Friday, 14 June 2019

Titans and Olympians

The twelve Olympians are the most important gods in the Greek pantheon. There’s some variation in their membership, depending on who you read. But there are generally twelve, and they’re always headed by Zeus, along with his brothers Poseidon and Hades, each associated with a third of the cosmos (sky, surface, underworld).

Greek myth has other bunches of divinities too. Some are minor local divinities: river gods, nymphs, and so on. Some can be just about as important as the Olympians, like the Dioskouroi (Castor and Polydeuces) or the Great Gods of Samothrace. And then there’s the Titans.

With the Titans, it can be tempting to think we’ve got two orders of gods: elder gods and younger gods, Titans and Olympians.
The Disney version of the Titans (Hercules, 1997)
No no no, not like the Titans in the Disney Hercules. Not like Clash of the Titans either -- a film that’s rather conspicuous for not actually having any Titans in it. (That applies to both the 1981 original and the 2010 remake, by the way.)

If it’s a popular depiction you want, you’ll find a closer match in Rick Riordan’s series of Percy Jackson novels. There, as in ancient Greek myth, the Titans are the arch-enemies of the Olympians, but they’re also the Olympians’ ancestors and parents.

Titans and Giants

Actually there’s one area where the Disney Hercules does represent ancient sources very well. It does an excellent job at steering around a confusion between Titans and Giants -- a common confusion among ancient writers.

The Titans and Giants were both colossal beings who fought the Olympians. The Titanomachy is the primordial war between the Olympian gods and the Titans, cosmic order vs. cosmic chaos. After ten years of fighting the Olympians finally win, aided by the Cyclopes and the Hundred-Handers, and they banish the Titans to the eternal void of Tartaros, the bottomless pit at the bottom of the cosmos, beneath even Hades. The Gigantomachy is the battle between the Olympians and the Gigantes or ‘earth-born ones’, spurred to attack Olympus by their mother Gaia: this time the Olympians are aided by the hero Heracles.

So we’ve got one battle at the beginnings of time, and one in the relatively recent legendary past, just one generation before the Trojan War. And yet ancient writers regularly mix them up. Several sources refer to a ‘Titanomachy’ poem as a ‘Gigantomachy’; in Orphic myth, Dionysus is sometimes killed by Titans, sometimes by Giants; one source glosses the Titans as 'Giants beneath the earth’ (sch. Eur. Hec. 471).

The general impression is that the Titanomachy was at root a poetic narrative, while the Gigantomachy belonged more to the visual arts. There were at least three Titanomachy poems: they seem to have had limited success, and the complete poems have all been lost, but we still have an episode in the Hesiodic Theogony dealing with the story. The Gigantomachy, by contrast, had no poetic treatments that we know of, but it was central to the decorations of two of the most important temples in the Greek world: the temple of Apollo at Delphi, and the Parthenon in Athens.

If you know the Disney film you’ll see how it navigates this ancient confusion. Zeus has imprisoned the Titans in Tartaros, as per the Titanomachy; but they get released, and Hercules intervenes to defeat the bad guys and save the Olympians, as per the Gigantomachy. The film synthesises both variants without ever dragging attention away from its main story. Rather well thought out, really.

Which Titans?

Most of the Titans aren’t even particularly evil. The trio of Kronos, Iapetos, and Okeanos are generally grouped together as the ones opposed to the Olympians. The Homeric Iliad groups Kronos and Iapetos together, imprisoned in Tartaros:
                  ... the nethermost extremes
of earth and sea, where Iapetos and Kronos
sit and never enjoy the rays of Hyperion the Sun,
nor the winds, and deep Tartaros is around them.
-- Iliad 8.478-481
But you notice Hyperion isn’t imprisoned with them? -- even though he belongs to the same generation of divinities. So: are only some Titans imprisoned? Or do only some divinities of that generation count as ‘Titans’? That’s not how Hesiod thinks of it (Theogony 205-6 makes them all ‘Titans’; at 424 Hekate seems to be counted as an ex-Titan).

