- By Kara Newcastle
Myth Monday: Rhea, Mother of the Olympians (Greek Mythology)
Myth Monday: Rhea, Mother of the Olympians (Greek Mythology)
Eons ago there was nothing. Just a black void, called Chaos. There was no reality. There was no existence.
Then, without warning, there was a burst of light within the darkness, and forces were created, entities came into being. One of these entities was the great Gaea (Gaia), the Mother Earth. Gaea in turn birthed her son and consort, the sky god Ouranos (Uranus.) Ouranos fathered many children upon Gaea, including the Titans, a race of huge people who could control elements of nature. Their youngest Titan daughter was called Rhea.
In time, Ouranos became disgusted with his other offspring—the Hecatoncheires (the Hundred Handed Ones), and the Cyclopses (giants with only one eye in the center of their foreheads)—and tried to seal them all back into Gaea’s womb. This caused Gaea so much pain that she summoned her youngest Titan son, Kronos (Cronos), tasked him with killing his cruel father, and gave him a scythe made of adamantine to complete the deed. Kronos did as he was asked, but before he finished slaying Ouranos, he used the scythe to cut off Ouranos’s genitals and tossed them into the ocean. With his last gasping breath, Ouranos cursed his treacherous son: “As you do to me, so will be done to you.”
Now that the Titans and their kin were freed, they installed Kronos as their king in gratitude. Kronos chose Rhea to be his wife and queen, and together they ruled from the top of Mount Olympus. All seemed right in the universe … but Kronos could not forget the curse his father put upon him. What if it came true? What if Kronos’s son overthrew and mutilated him as well? The thought terrified Kronos so much that he was determined to do anything it took to prevent the curse from coming to pass.
And then Rhea became pregnant with her first child. She gave birth to her daughter, the future goddess of the hearth and home Hestia, and proudly presented the baby to Kronos—only to watch in horror as Kronos opened his mouth wide and swallowed the infant whole!
This was Kronos’s solution to evading the curse—he would consume each of his children, keeping them locked away inside his body where they could be guarded for eternity. You may think that all he had to do was stop having sex with his wife, but he refused; it was his right as a man to have sex. He wasn’t about to give it up.
Soon, Rhea became pregnant again, this time with her son Hades, the god of the underworld. Ouranos demanded to see the child, and though Rhea fought and begged, the Titan king still took the baby away and ate him. He did the same with his daughter Demeter, the goddess of the harvests, and with his son Poseidon, the god of the seas. By the time his youngest daughter Hera, the goddess of marriage and family was born, Ouranos would position himself at the foot of Rhea’s bed, ready to consume the baby as soon as it was born.
In time, Rhea discovered that she was pregnant yet again. Determined to save this child, Rhea went to her mother Gaea and implored her for help. Gaea, already angry with Kronos’s tyrannical ways and his mistreatment of her other non-Titan children, told Rhea to hide on the island of Crete. There, on the slopes of Mount Dictys, Rhea began to gave birth to her final child. In agony and struggling not to scream and betray her location to Kronos, Rhea dug her fingernails into the soil. From the furrows her huge fingers dug came the Kabeiroi, the dragon-humanoid gods of metallurgy (they are also known as the Dactyls, either because they all had six fingers on either hand or because they were created from Rhea’s fingers.) The Kabeiroi rushed to Rhea’s aid, and helped her deliver her son.
Following Gaea’s advice, Rhea hid her newborn son in a cave with three nymphs, one of whom was Amalthea, who would turn into a nanny goat to suckle the child and it is said that either Rhea or her son placed Althea in the stars as the constellation Capricorn in gratitude, and her son wore Amalthea’s goat-skin as his armor or aegis. Rhea also assembled a garrison of humans called the Curentes who would sing loudly and bang their swords and spears against their shields to drown out the young god’s crying. Once she was certain that her baby was safe, Rhea returned to Mount Olympus …
But first, she took a large rock and wrapped it in swaddling clothes and blankets.
Striding into the palace, Rhea was immediately set upon by an outraged Kronos, who was furious that she had vanished on him. Seeing the swaddled figure in the Titaness’s arms, Kronos realized that Rhea must have given birth out of his sight and was now returning with their child. Ripping the bundle out of Rhea’s resisting arms, Kronos lifted the “baby” to his mouth and swallowed it whole. Rhea launched into a fit of devastated sobbing, but when Kronos turned his back she smiled, knowing that she had successfully saved one of her children.
Many years later, a handsome young man and his wife, the Titaness Metis (Thought) appeared on Mount Olympus, petitioning for a position in Kronos’s court. Kronos did not recognize the young man, but Rhea instantly knew who he was; it was her youngest son, Zeus, the only child she was able to save. Secretly taking Zeus aside, Rhea explained that he had to overthrow Kronos and his allies, but he would not be able to defeat him without help—specifically, his sisters and brothers, still trapped in Kronos’s belly. Metis, Zeus’s wife, mixed a poison that Zeus then slipped into Kronos’s wine when the Titan king wasn’t looking. Kronos began instantly, violently ill and first vomited up the stone Rhea had tricked him into eating (which flew from Mount Olympus and landed in the city of Delphi, where it was kept enshrined), and then Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Hades and Hestia, all fully grown. They, along with Zeus, were the first Olympians.
The war between the Olympians and the Titans, called the Titanomachy, lasted ten years, and as Zeus cut Kronos down with the adamantine scythe, just as Kronos had cut down Ouranos, Kronos laid the same curse upon Zeus: “As you do to me, so will be done to you.” Zeus became king, married his sister Hera, and found his own solution to avoid the curse: he never got Hera pregnant. Instead, he chose to have extramarital sex with various Titanesses, goddesses, nymphs and human women, thus fathering a huge generation of demigod heroes and second generation Olympians (such as Apollo and Artemis.) And while Rhea was not happy with her son’s philandering—and his frequent abuse of his powers as king of the gods—she was proud to be the mother and grandmother of the Olympian gods and their golden age.