Rudiments of Ancient Greek Polytheism
in Hesiod’s Theogony

A systematic distinction between two separate kinds of intelligent being lay at the root of ancient Greek religious thought. One kind was referred to by the word θνητός (thnētos), and the other by a negative [or, more exactly, a ‘privative’ formulation] of the same lexeme, ἀθάνατος (athanatos). The first of these, θνητός, (plural θνητοί) meant ‘subject to death, mortal’ [not merely liable to die or susceptible to death, but positively destined to it]. The second word, ἀθάνατος (plural ἀθάνατοι) meant the opposite, ‘deathless, undying, immortal.’ This distinction applied not only to the persons or physical selves of mortals on the one hand and immortals on the other hand, but also to the various properties and appurtenances of each, those of mortals being intrinsically perishable, unenduring, and transitory; the others imperishable, perduring, everlasting.

Another way of denoting the difference between mortals and immortals had to do with the physical substance of life. A word meaning ‘human (or animal) blood’ or ‘gore’ in ancient Greek was βρότος (brotos), which is obviously crucial to the kind of life men (and animals) experience, since if the βρότος is let out of them they die, and their living therefore depends on their having a sufficient supply of that liquid substance properly contained in their bodies. Such a substance being in one sense necessary therefore, in another sense dependency for life on such a weak and vulnerable matter constituted a glaring imperfection about the kind of life mortals experience. Accordingly, with a shift of accent to indicate the little shift of meaning, the word βροτός meant ‘mortal.’ But if a rational, sentient being could live without βρότος, then that being must be immortal and divine, or ἄμβροτος (ambrotos, devoid of βρότος), and ἀμβροσία (ambrosia) was any substance particularly suited to immortal association or use, such as the special foodstuffs of the gods, or an odour so delightful as to be justly considered either actually or virtually divine, or a lotion or unguent suitable for a god, and so forth.

A further major difficulty about being mortal beyond terminate (and relative to the ἀθάνατοι therefore always ultimately short) lifespan, and beyond also the relative physical weakness implicit in being βροτός, was the fact that θνητοί and ἀθάνατοι dwelt in locations quite separate from each other and, being as they were of such drastically different natures, scarcely associated at all with one another. Consequently no ordinary mortal person, nor any of such a person’s mortal friends and acquaintances, could have enough personal experience with persons who are ἀθάνατος to gain from such association a useful, working understanding of their manifold peculiarities. But because certain immortals control everything that is not in the power of mortals to control, like the climate and the weather, the fertility of mankind and of all plants and animals, disease, and everything else beyond immediate human control that must be set or regulated in a certain way if mankind either generally or individually is to survive and thrive, a good knowledge of the important immortals (those who are, have been, or might be, influential for human good or ill)—knowledge of how they think, why they act as they do, and most of all how to get along amicably with them despite their remoteness from oneself—was a practical necessity for every mortal whose personal interests might be affected by gods (which is, of course, everybody, whether they adequately appreciate that fact or not). And since neither any ordinary mortal individual nor others in his immediate society could have sufficient direct personal familiarity with any god, it was vitally important that everyone be able at least to hear all the various stories that people in one’s own time knew by hearsay about other, earlier people who had had notable direct experiences with divinities and left some retrievable recollection of such experience in the memories of storytellers. The Hesiodic Theogony purports to be one such legacy. It is a compendium of information about how all the various ἄμβροτοι came to be; about how they are related to and interact with each other; and about the distribution of praeterhuman power amongst them so that some god or goddess, or some combination of deities, is, includes, comprehends, or is otherwise able to regulate everything in the universe.

The sort of immortal that did or could control something vital to human well-being but beyond human power, and whom therefore a human being—an ἄνθρωπος (anthrōpos)—needed to understand, was called, whether male or female, a θεός (theos; plural θεοί), or if female, alternatively θεά (thea; plural θεαί or θέαιναι). Immortals to whom those nouns applied were the ‘gods’ or deities, the divine beings, of the ancient Greek polytheism. Hesiod’s theology in the Theogony describes everything that is and everything that occurs in the world as an aspect, a product, or a consequence of divinity; and as there is in the universe a tremendous observable variety of objects and characteristics as well as great immanent confliction either actual or potential among them, so must there be an imposing variety of deities, each with its own mind and motivations.

Spatially separated though they were, both θνητοί and divine ἀθάνατοι were communal, both of their separate communities comprising various persons of different generations, different genders, differing interests, differing sensibilities, diverse instincts, different capabilities, and various experience. The adjustments and reconciliations necessary to sustain their communalities in the presence of such diverse membership imparted a distinctly political character no less to the imagined society of immortals than to the real world of humankind.

Encountered, as it should be by a modern reader, in the full light of other and subsequent evidence of the ancient Greek polytheism, the Theogony succinctly catalogs the gods not only according to their names and lineages, but also as constituents of the variegated divine society that collectively not only owned, but indeed had also originated, all conditions and powers known to mankind, both those within and those beyond human control.

Hesiod composes his Theogony entirely in stichic verse, which was the usual and normal way of telling a long narrative in his time. But the first 115 lines of the poem are not, strictly speaking, a narrative or story. They are instead a hymn (ὕμνος), a song or ode, especially one in praise of a god. The so-called Homeric Hymns (Hymn to Aphrodite, Hymn to Demeter, Hymn to Dionysos, Hymn to Hermes) are in the same poetic form and serve the same religious purpose as the first 115 verses of the Theogony, notably different only inasmuch as each of those poems apostrophizes only a single deity, whereas the proemic first 115 lines of the Theogony invoke the whole society of gods that are most potent in the cosmos.

The Muses

Even the first divinity to whom the hymn is addressed is plural, namely the several unwed daughters of Zeus who were known collectively as the Muses. Vv. 1-21, and then again vv. 35-52 familiarize us a bit with these deities, describing (since we perhaps would not otherwise know it) what their usual activities and habits are. Sandwiched between those two runs of descriptive verse, in vv. 22-34 Hesiod avers a sensational marvel, namely a personal epiphany to him of these deities as a group. In vv. 53-62 he goes on to describe the Muses’ birth (all born at once, a veritable litter of them; it is much the largest single birthing of deities ever narrated in the surviving ancient Greek mythology). Then, in vv. 63-103, he adds a rather more discursive account of how this group of goddesses has been spending its time since its birth. The Muses are also called δαίμονες, ‘spirits,’ which is a somewhat unusual way of referring to such Olympian deities as these are made to appear. This is however just one outward mark of a more general dissimilarity between the Muses and other, religiously more prominent deities of the ancient Greek polytheism.

One avenue to analysis of the Theogony’s Muse-laden proem is to recognize in it three major subdivisions:

I, concerning the ARRAY of deities;
II, concerning their ORIGINS, DERIVATION, AND DESCENT; and
III, a final few words (vv. 104-107) summarily categorizing BENEFICENT (Gaia’s and Ouranos’ descendants) and MALEFICENT divinities (the lineages descending from Night and Pontos).

Among other functions, the gods whom the Muses teach Hesiod and his bardic kind to celebrate personify cosmic order: those named first are spatially situated nearest to human haunts, followed by those farther away—betraying a decidedly anthropocentric ideology. Then it says in the proem that the song immediately following the proem is to be a gift to Hesiod from the Muses; vv. 11-20/21 say what the song’s content will be. This is incidentally a catalogue of the Muses’ own repertory.

Principal Olympian Θεοί

The Muses’ songs are not addressed or devoted indiscriminately to just any ἄμβροτος or ἀθάνατος. The especial kind of immortal who deserves such celebration is specifically a θεός (plural: θεοί), and this same word provides the first half of the title of Hesiod’s poem, the Θεο-γον-ίη. The second ‘root’ in the title, gon/gen (like log/leg in λόγος, λέγω) has to do with sexual reproduction, as in various English words derivative from ancient Greek: for example ‘genital,’ or ‘epigonic’ (someone or something engendered/born after someone or something else), or gon-o-rrhea (i.e., a suppuration [a flowing of pus]) in the genital organs). So what the name of Hesiod’s book means literally is “The (Sexual) Procreation of the Gods.”

As in Homer’s conception of him, so Hesiod too imagined the prime god—the foremost and most powerful—to be Zeus (v. 11). The ancient Greeks thought of this god as universal—as the foremost and most powerful god, not only for Greeks but also for black Africans (whom they knew by the general name ‘Aethiopian’) or Central Asians (the ‘Hippomolgoi,’ for example), or Scandinavians (Hyperboreans)—in short, for every people on earth. But this perfectly universal male god was married to a goddess—his own sister—who was contrastingly just about as locally limited as a deity could be: Hera of Argos, i.e., Hera of the province of Argos city on the eastern alluvial plain of the same name in the Peloponessos (vv. 11-12). This married couple was regarded by humans and purportedly even by the other gods as the figurative or actual parents of other gods; that is to say, they were literally the parents, or else had parental rights and powers, with respect to other deities.

But whereas Zeus really was a prolific physical father not only of other gods but also of quite a number of special humans, his wife Hera was either, as some thought, not really anyone’s physical mother at all, or was at most the real procreative mother of only a few either malformed or conspicuously inconsequential children. Now this was from the ancient Greek point of view a curious inversion of the usual relationship between mortal husbands and wives, between whom fertility—having many children—was thought of as an ideal feminine destiny, while ideally political and social power were masculine attainments. The ancient mythology about Zeus and Hera makes it plain however that as the ancient Greeks imagined them, the real progenerative fertility was Zeus’, while to the extent she cared to use it political might in the world was wielded by Hera though her strong-willed, wily, and nagging power over Zeus, who might temporize and resist (as seen in Homer’s Iliad), but could not as a good husband ultimately deny gratification of Hera’s wishes.

