Greek Titan

Iapetus

Iapetus was one of the first generation of Greek Titans who went on to fight, and fail, against the Olympians in the Titanomachy. He fathered several well-known mythological figures, including Atlas, Prometheus, and Epimetheus.

By Thomas Apel and Avi KapachLast updated on Nov. 21st, 2021
  • Who was Iapetus?

    Iapetus was a Titan, one of the sons of Gaia and Uranus. He was the father of Atlas and Prometheus, among others.

  • What was Iapetus the god of?

    As one of the Titans cast out of heaven, Iapetus was not widely worshipped in the ancient world and does not seem to have been assigned any definite domain for his divinity. Some modern sources, however, identify him as symbolic of mortality.1

  • What got its name from 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.

Son of Gaia and Uranus, Iapetus was one of the first Titans in Greek mythology. With his wife 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 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 Chicago / Public 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.

Another possible interpretation traces Iapetus’ name to the biblical Japheth, the third son of Noah.2 This would make Iapetus’ name and myth pre-Greek. Indeed, there is some common ground between the Titan Iapetus and the biblical Japheth, as both 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, who was either a creator or champion of the human race.

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek

    Iapetus

    Ἰαπετός

  • 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: for example, with the cleverness of the crafty Prometheus, or the strength of Atlas, who held the heavens upon his shoulders.

Family

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.

According to the standard account as told by Hesiod, Iapetus took Clymene, the daughter of Oceanus and Tethys, as his wife.4 Other sources, however, assign him different wives, including Asia5 and Themis.6

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 Anchiale7 and Buphagus.8 The Roman mythographer Hyginus calls Iapetus the father of Dryas, one of the heroes who participated in the Calydonian Boar Hunt, as well.9

Hyginus, who confuses the Titans with the Giants, calls Iapetus a Giant and makes him the son of Gaia and Tartarus.10

Family Tree

Mythology

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 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.11

Iapetus was one of the Titans and was loyal to his brother Cronus, the leader of the Titans. When Cronus rose up against Uranus, Iapetus was at his side: together with his brothers, he helped hold Uranus down while Cronus severed his genitals with a scythe. Later, Iapetus fought on Cronus’ side during the Titanomachy, the ten-year war between Cronus’ 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, his other two sons, Prometheus and Epimetheus, sided with the Olympians.

When Zues finally emerged victorious, he punished Cronus and the Titans severely, rounding them up and casting them into the hellish pit of Tartarus. Iapetus was cast down with them. In some traditions, however, Iapetus was actually buried under the island of Inarime.12

Iapetus and the Titans were usually thought to have been left 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).13

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, 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.”14

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 Gallery / Public Domain

Not much else 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 fanciful speculation.

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.15

Pop Culture

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.

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.

NASA / Public Domain

Further Reading

Primary Sources

Greek

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

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

  • Pindar: Pindar’s Pythian Ode 4 (462 BCE) recounts a tradition in which Zeus eventually freed the Titans.

  • Aeschylus: The fifth-century BCE tragedy Prometheus Bound describes the sufferings of Iapetus’ son Prometheus. Another tragedy by Aeschylus, Prometheus Unbound, had a chorus of freed Titans which may have included Iapetus, but unfortunately this work has been lost.

  • Strabo, Geography: A late-first-century BCE geographical treatise and an important source for many local Greek myths, institutions, and religious practices from antiquity.

  • Pausanias, Description of Greece: A second-century CE travelogue; like Strabo’s Geography, an important source for local myths and customs.

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

Roman

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

  • Silius Italicus: In Book 12 of the Punica, a first century CE epic about Hannibal’s war against the Romans, Iapetus’ place of imprisonment is identified as the island of Inarime.

Mythological Handbooks (Greek and Roman)

  • Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History: a work of universal history, covering events from the creation of the cosmos to Diodorus’ own time (mid-first century BCE). Contains references to Iapetus’ genealogy and mythology.

  • Apollodorus, Library: a mythological handbook from the first century BCE or the first few centuries CE. Contains references to Iapetus’ genealogy and mythology.

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

Secondary Sources

References

Notes

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

  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 507ff.

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

  6. Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 18.

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

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

  9. Hyginus, Fabulae 173.

  10. Hyginus, Fabulae preface.

  11. Hesiod, Theogony 507–15, translated by H. G. Evelyn-White, https://www.theoi.com/Text/HesiodTheogony.html (accessed April 27, 2021).

  12. Silius Italicus, Punica 12.148.

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

  14. Hesiod, Works and Days 54–59, translated by H. G. Evelyn-White, https://www.theoi.com/Text/HesiodWorksDays.html (accessed April 27, 2021).

  15. Inscriptiones Graecae (IG) 12.8.74, https://epigraphy.packhum.org/text/79258?&bookid=23&location=1699 (accessed April 26, 2021).

Citation

“Iapetus.” Mythopedia. Accessed on December 23, 2021. https://mythopedia.com/topics/iapetus

About the Authors

Thomas Apel Profile Photo

Thomas Apel

Writer and Historian

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

Avi Kapach Profile Photo

Avi Kapach

Scholar and Educator

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

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