There are plenty of Titans moseying around outside Tartaros. Elsewhere in Homer we find Phoibe, the moon, shining in the sky too. Dione appears on Olympus in Iliad book 5. Mnemosyne (‘Memory’) regularly gets invoked by poets. In Hesiod, Prometheus and Epimetheus are obviously still kicking around after Zeus becomes king of the universe -- though Prometheus goes on to be imprisoned too, in a separate story. Hekate gets to keep the prerogatives she had from the Titans.

Even Kronos himself wasn’t always the bad guy. Or, at least, not simply the bad guy. Athens and Rhodes celebrated festivals in honour of Kronos -- and, given that these two places belonged to distinct ethnic groups within the Greek world, that kind of suggests a pretty widespread observance. There were occasions, separate from the festivals, when cakes were offered to Kronos in Athens and in Elis. We know there were temples dedicated to Kronos at Athens and Olympia, both of them in precincts of Olympian Zeus.
For the Kronia festival in Athens and temples of Kronos, see New Pauly s.v. ‘Kronos’. For the Rhodian festival see Theodoret, Cure of the Greek maladies 7 (p. 108,46 = p. 294 Gaisford).

Van Dongen 2010: 192 thinks that Kronos and co. were originally separate from the Titans, pointing out that the Titans don’t have individual names in the Hesiodic Titanomachy. I don’t buy that. First, the idea of separating a single myth into two distinct ‘original’ myths is too close for comfort to the ‘two cultures’ interpretation I look at below. Second, the story is stable enough across both Hesiod and the Iliad (cf. Il. 5.897-898, 8.478-481, 14.278-289, 15.225) to point solidly to a much earlier origin.
Why celebrate Kronos, the arch-nemesis of Zeus? Not an easy question. Some modern theorists go for an agricultural explanation: the Kronia was a harvest festival, the Titans were harvest gods, and that’s why Kronos uses a sickle to cut off Ouranos’ genitals. Well, supposedly. I’m skeptical: I have a sneaking suspicion that some theorists have been taking their ideas about Kronos from Saturn, his Roman counterpart.

There are other ways you could interpret a festival in honour of the enemy of the gods. It might be a celebration of his imprisonment in Tartaros. It might be apotropaic (‘let’s honour Kronos so he doesn’t come back’). I’d prefer not to assume in advance that it’s just a peaceful, innocent harvest festival -- not unless there’s some evidence I’m just unaware of.
Kronos as depicted in the execrable film of Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters (2013). But read the books instead -- please, for the love of Zeus, read the books instead. (I hate that Surtr in Thor: Ragnarok reminds me of this godsawful film.)

Two families of divinities?

When you see a pantheon with two ‘orders’ of gods, one popular interpretation is that two pantheons, from different cultures, have been combined. For example: we might say that at some point there was a Minoan pantheon consisting of just the Titans, and when the Mycenaeans conquered the Minoan civilisation, they imposed their own gods -- the Olympians -- as a kind of superior caste. This is wrong, by the way.

But this binary interpretation, that Olympians and Titans originated as a superimposition and a substrate, had a lot of currency among theorists of the early 20th century. Here’s how Walter Burkert puts it.
Historians have long sought to understand Greece and Greek religion as a synthesis of an indigenous substratum and Indo-European superimposition. How far this idea holds good and can be verified in detail is another question. Global dualisms which exaggerate the distinctino between Indo-European and non-Indo-European assert themselves all too easily: male and female, patriarchy and matriarchy, heaven and earth, Olympian and chthonic, and intellect and instinct. The interaction of the two poles is then supposedly reflected in Greek religion as the new gods overthrow the Titans, or as the Indo-European Sky Father takes the mediterranean Mistress as his bride.
-- Burkert 1985: 18 = 2011: 37.
In the work of Georges Dumézil, this division takes on classist tones too: the newer gods are worshipped by the upper class, the older gods by the proles. That seems to be coming more from the Romans than from anything Greek: the Romans with their division of patrician and plebeian, and the worship of Jupiter and Ceres.