So while the foremost occupation of a typical mortal father (i.e., a patriarch) ought ideally to be working his will in the wide world outside the home, while at home his wife would revel in her many children, this divine husband had numerous children in the wide world outside his home, while at home his wife enjoyed most of all having her own way in the world (but without ever having to overcome or worry much about anyone’s opposition to her will, since she understood consummately how to use her powerful husband for that purpose).

Indeed Hera was not the sort of wife by whom a wise male might want to have many children, if any at all. She was much too willful and self-centered a wife to provide her husband children who would be unfailingly respectful of their father and his wishes; and Zeus discovered that in fact every mother of his children (of whom there were many) introduced a certain element into the character of each which was not always welcome or entirely congenial to him, if not downright troublesome. (Many a mortal father has had some experience of this problem too.) Still, he wanted at least one descendant with whom he could have an especially close cooperative relationship, an affinity more dependably tranquil than his sometime tense and discordant marital bond with Hera. So he did what only a god could do; he begat, gestated, and gave birth personally (vv. 924-6) to a special daughter into whose character he thus admitted nothing whatever that was alien or uncomfortable to himself, especially nothing bothersomely female (except to the extent that an element of perfectly subdued femininity entirely within himself contributed to the formation of the daughter’s character—see vv. 886-900). This unique child of Zeus was Athena, the third in order of the great Olympian deities whom Hesiod has the Muses invoke at the beginning of their repertorial hymm (v. 13).

Being apparently thus of wholly masculine origin, Athena was nonetheless a female; but Zeus subsequently never needed, as human fathers commonly do, for her own good to give away this favorite daughter of his to some other male in marriage, because Athena was adamantly virginal, unamenable in any way to physical concourse with any male, or to sexual fertility, or to the institution of marriage. She was purely and absolutely her father’s daughter, his agent, and politically his female alter ego, unalloyed with the characteristics of Hera or of any other female external to Zeus himself. So, as regards the peculiar distribution of governing and procreative functions between her father and her father’s wife, Athena remained forever childless (with no possibility of even such exiduous progeny as Hera’s); while at the same time she was intensely interested in ruling and controlling both other gods and mortals. And whereas Zeus often resented Hera’s interference with his authority, when Athena did much the same thing, he welcomed it as blessèd relief from the tedious cares of power, comfortable in the certain knowledge that it would be only policies congenial to him and none other that Athena would implement.

One cause of the gods’ superiority to humankind was thus evidently a different distribution amongst themselves of functions and characteristics found also, only less propitiously distributed, in humans. So Zeus’ most trusted and trustworthy agent in management of the world’s affairs was not some other male but rather the unmistakably female Athena with her intensely feminine interest in fabrics and clothing on the one hand, and yet also her warlike nature and taste for male company without sexual concomitant on the other hand. This peculiar blending of masculine and feminine traits in her character paralleled something similar in her father Zeus, who as the Theogony itself later doubly discloses, was for his part just as masculine a being tinged with femininity as Athena was female tinged with masculinity.

Notice that Hesiod relays to hearers of his hymn the Muses’ invocation of these several gods not in the order of their origin (not to mention their complex characters), but rather in order of their fundamental importance, which is to say, in the order of their relative power both in the supernal world of the gods themselves and among men. Next comes Φοῖβος Ἀπόλλων, Apollo, Zeus’ natural son, but one very unlike his father in certain respects. Everybody knows even before reading the details about them in the actual ancient Greek sources that Zeus had scores of amorous affairs, and that all of them produced children. Apollo attempted the same thing himself time and again, but his record of hits and misses is overwhelmingly a failure; where Zeus could not fail, Apollo could scarcely succeed, and one damsel after another somehow eluded him. And whereas Zeus’ intellect was occupied typically with devising what was going to happen next in the world and how, Apollo’ mind was characteristically devoted to assuring that Zeus' intentions were exactly and perfectly fulfilled in every instance. This meant that more than any other divinity—in a sense even more than Zeus himself—he knew perfectly what was going to happen in the future and when (though by no means necessarily how). But for several reasons, such knowledge is generally not beneficial to mortals (one obvious reason being that the ultimate future happening for every mortal without exception is his or her death). Thus Apollo was the god simultaneously of The Future, of prophesy, and of death. By extension, he was also god of knowledge in general, of thought, and of music; that is to say, he was the god of culture in the broadest sense (i.e., of acquired knowledge in contrast to his father’s characteristic innate knowledge). The ancients thought of him as an archetypal male forever in the finest bloom of masculine youthfulness, as opposed to the eternal perfection of his father Zeus’ maturely sinuous middle-aged maleness.

If Apollo was not much good with the girls, his twin sister Artemis was utterly incompatible with even the slightest suggestion of masculine sexual interest in her. Athena too was virginal, but her femininity was not of a kind to inspire concupiscence. Artemis contrastingly was the imagined perfect embodiment of fresh, youthful, sexually provocative femininity. A healthy, normal man could thus hardly avoid arousal by the mere sight of her, but she must never know of it, for in the myths some died horribly for no more than a misfortunate opportunity to conjecture impiously about her. Artemis was thus not the sort of ravishing female beauty who would just say ‘no;’ she was known to kill an offender on the spot for even a hint of unwelcome lust. While being herself therefore aggressively sterile, at the same time she was tenderly, devotedly beneficent toward the young and infant results of others’ breeding, human and animal alike, until such offspring reached maturity. Hence she was the divinely perfect midwife and governess of young and still sexually innocent youth. Parallel to her youthful twin brother’s unsurpassed masculine handsomeness therefore, Artemis embodied perfect young feminine beauty, while her frigid character suited her for procreation even less than her brother. And whereas the male Apollo grew up to the be god of culture par excellence, Artemis became the preeminent goddess of uncultured wildlife and wilderness. This made her dangerously easy to forget when it came time for mortal kings and other humans of influence in mankind’s communal affairs to think of the gods and how to please and dispose them to benevolence towards human enterprises. She became very dangerous when mortals neglected her.

By right of birth, by seniority, and by virtue of his physical strength, one might think the next god, Poseidon, should have been mentioned earlier, either in the same breath with his brother Zeus and his sister Hera, or at least right after them. But his own peculiar character and the portion he received by lot when he and his brothers divided up their inheritance from the previous generation of gods justly confer on him only a subordinate sixth place in the the society of the reigning gods. His realm is the land and coastal waters contiguous with the land under Zeus’ sky, so that he is subordinate to Zeus not only with respect to authority but also because of the physical position of his estate in the cosmos. From the human point of view moreover, whereas all five of the previously mentioned gods are sometimes exceedingly important to humans as sources of various benefits humans need either collectively or individually, Poseidon has relatively little of a beneficial nature to give mankind. He is, on the contrary, more often a serious threat to humanity as the author of dangerous earthquakes and storms at sea, which can ruin men and kill them, but hardly do them any good.

By now an attentive listener has noticed that the Muses tend to sing about the gods in contrastive pairs. The next pair is female, Themis and Aphrodite. Nobody knows what Themis’ name really meant, if anything, but a good folk-etymology in antiquity regarded the name as cognate with the verb τίθημι, ‘to put’ or ‘set (something in place); establish.’ Later on Hesiod describes her further as mother of the Hours, of Order, of Justice, of Peace, and of the Moirai (Klotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, called the ‘Fates’ in Latin; their name Moirai means in Greek ‘Apportioners’). She and her offspring accordingly reek of regularity and settled predictability of all sorts: physical, temporal, and moral. Aphrodite quite oppositely is the goddess of life’s great lottery, the momentously dislocating unpredictability of who will love and copulate with whom, for there was nothing else in all of life for either gods or men so chancy and so fraught with hazard as the attractions and consequences of carnal intercourse, which was Aphrodite’s particular sphere of influence as a deity. Certain other of Aphrodite’s recurrent associations are sea-foam and dew.

The next pair, again feminine, is obscure, in the sense that there is hardly any mythology about them at all. Hebe was the goddess of gentle mothering, and her name meant ‘puberty,’ or vibrant, blooming youth in general. Dione is a feminine form of the word ‘Zeus,’ and most of what is to be known about her, which isn’t much, is to be found in the fifth book of the Iliad, where she is associated especially with the much more celebrated Aphrodite.

Extra-Olympian Θεοί

All of the foregoing gods have in common their dwelling on Olympus with Zeus in his ‘family village’ of gods regent in elevated space overlooking lower space inhabited by mankind. The next chapter of the Muses’ singing is to be about a somewhat different group, who contrastingly do not spend most of their time in the bosom of the divine family on lofty Olympos, but are for several reasons located somewhere else. The first three of this new group are sources of light who illuminate the sky: Eos (Dawn), Helios (Sun), and Selene (Moon). At first glance, this threesome seems to violate the pattern of pairs which the Muses and Hesiod have observed heretofore in describing the gods; but actually Eos on the one hand and Helios and Selene on the other hand are still a kind of pair. Eos, who is female, is notoriously brief and fleeting; no sooner does she appear in the sky than she is gone again, a very beautiful but also very unsteady and rather fickle sort of deity. Helios and Selene however, male and female respectively, have more staying-power; once either of them appears, he or she can be depended upon to remain in place quite long enough to light one’s way about whatever business one might want to accomplsh by their light. Of the two, the male Helios is the more dependable; literally not a day passes without his being in place all day long to shed his light on everyone and everything. Selene however waxes and wanes in a menstrual fashion, so that she is more effective at some times than at others, and although they are predictable, there are still some nights every month in the ‘dark of the moon’ when Selene is completely uncooperative. When they are carefully counted, the days of Helios’ shining may be found to equal exactly the measure of a year, one complete annual cycle of the seasons precisely; and Selene’s shinings do the same for the months. Eos had a bad habit of falling temporarily in love with one handsome mortal man after another, which caused both her and them a good deal of trouble. Helios had two children, a boy and girl (vv. 956-7), who were mythically important when they grew up.

