Koios: famous for being obscure

I have a tag I use from time to time: “obscure deities”. The Titan Koios (or Coeus) was famous for being obscure. In the Metamorphoses, the ill-fated Niobe says of him and his daughter Leto:

Now, ask what the reason is for my pride, and then dare to prefer Latona to me, that Titaness, daughter of Coeus, whoever he is. Latona, whom the wide earth once refused even a little piece of ground to give birth on.

(Latona is the Roman name for Leto.) Even in her great access of hubris, the only thing Niobe could say of Coeus/Koios was that no one knew who he was. A quick look at online guides to Greek myth shows that Koios is by no means famous now, but there seems to be a desire to fill out his dossier.

So who was he?

The Titans were the second generation of Greek gods, according to Hesiod’s Theogony. Their parents, Ouranos and Gaea, were the sky and the earth, and they had twelve children, six male and six female. Since there were no other gods around, they married each other. Koios married the light-goddess Phoebe:

Phoebe came to Koios’ bed of delight; and conceiving then, goddess with god united in intimacy, she bore sable-robed Leto, ever gentle, mild towards men and immortal gods, gentle from the beginning, most kindly in Olympus.
(Theogony 404ff)

They had two daughters, all told. The other was Asteria, whose name means “starry”, the mother of Hecate. Koios and Phoebe are mainly famous because of their descendants. One Orphic Hymn calls Leto Koiantis, daughter of Koios.

The only myth that involves him the Titans’ rebellion against Ouranos, led by Kronos. Koios and three other Titans held their father down while Kronos castrated him with a sickle. After that Kronos took over as ruler of heaven and the gods, and a Golden Age began. (Until Zeus came along…)

God of the North

The idea that Koios, Iapetos, Krios and Hyperion represent the four directions comes from their rebellion against their father, Ouranos, according to Theoi.com. They ambushed him, and the four held him down so that Kronos could castrate him. Since Ouranos was the personified sky, the four took up their stations at the corners of the earth.

  • Koios: north
  • Hyperion: east (sun rises)
  • Krios: south (associated with Aries, as start of year)
  • Iapetos: west (later his son Atlas would take up his old post)

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any other sources for this, but it’s an interesting idea. Koios was also called Polos (Polus in Latin), meaning “pole or pivot” in the sense of “heavenly axis“, probably from an Indo-European root word “to be in motion”. Thus the idea of him as the north pillar around which the stars revolve is attractive.

One further idea that could come from the idea of Koios as northern pillar of the heavens would connect him with his daughter Asteria, who ruled oracles of night, from astrology to the study of meteorites and comets. Maybe Phoebe and Apollo had the oracles on earth, while the other side of the family had the celestial ones.

In the commentary Theoi.com points out that while at Delphi the giant Python protected the oracle, in the sky the giant constellation Draco winds around the North Star, as one of the circumpolar asterisms. The pole star and the omphalos may have more in common than we realize.

The Enquirer

Another reading is that the name Koios is a question: “of what kind?” So one interpretation of the Titan is that he represented rational intelligence, or the questioning mind. Set that against his wife’s patronage of the Delphic Oracle, and you can either see the two as complementary ways of understanding the world, or opposed.

Was he a Giant?

Several Roman sources list Coeus (Latin spelling) among the Giants, perhaps because they also rebelled against the gods. The Giants, however, sprang from the blood that spilled when Ouranos was castrated, so Coeus couldn’t be one of them.

Kronos and the Titans did go to war with Zeus and the Olympians, a war which ended with Zeus in charge. Zeus and his allies cast the Titans into Tartarus, an abyss as far below Hades as the earth is below the heavens. In the Argonautica Koios tries to escape, but is stopped by the three-headed dog Kerebos as he tries to leave Hell.

It is easy to see how the Titanomachy, or War with the Titans, became confused with the Gigantomachy, even in ancient times. Both involve monstrous or semi-monstrous beings who fought with Zeus and Co. and lost.

The “Delphic Titans”

The story that Phoebe gave the Delphic Oracle to Apollo is just one of many traditions about that famous site. Others held that Gaia held it, or Themis, before Phoebus Apollo took it over.

The first lines of Aeschylus’ Eumenides can be seen as a way to tie these traditions together:

First, in this prayer, of all the gods I name
The prophet-mother Earth; and Themis next,
Second who sat-for so with truth is said-
On this her mother’s shrine oracular.
Then by her grace, who unconstrained allowed,
There sat thereon another child of Earth-
Titanian Phoebe. She, in after time,
Gave o’er the throne, as birthgift to a god,
Phoebus, who in his own bears Phoebe’s name.

M.L. West suggested that since everyone knew that Leto was Apollo’s mother, the problem of who owned the Oracle was solved by inventing a grandmother, Phoebe. Both she and Koios remained obscure, but since Delphi was such an important shrine, they became Titans, since they were two of the “old gods”.

He further suggests that Koios’ name may relate to pebbles, since they were used in divination at Delphi once, apparently kept in the bowl of the tripod. So both the “questioner” and the “light” goddess would be oracular deities. They could then be said to have passed on their talents to their famous grandson.

Filling in the Gaps

The ironic things about all this is that if you look at the sources given at Theoi, you will see that the references to Koios/Coeus are sparse enough to justify Niobe’s dismissal. (I am sure it’s a complete list, since they give 17 different quotes from various Classical authors.)

Most merely name check him, mainly in connection with his more famous children and grandchildren. Certainly none mention him being a god of intelligence, the north, or oracles.

Koios is probably another example of a gap that invites mythmaking to rush in, based around the very small amount of information in his file, and the suggestively cosmic and oracular nature of his family. Certainly when I started to write this post I wanted to connect him up with the Germanic concept of the Irminsul pillar and the hints in Norse myth of a cosmic mill.

Unfortunately, it seems that any connection between Koios, north and pillars is speculative, if suggestive. It would be amusing, though, if a god that West thinks is little more than a placeholder name suddenly became a fully-fleshed-out deity with a real function, if very little myth.


West, M.L. 1985: “Hesiod’s Titans”, Journal of Hellenic Studies 105: 174-5.

Koios stuff:
GreekMythology.com entry
Theoi.com entry
GreekGods.org entry
Sources for Koios/Coeus
Wikipedia Entry
Titan of Intelligence
Prezi pulls it all together

Cosmological stuff:
The Hellenic Constellations
Greek Constellations and the Polos

DC’s Teen Titans meet the Greek Titans


3 thoughts on “Koios: famous for being obscure

  1. Pingback: Astraios: Father of the Stars – We Are Star Stuff

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