Today, the name Rhea is one more likely to be associated with ornithology than Greek mythology, but it is a name originating in Ancient Greece, for Rhea was the name of a Greek goddess. Indeed, Rhea should be more famous than she is, for Rhea was importantly the mother of Zeus and his siblings.
Rhea the Titan
The story of Rhea begins in the earliest period of Greek mythology, the time of the Protogenoi. The shy god Ouranus took up the position of supreme god, and partnered with his mother, the goddess of the Earth, Gaia.
Gaia would give birth to a series of offspring for Ouranus, with the last children being a group of 12 the Titans, 6 sons and 6 daughters. The male Titans were Cronus, Iapetus, Oceanus, Hyperion, Crius and Coeus, whilst the females were Rhea, Themis, Tethys, Theia, Mnemosyne and Phoebe.
Rhea Mother Goddess
Gaia would urge her children to rise up against their father, and eventually, after much cajoling, Cronus would wield an adamantine sickle to castrate Ouranus. Cronus would then set himself up as the supreme god of the cosmos, and would make Rhea his wife.
Cronus and the other Titans would rule in a period that became known as the “Golden Age”, and it was during this time that Rhea become known as the Greek goddess of motherhood and generations.
The male gods of Greek mythology were certainly not renowned for their monogamy, and in one famous take, Rhea virtually catches her husband lying with the Oceanid Philyra. In order to escape detection Cronus quickly transforms himself into a horse, but at the same time he impregnates Philyra, who subsequently gives birth to the centaur Chiron.
Cronus would of course sleep with his wife, and Rhea would subsequently become pregnant, but Cronus was fearful of a prophecy that said his own offspring would overthrow him, just as he had overthrown Ouranus. Subsequently, each time Rhea have birth, Cronus would swallow the newborn baby whole, imprisoning it within his stomach. Rhea would give birth to 5 children, Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades and Poseidon, each of whom were imprisoned in this way.
Rhea Mother Goddess
Rhea Conspires Against Cronus
Rhea would become pregnant for a sixth time, but this time, Rhea decided not to give over the child for imprisonment within Cronus. Subsequently, Rhea would give birth to a third son, Zeus, on the island of Crete and with the aide of Gaia, the newborn boy was hidden away inside a cave upon Mount Ida.
Rhea would return to her husband’s side, but the Greek goddess gave Cronus a stone wrapped in cloth, instead of her son, and Cronus, unaware, swallowed the stone whole.
Rhea would not play a role in the childhood of Zeus, for she could not risk her husband finding out about her deceit. The care of Zeus was given over to the nymph Amalthea, whilst to disguise the existence of Zeus, his cradle was suspended so that he was neither in the air nor on the ground, and the crying of the baby was hidden by the noise of the Korybantes.
Rhea With Wrapped Stone
The Prominence of Rhea Fades
Eventually Zeus would return from Crete to rebel against his father, and in some sources it was Rhea who gave Cronus the emetic that forced the Greek god to regurgitate the imprisoned siblings within his stomach.
With his brothers and sisters free, Zeus would then lead his allies in a war known as the Titanomachy. During the ten year war between the Titans and the Olympians, Rhea would remain neutral neither siding with her siblings nor her children.
This neutrality ensured that Rhea was not punished by Zeus after the end of the war, as many Titans were, and so she remained free to roam the world.
After her vital role in the birth of Hades and the other major deities, Rhea fades from the stories of Greek mythology, and her attributes are often subsequently confused with Cybele and Demeter. Rhea though does briefly appear in the story of the resurrection of Pelops with Rhea bringing the son of Tantalus back to life. The goddess also appears in the story of Demeter and Persephone, and also in the tale of the Argonauts, but in most sources she is rarely mentioned, and is believed to have made a home for herself either on Crete or in the Phrygian mountains.
The name of the Greek goddess lives on of course, with the flightless bird named after Rhea, as well as a satellite of Saturn.