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  3. Rhea

Rhea

The mother of Zeus, Rhea was a Greek Titan who helped to topple the regime of Cronus.

Daughter of Gaia and Uranus, Rhea was a Greek Titan and the mother of the Olympians. Along with the other Titans, Rhea was imprisoned in Tartarus by her tyrannical father; she was eventually liberated by her brother Cronus, whom she later took as a lover. She gave birth to the Olympian deities and, through her cunning, helped them overthrow Cronus and establish a new cosmic order.

Hailed as Meter Theon, or “Mother of the Gods,” Rhea was revered across the Hellenic world. She was especially popular on the island of Crete, where the infant Zeus was said to have come of age. Rhea held a position of special importance in the Orphic tradition; followers believed that she conceived the goddess Persephone with her son Zeus. In art and literature, Rhea was often conflated with Cybele, an Anatolian mother goddess whose cult was imported to the Greek world in the fourth century BCE.

Etymology

A standard etymology of the name “Rhea,” the one endorsed by Plato in the dialogue known as Cratylus, saw it as a feminine form of the ancient Greek noun, rheo, meaning “flow,” “discharge,” or “stream.” The word may have also been related to the noun era, meaning “earth” or “ground,” as well as the word rhoa, meaning “pomegranate seed,” likely a reference to the myth of Persephone in the underworld.1

It is possible—though by no means certain—that Rhea’s name was later adopted by the Romans for Rhea Silvia, the mythological mother of Remus and Romulus.

Attributes

Rhea was a mother goddess beloved for her nurturing compassion. Like her counterpart Cybele, Rhea was often associated with lions, and was sometimes depicted on a chariot pulled by lions, or even riding the lions herself. Apollonius of Rhodes’s Argonautica described Rhea as being worshipped with tambourines and drums, and it has been suggested that rhythmic chanting and percussion were important aspects of her cult.

Family

Rhea was the daughter of Gaia, the primordial goddess of the Earth, and Uranus, the primordial god of the skies. Their union brought forth not only Rhea, but the other Titans as well: Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Thea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Tethys and Cronus. Rhea’s other siblings included the Cyclopes (Brontes, Arges, and Steropes) and the Hecatoncheires (Kottos, Briareos and Gyges).

Rhea married Cronus, and together they had six children: Demeter, Hades, Hera, Hestia, Poseidon and Zeus. By way of their extensive sexual liaisons, Rhea was grandmother to a significant portion of the Greek pantheon, including Ares, Hephaestus, Athena, Artemis, Apollo, Hermes, and Dionysus.

Mythology

According to Hesiod’s Theogony, the eighth century BCE epic explaining the origins of the gods and the Greek cosmic order, Rhea was the daughter of Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (Heaven). In time, Rhea and her siblings became known as the Titans, meaning “Strainers,” for rebelling against their father’s authority. Such straining was not unwarranted, however. Uranus was a mean and jealous god who imprisoned his children in the dim bowels of Tartarus so they might not usurp his dominion.

In ancient times when the world was new, Rhea joined her brother Cronus, the strongest of the Titans, in battling against their father. In the wake of the Titans’ victory, Cronus took Rhea as his consort.

Rhea and Cronus had many children together, but the fears that had haunted his father also troubled Cronus. He became suspicious of his children, and decided to swallow each of them as they emerged from the womb:

These [his children] great Cronus swallowed as each came forth from the womb to his mother’s knees with this intent, that no other of the proud sons of Heaven should hold the kingly office amongst the deathless gods. For he learned from Earth and starry Heaven that he was destined to be overcome by his own son, strong though he was, through the contriving of great Zeus. Therefore he kept no blind outlook, but watched and swallowed down his children: and unceasing grief seized Rhea.2

Insatiable Cronus swallowed his first five children as helpless Rhea watched in horror. Upon conceiving her sixth child—Zeus—Rhea hatched a scheme to spare the babe from Cronus’s jaws and save the others as well. When the agonies of childbirth seized her, Rhea sped towards Crete in the company of her mother Gaia. Shortly after Zeus was born, Gaia whisked him to safety and raised him with all the care Mother Earth could provide. To complete her deception, Rhea offered Cronus a rock wrapped in the swaddling clothes of a newborn:

But to [Cronus] the mightily ruling son of Heaven, the earlier king of the gods, she gave a great stone wrapped in swaddling clothes. Then he took it in his hands and thrust it down into his belly: wretch! he knew not in his heart that in place of the stone his son was left behind, unconquered and untroubled, and that he was soon to overcome him by force and might and drive him from his honours, himself to reign over the deathless gods.3

In time, Zeus matured to manhood and fulfilled his destiny, overthrowing Cronus and establishing a new world order on Mount Olympus.

Pop Culture

While references to Rhea are rare in popular culture, her name has been used in a few contexts. Among other things, it was used to identify the fifth moon orbiting the planet Saturn (itself named after her father’s Roman analogue). The moon is the second largest orbiting Saturn and the ninth largest in the solar system as a whole. First discovered by Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini in 1672, the moon was initially called “Saturn V” and dedicated to King Louis XIV, Cassini’s French patron. The English astronomer John Herschel renamed it Rhea in 1847, ostensibly in order to maintain consistency with other planets bearing the names of Greek and Roman deities.

Rhea was also used to name a species of ratite (any of the large, long-legged and flightless birds) native to South America and distantly related to both the emu and ostrich. Why the Titan’s name was bestowed upon this bird remains a mystery.

References

Bibliography

  1. Hesiod. Theogony. Translated by Hugh Evelyn-White. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Accessed on January 20, 2020. https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm.

  2. Plato. Cratylus. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed on January 22, 2020. http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/cratylus.html.

  3. “Rhea.” Wikipedia. Accessed on January 22, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhea_(mythology).

Footnotes

  1. See Plato, Cratylus, translated by Benjamin Jowett, http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/cratylus.html. The Wikipedia entry for “Rhea,” has a survey with notes. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhea_(mythology)

  2. Hesiod, Theogony, translated by Hugh Evelyn-White, 453-91. https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm 

  3. Ibid., 453–91. 

Citation

About the Author

Thomas Apel is a historian of science and religion who received his Ph.D. in History from Georgetown University.