so sorry for them that he stole fire from the chariot of Helios (sun) to give the humans. 

He then tricked Zeus by taking all the meat from an offering for himself and the mortals and giving Zeus bones and sinew. Zeus punished the mortals for that by taking fire away from the earth. As for Prometheus, Zeus tried to punish him by sending him Pandora. She was woman made of clay with a box filled with valuable but dangerous gifts. When Prometheus failed to be tricked by her, Zeus fell into an even greater rage. He then had Prometheus taken to mount Caucasus, where the eagle Ethon would, again and again, eat out his liver. This lasted until Heracles freed Prometheus 30 years later. However, even when Prometheus returned to Mount Olympus, he still carried with him the rock that he was chained to.

Epimetheus and Pandora

Epimetheus, son of Iapetus and Oceanid Clymene, was also referred to as “hindsight”. His lack of foresight caused mankind great troubles. Instructed by Zeus to make creatures to populate the Earth, he gave them all the gifts that Zeus had allotted. All the gifts had been spent by the time the turn of the humans came so they got none. Epimetheus was the one that passed this lack of foresight to the humans. 

After Prometheus failed to fall for Zeus’ trick and turned Pandora away,  stupid Epimetheus married her.

Menoetius and Bolts of Lightning

Menoetius, whose name can be translated as “ill-fated” or “doomed might”, followed his father and joined Titanomachy on the side of the Titans. He was punished by Zeus’s bolts of lightning, which threw him down to  Tartarus. Menoetius stayed there for eternity on the orders of Zeus.

Buphagus and Iphicles

Iapetus’s son Buphagus features in Pausanius’s Description of Greece,. It tells how he cared for the wounded Iphicles (Epicles), brother of Heracles:

“As you go down from the acropolis of Pheneus you come to a stadium, and on a hill stands a tomb of Iphicles, the brother of Heracles and the Father of Iolaus. Iolaus, according to the Greek account, shared most of the labours of Heracles, but his father Iphicles, in the first battle fought by Heracles against the Eleans and Augeas, was wounded by the sons of Actor, who were called after their mother Moline. In a fainting condition he was carried by his relatives to Pheneus, where he was carefully nursed by Buphagus, a citizen of Pheneus, and by his wife Promne, who also buried him when he died of his wound”.

Depictions in Art and Pop Culture

In Ancient Art

Depictions of Iapetus and Clymene are rare. Iapetus and Clymene are usually depicted clothed in white. Their hair and eyes silver, in conformity with their role of inspiring dread in the mortals. Often, Iapetus is depicted wielding a spear.

In Pop Culture

  • In the book series Heroes of Olympus, Iapetus is shown as a villain who then becomes a hero after being cast into the river Lethe. 
  • Iapetus gave his name to Saturn’s third largest moon.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Iapetus the god of?

Iapetus is the Greek god of mortality, violent death and of craftsmanship.

How do you pronounce Iapetus?

eye-ap’-i-tus, Greek Ιαπετός

What are the symbols of Iapetus?

Setting sun, spear

Who were the sons of Iapetus?

Atlas, Prometheus, Epimetheus and Menoetius.

Featured Image Credit: Peter Paul Rubens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons