Theogony (“Birth of the Gods”)
Theogony (“Birth of the Gods”)
THE LITERARY WORK
An epic poem set in a mythological time and place; composed in Greek between the late eighth and mid-seventh centuries bce.
This account of the origin and descent of the gods of Greece describes the beginnings of the universe and a violent pattern of divine intergenerational strife.
Hesiod (c. 700 bce) was born in Askra, a small farming village in Boeotia, a district of central Greece. Askra lay in the shadow of Mount Helikon, commonly known as home of the Muses, nine goddesses who inspire music, song, and poetry. After the death of their father, Hesiod and his brother Perses inherited the holdings equally. However, Perses squandered his inheritance and soon tried to obtain his brother’s share by bribing area magistrates and bringing him to trial; the outcome of the suit is not known. At some point Hesiod apparently traveled to Chalkis, the chief city of the Greek island of Euboea, where he competed and by his own account placed first in a poetry contest in honor of Amphidamas, a king of Chalkis; he may have recited his Theogony during the contest. Little else is known about Hesiod; nearly all details of his life are derived from his own poems. As with Homer, who lived during approximately the same time, no contemporary account of Hesiod survives, leading scholars to speculate on whether he was a historical person. Some con-tend that “Hesiod” should be viewed as a fictive character created by the poems’ actual author for literary reasons. Others suggest that “Hesiod,” or “the sender of the voice,” may be nothing more than a cult figure around whom a local guild of poets arose. According to these scholars, the guild incorporated the figurehead “Hesiod” into the body of poems circulating among themselves. In any case, the poet who wrote the Theogony records part of his autobiography in another surviving work ascribed to him, Works and Days, a didactic poem mainly about farming. His Theogony describes events leading to the kingship of Zeus and the reign of associated gods on Mount Olympos (or Olympus—in this discussion, the Greek spellings conform to the system used in the Theogony cited and listed in the bibliography). Recounting a vivid, often violent story of divine succession, this foundational Greek epic may have stemmed from myths of the Near East.
From an oral to a literate culture—Greece in flux
The works of Hesiod and Homer are the earliest surviving Greek texts, which means there are no other texts in the language with which to compare them. Moreover, the period of their composition, somewhere between 750 and 650 bce, is the seminal era in which elite societies acquired writing as a cultural resource, beginning to shift out of their status as a wholly oral culture. Around this time, the Greeks experienced increased contact with Semitic peoples in the Levant (eastern Mediterranean region), particularly in Phoenicia (a collection of city-states in today’s Syria and Lebanon). The contact was inspired by trade of goods, but cultural exchange occurred too. Around this time the Greek alphabet, an adaptation of the Phoenician script, first appeared in the form of abcederies (texts that teach the alphabet) and on engraved works of art. Writing subsequently spread throughout the Greek world, preserving public records and bestowing a fixed form upon poems and legends that had existed for generations as oral literature.
THE ORAL POET’S TECHNICAL TRICKS
Unlike written compositions, oral literature exhibits distinctive patterns and behaviors that would have facilitated recitation, such as repeated terms and phrases. Readers of the Iliad or the Odyssey (both also in Classical Literature and its Times) will recognize such formulae as “grey-eyed Athena,” “swift-footed Achilles” or “Hector of the shining helm” The Theogony employs similar formulae: in the poem’s opening lines, Hesiod refers to “owl-eyed Athena,” “Poseidon earth-embrace, earth-shaker,” and “glancing Aphrodite” (Hesiod, Theogony, lines 13, 15, 17). An oral poet builds up an enormous repertoire of these formulae so that he can recite a long poem fluidly while maintaining the meter or rhythm of the poem. This formulaic system also helps make it possible for the same poem to be recited repeatedly, with little substantial variation. Through these repeated recitations, oral poems could be handed down over many generations. Several song cycles developed around various legends, such as that of the Trojan War, which inspired the Iliad and at least three other long poems.
However, since Hesiod’s poems (and Homer’s for that matter) appear during the transitional period from orality to literacy, it is difficult to determine how these works were composed. A talented rhapsode (or “stitcher of songs,” a term for a reciter of oral poems) named Hesiod could have arranged assorted traditional material about the origins of the universe and the gods and given it a definitive form that someone eventually recorded. It is equally likely that the same poem could have circulated orally for many generations and could have been transcribed many years later. With the question of authorship undetermined, it is unclear how much of the material originates with a poet named Hesiod and how much belongs to an oral tradition. Though the answer may forever remain hidden, Hesiod is nonetheless credited with imposing a rational order onto the body of Greek myth.
Expansion and colonization
Between 1200 and 900 bce Greece seems to have been in a period of relative stagnation. Magnificent palace centers had existed at Pylos, Tiryns, Athens, and Thebes during the Mycenaean period (c. 1600-1200 bce), but these were destroyed around 1200 bce. Thereafter, the population of mainland Greece dwindled, and its arts appear to have declined. Relatively little survives in the archaeological record of this period, which is referred to as the Dark Age.
However, around 900 bce the situation changed. The population began to grow steadily, fresh settlements arose, and trade expanded. Moreover, a power vacuum developed in the larger Mediterranean region around the middle of the eighth century bce. Egypt and Phoenicia, formerly the dominant states in the region, both suffered declines, and no rival power emerged to threaten Greece’s commercial and political development.
Between 730 and 580 bce Greece underwent a period of major expansion, much of it through colonization. To support their growing population, several Greek cities encouraged private exploration and settlement of the central and eastern Mediterranean area. By the time the movement ended, the number of Greek cities had approximately doubled. Southern Italy alone had grown so densely colonized that it became known as Magna Graecia or “Great Greece.”
One consequence of colonization was a rise in trade, which brought Greece increasingly into contact with other cultures, especially the Near Eastern civilizations of Syria and Phoenicia. In the process, Greeks were exposed to such innovations as coinage, the alphabet, the so-called Orientalizing pottery style, and eastern customs and myths, all of which were to leave a lasting impression on their own developing culture. Historians contend that creation myths of the Near East may have shaped Hesiod’s Theogony; how-ever, it is not known whether Hesiod acquired knowledge of such myths directly—through his own experience—or indirectly, through their influence on Greek literary tradition, which the poet inherited.
Influence of Near Eastern myths
The ancient Near East extended eastward from the Mediterranean Sea towards and beyond the Persian Gulf, including such peoples as the Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, Israelites, and Phoenicians. The Greeks encountered Near Eastern cultures some-time in the Bronze Age, which stretched from roughly the third millennium to the first millennium bce. The Near Eastern cultures could have had a pronounced impact about the middle of this period, during the Minoan-Mycenaean ages (c. 1600-1200 bce) and/or after, especially during the late Archaic period (c. 630-480 bce).
If a native Greek tradition of theogony (that is, of origins or birth of the gods) existed, it was most likely subjected to Near Eastern influences during the Minoan-Mycenaean era. In any case, there appears to be little doubt that connections exist between Greek and Near Eastern accounts of the origin of the gods. The Hittite myth, King-ship in Heaven, and the Akkadian-Babylonian epic Enuma Elish (“When on High”) are often cited as the two most likely influences on the Greek theogonic tradition. Recorded some 500 years before Hesiod’s tale, the Kingship in Heaven, which survives only in part, tells of Alalu, who rules as king of the gods for nine years, before being overthrown by Anu (Sky)—a cupbearer in the divine court. Anu rules the heavens for nine years himself until his own cupbearer, Kumarbi, a descendant of the original ruler Alalu, deposes and then castrates him by biting off and swallowing his genitals. Kumarbi becomes pregnant by this act, then gives birth on his own to three divine descendants: the storm god, Heshub; his attendant, Tasmisu; and the river Aranzaha (the Tigris). At one point, Kumarbi, who plans to eat one of his children, is given a stone to swallow instead. He gags on the stone and spits it out, after which it becomes an object of cult worship. When the storm god emerges from Kumarbi body, he is supposed to defeat Kumarbi and reign in his stead, though the text becomes unreadable at this juncture.
Enuma Elish, probably composed some 300 years before Hesiod’s tale, tells of the union between primal waters. Apsu (Father of All), the sweet underground water, and Tiamat (Mother of All), the salty sea, join together to conceive the first four gods: Lahmu and Lahamum, followed by Anshar and Kishar. This last pair’s son, Anu (Sky), sires Ea, chief of the gods. Each generation surpasses the prior generation in strength, culminating in Ea, who is superior not only in strength but also in wisdom. Great dissension arises between the generations of the gods, whose number increases over time to 600. Over Tiamat’s protests, Apsu plots to destroy the younger generations because of the disturbance they create within Tiamat’s body. Learning of Apsu’s plan, Ea kills him and assumes the divine throne. He then begets a son, Marduk, a giant with four eyes and four ears.
