Our lives have been inextricably entwined with time ever since we were aware of it. We often complain of it slipping away, yet it always comes back.
In Greek mythology, time is ruthless and all-devouring. The personification appears as a wise old man with white hair, beard, and wrinkles littered across his face.
However, in certain depictions, he is considered to have the shape of a three-headed serpent. The heads are of a man, a bull, and a lion.
Interestingly, different interpretations of the ancient myths yield minute differences in character that confuse society.
Chronos: Origin Story
Chronos, the Greek god of time, is arguably one of the most disputed characters in Greek mythology. His life has been one vicious cycle of karmic justice.
Chronos was the last-born child to Gaia and Ouranos, the primordial gods of earth and sky. Ouranos had imprisoned his children, the Hecatonchires (the hundred-handed ones) and the Cyclops. With her children locked up, an upset Gaia had no choice but to ask Chronos to kill his father.
Thus, with the scythe presented to him, Chronos castrated his father while he was about to have intercourse with Gaia. The blood that spewed from Ouranos’ severed genitals gave birth to several sets of children. Further, the act became the reason for the separation of heaven and earth.
What’s more, Chronos became the Titan king of gods.
Did You Know: One of the deities born from Ouranos’ blood touching the seas was the Olympian goddess with the highest record of lovers amongst all the gods. Have you read about the adventures of the goddess of fertility, Aphrodite?
Chronos and His Family
Chronos started a family of his own by marrying his sister Rhea. They had six children together: Demeter, Hestia, Hades, Poseidon, Hera, and Zeus.
When Gaia asked Chronos to release his brothers, the Hecatonchires and Cyclops, he vehemently refused. As a result, Gaia was rightfully upset, warning him of the consequences. Although Chronos did not heed the warning, the curse kept eating away at his mind.
If Gaia’s prophecy came true, it would have stripped Chronos of his title as the Titan king. Drunk with power, our Greek god of time was not ready to part with his throne. Therefore, he devoured each one of his children at birth to nip the problem at the bud.
Fortunately, Rhea decided she had had enough of Chronos eating all her children. When her youngest son Zeus was born, she swaddled a rock like a baby and took it to Chronos, who ate it happily. Unbeknownst to the Titan god, Zeus was away living in a cave on the island of Crete.
Eventually, as Zeus came of age, he approached his father as a stranger and offered him a drink. As soon as Chronos took it, Zeus’ immortal siblings, who had survived in their father’s stomach for so long, were thrown up. Hereon commenced the monumental war between the gods and the titans.
Zeus and his siblings waged war against the Titans with their newfound freedom. Since Chronos himself was already defeated, his nephew Atlas commanded the Titan forces.
Titanomachy is the term used for the decade-long war between titans and gods. Referred to as the Battle of the Titans or the Titan War, it took place in the region of Thessaly. The war marked the dethronement of Chronos and the end of an entire generation. Hesiod’s Theogony is the only surviving poem about this war from the Classical Greek Age.
Ultimately, the gods emerged victorious after taking help from the Hecatonchires and the Cyclopes, who were still trapped in Tartarus. In a cruel twist of fate, Chronos was impaled and cut up by Zeus with the same scythe he used to castrate his father, Ouranos.
There are several versions of Chronos’ punishment after his death. Some of them are:
- As the story goes, Chronos’ spent his afterlife ruling over Elysium, or the Greek equivalent of paradise where all heroes who were made immortal lived out the rest of their lives.
- Another version relates that he was sent to the depths of Tartarus, the lowest regions of the underworld, to suffer eternal torture.
- Finally, one story has him drunk and cast off to a cave, where he remains a drunk forever.
Chronos and The Golden Age
Chronos is often associated with being ruthless, evil, and overall terrible. No matter how cruel a tyrant he later became, his initial era was called the Golden Age of Greek mythology.
Known as the ruler of the universe, Chronos’ pre-Hellenistic dominion talks of a prosperous time. Humans were primitive beings who lived in small tribes. It was easier for harmony and brotherhood to thrive with no society, art, or governments.
Tales of Chronos’ benevolence and abundance of resources are plenty. Such times were only fit to be called the greatest of human eras. After the arrival of Hellenes with their customs and traditions, Chronos’ portrayal changed. He was then considered a destructive force that uprooted everything good and peaceful.
Moreover, the changing perception of Chronos was also a result of the entry of Olympians, who made him out to be the villain.
Chronos’ Symbols and Associations
- As the Greek god of time, Chronos is associated with a few symbols and deities.
- Usually, Chronos is depicted with a harpē (a curved sword), a scythe, or a sickle, which he used as a weapon against his father, Ouranos.
- The city of Athens celebrated Kronia to honor Chronos and celebrate the harvest. This insinuates his role as the god of harvest during the Golden Age. The festival was held on the twelfth day of Hekatombaion, roughly equivalent to the end of modern-day July and the first part of August.
- Some of his other symbols were snakes and grains, owing to his title as the god of harvest and evil.
- His various epithets include Father Time, Eternal Time, and The Time Lord.
- Chronos has been associated with El Olam, the Phoenician god of time, due to their mutual liking for sacrificed children.
- The Roman counterpart of Chronos is their agricultural god, Saturn. According to Roman mythology, Saturn managed to restore the Golden Age after escaping Latium. The celebration which followed was known as Saturnalia, one of the most important traditions of Ancient Rome.
- The impact of Saturnalia and its customs felt by the western world was so powerful that elements like lighting candles, giving gifts, and feasting are still a renowned part of Christmas and New Year.
Legends of Chronos
Chronos has his fair share of myths that reveal his character and relationships with other deities. We begin at the very start – the creation myth.
#1. First Generation of Titans
First, there was chaos. From its shapeless existence came two forms: the heavens and the earth. These forms became primordial gods Gaia and Ouranos, giving birth to Giants and Titans.
The Giants constituted brute strength, while the Titans combined strength and intellect. Amongst the first generation of Titans, Chronos was the youngest and most powerful.
#2. Castration of Ouranos
Before the Titans, Ouranos and Gaia had six children, the Cyclops and Hecatonchires. Their power was so staggering that fearing for his throne as the king of the universe, Ouranos imprisoned them in Tartarus. Following this, Gaia was deeply hurt and started plotting Ouranos’ downfall.
She crafted a stone sickle and asked her Titan sons to castrate their father. Chronos, being the bravest of the lot, agreed to the deed. As Ouranos descended to be with Gaia, his sons – Crius, Coeus, Hyperion, and Iapetus – held him down to the four corners of earth while Chronos proceeded to castrate him. With Ouranos out of the way, the universe became his to rule.
#3. Chronos and Philyra
This is one of the only Chronos’ love escapades known to us. It was with Philyra, a sea nymph and the daughter of Titans Oceanus and Tethys.
She was deeply in love with her uncle, Chronos. The attraction soon became a relationship they pursued, hidden from Chronos’ wife, Rhea.
Although, their luck did not persist. Once, when they were together, Rhea happened to pass by. At that moment, Chronos transformed into a stallion to escape detection. Due to this, Philyra gave birth to a centaur, a half-man half-horse.
For Philyra, the child was monstrous, so she abandoned him before being transformed into a linden tree.
That’s not all.
The child, Chiron, later became the wisest being, imparting his knowledge to many famous Greek heroes, including Heracles, Achilles, and Jason.
Read More: If such stories of love and betrayal interest you, there are plenty of tales from Greek mythology to keep you indulged!
#4. The Olympians Born Again
When Rhea managed to hide Zeus away from Chronos, the island of Crete became his home. There he was cared for by Rhea’s priests called the Curetes. As days passed, Zeus grew into a talented and powerful young man prepared to defeat his tyrannical father.
With the help of Metis, the goddess of wisdom, thought, and skill, Zeus persuaded his father to drink a potion. The drink made Chronos disgorge all his children, thus marking the rebirth of five Olympians.
What’s more, the stone that was swallowed in place of Zeus came out first and was placed at Pytho (Delphi) to pay reverence to the gods.
#5. Chronos and King of Libya
A 1st-century Greek historian named Diodorus Siculus narrates a different tale about Chronos, who became the king of Libya.
According to this story, Chronos is the offspring of Ouranos and Titaea while Rhea is wedded to the King of Libya, Ammon. In time, Rhea betrays Ammon by marrying her lover and little brother Chronos.
Soon, a war breaks out between the Titans and the King. Chronos won and became the King of Libya, only to rule with an iron fist. His actions ended when Ammon’s son Dionysus defeated him and anointed Chronos and Rhea’s son Zeus as the rightful King of Egypt.
Thereafter, Dionysus and Zeus partnered up to fight against the remaining Titans. Eventually, as Dionysus met with his death, all the kingdoms automatically came under Zeus, who became the lord of the world.
#6. Sibylline Oracles
According to the third book in the Sybilline Oracles, Chronos is one of the three sons of Ouranos and Gaia, the other two being Iapetus and Titan. After Ouranos’ death, each son received one-third of the Earth while Chronos became the overall ruler.
Later, Titan’s sons’ plotted to destroy the children of Rhea and Chronos. However, Rhea secretly birthed Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, who were then raised in Phrygia by three Cretans. When the news got out, Rhea and Chronos were captured by Titan’s men leading to war between them and Chronos’ sons.
#7. The Other Chronos
There is often a conflation between Chronos and Chronus, both being referred to as eternal beings of time during the renaissance.
Chronus first appeared in Hesiod’s myth and Orphic cosmogony. He is mentioned around 700 B.C. ending at around the 9th century. In Graeco-Roman mosaics, Chronus is depicted as a man wielding the Zodiac Wheel.
Similar to Chronos, he is also often shown with a long grey beard and a wise countenance.
Did You Know: English words like chronology, chronometer, chronic, anachronism, and chronicles have their etymological roots in the name Chronus.
Before the existence of everything, Chronus and his daughter Ananke would revolve around the primordial world egg until they split it apart to form the earth, the sea, and the sky.
The Orphic origins describe Chronus giving birth to Aether and Chaos, who further bore the rest of the gods.
The Greek god of time has often been painted in a negative light. Even so, our villain was once the proud ruler of an era that was nothing but peaceful. The complexity in his character as both a benevolent and a ruthless king has made him one of the most important deities coming out of Greek mythology.
Bonus Read: Mythologies are brimming with complex villainous characters that tingle our senses with a mixture of awe and revulsion. Is Chronos evil enough to be placed on the list of the evilest mythological characters of all times?