The Theogony of Hesiod: Order (Cronos) from Chaos
September 3, 2016 Leave a comment
One of the nice things that you found as you studied more advanced civilizations, as you got further into the first millennium BCE, you had better material and source texts to work with. You no longer had to rely on texts and tablets that described ancient rituals for specific temples, or documents or inscriptions associated with royal burial grounds, you actually had books or treatises that were authored and compiled by a single individual that had coherent narratives and compiled and consolidated all the various traditions that might be represented throughout that particular culture. One of the other nice things as you moved into the study of the civilizations of the Greeks and the Romans is you started to see pretty good one to one representations of their words into modern day English given its more direct relationship to the Latin.
Prior to looking at the mythological creation narratives that were prevalent in classical Greece, it’s worth pointing out some of the terminology that we use today that originated with the Greek language, the Greek poets and philosophers, that has come down to us in English, through the Latin translations, that we use to describe these intellectual traditions.
The words “theogony” and “cosmology” specifically actually both come from their Greek counterparts which in English have very similar meanings but in the Greek have different definitions, definitions that are symbolic of the intellectual tradition which each in turn belonged. Theogony, or thæogonía (θεογονία) means the study of the origin and genealogy of the gods whereas “cosmology”, or kozmogonía (κοσμογονία) denotes the study of the origins of the universe, the latter term coming into use as the philosophical tradition arose, “kosmos” first being attributed to Pythagoras in fact circa 5th century BCE. Theogony signifying, as in the case with Hesiod for example, the mythological narrative that described the creation of the gods of the pantheon and their successors.
While thæogonía (theogony; Gr. θεογονία) is the origin and genealogy of the Gods, kozmogonía (cosmogony; Gr. κοσμογονία) is the origin of the universe. In Hellenic polytheistic religion, these two terms are closely related and cannot actually be entirely separated, for the phenomenal universe is itself divine and the personal deities are intimately connected with its origin and both emerge simultaneously.
The etymology of thæogonía is Θεοί (Gods) + γέννα (birth), hence, the birth or origin of the Gods. The etymology of kozmogonía is kόσμος (order, to put in order) + γέννα (birth); the word kόσμος only later came to mean the entire universe, but its original meaning has some bearing on how we understand our world, as the view of Orphismós sees the birth or origin of the kózmos (cosmos; Gr. κόσμος) as having a form and order, what Pythagóras (Gr. Πυθαγόρας) called diakózmisis (diakosmesis; Gr. διακόσμησις), the orderly arrangement of the universe.
Having clarified this subtle but important distinction, in particular as we look at this time period of ancient Greece where philosophy begins to take precedence over mythology – logos over mythos – the analysis and study of the theogonies of Hesiod and the one attributed to the pseudo-historical figure of Orpheus actually shed much light on the transition, or at least the precursors to the transition which start with Pythagoras and Plato and come to a more solid, rational, foundation with Aristotle.
To the Greeks, and in particular t the tradition associated with Hesiod, it is Chaos that was the arche, or underlying origin, of the universe. Arche means ‘beginning’, ‘origin’ or ‘first cause’ and ‘power’ in Greek. It can also denote ‘ultimate underlying substance’ or ‘ultimate indemonstrable principle’ at least as seen in the context of Greek Cosmology. Later philosophers such as Aristotle expanded upon the meaning of arche as the element or principle of a thing, which although indemonstrable and intangible in and of itself, provides the conditions of the possibility of the existence of such a thing.
In the Greco-Roman tradition, particularly in the works of the Neo-Platonists and other historians of philosophy from Cicero to Diogenes Laertius to Plutarch and others, it was the “first principles” of things that were the topic of the early Greek classical authors such as Hesiod and in turn Orpheus, who was the attributed author of various hymns and poems devoted to the gods that spoke of an alternative theogony, through which later philosophers viewed and interpreted these first principles and through which these later authors juxtaposed and defended the Hellenic philosophical tradition in the face of impending Christianity which took over the theological beliefs of the Mediterranean and Near Eastern peoples a few centuries after the death of Jesus and the birth of Christianity and its adoption by the Roman Empire by Constantine.
