O Mighty Titans, who from heav’n and earth
Derive your noble and illustrious birth…
Avert your rage, if from th’ infernal seats
One of your tribe should visit our retreats.[1]

Zeus is the king of the Greek gods on Mount Olympus, but “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”[2] In the first book of the Iliad the hero Achilles tells the tale of his mother the goddess Thetis rescuing the divine king from a conspiracy of Hera and Poseidon and Pallas Athena.[3] The poet Hesiod tells us about the second generation of Titans, sons of the elder gods, who warred against Zeus.[4] Of course, the victorious Olympians hurled the Titans into far Tartaros in the black abyss of the netherworld:

There, under murky darkness, the Titan gods 730 lie hidden by the counsels of cloud-compelling Zeus in a dark, dreary place, where are the extremities of vast Earth. These may not go forth, for Poseidon has placed above them brazen gates, and a wall goes round them on both sides. There dwell Gyes, and Kottos, and high-spirited Briareus, 735 faithful guards of aegis-bearing Zeus.[5]

Painting: many male figures falling and writhing with rocks being thrown
Peter Paul Rubens: Fall of the Titans c. 1637

Then in anger over the treatment of the Titans, Gaia gave birth to the Giants. Large man-like creatures, they are often portrayed with snakes for legs. They attacked Olympus and after a battle so desperate that for the first time in Greek mythology the goddesses took up arms, the Giants were defeated.[6] Next, when Zeus had driven the Titans out of heaven, gigantic Gaia, in love with Tartaros, bore the youngest of her children, Typhoeus.

820 But when Zeus had driven the Titans out from Sky, huge Earth bore her youngest-born son, Typhoeus, by the embrace of Tartaros, through golden Aphrodite. Whose hands, indeed, are apt for deeds on the score of strength, and untiring the feet of the strong god; and from his shoulders 825 there were a hundred heads of a serpent, a fierce dragon, playing with dusky tongues, and from the eyes in his wondrous heads fire was gleaming, as he looked keenly. In all his terrible heads, too, were voices 830 sending forth every kind of sound ineffable. For a while they would utter sounds, so as for the gods to understand, and at another time again the voice of a loud-bellowing bull, untamable in force, and proud in utterance; at another time, again, that of a lion possessing a daring spirit; at another yet again they would sound like to whelps, wondrous to hear; 835 and at another he would hiss, and the lofty mountains resound. And, in fact, it was then that there would have been done a deed past remedy, and he, yes, he, would have reigned over mortals and immortals, unless the father of gods and men had quickly observed him. Harshly then he thundered, and heavily, 840 and terribly the earth re-echoed around; and the broad sky above, and the sea, and streams of Okeanos, and the abysses of earth. But beneath his immortal feet vast Olympus trembled, as the king rose up, and earth groaned beneath. And the heat from both caught the dark-colored sea, 845 both of the thunder and lightning, and fire from the monster, the heat arising from the thunder-storms, winds, and burning lightning. And all earth and sky and sea were boiling; and huge billows roared around the shores about and around, beneath the violence of gods; and unallayed quaking arose. 850 Hādēs trembled, monarch over the dead beneath; and the Titans under Tartaros, standing about Kronos, trembled also, on account of the unceasing tumult and dreadful contention. But then Zeus had raised high his wrath, and had taken his arms, his thunder and lightning, and smoking bolt, leapt up, 855 and smote him from Olympus, and scorched all-around all the wondrous heads of the terrible monster. But when at length he had quelled it, after having smitten it with blows, the monster fell down lamed, and huge Earth groaned. But the flame from the lightning-blasted monster flashed forth 860 in the mountain-hollows, hidden and rugged, when he was stricken, and much was the vast earth burnt and melted by the boundless vapor, like pewter, heated by the craft of youths, and by the well-bored melting-pit; or iron, which is the hardest of metals, 865 subdued in the dells of the mountain by blazing fire, melts in the sacred earth beneath the hands of Hephaistos. So was earth melted in the glare of burning fire. Then, troubled in spirit, he hurled him into wide Tartaros.[7]

Vase painting: Zeus at left hurling a thunderbolt at Typhon, a monstrous figure with humanoid head, wings, and serpentine lower body
Zeus darting his lightning on Typhon (Typhoeus). Chalcidian black-figured hydria, c. 540 – 530 BCE

So at this point you would think Zeus’ reign is secure, but maybe the Olympians have reason for concern. Starting in Iliad14 there are several references to the Titans and their king Kronos bound in the world below. And Hera at Iliad 14.280 swears by the Styx and “invoked all the gods of the nether world, who are called Titans, to witness.” At Hesiod’s Theogony 780 Zeus sends the goddess Iris to fetch a golden ewer of water from the dread Styx “when by chance strife and quarrel shall have arisen among the immortals.” And finally “Poseidon who holds the earth in his embrace has now gone down under the sea to avoid the severity of my displeasure. Had he not done so those gods who are below with Kronos would have come to hear of the fight between us.”[8] Even in Statius’ Thebaid 8.42 Hades speaks of “the Giants, and of the Titans, eager to force their way to the world above, and his own unhappy sire.”[9]

So it appears that the gods take care to minimize strife and quarrels amongst themselves invoking their most awesome oaths. So the gods had reason to fear their strife being overheard by the Titans and arousing them into revolt. They appointed processes and goddesses to handle their quarrels and placed “warders” like Lord Hades and the Kottos and Gyes; and Briareos, to guard them.

