Tityos was the son of Elara; his father was Zeus. Zeus hid Elara from his wife, Hera, by placing her deep beneath the earth. Tityos grew so large that he split his mother's womb, he and was carried to term by Gaia, the Earth. Once grown, Tityos attempted to rape Leto at the behest of Hera and was slain by Artemis and Apollo. As punishment, he was stretched out in Tartarus and tortured by two vultures who fed on his liver, which grew back every night. This punishment is comparable to that of the Titan Prometheus.
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Jane Ellen Harrison noted that, "To the orthodox worshipper of the Olympians he was the vilest of criminals; as such Homer knew him":
- I saw Tityus too,
- son of the mighty Goddess Earth—sprawling there
- on the ground, spread over nine acres—two vultures
- hunched on either side of him, digging into his liver,
- beaking deep in the blood-sac, and he with his frantic hands
- could never beat them off, for he had once dragged off
- the famous consort of Zeus in all her glory,
- Leto, threading her way toward Pytho's ridge
- over the lovely dancing-rings of Panopeus".
In the early first century, when the geographer Strabo visited Panopeus (ix.3.423), he was reminded by the local people that it was the abode of Tityos and recalled the fact that the Phaeacians had carried Rhadamanthys in their boats to visit Tityos, according to Homer. There on Euboea at the time of Strabo they were still showing a "cave called Elarion from Elara who was mother to Tityos, and a hero-shrine of Tityos, and some kind of honours are mentioned which are paid him." It is clear that the local hero-cult had been superseded by the cult of the Olympian gods, an Olympian father provided, and the hero demonized. A comparable giant chthonic pre-Olympian of a Titan-like order is Orion.
The poet Lucretius restyles the figure of Tityos in book iv of De rerum natura, a demythologized Tityos who is not in the underworld, eternally punished, but here and now, "the prototypical anguished lover", plagued by winged creatures that are not vultures, as E.J. Kenney argues but cupids. Virgil responds to Lucretius with a retrospective simile of Tityos in the Aeneid (6.595ff), which compares his torment of desire with the unrest of Dido, whose flame of love is eating her marrow.
The traveler Pausanias (2nd century A.D.) reports seeing a painting by Polygnotus at Delphi that depicts Tityos among other figures being tormented in Hades for sacrilege: "Tityos too is in the picture; he is no longer being punished, but has been reduced to nothing by continuous torture, an indistinct and mutilated phantom."
- Tityos is referenced in Dante Alighieri's Inferno. He is mentioned to be among the biblical and mythological giants that are frozen onto the rings outside of Hell's Circle of Treachery. Dante and Virgil threatened to go to Tityos and Typhon if Antaeus doesn't lower them into the Circle of Treachery.
- In Marvel Comics, Tityos is shown in Thor Annual #19 as an inmate of Tartarus where two vultures peck out his liver.
- Tityos (whose name is spelled Tityous) is featured in Percy Jackson's Greek Gods.
- Harrison, Jane Ellen, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903) 1922, p. 336f.
- Smith, William; Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, London (1873). "Ti'tyus"
- Odyssey xi.576-81 (Robert Fagles' translation).
- Odyssey vii.324.
- Quoted in Harrison (1903) 1922, p 336.
- Kenney, "Tityos and the lover", Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society (1970:44-47).
- Colin I. M. Hamilton, "Dido, Tityos and Prometheus", The Classical Quarterly, New Series, 43.1 (1993:249-254), p. 251f.
- Pausanias, Descriptions of Greece, 10.29.3: γέγραπται δὲ καὶ Τιτυὸς οὐ κολαζόμενος ἔτι, ἀλλὰ ὑπὸ τοῦ συνεχοῦς τῆς τιμωρίας ἐς ἅπαν ἐξανηλωμένος, ἀμυδρὸν καὶ οὐδὲ ὁλόκληρον εἴδωλον.
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