In modern times, the arche is the word used by Carl Jung to describe the underlying psychological themes he found present in individual’s unconscious mind through his psychological practices. To Jung these basic symbols and images that he found present in the modern mind bore striking similarity to primitive mythological motifs, motifs that are found in virtually all of the mythological traditions that we are studying and analyzing within the context of this work. Jung called these symbols archetypes, the commonality of which across many of his patients he used as the rationalization for the existence of what he called the collective unconscious, the same principle which Joseph Campbell indirectly leveraged to explain the commonality of mythical themes and stories across all pre-civilized man across the globe – as presented in his Hero with a Thousand Faces for example. In essence this notion of arche to the Greeks represented the establishment of the basic universal building blocks, the first principles of abstract thought and ideas, upon which was superimposed Greek theogony as it was formulated in order to establish a more rational basis upon which the cosmological world order was maintained and was to be understood. This transition is typically referred to in the academic literature as logos over mythos but we can view it here within the context of theogony to cosmogony.
The orthodox version of creation mythology from classical Greece is from a poetic work attributed to Hesiod called the Theogony. Compilation of the text is dated to somewhere between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE, somewhat contemporaneous to Homer, and representative of the height of literature to the Greeks even by the classical philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle among others that followed in their footsteps.. The Theogony, or again literally “the birth of the gods”, describes the origins and genealogies of the gods of the ancient Greek pantheon.
Hesiod markedly begins his work with an attribute to the divine Muses, the great daughters of Zeus who in the Hellenic world were the masters of mystery and the keepers of the divine mysteries through which any true knowledge or truth could be known. It is through the Muses themselves that Hesiod relates his tale, speaking directly to their source through which his tale, his Theogony, is related and written.
(ll. 1-25) From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing, who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon, and dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring and the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and, when they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus or in the Horse’s Spring or Olmeius, make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon and move with vigorous feet. Thence they arise and go abroad by night, veiled in thick mist, and utter their song with lovely voice, praising Zeus the aegis- holder and queenly Hera of Argos who walks on golden sandals and the daughter of Zeus the aegis-holder bright-eyed Athene, and Phoebus Apollo, and Artemis who delights in arrows, and Poseidon the earth-holder who shakes the earth, and reverend Themis and quick-glancing (1) Aphrodite, and Hebe with the crown of gold, and fair Dione, Leto, Iapetus, and Cronos the crafty counsellor, Eos and great Helius and bright Selene, Earth too, and great Oceanus, and dark Night, and the holy race of all the other deathless ones that are for ever. And one day they taught Hesiod glorious song while he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon, and this word first the goddesses said to me — the Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus who holds the aegis:
(ll. 26-28) `Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things.’
(ll. 29-35) So said the ready-voiced daughters of great Zeus, and they plucked and gave me a rod, a shoot of sturdy laurel, a marvellous thing, and breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things there were aforetime; and they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternally, but ever to sing of themselves both first and last. But why all this about oak or stone? (2)
We see here not just the invocation to the Muses, in fact the allusion to the very source of the material being the Muses themselves who speak through Hesiod, but also the purpose of the work as explaining the existence of the Greek gods and goddesses that we know all too well even from modern renditions of Greek mythology – reference to Zeus and Hera, Apollo and Athena, Poseidon and Aphrodite, and even Cronos, the older parent of the Greek pantheon who is to play such an important role in the Theogonic tale that Hesiod is to tell.
A few verses later Hesiod provides us with his account of the first initial principles or gods from which the pantheon emerges from, the initial cosmological account of creation as it were. The reference to the first beings that were ever created from which the pantheon of Greek gods originated and from which his story of rulership, succession, betrayal and the ultimate establishment of order is unfolded. In Hesiod’s account of the creation of the universe, the initial state of the universe is Chaos, or Khaos in the Greek, and from this initial state of disorder, from which the word still carries the same meaning even in modern English today, the universe comes to life and order begins to manifest.
Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundations of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros (Love), fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them. From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born Aether and Day, whom she conceived and bare from union in love with Erebus. And Earth first bare starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. And she brought forth long Hills, graceful haunts of the goddess-Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of the hills. She bare also the fruitless deep with his raging swell, Pontus, without sweet union of love. But afterwards she lay with Heaven and bare deep-swirling Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne and gold-crowned Phoebe and lovely Tethys. After them was born Cronos the wily, youngest and most terrible of her children, and he hated his lusty sire.
So here in the work of Hesiod lie the beginnings of some of the basic principles, or framework at least, from the transition from theogony to cosmology, the primordial arche as it were upon which the Greek pantheon emerges. We are presented at the beginning of the genealogy with the notion of Chaos, or disorder as the term is still used today, that represents the primordial substance that forms the basis of all creation. In Hesiod’s account Chaos is a pseudo-anthropomorphic being, a being that although not anthropomorphic per se, i.e. it is without gender or form, and yet it is the primordial substance form which the primary first generation deities and their offspring come forth from. According to Hesiod out of Chaos emerge Gaia (Earth) and Tartarus – Mother Earth and the Underworld respectively, the great pillars of the world of being inhabited by human souls. And then, perhaps surprisingly, in this tradition Eros, or Love, is a primary force which then acts to create the rest of the first generation of gods and goddesses and from which the realms of Heaven and Earth and all the basic natural principles and their anthropomorphic counterparts are created and established.