Of all the deities, the next one in the Muses’ repertory of hymnal praise was the gentlest, Apollo’s and Artemis’ mother Leto. She spent her time typically in the company of her son and daughter, to whom she remained closer as a parent than most parents do with their children even amongst the gods. Contrastively paired with Leto and her two splendidly useful children, the next god, Iapetos, who belonged to the same earlier, titanic generation of gods as did Leto, was oppositely to her the most complexly troublesome and ungentle of that entire generation; to nullify Iapetos’ and his four dangerously wrong-minded sons’ pernicious powers, Zeus and his Olympian allies had to exercise unprecedented ingenuity and perseverance.

Iapetos’ brother Kronos was Zeus’ father, a terrible and sinful father. Like Iapetos, he behaved so badly that Zeus had to drive both of them completely out of this world in order to establish in it a regimen such that other, better gods and their various creatures (including mankind) could live there. So once again, just as in the tripartite set of Eos, Helios, and Selene there lurks a subordinate pair of the flighty Eos on the one hand and the more dependable Helios and Selene on the other hand, so in the threesome of Leto, Iapetos, and Kronos there lurks a subordinate pair of gentle female Leto as opposed to the violent and lawless males Iapetos and Kronos.

With v. 20, we realize that the Muses (and Hesiod in imitation of them) are taking us back through the successive generations of the gods to the very first deities three generations preceding the founding of the divine family on Olympos. Gaia (or Gē in Attic Greek) was aboriginal; that is to say, no one and nothing pre-existed her, not to speak of having created her, which was impossible, since it was she who created everything tangible in the cosmos. Hesiod avers that the next deity, Okeanos, was not born until the third generation after Gaia (Chaos and Gaia being the first, and Ouranos the second), but according to Homer Okeanos was the father of all the other gods, which meant he had to be earlier than the third generation; much more is known however about Hesiod’s than about Homer’s theology, which was certainly different in a number of ways. But regardless of which came first, Gaia or Okeanos, Night (Νύξ) is once again the expected other half of a pair, an intangible person opposed to the two tangible entities Gaia and Okeanos.

Gaia is of course terra firma, a physical mass of earth and rocks, just as solid and material in nature as she could possibly be. Masculine Okeanos is tangible matter also, but in his case the matter is not solid but fluid; he consists of sweet, saltless water in one great continuous stream circling the entire world. In opposition to these male and female gods of pure fluidity and pure solidity, Νύξ has no substance at all; she is completely intangible, darkness personified. But since she is female, like Selene and Eos, she too is not invariable; on the contrary, she comes and goes, as we all know, once every twenty-four hours. Yet despite her perfectly unsubstantial nature, she like Gaia and Okeanos has so many children that it is almost impossible to count them, much less to know and remember every one of those children’s names.

Hesiod’s Authority

At this point, just 21 verses into his narrative song (i.e., his metrical theological myth), Hesiod breaks off his overt listing (and covert analysis) of the gods in order to answer what an astute listener might think to question about now. How does it happen, one might ask Hesiod, that he knows so much about the gods? To put the question in blunt modern terms: who has licensed Hesiod to teach theology? Or does not everyone know as well as he does these same things that he has begun to impart? It would seem not. He makes plain beginning with verse 22 that in his own opinion at least he has special training for this task, and that indeed it comes to him from none other than Zeus’ own daughters the Muses, who have met him when he was alone tending his sheep on the pastures around Mt. Helikon and taught him to sing as they do (or at least as nearly like them as a mere θνητός can manage). For those who know something about shamanism, this assertion by Hesiod suggests that he thought of himself as someone at least similar to the modern shamans of Central Asia, and that he meant to claim an authority in matters of theology rather like theirs. But however that may be, the central image of vv. 22-34 is of a lone, cattle-keeping man who meets lovely maidens in the open countryside and suffers some abuse from them, but achieves a special relationship with them too. It is useful to recall this scene when one encounters similar scenes later in the cultic myths connected with Artemis on the one hand and with Dionysos on the other. Such packs of females roaming loose in the unpopulated wilderness are always dangerous in ancient Greek myth.

Besides an insult and the intangible gift of song (which consists not only of the poetic technique necessary to make such myths as theirs, but also the content of those myths), Hesiod claims to have received from the Muses also a staff which they cut for him from a laurel tree. The word meaning ‘staff’ in Hesiod’s Greek is σκῆπτρον, a ‘sceptre,’ which could mean either a walking-stick or a shorter rod in the modern sense of the word sceptre, namely a ‘swagger stick’ carried as a badge of office, seemingly signifying in Hesiod’s case his divinely sanctioned bardic authority.

One can think of Hesiod’s first short appraisal of the gods as witnessed in the repertory of the Muses’ songs, vv. 11-21, as a synchronic conspectus of divinity. What follows his claim to have been filled with the Muses’ own singing power (vv. 22-34) is then a diachronic conspectus. In other words, he first tells of the gods in respect of their relative importance, moving from the present backward in mythic time. But the second run, beginning with v. 45, begins to tell instead of the chronological order of the greatest gods: first Gaia (Earth) and her son (and lover) Ouranos (Heaven), then their children (the second generation of the gods), then Zeus, greatest of the gods in the third generation; and finally, the early races of Men and of Giants, whose deeds excite even great Zeus whenever he hears of them again.

Now from the human point of view, the trouble with all of the deities in all three of their earliest generations is that for the most part they do not have much to do personally with the present race of mankind, and even less with any particular living mortal individually. If that were true of all the gods without exception, there would be little purpose served by humans’ learning about them. But Hesiod has only a few verses earlier said that certain of Zeus’ daughters in the fourth generation of the gods do take a direct personal interest in particular human clients, and Hesiod himself claims to be one such person. What is even more amazing, what they have enabled Hesiod to do for anyone who will listen to him is exactly what they themselves, the Muses, do all the time for the greatest and most powerful god in the world, the omniscient, omnipotent, and infinitely wise Zeus. But how exactly and in what sense are the Muses Zeus’ daughters, one may ask? Hesiod explains, in vv. 53-72.


Homer explained in the Iliad that the houses of the gods who are residents of Olympos were built by Hephaistos; they form what an ancient Greek would immediately recognize as a typical peasant village: a cluster of houses inhabited principally by the members of one extended family, with certain clients and other congenial additions, on high ground overlooking a fertile plain. Among mortals, who could never be sure of security against attack by outsiders, high ground was important as a defensive position, and they would wall its perimeter with wood—or better, with masonry—to as great a height and thickness as they could afford. All important cities—which were essentially just villages that grew to accommodate many families and an assortment of resident aliens—were therefore constructed either within or close beneath the walls surrounding some such high place. The topography of the entire Balkan Peninsula and western Anatolia lends itself to such living arrangements, being naturally full of such heights and high places, called τὰ ἄκρα (sing. τὸ άκρον) in Greek. By combining this word with their word meaning ‘city,’ π(τ)όλις (p[t]olis), they made a word to describe the walled hilltop, an ἀκρόπολις (akropolis). Every true ‘city’—as opposed to simpler ‘towns’ (ἄστεα)—had one, even if in time the populace grew so large that it came to occupy much of the lower ground beneath the hilltop, and even if when that happened still another wall was built to enclose the expanded perimeter, in which case the (old) acropolis became an inner fortress or citadel, a kind of castle within the city where the city’s greatest treasures and its hardest core of resistance to assault would be maintained.

Humans naturally situated their settlements on the lower of the many available peaks and pinnacles, within reasonable walking and climbing distance of their lower-lying pastures or arable fields. After all, no human would want to have to climb a mountain just to get home at the end of a work day. But since neither distances nor verticalities were any obstacle whatever to a god’s travelling wherever (s)he pleased instantly (for as Homer tells us, all a deity had to do was wish it, and transit would be as swift and as effortless as the very act of wishing), and since no humans or other stray animals would ever intrude unwelcomely on the very highest ἄκρα or mountaintops, that was where families of gods located their villages. Such divine settlements of course needed no walls or citadels as human settlements did, since the gods had by nature negligibly little reason to fear assault and could have no ordinary mortal enemies. The particular mountaintop Zeus chose for his family’s settlement was the peak of Mt. Olympos; but there were numerous high mountains called by that name in ancient Greece, and there is no way of knowing which one was first imagined to be the Mt. Olympos inhabited by Zeus and his family, since that distinction was claimed equally by the people who dwelt or travelled within sight of any of the mountains bearing that name; nor does it matter, since the home of the gods was of course a metaphysical idea, and never in any sense a conventional geographic fact.

Nevertheless, just as in the world of real Greeks an ideal homesite should be on a high place overlooking a broad, fertile plain, so Hesiod describes Mt. Olympos as overlooking the lovely plain named Pieria. Now in classical antiquity the Mt. Olympos with a plain named Pieria lying beneath it was in Thessaly, far to the north of Hesiod’s province of Boiotia with its great Mt. Helikon for a central landmark. Naturally therefore, whenever a god stepped off Hesiod’s Mt. Olympos to go somewhere, he set foot on Pieria, and Homer shares this conception: so Hermes on his way to the island of Ogygia in the Odyssey, and Hera when she set out for the island of Lemnos in the Iliad.