But how could the Titans escape? Hera called upon them to help with the creation of Typhon[10] and to destroy Zagreus.[11] Colluthus, in the Rape of Helen 48, says ‘Eris was furious at being turned away from the wedding of Peleus & Thetis: Fain would she unbar the bolts of the darksome hollows and rouse the Titans from the nether pit and destroy heaven the seat of Zeus, who rules on high.”[12] Zeus all on his own killed Kampē who was guarding them, and released the Hekatonkheires and the Cyclopes from Tartarus.[13]

Wondering what became of those ancient forces—so dreaded by the Olympians—left lying beneath the earth waiting, waiting for the first falling out among the allies of Zeus in order to return to power themselves?” The riddle is answered when Hesiod places the Titans on the Isles of the Blest,[14] Aeschylus makes them free to be the chorus in a fragment of the lost Prometheus Unbound[15], and in an ancient proverb used by Pindar “Even Immortal Zeus released the Titans.”[16]


1 The Hymns of Orpheus, Translated by Thomas Taylor [1792] Hymn to the Titans
Online at sacred-texts.com

2 Shakespeare, Henry IV Part II. Act III, Scene i

3 Homeric Iliad 1.396–406. Translated by Samuel Butler, revised by Soo-Young Kim, Kelly McCray, Gregory Nagy, and Timothy Power
Online at Kosmos Society

4 Hesiodic Theogony 630–721, translation by by J. Banks, adapted by Gregory Nagy
Online at Kosmos Society

5 Hesiodic Theogony 729–735, translation by by J. Banks, adapted by Gregory Nagy
Online at Kosmos Society

6 Apollodorus, The Library 1.6.1–1.6.2
Translated by Sir James George Frazer. Loeb Classical Library Volumes 121 & 122. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1921.
Online at theoi.com

7 Hesiodic Theogony, translation by by J. Banks, adapted by Gregory Nagy
Online at Kosmos Society

8 Homeric Iliad 15.222 Translated by Samuel Butler, revised by Soo-Young Kim, Kelly McCray, Gregory Nagy, and Timothy Power
Online at Kosmos Society

9 Statius, Thebaid, Achilleid. Translated by J H. Mozley. Loeb Classical Library Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1928.
Online at theoi.com

10 Homeric Hymn (3) to Apollo 332– 354.
Hesiod, Homeric Hymns, Epic Cycle, Homerica. Translated by H G. Evelyn-White, Loeb Classical Library Volume 57. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.
Online at theoi.com

11 Nonnus, Dionysiaca 6.
Nonnus, Dionysiaca. Translated by W H D. Rouse, Loeb Classical Library Volumes 344, 354, 356. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1940.
Online at theoi.com

12 Colluthus The Rape of Helen
Oppian, Colluthus and Tryphiodorus. Translated by A. W. Mair, Loeb Classical Library Volume 219. London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1928.
Online at theoi.com

13 Apollodorus Library 1.2.1.
Apollodorus. The Library. Translated by Sir James George Frazer. Loeb Classical Library Volumes 121 & 122. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1921.
Online at theoi.com

14 Hesiodic Works and Days translated by Gregory Nagy, footnote 5 “In a longer version, as attested in a papyrus, this line, 169, is followed by four lines not attested elsewhere; in this version, these five lines, labeled 173a (= 169), 173b, 173c, 173d, 173e in West’s edition, follow line 173 (and 168 is followed by 170). These additional lines tell of the releasing of Kronos by Zeus”
Online at Kosmos Society
In H.G. Evelyn-White’s translation, this is at his lines 169–169a.
Hesiod. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Works and Days. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914
Online at Perseus

15 Aeschylus Fragments: Promētheus Lyomenos
Aeschylus. Translated by Smyth, Herbert Weir. Loeb Classical Library Volumes 145 & 146. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. 1926.
Online at theoi.com

16 Pindar Pythian 4.291. Pindar, Odes. Pindar. Diane Arnson Svarlien. 1990.Online at Perseus

Texts retrieved April 2024.

Image credits

Peter Paul Rubens Fall of the Titans c. 1637
public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Note: There is another version of this painting at Wikimedia Commons attributed to Jacob Jordaens.

Zeus defeats Typhon: Chalcidian black-figured hydria, c. 540 – 530 BCE.
Side B: Zeus darting his lightning on Typhon. Names written in the alphabet of Chalcis in Euboea.
Photo: Bibi Saint-Pol, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Note: Images have been selected from pictures that are freely available with open source or Creative Commons licenses or from photographs sent in by community members for the purpose. The images in this post are intended to suggest the subject, rather than illustrate exactly—as such, they may be from other periods, subjects, or cultures. Attributions are based where possible by those shown by galleries or museums, or on Wikimedia Commons or Flickr at the time of publication on this website.

Images retrieved April 2024