New generations overthrowing the old was a repeated theme in ancient Greek mythology. The first ruling couple of ancient Greek myth was Gaia (Earth) and Ouranos (Heaven). To this pair was born the Titans, the Cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires (Hundred-Handed Ones). The last two of these groups were so powerful that Ouranos had them imprisoned in the earth out of fear, doing so without Gaia’s permission or consent. As payback for the imprisonment of her sons and other abuses, Gaia plotted with the Titans and helped them successfully removed Ouranos from power by giving the arch-Titan, Kronos, a sickle that he used to emasculate his father. Once in power, however, Kronos did not release the Cyclopes or the Hecatoncheires. Also—like father like son—when Kronos began having children with his fellow Titan, Rhea, he feared his offspring’s power so much that he, too, wanted them imprisoned. Instead of locking them inside the earth, Kronos swallowed the newborn godlings, who happened to be many of the main members of the future Olympian pantheon.
Rhea, like Gaia before her, did not appreciate what was happening to her children, and it was when she was about to give birth to baby Zeus that she finally had enough. She swaddled a rock in baby clothing and handed the stone over to Kronos, who promptly ate it without any investigation. Meanwhile, Rhea slipped off to sympathetic Gaia, and they arranged for little Zeus to be raised secretly in Crete. Once Zeus came of age, he began building a coalition to take down his father. At this point, however, Zeus was apparently only godly in terms of strength, with little-to-no divine smiting ability, so the fledgling god’s first steps were taken in the form of espionage and sabotage. He successfully arranged for a substance to be fed to Kronos which resulted in the Titan regurgitating all of the children of Rhea that he had eaten. For his next step, Zeus tracked down his long-imprisoned uncles, the Cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires. These beings Zeus freed from their prisons in exchange for promises of help in the upcoming confrontation between the Olympian gods and the Titans.
The hundred-handed Hecatoncheires may have been unsurpassed warriors, but it was the Cyclopes that gave Zeus his particularly iconic advantage. According to the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, the thankful Cyclopes were the ones who “gave Zeus his thunder and forged his thunderbolt” (Theogony, lines 139-145). With his Olympian siblings freed, the recruitment of the monstrous Hecatoncheires, and the acquisition of his famous Cyclopes-forged lightning weaponry, Zeus was able to topple Kronos and supplant the Titans in a ten-year mythological conflict known as the Titanomachy.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Athena/Minerva, Zeus/Jupiter and other gods, painted by René-Antoine Houasse (1645–1710), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod, translated by M. L. West. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, 1999, 2008.