Home » Greek and Roman Mythology » Introducing the Greek Gods

Introducing the Greek Gods


In the next couple of weeks of my Coursera course on Greek and Roman Mythology Peter Struck is moving us away from heroes and humans, we are going to take a closer look at the gods. The readings include an epic by the poet Hesiod named ”The Theogony” and a collection of hymns known by tradition as The Homeric Hymns.

These gods are not the all-powerful, all knowing and all good creatures we think about as being gods. The Greek gods are flawed and strange, and they have their own ways of doing things. They don’t know everything. They have tremendous powers, much more powerful than humans, but they’re not all powerful, and they’re surely not all good. They’re somewhat more like humans, but they don’t die and they’re massively powerful. That is how the Greeks view their gods.

The gods suffer, they go through trials and tribulations they try to find their place among their peers they try to improve their life. The etymology of Hesiod’s Theogony tells us that the gods are born. The Greek title of Hesiod’s epic, Theogonia, comes from two words, ‘thaos’ being God and ‘gonia’ meaning a birth, a coming into being through birth. They might not die, but according to Hesiod and rich parts of the tradition, the gods are born, there’s a time before which they don’t exist.

The world of these texts is one that’s much earlier than the Homeric stories of the Trojan War and afterwards. They cover the early days of creation before the world was formed. In this early time humans and gods communicated face to face which is quite striking from a Homeric perspective.

Hesiod and Ancient Near East Connections.

The Fertile Crescent (Credit: Wikipedia)

The Greeks were not an isolated race they were connected to many other cultures around the wonderfully connective body of water of the Mediterranean Sea.  In Homer’s writings these connections are sometimes hard to find. Connections must have existed we just don’t have a rich enough evidence base to tell us what they were.  In these texts, the picture is a little bit different, we have connections with Hesean’s Theogony that we can isolate and  label in many different traditions around  the ancient near-east especially.

There are some very old cultures in the ‘Fertile crescent’.  The Sumerians and Babylonians were there for many millennia before the Common Era and much earlier than the Greeks.  There are also literary records that survived from these groups. They survive in cuneiform and some poetic stories with linkages to things like the Odyssey or the Iliad, but with really striking resemblances to some of the themes that animate Hesiod’s Theogony.  Looking at connections with these other cultures is a very helpful way to start a discussion of Hesiod’s Theogony where the underlying concepts are not exclusive to Greek myth.  Several near eastern cultures have their own religions, and also their own creation myths, sometimes with striking similarities to Theogony.

The Babylonians have their epic, “The Enûma Eliš , the creation epic.  It’s a story of the creation of the universe, and serves as justification for the supremacy of their highest god, Marduk. He defeats an earlier goddess called Tiamat, one of two original divinities in the world.  Scholars have long recognized many similarities between Marduk and Zeus.  Like Zeus Maduk is a sky god, he is of a younger generation, he overthrows an older generation and establishes himself as, top dog, creating order, and, overthrowing his parents in order to triumph.  The Babylonians intended that The Enûma Eliš should serve as a song of praise, for the king of their gods.  In Hesiod’s story there is a triumphant narrative about the greatness of Zeus.  This serves as hymnic praise for Zeus’s position in the Universe.

Kumarbi (Credit : arthuride.wordpress.com)

The Sumerians had their own system of Gods and Goddesses.  Among the principal Gods were Ahn, a Sky God and the supreme authority, and Inanna, the queen of the gods, and the goddess of sexual love and war, and Enlil, a storm god who was also active in earthly events.  Their myths covered a variety of topics including creation of the world and humans.  The Sumerian gods also figure prominently in the epic of Gilgamesh the oldest epic in existence, thanks to the cuneiform that kept that intact.  Gilgamesh’s story has surprising similarities to some of the military aspects in the Iliad and some of the journey parts of the Odyssey.

The cultures of the Hittites and the Hurrians were taken north as societies in the Fertile Crescent expanded and moved into the Anatolian plain.  They too had their own sets of gods and goddesses, with some relationship to those of Sumerians and Babylonians. There is a ‘Kingship in Heaven’ myth for the Hittites, the story is not fully known but it bears some similarities to the Theogony.  The first god of heaven, Alalu, is overthrown by Anu, who assumes his role.  His cup bearer is named Kumarbi, he challenges Anu, and eventually cuts off his genitals and swallows them.  Anu then tells Kumarbi that he has become impregnated with several divinities.  Kumarbi then spits out something which probably included the genitals of Anu.  This is where the text breaks off. In the Theogony several of these themes are paralleled. Generations where younger ones overthrow older ones to castration and an efficacious power of the genitals after they’re sliced off. With Hesiod we are able to find these links a little bit more readily as the literary tradition that pre-existed Hesiod survives more intact than the literary tradition that preceded Homer.

