Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod

Saturn Devouring His Son by Francisco Goya

Saturn Devouring His Son by Francisco Goya

The poet “often mentioned in the same breath as Homer” serves as our “other main representative of the early [Greek] world-view.” Not exactly the most inspiring material in the world, Hesiod presents the cosmogony of the world as genealogy, providing us with the birth of three hundred plus gods and goddesses into the world. Since the gods and goddesses are almost all abstractions of nature (the sea, the earth, the wind), this genealogy of the deities is also the literal creation of the world.

Within the structure of the genealogical narrative we have the birth of Mother Earth from the Chasm (often translated as Chaos in English, but the concept is really more void than it is disorderly). Earth mates with Uranos (the sky) and gives birth to the Titans. Uranos prevents the Earth from giving birth, leaving her groaning in perpetual pregnancy. Eventually Mother Earth convinces her child, Kronos, to rebel against their tyrannical father and he castrates him. The white foam from Uranos’s severed member gives birth to Aphrodite, the goddess of love–a very suggestive sexual image.

The next generation features Kronos as king who marries his sister, Rhea. He eats his children so that none of them will overthrow him. Eventually with the help of Mother Earth, Zeus comes to power, forcing Kronos to vomit up his brothers and sisters, which leads to a civil war between the gods that the Olympians win. Zeus avoids the fate of his father by eating his first wife, Metis, after she becomes pregnant with the goddess Athena.

The Earth in this myth serves as a reproductive force that consistently renews society. This of course actually captures the natural attributes of the earth; for it is the earth that provides food and grain that gives society its sustenance and thus renews it for another day, while the earth also possesses the ability to destroy societies through natural disasters, allowing for a superior civilization to replace another in a different sort of renewal. The rise of Zeus and his permanent reign can be seen as symbolic of civilization reaching such a state of agricultural complexity that it can conquer nature and the destructive renewing powers of Mother Earth; like Zeus such a society has reached a point where it can control its own fate.

Likewise, there is a gender role theme buried in the myth. Uranos tries to prevent the pregnancy of Mother Earth and control the female body. Kronos tries to appropriate the female domain of pregnancy by swallowing his children and returning them to the womb so to speak. Zeus, however, realizes that men cannot steal the power of reproduction from women by making it their own or preventing it altogether. Instead he swallows the woman, letting her keep her unique power of life and traditional role as mother. His strategy is to establish his authority over her, rather than to steal or prevent her power. He literally incorporates her into his domain, symbolized by his body, by swallowing her. He learns from the mistakes of his fathers; he decides to let the women keep the ability to produce children, but claims ultimate power over the women themselves and thus by extension their children. Does this myth then hide an ancient cult of the Mother goddess that was later replaced by a pantheon of male gods and document the historical rise of patriarchal rule over women as certain feminists suggest? It’s hard to say for sure, but certainly the imagery is rich in symbolic possibilities concerning these issues on a more abstract level.

Other stories besides the creation are incorporated into the long-winded genealogy: the Prometheus trickster tales, the creation of woman, and even hints at the Trojan War stories that would inspire Homer’s famous epic poems. However, the main thrust is the creation of the gods and by extension the creation of human society and the abstractions of high importance to the formation of human societies.

Hesiod’s second poem is a didactic manual that includes our first known example of a fable, shares wisdom about the good life, what pitfalls one should avoid to achieve happiness, odd superstitions, biographical details about his life, and remonstrations against his brother Preses who apparently bribed officials so that he could take a bigger slice of land that their father left to them as inheritance. Elements of it remind me of biblical wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, etc.); it also clearly influenced Virgil’s own didactic manual about cultivating the land known as the Georgics. Not the most exciting work I’ve ever read, but worth reading at least once I suppose.


4 thoughts on “Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod

  1. Does this myth then hide an ancient cult of the Mother goddess that was later replaced by a pantheon of male gods and document the historical rise of patriarchal rule over women as certain feminists suggest?

    This is a very fascinating possibility I never knew about!

  2. Pingback: Bible as Literature: A Second Creation Story? | The Consolation of Reading

  3. Pingback: The Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus | The Consolation of Reading

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