Greek Mortal

Tityus

Tityus by Giovan Battista Langetti

Tityus by Giovan Battista Langetti (ca. 1660–1665)

Mauritshuis, The HaguePublic Domain

Overview

Tityus, son of Zeus and Elara, was a brutish man of enormous size and strength. He is best remembered for trying to rape Leto, one of Zeus’ lovers and the mother of the gods Apollo and Artemis. For this crime, Tityus was slain by either Artemis, Apollo, or both. 

He was then cast into Tartarus, where his sins earned him a terrible punishment, alongside the likes of Tantalus, Sisyphus, and Ixion: Tityus was stretched out and had his innards perpetually torn out by a pair of vultures (or, in some traditions, a snake).

Etymology

There are several possible etymologies for the name “Tityus” (Greek Τιτυός, translit. Tityós). It may be related to the Greek verb τείνω (teínō), meaning “to stretch,” itself derived from the Indo-European *ten(h₂)-, also meaning “to draw, stretch.” 

In this case, Tityus’ name would mean something like “the outstretched one”—presumably a reference to his mythological punishment in the Underworld (where he was doomed to forever lie outstretched as his innards were devoured by birds or snakes).

Alternatively, the name “Tityus” might be derived from the Indo-European *teuh₂-, meaning “to swell.” This would make Tityus “the swollen one,” perhaps another way of saying “the powerful one.”

Finally, the name could also be connected with words that denote punishment, such as τίνω (tínō)—“to pay, atone”—and τίσις (tísis)—“penalty.”

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek
    TityusΤιτυός (Tityós)
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [TIT-ee-uhs]/ˈtɪt i əs/

Attributes

Tityus’ defining attributes were his enormous size and strength. According to Homer, his massive body lay stretched in Tartarus across a span of nine plethra—roughly 900 feet![1]

Though he was giant, Tityus was not usually regarded as one of the Giants, the race of earth-born monsters who tried to overthrow the Olympians. Even so, many Roman poets referred to Tityus (somewhat inaccurately) as a Giant, and he is still often thought of as a “Giant” today.[2]

Iconography

Tityus was a popular subject in ancient art, especially in early Greek vase paintings. He also featured in Etruscan and Roman art, including sculptural reliefs and wall paintings.

In both art and literature, Tityus was represented as overwhelmingly large and strong. His wildness was often highlighted by his unkempt hair or the animal skins he wore. When artists depicted Tityus, they typically showed him abducting Leto; sometimes Apollo and Artemis were also shown coming to their mother’s rescue or striking Tityus down.[3]

The famous artist Polygnotus was known to have depicted Tityus’ sufferings in Tartarus in an important painting (now lost). According to Pausanias, Polygnotus represented Tityus worn away to a shadow, no longer even being torn apart by vultures.[4]

Vase painting of Artemis and Apollo killing Tityus by the Nekyia Painter

Attic red-figure calyx-krater by the Nekyia Painter (ca. 450–440 BCE) showing Artemis (far left) and Apollo (center left) killing Tityus (far right) as Leto stands by (center right)

The Metropolitan Museum of ArtPublic Domain

Family

According to the earliest sources, Tityus was a son of Gaia, the primordial goddess of the earth.[5] But in a better-known account, he was the son of Zeus and a mortal woman named Elara (or Alera), the daughter of Orchomenus.[6] Some sources combined these two traditions of Tityus’ parentage, claiming that Elara gave birth to Tityus while buried beneath the earth.

According to Pindar, Tityus was the father of Europa, who later became a lover of Poseidon and the mother of the hero Euphemus.[7]

Mythology

Origins

Tityus was born from an affair between Zeus and a mortal woman named Elara. Not wanting his wife Hera to discover his dalliance, Zeus concealed the pregnant Elara underneath the earth. In some traditions, Elara gave birth to Tityus while still buried alive; in others, she died beneath the earth, and it was Gaia—the divine embodiment of the earth—who brought Elara’s pregnancy to term.[8]

In either case, Tityus was born from the earth and was thus sometimes called “earth-born” (gegenes) or “son of Gaia.”[9]