Next in Hesiod’s Theogony, also out of Chaos came Erebus, representing darkness or shadow, as well as Nyx, or the Greek’s personification of Night. Erebus and Nyx then reproduced to form Aether, and Hemera (day). Then came Gaia who gave birth to Uranus (sky/heaven), and Ourea (mountains) and Pontus (sea). Uranus then fertilized Gaia and from this union the great Titans are born and the next generation of gods are born, the greatest of which is Cronos and from which the tale of the next generation of gods and the overthrow of Chaos by Cronos (time) is told.
These characters, these entities, represented the first and foremost parts of creation that sprung forth from the “void”, the first generation of gods for the Greeks. Although the principles or deities themselves were different, there were some parallels to the genealogy of the Egyptians and Mesopotamian story lines albeit the ordering and gods themselves were different for each of the civilizations, perhaps indicative of the different aspects of each of the respective cultures. Here we can find in this subsequent generation of gods, much like the Egyptian creation mythology, the generation and establishment of the world order, the pieces of the puzzle were laid down as it were, creating the foundations upon which mankind could emerge and flourish.
Hesiod then goes on to tell the tale of the overthrow of the evil ruler Chaos by Cronos, the greatest of the first generation of gods at the behest of his mother Gaia, Mother Earth. Herein we find the great mythical narrative of the manifestation and establishment of order upon chaos, a tale that is gruesome and graphic no doubt in its details, and speaks to a consistent tradition of castration of the first principles of creation upon which the second generation of order is established.
(ll. 167-169) So she said; but fear seized them all, and none of them uttered a word. But great Cronos the wily took courage and answered his dear mother:
(ll. 170-172) `Mother, I will undertake to do this deed, for I reverence not our father of evil name, for he first thought of doing shameful things.’
(ll. 173-175) So he said: and vast Earth rejoiced greatly in spirit, and set and hid him in an ambush, and put in his hands a jagged sickle, and revealed to him the whole plot.
(ll. 176-206) And Heaven came, bringing on night and longing for love, and he lay about Earth spreading himself full upon her (7).
Then the son from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him. And not vainly did they fall from his hand; for all the bloody drops that gushed forth Earth received, and as the seasons moved round she bare the strong Erinyes and the great Giants with gleaming armour, holding long spears in their hands and the Nymphs whom they call Meliae (8) all over the boundless earth. And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden. First she drew near holy Cythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Cyprus, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass grew up about her beneath her shapely feet. Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and the foam-born goddess and rich-crowned Cytherea, because she grew amid the foam, and Cytherea because she reached Cythera, and Cyprogenes because she was born in billowy Cyprus, and Philommedes (9) because sprang from the members. And with her went Eros, and comely Desire followed her at her birth at the first and as she went into the assembly of the gods. This honour she has from the beginning, and this is the portion allotted to her amongst men and undying gods, — the whisperings of maidens and smiles and deceits with sweet delight and love and graciousness.
From the seed of the of Chaos then, intermingled and spread about across the earth and sea and land, the other great first primordial creative principles of the first generation of gods, the second generation of deities comes forth as Cronos takes the reins of power from his father and bears children with Rhea, his sister. But the graphic tale of deceit and disorder continues though, and with this next generation of gods we finally come to the great Zeus, the god of Thunder and Lightning who finally restores balance and order not only to the immortals but to the world of man as well.
As the tale is told Cronos knew he was to be overthrown by one of his seed and therefore after Rhea bore each child, Cronos swallowed them whole to ensure that his reign would last forever. But Rhea outwitted her spouse and when Zeus was born she hid him from his father in a deep and secret cave, replacing him with a stone and outwitting him in order to fulfill the prophecy and no doubt so that her children could be reborn and live. In a story that bears much resemblance to the pantheonic struggles so well documented in Egypt between Osiris and Set, who is overthrown by the progeny of Isis and Osiris, namely Horus), Hesiod tells us that Cronos is convinced by Gaia to overthrow his father Uranus and claim authority over the gods. He did this successfully (in particularly gruesome fashion as it were) and then wedded his sister Rhea after which Rhea and Cronos in turn birthed Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus, finishing the major Olympiad as it were. After a long struggle steeped in myth and graphic tales of mischief and brutality, Zeus ends up taking over Olympus and control over the Greek pantheon from Cronos.
