I've always found Kronos (or Cronus) to be one of the most interesting and tragic figures in the ancient Greek religion. While widely known and accepted as an
important deity in antiquity, he did not have his own cult in the style of Zeus or Dionysus or Aphrodite. Even Hades, the Greek god of the underworld whose very name was forbidden to be
spoken aloud, received regular sacrifices and propitiations; Kronos did not. Why did this god -- a former ruler of the cosmos and the father of Zeus and almost every other Olympian -- receive
such shoddy treatment from people who accepted his existence and power as a literal fact?
Depictions of Kronos in ancient Greek texts are varied, but almost all of them follow the same basic outline. The first king of the gods was Uranus (more correctly transliterated as Ouranos)
who was the personification of the sky. His queen was Gaia, the anthropomorphized Earth. Uranus and Gaia had several children, including the giant, one-eyed Cyclopes and the
Hekatonkheires, whose self-describing name literally means "hundred-handed." Also among their children were the gods we now know collectively as the Titans. Uranus was apparently disgusted by his
children, so he buried them back inside Gaia. Not surprisingly, repeatedly giving birth and then having these children shoved back into you was a traumatic experience, so Gaia created a scythe
out of stone and begged one of her children to use it to stop Uranus from impregnating her again (like all gods, the virile Uranus was incapable of having sex without impregnating his partner).
When all the other children expressed reluctance, her youngest son Kronos agreed to do the deed. The next time Uranus came to Gaia, Kronos ambushed his father and castrated him. This opened an
entirely new can of worms as Uranus' falling genitalia expelled blood and semen all over Gaia, causing multiple children (including the goddess Aphrodite) to spontaneously generate. Angered and
shocked by his son's audacity, Uranus dubbed Kronos and his siblings "titans" and then perished.
When we think of the word "titan" today, it generally summons up visions of power, importance, and an outsized personality that towers over all others. In ancient Greek, the meaning is less
impressive: the term means "transgressor." Since he was the one who did the deed, Kronos took his father's place as the king of the gods and chose his sister Rhea as his consort. The ancient
Greek historian Hesiod says that Kronos ruled justly in a time of universal peace when man was so content that there was no need for laws; the name he gave to this period was the Golden Age,
the first recorded use of the term. Kronos and Rhea had several children, namely Zeus, Hades, Poseidon, Demeter, Hestia, and Hera. Fearful that one of his children might overthrow him in
the same way that he had overthrown Uranus, Kronos ate each of his offspring as they were born. He also imprisoned the Cyclopes, Hekatonkheires, and Gigantes in Tartarus. When Rhea gave birth
to their final child, Zeus, she hid him on the island of Crete and swaddled a stone in blankets to present to Kronos. Predictably enough, Kronos ate the stone, and everything was back
to business as normal.
On Crete, Zeus was reared by his grandmother Gaia and a goat-herd named Amalthea until he was finally old enough to face his father. When the time came, Zeus poisoned Kronos and caused him to
vomit up his siblings. With his brothers' assistance, Zeus freed the Cyclopes et al and waged a war against the Titans called the Titanomachy. Zeus was ultimately victorious and imprisoned his
father as well as the majority of the other Titans in Tartarus, where they presumably remain to this day. Hesiod's Theogony was written around 700 BC, making it the oldest known full
account of Kronos' myth (although passing comments about the Titans in the Homeric works are likely the oldest references, they don't reveal much information). Later traditions had Kronos
eventually leaving Tartarus, whether through escape or Zeus' permission, generally to rule over some far away land, although most accounts still had him remaining in Tartarus for eternity.
A question that I think is worth asking is "why did everybody think it was a good thing that Zeus overthrew Kronos?" While clearly Kronos was reenacting the tyranny that led him to overthrow his
own father Uranus, it's not as if Zeus was much better: he imprisoned most of the Titans, cheated his oldest brother Hades out of the kingship of heaven, ate his pregnant first wife Metis out
of fear that their children might dethrone him, left an appalling number of illegitimate demigods running around the world, and by Hesiod's reckoning ruled over a progressively more and more
degenerate world, a far cry from the Golden Age of Kronos. The one bit of respect that the Greeks showed Kronos was an annual festival called the Kroneia that celebrated this lost utopian
existence. Amazingly, this nostalgia did not translate into a religious longing for Kronos' return.
To understand the lack of interest in Kronos (who was no worse than his much-venerated son), one must examine the origins of the ancient Greek religion. At this stage in Greek antiquity, there
was no concept of a religious text like a Bible or Quran. Realistically, there wasn't much of a need for one; all of this information was passed down orally, whether by random individuals or by
local religious figures or whoever else. The ancient Greek myths are also not really told in a chronological fashion -- while certain things do happen in a particular order (e.g., the Titanomachy
obviously has to precede the Trojan War or else the Olympians wouldn't be around to pick and choose sides) there is no set timeline. Indeed, Hephaestus is a fully-formed adult god ready to help
the cause at the time of the Titanomachy despite the fact that his father Zeus had literally just freed his mother Hera from Kronos' gut.
I mention all of this because it has to do with the way that mythology as we understand it was created. It's a popular thing to say that religions were created by primitive peoples who wanted to
explain things like the rain and the changing of the seasons, and while that's perhaps partially true, it doesn't illuminate the rationale behind creating this narrative about the most epic war
in the history of the cosmos. What natural phenomenon was explained by the Titanomachy? Ancient Greek religion was not a monolithic series of beliefs held universally by all people, but rather a
sometimes contradictory mish-mash of ideas about the world and one's place in it. Before widespread literacy, stories and beliefs were shared by word of mouth, and it was only after the
reappearance of writing in Greece in the 8th century BC that these ideas first took on a definite form.
The ancient Greek religion (along with basically all ancient European mythologies) was of course ultimately derived from the proto-Indo-European religion, which exists today only as an
educated (but highly hypothetical) reconstruction. We can say with absolute certainty that Zeus was derived from the same archetypal figure that also gave us the Roman Iovus/Jupiter, the
Germanic Tiwaz, the Vedic Indian Dyauspita, and a number of others. We can theoretically say that Uranus had his origin in the same deity that also gave us the Indo-Iranian sky god Varuna.
Kronos, by contrast, has no proto-Indo-European reconstruction. In fact, his name is not even widely believed to be Indo-European in origin. The closest regional cognate deity is the Hurrian
Kumarbi, who also castrated his father before being overthrown by his son, but the linguistic evidence just isn't there despite a "k" and "r" sound. While the Romans later
identified their harvest god Saturn with Kronos because of their shared attribute of the scythe, they are completely different in character and temperament and indeed, the Romans found Saturn
worthy of worship and had no tradition of his being imprisoned in the underworld. Conflation with Kronos was complete by the second century BC, making a full inventory of differences between the
two gods impossible to establish.
It is sometimes theorized that Kronos -- like Dionysus and Adonis, among others -- was originally a deity of Semitic origin, likely by way of the Phoenicians. The "krn" element of
his name is similar to an archaic word of Semitic extraction meaning "horned" or "crowned," signifying royal authority. This might explain why Kronos was identified by the Greeks with Semitic gods
like the Ugaritic El, the Carthaginian Baal, and even the Jewish YHWH, all chief deities of their respective pantheons. It is interesting to note that in
Carthage, it was apparently normal to sacrifice children to Baal by incinerating them inside of an iron statue of the god, perhaps underscoring a connection to Kronos' eating of
his own children. A competing theory has it that the name is in fact Indo-European in origin and that it is descended from an element meaning "to cut," which might relate it in some fashion to the
name Kumarbi, but I don't find this especially satisfactory, especially considering the Hurrian language was not Indo-European in derivation.
Regardless of whether or not Kronos was a Semitic deity or a long lost proto-Indo-European figure yet to be discerned, I have a personal theory about his origin and his relation to the other
Greek gods. I think that it can be said with a pretty high degree of likelihood that the proto-Greeks worshipped Uranus as a sky god since written references to Varuna are found in Hittite-
dominated Anatolia -- right next to Greece -- as late as the 15th century BC. The Hittites of course spoke an Indo-European language and worshipped Vedic deities (or at least very close
linguistic and functional cognates). At some point and for some unknown reason, the proto-Greeks began to venerate Zeus more highly than Uranus. The Varuna/Uranus figure retained more influence in
the East (i.e. Asia Minor, Iran, and India) as opposed to the Zeus/Dyauspita figure that reigned supreme in the West. I feel comfortable in saying this because the Varuna/Uranus god is more
prominent in the Eastern areas of Indo-European influence than the various local Zeus counterparts; the dyeus root is present in all areas, but either as a relatively minor figure or as a
grammatical form meaning "god" or "divine." By contrast, there is little evidence for even the basest acknowledgement of a Uranus-like god to the north or west of Greece -- likely the main
demarcation point for Eastern and Western forms of proto-Indo-European influence -- while the Zeus figure remained dominant.
I think that the Greek myths about Uranus existed as oral traditions passed down in conjunction with those about Zeus until the advent of widespread writing in Greece in the 8th century BC. At
some point prior to this, Kronos was either invented or absorbed from another group (likely Semitic) and inserted into the narrative as a transitional figure between Uranus and Zeus. That Kronos
presided over a Golden Age is not accidental -- he was never really worshipped by the Greeks (or their pre-historic ancestors) in the way that Uranus likely was, so while the residual memory of
Uranus existed in the form of an oral tradition (and therefore was to some extent bound to reality), Kronos exists outside of the established chronology and reminds the believer that the Golden Age
-- if it truly ever existed -- is gone forever. Whether described as being imprisoned for eternity or being sent to govern some far off land (as Virgil and Pindar have it), Kronos was not
worshipped by the Greeks for the simple fact that he was never intended to be worshipped by them; he existed solely as a figure in the past tense. Cannibalism and castration were viewed as
abominations by the classical Greeks, so worshipping a figure who practiced both -- regarldess of his status as a just ruler over an aeon of abundance and peace -- would have been perceived as
Greek mythology is not a historical tract or a guide to living: it doesn't really even do much to explain the world. Rather, the Greeks used mythology to explain their religion, which might
sound redundant, but only if one confuses one concept for the other. Greek religion was the guide to existence as well as the explanation for natural phenomena; its rituals and proscriptions were
handed down over centuries from one generation to the next. It was the job of mythology to give that religion a backbone and rationalize it in terms that the average citizen could understand and
accept. Inevitably, this causes confusion and a nonsensical concept of time. Caught in the flow of this ad hoc reasoning were figures like Kronos, whose reputation has been obscure and mixed for
hundreds of years as a result. Whatever his true origin, Kronos is in the end a sad, bittersweet reminder that while the most beautiful of times can be filled with savagery, even the most savage of
times can be filled with beauty. That, ultimately, is the true tragedy of the story of Kronos: the god who never was.