Greek Titan

Iapetus

Iapetus was one of the original Greek Titans who fought (unsuccessfully) against the Olympians in the Titanomachy. He fathered several well-known mythological figures, including Atlas, Prometheus, and Epimetheus.

Top Questions

  • Who was Iapetus?

    Iapetus was a Titan, one of the sons of Gaia and Uranus. He is probably best remembered as the father of Atlas and Prometheus.

  • What was Iapetus the god of?

    As one of the Titans cast down from the heavens, Iapetus was not widely worshipped in the ancient world and does not seem to have had any definite domain for his divinity. Some modern scholars, however, view him as a symbol of mortality.1

  • Is anything named after Iapetus?

    Iapetus is the name of one of the largest moons of Saturn, first identified in the 1600s but not definitively named until 1847 by John Herschel.

Overview

Iapetus, son of Gaia and Uranus, was one of the original twelve Titans of Greek mythology. With his wife Clymene, he fathered several significant mythological figures, including Atlas, Prometheus, Epimetheus and Menoetius. After helping to overthrow his father Uranus, Iapetus fought against the Olympians in the Titanomachy. When the Titans were ultimately defeated, he was among those doomed to suffer for all eternity in the dark pit of Tartarus.

Antonisz Gods and Titans

The Battle between the Gods and the Titans by Joachim Wtewael (ca. 1608).

Art Institute of ChicagoPublic Domain

Etymology

The name Iapetus may be derived from the Greek word iaptein, meaning “to hurl” or “to wound.” This would make Iapetus “the one hurled down,” perhaps referring to his expulsion to Tartarus by Zeus and the Olympians.

Other scholars have argued that Iapetus’ name is pre-Greek in origin and can be traced to the biblical Japheth, the third son of Noah.[2] Indeed, both figures were believed to be progenitors of humanity: Japheth was often regarded as the ancestor of the inhabitants of Europe,[3] while Iapetus was the father of Prometheus, sometimes considered the creator of the human race.

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek
    IapetusἸαπετός (translit. Iapetós)
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [ahy-AP-i-tuhs, ee-AP-]/ aɪˈæp ɪ təs, iˈæp-/

Attributes

Like most of the Titans, Iapetus was rarely individualized in ancient literature. Consequently, his precise attributes remain a mystery. However, Iapetus may have been associated with the attributes of his sons, such as the cleverness of Prometheus or the strength of Atlas, who held the heavens upon his shoulders.

Family

Iapetus was one of the twelve Titans who emerged from the primordial union of Gaia, the personification of the earth, and Uranus, the embodiment of 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 also the monstrous Cyclopes and Hecatoncheires.[4]

According to the standard account (as told by Hesiod), Iapetus took Clymene, the daughter of Oceanus and Tethys, as his wife.[5] Other sources, however, assigned him different wives, including Asia[6] or Themis.[7]

Iapetus had four children: Prometheus, who gave fire to humans (and, in some sources, was also their creator); Atlas, who held the celestial sphere on his back; Epimetheus, a dim-witted ambassador to the human race; and Menoetius, who was slain by Zeus for his hubris when he fought against the Olympians. In some traditions, Iapetus was also the father of Anchiale[8] and Buphagus.[9] The Roman mythographer Hyginus listed one additional son, Dryas, a hero who participated in the Calydonian Boar Hunt.[10]

Hyginus, most likely confusing the Titans with the Giants, broke from tradition by calling Iapetus a Giant, the son of Gaia and Tartarus.[11]

Family Tree

Mythology

According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Iapetus was the son of Gaia and Uranus. He took Clymene (an Oceanid) as his lover, and they had many children:

Now Iapetus took to wife the neat-ankled ma[i]d 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.[12]

Iapetus was loyal to his brother Cronus, the leader of the Titans; when Cronus rose up against their father Uranus, Iapetus helped hold Uranus down while Cronus severed his genitals with a scythe. Later, Iapetus fought alongside Cronus during the Titanomachy, the ten-year war between the Titans and Zeus’ Olympians. This war split Iapetus’ family down the middle: while two of his sons, Atlas and Menoetius, fought with him on the side of the Titans, the other two, Prometheus and Epimetheus, sided with the Olympians.

When Zeus finally emerged victorious, he punished the Titans severely, rounding them up and casting them into the hellish pit of Tartarus—Iapetus included. In some traditions, however, Iapetus was actually buried under the island of Inarime.[13]

Iapetus and the other Titans were usually thought to have been imprisoned for all eternity. There was, however, another version in which Zeus was merciful and eventually released the Titans (all except Iapetus’ son Atlas, who was still forced to hold up the sky).[14]

In Greek and Roman literature, Iapetus was most often named in connection with his more famous sons. Prometheus, for example, was sometimes referred to as the “son of Iapetus.” In Hesiod’s Works and Days, Zeus uses this epithet 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.”[15] 

Red Figure Bell Krater with Prometheus Fire Lighter circa 400 bce Yale

Iapetus' son Prometheus the Fire-Lighter, as depicted on this bell krater vessel (ca. 400 BCE).

