Now we come to Theogony, Hesiod’s account of the old gods and the coming of the Olympians. It’s rougher going than Works and Days. Some sections feature interminable lists as hard to keep straight as the Biblical begetting, while others draw out episodes with varying degrees of intrinsic interest. All the same, the Theogony is a good introductory overview of the Greek Old Gods, and there’s a primitive brutality to the stories that makes them compelling reading.
In the beginning, there was Chaos. The Babylonian Enûma Eliš embodies chaos in the goddess Tiamat, a badass beast who must be destroyed before civilization can commence; she is also winter, but what great poetic insight it is that chaos is winter! The Babylonians and Egyptians describe an amorphous fluidity. The Scriptures describe the chaos as formlessness and darkness, an abyss with God bringing light; the void is quickly glossed over. In most of the polytheistic mythologies, however, Chaos had time to dance drunk in the void, screw in the darkness, and spawn all sorts of wild monsters. This seems to me the more accurate account, told here in about 725 BCE.
Hesiod begins by evoking the Muses, those nine “fresh-voiced daughters” of Zeus and Mnemosyne who give men the gift of persuasive speech. By supernatural means, the Muses guide us as we create literature or lead kingdoms through our words. The uncanny ability of some men to cast a spell with their honeyed words is a recurrent theme in literature down to the present, likely because the demos is a recurrent governing structure. Hesiod describes leaders, poets, and singers in the same Mused group. Perhaps, we’re more skeptical now about great oral persuaders. We think of them as Don Juans, great seducers- as Hitler described political leaders- with the public as a virginal damsel in distress! To the founders of modern democracy the ideal orator was Cicero; our jaundiced ears turn to Cagliostro or the Dictator. Perhaps we need to revive the Muses, beautiful goddesses whose gifts are divinely-given.
The Muses call on Hesiod to describe the Old Gods, the primitive gods whose downfall made way for the current order that rules on Mount Olympus. He’s a bit of an anthropologist, here, detailing the earlier polytheistic panoply that, even compared to the rowdy roundtable discussions on Olympus, appears downright savage. There is something irrational and lurid to the early gods; they’re pure inchoate Id, like something out of the psychopathological imagination. This is not uncharacteristic of early creation myths.
In addition to a cosmogony, Hesiod is writing a theogony- a genealogy of the gods, establishing Zeus as their King. Zeus achieves near omnipotence here and there is a brief mention of a creator God. Nevertheless, Eric Voegelin reminds us, in characteristically difficult prose: “The theogonic speculation of a Hesiod was not the beginning of a new religious movement in opposition to the polytheistic culture of Hellas.” The shift to a single deity radically removed from mundane existence has not yet come to Greece; but the old immanent polytheism isn’t exactly cutting it either. This suggests the work was written in a time of social crisis.
So the family tree: in the beginning, there was Chaos; then appeared Earth (Gaia), Love, and the murky depths of the underworld (Tartarus) all by a sort of spontaneous generation. The gods and goddesses flooded the world with offspring: Chaos gave birth to Night and Erebos (more Underworld); Earth (Gaia) gave birth to Heaven (Ouranos); Night & Erebos gave birth to Day. Gaia then mated with her son Ouranos, producing the twelve Older Gods: the Titans, including Oceanus and Cronos. The incestuous union also produced three terrible monsters, Kottos, Gyges and Briareus. Ouranos took offense to these offspring and shut them up inside Gaia, causing her great discomfort. In response, she conspired with her Titan children to kill their father, convincing Cronos.
Early creation mythology often abounds with incest and the war of sons against fathers. Here, Cronos, often associated with the harvest, takes a jagged sickle to his father’s genitals, throwing them over his shoulder! Ouranos had a fairly impressive prick; the splattered drops of blood produce the Furies and Giants from the soil, while the severed schlong, bobbing Bobbit-like in the ocean, foams up Aphrodite. Dark Night, meanwhile, gives birth to Blame, Distress, the ruthless Fates, Work, Nemesis, Forgetfulness, Famine, Strife, Murders, Lawlessness and other abstracted horrors. It becomes difficult to keep the beasts in Hesiod’s menagerie straight in your mind. He writes too much! Hesiod is describing the “golden age” as something of a free-for-all; a wild, uncontrollable and terrifying jungle of gods and monsters.
Eventually, though, the gods fell in line under a powerful ruler. Cronos became something of a tyrant, After Cronos forces himself on the Titan Rhea, she gives birth to the first Olympians: Demeter, Hestia, Hades, Hera, Poseidon, and Zeus. Haunted by the thought that one of his children will overthrow him, Cronos swallows them, but Rhea has other plans. She hides Zeus and gives Cronos a stone to swallow, causing him to throw up the other children. Zeus and the Olympians will eventually defeat the Titans, driving them underground, and then he will dethrone Cronos and become the King of the Gods.
Hesiod is showing the civilizing order that came with the strong leader Zeus, an order that Works and Days suggests Hesiod yearns for among men. Theogony grates a bit at times because it is such thoroughgoing propaganda for the king of the gods. Zeus is all-powerful, and men are powerless over gods; also over women. No romantic, Hesiod believes that Zeus created womankind to deceive and manipulate men. Hesiod’s misogyny gets tiresome; to him, all women are Raymond Chandler fatales. This extends to the gods; the highlights being goddesses conspiring with their children to kill their mates. I think it’s part of a larger war of all against all though. The fundamental nature of the world is war. For Hesiod, even the order of civilization is established by violence.
To be honest, I find something unapproachable about the primeval image of the natural world as a godly realm. I cannot look at a river, a mountain, or even a storm as the work of a local divinity, and to do so seems somehow paranoid to me: like living in a haunted world, in which every dawn could bring the calamitous wrath of a phantom. I lack the sense of awe. As a modern, it’s uncomfortably easy for me to look at a field or a forest and quickly see something usable, something that could be mastered and worked by human hands. And yet, when I consider the myriad examples of environmental devastation we’ve caused; of which I think we can disagree about the extent, but not the fact; it’s hard not to think that something has been lost with all we’ve gained in mastering nature and dethroning the gods.
1. Next up is the Odyssey, although I’m not too sure I can add much to that longstanding discussion!
2. Currently, I’m reading The Histories by Herodotus and the Oresteia by Aeschylus. Expect posts before long.