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The naming of the ship that famously sank on its maiden voyage in 1912, and that of the rocket that lofted the Gemini capsules into orbit, both reflect the common notion that the Titans were gigantic in stature in a way that the Olympian gods were not. Hesiod’s Theogony offers no support for this notion, nor do any classical-period temple carvings of the Titanomachy that I can recall. (Even the metope from the temple of Zeus at Olympia, representing the eleventh labor of Herakles, shows the hero, Athene, and Atlas all the same size.)

This supposed gigantism of the Titans makes for some ludicrous imagery when we recollect that Zeus fathered offspring on several female Titans of both Titan generations, including Mnemosyne (the Muses), Leto (Apollo and Artemis), and Metis (Athene)—unless we are to imagine one or both sexual partners as magically variable in size. (Cf. the Norse case of the coupling of the Van Freyr with the Jotun Gerð, as anticipated in the Skírnismál.)

OCD s.v. Titan is no help here—it merely devotes one last line to the stature issue, saying that the size implications of titanic derive from the “monstrous power and size” of the pre-Olympian pantheon, without citing any ancient warrant for that characterization.

The OED glosses one only non-obsolete sense of the adjective titanic as

Pertaining to, resembling, or characteristic of the Titans of mythology; gigantic, colossal; also, of the nature or character of the Titans.

—though as it happens, not one of the illustrative quotations given below that gloss unambiguously supports the “gigantic, colossal” part.

Could this be just a result of confusing the Titanomachy with the Gigantomachy, which confusion is addressed here?

  • Welcome to AI! This is a very interesting question that I'm going to have to think about before attempting to answer. Re: the excellent metope link, it certainly creates a contradiction with the conception of Atlas as mountainous in size, holding up the sky. (My suspicion is the image is not meant to be literal, and depicting the scale accurately is not compositionally feasible in that context.) The idea of great size may derive from what certain titans represent. It's difficult to think of Oceanus as anything but immense. – DukeZhou Aug 4 '17 at 20:03
  • Thanks. How is this virtual place "AI"? – Brian Donovan Aug 5 '17 at 23:21
  • Crossed wires--I meant to be welcoming you to Mythology! (although I am finding an increasing number of ideas and applications in algorithmic intelligence that seem to derive from Greek mythology and philosophy;) – DukeZhou Aug 6 '17 at 1:19
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Part of the confusion may derive from the "fuzziness" subject. Time is not strictly rational in the Greek myths, so why should proportion be firmly fixed? More confusion may be injected in regarding all, as opposed to merely some, of the Titans, being huge. Finally, there is the question of who is and who is not a Titan, and according to whom?


Perspective

When regarding the size Greek gods, stature influences conception. Zeus is towering per his power, but we regard him as dwarfed by the chthonic giants. Representationally, in the case of the metope, Atlas is of lesser stature than either Athena or Heracles, and representing him as larger would give the wrong impression. Remember that the idea of perspective in art is just starting to develop, and in the dominant tradition, commonly seen in Egypt, relative size of a subject is a function of importance. Note the normal size of the Erymanthian Boar in a reconstruction of another metope from the Temple of Zeus, and this vase depicting the same image. Yet the boar was said to be monstrous in stature, as depicted on this vase. I don't think it's coincidental that the boar is larger when a living threat than it is once vanquished.


Titans are not all the same size

Atlas is assuredly gigantic:

"...crafty Atlas, who knows the full depths of the sea, and holds, himself, the towering pillars which hold apart the earth and sky."
Source: Homer, Odyssey 1.52-54 | English

Unless we conceive of Atlas through the lens of Sun Wu Kong, who flits to the depths of the four seas on a whim, the implication is that Atlas knows the full depths of the seas because his feet rest on the bottom.

"Atlas through hard constraint upholds the wide heaven with unwearying head and arms, standing at the borders of the earth"
Source: Hesiod, Theogony 517-517

When we combine these two early descriptions, it's easy to see why Atlas is regarded as mountainous.

The association with pillars is further reinforced in the architectural atlantes. The lexical entry from the Liddell/Scott reads: Ἄτλαντες, in Architecture, colossal statues as supports for the entablature." This is, in part, a commemoration of Atlas as benefactor, turned to stone to keep the sky from crashing down to earth.

But it's hard to regard such Titans as Leto or Themis as gigantic. (Themis highlights another issue in that she is tricked into making herself tiny so that Zeus, himself a master shapeshifter, can swallow her.)

Epimetheus, generally regarded as the husband of Pandora, must have been man-sized or there would have been problems in the marital bed. (The presumed difference in the size of Loki and Angrboða, by contrast, would seem not to present such difficulties, and calls to mind a certain Almodóvar film;)


Who is and who is not a Titan, and according to whom?

We're talking about a canon that forms over a millennium in textual form. Later mythographers begin to conflate the Titanomachy and Gigantomachy, and giants with Titans, and the only thing constant is the state of flux.

Creating confusion is the existence of a Titan Pallas and a Giant Pallas. These may be conflated as the former comes from Hesiod, and the latter from Apollodorus, many centuries later. The Apollodorus further conflicts with Euripides' account of who was flayed by Athena during the battle. It's not that one author is right and the other wrong so much as each storyteller has their own take.

There's the question of Typhon. Not officially a Titan, but as the progeny of Gaia and Tartarus (compare to Gaia and Ouranos), Typhon is certainly a similar category of being, with a similar cycle of striving against the Olympians abd being cast down. "In size and strength [Typhon] surpassed all the offspring of Earth." From a modern perspective, influenced by the Harryhausen classic "Clash of the Titans", it's not difficult to see how a being like Typhon, or, in this case, the Kraken, might come to be thought of as a Titan. This may shed some light on both the confusion arising from ancient sources, and the exacerbation of that confusion in the present era per often poorly sourced or misleading information, and suboptimal translations.

In the early accounts, what seems to distinguish Titans is not their size but their early genesis and primal nature.



Hopefully this provides some answers on the question of Atlas in particular, and the Titans in general. Although I heartily agree that not all Titans would have been gigantic, and there is a similar example in Norse mythology, where not all giants seem to be the same size.

The association of great size with the Titans most likely relates partly to Atlas in his role as reluctant, but important, benefactor to mankind, and to Titans like Oceanus and Tethys, who, by their very nature, are titanic indeed.

No one who has witnessed the dawn breaking would conceive of "rosy fingered" Eos as anything but horizon spanning, and even when picturing her in human form, this association would be present. Homer is not being entirely literal when he describes Eos in her chariot riding to Olympus to hearken the day. Homer was a poet first and foremost.

The Titans are widely anthropomorphised, but these primal entities are also at once the things they represent, such as oceans, mountains and the dawn. This parallels the conception of Gaia and Ouranos as literally the earth and sky.

  • Thanks. I would note, however, that superhuman stature was not imputed to Samson when he held, and by superhuman strength dislodged, the pillars holding up the huge temple of Dagon in Judges. And as for Atlas' knowing the depths of the sea, his standing on the sea bed seems less likely as the basis of his knowledge than the mere fact of his divinity. Homeric divinities, while not omniscient, seem often to know things simply by virtue of their divinity rather than upon any empirical basis. – Brian Donovan Aug 6 '17 at 14:48
  • I think Samson is not a good parallel in that the Titans were primal forces, often representing natural phenomena. Atlas isn't really an aqueous deity, so divine knowledge of the seas seems a pretty shaky attribution of powers with no basis for support. I recognize I'm just some guy on the internet, and lack academic credibility, but I had very good teachers who devoted their lives to serious study of these subjects. I'd recommend discussing it with some scholars in your Classics department as your thesis is controversial and needs more support. – DukeZhou Aug 8 '17 at 20:43
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The Titanes and the Gigantes seem to have become one in people's minds over time, perhaps because both of them fought the Olympians.

While 6th century BCE writers like Homer and Hesiod don't mention unusual size as an aspect of the Titans, other children of Uranus and Gaia were of giant size, so you can see how the confusion began. The Titan page on Theoi.com has several examples of this in their page on the Titans.

  • In that Theoi.com page to which you link, I do not seem to find what you suggest I should. Gigantic stature for the Titans seems there to be connected with some Thracian tradition, but without citations to ancient sources. – Brian Donovan Aug 5 '17 at 23:19
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    Theoi.com quotes Pseudo-Hyginus, Pseudo-Apollodorus, Lycophron and Quintus Smyrnaeus as conflating the Giants and Titans. It also mentions how Koios and Krios were sometimes said to be leaders of the Giants against Zeus, when they were really the ones who ganged up on Kronos. (I have edited my comment above because not all of the writers quoted were Romans.) I wasn't aware of the Thracian tradition, which is interesting. – solsdottir Aug 6 '17 at 0:25
  • My apologies. I was thinking of the conflation/confusion as the default explanation and was primarily interested in any alternatives the community might offer, but of course your answer sticks with the conflation theme. – Brian Donovan Aug 6 '17 at 14:39
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    OK, I see what you were asking now. For what it's worth, I would suggest that since both groups fought against the gods (Titanomachy and the Gigantomachy) and there seems to be a certain fuzziness about the subject anyway (@DukeZhou) it's not surprising that the two were confused. Also, the Titans were fairly obscure deties anyway, with little or no cult to perpetuate their myths. – solsdottir Aug 6 '17 at 18:06

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