THE POLIS: HUMAN AND DIVINE
During the mid-eighth century bce, rural communities began to band together in political unity to form individual city-states or poleis. These poleis were built around the concept of the demos, which refers to a body of citizens, encompassing both a land and its people. The most important political bodies in the demos were the council of elders and the assembly of men of fighting age, which approved or vetoed measures put before the state. These institutions, common and essential to every Greek polis, would, centuries later, become the foundation not only for Athenian democracy but also for other forms of government. In Hesiod’s Theogony, the realm that the gods inhabit under Zeus and the customs they obey reflect the basic organization and structure of a real-life Greek polis. Zeus comes to power after a long period of intergenerational strife between the gods. Each father is violently overthrown by his youngest son, with aid from the mother. Only Zeus can end this cycle by achieving political consensus. Unlike his predecessors, Ouranus and Kronos, Zeus does not resort to violence; rather, he is elected to his position by the gods who are his peers. Lastly, once in power, he apportions the various realms and spheres of influence that the gods will enjoy: he himself will control the sky, while his brothers Poseidon and Hades will control the sea and the underworld, respectively.
Seeking to avenge Apsu’s death, Tiamat enlists the aid of Mother Hubur, the goddess who forms all things. She creates eleven monstrous children to combat Ea’s line. Choosing an older deity, Qingu, to command them, Tiamat assembles her forces. Ea and Anu try to fight Tiamat but are unsuccessful. Marduk steps forward to lead the charge, but offers his services on the condition that all the assembled deities proclaim him to be supreme ruler. Marduk de-feats and kills Tiamat, cutting her body in half to create heaven and earth. Now established as ruler of the gods, Marduk marks out the year and the months, divides the 600 deities into two equal parties to occupy the heaven and the lower world, and creates mankind from the blood of Qingu, whom he has also defeated and slain. The epic concludes with the construction of a great temple to Marduk in Babylon and a celebratory banquet at which the gods recite Marduk’s 50 honorific names.
Hesiod’s Theogony suggests the influence of many elements from creation and succession myths of the Near East, including unions between earth and sky; unusual conceptions and births of divine offspring; and violent intergenerational struggles among deities, involving murder, castration, and cannibalism. The similarities between Enuma Elish and the Theogony may reflect an in-direct influence of the former on the latter (Enuma Elish may have influenced Hittite storytelling, which then influenced the Theogony). Or both works may have been influenced by a Canaanite story, brought from Palestine to the regions of Mesopotamia (by a people known as the Amorites) and Greece (by the Phoenicians). In fact, both the Hittites and the Phoenicians may have introduced versions of Canaanite myth to the Greeks.
Although the Theogony combines several disparate elements, such as myths, genealogies, and hymns of praise, it is perhaps best defined as an extended family tree. The poem traces the lineage of two divine families of gods and goddesses over the course of three generations, cataloguing not only their marriages and births but their bitter conflicts with one another. Only after years of warfare does a stable pantheon of gods emerge, headed by Zeus. At times the narrative is broken up by digressions or expansions on specific points, such as the origin or significance of an individual deity. For example, Hesiod breaks off his account of the succession struggles between the generation of the Titans and the generation of the Olympians to sing a hymn to Hekate, a fairly minor goddess. Other digressions mention the exploits of certain Greek heroes, like Herakles (also known as Hercules) and Perseus.
The poem begins with a traditional invocation to the Muses, who hold a particular significance for the poet. According to Hesiod, the Muses visited him while he was tending his sheep at the foot of Mount Helikon, gave him the gift of song, and bade him to sing about the Olympian gods. However, since all song begins and ends with the Muses, Hesiod first sings a hymn to these daughters of Zeus, whose songs celebrate the order of the universe: first the primeval generation of gods (Mother Earth [Gaia] and Father Sky [Ouranos]), next the race of the Titans, and lastly Zeus and his Olympic brethren and mankind. Hesiod stresses the beauty of the Muses’ songs and the harmony it brings to their father Zeus’ realm of Olympos. He elaborates on their birth to Mnemosyne (Memory) and Zeus, asking their aid in the execution of his song. At this point Hesiod begins to narrate his theogony—which literally means “the origin and descent of the gods.”
