‘Sing, Muses, sing to me a story of Olympus and the deathless gods who govern earth, sea and sky.’
That is Zeus’s command. The Father of Gods and Men has summoned the Muses, that company of sisters, to the bronze floored halls of Olympus. For his mind is filled with worry. Nervous peals of thunder boom amid the peaks and roll across the plains, and lightning flashes spread anxiety among man and beast alike.
The Muses know which song to sing, which threads to weave. It is the same story Zeus has asked for every stormy evening since his bride, wise Metis, grew round with their first child. It is a story of incarceration, usurpation, dominion and prophecy, a cycle that repeats like the pattern on a loom. It is the story of Zeus himself.
The Muses’s start their story with the world is at its youngest – all saplings, striplings and un-weathered stone. It is not Zeus but his grandfather, star-clad Uranos, who holds the sky and that young world in his power. Uranos desires children but he is an immortal. So it is not heirs he seeks, merely perfect reflections of his godhood, paeans to his terrible greatness.
He holds an image of these children in his mind. He turns it this way and that. He weaves his thoughts and winds his reckonings, and then he takes his wife, Gaia of the good earth, to bed.
After a turn of the world, the cries of Gaia are replaced by the wails of babes. Star-clad Uranos takes them into his astral embrace and looks down, ready to shine with the pride of a new father, and…
The first children are horrific to him.
To see them is to see his perfect image through a kaleidoscope. Each child stretches forth five hundred fingers. Each bears one hundred arms, governed by fifty heads. Uranos brands them ‘hundred-handers’, Hecatoncheires, and in disgust – or perhaps embarrassment – he banishes them to the depths.
Once again, he takes his wife to bed and once again, after a turn of the world, the cries of Gaia are replaced by the wails of babes. Uranos takes them into his astral embrace and looks down, ready to shine, and…
A single eye stares back from each child.
Cyclopes, he brands them, and in disgust – or perhaps embarrassment – he banishes them to the depths.
Another turn of the world, another wails of babes. Wearily, Uranos takes them into his embrace, looks down and…
Six perfect boys and six perfect girls.
He rejoices. Finally the image of his perfection, children worthy of an all-powerful god. And he quickly forgets his earlier offspring imprisoned deep in the abyss of Tartarus.
But their mother, Gaia of the good earth, does not. She seeks revenge and it is Cronus, youngest born, who alone comes to her aid. He knaps a sickle from flint, the first shattered rock of that young world. He hones it till it is as curved and keen as a waxing moon. And under the starlight reflected in its perfect edge, as Gaia lures Uranos to her bed, Cronus removes his father’s crown.
Sing now, Muses, of the reign of Cronus, youngest born. With the deed done, he takes the skies as his dominion. He takes a wife, his sister, noble Rhea. And he takes to the idea of his own children. But star-clad Uranos, even castrated and cast down, is not without guile. He brands Cronus and all his siblings as ‘those who would strive’. In short, ‘Titans’.
The word preys upon Cronus. He holds it in his mind. He turns it this way and that. He weaves his thoughts and winds his reckonings. And he realises it is not merely a title but a prophecy. A curse even. With the overthrow of his father, he has set a precedent. His usurpation has shattered a timelessness. Uranos’s dominion, an endless age has ended. The age of Cronus has begun. Which means it could end too.
And with the ages threatening to flow like the blood of his father, Cronus determines a way to stanch their progress. As noble Rhea births each of his children, Cronus swallows them whole. He imprisons them in his carceral gut. He has children to glorify his all-power, but they are inert. They pose no threat. The age of Cronus will remain timeless.
Or so he thinks.
For noble Rhea, after losing five children to Cronus’s hunger, schemes to save the sixth. A simple trick – instead of the babe, she wraps a great stone in swaddling clothes. She knows it will work. Cronus can barely stomach the price of his dominion; he never looks at the children as he devours them.
And so it is that Zeus escapes, hidden by his mother.
Before long, he grows into his godhood, ready to challenge Cronus. With knowledge of plant and root, Zeus brews a draft for Rhea to slip into his father’s wine-cup. It acts as a key to a lock. Cronus vomits up first the stone, then each of his children in turn until all of Zeus’s siblings are free.
The war they wage is fierce, but though Cronus, youngest born of Uranos, puts up a fierce battle, he does so with grim resignation. His usurpation is fated. It always was.
With Cronus banished to the depths and Zeus crowned, the Muses now bring their story of his lineage to a close. They cease to sing, to dance, to play the lyre and the flute. But it is same as every other stormy night since wise Metis grew round with his unborn child – worry continues to knit the brow of Zeus, Father of Gods and Men.
You see he knows the story does not end there. For, just as Uranos branded Cronus a striver – a Titan – so Cronus has branded Zeus one. It is a prophecy, and with it, the wheel of his lineage threatens to turn once more: incarceration, usurpation, dominion, and prophecy. The age of Zeus will come to tarnish and end too.
But Zeus is wiser than his forefathers. And he has not asked the Muses to recite this tale for naught. He holds their story in his mind. He turns it this way and that. He weaves his thoughts and winds his reckonings. And he recognises that his lineage is not a play of two-hands – fathers and sons – but of three – fathers, sons and their mothers. After all, it was Gaia of the good earth who engineered Uranos’s downfall. It was noble Rhea who spirited Zeus away.
And a solution presents itself to the Father of Gods and Men. Cronus’s solution but improved. Expanded. A prison not merely for a child, but a mother too.
As he crosses the bronze floored halls of Olympus and heads for the bedchamber of wise Metis, a final peal of thunder shakes the world.
You might almost have confused it for the rumbling of a gut.
Commissioned by HistoryHit for The Ancients podcast
Written by Andrew Hulse