Before the familiar Olympic gods of the Greek Pantheon rose to power, a generation of deities ruled during the Golden Age of man. While most are familiar with the later parts of Greek mythology, the earlier Titans played a valuable role in the mythos. Their stories shaped Ancient Greece, offering explanations for many foundations of the physical world.
One lesser-known Titan who contributed heavily to the mythology is Iapetus. Also known as Iepetos or Japetus, this Titan god represented mortality and craftsmanship. For many scholars and Greek mythology experts, he’s considered the father of the human race. While most stories of Iapetus are lost to the sands of time, his lineage would have a significant impact on Greek mythology.
The Origins of Iapetus
Iapetus was just one of the Titan gods hidden in Tartarus by Uranus. Fearing a succession of power, he cast 12 Titans, the three Cyclops, and the three Hecatoncheires into the depths of Tartarus. In doing so, he thought that he was protecting his place on the throne. In reality, he was setting the stage for the famed succession myth.
In some versions of the tale, he hid his children deep within Gaia. Because the primordial gods didn’t take on human-like forms, some scholars believe that Cronus housed them in Gaia’s womb.
The Titans trapped in Tartarus were Iapetus, Oceanus, Tethys, Hyperion, Theia, Crius, Coeus, Rhea, Phoebe, Mnemosyne, Themis, and Cronus. Frustrated with her consort, Gaia hatched a plan that Iapetus would participate.
The Castration of Uranus
Gaia created a sickle out of adamantine and gave it to her youngest son, Cronus. The young Titan ambushed Uranus, and his brothers swiftly jumped into action. Iapetus, Crius, Coeus, and Hyperion held their father down while Cronus used the sickle to castrate him.
With their plan victorious, Cronus rose to the throne. The rest of the twelve Titans were free. Thanks to their part in helping Cronus remove Uranus from power, Iapetus and his three brothers went on to personify the pillars that separated the Earth and the Heavens.
They acted as four corners of the Earth, and Iapetus represented the West.
The Golden Age
The Titans ruled during the Golden Age of Man. According to Hesiod, this was a time of great prosperity. Before the creation of arts, the planet produced so much food that there was no need for agriculture. Humanity was free of sorrow and suffering, and there was no crime. It was a bucolic scene of rustic innocence and universal peace.
With every subsequent Age of Man, poets recounted how humanity sunk deeper and deeper into the pains of evil. But for a moment in time when the Titans ruled, everything was seemingly perfect.
Not much is known about how Iapetus spent his time. However, it’s thought that during this time of relative peace, he started his family and bore the children that would continue his legacy.
The Father of the Human Race
Iapetus married a daughter of Oceanus and Tethys. Oceanus and Tethys gave birth to over three thousand Oceanids. Most poets recall that Iapetus’ wife was Clymene. However, Pseudo-Apollodorus retellings of the mythology state that Iapetus married an Oceanid named Aisa.
The consensus is that Iapetus and Clymene married and gave birth to four sons. Those sons were named Atlas, Prometheus, Menoetius, and Epithemeus. Iapetus’ is more famous for his children than his actions during the Golden Age of Man.
The second-generation Titans he bore would become the ancestors of humans. For this reason, Iapetus’ lasting legacy is that of the father of all humankind. The sons of Iapetus all have unique stories, and many of them end up getting punished by a later generation of gods. More on that in a bit.
Atlas took replaced his father, Iapetus, as one of the pillars of the Earth in the extreme West. He appeared in stories involving Heracles and Perseus. Eventually, he was condemned to hold up the Heavens on his own for all of eternity.
Menoetius didn’t have much of an impact. His name translates to “Doomed Might,” and he’s most known for attempting to battle the Olympian Zeus during the Titanomachy. His efforts to kill Zeus failed, and he was sentenced to rot in Tartarus. For his actions, Hesiod refers to Menoetius as the god of violent anger, rash decision-making, and hubris.
Finally, there are Prometheus and Epimetheus. These sons of Iapetus brought forth life in the form of humanity. Prometheus was the god of fire, and he ended up stealing fire from Titans to give to humans. Those actions led to his chained imprisonment and torture in the Caucasus mountains.
According to most accounts, Epimetheus was the foolish brother of the pair tasked with creating life. He populated the Earth with animals and humans. As he did, he assigned a positive trait to every animal. By the time he got to humans, he believed there was nothing left. As a result, Epimetheus became the Titan god of afterthought and excuses. He was eventually gifted Pandora, who unleashed evil into the world.
While the fates of his children weren’t always positive, Iapetus’ legacy prevailed.
Because they were benefactors to humans, Iapetus’ sons are considered ancestors. In turn, the sons reportedly passed on many traits to mortals. Unfortunately, those inherited qualities are were the gods’ worst faults that ultimately led to their downfall.
Prometheus represents the scheming, trickery, and general ineptitude. Epimetheus passed on a lack of foresight, stupidity, and overall foolishness. Meanwhile, Atlas personified the dangers of being daring or risky. Finally, Menoetius symbolized rash decision-making and violence.
Some accounts say that Iapetus had other children beyond the four sons. He’s thought to be the father of Bouphagos, an Arcadian hero later shot by the Olympian Artemis. Some poets also refer to Iapetus as the father of Anchiale, a Titan god representing the warmth of a fire.
The Fall of Iapetus and the Titans
The Golden Age of Man didn’t last forever, and another generation of gods soon challenged the Titans. The succession myth is the stuff of legends, and each Titan played a valuable role in creating the Greek Pantheon.
Like Iapetus’ father, Uranus, the leader of the Titans, Cronus, did all he could to prevent being overthrown by his children. Rather than casting them into Tartarus as they were born, Cronus simply swallowed them!
The mother of the Olympians, rhea, tricked Cronus into swallowing a rock. She then hid her child, Zeus, in Crete. There, he was raised by Gaia and nymphs until he reached adulthood. When he finally came of age, Zeus forced Cronus to disgorge the Olympians. This act started the Titanomachy, a ten-year war between the Olympians and the Titans on Mount Othrys.
Iapetus fought alongside the Titans. The details of this great war are sparse, but some accounts believe that Zeus and Iapetus did fight one-on-one. Iapetus had a reputation for being one of the most destructive Titans. He was skilled at war and had excellent fighting skills. But despite his best efforts, he did not succeed during his spar with Zeus.
Some scholars believe that Zeus’ victory over Iapetus was one of the earlier turning points for the Olympians.
But of course, it was Iapetus’ own siblings that created his demise. When Cronus released the Titans from Tartarus, he did not release the three Cyclops and Hecatoncheires. Seeing an advantage, Zeus agreed to release them if they fought on the side of the Olympians. The monstrous beasts did, turning their backs on the Titans that left them to rot in Tartarus.
With the Cyclops and Hecatoncheires by their side, the Olympians won the Titanomachy. Once again, Iapetus and the rest of the Titans were banished to Tartarus.
From that point on, Iapetus is only mentioned in passing throughout Greek mythology. Most assume that Iapetus and the other Titans spent the rest of eternity in Tartarus. However, some accounts say that they received clemency from Zeus later on. Those versions of the story say that the Titans were released and lived quiet lives under the rule of Zeus and the Olympians.
The Legacy of Iapetus
Iapetus might not have many memorable stories, and his sons passed on some not-so-great traits onto humans. However, his legacy is still crucial to Greek mythology. His lineage is responsible for humans’ creation, and he participated in the much-loved succession myth.
Iapetus’ legacy doesn’t stop with mythology. He also served as inspiration for discoveries in the world of astronomy. The most noteworthy is one moon of Saturn. Iapetus is the name of the third-largest moon. Giovanni Domenica Cassini initially discovered it in 1671. However, the name was a suggestion by John Herschel in 1847. Herschel advocated for using Titan names for many of the moons of Saturn.
The Iapetus moon has been observed many times. The most noteworthy discoveries came from the Cassini missions and information gathered by Voyager 1 and 2, which study the outer solar system.
The Saturnian moon is significant because of its size, color, and usual orbit. It moves relatively far away from Saturn and has an inclined orbital plane. The moon also seems to have a two-tone coloration. The leading hemisphere is usually dark, while the trailing hemisphere has a brighter appearance. Dark material and sizable craters on the moon’s surface also created many theories. The most accepted is the presence of water ice darkened by sun exposure.
Facts & Trivia on Iapetus:
- Iapetus is the son of Uranus and Gaia.
- Iapetus is the brother of Cronus and other Titans imprisoned by Uranus in Tartarus.
- Iapetus played a part in the castration of his father, Uranus.
- Along with his brothers Crius, Coeus, and Hyperion, Iapetus represented one of the pillars that separated the Earth and the Heavens.
- The name “Iapetus” comes from the Greek word that translates to “The Piercer.”
- He was known as the Titan god of craftsmanship or the god of mortality.
- According to “The Theogony,” Iapetus married Clymene, a daughter of Oceanus and Tethys. Some versions of his story say that his wife is Aisa.
- Iapetus and Clymene had four children. He is the father of Atlas, Prometheus, Epimetheus, and Menoetius.
- Iapetus also reportedly bore other children not part of the group of Titans who helped humans. They include the Arcadian hero Bouphagos and the Titan goddess Anchiale.
- Iapetus had a reputation for being destructive and a skilled fighter.
- Iapetus and the other elder Titans were eventually defeated by Zeus and cast to the depths of Tartarus.
- Iapetus reportedly fought Zeus one-on-one, though the details of the battle are largely lost to time.
- Iapetus lends his name to the third-largest moon of the planet Saturn.
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