The world begins with the spontaneous emergence of four deities: Chaos, Gaia (Earth), Eros (Desire), and Tartaros (Underworld; more exactly, Tartaros named the deepest region of the Under-world). The first two deities begin to reproduce separately: Chaos bears Erebos (Darkness) and Nyx (Night), who together produce Light and Day, while Gaia gives birth to Ouranus (Sky) as her male consort, as well as tall mountains, glens, wooded haunts, and Pontos, the sea. Gaia also conceives offspring with Tartaros and Ouranus. By the former, she bears the monster Typhoeus near the end of the poem; by the latter, Gaia bears Okeanos (Ocean) and several other Titans, including Themis, Mnemosyne, lapetos, Koios, Rhea, and Kronos. Lastly, Gaia and Ouranos beget two sets of bestial divinities: the three Kyklopes (Cyclopes)—Brontes (Thunderer), Steropes (Lightner), Arges (Bright)—and the hundred-armed monsters Kottos, Briareos and Gyges.
All these children hate their father, as does Gaia, because Ouranus, fearing his own overthrow, forces them back into her womb to prevent their birth. In retaliation Gaia makes a large iron sickle, which she gives to her youngest Titan son Kronos, who castrates his father. Absorbing her consort’s blood, Gaia bears the Giants and the Erinyes (Spirits of Vengeance); meanwhile, Ouranos’ severed genitals land in seafoam, from which Aphrodite is born, with the deities Himeros (Passion) and Eros (Desire) as attendants at her birth. She becomes the goddess of erotic love and sexual pleasure. The defeated Ouranos reproaches his Titan sons for their wickedness and predicts that they too will suffer retribution for conspiring against him.
Hesiod concludes his narrative of the first generation by listing the many descendants of Nyx (Night), who, like Gaia, has conceived various forces and deities on her own (without male participation). Nyx’s children include Moros (Doom), Thanatos (Death), Hypnos (Sleep), Oneirai (Dreams), Momos (Blame), Oizyos (Pain), the Moirai (Fates), and the Erinyes (Furies, three winged goddesses who punish wrongdoers for unavenged crimes). Some of Nyx’s children, such as Nemesis (Righteous Anger) and Eris (Strife), prove especially troublesome to mortal men. Eris continues Nyx’s destructive line by bearing Sorrow, Famine, Wars, Murders, Slaughters, Feuds, Lies, Dysnomia (Lawlessness), Madness, and Oath (which causes destruction when broken).
Hesiod then lists the descendants of Gaia’s son Pontos, which include sea deities, like Nereus (the Old Man of the Sea), his siblings Phorkys and Keto, and hybrid monsters like the Gorgons. The poet relates the story of Medusa, one of the three Gorgons, who lives at the limit of the world. Un-like her sisters, Stheno and Euryale, Medusa was mortal and the focus of several myths. Poseidon mates with her, the Greek hero Perseus later cuts off her head, and the winged horse Pegasus springs fully formed from her blood. Phorkys and Keto, from whom the Gorgons were descended, beget other monsters: the Graiai (the Gray Sisters); the half-woman, half-snake goddess Echidna; and the giant serpent that guards the golden apples of the Hesperides (maidens who also guard the apple tree). With Typhoeus, Echnida bears a monstrous brood, including Orthos, the two-headed hound of the giant Geryoneus; Cerberus, the fifty-headed watchdog of the Underworld; the Hydra, a many-headed serpent; and Chimaira, a monster described as a lion in front, a goat in the middle, and a snake behind. Brief allusions are made to the Greek heroes 1) Bellerophon, who slew the Chimaira, and 2) Herakles, who vanquished Geryoneus, the Hydra, and finally the Nemeian lion (a beast that, along with the Sphinx, came from the union of Chimaira and Orthos).
Retracing his steps, Hesiod recounts the off-spring of the other older Titans, paying close attention to the river nymph Styx, daughter of Okeanos and his sister Tethys. It is to Styx that Zeus will grant the honor of being the binding oath by which the gods must swear. Hesiod then digresses from his main narrative to offer a hymn in praise of Hekate. The daughter of the Titans Perses and Asteria, Hekate has the special power to grant wealth and fortune (later she would be associated with the souls of the dead and identified as a deity who sent ghosts and demons into the world at night). Her hymn directly precedes the birth of the Olympians and Zeus, marking the end of the Titans’ primordial past and foreshadowing Zeus’ emergence as leader of the Olympian gods.