Tityus and Leto

Tityus is best known for his attempt to violate the Titan Leto, mother of Apollo and Artemis. In the most familiar account, Tityus spotted Leto as she was traveling to Delphi, where her son Apollo had established an oracle.[10] But according to the Roman mythographer Hyginus, Hera was the one who sent Tityus to attack Leto, wishing to punish her for her affair with Zeus.[11]

Overcome by lust, Tityus attacked Leto in Panopeus, a town not far from Delphi, and tried to carry her off. Ancient sources agree that he was immediately killed for this impudence, though there are several different accounts of who killed him:

  1. In one version, Tityus was shot dead by Artemis, who sprang to her mother’s defense.[12]

  2. In another version, it was Artemis’ twin brother Apollo who killed Tityus.[13]

  3. In yet another version, Artemis and Apollo killed Tityus together.[14]

  4. In one late version, reported by Hyginus, Zeus was the one who killed Tityus, striking him down with one of his lightning bolts.[15]

Tityus in Tartarus

The slain Tityus was cast into Tartarus, where he joined other mythological sinners such as Sisyphus, Tantalus, and Ixion in eternal suffering.[16] He lay outstretched while either one or two vultures (or a serpent) pecked at his liver or heart, unable to fend off the terrible creatures that plagued him.[17]

The Punishment of Tityus by Michelangelo

The Punishment of Tityus by Michelangelo (ca. 1533)

Royal Library, WindsorPublic Domain

Other Myths

Homer makes a reference to one further myth in which the Cretan Rhadamanthys came to visit Tityus on the island of Euboea.[18] The purpose of this visit, and the nature of the relationship between Tityus and Rhadamanthys, remains unclear, but the myth suggests some connection between Tityus and Euboea.[19]

Worship

There was a tomb of Tityus at Panopeus, the site (not far from Delphi) where Tityus was killed while trying to rape Leto. This tomb was a mound with a circumference of some 200 feet.[20] The presence of such a tomb suggests the existence of some kind of local cult that honored Tityus. Tityus also had a heroon (a hero shrine) where he was worshipped.[21]

On the island of Euboea, there was a cave called the “Elarium,” named for Tityus’ mother Elara. 

References

Notes

  1. Homer, Odyssey 11.571–72. Cf. Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.4.5, who interprets the passage differently, claiming that the nine plethra refer to the size of Tityus’ tomb rather than to Tityus himself.

  2. Horace, Odes 3.4.77; Seneca, Madness of Hercules 977, Thyestes 806ff; Lucan, Civil War 4.596; Claudian, Panegyric on the Third Consulship of Honorius 159–60.

  3. This scene is known to have appeared on the Amyclae Throne (Pausanias, Description of Greece 3.18.5), as well as in a statue group dedicated by the Cnidians at Delphi (Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.11.1). It can also be seen on metopes from Foce del Sele, which survive to this day.

  4. Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.29.3. For more on Tityus in ancient art, see Rainer Vollkommer, “Tityos,” in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (Zurich: Artemis, 1997), 8:37–41.

  5. Homer, Odyssey 11.576ff. See also Virgil, Aeneid 6.595.

  6. Pherecydes, Fragmente der griechischen Historiker (FGrH) 3 frag. 55; Hesiod, Catalogue of Women frag. 78 Merkelbach-West; Simonides, frag. 560 Poetae Melici Graeci (PMG); Pindar, frag. 294 Maehler (who calls the mother Alera rather than Elara); Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 1.762; Strabo, Geography 9.3.14; Apollodorus, Library 1.4.1.

  7. Pindar, Pythian Ode 4.46.

  8. Pherecydes, FGrH 3 frag. 55; Apollodorus, Library 1.4.1.

  9. See Homer, Odyssey 11.576ff; Virgil, Aeneid 6.595.

  10. Homer, Odyssey 11.580–81 (where Leto is said to have been traveling to Pytho, another name for Delphi); Apollodorus, Library 1.4.1.

  11. Hyginus, Fabulae 55.

  12. Pindar, Pythian Ode 4.90ff; Callimachus, Hymn 3.110; Palatine Anthology 9.790.5. Cf. Euphorion, frag. 105 Powell, where Artemis kills Tityus to defend herself (rather than Leto) from his unwanted advances.

  13. Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 1.759ff; Ephorus, FGrH 70 frag. 31b; Horace, Odes 4.6.2; Plutarch, Life of Pelopidas 16; Quintus of Smyrna, Posthomerica 3.394–95.

  14. Pherecydes, FGrH 3 frag. 56; Apollodorus, Library 1.4.1.

  15. Hyginus, Fabulae 55.

  16. Homer, Odyssey 11.576ff; Plato, Gorgias 525e; Virgil, Aeneid 6.595ff; Apollodorus, Library 1.4.1.

  17. Homer, Odyssey 11.576ff; Virgil, Aeneid 6.595ff; Seneca, Madness of Hercules 756, Phaedra 1233, Hercules on Oeta 1070–71, Thyestes 10; Ovid, Ibis 182, 194; Apollodorus, Library 1.4.1; Hyginus, Fabulae 55.

  18. Homer, Odyssey 7.323–24.

  19. See Strabo, Geography 9.3.14.

  20. Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.4.5.

  21. Strabo, Geography 9.3.14.

Primary Sources

Greek

Tityus was mentioned as early as the Homeric epics (eighth century BCE): in Book 11 of the Odyssey (576ff), he is one of the sinners encountered by Odysseus in the Underworld. 

Tityus’ mythology was embellished in later sources. The tale of his birth, for instance, was almost certainly told in the Catalogue of Women, a lost genealogical poem from around the sixth century BCE (incorrectly attributed to Hesiod). 

The story of Tityus’ death—almost always at the hand of one or both of Leto’s children—was also recounted by a number of sources, including Pindar (ca. 518–ca. 438 BCE), Apollonius of Rhodes (third century BCE), and the mythographer known as Apollodorus or “Pseudo-Apollodorus” (first century BCE or later).

In addition, important references to Tityus’ place in cultural, local, and religious contexts can be found in the works of Strabo (ca. 63 BCE–ca. 23 CE) and Pausanias (ca. 115–ca. 180 CE).

Roman

In Roman literature (as in the Greek tradition), Tityus was often remembered as one of the sinners suffering eternal punishment in Tartarus. Such references can be found in the poetry of Virgil (70–19 BCE), Seneca (either 54 BCE–39 CE or 4 BCE–65 CE), and Ovid (43 BCE–17/18 CE). 

The Epicurean poet Lucretius (early/mid first century BCE) reinterpreted Tityus’ punishment as an allegory for the anguished lover in his didactic poem On the Nature of Things (3.978ff).

Finally, an idiosyncratic version of the myth of Tityus is recorded in the Fabulae (55), a mythological handbook attributed to Hyginus or “Pseudo-Hyginus” (first century CE or later). In this account, it is Hera who sends Tityus to rape Leto, and Zeus (rather than Apollo or Artemis) who kills the brute.

Other

Additional information on Tityus, including his role in works that are now lost, can be found in texts, reference works, and commentaries produced during the Byzantine and medieval periods. For further references, see the notes.

Secondary Sources

  • Dräger, Paul. “Tityus.” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e1216260

  • Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

  • Hard, Robin. “Apollo and Artemis Work Together to Kill the Gigantic Tityos and the Niobids.” In The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology, 8th ed., 141–42. New York: Routledge, 2020.

  • Rose, H. J. “Tityus.” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., edited by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, 1488. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

  • Scherling, Karl. “Tityos.” In Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, edited by Georg Wissowa and August Friedrich Pauly, vol. 6A.2, 1593–1609. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1937.

  • Smith, William. “Tityus.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed May 26, 2022. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DT%3Aentry+group%3D20%3Aentry%3Dtityus-bio-1.

  • Theoi Project. “Tityos.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Gigante/GiganteTityos.html.

  • Vollkommer, Rainer. “Tityos.” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, vol. 8, 37–41. Zurich: Artemis, 1997.

  • Waser, Otto. “Tityos.” In Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, edited by W. H. Roscher, vol. 5, 1033–55. Leipzig: Teubner, 1916–24.

Citation

Kapach, Avi. “Tityus.” Mythopedia, September 18, 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/tityus.

Kapach, Avi. “Tityus.” Mythopedia, 18 Sep. 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/tityus. Accessed on 6 Jun. 2024.

Kapach, A. (2023, September 18). Tityus. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/tityus

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

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

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