Once these cultures made contact with one another cultural forms moved from the Fertile Crescent over across the Anatolian plain and into Greece.  Once contact was made it helped the Greeks shape their own ideas about how creation might work.

Introduction to Hesiod

“The Dance of the Muses at Mount Helicon” by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1807). Hesiod cites inspiration from the Muses while on Mount Helicon.

Hesiod wrote Greek epic poetry in the same genre as Homer, but there are some differences in the way Hesiod approaches it.

The similarities.

Firstly it is epic poetry which is a certain genre written in a certain meter.  Hesiod uses the same dactylic hexameter as Homer.  They also used the same diction.  They have this special poetic epic poetic diction which draws on dialects from all around the Greek world and is not anything that any one particular person would have spoken. It’s a specialized language that they both use.  The tone that would have been conveyed by the special diction and this dactylic hexameter meter, in both cases, would have been very powerful very moving and quite grand, in some cases, hypnotic.  They both claimed to be inspired by the muses.  Hesiod is inspired by multiple muses, Homer only by one but both imagine themselves as being a conduit for the muse.

Each of these poets has probably, a functional role to play in helping the Greek city states to start thinking of themselves as one collective entity.  In Ancient Greece there were a lot of very dispersed city states.  They were at war with one another for centuries before and after Homer. Their identity was first of all, a Spartan or an Athenian not Greek.  Eventually though, these Pan-Hellenic notions of what a cultural identity is has greater power. Homer and Hesiod were important in this sense of communal Greek identity which encompassed Greek-speaking city states.

Thirdly, we can look at a similarity in terms of just raw themes.  Both of them are interested in gods and heroes.  Hesiod is more interested in the gods and Homer in heroes but for  each of them there are these two groups.

The differences

Hesiod and the Muse, by Gustave Moreau. (Credit : Wikipedia)

In formal structure, Hesiod does not use an elegant linear-narrative story as Homer, a master of narrative, does.  He tells a story, and that’s what keeps us linked to his epic poem.  Hesiod does not focus on a narrative teleology.  The different kinds of anchoring mechanisms in the unfolding of Hesiod’s story are one such structural difference.  Lists, for example, are very prominent in Hesiod.   They play some role in Homer such as the catalog of ships which has a strong place in the tradition.  In Hesiod, the whole epic is peppered with lists in degrees of length and complexity.  In the list of Nereid nymphs where there are 50 proper names. Something that is completely lost to us on a page is the performative potential built into a long list of proper names.  The poets are narrating in public, for an audience from memory. It is hard enough to imagine memorizing thousands of lines of poetry, and even more so with many lines in succession that only have proper names.  There’s nothing, there’s no mnemonic device you can lock into.  Hesiod is representing poetry that shows a performative virtuosity.  The poet would deliver a long list of proper names from memory, in perfect cadence according to the metrical constraints of the epic poem.

These lists also remind us that what we are seeing in the form of this ancient epic poetry is something much more than just a great story.  We are also seeing a cultural repository.  Short stories of a great past, that’s important and we definitely see that in Homer.  But in Hesiod’s case, we have more of a connection to what was an important function in ancient epic that was a sheer record keeping, memory.  Names are important, knowing the names of important people in the past, people who have been lost, people who are killed or lost in battle.  Keeping track of those names is something that groups of people like to do and cultures like to do.

Hesiod and Homer were performing during a time when the alphabet was just arriving. There were rather clunky lists used before their time with pictographic script which was not all that efficient.  Oral poetry was a main source of preserving cultural memory and that had to include a list of specific names.  These lists of names performed a function of bringing groups together.  So, when one local town has a water nymph nearby another local town has a different water nymph Hesiod strung them altogether to tell us how they are related and how they are connected.  It would have been apparent to those that thought one of their nymphs was Thalia, and another group that thought their nymph was Doris.  Seeing them in the same list and seeing they’re genealogically connected, would have given them a common thread the feeling could then be mutual.

Finally, with respect to lists, there’s a strong sense of grandeur in an epic.  There’s a sense of in these lists of completeness and totality.  Stringing together lists tells the audience that everything that’s culturally important to remember is included.  It conveys an encyclopaedic aspect to this epic poem. It becomes an important and full repository of cultural information.

In addition to lists Hesiod replaced the narrative thrust that drives Homer’s epic forward with genealogy. It is his main structuring device for how poetry is supposed to work. It organizes family trees that introduce some order into the cast that surround us. Hesiod lets that genealogical template expand to all the pieces of the universe connecting gods and heroes, between abstract forces in the cosmos and themselves, or between those abstract forces in individual divinities.  Just as a family tree doesn’t necessarily have a single narrative to it Hesiod’s story doesn’t have a single narrative to it.

Statuette of Triple-bodied Hecate (Credit : Wikipedia)

There are differences in content, different versions of the story. Hesiod clearly, really likes Hecate, but Homer doesn’t even mention her. There are different versions of Aphrodite’s birth.  Hesiod’s is a violent strange one, Homer’s is a more normal genealogical connection between Zeus and Dione.  There are differences in the births of the gods.  Homer doesn’t have long stories about how the gods came into being.  The Homeric gods grow out of the ocean, and then they come from relations that the gods have with each other.  Hesiod makes sure it all fits together.

There are differences in overall purpose.  Homer wants to remember great deeds whereas Hesiod wants to peel back a veil that overlays the secrets of the deep past and tell us about how the world works.   Homer was a preserver of legends of the past and Hesiod, a revealer of hidden truths.

These differences show through in their different temperaments and their ways of approaching their material, especially, when we get to the differences in the content. There really isn’t one single true version of any of these myths.  There’s not a definitive version that you can go to, only more or less authoritative versions.  Hesiod is deeply authoritative, as deeply authoritative as Homer is.  What we have is a collection of disparate tales woven together, and on occasion there is some grand voice that comes along and makes a powerful stamp on the tradition.

Hesiod’s Opening Hymn to the Muses

The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and the Muses (Credit : artic.edu)

We know a little more about Hesiod than we do about Homer, he tells us in his poetry. The more useful one is from the poem called the Works and Days where Hesiod talks about himself and his brother.  Hesiod we know lived in central Greece in the eighth century B.C.E.  His father came from the coast of Asia Minor in modern day Turkey.  His father had been a merchant seaman, but it was difficult to make ends meet so, he went to Ascra, a small village on the eastern side of Mount Helicon, in Boeotia, in central Greece, across the Mediterranean or across the Aegean from Turkey.  There, Hesiod and his brother, Perses, were born.  Hesiod became a poet from the muses he says that they came down from Mount Helicon and instructed him. The Muse’s association with this mountain grows out of Hesiod claiming to have been inspired at that point.

Hesiod (Credit : clas.ufl.edu)

Homer was a master of great narrative story.  Hesiod is master in a different way of what is possible within an epic.  We hear in his Works and Days a lot of useful information he has a practical side that shows through and it almost reads like an almanac.  It tells you the best times of year to do things, sailing, farming, fishing, trading and also talks about, wisdom to negotiate through day to day life.  Hesiod doesn’t talk down from on high, in a way that Homer sometimes seems to.  Hesiod, instead, can relate to human beings and the way that we need to take care of what is necessary in our lives. He shows himself to have a pretty powerful eye when it comes to trying to figure how the universe works. We get that story in The Theogony.

Hesiod doesn’t start in the middle of the story as Homer did, building the whole epic into the first word, the first line, the first ten lines.  He starts with a long hymn to the muses.  He praises them and talks about how wonderful they are.  The opening of his epic fits the form of what a hymn is supposed to be.  There is a personal relationship expressed with the muses.  This gives him a way to get inside a story through the muses and through giving them ample and abundant praise.  He sings about their role in the cosmos, talks about their special skills, and then bids them farewell.

Homer has a single nameless muse who inspires him and uses him as a conduit.  Hesiod has a fuller picture of what the muses are and what they do. There is a group of three that get inside his head and give him insight.  They let him see past, present, and future. He has a synoptic overview of things that is reasonably compared, to a prophetic insight.  Poets are there in order to see things that normal human beings can’t and then to record them and pass them on.  Poets recover past events, and then they immortalize them for the future.