Having succeeded Ouranos as ruler of the sky, Kronos unites with his sister Rhea to produce Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus. As each child is born, Kronos swallows them whole, to prevent the kingship of the gods from passing to another generation. Rhea turns to Ouranos and Gaia for help; they send her to Crete just as she is to give birth to Zeus, and when he is born, Gaia nurses him in a hidden cave. To fool Kronos, they give him a heavy stone wrapped in swaddling clothes, which he swal-lows, believing it to be his son.
Once Zeus matures, Gaia tricks Kronos into disgorging his children. The stone, the last thing he swallowed, comes out first, followed by Zeus’ brothers and sisters. Zeus frees the Kyklopes, whom Ouranos had imprisoned in Tartaros; in return, they grant him thunder and lightning as his own weapons. The reign of Kronos ends and that of Zeus begins.
Zeus subsequently undergoes a series of tests that will establish his right to rule. First he deals with his Titan rivals (the sons of lapetos and Klymene, Okeanos’ daughter). Zeus strikes one Titan, Menoitios, with a thunderbolt as punishment for arrogance; Zeus sentences another possible rival, Atlas, to hold up the heavens on his shoulders. At an assembly of gods and men, Prometheus, the slyest of the Titans, attempts to trick Zeus into accepting the inferior portion of a sacrificial ox for himself. Hesiod locates in this deceit the origin of how Greeks of his own era conducted their sacrificial ritual: the community shared the edible portions of the animal as a meal and burned the inedible parts as an offering to the gods, puzzlingly sacrificing the less desirable parts until one understands that the practice derives from this attempt of Prometheus to deceive Zeus, who, of course, sees through the trick. (It was for just such explanations that the ancient Greeks looked to Hesiod and other talebearers.)
This inferior portion is the bare bones of the beast, covered in white fat; the meat, hidden under the skin of the ox’s stomach, Prometheus attempts to reserve for mortal men. As punishment for this treachery, Zeus withholds from Man the gift of fire. Prometheus steals fire from the heavens and delivers it to Man, for which offense Zeus chains him to a column and sends an eagle to tear out his liver each day, until Herakles later releases Prometheus.
Meanwhile, Zeus punishes Man by ordering the creation of the first woman, out of earth. Each of the gods assists in making the woman, whom Zeus presents to Man as a cunning gift. The race of women proves to be man’s bane, consuming his wealth through their fondness for luxury. However, the man who avoids women, fares no better: without women, no one will tend to him in old age and his estate will fall to kinsmen. Even the man who takes a good wife will experience both good and evil, while the man who takes a bad wife will experience only misery.
For ten long years the Olympians (the children of Kronos and Rhea) battle the Titans (the children of Ouranos and Gaia) for control of the universe. On Gaia’s advice, Zeus frees the “Hundred-Arms” (Briareos, Gyges, and Kottos), whom Ouranos had bound beneath the earth in fear of their power and shape. Fortifying his new allies with nectar and ambrosia, Zeus wins their loyalty and persuades them to fight on the Olympians’ side against the Titans.
With the aid of the Hundred-Arms and Zeus’ thunderbolts and lightning, the Olympians triumph over the Titans, who are subsequently imprisoned in Tartaros, below the earth. Hesiod embarks upon a lengthy description of the Underworld, which is apparently so deep that, if one were to drop an anvil from the earth, it would take ten days to reach its destination. The Titans are confined within these gloomy depths, surrounded by a brazen moat and three layers of night, guarded by the Hundred-Arms who are posted at the gates of this inescapable prison.
Other denizens of Tartaros include Atlas, who supports the sky on his head and shoulders; Nyx (Night) and Hemera (Day), who never inhabit their house at the same time; Nyx’s children, Hypnos and Thanatos; and most prominently, Hades and his wife Persephone. The hound Cerberus guards the gates of the Underworld (which is sometimes called Hades after its ruler). The multi-headed hound fawns upon those who enter but never lets them leave, eating those who make the attempt.