younger gods elder gods
Olympians Titans
Mycenaean Minoan
Indo-European non-Indo-European
patriarchy matriarchy
celestial earthly
intellect instinct
culture nature
upper class lower class

Important note: everything about the above table is wrong. (We’ve got no reason to think of the Minoans as matriarchal. That idea still has some currency, thanks to Friedrich Engels, but it’s an extremely tendentious interpretation of very indirect, and very thin, evidence. It comes from Johann Jakob Bachofen’s 1861 book Das Mutterrecht: Bachofen’s theory of an even earlier ‘hetairistic’ phase, where everyone was sexually promiscuous, kind of suggests that the whole idea has its roots in his sexual fantasies. No archaeologists or anthropologists have taken it seriously for many decades.)

But this theory boils down to a thinly-veiled nationalism. ‘Indo-European’ versus ‘non-Indo-European’? Just say what you mean: Aryan versus Untermensch.

(Incidentally, Burkert goes on to point out that when it comes to ritual practice, it’s earthly libations that are related to Indo-European religion, while the rising smoke of Olympian sacrifices is more closely linked to Semitic practices.)

The idea that two castes of divinities reflect two ethnic groups has been suggested for other bodies of myth. In Norse myth, figures like Gro Steinsland have suggested that the two orders of divinities -- the Æsir, with Odin, Thor, Tyr, etc., and the Vanir with Njord, Freyr, and Freyja -- are a result of two distinct mythological traditions coming into contact with each other. So the war of the Æsir and the Vanir supposedly reflects a historical war.

As with the Olympians and the Titans, it may sound like a reasonable working hypothesis. Let’s just emphasise the word hypothesis, though. There’s never any direct evidence to support this kind of thing. And there’s good reason to doubt it.

The parallel between the Greek and Norse pantheons sounds suspiciously like something systematic: it’s integral to the design, baked into each pantheon from the start. That impression gets even stronger if you draw comparisons to other pantheons: Indian myth has the devás warring against the ásuras, Irish myth has the Tuatha Dé Danann as successors to the monstrous Fomorians.

pantheon younger gods elder gods
Greek Olympians Titans
Norse Æsir Vanir
Hurro-Hittite Kumarbi karuilies siunes
Indian Devas Asuras
Irish Tuathe Dé Danann Fomorians
Mesopotamian gods ilani kamûti

For more on this, see West 2007: 162-164.

We certainly don’t have enough evidence to draw genetic links between any of these cases. If the idea of two orders of gods is one that the Greeks inherited, it’s best to assume it came via the Hittites. The Hittite former gods, or karuilies siunes, are incarcerated in the underworld, and there are usually twelve of them, just like the Titans.

But that isn’t to say we know how the myth developed. The Greek and Hittite pantheons have the closest link of any pair in this table, but no one’s going to suggest that Hesiod had a copy of the Kumarbi cycle in front of him. The date and means by which Anatolian and Near Eastern mythical patterns made their way to Greece are obscure.
There’s a similar sentiment in Clay and Gilan 2014: 5-6. Van Dongen 2010 suggests a relatively late date for mythical narratives spreading from Anatolia to the Greek world, with contact between Greeks and Phrygians and Lydians around the 8th century: personally I’d be very happy with a much earlier date, even in the Bronze Age. We have Greek gods in the Bronze Age, but alas, no direct evidence of Titans. See also Bachvarova 2016 for a more luxurious discussion.
I find the parallels compelling enough to accept that a two-generation structure is generally going to be something baked into the pantheon, not a result of two cultures having a war.

But not compelling enough to conclude there are genetic links. M. L. West, too, thinks the parallels are ‘suggestive’, but not so close ‘as to make the hypothesis [of a common heritage] ... irresistible.’ OK, for the Olympians vs. Titans, we’ve got Kumarbi and the Hittite ‘former gods’ to point to as a possible influence. But we don’t have anything like that for Indian, Irish, or Norse myth. There, the ‘two orders of gods’ structure seems more likely to have been created from scratch, rather than inherited from older traditions.
Another view of the Disney Titans -- this time, from the game Kingdom Hearts III (2019). Here Hercules isn’t teaming up with the Olympians, but with (left to right) Goofy, Sora, and Donald Duck. I wonder what Hesiod would think.
That doesn’t mean we have to revert to the ‘Mycenaeans absorb the Minoan pantheon’ model, or the ‘Æsir absorb the Vanir’ model -- let’s call it the ‘two cultures’ model. That model isn’t impossible. But it is euhemerism, and euhemerism has never been a useful guide to any myth’s development over time.

Another good reason to be skeptical of the ‘two cultures’ model is that when people are interested in the elder gods, and don’t know much about the historical background, they regularly go for the exact same interpretation. It’s a repeating pattern -- just like the ‘two orders of gods’ is a repeating pattern. Myths are really good at falling into similar patterns, whether or not they have a genetic relationship to each other.


  • Bachvarova, M. 2016. From Hittite to Homer. The Anatolian background of ancient Greek epic. Cambridge University Press
  • Burkert, W. 1985. Greek religion. (Translated by John Raffan.) Blackwell.
  • ---- 2011 [1977]. Griechische Religion der archaischen und klassischen Epoche, 2nd edition. Verlag W. Kohlhammer.
  • Clay, J. S.; Gilan, A. 2014. ‘The Hittite “Song of emergence” and the Theogony.’ Philologus 2014: 1-9.
  • van Dongen, E. W. M. 2010. Studying external stimuli to the development of the ancient Aegean. The ‘Kingship in Heaven’ theme from Kumarbi to Kronos via Anatolia. PhD dissertation, UCL.
  • West, M. L. 2007. Indo-European poetry and myth. Oxford University Press.


  1. Thanks, this was very interesting. In case you are remotely interested, the Chinese-mythology-based Mortal Kombat videogame franchise has just taken a step in this direction. Its story-world has always featured 'Elder Gods', such as Raiden the lightning god or Shinnok the ruler of the dead. But in Mortal Kombat 11 (2019), a new arch-villain was introduced - she is near-omnipotent, with control over 'the sands of time', and another new character is her 'sand-man' servant.
    She is described as a Titan, and three of the Elder Gods are her children. Her name is Kronika, and the servant is named Geras.

    1. My spider-sense is tingling. I smell influence from Greco-Roman myth and classical music combined. 'Kronika' sounds suspiciously like 'Kronos', and 'Geras' isn't too far from a Greek word for 'old age', geron -- and in Holst's The Planets, Saturn (Kronos' Roman counterpart) is called 'the bringer of old age'.

      Or it could all just be coincidence.

  2. Pantheons with two orders of gods aren't limited to Indo-European and Mesopotamian cultures. At least one such pantheon flourishes today. Modern Chinese are well aware that some of their traditional gods are Taoist and others are Buddhist, and they're also aware that Buddhism, and by extension the Buddhist gods, are foreign to them in a way that Taoism and the Taoist gods are not.

    Being foreign didn't and doesn't stigmatize Buddhism, which has been much more popular than Taoism for at least a thousand years (and remains so). The beliefs and practices are not mutually exclusive and mythological works feel free to mix the two orders of gods with each other.

    (And the foreignness of Buddhist gods can be overestimated - many of them with known Indic equivalents have had quite a lot of local development, and I would be unsurprised to learn that many others are purely Chinese, just having developed within the Buddhist tradition rather than the Taoist one.)

    This has to be counted as weak support, though, for the idea that a pantheon with two distinct orders of gods represents a synthesis of two originally separate cultures. We know that that is what happened in the Chinese case.

    (The idea that there was necessarily a conflict resolved by the synthesis isn't supported - the Buddhist gods and the Taoist gods spring from two (very) different ethnic groups, but there was no significant conflict involved in the transmission of Buddhism to China.)