John Flaxman, Compositions From the Works Days and Theogony of Hesiod

He also mentions a relationship between the muses and kingship, or leadership.  The muses give the power to be a good king.  It could be that Hesiod wants to talk about poets as being in the same league as powerful people in a political context, elevating the status of poets.  The idea of a poet-rule or a poet-king has enough cultural traction over the long sweep of history to suggest that there’s more than just a strategic relationship between these two. In Hesiod a grand synoptic vision of the world is really important for lots of things. There’s a perspective that you get with the synoptic view of something that is irreplaceable.  It is much more important than just simply knowing all the discrete little pieces of knowledge. Having a large overview, is something that is deeply valuable, and goes into what makes an effective ruler and leader.  The way it effects the person is that it makes them better, with respect to making judgments of fairness.  The world is complex, things get out of, out of kilter. There’s an intuitive sense of fairness, but we trust some other people’s judgment on it more than others.

The poets learn from muses that they can sing truth and they can also sing lies, either one.  From the muses themselves, we harken back to the opening definition of myth. Some claim that it’s a lie, by definition; myth means something that is not true.  Other people claim that by definition myth is an ultimate and profound truth.  Hesiod puts the same theory of mythology in the mouth of the muses.  They can lie and they can tell the truth.

Next we have the outline of the poem to come.  We hear about the family of the gods that are in the poem.  We hear about Zeus, and about the family of men and powerful giants.  Hesiod lays a setting in his opening hymn and gives us a window onto what’s coming next.

Earth and Sky

Earth is also sometimes refereed to as Gaia, Gaea, Ge.

Sky is also called Heaven, Uranus, Ouranus.

Hesiod uses genealogy as a flexible and robust structuring device to try to piece together lots of different traditions that are around him.  In the Greek city states he saw that his neighbors had lots of different ways of treating the divinities.  He tried to work out how might they all fit together to do this he turned to genealogy to find a place for all of them and an ordering system.

Peter Struck showed us an is an example drawn from the American magazine ‘The New Yorker’ and cartoonist, Roz Chast.  Some years ago, she put together “The Cosmology of Timmy”.

Peter Struck demonstrating the Cosmos.

Peter Struck demonstrating the Cosmos.

Hesiod does something similar to Timmy; he tries to piece together lots of disparate traditions around the Greek countryside and find places and relationships among all of them. The opening hymn fits the many of the structuring elements that makes a proper Greek hymn.  After the hymn Hesiod turns to the production of order in the cosmos and to his genealogical template.

 “First came the Chasm, and then broad-breasted Earth, secure a seat for ever of all the immortals who occupy the peak of snowy Olympus; the misty Tartara in a remote recess of the broad-pathed Earth; and Eros, the most handsome among the immortal gods, dissolver of flesh, who overcomes the reason and purpose in the breasts of all gods and all men.

Out of the Chasm came Erebos and dark Night, and from Night in turn came Bright Air and Day, whom she bore in shared intimacy with Erebos.”

In Hesiod’s world there’s a pre-genealogy with four prior existing entities, the Chasm, Earth, Tartara, and Eros.  They have just been around for all time; they are just there as Hesiod begins his story.  The Chasm is a very important figure.  In Greek, the term that’s translated as ‘Chasm’ the Greek is Xaos.  Some translators choose the English term ‘Chaos’ because the letters match quite well and there’s an etymological connection between Xaos and Chaos.  The ancient Greek term does not mean disorder; it means emptiness, empty space. The Chasm is something that exists at the beginning; it’s the empty space in which the rest of these reproductions happen.

Gaea rising from the earth (Credit : theoi.com)

Earth is a key character in Hesiod’s genealogical structures.  Tartara is a pluralized name Tartarus, a more familiar name of the underworld or a region below the upper world.  Eros is an abstract sexual desire, but it’s nothing like a gentle love between people.  It’s a more violent, sometimes quite dangerous desire that can cause destruction and violence.  These creatures start creation.

Chasm alone produces Erebos and Night. Then, Night alone produces Bright Air and Day, but we learn in the closing part of that line that Night after, when she produces Bright Air and Day, she does it in shared intimacy with Erebos.  The next generations are required to have a shared intimacy in order to reproduce which is the normal way that things happen in Hesiod. This is the start of the reproductive cycle, the alpha stage of generation. During the alpha stage, we have generations that come out of Earth.  Earth produces out of herself in that same way that Chasm produces in the very first thing.  She produces many things including Sky who then becomes her partner.  She has sexual relations with Sky, and from her come a whole order of Titans.  These are scary creatures, Hesiod calls them fearsome children.  Also during this alpha stage of creation come monsters. Famous ones like the Cyclops and the hundred handers are created here.

The hundred handers are giant creatures that have 100 hands. These early generations of the creative process, like the titans and the monsters, are not quite right.  Things in reproduction in the first cycle don’t work quite as they should well, as with many first attempts at creating things.  This is the alpha stage.

Aion-Uranus with Terra (Credit : Wikipedia)

Sky and Earth have an intimate relationship and reproduce. The Earth is reproducing and reproducing. But Sky hates his children and hides them away inside Earth. Earth gets annoyed with her mate, the Sky, and doesn’t want Sky to be coming on top of her every evening, she wants to be relieved of the pressure and let her children out.

“But vast Earth groaned under the pressure inside, And immediately she came up with a wicked plan. She created the element of adamant and shaped a great sickle, And told her plan to her dear sons. Full of bitterness, she exhorted them: “My children, Begotten of a sinful father, will you do what I say? We should punish your father for this vile outrage; He started doing these shameful things.”

Sky is clogging up Earth’s pathways. Sky is definitely gendered male here and the female principal here is Earth. They are having difficulties with the process of sexual reproduction and Sky is threatened by the produce that’s coming out of his mate, the Earth.  The male principle is, finds the female power of reproduction to be a little bit scary and wants to try to control it.  He’s trying to clog it up to stop the power of reproduction.

Adamantine was the hardest substance that they knew about.  Cronus volunteers to take the knife and do the deed.

“But the son, left hand stretched out from his ambush, Took in his right the long sickle with its jagged teeth, And swiftly he lopped off his father’s genitals And cast them away to fall behind him. And not without effect did they fall from his hand. For all the bloody drops that gushed forth were received by Earth.”

The Mutilation of Uranus by Saturn
(Credit : Wikipedia)

After Sky is castrated by his own son, we don’t hear much from him.  This castration of Sky, ordered by Earth and executed by the son is deeply effective in dis-empowering the Sky.  Earth then becomes extremely productive and lots of generations come out of her.  Things like doom, death, misery, deceit, and strife.  All these principles come, come bursting out of her now the Sky’s not on top of her every night.  From the genitals, important principles are born.  As the genitals were hurled into the ocean, they dropped blood onto the Earth.  From that blood, grew up a series of creatures called the Erinyes.  These are nasty creatures that exhibit revenge against anyone that has committed a blood murder.  If someone has blood on their hands because of a murder, the Erinyes will hunt them down and punish them.  They are blood avengers and they work via blood.

Aphrodite is said to grow up out of the foam created when the genitals are hurled into the ocean. The Greek term Aphros gives idea of foam. Aphrodite’s birth is anything but a gentle, loving one, the goddess of love is born out of a violent act committed with a sexual dimension, built into the very earliest layers of the creative process.

The term Parthenogenesis is used to refer to creation by a single power, by single principle such as when Earth, the Chasm and later Zeus create all by themselves.

After the genealogies of the beasts, we get a long list of monsters that come up.  We hear famous ones like Medusa, Echidna, and Typhae, Typhoeus, and Cerberus, and Hydra, and Chimera, and the Nemean lion.  These are all things that come out of this very early stage of creation where one could expect that certain kinds of nasty monstrous creatures are going to come. It connects them all back to the alpha stage of creation.  We also get during this stage a long list of myths. It is here that we have the Nereid nymphs. They don’t seem to be connected with any negativity or violence.  So, the alpha generation is possible of reproducing nasty things and some things that are pretty good.

Kronos and Rhea

Kronos is also known as Cronos, Saturn.

Rhea is also Ground and Plato.

Cronus & Rhea (Credit L theoi.com)

Kronos and Rhea now begin generation “stage beta”.  In the second generation, we have Kronos and Rhea reproducing and they reproduce all kinds of things such as Olympian divinities. Zeus also gives birth to some of the Olympians.

Kronos has a special place in mythological history.  He’s particularly nasty; he has a tough time in life.  His mother talked him into killing his father as an impressionable age. When it’s his turn to become the father the violence that’s part of this family gets exhibited once again. Just as Sky was unnerved by the reproductive power of Earth and pressed all her issue back into her so Kronos tries to control the reproduction of Rhea. Rather than push everything back up into her he puts them into his own mouth.  Kronos eats his own children.  These children as immortals are not digested or metabolized. They’re immortal so they can’t die, but they are trapped in his stomach.