The River Styx, by whom the gods take oaths, also dwells within the Underworld, in her own house. When dissension arises among the gods, Zeus sends Iris (the messenger of the gods) to fetch a vase of Styx’s water; if any god swears falsely while pouring libations with this water, he is denied sustenance, lapsing into a coma for a full year. Upon awakening, he is exiled from the other gods for another nine years and may not rejoin them on Olympos (the mountain where the Olympian gods lived) until the tenth year.
Hesiod resumes his narrative of Zeus’ trials. After the Titans’ defeat, Gaia mates with Tartaros and conceives the monstrous Typhoeus, from whose shoulders sprout one hundred snakeheads. After a fierce battle that makes Olympos itself tremble, Zeus subdues Typhoeus with his thunderbolts and hurls him down into wide Tartaros.
Supported by his fellow Olympians and by Gaia, Zeus assumes his position as uncontested ruler of the immortals. After dividing the divine honors between the various gods, Zeus turns to the business of marriage and procreation. He takes seven consorts, siring offspring on each. His first consort, Metis (Cunning) conceives Athena, goddess of wisdom, but Zeus, on Ouranos and Gaia’s advice, swallows Metis before she can give birth, successfully forestalling the prophecy that her second child, a son, would overthrow him. The pregnant Metis (Cunning) now lives inside Zeus and is his constant counselor, advising him in good and evil.
Zeus’ second consort, Themis (Divine Right) produces the triplets Eunomia (Lawfulness), Dike (Justice), and Eirene (Peace), and the three Fates, Klotho (Spinner), Lachesis (Allotter), and Atropos (Unbending). Klotho spins the thread of life, Lachesis measures it, and Atropos cuts it. Zeus and Eurynome produce the three Graces (Aglaia, Euphrosyne, and Thalia), personifications of the grace and beauty that make life pleasurable. With Demeter, Zeus sires Hades’ wife Persephone. With Mnemosyne, Zeus fathers the nine Muses. And with Leto, he sires the twins Apollo and Diana. Lastly he takes his sister Hera as wife, a union that produces Ares, the god of war, Hebe the goddess of youth, and Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth. Metis’ daughter Athena, goddess of war, finally springs fully-grown from Zeus’ head. On her own, Hera, enraged by Zeus’ usurping the female’s role in childbirth, bears a son named Hephaistos, a gifted craftsman but physically deformed and lame.
The births of various other gods are then re-ported as well as the line of various heroes conceived from unions between goddesses and mortal men. The poem concludes as it began, with an invocation to the Muses, but one that possibly signals the introduction of a new subject: the race of women. However, the Catalogue of Women is now considered to have been written considerably later than Hesiod’s poem.
Procreation, succession, and inheritance
Of the various recurring themes and patterns in Hesiod’s poem, the most prominent is intergenerational conflict. Each successive king of the gods attempts to retain his power by suppressing his children, and each is overthrown by the youngest son, with aid from the mother. Ouranos succumbs to Kronos, who succumbs to Zeus. In keeping with this pattern, prophecies alert Zeus to potential instability and threats during his reign. But, thanks to wise counsel, as well as his own superior powers, Zeus is able to avoid the fates of his father and grandfather.
Significantly, each divine ruler tries to maintain his supremacy by interfering in the process of procreation, the primary goal of marriage and sexual union. Ouranos forces his Titan offspring to hide within “a dark hole of Gaia,” their mother, not letting them emerge into the light (Theogony, line 158). Kronos, Ouranos’ successor, attempts to dispose of his children, the future Olympians, even more drastically: by swallowing the infants whole as they emerge from the womb of their mother, Rhea. Even Zeus puts his first wife, Metis, “down in his belly,” after he learns that she will otherwise bear him a son “proud of heart, king of gods and men” with the powers to rival Zeus’ own kingship (Theogony, line 890).
The gods’ preoccupation with succession may have been another theme that Hesiod inherited from Near Eastern creation myths. In any case, elements from various myths—local and imported, ancient and more recent, from Hesiod’s point of view—were absorbed into Theogony. The
In the Theogony Hesiod transforms the gods into “national” or universal figures. The Greek gods as we know them (like Zeus, the king of the gods and god of lightning) were not so known to Hesiod’s contemporaries. They began as local gods and goddesses. Each god existed as an incarnation tied to a specific place—for example, Delian Apollo (Apollo of Delos). These incarnations were distinct from others, such as Pythian Apollo (Apollo of Delphi, presided over by a priestess called the Pythia). They furthermore inspired legends and myths particular to their area of worship. The tales would often differ depending on the surroundings, with various stories attached to the Delian Apollo and the Pythian Apollo, for example. Each incarnation of the god oversaw specific rites, practices, and activities, and each city cultivated its particular incarnation of a chosen deity. As unique city-states arose across Greece, temples to particular gods sprang up across the Greek landscape.
Greek world’s adoption of Hesiod’s and Homer’s versions of the pantheon appears to have coincided with the Greeks’ growing sense of their own identity as Greeks, the realization that they shared their language, customs, religion, and general heritage. This phenomenon, known as Panhellenism (all-Greece), became widespread during the eighth century bce and led to the establishment of religious festivals in which worshippers throughout the Greek world were invited to participate. Additionally, Panhellenic centers of wor-ship were founded at such sites as Olympia (for Zeus and Hera) and Delos (for Apollo and Artemis). Perhaps the most striking development of Panhellenism was the inauguration of the Olympic games, athletic contests held every four years at the festival of Zeus at Olympia in the northwest Peloponnese, the large peninsula of southern mainland Greece. Introduced in 776 bce, the Olympian games eventually attracted competitors and spectators from all over the Greek world. The main religious ceremony was the sacrifice of 100 bulls (called a hecatomb) on a great altar devoted to Zeus.
Sources and literary context
Hesiod’s works, along with Homer’s, are among the first and earliest literary compositions of classical antiquity. Therefore, it is both unclear how much of the Theogony is Hesiod’s own creation and difficult to identify sources on which he drew. However, like Homer, Hesiod appears to have inherited a rich oral tradition that included material on the origin and descent of the gods. This tradition may hark back to Indo-European myths, Minoan-Mycenaean civilization and its relations with Eastern cultures, the development of Boeotia, and even Boeotian contacts with the Near East. For his ac-count of the succession struggles between the divine rulers, Hesiod may have drawn upon a particular Asian myth that also influenced the already-mentioned Hittite myth Kingship of Heaven and the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish.
As a work, Hesiod’s poem is classified as a theogony (the origin of the gods) and a cosmogony (the origin of the world). It has also been viewed as didactic literature, because its intent is to instruct the reader—in this case, about the formation of the world and the rise of the Olympian gods. While theogonies may have existed in Greece before Hesiod’s poem was composed, these would have been oral compositions and thus have not survived. For the Greeks of classical antiquity, Hesiod’s Theogony soon became the most widely accepted version of how the world began and the standard by which later theogonies were judged.
While no contemporary record of the response to Hesiod’s works survives, his poems seem to have become famous within a few generations of his death. Indeed, the number of didactic and genealogical poems posthumously attributed to Hesiod may be a testament to his prominence throughout the Panhellenic world.
As one of the earliest written compositions, Theogony and Hesiod’s other famous poem, Works and Days, survived as Alexandrian papyrus scrolls, some of which dated from the third century bce. Later, the Theogony was preserved, in total or in part, in an estimated 69 manuscripts from the medieval and Renaissance periods. Hesiod’s complete works were published in Venice during the late fifteenth century.
Although other poems on the origin of gods and the world were composed throughout classical Greece, none supplanted the Theogony as an account of how the earth, the heavens, and the reigning deities came into existence. Along with Homer, Hesiod is said to have shaped the Greeks’ perceptions of their gods as powerful but flawed beings, who possessed recognizable, even human failings. The philosopher-poet Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 565-470 bce) wrote that “Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods everything that is held discreditable among men—thieving, adultery, deceiving one another” (Xenophanes in West, p. xx). The Greek historian Herodotus more sweepingly declared, “It was [Homer and Hesiod] who constructed a divine genealogy for the Greeks and who gave the gods their titles, al-located their powers and privileges to them, and indicated their forms” (Herodotus in West, p. xx). Subsequent generations of Greek literature have testified to the accuracy of Herodotus’ pronouncement and the enduring nature of these poets’ works. The gods of Olympos, their exploits and dominions, their natures and proclivities—which are on display in almost all of Greek tragedy, comedy, lyric, philosophy, history, and epic—can be said to have their origins in Homer’s epics and Hesiod’s didactic poems.
—Ian Halbert and Pamela S. Loy
Burkert, W. Greek Religion. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985.
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