Kronos figures in Greek mythology both as an ogre and as the king whose reign was the Golden Age. The Romans equated him with Saturn. He was sometimes also mistakenly identified with Chronos, the god of time.
According to the Greek poet Hesiod, in his Theogony (c. 750 B.C.E. ), Ouranos ("Sky") mated nightly with Gaia ("Earth"). When their children were born, Ouranos hid them in Gaia's inward places. Painfully swollen with offspring, she wrought a huge sickle and asked her children, six brothers and six sisters (the Titans), to punish Ouranos. Only her youngest son, Kronos, agreed. Giving him the sickle, she told him where to hide. When Ouranos next lay on Gaia, Kronos grasped him with his left hand, the sickle in his right, and cut off his genitals. From the drops of blood that shed on her, Gaia conceived among others the Giants, and from the severed genitals, which fell into the sea, a white foam arose from which was born the love goddess Aphrodite.
Now followed the rule of Kronos. He married his sister Rhea, who bore him three daughters and three sons: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus (the Olympian gods). But Gaia and Ouranos had foretold that Kronos would be over-thrown by a son, so he swallowed his children as each emerged from the womb. About to bear her sixth child, Zeus, Rhea asked her parents how to save him. They sent her to Crete, where she hid him in a cave on Mount Aegaeon. She presented Kronos instead with a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes, which he thrust in his belly. Zeus grew apace and in time forced Kronos to yield up his children. Once reborn, the gods waged war on the Titans, whom they overthrew, and Zeus replaced Kronos as ruler.
The story contains motifs recurrent in European folktales: the son destined to replace his father; the luck of the youngest son; and the monster made to swallow a stone. More importantly, Kronos and the Titans seem related to the archaic "older gods" of Near Eastern tradition, barely personified forces of nature deemed to rule the cosmos before fully anthropomorphic gods took control. In the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish (composed between 1200 and 1000 B.C.E.), there is war between these older gods and their children, as there is between the Titans and Olympians. The myth of Kronos itself corresponds closely to one from the mid–second millennium B.C.E.preserved in Hittite, which tells how Kumarbi deposed the sky god Anu by biting off his phallus.
Though expressed in terms of father-son rivalry, the Kronos myth is not primarily concerned with the human condition. The stories of Ouranos and Kronos, and Kronos and Zeus, form a single cosmogonical myth or story explaining the universe. It accounts for the separation of the earth and sky, envisaged as originally joined. Once they were separated, primeval creation ended and the gods were born.
Some of the details are vague, partly because Ouranos and Gaia are not fully personified. Where exactly is Kronos when he castrates Ouranos? How does Zeus liberate Kronos's children? (Writers after Hesiod said that he gave him nectar mixed with emetic herbs to make him vomit.) The myth places Kronos literally between Ouranos (sky, rain) and Gaia (fertile earth), and arms him with the sickle, the reaping tool. In cult, he was connected with agrarianism and honored in the kronisa, a harvest festival, during which masters and laborers feasted together—an echo, it was thought, of the mythical Golden Age.
The Golden Age, before Zeus became ruler of the gods and imposed both justice and labor on humankind, was a time of plenty without toil, when people did not suffer old age, and died gently as if falling asleep. This was the reign of Kronos. How the Golden Age ended is unclear; possibly through Kronos's overthrow by Zeus. An adaptation of this myth spoke of a land called Elysium or the Isles of the Blest. In Works and Days, Hesiod says this was at the ends of the earth, and was where divinely favored Greek heroes existed in bliss after their deaths. This happy realm, too, was ruled by Kronos.
The myths gathered around the shadowy figure of Kronos speak of the emergence of the ordered cosmos from primeval chaos but they look back with longing to that interregnum between the unbridled energy of creation (Ouranos) and the rule of order (Zeus), that Golden Age of the world when Kronos was king.
Grant, Michael. Myths of the Greeks and Romans. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1962.
Kerényi, C. The Gods of the Greeks. London: Thames and Hudson, 1979.
Kirk, G. S. The Nature of Greek Myths. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.