“The others great Kronos swallowed, as each of them reached their mother’s knees from her holy womb.  His purpose was that none but he of the lordly celestials should have the royal station among the immortals.  For he learned from Earth and starry  Sky that it was fated for him to be  defeated by his own child, powerful though  he was, through the designs of great Zeus.  So, he kept no blind man’s watch, but observed and swallowed his children.”

Saturn devouring his son (Credit : Wikipedia)

He swallowed them all until the youngest child to which Rhea has a special attachment. She comes up with a scheme in consultation with Earth.  She hands Kronus a stone wrapped in cloth instead of the child.  Kronos is not too bright and he swallows that stone.  He thinks that he’s controlled these powerful creatures.  In the meantime the baby, who is Zeus, is taken away and tucked into a cave in Crete.  There he matures and develops away from his scheming father.  He gets his skills together and gets his strength together until he finally becomes powerful enough when he can come back and face his father in a struggle. That struggle occupies most of the action in the rest of the text after a few digressions.

The stone has a name.  It’s called the omphalos. Soon after Zeus comes of age he forcess Kronos to vomit up his children.  Earth is again involved in persuading him to do this.  The stone when it comes out falls onto Earth at a particular place, at the oracle site of Delphi.  It’s called the omphalos because the Greek term omphalos means a navel the centre of the earth.  It’s thought that this actual stone was in Kronos’ belly.  When it fell to Earth, it fell at Delphi and that was the centre of the universe.

Omphalos, the navel of the earth. Photo credit: Peter Long

Humans and Sacrifice

Sacrifice (Credit : Shelton.berkley.edu)

Next is a long digression where Hesiod talks to us about the arrival of human beings.  All of a sudden they’re just there in the story.  They are there pretty much in order to worship the gods.  We meet them in the context of sacrifice, and the worship. For Hesiod, it’s definitely not a big deal for humans to arrive on the scene.  This is the story of the gods.  Humans give the gods what the gods want through sacrifice.

The story of humans is told via the figure Prometheus at a place called Mekone.  We learn about Prometheus, in a digression on genealogy connected to a Titan named Lapetos.  Prometheus is one of Lapetos’s offspring. Prometheus gets involved in a mischievous way in a sacrificial ritual that human beings are giving in honour of the gods.  Zeus is there and witnesses the sacrifice. Prometheus makes two piles of the sacrificed animal.  One of them is the bones of the animal covered with fat to make them look attractive.  The other is a heap of the choicest meats that he covers over with fur.  He gives Zeus the choice and he chooses the one that’s glistening with fat.  In Hesiod’s version of the tale, Zeus was not deceived.  He wanted to punish Prometheus later.  He takes the bones, leaving the choicest piece of meats for the humans to eat.  This is the typical way that Greek sacrifice is executed.  When the Greeks sacrifice they kill the animal ritually, take its bones, wrap them in glistening fat, and burn them to send them up to the gods.

Hesiod gives us a further story saying this whole thing emerged out of an original deception. Prometheus was trying to trick them, but Zeus wasn’t really tricked he went along with it. This is an example of humans engaged in sacrifice and did this as a normal ritual activity. At some point decided just to give the bones to the Gods and keep the good meat. There’s residual guilt built into this explanation as if the human beings needed an explanation. What Hesiod has done is given us a reasoning behind that.  He’s using myth to explain a ritual practice whose logic is a little hard to understand.  Giving us that background, we get to blame it all on Prometheus (See Functionalism).

Prometheus (Credit : theoi.com)

Zeus is highly angered and decides to punish Prometheus.  First he punishes the humans by stealing fire back from them. Presumably they had fire because they were engaged in sacrificial rituals, so they had to have something to be able to burn he sacrifices to the gods.  Zeus takes it back from them and keeps it from them.  Prometheus now, carrying forward with his  mischief, worms his way back up to Zeus’s  lair and steals the fire again in a fennel stalk, and gives it back to the humans.  Zeus is irate and decides to punish Prometheus through eternity. Zeus has an eagle that he commands to eat out Prometheus’ liver.  That liver then grows back such that the bird can come back and eat it out again.  Prometheus is one of those famous few sinners that we see who does something so awful that he is punished throughout all eternity.  Zeus now needs to punish human beings.  He creates an affliction against humankind. The affliction is the whole race of women. Female gendered human beings are brought against males as a punishment.

