Capturing time

Turin, Museum of Antiquities. Kairos. Marble bas-relief. Roman c

Time eludes us. We never have enough of it when we need it. Good times with dear ones pass quickly. Dull times pass slowly. A day rushes by in a flurry of activity, an hour is lost on a hopeless task, a sweet moment, like a kiss, lingers and then melts away. What is this slippery thing we call ‘time’?

The ancient Greeks had two quite different concepts of time: chronos (χρόνος), referring to a period, season or space of time; and kairos (καιρός) referring to the right time for action, the critical moment. Chronos is linear and can be measured, in days, months and years. Kairos, however, is an altogether different concept. It refers to recognition of the significance of the present moment.

In Greek mythology, Chronos is described as great, crafty and cunning. He was one of the Titans, the earliest generation of Greek gods and one of the twelve children of Heaven and Earth. He is a portrayed as a destructive force and his power is characterized by violence and the violation of proper order and hierarchy. Initially, he had no consideration, obeyed no rules, and was seemingly wild and uncontrollable.

Chronos is said to have ambushed his father (Heaven) as he lay with his mother (Earth) and castrated him using a sickle with jagged teeth. He then took his father’s place as ruler of the cosmos and married his own sister, Rhea. Interestingly, ‘Rhea’ means ‘flow’ or ‘ease’, a gentler concept of time passing, often linked with the female menstrual cycle and with motherhood. But even after marrying Rhea, Chronos’ nature did not change.

In an effort to protect himself from being usurped, Chronos swallowed each of his children as Rhea gave birth to them:

These great Cronos swallowed as each [460] came forth from the womb to his mother’s knees with this intent, that no other of the proud sons of Heaven should hold the kingly office amongst the deathless gods. For he learned from Earth and starry Heaven that he was destined to be overcome by his own son, [465] strong though he was, through the contriving of great Zeus. Therefore he kept no blind outlook, but watched and swallowed down his children: and unceasing grief seized Rhea. (1)

Rhea sought help from her parents and they devised a plan, as retribution for Chronos’ violence toward his father, and for swallowing his children. Rhea gave birth to Zeus in a secret place on the island of Crete and, with the help of her mother, Zeus was hidden away.  A stone wrapped in swaddling clothes was presented to Chronos and Chronos duly swallowed the stone:

Then he took it in his hands and thrust it down into his belly: wretch! he knew not in his heart that in place of the stone his son was left behind, unconquered and untroubled, [490] and that he was soon to overcome him by force and might and drive him from his honors, himself to reign over the deathless gods. (2)

Zeus grew up and gained strength. With the help of the other Olympians, he waged a ten year war against his father Chronos and the other Titans, eventually defeating them and driving them into Tartarus. Zeus (representing law, order and proper hierarchy) eventually brought Chronos under control; the era of chronos without logos had passed, and chronological time began.

In Greek mythology, Kairos is a completely different figure to Chronos. Lysippos is said to have made a bronze statue of Kairos in the fourth century BCE. Unfortunately, the statue has not survived, but we do have a marble relief that is said to be a copy of Lysippos’ work (see header image above).

Kairos is depicted as a youthful, athletic figure with wings on his back and feet. He is balancing on a stick, whilst holding a sharp blade in his right hand and a set of scales. There is tension, concentration and complete focus in the moment. In ancient Greek history, the ‘kairos’ refers to the turning point in the battle, the moment at which the outcome will be decided. In literature and drama, the ‘kairos’ is the critical moment for the protagonist, the point in time at which his choice of action will determine his fate.

In the third century BCE, the poet Posidippos composed the following epigram to accompany Lysippos’ statue:

“Who are you? Kairos, subduer of all.

Why do you stand on tip-toe? I run quickly.

And why you have wings on both your feet? I am as swift as wind.

Why do you hold a razor in your right hand? As proof to men that I am sharper than any sharp edge.

Why does your hair grow over your face? For one who encounters me to grasp.

And why, in Heaven’s name, is the back of your head bald? For once my winged feet pass by, even if desiring to, no one can grasp me from behind.

Why did the artist fashion you? For your sake, stranger, and he set me up in the porch as a lesson.” (Anth. Pal. 16.275.7).

I am coming around to the view that kairos, the critical moment, is more important than chronos. I think my children have taught me this. I used to be beholden only to the concept of linear time, particularly, the past and the future. Little children live only in the present moment. They are wonderfully free of the burden of chronological time. They seize kairos by the hair and they don’t let him go.

The two Greek concepts of time illustrate to me that I will never have any control over chronos, but with kairos I have a chance. If one is present now, in this moment, and awake to what is required in this moment, then one has a chance to realize something, to bring something about, at this critical juncture between linear time and opportunity.

(1) and (2): Hesiod, Theogony available online at

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