Bill Long 1/27/05
Fighting Between the Big Guys
I couldn't get this word out of my mind when making an assignment to my law students the other day. I wanted them to read a case called Wisconsin Knife because it showed how difficult it is to apply Uniform Commerical Code Article 2-209 to the facts of the particular case. Specifically, I wanted my students to read the case because of the different approaches to 2-209 by two of the "really big" Circuit Court judges in America, Posner and Easterbrook. I was almost going to tell my students to study the titanomachy between the two, but I didn't think they would know the term. I will explain it in class when we consider the case. In the meantime, I decided to do some wandering in the OED and elsewhere on Titan and related words.
When you speak of Titans and Olympians you always have to start with Hesiod. So, I picked up the Theogony again, and was delighted with its rhythmic flow and artistry. Before I read some of the text this time, my mind was transported back to 1971, when I first read a portion of Hesiod in Greek. I remember spending many hours over several days trying to develop and memorize charts (ultimately unsuccessfully) regarding the "heavenly geneaology" which Hesiod describes. In those days I did the same for the cities conquered by Joshua in the biblical book of that name and the various differences between the sacrifices in Leviticus. Yep, really did.
But I didn't learn until 2005 why the Titans, children of Ouranos and Gaia, were so called. I thought Titan meant "huge," and since the Titans were huge, it befit them. But, as I was reading the pleasant flow of Hesiod I learned that the name was given them by their father, Ouranos. As Hesiod says,
"But these sons whom he begot himself great Heaven used to call Titans (Strainers) in reproach, for he said that they strained and did presumptuously a fearful deed, and that vengeance for it would come afterwards (ll. 207-210)."
Sure enough, the Greek verb is "titaino." What was the "fearful deed" which they "strained" or "overreached" to perform? The previous 30 lines describe the way that Cronus, the youngest son of Ouranos, ambushed his father with a sickle provided him by Gaia his mother, and cut off the genitals of his father. He was provoked to this action because Ouranos felt threatened by his children and decided to hide them deep in Gaia--seemingly by forcing them back into her womb. This was, naturally, painful for her, and she fully supported her son Cronus in his sickle-wielding activity.
The Next Generation
So, the Titans were the ones who overreached, who "strained." They were also very large, and so when the appellation stuck to them, it was their size rather than their overreaching exploits that became most remembered. Cronus was in charge but he soon would have vengeance wrought on him by Zeus. We know the story well. Fearful of the prophecy of his father, Cronus swallowed all his children [notice the stories of hiding the children in the bowels of the parents; notice also the fact that the child is the innocent victim of parental irrationality, yet he is nevertheless punished for liberation actions]. Zeus' mother Rhea, alert to what was happening to her children [and the comic dimensions of the story are evident], decided to feed Cronus a stone in place of her youngest son, whom she bore in a protected area in Crete. Zeus later led a successful revolt against his father. That revolt is variously referred to as the gigantomachy or the titanomachy, even though the war was between the Olympians and the Titans.
Titans for Us
When the word Titan came into English, it referred either to the Sun god (Helios) or the entire race of gods expelled by Zeus out of heaven. By the beginning of the 18th century the OED has an attestation that emphasizes the gigantic size of the Titans. Never is there an attestation emphasizing the original Greek root of the word--"strainers." So, Titans as overreachers dropped out of our language to be replaced with Titans as huge divinities.
But once "Titan" simply meant something "huge," we then get words like titanic or titanitic that stress the giant size of something. All know of the British ship Titanic, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1912 after colliding with an iceberg. What I didn't know is that after the sinking of the Titanic, a phrase developed in law called a "Titanic clause." This was a clause in a will anticipating and providing for the situation were the testator and spouse might meet a simultaneous catastrophic death. Now, thanks to the work of the National Association of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws we have a Model Uniform Simultaneous Death Act which dictates the order of death, by law, when such a catastrophe occurs. I kind of prefer "Titanic" clauses in wills, however, don't you?
I learned also that the element titanium was discovered in Germany in 1795 and named by Klaproth on the analogy of uranium, discovered just shortly before that time. The explanatory sentence in German in the OED doesn't explain what aspect of the "Titans" was impressive to Klaproth in so naming this rare metal. We know that unalloyed, pure titanium is very soft, but that when alloyed, it can become one of the strongest metals known to us. It is up to three times as strong as steel, but is 45% lighter and much more durable than gold, silver or platinum. A titanium ring, for example, will easily last for more than a lifetime..providing you don't lose the thing, of course.
So, let's recapture the term titanomachy to describe any kind of fight between two "big guys" or "big girls." The Bacon/Coke feud in the 17th century was a titanomachy. Henry VIII's fight with the Vatican in the 16th century was likewise a titanomachy. Can you think of other appropriate applications?