Mnemosyne and Her Daughters

Zeus did not therefore have to go very far to find the Muses’ mother, Mnemosyne, in order to make her their mother. She is an unusual goddess, whose name is an abstract noun, and words of its morphological type in Greek were not proper names, so that a good many scholars have thought Hesiod might have fabricated her with perhaps no tradition of any such goddess preceding him. There were in the ancient Greek lexicon very many other similarly formed nouns, for example ταρβοσύνη, ‘dread;’ ζηλοσύνη, ‘jealousy;’ γηθοσύνη, ‘gladness;’ μαχλοσύνη, ‘lust;’ δουλοσύνη, ‘slavery;’ κλεπτοσύνη, ‘thievishness;’ κερδοσύνη, ‘craftiness;’ βρῑθοσύνη, ‘weightiness;’ ξεινοσύνη, ‘hospitality;’ φιλοφροσύνη, ‘kindliness, friendly temper;’ δρηστοσύνη, ‘service;’ ἰδμοσύνη, ‘knowledge, skill;’ δαιτροσύνη, ‘the art of carving and apportioning meat at a feast;’ ἱπποσύνη, ‘horsemanship;’ τοξοσύνη, ‘the art of archery;’ τεκτοσύνη, ‘the art of carpentry;’ μαντοσύνη, ‘the art of divination, prophecy.’ Correspondingly, μνημοσύνη (mnemosyne) means quite simply ‘(the art of) remembering, remembrance;’ Hesiod personifies the abstraction as a goddess Mnemosyne.

Another thing besides their mother’s name that seems peculiar in Hesiod’s account of the Μοῦσαι—the Muses—is their number: he says there were nine of them. Other ancient references to the Muses (whom we thus know truly were traditional, even if perhaps Hesiod’s attribution of their parentage to Mnemosyne was not) say for example that there were three, not nine (e.g., Pausanias). But according to still others there were four, or five, or seven, or eight Muses; and although Homer regularly invoked just one Muse to help him remember his stories and tell them well, Agamemnon in the Second Nekyia of the Odyssey does say that all nine sang at the funeral of Achilles in the Troad.

Hesiod has Zeus mate with Mnemosyne nine times, once on each of nine successive nights, begetting thus one Muse at a time. Then, after gestation for a suitable number of months (Hesiod does not say how many), Mnemosyne gave birth to the whole litter of nine all at once. On no other occasion in the surviving ancient mythology does any mother either mortal or divine give birth to such a number all at once in this animalian fashion.

When the girls were grown, they left their birthplace in Pieria and went up Olympos to sing in celebration of their father’s power and justice. Zeus never engendered a superfluous child, many though his children were: each had some important function. He begat the Muses because he well understood the reality that even among the gods, as certainly in the world of humans, praise and celebration of political power are vital to its preservation. The Muses do that for Zeus; they constitute the public relations or propaganda department of the divine Olympian polity. But their activity is good for mankind too, for as Hesiod says in v. 55, in hearing the same songs that the Muses sing for Zeus men find a unique means of forgetting evils and resting from cares of the mind. But as to precisely why Zeus holds the supreme power that deserves thus to be memorialized (and hence morally perpetuated by the Muses), Hesiod sums up in vv. 73-4: it is because Zeus prevailed in the great Θεομαχία, the Battle of the Gods, which happened before there was any race of men whatever. And then, when he had won that Battle and overthrown the selfish, unjust old régime of divinity, he established a new government founded upon well considered assignment of functions and privileges to each of the immortals:

κάρτει νικήσας πατέρα Κρόνον· εὖ δὲ ἕκαστα
ἀθανάτοις διέταξε νόμους καὶ ἐπέφραδε τιμάς.

Just as there was no certainty in antiquity as to the exact number of the Muses, so too their names vary from one ancient source to another. Hesiod’s names for them in the Theogony are what the ancients called ὀνόματα ἐπώνυμα, ‘significant names.’ A ‘significant name’ is one that has a lexically comprehensible meaning apart from its merely designating the personal identity of someone or something. So for example Mr. Winifred Smith’s last name not only distinguishes Mr. Smith from other people, it also means ‘metal-worker,’ whether or not Mr. Smith himself happens to be one. Similarly, Caspar Milquetoast has a last name meaning ‘milk and toast,’ even though he may not actually have a weak stomach; and in German Frau Vogel’s last name means ‘bird.’ Κλειώ, the name of Hesiod’s first Muse, means ‘Celebratress.’ Εὐτέρπη means ‘enjoyment, well-being.’ Θάλεια means ‘Flourishing.’ Μελπομένη is the feminine present active particple of the verb μέλπομαι, so it means ‘she who sings,’ i.e., ‘Songstress.’ Τερψιχόρη is ‘Enjoy-Dance;’ Ἐρατώ is ‘the lovely one.’ Πολύμνια is ‘she of the many hymns/copious hymnody.’ Οὐρανία means ‘heavenly one;’ according to a divergent ancient tradition which Hesiod ignored (either did not know or deliberately neglected), the Muses were the daughters not of Zeus but of an earlier god, Οὐρανός, and it has been suggested that Οὐρανία’s name cryptically reflects that possibly older tradition. Καλλιόπη means ‘she of the beautiful voice.’ As a group, these names describe the components of a perfect holiday recreation: some occasion of celebration when everyone has a feeling of well-being and enjoys himself; with singing and dancing, loveliness and hymns, the benevolence of heaven, and beauty of voice to complement beauty of physical forms and of thought. All of this is the normal, daily experience of the Muses’ primary audience, the blessèd Olympian gods who never suffer such troubles as infest human life.

But even though the conditions of human life are quite different, more complicated, and far less pleasant in general than those of divine existence, the Muses are able nonetheless to confer benefits on humankind no less valuable than those they contribute to the perpetual happiness of the righteous gods. As ruler of the whole world, Zeus was naturally the special patron of mortal grandees, and his daughter Καλλιόπη in particular, She of the Beautiful Voice, Hesiod says in v. 79 is the most excellent of the Muses (at least from mortal mankind’s point of view) because (v. 80):

ἣ γὰρ καὶ βασιλεῦσιν ἅμ’ αἰδοίοισιν ὀπηδεῖ Verily she attends worshipful lords.

Her two gifts to political chieftains are the persuasive, conciliating power of well-chosen words and the judgement to act prudently. But now Hesiod has said something which a captious listener might well question. Earlier he asserted that hexametric poets—epic singers, himself among them—are the special beneficiaries of the Muses, and mortal men’s best if not indeed their only avenue to knowledge of the gods; but now he seems to have diluted that statement with a conflicting one according to which mortal magnates also benefit, and perhaps more even than epic singers, from the kindness of the Muses, since astute lords are clearly more powerful and perhaps more critically needful to mankind than epic storytellers.

One must read carefully here to see exactly what Hesiod said (vv. 80-103). Καλλιόπη goes with lords as though she were a member of their retinues (ὀπηδεῖ). But no one ever heard any such seigneur appeal to her for the sort of help with a particular political problem that epic singers always directly request for their storytelling in song. Instead, the Muses, acting in this respect quite like the Fates—the Μοῖραι—collectively confer upon kings at the time of birth a thereafter indwelling power to think and speak astutely. This power naturally goes with such lordly persons, or ‘attends them,’ ever after, i.e., until the recipient dies, and it needs no such recurrent renewal as bards customarily solicit at the onset of their every composition. By virtue of the twin political talents’ ultimate derivation from Zeus, their lordly mortal recipients are at least in that regard ‘descendants of Zeus,’ whereas contrastingly epic singers are ‘descendants’ of the Muses and of Apollo, the one god who, through his uniquely exact knowledge of the mind of his father Zeus, already infallibly knows everything that will ever happen in the future, just as the Muses perfectly know everything that has happened in the past. Thus the difference between these two categories of adoptive ‘descent’ is after all perfectly clear, and perfectly well stated by Hesiod: the Muses endow great lords among men at birth with a special power to think through difficult political problems well and to express themselves wisely; while to epic singers the Muses give their help from day to day as such singers call upon them for it, and it is not political wisdom but rather a special knowledge of the divergent natures of mankind and of the gods which is preëminent in the Muses’ gift to bards. And while the blessèd gods (θεοὶ μακάριοι), who are by nature inaccessible to anxiety or suffering, enjoy the Muses’ gifts to them as pure delights, mortal man, who is doomed to continual troubles and anxiety, receives those same divine gifts as relief and anodyne against the hardships of mortal existence.


Having told us more about the Muses in his preceding verses 36-103 than all the other surviving theological authorities of the ancient Greek world put together, Hesiod now invokes his Muses (vv. 104-115) not as Homer did, just one at a time, but all nine together, to help him tell his fellow men about the very earliest gods, the primordial ones from whom and by whom the world came to be constituted as all subsequent gods and humankind know it. So the hymnodic proem of the Theogony ends, and the true narrative begins, vv. 116 .

From v. 116 through the rise of Pontos in v. 131 the tale is cosmogonic—about the origins of the physical cosmos: Earth (Γαῖα), Sky (Ουρανός), open Sea (Πόντος), the underworld, etc. As Hesiod tells it, cosmogony is no mere action of the gods; certain of them personally constitute and engender the very substances and material fabric of the cosmos, which is thus by origin totally divine. To narrate these momentous primaeval developments, he couched them in a Greek reflex of a recurrent old myth that has been well known worldwide in their storytelling traditions to many peoples besides the Greeks. Witnessing and comparing its cognates in some of those other peoples’ traditions explain numerous features in Hesiod’s Greek telling of how the world was created.

A fully functioning world from any human point of view needs both child-bearers and world-makers; those two categories of being are certainly supplied by Gaia on the one hand and her numerous male children on the other hand. But the very limited child-bearing and completely unsubstantial contribution to world-making of Chaos put that primordial being in quite another class. The Greek word at the base of her name is χάϝος, which is cognate with the verb χαύνω, ‘to yawn,’ and its iterative form χάσκω, ‘to yawn, gape;’ and χανδάνω, ‘to take in, contain,’ together with the adjective χαῦνος, ‘porous, spongy,’ and the denominative verb χαυνόω, ‘to puff up, inflate’ (or, figuratively, ‘relax, weaken’). Another form of the same word appears in v. 740 of the Theogony, χάσμα, meaning ‘gulf, expanse.’ Given this large ‘word nest’ and its several meanings, there can be little doubt about the central idea of Chaos: she is a vast emptiness whose boundaries are unknown and unknowable. Fortunely for mortals, she is situated so far away from Earth (Gaia) and from the navigable coastal waters contiguous with Earth that there is not the slightest chance of anyone’s ever even coming within sight of Chaos or chasma either by land or by sea, not to speak of falling into her/it.

The neuter plural Τάρταρα in v. 119 is an adjective, not a proper noun strictly speaking. The word is cognate with the Greek verb τᾰράσσω, ‘jumble up, confuse; trouble, stir about.’ The reduplication of the lexemic root in τάρ-ταρ-ος has rather the sense of the English expression ‘tumble-jumble.’ It differs from Chaos principally in that whereas Chaos is by definition empty and vacant, Tartaros has certain material contents. Hesiod says that there are, for example, certain gods in Tartaros, namely the hopelessly disorderly ones, outcasts, failures, and offsweepings of a former, superceded régime of divinity. But Tartaros is not progeneratively productive, being quite incapable of begetting, conceiving, or otherwise making anything. Nor can it propel or expel anything out of itself. Instead, it systematically receives various things into itself which are unwanted, superfluous, or useless elsewhere, as though it were a vast, cosmic dust-bin or waste can. It is not however a tight container, being liable to leak. What leaks out of it may apparently fall into chasma or Chaos. So for example Hesiod imagined a tenth of Okeanos’ water flowing downward into Tartaros through the stream of Okeanos’ daughter Styx, yet Tartaros is not flooded. Tartaros has portals, in effect a prison gate which prevents the disorderly gods who have been jailed there from escaping. Plato was intrigued by Tartaros, and gives a rationalized description of it in his Phaido.

The Titans and Their Progeny

What follows in vv. 133-210 is a naming and description of the so-called Uranian gods (i.e., children of Ouranos [Uranus in Latin]). About most of these very little information survives in the ancient Greek mythology as a whole; perhaps there was never very much told about them. There were a dozen of them. Unlike the names of various gods in the preceding, first generations of deities (Earth, Heaven, Chaos, Tartaros, Eros, etc.), and unlike the names of various of their descendants in the following, third generation of the gods (Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, etc.), the names of the gods in this middle generation of the Titans are in general either very difficult or impossible to interpret etymologically.

The first was Ὠκεανός (Ōkeanos), whom Homer, unlike Hesiod, considered to have been the first Father of the Gods. Thus for Homer Okeanos seems to have functioned more or less as Ouranos did in Hesiod’s construct. There is an apparent likeness between the two which may possibly go some way to explain the difference (or likeness) of these two deities as competitors for the title of first divine patriarch. In a commonly quite dry climate like that of the Greek lands, the fertility of the earth is conspicuously dependent on the availability of water. Water falls vertically from heaven in the form of rain, and like it Hesiod’s Ouranos descends, encompasses, and spreads itself all over Earth to make her fruitful. Or else fresh water may encompass Earth horizontally and course through channels on her surface, watering and fertilizing as Okeanos’ rivers do whatever portions of Earth they touch. Homer seems to have preferred the latter conception, and Hesiod the former. But both agreed in their regard for Okeanos as progenitor of all the world’s rivers (which are male) and all its nymphs of springs or daughters of Ocean (the Oceanids).

Other forms of Okeanos’ name are known from good early mythological sources besides Hesiod. Among them are Ὠγήν,Ὤγενος, and Ὠγηνός. The word does not appear to be good Greek in any form, and it has been suggested that the Akkadian (ancient Semitic) word uginna, meaning ‘ring,’ is related to it; remember that Okeanos was a ring of fresh water streaming continously and completely around the circumference of Earth. Whether the further words Ὠγυγίη, meaning ‘very ancient’ (the name of Kalypso’s remote island in Homer’s Odyssey), and Ὠγύγης are also somehow related to the group of words that designate Ocean is uncertain.

The next four Titans, all named by Hesiod in a single breath (v. 134), are all, like Okeanos, masculine beings. About the first, Κοῖος, the meaning of whose name is a complete mystery, there is nothing to be said except that he was the goddess Leto’s father. Neither Hesiod nor any later authority seems to have known anything about the next god either, Κρεῖος. The remarkable dearth of information about both Koios and Kreios in the Theogony is a painful reminder that much though we are indebted to the survival of Hesiod’s poem for what we do know about the early gods, it is still a relatively late piece of poetry, and does not tell us a great deal that we would like to know about the earliest ancient Greek religious ideas. Possibly Hesiod did not tell more than he did because he knew little more to tell.

The name in v. 134 of the third Titan, Ὑπερίων, means ‘Up Above,’ which by itself is enough to make him the father of Ἡέλιος or Ἥλιος (Sun), Σελήνη (Moon), and Ἠώς (Dawn). Like Hyperion, Ἰαπετός is important only for his sons, who collectively do however reveal something morally more complex about their father’s character than Hyperion’s children do for him.

After the four male Titans of v. 134 come the four female Titans of v. 135, again introduced by Hesiod all in a single breath. The two names at the head of v. 134, Koios and Kreios, rhyme with each other. So do Theia and Rheia at the head of v. 135. Such rhyming pairs of names are not uncommon in designation of founding deities: compare the Izanagi and Izanami of Japanese myth about primordial times, the biblical Gog and Magog, and the Babylonian deites Laḫmu and Laḫamu. Etymologically, Theia is at most only a feminine adjective meaning ‘divine.’ If it is Greek, Rheia means ‘light, easy.’ She matters only as mother of the Kronian gods. There is more mythology about Themis than about any of the other female Titans. According to the Athenian playwright Aeschylus, who has left some interesting variants of the myths in Hesiod, Themis was the same as Gaia, and her husband was Iapetos.

Leto’s mother, Φοίβη, whatever her name might have meant, was supposed by some of the ancients to have given her name as an epithet to her grandson ΦοῖβοςἈπόλλων. Φοῖβος as an epithet or as an alternative name for Apollo has to do with purity (as in religious ritual for purification after murder or other great crime), but it is also lexically connected with prophecy. According to Aeschylus, it was Φοίβη who gave the great oracular center at Delphi to her grandson Apollo.

Τηθύς (Tēthys), Okeanos’ consort, has a name suggesting ‘grand-motherly old woman’ in Greek: τήθη (or τηθή, or τίθη, or τήτθη); Homer describes her as the mother of all the gods in book 14 of the Iliad.

Eight of the twelve Titans—Okeanos and Tethys, Hyperion and Theia, Koios and Phoibe, Kronos and Rheia—mate within the circle of Titanic siblings. Themis and Mnemosyne both mate with their nephew Zeus. Kreios and Iapetos go even farther afield for their mates. Kreios takes Eurybia (v. 375); one cannot say who this female might be if she is not the same as salty Pontos’ daughter Eurybie in v. 239 (which she probably is). The subsequently very unruly Titan Iapetos takes to wife Klymene, one of Okeanos’ many fresh-water daughters. These two have four highly significant (and like their father, also highly troublesome) children: Atlas, Menoitios, Prometheus, and Epimetheus, about whom there is a substantial body of further ancient myth both within and beyond the Theogony.

Although very little myth survives about them, Hesiod evidently regarded the children of Kreios and Eurybia, who were all males, as quite significant too. The first of the three, Astraios (‘Starry’) begat the whole divine family of the winds upon Eos (‘Dawn’). Although this family of wind-gods had far less influence in the affairs of mortals than the Olympian family (and Iapetos’ family) eventually did, they were nevertheless an important family of divinities about whose members one occasionally hears a good deal in Homer’s poetry.

Pallas, the second child of Kreios and Eurybia, may have given his name to Pallas Athene, much as Phoibe was imagined to have given hers to Phoibos Apollo. The third son of Kreios and Eurybia, Perses, is memorable only as the father of Hekate, a goddess with a quite extraordinary standing and importance in Hesiod’s estimation. From ancient statuary, something is known of Hekate as a goddess having three faces. She was chthonic (cave-dwelling), imagined to be especially immanent at crossroads, and a source of magic power (such as witches might employ). She seems to have been religiously important in Boiotia and in Ionia, but she is not mentioned anywhere in Homer. For Hesiod she is truly an all-purpose deity, duplicating in herself powers otherwise distributed broadly amongst a variety of different gods in the Olympian pantheon, and exercising such powers moreover by a special license from Zeus himself. But her putative utility from the human standpoint is not paralleled by any importance whatever in the origination of the world and Zeus’ winning control of it, which are Hesiod’s chief subjects in the Theogony.

The four children of Pallas and Styx, two males and two females, personify aspects of Power. The male Zelos’ name means ‘emulation, rivalry;’ the female Nike is ‘victory,’ which is of course the desired sequel of anyone’s emulation or rivalry. The male Kratos is ‘Strength,’ and his sister Bia is ‘Force.’ The first two, Rivalry and Victory, are important in human affairs, in which they exercise a certain independence of influence; but their siblings Strength and Force accept total subservience and atttachment to Zeus forever (which is why he is so everlastingly and incomparably powerful, whereas there is never enough Strength and Force in the world of men adequately to meet human needs or desires). In the same part of his poem where Hesiod tells us about Kratos and Bia (vv. 386-402), he also delivers a few preliminary morsels of information about the very first war in the history of the world, the great Titanomachy, when Kratos and Bia first became exclusive retainers of Zeus.

With Kronos and Rheia begins the so-called Succession Myth, the story of how supreme power in the cosmos passed from one generation of the gods to the next until it finally came to rest with Zeus. This happened because Zeus was the first god to achieve a general understanding of justice, and abide by it. Although the ancient Greeks entertained no single exactly equivalent concept, what is ordinarily understood by the modern words ‘morality’ and ‘immorality’ originated with the Titans, and the Succession Myth is a parable of its development thereafter.

Uranian Monsters

The next progeny produced by Ouranos and Gaia after the twelve Titans were the Κύκλωπες (Kyklopes ~ Cyclopes), singular Κύκλωψ (Kyklops ~ Cyclops): they were by name Βρόντης (Brontēs, ‘Thunderer’), Στερόπης (Steropēs, ‘Lightener’), and Ἄργης (Argēs, ‘Vivid One’). These three gods of stormy weather were themselves beyond distinctions of morality and immorality, but Hesiod attributes to them the making of thunderbolts as weapons uniquely of Zeus, Zeus’ instruments for enforcing morality and justice. Other ancient mythographers had however other stories of how Zeus obtained this distinctive attribute.

The three Ἑκατογχείρες (Hundred-Handers), Κόττος, Βριάρεως, and Γύγης, have peculiar names. Kottos’ name, like certain other names of Greek deities, was not Greek but Thracian. In verses 617 and 734, further references to Briareōs call him Ὀβριάρεως. In line 403 of Iliad A, Homer says the gods called this fellow Briareos, but humans call him Aigaion. In a fragment of the ancient Titanomachia, Aigaion is mentioned as a son of Ge (Gaia) and Pontos, who lives in the sea, and who fought on the side of the Titans against the Kronian gods. The Aegean Sea is named after him (or he after it). So he seems to have been a sea-god of some sort. Γύγης may be an acephalous form of Ὠγύγης, which has previously been noticed as possibly connected with Okeanos. Like the Titans, the Ἑκατογχείρες too are thus ill-defined onomastically.

Emergence of Moral Distinctions

Ouranos is the world’s first criminal according to the Theogony, and his crime is parental, committed against his own children. As may also sometimes happen to human fathers, Ouranos was uneasy about the disruption of his world and the complications that might be brought into it by the birth of his children. But because he was a god, he could do what no mortal father could, and simply undo his children’s birth, confining them indefinitely in their mother’s birth canal. The resultant congestion whereby Ouranos accomplished his unjust, evil purpose made Gaia intolerably uncomfortable, so she conspired with the youngest Titan, Kronos, to unplug her birth-passage by cutting off Ouranos’ obstructing genitals. The castration was however itself richly procreative, vv. 183-206, engendering as its ultimate product the goddess Aphrodite, who inspires and superintends all the world’s sexuality ever after, a goddess violently and hatefully begotten as Ouranos’ vengeance for the Titan Kronos’ dismemberment of him.

Ouranos’ vengeance operates ever after through the ongoing agency of Aphrodite, whose dual character links sex and contention, sexuality as she imposes it on mortals and immortals alike being ever disruptive, competitive, exploitative, and conducive to violence; her part in Homer’s Iliad is perfectly typical of her and her baleful influence wherever she is active. A troublesome annoyance to the gods, she is for mankind a disasterous deity, leading them ever onward into mortal peril or outright ruin with the twin allurements of γλυκερὴ φιλότης (‘honey-sweet love’) and γλυκερὴ μάχη or γλυκερὸς πόλεμος (‘honey-sweet battle’ or ‘honey-sweet war’).

The ultimately dysfunctional nuclear family of Gaia, Ouranos, and their Titanic offspring with its final creature Aphrodite, consists in itself and in its posterity entirely of physical beings, all components and generators of material Nature. It is a family free of any moral implications until the very first considerations of morality in the history of the world arise in connection with parturition, which the family—husband, wife, and offspring together—immorally mismanage. The message of the tale is clear: physical Nature is from its beginning prone to injustice, and must be morally regulated as only other, subsequent, and better gods can do.

Pursuant yet again to his favored compositional method of contrastive pairing, Hesiod has first described the solid physicalities of female Gaia, masculine Ouranos, and their creations. Then he repeats the pattern of primal female and primal male progenitors, only this time with the utterly unsubstantive female Νύξ (Night), followed by the perfectly fluid male Πόντος (Open Sea). Ancient Greek seafaring in Hesiod’s time and before was to the greatest practical extent coastal, i.e., done always preferably within sight of land. The mainlands and islands of the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas lent themselves well to such practice, the vast majority being comfortably accessible in that way. The sea where it was consistent with such voyaging was called θάλασσα (thalassa); Pontos was contrastingly a personification of the vast and trackless body of deep open sea quite beyond sight of land and the familiar landmarks upon which coastal navigation depended, a region evocative therefore of terror and easy perdition, but nothing humanly good or useful.

As though to affirm their status as incorporeal ideas rather than actual physical entities, pathenogenetically first Νύξ (Night) and then her daughter Ἔρις (Strife) spawn numerous hypostases of abstract conditions and states of being that each in its particular manner channel, delimit, curtail or trammel human capabilities and volition. Many are of an explicitly moral nature: Μῶμος (Blame), Νέμεσις (Retribution), Μοίραι (Alloters [of good and evil]), Ὑσμίναι (Fights), Μάχαι (Battles), Φόνοι (Murders), Νείκεα (Quarrels), Ψεύδεα (Lies), Δυσνομία (Lawlessness), Ὅρκος (Oath). Others sway or destroy the power of their victims’ minds to perceive and reason, whether morally or otherwise: Μόρος (Doom), Κήρ (Death [as a goddess]), Θάνατος (Death [as a god]), Ὕπνος (Sleep), φῦλον Ὀνείρων (the tribe of Dreams), Ὀιζύς (Misery), Ἀπάτη (Deception), Φιλότης (Love), Γῆρας (Old Age), Λήθη (Forgetfulness, Oblivion), Ἄλγεα (Sufferings).

Salt-Water Deities and Pontic Monsters

The descendants of Ouranos and their mortal creatures are all earthlings, denizens and inhabitants of land masses either continental or insular. Contrastingly, Pontos and his primus Nereus, the morally genial Old Man of the Sea, are (saline) watery beings, and all of Nereus’ numerous brood retain that character purely. Upon the Oceanid Doris, equally as watery as himself, Nereus begets the Nereids, fifty(-odd; there are textual difficulties about the exact number), maidenly water-nymphs who reside with their parents in their natal home and whose many adjectival names are together a thesaurus of words to describe the various movements, appearances and effects of sea waves and currents (vv. 240-264). Goddesses all, Poseidon’s consort-to-be Amphitrite (v. 930) and Thetis, Achilleus’ mother-to-be, are among them; the whole sorority of the Nereids goes ashore to mourn Achilleus’ fallen comrade Patroklos in Iliad 18.

As Heaven overarching Earth, Ouranos must necessarily have descended vertically to beget his offspring on Gaia. Located at sea-level as by definition Pontos is, his approach to Gaia (v. 238) must just as necessarily have been lateral. The mating of Pontos and Gaia after the getting of Nereus (vv. 237-9) is less fertile in number of progeny than the preceding one of Ouranos and Gaia that produced the twelve Titans; there are only four born of Pontos and Gaia, two males and two females: Θαύμας, Φόρκυς, Κητώ, and Εὐρυβίη. The lexical roots of the four names are meaningful: Thaumas means ‘Prodigy,’ Phorkys is ‘The Old One,’ Kētō is ‘Sea-Monster,’ and Eurybiē is ‘Far-Reaching Power.’

Two of those four mixtures of pontic and terrestrial derivation, Phorkys and Kētō, launch a lineage that generates sixteen of Greek mythology’s most notable monsters and monstrosities (vv. 270-336), including the two Γραίαι (Graiai) Πεμφρηδώ (Pemphredō) and Ἐνυώ (Enyō); the three Γοργόνες (Gorgons) Σθεννώ (Sthennō), Εὐρυάλη (Euryalē) and Μέδουσα (Medūsa); Χρυσάωρ (Chrysaōr) and Πήγασος (Pēgasos); Γηρυόνης (Gēryonēs); Ἔχιδνα (Echidna); Ὄρθος (Orthos) and Κέρβερος (Kerberos); the Ὕδρα (Hydra); the Χίμαιρα (Chimaira); the (σ)Φίξ (=Σφίγξ, [s]Fix=Sphinx); the Νεμειαῖος λέων (Nemean Lion) of impenetrable hide and the anonymous ὄφις (ophis, ‘serpent’) that guards Golden Apples.

Extra-Olympian Θεοί Detailed

Marvelous though they were when the world was younger, by the time the Muses and Hesiod come to tell their tale in the Theogony the Pontic persons of vv. 233-336 are only fabled legends of the past, of no current consequence for mankind; the righteous gods and such mortal instruments of theirs as Bellerophontes and Herakles had long since dealt justly with those that needed to be curbed or eliminated, and the remainder are otiose. Now, at v. 337, Hesiod abruptly changes the subject and begins to narrate ancestries of gods other than the Olympians that do currently, and that will hereafter, assuredly affect human life and destinies, hence gods of present actual or potential religious significance in addition to the Olympians. So Hesiod and his Muses set about fulfilling the proem’s earnest of intent about the extra-Olympian θεοί given in vv. 18-19.

Even more, and more directly, than the Olympian gods, the end-products of divine procreation in vv. 337-382 are useful deities, such that humankind routinely encounters them in the ordinary experience of every-day living, deities to be seen, heard, felt, and even tasted, according to their several readily accessible natures.

As prime requisite for sustenance of all human, plant, and animal life, flowing fresh water in the form of innumerable (masculine) rivers and (feminine) springs arises first (vv. 337-370). Then masculine Sun (Ἠέλιος), feminine Moon (Σελήνη), and feminine Dawn (Ἠώς) appear with their three different kinds of duration (v. 372). Eos (Dawn), the last and least durative of that threesome, in turn yields (vv. 380-2) three winds, Ζέφυρος (Zephyros, the West Wind), Βορέης (Boreas, the fast-blowing North Wind), and Νότος (Notos, the South Wind), followed by all the stars in heaven. [Motivated perhaps by apotropaic caution, Hesiod never mentions the fourth great wind of the Greek climate, Εὖρος (Euros), the desiccating East Wind, so his listeners cannot know whether he regarded it too as a deity, although one possibly never sufficiently beneficial to justify inclusion in his present rehearsal of generally useful gods.] True heirs of their mother Eos’ transience and seasonal variability, winds and stars also are of variable presence, sometimes strong and bright, at other times abeyant, dim, or obscure.

Five Auxiliary Θεοί

In vv. 384-5 Okeanos’ daughter Styx bears four embodiments of potent abstract ideas whom Zeus annexes as enablers and defenders of his supremacy among the gods ever after. They are two sets of male and female: Ζῆλος ♂ (Zēlos, ‘Glory’) and Νίκη ♀ (Nikē, ‘Victory’); Κράτος ♂ (Kratos, ‘Power’) and Βίη ♀ (Biē, ‘Strength’). These four coadjutants of Zeus fortify him particularly against the three successive challenges to his authority that await him in Hesiod’s subsequent narrative. One notes in passing what from mortal mankind’s point of view must be perceived as a hysteron proteron of results (Glory and Victory) preceding means (Power and Strength); but this is no unique instance of Hesiod’s gods easily disregarding what in mortal wisdom are immutably fixed conventions and orders of precedence. The gods, being gods, can do things differently...

The birth of Λητώ (Leto, v. 406) portends the eventual addition of her twin children Artemis and Apollo to the divine Olympian society, two θεοί that will be for certain limited purposes cardinal objects of mortals’ religious veneration and supplication in time of need for praeterhuman assistance. But in making such appeals, mankind must knowledgeably consider the individual characters of the various Olympians, whose powers and interests markedly differ one from another: Aphrodite for love-related issues for example, Apollo for foreknowledge and prediction, Zeus for justice, and so forth, such variation being the essence of polytheism. So neither Leto’s twins nor any others of the Olympians are all-purpose deities, singly suitable objects for mortals’ prayers about any and all human purposes that are too ponderous for sure accomplishment by human efforts alone.

As an at least partial solution to this problem, Hesiod’s description of Ἑκάτη (Hekate) and her powers (vv. 411-52) constitutes an implicit religious directive to his listeners: ‘When in doubt how to proceed religiously with your human deficiency, propitiate Hekate!’ He makes of her a plenipotentiary goddess, one either sufficient in herself or auxilliary to and synergetic with other deities for attainment of all such mortals’ chancy vital ambitions as success in quests for justice (v. 430), athletic competitions (vv. 435-8), fishing (v. 442), breeding livestock (v. 445), or raising children (v. 450).

Advent of the Kronian Gods

Zeus arrives at his ultimate supremacy among the gods, and his ordinance of the world as he wills it should be, through overcoming four attempts by other immortals to frustrate his ascendancy, only the latter three of which he personally surmounts. His salvation in the first such instance he owes entirely to his elders, who in effect elect him to primacy from the moment of his birth.

The gods are imperishable, but if some enemy is strong enough to do it, they can be rendered ineffectual by binding and/or confinement. For a θεός, mobility is sine qua non; fixity is impotence. So for a time Ouranos chained the three Kyklopes (vv. 501-2), and he penned his and Gaia’s potentially troublesome twelve children in their mother’s womb, preventing their emergence until Kronos, the youngest of the twelve, freed them all by castrating his father (vv. 168-81). But later Kronos in turn finds himself similarly threatened by his own and Rheia’s progeny, the six Kronian gods, and rather than repeat exactly his father Ouranos’ failed tactic (which Kronos himself had defeated), he adopts instead a variation of it, confining the unwelcome offspring in his own belly rather than in their mother’s (v. 467).

But Gaia, Ouranos and Rheia conspire to prevent Kronos’ swallowing his last-born, the infant Zeus (vv. 468-87). [In due course Zeus too will similarly control what is born to him, but by swallowing the mother not the offspring, and that only in order to assure that both the mother and the progeny when it is born will be optimally congenial and cooperative with its father (vv. 886-900)]. Then, like Gaia and Kronos collaborating against Ouranos (vv. 159-82), Gaia and Zeus collaborate against Kronos (vv. 494-6), who is thereby made to disgorge the five other Kronian gods.

The sextet of liberated Kronians consists of three females and three males: Ἱστίη or Ἑστία (Hestia), Δημήτηρ (Dēmētēr), and Ἥρη (Hēra); Ἀΐδης or Ἅιδης (Hadēs), Ἐννοσίγαιος (Poseidon, designated in the text by his stock epithet Ennosigaios, ‘earth-trembler’ or ‘earthshaker,’ i.e. ‘he who causes earthquake,’ [all lands inhabited by Greeks in antiquity being seismically active]), and Ζεύς. The three females personify three indispensable requisites for settled village life: domesticity (Hestia), agriculture (Demeter), and the institution of matrimony (Hera). In due time the three males divide the cosmos vertically into three estates, each establishing himself in one of them as his particular domain: underground (Hades), land and sea (Poseidon), sky [with the pinnacles of mountains anywhere that ‘reach the sky’] (Zeus). Equipped for it by the grateful Kyklopes, Zeus commences to rule (vv. 501-6).

The Sons of Iapetos

First Dissidence. Hesiod and his Muses describe Kronos’ obstruction of Zeus’ ascendance and the measures taken by Zeus’ other elders to nullify Kronos’ mischief more amply than they treat the first of three subsequent threats which Zeus must himself overcome by his own devices. The first such threat is a multi-faceted one posed by children of the Titan Iapetos. The text is regrettably sketchy about any of the actors’ motives, and it is completely mute about Zeus’ and Iapetos’ postures relative to each other, so that one cannot know whether he does it with intentional malice, but in any case it is effectively the Titan Iapetos who launches the first challenge to Zeus’ regulation of the world in the form of his four sons Ἄτλας (Atlas), Μενοίτιος (Menoitios), Προμηθεύς (Promētheus) and Ἐπιμηθεύς (Epimētheus). All four threaten cosmic order and tranquility not, it seems, so much by what they actually do as by what their repugnant characters (and in the case of Prometheus, also his actual theft of fire) indicate to Zeus that they might potentially do if left untrammeled.

Atlas’ fault is either completely unstated, or else somehow implicit in the one and only word used to characterize him in the text, κρατερόφρων (kraterophrōn, ‘stout-hearted,’ v. 509), a quality which perhaps he possessed to a degree just too great for Zeus’ liking. In any case, Zeus disabled him by both confinement and binding at the western edge of the world (vv. 516-20).

The onomastic morphology of ancient Greek entertained no such name for a deity as Menoitios; it is a name suitable only for a human male—an ἄνθρωπος (anthrōpos). Again Hesiod discloses no actual misdeeds, and uses only two words to designate attributes of Menoitios: ἀτασθαλίη (atasthaliē, ‘foolishness’) and ἠνορέη (ēnoreē, ‘manliness,’ v. 516). But both words are conspicuously out of place describing a θεός; they name qualities that typify humans, not gods. So in both his name and in his character Menoitios fairly stinks of humanity, and yet he is no human; he is instead an inadmissible confusion of human and divine, for which fatal flaw Zeus confines him in Erebos (v. 515). The gods are ever jealous of the distinction.

Whereas Menoitios impermissibly confused the attributes of man and deity, Prometheus confuses their assets, donating fire pilfered from the gods to mortals (vv. 565-7). It is an act all too probably repeatable with respect to other possessions of the gods if the thief is not forestalled in his evident determination to enable mankind’s becoming more like the gods, wherefor Zeus permanently disables Prometheus by binding (vv. 521-2, 614-6). For the same purpose—to obviate any further acquisition of godly properties by mankind—at Zeus’ behest Hephaistos and Athena together contrive nubile human femininity as a trap to capture and bind mortals’ imaginations and ambitions ever after in life-long fatuitous subjection to it (vv. 570-612). Epimetheus, Iapetos’ muddle-minded fourth son, is the very first person whose wits are caught and bound by this divine contrivance (v. 513), inasmuch as he possesses to a superlative degree that same otherwise characteristically human susceptibility which the snare exploits. And while Prometheus did with cunning what he could to benefit mortals, ἁμαρτίνοος Epimetheus with his habitually erroneous thinking was able oppositely only to worsen their condition (v. 512).

The Titanomachia

Second Dissidence. Following the suite of troubles with the sons of Iapetos, a second, greater, and far more violent dissidence against Zeus’ government is posed by Zeus’ own father Kronos in alliance with certain of Kronos’ Titanic brethren—Hesiod says only that they were plural in number, but fails to specify any of the others by name. Whoever they all were exactly, their recalcitrance precipitated an inconclusive ten-year war with the Kronians called the Titanomachia, ‘The Titanic War’ (vv. 617-719). This section of the Theogony is a frothy effusion of words conveying disproportionately little information.