This strongly misogynistic characteristic of this story reveals a strong gender affiliation of Hesiod. Many of our poets don’t have rich and very well thought out views on gender relations.  Hesiod’s very strong and upsetting opinion is one that those who were interested in gender and antiquity need to consider carefully

 War, Cosmos, Reproduction

Plate LXV Canto XXXI – The titans and the giants Amphora with Birth of Athena Metopes from the Temple of Hera at Selinus – photo by Alinari Zues of Otricoli from original in the Vatican

The Titans (Credit ; Wikipedia)

In the next part of the story we see Zeus and Kronos’s ten-year battle. Previously in ‘The Theogony’ Earth had tricked Kronos into vomiting back up his children and Zeus was involved. Zeus allies with the Cyclopses and gets the thunderbolt so that he can rule the Cosmos, a precursor to the end of the story where Zeus is going to be in control of everything.

The battle is nasty and deeply violent.  A thunderbolt is not a gentle weapon. Zeus gets his weapons by means of persuasion.  He frees the Cyclopses from the under the Earth where the Titans had kept them.  The cyclopses give him his thunderbolt which is powerful enough to annihilate whatever is in opposition. He crushes the Titans who end up in Tartarus where Zeus has them chained down to the very bottom. Zeus wins by means of this thunderbolt and by making alliances.  He gets three of the hundred-handers on his side. They also were offspring of the Titans that were not treated well by them. The Titans don’t treat their subordinates well and Zeus then sees an opportunity, is kind to them and pulls  them over to his side.

Typhoeus (Credit ; theoi.com)

The scenes are especially pungent with hundred-handers ripping off hunks of mountain and throwing a hundred boulders at a time at the Ttitans. At the end of a huge war like this there is no killing as these are all immortals.  Zeus though is now in a dominant position, so, he is able to restrain and bind the Titans.  This scene is so nasty as it’s unfolding, we hear from the Chasm.  When this war is at stake, the Earth is shaking to such a degree that even the Chasm is shaking.  The war shakes the universe down to its fundamental pieces.  Zeus wins that war.  The subsequent victory in battle with the monster, Typhoeus, reinforces the idea that while in a previous generation, younger ones came up and overthrew the older ones, and Zeus’s win is going to be final. Zeus is no longer vulnerable to younger generations he is forever top dog of the universe.

With Zeus’s victory the gods, at Earth’s prompting, make him king.  He’s earned his place through struggle and is top creature in the universe and he solidified himself.  During this war, we get some details about this cosmological structure. The stories are paced equally. It’s as though the Cosmos is achieving order. Zeus defeating the Titans is parallel to the Cosmos achieving its order.

We learn about Tartarus, a place way down below. Earth is a place in the middle, and the Heavens are in a place way up above. Hesiod gives us a way of thinking about how these connections are made.

“This far misty Tartarus is from earth. A bronze anvil falling down from heaven for nine nights And nine days would reach the earth upon the tenth. And a bronze anvil falling from earth nine nights And nine days would reach Tartarus upon the tenth. Round it runs a barrier of bronze, and night spreads In a triple line around its rim, while above Grow the roots of the earth and unfruitful sea.”

We also hear of the principle of the Styx a river which runs through Tartarus and is the body of water on which even the gods are able to take an oath. For the gods the punishment for breaking an oath is not death when they swear an oath on Styx.

Of this water while swearing falsely, he will lie breathless Until a full year is completed, and never will he taste Ambrosia and nectar for food. He will lie spiritless And voiceless on a strewn bed: and a heavy trance Will hold him unconscious. But when he has spent A long year in his sickness, another even harder trial Will follow after the first. For nine years he will be Cut off from the eternal gods and he will never join Their councils or their feasts, for nine full years. But in the tenth year he will come again to join The assemblies of the deathless gods who live on Olympus”

We also hear about the Ocean. This is a river that circles the earth, out of which all the waters come and out of. When Zeus overcomes the Titans order has been established and there’s a strong acknowledgment of this from all of his peers.  There’s also, interestingly, in this part of the epic, a handover of the powers of reproduction.  With Zeus, we enter into a new level of reproductivity.  he is an extremely powerful reproducer.  Some of these creatures he produces on his own.  A lot of them he produces by sexual relations with other divinities. He takes over the power of principal reproducer from Gaia. Zeus is top dog in the universe in lots of different ways and not least  because he’s now at the centre of the  genealogical chart.

