Cronus was the youngest son of Uranus and Gaea, the leader of the first generation of Titans, and, for a brief period, the ruler of all gods and men. He successfully led the rebellion against his father, but soon grew as tyrannical as him, imprisoning both the Cyclops and the Hecatoncheires, and swallowing all of his children, save the last son; eventually, this child – Zeus – would be the one to overthrow him and lock him away in Tartarus.
Family and Children
Cronus was the son of Uranus and Gaea, the youngest one of the original Twelve Titans. This makes him the brother of five male siblings (Oceanus, Hyperion, Coeus, Crius, and Iapetus) and six Titanides (Mnemosyne, Tethys, Theia, Phoebe, Themis, and Rhea). Cronus eventually married his sister Rhea, with whom he fathered six children: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus.
According to an isolated tale, Cronus was also the father of the centaur Chiron, whom he begot after transforming himself into a mare to mislead the jealous Rhea and secretly mating with Philyra, the daughter of Oceanus.
Because his name was often confused with the Greek word for time, Chronos, Cronus was often depicted as Old Father Time, with whom, conveniently, he did share few characteristics: mercilessness, a beard, and a scythe. In fact, in many cases, the two are visually indistinguishable.
The Stages of Creation
I The Castration of Uranus
The story of Cronus begins with the irrational hate-driven decision of his father Uranus (the Sky) to not allow his children (the Cyclopes, the Hecatoncheires, and the Titans) to leave their mother’s womb, i.e., the Earth. Grief-stricken and straitened, Gaea devised a crafty little plan, fashioned an adamantine sickle (harpe) and appealed to her offspring for help. “My children,” she said, “if you obey me, we should punish the vile outrage of your father.” Cronus was the only one not seized by fear.
So, Gaea gave Cronus the sickle and hid him strategically in her womb. The very next night, when the love-longing Uranus came to lie with Gaea, Cronus stretched forth his hand and castrated him. Afterward, he released his brothers and his sisters and, buoyant and prideful, he proclaimed himself the king of all gods and men.
II Cronus’ Rule: The Golden Age
After seizing power, Cronus married his sister Rhea and, for a while, everything seemed all but perfect. Finally freed from her burdens, Gaea was once again blissful and more than generous, producing crops for all human beings of her own accord. Untroubled by toils and hard work, the humans lived carefree and healthy lives, which ended peacefully and only when they were very old. Some say that even the gods themselves walked among the humans during the reign of Cronus. Undoubtedly, this was the Golden Age, the most beautiful of the fabled five ages of man.
However, at some point, Cronus violently and dramatically changed his ways. Fearing rebellion, he imprisoned both the Cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires in Tartarus and set the dragoness Campe to guard them. Alarmed by a prophecy saying that he would be overthrown by one of his children, he started swallowing them all, one by one. Seeing that her husband has, in essence, transformed into Uranus, after being impregnated with her sixth child, Rhea turned to Gaea for help.
III Zeus’ Rebellion: The Titanomachy
Gaea counseled her daughter to go to Crete, where eventually the Titaness gave birth to a mighty son, Zeus. Prompted by further advice, Rhea left her child there and handed Cronus a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes in place of the supposed baby. Cronus swallowed the stone, unsuspecting of any foul play, and unaware that nymphs are meanwhile raising his eventual overthrower in Crete.
When the time came, disguised as Cronus’ cupbearer, Zeus managed to slip his father a vomit-inducing drink (prepared by Metis) in place of his favorite wine. This led to Cronus disgorging all of his children, who subsequently teamed up with the Cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires and ousted him from power after a bloody, decade-long war remembered forevermore as the Titanomachy.
IV Cronus’ Ultimate Destiny
Deposed from the throne, Cronus either escaped to Latium (modern Lazio) or was imprisoned in Tartarus with the rest of the Titans. Either way, he seems to have reverted to his good old ways, since, in time, he was promoted to be the ruler of the Islands of the Blessed, a heaven-like abode, where the souls of only the greatest heroes lived after their earthly deaths.
Unlike the Ancient Greeks, the Romans didn’t consider Saturn (for that is how they called Cronus) all that bad. Believing that once he escaped to Latium (the region of Italy that includes Rome), he instituted the Golden Age once again (this time solely in Rome), they celebrated him every December during a famous six-day festival called the Saturnalia, probably Rome’s most important holiday and one which has undoubtedly influenced the way people celebrate Christmas today.