First we are reminded (vv. 617-23) that earlier (vv. 147-58) Ouranos had not only confined but also bound the three Hundred-Hander sons (O)Briareos, Kottos and Gyges borne to him by Gaia in the pre-Kronian era. But now the Olympians led by Zeus liberate the Hundred-Handers, persuaded of their potential value as co-combatants against the Titans ensconced on Mount Othrys (vv. 624-32). Then, having accomplished their liberation from an erstwhile subterranean durance vile, Zeus proceeds to recruit the three Hundred-Handers for the Olympian cause with food, drink, and politic exhortation (vv. 639-53). Speaking for himself and his two brothers, Kottos accepts the alliance (vv. 654-63). That same day the terrific, decisive final battle of the war takes place, a mighty rock-hurling fight with the exertions of the Hundred-Handers securing victory for the Olympians (665-717), whereupon the vanquished Titans are duly confined and bound in Tartaros (vv. 717-8).

Disappointingly, Hesiod’s telling of the Titanomachia omits the sort of detailed description of battle that one who knows Homer’s vivid scenes of warfare in the Iliad might hope for. Nor is he any more informative about the ultimate disposition of all the Titanic gods than about which of them actually fought in the ten-year-long Titanomachia, for apparently not all did, or were not all held to be equally culpable if they did, since statements about them elsewhere in the Theogony lead us to believe that at least Themis, Mnemosyne, Rheia, and Okeanos cannot have been among those consigned to Tartaros.

The Underworld

The mention of Tartaros as locus of the triumphant Olympians’ binding and confinement of the defeated Titans precipitates a lengthy digression from Hesiod’s primary story about the three successive challenges to Zeus’ power and authority. Vv. 720-814 are an excursus slighty about the topography of the underworld, but mostly about the identities and functions of gods other than the banished Titans who also inhabit that nether region of the cosmos.

For reasons usually inscrutable to mortals, the attitudes and behaviour of gods of the upper world who can, if so disposed, ‘give blessings’—namely the Olympians and their ilk—are in regard to matters important to mortals notoriously difficult to foresee, much less to be confidently relied upon. The gods who reside in the underworld are in this respect exactly opposite: they all have perfectly known, completely predictable, limited functions vital to good order and regulation of the world, and they are absolutely steadfast and unfailing both in discharging those functions and in never overstepping them or presuming to attempt any others.

First we are told some characteristics of Tartaros as the Titans’ prison (vv. 720-33; for multiple reasons, vv. 734-45 are best ignored—their component of valid information is all better conveyed in subsequent lines). These characteristics assure the imprisoned Titans’ perpetual and immutable presence in the underworld doing nothing of any effect or influence whatsoever beyond their prison wall. The discarded Titans’ function essential to the world’s well-being is to remain for ever unremittingly and immutably discarded; Tartaros and the specific features of their lodgement in it guarantee their fidelity to that function.

Next, identifying him only metonymically as Ἰαπετοῖο πάις (Iapetoio pais, ‘child of Iapetos’), vv. 746-7 describe Atlas’ station in the underworld and his valuable function as pillar supporting heaven. Quite like the Titans’, the essence of Atlas’ function is stasis in perpetuity to prevent change; that alone, and nothing else. Positioned as they are, the old gods will not contest the new gods’ dominion, and the sky will not fall.

Νύξ (Nyx, ‘Night;’ cf vv. 123-5 and 211-32), Ἡμέρη (Hēmerē, ‘Day’), the θεὸς χθόνιος (theos chthonios, ‘chthonian god’ [metonymic for Zeus’ brother Hades]), and Στύξ (Styx, ‘Loathsome’) all have their own dwellings (δόμοι or δώματα) of suitable grandeur in the underworld, and all like Atlas are important for the absolutely dependable predictability of their respective habits. Partly the two females Night and Day are like Atlas and the Titans, statically at home in the underworld; but the other part of their function consists of strictly defined movement, at the appointed time each in turn rising in the east out of their alternatingly occupied underworld home and punctually returning to it in the west (vv. 748-54). More varied though it thus is than the Titans’ and Atlas’, their routine is nevertheless equally continuous and uninterruptible, an unending cycle of perfectly predictable sameness.

Unlike the banished Titans and Atlas however, Nyx and Hēmerē—Night and Day—are only part-time inhabitants of the underworld. Half of the time they are static in the underworld, but the other half of their immortal existences is spent in the upperworld executing one single, continuous night-long or day-long kinesis, traversing from east to west, followed again by stasis in the underworld, and endless iteration of this identical cycle ever after. In her faithful repetition of the cycle, Nyx nightly carries with her into the upperworld her two sons Ὕπνος (Hypnos, ‘Sleep’) and Θάνατος (Thanatos, ‘Death’). Hesiod’s listener need not be told these two roving gods’ function: they are simply agents of stasis issuing out of the underworld to impose upon the kinetic liveliness of the upperworld either the transient stasis of dormition (Sleep) or the permanent stasis of decease (Death) (vv. 756-66).

The two pairs of Night and Day, Sleep and Death, put us on notice that we are in the presence of a classic narrative progression, in this case one about stasis as the defining characteristic of the underworld, its varieties and agents.

The many mansioned house of Hades is where deceased mortals are confined—or whatever residual forms of them may persist after Death has seized them. That this retentative function never fails is assured by Hades’ δεινὸς κύων...νηλειής, ‘fearsome and pitiless dog,’ that inverts the usual behaviour of upper-world guard-dogs and instead of preventing entry while allowing exit, welcomes advent but absolutely stops departure (vv. 767-73). So the house of Hades in the underworld precisely inverts the relationship between kinesis and stasis expected at the portal of any well kept homestead in the upper world.

Finally, there in the underworld is Styx, like Hades a fixed resident, he in his many halls, and she in her κλυτὰ δώματα (klyta dōmata, ‘splendid dwelling’) with its silver columns rising skyward (vv. 775-806). Water fetched from her stream in the underworld is an unfailing staticizing agent even when applied to a lying god in the upper world (v. 778), though occasion for such an event is rare (v. 780). And indeed this last-mentioned underworldly agent of stasis, Styx’s water, is also the final step in this narrative progression’s appraisal of such agents’ frequency of deployment generally. Hypnos—Sleep—of course stops kinesis in the upper world very often, especially at night; Thanatos—Death—less often; Hades’ dog can threaten only those already within the house of Hades who too headstrongly insist upon departing, who must be few; and Styx’s water needs almost never to be applied.

The progression also yields a curious topographical fact about the underworld. Atlas is in the underworld (vv. 746-7), but is also simultaneously at the westernmost edge of the upper world (vv. 517-20). Nyx and Hēmerē share a dwelling in the underworld, from which they depart at the eastward edge of the upperworld, and to which they return at the upper world’s westward edge. And though it is unmistakably located in the underworld, the pillars of Styx’s splendid dwelling tower skyward. The conclusion is inescapable: in Hesiod’s elastic cosmological myth, whether to the east or to the west, the edge of the upper world attained laterally is the same purlieu as the underworld fallen into vertically.

Closing the topographical frame that begins and ends his narrative progression about infernal agents of stasis, Hesiod summarily recapitulates Tartaros (vv. 807-16), then adds as an afterthought the hitherto neglected information that the Olympians’ three crucial hundred-handed allies in the Titanomachy—Kottos, Gyges and Briareos, persons all too rude for the society of Olympos in the post-war era—are not bound or confined in Tartaros, but are at liberty, and suitably domiciled at a safe distance from civilized gods and mortals (vv. 815-9).

Thence the poet moves on to tell of the third and final great challenge to Zeus’ supremacy.


Third Dissidence. Vv. 820-880 narrate the third and last major challenge to Zeus’ authority, a threat embodied in the cacophonously noisy reptilian monster Τυφωεύς. Aphrodite notably plays her usual maleficent rôle in originating this baleful creature (v. 822). With his many heads, many arms, and many voices, Typhoeus is a seditious rabble personified, bent on usurping Zeus’ whole dominion (v. 837). Like his description of the mighty rock-throwing battle of multiple combatants that ended the Titanomachy, Hesiod’s portrayal of Zeus’ fire-hurling duel with Typhoeus is full of sound and fury, but quite bereft of tactical detail; only the various side-effects of their single-combat are told.

Zeus predictably defeats and discards the monster in Tartaros, but unlike Zeus’ several previous opponents whom he reduced to total impotence by binding and confining them in adequate fashion, Typhoeus remains permanently baneful due to many sorts of pernicious winds issuing from his hulk to distress mortals everywhere by land and by sea. So Zeus’ last and hardest-won victory is also the most imperfect.

Typhoeus concludes the set of three challenges to Zeus’ authority. Taken together, they are a series of trials demonstrating Zeus’ proficiency in fundamental skills of government: 1) judicious management of peculiar personalities; 2) the art of political coalition; and 3) watchful readiness and ability to suppress insurgents of any kind.

Zeus’ Sovereignty Ratified

The several foregoing exceptions and challenges to his dominion having now been quashed, the other gods unanimously entreat Zeus to be their ruler; he complies, and seats his first wife Μῆτις (Mētis, ‘Cunning Plan’) as his inward source of peerlessly efficacious sagacity (vv. 881-900).

Exactly where the genuine text of the Theogony ends and various pseudepigraphic tamperings and addenda to it begin is a matter of scholarly conjecture, as is also the related question of what part or parts of the original text might have been discarded or lost in the long history of its transmission. Whatever the truth of those matters may be however, the portion of the received text following v. 900 is thematically engrossed with amorous couplings and resultant offspring of Zeus and other latter divinities and mortals, all of which contributes little that isn’t better found in other ancient sources of information about the Greek polytheism.

For the Greek text and higher criticism of the Theogony, see: M[artin] L[itchfield] West, Hesiod; Theogony, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 1966.


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