Theogony literally means the “birth or genealogy of the gods.” It is the name of an epic poem by Hesiod, a Greek poet who is believed to have lived between 750 and 650 BC. He was thus a contemporary of Homer, the author of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.” Along with Homer’s works, the “Theogony” is the oldest known literary work from ancient Greece.
Who Was Hesiod?
Hesiod was a poet and rhapsode (a performer who recited epic poetry) who lived in Boeotia (sometimes Latinized as Beotia), a region in Central Greece. His father had lived in the town Kyme (Cyme) in a region called Aeolis located in what is present-day Turkey. At some point, Hesiod’s father moved to the town Ascra in Boeotia. Hesiod’s father owned a small plot of land and practiced law alongside his brother Perses.
Hesiod himself began as a farmer. He wrote poetry, but only fragments of most his works have been found. “The Shield of Heracles,” which has 480 lines, tells of Heracles’ battle with a son of Ares called Cycnus. Hesiod’s other surviving works are “Catalogue of Women,” “Works and Days,” and “Theogony.” “Catalogue of Women” simply describes mortal women who had been taken as mates by different gods, and it describes their offspring.
“Works and Days” contains around 800 verses and is the source of the scanty biographical information on Hesiod. It was at least partly inspired by the agricultural land crisis of the time that forced people to establish colonies in order to secure new land. In the poem, Hesiod argued that labor is the fate of all humans, but people who work hard will have reasonably good lives.
In the same poem, Hesiod describes the five ages of human history. During the Golden Age, Cronus ruled the universe, while humans enjoyed very long lives with no pain or sorrow. After Zeus seized control, the Golden Age gave way to the Silver Age. After the Silver Age came the Bronze Age that was known for its endless wars. The Heroic Age was the time of heroes and the Trojan War. The present day is the corrupt Iron Age.
“Theogony” has over a thousand lines and is thus Hesiod’s longest surviving work, and it is a combination of genealogy and history. The poem describes the appearance of the first gods and lists their many descendants. It also tells of the conflicts between different generations of immortals, including the Titanomachy, the war between the Titans and the first Olympian gods.
Invocation of the Muses and Other Gods
The very first part of the “Theogony” is an invocation of the Muses, nine daughters of Zeus who were in charge of various arts. People in ancient Greece believed that artistic ability, especially in poetry, was a gift from the gods. Similarly, artistic inspiration came from the gods. It was therefore tradition to begin a poem by asking the Muses for help.
After listing many of the gods and goddesses mentioned in the poem, Hesiod credits the Muses with teaching him “beautiful song” while he was tending sheep at the foot of Mt. Helicon, which contained two springs that were sacred to the Muses. Hesiod describes the Muses as the daughters of Zeus and the Titaness Mnemosyne. The nine Muses are Kleio or Clio (history), Euterpe (music), Thaleia or Thalia (comedy), Melpomene (tragedy), Terpsichore (dance), Polyhymnia (hymns), Erato (lyric poetry), Ourania or Urania (astronomy) and Kalliope or Calliope (epic poetry). Calliope is the most important of the Muses for she will sometimes bless kings with great oratorical abilities.
The tradition of invoking the Muses persisted all the way through the fall of ancient Greece in 146 BC. Ancient Roman poets like Virgil (70- 21 BC) continued the tradition. Even later poets like Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) or John Milton (1608- 1674) would invoke the Muses at the beginning of a poem.
The First Gods
Unlike gods in many other religious traditions, the Greek gods did not create the universe; in fact, the universe predates them.
The first entity to appear was Chaos, a primeval void that was dark, still and silent and had nothing living within it. Over time, the first gods emerged from the void: Erebus, Nyx (Night), Gaea (the Earth), and Tartarus. Both Erebus and Tartarus were associated with what eventually became the Underworld where the dead dwell. In order to restore universal balance, Nyx gave birth to Hemera (Day), while Erebus spawned Aether (the upper atmosphere below heaven). Eros (the desire to reproduce) also emerged from the void. Gaea gave birth to Pontus (the oceans), the Ourea (nine mountain deities), and Uranus (the heavens). The last one became her mate. As can be seen, these early gods were all places and natural phenomena or forces.