Yale University Art GalleryPublic Domain

Not much else is known about Iapetus; as such, it is difficult to determine what the title “son of Iapetus” may have meant to the ancient Greeks (beyond a simple expression of lineage).

Worship

Iapetus was almost never worshipped in cult, but there is one inscription suggesting that he received some sort of religious honors on the island of Imbros.[16]

Pop Culture

Iapetus appears as a villain—and later a hero—in Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus book series. The transformation occurs after the ignoble Iapetus is cast into the River Lethe, which absorbs memories. With his evil forgotten, Iapetus emerges as a heroic figure named Bob who assists 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.

Iapetus moon of Saturn NASA

Iapetus, shown here, is Saturn's 3rd largest moon and known for its hemispheres of extreme contrasts of brightness and darkness. Saturn's largest moon is named Titan and is larger than the planet Mercury.

NASAPublic Domain

References

Notes

  1.  “Iapetus,” Theoi Project, accessed April 26, 2021, https://www.theoi.com/Titan/TitanIapetos.html.

  2. Walter Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution, translated by Margaret E. Pinder and Walter Burkert (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 177; John Pairman Brown, Israel and Hellas, vol. 1 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1995), 82; Martin L. West, The East Face of Helicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 289.

  3.  Genesis 9–10; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 1.6.122.

  4.  Hesiod, Theogony 132ff; cf. Apollodorus, Library 1.1.3. Cf. also Plato, Timaeus 40e, where Theia seems to be counted as a daughter of Oceanus and Tethys.

  5.  Hesiod, Theogony 507ff.

  6.  Lycophron, Alexandra 1283; Apollodorus, Library 1.2.3.

  7.  Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 18.

  8. Stephanus of Byzantium, Ethnica s.v. “Anchiale.”

  9.  Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.27.17. Buphagus’ mother is named as Thornax.

  10.  Hyginus, Fabulae 173.

  11.  Hyginus, preface to Fabulae.

  12.  Hesiod, Theogony 507–15, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White.

  13. Silius Italicus, Punica 12.148.

  14.  Pindar, Pythian Ode 4.289–91. The Titans were apparently also freed in Aeschylus’ tragedy Prometheus Unbound, which unfortunately has been lost.

  15.  Hesiod, Works and Days 54–59, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White.

  16.  Inscriptiones Graecae (IG) 12.8.74.

Primary Sources

Greek

  • Homer (eighth century BCE): The earliest reference to Iapetus’ imprisonment in Tartarus appears in Book 8 of the Iliad, at lines 479ff.

  • Hesiod (eighth/seventh century BCE): Iapetus’ genealogy and role as a Titan are outlined in the epic the Theogony.

  • Pindar (ca. 518–ca. 428 BCE): Pindar’s Pythian Ode 4 recounts a tradition in which Zeus eventually freed the Titans.

  • Aeschylus (ca. 525/524 BCE–ca. 456/455 BCE): The tragedy Prometheus Bound (which may not have actually been composed by Aeschylus) describes the sufferings of Iapetus’ son Prometheus. Another tragedy by Aeschylus, Prometheus Unbound, had a chorus of freed Titans that may have included Iapetus, but unfortunately this work has been lost.

  • Diodorus of Sicily (ca. 90–ca. 30 BCE): The Library of History, a work of universal history covering events from the creation of the cosmos to Diodorus’ own time, contains references to Iapetus’ genealogy and mythology.

  • Apollodorus (first century BCE/first few centuries CE): The Library, a mythological handbook, contains references to Iapetus’ genealogy and mythology.

  • Nonnus (fifth century CE): The massive epic poem Dionysiaca contains a few references to Iapetus’ continued imprisonment with the Titans in Tartarus.

Roman

  • Valerius Flaccus (first century CE): There is a brief scene in the epic Argonautica in which Iapetus begs Zeus to release his son Prometheus.

  • Hyginus (first/second century CE): The Fabulae, a Latin mythological handbook, identifies Iapetus as a Giant rather than a Titan (probably an error).

  • Silius Italicus (ca. 26–ca. 101 CE): In Book 12 of the Punica, an epic about Hannibal’s war against the Romans, Iapetus’ place of imprisonment is identified as the island of Inarime.

Secondary Sources

Citation

Kapach, Avi. “Iapetus.” Mythopedia, November 29, 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/iapetus.

Kapach, Avi. “Iapetus.” Mythopedia, 29 Nov. 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/iapetus. Accessed on 29 Nov. 2022.

Kapach, A. (2022, November 29). Iapetus. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/iapetus

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

    Avi Kapach is a writer, scholar, and educator who received his PhD in Classics from Brown University

    Avi Kapach Profile Photo