Myths of the Moons: Iapetus (Saturn)

The Greek Titan Iapetus is probably remembered more for the actions of sons than his own mythos. As one of the primal gods, he was a brother to Cronus (Saturn), and the uncle of Zeus. However, after the heavenly battle called the Titanomachy, he was banished to Tartarus, the Greek place of punishment, primarily reserved for the vanquished elder gods.

Most readers have probably encountered the names of two of his children: Prometheus and Atlas, so let’s start with his lesser-known progeny, Epimetheus and Menoetius.

Menoetius’ story ends with rise of the Olympians; Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt. Like his father and two of his brothers, he found himself in Tartarus. His name is probably the most interesting aspect of his story: it translates to “doomed might”, which have led some to speculate that he was the god of rash violence.

Epimetheus’ tales is bound up with that of his brother, Prometheus. More significantly, it is intertwined with the first female, Pandora. After Prometheus enraged Zeus, the thunder god retaliated by afflicting the first humans – all males – with the first female, who he presented as a gift to Epimetheus (a gift Prometheus had warned him against taking). She also came with a jar (more commonly mistranslated as a box) which, when opened, unleashed a parade of evils onto the human race (save one, hope…).

Epimetheus’ name means to look backwards (hindsight); it is the opposite of his brother’s name, Prometheus, which means to look forward (foresight). Despite his apparent foolishness, he was the progenitor of the human race: Epimetheus’ and Pandora’s daughter, Pyrrha, along with her husband Deucalion, where the only two survivors of the great flood that Zeus subsequently sent to wipe out humanity. It’s also worth noting that he was the only son of Iapetus who was not imprisoned in Tartarus.

Prometheus was one of the few Titans not slain in the Titanomachy. Instead, Zeus tasked him to find unique gifts for all living things. When it came time to give a special skill to mankind (there still were no women), he had run out of abilities. Not wanting to leave men without any unique gifts, he committed a divine heist – he stole fire from Olympus and gave it to man along with the art of metallurgy. For this crime, he spends his days in Tartarus, chained to a rock, where an eagle pecks his liver each day, only to have it grow back overnight.  Not coincidentally, one of Zeus’ symbols is the eagle.

Finally, we come to Atlas, who also lost in the war with the Olympians. His punishment: to keep his grandparents, the Earth and the Sky, (Gaia and Uranus) from procreating any more gods, effectively eliminating the potential for any more Titans.

Atlas does make another appearance, during the 12 trials of Heracles (Roman: Hercules), where he shows himself to be far less crafty than his sibling, Prometheus. It’s another tale starring Golden Apples (e.g., the Golden Apple that started the Trojan War), best saved for a different post.

Now, the moon:

Like many of the moons that orbit Saturn, Iapetus is mostly composed of ice. It is tidally locked, like our own moon, which means that one side always faces Saturn, giving it a light side and a dark side. It was discovered by Giovanni Domenico Cassini, the Italian astronomer, in October of 1671, and his namesake probe has increased our knowledge of Iapetus.

The moon contains some of the tallest mountain ranges in the solar system, with some rising to over 65,000 feet, which is over twice the height of Mt. Everest. As unscalable as that sounds, Iapetus has a surface gravity of only .223 m/; compare this to our own moon, which has a surface gravity 1.622 m/s², or to our own planet, which comes in at 9.807 m/s2, and even the least skilled basketball player could shoot some pretty sweet hoops (by the same token, this means that its escape velocity is also low: 0.573 km/s. A fast car could literally drive off the edge of this satellite).

Of the larger moons, it is the only one with an inclined orbit, making it the only one from where the rings of Saturn are clearly visible; for the other large satellites, the rings run parallel to their orbits, making them appear edge on, little more than a linear sliver.

Another strange thing is its shape: astronomers have described Iapetus as walnut shaped, with a giant equatorial ridge running through the vast, dark region dubbed Cassini Regio (see the header image).

There are other interesting features about Iapetus, but that’s all the time and space we have for Saturn’s oddly orbiting sibling.

Until next space, next time, keep looking up.

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