Gaea and Uranus had many children. They produced three Hecatoncheires, beings with fifty heads and one hundred hands. They also had three Cyclopes who were one-eyed giants, and twelve Titans. Uranus loathed the Hecatoncheires and Cyclopes and thus locked them away in Tartarus, much to Gaea’s fury.
The Titans or Elder gods were a race of immortal and powerful giants. There were two generations, with the first generation being the twelve children of Gaea and Uranus. Of this first generation, six were male and six were female. The male Titans were Cronus, Coeus (Farsight and Intelligence), Crius (Constellations), Hyperion (Light), Iapetus (Mortality), and Oceanus (Salt Water). The female Titans or Titanesses were Mnemosyne (Memory), Phoebe (Prophetic Radiance), Rhea (Fertility and Motherhood), Tethys (Fresh Water), Theia (Shining), and Themis (Divine Law and Order).
Gaea made a stone sickle and begged the Titans to help her against Uranus. Only Cronus, who wanted his father’s throne for himself, agreed to wield the sickle. Except for Oceanus, who avoided quarrels and fights, Cronus’ brothers agreed to help. The four of them grabbed Uranus and kept him pinned down, while Cronus castrated him with the sickle and threw his genitals into the ocean. Uranus’ blood spawned the Giants, Erinyes (Furies), and the Ash-tree Nymphs or Meliae, while his genitals mingled with the Ocean to produce Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
The Children of Night
Nyx or Night had many children; many of them were unpleasant at best. Her children included Thanatos (Death), Moro (Doom), Ker (Destiny), Hypnos (Sleep), Momus (Blame), Oizys (Pain), Nemesis (Retribution), Geras (Old Age), Apate (Deceit), Philotes (Love), and Eris (Discord). Like many goddesses, Nyx also sometimes had litters of children dedicated to one purpose. The Oneiroi, for example, were Nyx’s sons, and they were the gods of dreams. The Keres were female, and they were associated with destiny. The Moirai were the three Fates, and they controlled people’s lives from birth to death. A person’s life took the form of a thread that the Fates spun, measured and cut. Clotho did the spinning, Lachesis did the measuring, while Alecto cut the thread. The Hesperides or the “the daughters of the evening” had the job of guarding a tree or orchard of trees that produced golden apples.
Eris also had many children. Like Nyx, she did not need or want a mate, and thus bore her children by herself. They included Lethe (Forgetfulness), Ponos (Toil), Limos (Famine), Horkos (Oaths), Ate (Ruin), and Dysnomia (Anarchy). Like her mother, Eris sometimes produced litters of children. The Algea were female spirits that controlled pain, for example. The Hysminai were the personifications of battle, while the Makhai personified war. The Phonoi were male spirits in charge of murder, while their sisters the Androkatasis were the goddesses of manslaughter. They were generally associated with the slaughter on a battlefield, while their brothers were associated with killings that did not take place during a battle. The Neikea were the goddesses of quarrels, and the Amphillogiai were the goddesses of disputes. The Pseudea were in charge of lies, and the Logoi were in charge of stories.
More Children of Gaea
After arranging for Uranus to be castrated, Gaea took her son Pontus as a new mate. They had two children who both had many offspring and descendants. Their first child was Nereus, who was sometimes called “the Old Man of the Sea.” He married Doris, one of the daughters of Oceanus and Tethys, and they had fifty daughters who were collectively called the Nereids.
Among these daughters were Amphitrite, Psamanthe and Thetis. Their second child, Thaumas also married a daughter of Oceanus and Tethys. Her name was Electra, and she gave birth to Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, and two Harpies called Ocypete and Aello. The Harpies were monsters with the bodies of large birds and the heads of women.
Gaea and Pontus had two more children named Ceto and Phorcys, who mated with each other. They produced a pair of twins called the Graiae or Grey Sisters; their names were Enyo and Pemphredo. They looked like old women with grey skin. Ceto and Phorcys then had another set of daughters called the Gorgons: Euryale, Stheno and Medusa. The last sister had the bad luck to be mortal.
Medusa and Poseidon had an affair at one point, and he got her with child. When the hero Perseus slew Medusa, her two children sprang forth. One was the winged horse Pegasus, and the other was a warrior called Chrysahor. While Pegasus eventually made his way to Zeus, Chrysahor married yet another of Oceanus’s daughters. Her name was Callirrhoe, and they had a son called Geryones or Geryon who was a three-headed giant.
Around this time, another monster called Echidna was born. The “Theogony” doesn’t specify who Echidna’s mother was; it only says she bore her in a “hollow cave.” The most likely candidates are Ceto or Callirhoe, however. Echidna had the upper half of a nymph with a snake’s tail. Gaia, meantime, mated with Tartarus and had a monstrous son called Typhon or Typhaon.
Echidna and Typhaon became mates and their children proved to be among some of the most infamous monsters in Greek mythology: Cerberus, Orthus, the Chimera, and the Hydra. Echidna mated with her son Orthus, and they had two children: the Sphinx and the Nemean Lion. Ceto and Phorcys had another, last child with the body of a great snake. That last child also had the job of guarding golden apples.
The Reign of Cronus
Cronus became the Titans’ leader and Rhea became his consort. Coeus and Phoebe, who could both interpret their parents’ prophecies, also became a couple. Oceanus and Tethys married each other and had thousands of offspring, including various river gods and water nymphs. The river gods were called the Potamoi, while the nymphs were often called the Oceanids. Hyperion wed Theia, and they had three children: Helios (Sun), Selene (Moon) and Eos (Dawn). Hyperion was said to have observed the movements of the stars, sun and moon; he was thus the first astronomer. Hyperion eventually gave his children the job of maintaining and controlling the movements and cycles of the heavenly bodies.
The Titan Crius married Eurybia, daughter of Pontus and Gaea. They had three sons: Perses, Pallas and Astraeus. The latter married Eos, the goddess of the dawn, and they had an astounding number of children including the three winds, Zephyr, Notus and Boreas, the Dawn-star Eosophurus, and all of the other stars.
Pallas wed Styx, who was one of Oceanus’ many daughters and the goddess of the River Styx, and they had four children: Zelus (Emulation), Nike (Victory), Cratos (Strength) and Bria (Force). The family allied with Zeus, who had promised to help anybody who was unhappy with Cronus’ rule.
Styx decided to take him up on the offer. With her father’s help, she came to Mt. Olympus with her children. Zeus honored Styx by decreeing that an oath sworn by the River Styx was unbreakable.
Coeus and Phoebe had two daughters, Leto and Asteria. The first would ultimately become one of Zeus’ wives, while Asteria wed Perses, and they had a daughter called Hecate who became a powerful goddess. Hesiod described her as a protective figure, especially of the young, and she also brought good fortune to her worshippers.
As a ruler, Cronus proved to be no better than Uranus. He re-imprisoned the Cyclopes and the Hecatochonieres. Upon learning of a prophecy made by both Uranus and Gaea that one of his sons would overthrow him, he decided to get rid of any child that he and Rhea had. Over time, she bore him six children: Hestia, Hades, Demeter, Poseidon, Hera and Zeus. Cronus swallowed each child as soon as it was born. After getting pregnant with her sixth child, Zeus, Rhea fled and gave birth in secrecy. She left Zeus with either Gaea or the Curetes who kept him hidden and gave Cronus a large stone wrapped in a blanket that he swallowed.
The Trouble with the Sons of Iapetus
Iapetus married Clymene, one of the daughters of Oceanus, and they had four sons: Atlas, Epimetheus, Menoetius, and Prometheus. Hesiod briefly describes the fates of the four sons, most of whom ran afoul of Zeus. During this segment Zeus appears to be an adult ruler, so the stories take place after his final conflict with Cronus.
Menoetius was brave but arrogant, and Zeus blasted him with a thunderbolt, sending him all the way down to Erebus. Zeus punished Atlas for his part in the war with Cronus by condemning him to bear the heavens on his shoulders for eternity.
Prometheus was the wiliest of the sons, and he liked humans. He wanted people to keep more of their hard-earned food rather than sacrificing it to the gods. He killed an ox, butchered it, and made two piles. He put all the bones in one pile and covered it with a layer of nice white fat; he put all the meat in the other pile and covered it with the ox’s stomach. Zeus saw through the trick, but chose the fat and bone pile anyway. He then angrily decreed that men could never be given fire.
Prometheus, however, decided to steal some fire anyway and give it to the humans. Zeus was really angry and condemned Prometheus to be chained to a rock while an eagle ate his liver every day. Prometheus was immortal, and his liver always grew back. The pain must have been excruciating, and Prometheus languished for centuries until Heracles happened by and set him free. By that time, Zeus’ anger had cooled, so he did not object to Heracles freeing Prometheus.
Zeus also targeted Epimetheus, who was just as friendly and kind as Prometheus, but lacking in his intelligence or guile. He ordered the god Hephaestus, the smith of the gods to make the first woman. Athena then dressed her. Later versions of the story would name the woman Pandora, and she was created to punish men. Hesiod warned that trying to avoid the deceit and treachery of women by remaining single wouldn’t help, for men who tried that would suffer a lonely old age. Hesiod concluded “It is not possible to deceive or go beyond the will of Zeus.”
Zeus spent his childhood in hiding. After reaching adulthood, he began consulting with Gaea about ways to defeat and overthrow his father. She advised him that he would need allies. Gaea gave Cronus something that induced vomiting and Cronus vomited up Zeus’ five older siblings plus the stone he’d mistaken for the baby Zeus. Zeus’s siblings were properly grateful and decided to help him seize the throne. This led to a ten-year long war called the Titanomachy.
The Titanomachy pitted the first generation of what would become the Olympian gods against Cronus and most of the other Titans. Oceanus remained neutral, while Prometheus and Epimetheus fought alongside Zeus and his siblings. Atlas, by contrast, helped lead the Titans in battle.
At Gaea’s suggestion, Zeus decided to secure more allies by freeing the Cyclopes and the Hecatochroneires from their prison in Tartarus. The Cyclopes, in gratitude, made thunderbolts for Zeus; these were his deadliest and most famous weapons. The Hecatochroneires simply joined the battle alongside Zeus’ side and threw gigantic rocks at the Titans. Zeus used his thunderbolts to very destructive effect.
In the end, the Titans lost, and many of them were confined in Tartarus. The Hecatachroneires were given the job of serving as jailers. Hesiod then briefly described Tartarus and its alarming inhabitants that included many of Night’s children like Thanatos and Hypnos. Hades and Persephone eventually made their home there. Hesiod mentioned that they had a dog who was quite friendly to people coming in, but extremely vicious to anybody attempting to leave. Later stories would identify the dog as Cerberus. Styx, the goddess of the River Styx, also came to live in the Underworld.
Typhon then battled Zeus. Typhon was a monster with a hundred heads, each one being that of a different type of creature or animal: dragon, lion, bull, etc. After defeating Typhon, Zeus cast him into Tartarus.
The Wives of Zeus
The Olympians are the best-known Greek gods; many people have heard of them. Many of the gods mentioned in the Percy Jackson series, for example, are Olympians. They owe their name to the fact that most of them live on Mt. Olympus.
After the war, Zeus took seven wives. His first wife was Metis, a daughter of Oceanus and Tethys. Gaea and Uranus, however, warned him that Metis would have powerful children – including a son who would overthrow him. Zeus tricked Metis into taking on a form small enough to swallow, and he quickly inhaled her. Metis, however, was already pregnant, and when she gave birth, the goddess Athena sprang out of Zeus’ head.
Zeus’ second wife was the Titaness Themis. Their children included the Horae or Hours, a trio of goddesses that controlled the seasons. They also had Eirene (Peace), Dike (Justice), and Eunomia (Order). Confusingly, Hesiod also describes Zeus and Themis as the parents of the Fates – even though he’d earlier listed them as three of Night’s children.
Zeus also married Eurynome, another daughter of Oceanus and Tethys, and they had three daughters who were collectively called the Graces. Their names were Thaleia, Euphrosyne, and Aglea, and they were known for their great beauty.
Zeus took his sister Demeter as his fourth wife, and they had a daughter named Persephone, who eventually got married to Hades.
Mnemosyne was Zeus’ fifth wife, and they had nine daughters who were known as the Muses.
Zeus then married Leto, daughter of the Titans Coeus and Phoebe. They had twin children, Apollo and Artemis. Both youngsters were known for their good looks and prowess at archery.
Zeus’ seventh and last wife was Hera. Their children were Eileithyia, Hebe and Ares.
More Descendants of the Olympians
Zeus and Hera did not always have a happy marriage, largely because of Zeus’ wandering eye. At one point, Hera had a son all by herself. His name was Hephaestus, and he was the greatest craftsmen of the gods. He was also lame.
Poseidon took Amphitrite as his wife, and they had a son called Triton. Poseidon and his family lived in a golden palace under the sea.
Aphrodite and Ares became lovers and had three children: Phobos (Fear), Deimos (Terror), and Harmonia (Harmony). Harmony married Cadmus, the first Greek hero, and they had a daughter named Semele.
Zeus was not a faithful husband by any stretch of the imagination. He had many lovers and had many children by those lovers. Maia, the daughter of the Titan Atlas, became the mother of Hermes, the herald of the gods. Zeus also took Semele as a lover, and they had a son named Dionysius; both became gods in their own right. Zeus and Alcmena were the parents of the mighty Heracles.
Hephaestus married one of the Graces, Algaea. Dionysius married Ariadne, the mortal daughter of Minos; Zeus made her immortal. Heracles eventually married Hebe.
The sun-god Helios married Persis, a daughter of Oceanus, and they had two children, Circe and Aeetes. The latter was a king, and he married another daughter of Oceanus called Idyia, and they had a daughter named Medea.
The last few verse describe the descendants of various goddesses, starting with Demeter who had a son, Plutus, by the mortal hero Iasion. Hesiod added the little detail of their coupling in “a thrice-plowed furrow” in Crete.
The “Theogony” ends with the line, “But now, sweet-voiced Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus who holds the aegis, sing of the company of women.” This seems to suggest that the “Theogony” segued into “The Cataologue of Women,” which told of mortal women and their divine lovers.
Why is the “Theogony” Important?
The “Theogony is important simply because it is one of the oldest pieces of literature from ancient Greece known. Given its subject matter, it provides a snapshot of what Greek literary and religious traditions during Hesiod’s lifetime were like.
Ancient Greece fell to the Romans in 146 BC, but it had a strong influence on Roman culture. If a researcher were to study Greek or Roman myths dating from different times, they would notice changes in both the myths and the different characters.
For example, Hesiod described Aphrodite as being produced when the Titans toss Uranus’ genitals into the sea. Hesiod’s contemporary, Homer, wrote that Aphrodite was the daughter of Zeus and Dione. Other, later poets claimed she was the daughter of Uranus and Hemera or Cronus and Euonyme. Similarly, other poets said that only Hera was Zeus’ wife, and Hephaestus was the son of both Zeus and Hera.
Such changes and contradictions sometimes show up in the “Theogony” itself, which suggests Hesiod may have been cataloguing the religious beliefs of his day – even if they conflicted. The Fates, for example, are first said to be daughters of Nyx and are then later said to be daughters of Zeus.
Such contradictions are less common than they might appear at first glance. Many of the gods and goddesses had sobriquets or epithets. Aphrodite, for example, first rose from the sea foam near the island Cythera, so she is sometimes called Cythera herself.
Notes on Style
A large chunk of the “Theogony” is devoted to genealogies, which is not unique to ancient Greece. The Old Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible also contained passages that were long lists of names. These passages are sometimes called the “begat passages,” with “begat” being a very old-fashioned word for “was the father of.” So when the Bible stated “Adam begat Seth,” it simply meant “Adam was Seth’s father.”
In both the Bible the “Theogony,” the genealogies help organize the story, and they help establish who is who. The genealogies also establish the roles of specific characters; they mention if someone is a king or hero, for example.
Unlike the Bible, which concentrated on fathers and sons, the “Theogony” listed both parents. For all of Hesiod’s hostility to Pandora, who he does not even bother naming, he seems to have had a hearty respect for both Hecate and Gaea.
The “Theogony” often describes the female characters as “trim-ankled” or “neat-ankled.” Apparently, a woman’s physical attractiveness depended at least partly on the shapeliness of their ankles. That points to very different standards of beauty than we have today.
The “Theogony” doesn’t describe the creation of humans at all; they suddenly appear in the story during the segment on Prometheus. Hesiod is less interested in how humans came to be than in their role as worshippers of the gods.
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