(ll. 453-491) But Rhea was subject in love to Cronos and bare splendid children, Hestia (18), Demeter, and gold-shod Hera and strong Hades, pitiless in heart, who dwells under the earth, and the loud-crashing Earth-Shaker, and wise Zeus, father of gods and men, by whose thunder the wide earth is shaken. These great Cronos swallowed as each 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, strong though he was, through the contriving of great Zeus (19). Therefore he kept no blind outlook, but watched and swallowed down his children: and unceasing grief seized Rhea. But when she was about to bear Zeus, the father of gods and men, then she besought her own dear parents, Earth and starry Heaven, to devise some plan with her that the birth of her dear child might be concealed, and that retribution might overtake great, crafty Cronos for his own father and also for the children whom he had swallowed down. And they readily heard and obeyed their dear daughter, and told her all that was destined to happen touching Cronos the king and his stout-hearted son. So they sent her to Lyetus, to the rich land of Crete, when she was ready to bear great Zeus, the youngest of her children. Him did vast Earth receive from Rhea in wide Crete to nourish and to bring up. Thither came Earth carrying him swiftly through the black night to Lyctus first, and took him in her arms and hid him in a remote cave beneath the secret places of the holy earth on thick-wooded Mount Aegeum; but to the mightily ruling son of Heaven, the earlier king of the gods, she gave a great stone wrapped in swaddling clothes. 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, and that he was soon to overcome him by force and might and drive him from his honours, himself to reign over the deathless gods.
Zeus then revives his brothers and sisters that his father has swallowed and takes over the rulership of heaven, defeating and killing his father like his father had done before him, and establishing balance and harmony in the heavens and on earth.
(ll. 492-506) After that, the strength and glorious limbs of the prince increased quickly, and as the years rolled on, great Cronos the wily was beguiled by the deep suggestions of Earth, and brought up again his offspring, vanquished by the arts and might of his own son, and he vomited up first the stone which he had swallowed last. And Zeus set it fast in the wide-pathed earth at goodly Pytho under the glens of Parnassus, to be a sign thenceforth and a marvel to mortal men (20). And he set free from their deadly bonds the brothers of his father, sons of Heaven whom his father in his foolishness had bound. And they remembered to be grateful to him for his kindness, and gave him thunder and the glowing thunderbolt and lightening: for before that, huge Earth had hidden these. In them he trusts and rules over mortals and immortals.
This great mythical tale that Hesiod spins for us, from the direct inspiration of the Muses which are so closely associated not only with the lyric poetic tradition of of classical Greece but also the mystery cults of the Greeks as well, bears much resemblance to the mythical narratives to the East and West, each of which tell the tale of a first generations of gods or first principles that are born out of chaos, a watery abyss, from which emerge Heaven, Earth, Sea and Sky. And then from this initial creation, the great Mother Earth (Gaia) produces the next generation of gods with the greatest of her siblings, Cronos, or Time (order, i.e. the Maat of the Egyptians), henceforth establishing order from the initial chaotic abyss. And then the next generation of gods is brought forth and there is another (symbolic) overthrow of the reign of the gods and goddesses to a second generation, where Zeus, the god of thunder and lightning, takes the throne from his father after an epic battle between the older generation of gods (the Titans) and the new generation born of Earth.
Interestingly, the attributes of Thunder and Lightning which are so closely associated with the Greek god Zeus, the head of the Olympic pantheon as it were, are also closely associated with the Sumer-Babylonian god Marduk, who as we learn from the Sumer-Babylonian theogony of the Enuma Elis also comes to power via the overthrow of the second generation of gods ruled by Tiamut through another epic battle of the forces of good (represented by Marduk) and the forces of evil as represented by Tiamut. Even more interesting perhaps are the parallels that can be drawn between Zeus and Marduk of the Greek and Sumer-Babylonian pantheons respectively to the role of Thunder and Lightning as a fundamental creative principle, a cornerstone of the cyclical process of universe creation as it were, in the mythos of the ancient Chinese as depicted in the notion of Zhen (Thunder) as one of the eight primary trigrams of both the Earlier and Later Heaven sequences of bagua from the Yijing.
 The Theogony of Hesiod. Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914. From http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm
 http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm (ll. 116-138).
 Erebus , or Erebos, is translated into English roughly as “deep darkness, or shadow”. Erebus is also referred to as a region of the Underworld where the dead had to pass immediately after dying, and is sometimes used interchangeably with Tartarus.
 The Theogony of Hesiod. Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914. Book II verses 167-206. From http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm
 The Theogony of Hesiod. Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914. From http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm
 The Theogony of Hesiod. Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914. From http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm