Son of Gaia and Uranus, Iapetus was one of the first Titans in Greek mythology. With his lover Clymene, he fathered several significant mythological figures, including Atlas, Prometheus, Epimetheus and Menoetius. After contributing to the overthrow of his father Uranus, Iapetus fought against the Olympians in the Titanomachy. When the Titans were ultimately defeated, he was among those doomed to Tartarus for all eternity.
The name “Iapetus” stemmed from the ancient Greek word meaning “to wound, or to pierce,” and has often been translated as “the Piercer.” What mythological piercing his name refers to is unclear.
Though his precise attributes remain a mystery, Iapetus has generally been associated with cleverness due to his crafty son Prometheus, and oceans due to his son Atlas, the namesake of the Atlantic Ocean.
Iapetus was one of the twelve Titan children to emerge from the primordial union of Gaia, who personified the earth, and Uranus, who embodied the heavens. His brothers and sisters included not only the other Titans—Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Thea, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Oceanus, Tethys, and Cronus—but the Cyclopes and Hecatoncheires as well.
Iapetus took Clymene, the daughter of Oceanus and Tethys, as his consort, and together they had four children: Prometheus, who crafted the first humans and gave them fire; Atlas, who held the celestial sphere on his back; Epimetheus, an ambassador to mankind; and Menoetius, who was slain by Zeus.
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Iapetus was the son of Gaia and Uranus. He took Clymene as his lover, and they had many children:
Now Iapetus took to wife the neat-ankled mad Clymene, daughter of Ocean, and went up with her into one bed. And she bare him a stout-hearted son, Atlas: also she bare very glorious Menoetius and clever Prometheus, full of various wiles, and scatter-brained Epimetheus who from the first was a mischief to men who eat bread.1
In Hesiod’s works (as in Homer’s epic poems of the same era) Prometheus was sometimes referred to as the “son of Iapetus.” In the Works and Days, for example, Zeus used the term to address Prometheus following his theft of fire: “Son of Iapetus, surpassing all in cunning, you are glad that you have outwitted me and stolen fire—a great plague to you yourself and to men that shall be.”2
Not much is known about Iapetus, and as such it is difficult to determine the nature of this title. While its usage may suggest certain similarities between Prometheus and his father, it might also be little more than poetic flourish.
Iapetus appeared as a villain—and later a hero—in Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus book series. The transformation occurred after the villainous Iapetus was cast into the River Lethe, which absorbed memories. With his evil forgotten, Iapetus emerged as a heroic figure named Bob who assisted the Olympians in defeating the giants.
Iapetus also lent his name to Saturn’s third largest moon. Discovered in 1671 by Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini, the moon was named in the mid-nineteenth century at the suggestion of John Herschel.
Hesiod. Theogony. Translated by Hugh Evelyn-White. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Accessed on February 15, 2020. https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm.
Hesiod. Works and Days. Translated by Hugh Evelyn-White. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Accessed on February 15, 2020. https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/works.htm.
Wikipedia contributors. “Hyperion.” Wikipedia. Accessed on February 16, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iapetus.
Hesiod, Theogony, translated by Hugh Evelyn-White, 507-515. ↩
Hesiod, Works and Days, translated by Hugh Evelyn-White, 54-59. ↩