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Iapetus: Mythology, Symbol & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Iapetus was a powerful figure in Greek mythology and certain aspects of their creation stories. In this lesson, we'll explore this figure and see what role he played.

Iapetus

If you asked the ancient Greeks who their divine ancestors were, you might expect them to look to the gods. However, that's probably not the answer you'd receive. Ancient Greeks may have seen the Titans, ancient and powerful deities, as more directly responsible for the creation of humanity.

While there are many stories here, a lot of them start with Iapetus. Iapetus was a Titan of Greek mythology, who played a major role in shaping the cosmos through his own actions, and in shaping the fate of humanity through the actions of his sons. In fact, Iapetus is so connected to humanity that his role in Greek religion was as the deity of mortality. Yes, the span of human life had a deified personification as a living unit of time. The implication in Greek mythology is intriguing; humanity's story can only begin with the creation of mortality.

Iapetus and the Titans

Let's start by getting to know Iapetus' story. Iapetus was one of the elder sons of the primordial deities Gaea (the Earth) and Uranus (the sky). Apparently, Uranus was a tyrant to his children, so Iapetus and four brothers (Kronos, Crios, Coeus, and Hyperion) ambushed him one night. Four of them held Uranus in place while Kronos castrated him.

At this point, Kronos became the new leader of all the Titans, ruling over the mythical Golden Age of Greek history. Most of the other brothers are only vaguely referenced at this point, but not Iapetus. He is actually constantly mentioned and almost appears as a co-ruler with Kronos. Clearly, he was important, but there's something else in their connection. Kronos was the Titan deity of time itself. Iapetus' name (which literally means ''the piercer'') suggesting a fragment of time, or a breaking of eternal time, again bringing us back to that concept of mortality.

Iapetus was closely associated with his brother Kronos, personification of time
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Iapetus and the Gods

Kronos went on to have 12 children who became the gods of Greek mythology led by Zeus. This makes Iapetus the uncle of the original Greek gods. Eventually, the gods overthrew Kronos just as the Titans had overthrown Uranus, ending the Golden Age. In a fierce battle of Titans versus gods, known as the Titanomachy, Iapetus and his brothers were defeated and cast into the pit of Tartaros.

In Tartaros, Iapetus may have taken on a new role. Remember how he and three brothers restrained Uranus? In so doing, they became the four pillars that held the sky in place. It's generally assumed that Iapetus was the west pillar. Why the west? Because the sun sets in the west, a common metaphor for mortality in many cultures. However, while in Tartaros, the four Titans who held up the sky became responsible for bearing the weight of the entire cosmos instead.

Iapetus and the other Titans were locked in Tartaros by the gods
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The Sons of Iapetus

While Iapetus shows up in more stories than many Titans, his role in Greek mythology is still limited. Like many of the elder Titans, his primary influence is actually through his sons. Iapetus is generally said to have married a daughter of Oceanus and Tethys, perhaps Clymene or Asia. They had four sons, each of who played a certain role in mythology.

Iapetus' son Atlas led the Titans in the Titanomachy. For this, he was punished by being forced to hold the entire sky upon his shoulders (taking over the role of the four pillars who were cast into Tartaros). So, images of Atlas holding the world are actually inaccurate- it was the sky he supported.

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