In ancient Greek myth, Cronus (Kpövoç = Kronos) is the youngest brother of the titans and son of Uranus, the god of the sky, and Gaia, the goddess of the earth. In connection with Chronos, the personification of time, he plays an important role in time perception in ancient Greek myth. Later he was associated by the Romans with Saturn, god of the planets and of agriculture.
Cronus’ father Uranus so hated his children that he banished them to Tartarus, below the earth. Consequently his wife Gaia gave birth to her children secretly. Eventually she put her son up to fight against his father. Cronus took a sickle, castrated Uranus, and threw the genitals into the sea. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, grew out of the sea’s arising foam and was therefore called Aphrodite (the foam-born). Furies, giants, and nymphs emerged from Uranus’s blood that dripped on the ground. Cronus liberated his brothers and sisters, and they proclaimed him their ruler. A prophecy told him that a fate similar to his father’s would strike him. To prevent this prediction from coming true, he swallowed all children to which his wife Rhea gave birth, but she planned to deceive him to protect her son Zeus. She delivered Zeus in the secret place Lyktos and instead of the child, Rhea gave her husband a stone to eat, which was wrapped up in clothes. Zeus, successfully hidden by his mother, grew up, and when he was a young man, cunningly castrated his father, bound him, and forced him to spit out the swallowed children.
The further destiny of Cronus is unclear. According to Homer’s opinion, Cronus once again sits in Tartarus; Hesiod, on the other hand, describes him as a friendly king of the dead heroes on the isle of the blessed at the edge of the universe. Under the supremacy of Cronus, the people were believed to have lived in happiness, without worries and fears. They did not have to work, ate wild fruits and honey, and did not age. As a result, this period is described as the Golden Age.
Cronus is usually represented as an old, weakly, grumpy, melancholic man with a sickle, which became a scythe in the Middle Ages, the attribute of death. However, this imagination of the god gained meaning only with the modern age. In connection with time, the sickle often gained other meanings, too. It could be an allusion to the castration of Uranus. It is also a symbol of time because the sickle is able to cut out and into something. But it could also refer to Cronus as the god of harvest. Although he was not worshipped like the other gods, once a year a kind of harvest celebration took place in his honor; it was called Kronien. Plutarch describes the celebration as cheerful and merry, and one in which social differences were abolished and servants also could feast.
Nevertheless, in ancient Greek representations, Cronus had no special characteristics. In the second part of the 5th century BCE he was described as a man of mature age with hair, a beard, and a coat that covered the back of the head. The Orphics saw Cronus as a dragon with the heads of bulls and lions on its hips.
Since antiquity, the titan and ruler Cronus was identified with the personification of time, chro- nos. According to some theories the similar spelling and pronunciation in Greek is the reason for the misidentification, because only the initial letters of the two words differ. For example in Cicero’s writings you can find the equation of Cronus (Kpovoç) and Chronos (xpo’voq). Associating Cronus and the word time continues to have consequences. Plutarch refers to this extension of meaning with reference to Cronus as the father of truth.
Chronos (xpo’voq = Kronos) is the personification of time. In the Orphic theogony, Chronos/Cronus plays an important role. In some interpretations it is seen as a continuation of Hesiod’s theogony, sometimes it is regarded as a parallel idea that reminds of the sovereignty of gods and grants him some special honors. In the old Orphic tradition, Chronos is missing, but he appears in Hellenistic time. There he emerges as the third original paradigm from water and mud and appears as a never-aging snake or dragon with heads of different animals. Only the rhapsodic theogony regards Chronos as a personification of time, which was not divine, as the beginning of the world. In this view he is a snake that has heads and wings on its shoulders. Chronos produced both the calm Aither and Chaos, which was seen as a high, dark room without any solid ground. He created a silver egg, from which hatched Phanes, who had four eyes, four horns, golden wings, bellowed like a bull and a lion, and was a hermaphrodite. As original god of the universe, Chronos was a symbol of development and change. In addition, Chronos was called father of truth, an allusion that might play with the idea that time brings everything to light.
In Roman religion, Cronus is equated with the god of planets, Saturn, who is also the god of agriculture.
Chronos as well as Cronus did not have a fixed place in the Greek mystery cults, so there are hardly any known rites, ritual acts, or mythological stories, and the meager information we do have is often contradictory or incoherent.
Nevertheless, this figure associated with time was absorbed by various forms of art. Paintings with illustrations of Chronos, Cronus, and Saturn were created by, for example, Vasari, Veronese, Blanchard, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Goya. They mostly focus on themes such as the castration and the swallowing of the children. In literature, the Cronus motif was used by Johann Wolfgang Friedrich Goethe in the poems An Schwager Kronos or Kronos als Kunstrichter; by Friedrich Hölderlin in the poem Saturn und Jupiter; and by Günter Grass in the poem Saturn. In fairytales like Little Red Riding Hood and The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats, the motif of swallowing and bringing somebody back is reflected, too. In music, works like Gioachino Rossini’s I Titani and a libretto by Pietro Metastasios can be mentioned.
See also Change; Duration; Mythology; Rome, Ancient
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