Birth of Athena from the head of Zeus. Credit ( jakeslesection.pbworks.com)

Near the very end of the story Zeus has a sexual relationship with a goddess called Metis and she becomes pregnant. Before she gives birth he swallows her, seeming to do something as awful as Cronus does. There’s never a nasty interpretation of this in the tradition. The name Metis means “practical wisdom”.  Zeus in swallowing Metis, internalizes practical wisdom according to the ancient reading of it.  He successfully appropriates the power of reproduction by following the scheme of internalizing practical wisdom. He becomes reproductive.  The first thing that comes out of him is the offspring from Metis who gave birth, presumably inside him, out of her own womb.  Then he gives birth again out of his head out pops Athena.  This great reproductive power moves to Zeus, harkening back to the gender politics. In Hesiod’s story males have the power of reproduction in order for the universe to work as it should.  When Zeus becomes the leader of the universe and establishes order, that move is paralleled with his appropriation for males, of the female power of reproduction.

Earth played a pivotal role in the story as a female principal and as the prior most productive entity in the universe.  She has an important role in all aspects of this rise to power of Zeus.  She’s sometimes on his side, sometimes not. She was there before creation itself.  She was involved in the castration of Sky.  She wanted that to happen so she disempowered her own husband and her own generation handing her power to her younger son.  Then she warns Kronos that someone, one of his off-springs is going to overthrow him.  But that doesn’t stop her from also helping Zeus.  She schemes with Rhea to make sure that Kronos swallows a stone and not Zeus.  Then, she takes in Zeus into herself in a cave in Crete so that Zeus can be raised out of the womb of the Earth in addition to being raised out of the womb of his own mother. She then advises Zeus to free the hundred-handers so they can be on his side in the war, a pivotal tactical manoeuvre that Zeus makes.  Finally, she bares Typhoeus, to struggle against Zeus, to test him, to see if he deserves that power, and maybe try to overthrow him.  After Zeus defeats Typhoeus she advises all the Olympians to accept Zeus as their main power.  She then advises Zeus, to be the one to swallow Metis.  So, this power of reproduction seems to have been given over willingly by Earth, the female principal to Zeus, the male principal as a marker of Zeus’ position of authority as the central figure in the Cosmos.  This very messy family tree is something that he seduces to order this whole set of events. He has got what he’ was looking for at the beginning.  There’s order, there’s predictability, there’s structure in the Cosmos, and it’s based on Zeus, the powerful male principal.


Sigmund  Freud (1856 to 1939).  It is interesting for me to come back to Freud here. Of course reading about the castration of Sky by Kosmos immediately brought him to mind. I have included him in my toolbox.



  1. Thank you for putting it all together. I will be returning here over and over again.

  2. segmation says:

    I love reading about Greek and Roman Mythology. Thanks for sharing.

  3. vallance22 says:

    Now,. THIS is a blog with plenty of historical information on Greek poetry and literature! My congratulations!
    As you point out (correctly) Hesiod and Homer were performing during a time when the alphabet was just arriving. …
    What is really fascinating is this: when the Mycenaeans, who were probably the very Greeks Homer refers to
    in the Iliad, wrote Greek, they used the Linear B script, which is a syllabary, and which was deciphered by
    Michael Ventris in 1952-53. What is truly fascinating about the Mycenaeans is that their script mentions almost
    all the gods and goddess Homer does in the Iliad. Co-iincidence…. I think not.

    Wonderful work you are doing. I am following your scholarly blog with great interest.

    Richard Vallance
    Linear B, Knossos & Mycenae (Blog)

    • Louise Taylor says:

      What an acclamation, thank you very much. I think I will have to carry on and read some of the Mycenaens, it sounds interesting. I am thoroughly enjoying my second education. This part on the Greeks has been a wonderful experience. My next course starts next week before this one is finished and is again a totally different subject.

  4. vallance22 says:

    Reblogged this on Linear B, Knossos & Mycenae and commented:
    If you are at all interested in ancient Greek literature, philosophy, Homer and the poets of that age, you have simply GOT to check out this blog!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: