HUM102W (Summer 2013) Unit 1 Cherry Fan
Hesiod and His Theogony
Who was Hesiod?
Before discussing the myth of the origin of the world and the gods, it’s worthwhile for us to consider
who told the story. As I mentioned in the Introduction, all the Greeks credited Hesiod and Homer for
their basic understanding of their gods. On the basis of linguistic evidence, experts date Hesiod’s poetry
to approximately 700 BC; they debate whether he lived and wrote before or after Homer. Like Homer,
however, Hesiod wrote basically in the Ionic dialect of the Aegean islands and central coastline of Asia
Minor, and he wrote in the epic form of dactylic hexameter.
In his poetry he suggests a little more:
You yourself wait until the season for sailing is come. Then haul your swift ship down to the sea and
stow a convenient cargo in it, so that you may bring home profit, even as your father and mind, foolish
Perses, used to sail on shipboard because he lacked sufficient livelihood. And one day he came to this
very place, crossing over a great stretch of sea. He left Aeolian Cyme and fled, not from riches and
substance, but from wretched poverty, which Zeus lays upon men, and he settled near Helicon in a
miserable hamlet, Ascra, which is bad in winter, sultry in summer, and good at no time.
Works and Days 630-40
Hesiod is urging his brother Perses to take on the sea trade as an alternative to an inadequate livelihood
on a farm. Their father had practiced this trade and come as an economic refugee from Cyme, on the
coast of Asia Minor in Aeolia, to Ascra, near Helicon, in the central Greek region of Boeotia. (See Maps 1
and 2 on pp. 13-14 of The Homeric Hymns.)
We divided our inheritance before, and you (Perses) seized and carried off much else, greatly flattering
the gift-eating kings who want to make this judgement.
Works and Days 37-40
The two brothers referred a dispute over their inheritance from their father to kings, local aristocrats,
whom, Hesiod asserts, Perses had bribed.
I have no skill in sea-faring no in ships; for never yet have I sailed by ship over the wide sea. But I have
gone only to Euboea from Aulis where the Achaeans once stayed through much storm when they had
gathered a great host from divine Hellas for Troy, the land of fair women. Then I crossed over to Chalcis,
to the games for wise Amphidamas where the sons of the greathearted one proclaimed and appointed
prizes. And there I boast that I gained the victory with a song and carried off a handled tripod, which I
dedicated to the muses of Helicon in the place where they first set me in the way of clear song.
Works and Days 649-59
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The passage in italic script is a reference to the events described in Homer’s poetry, perhaps even to
Homer’s poetry itself. But more significant is Hesiod’s mentioning of a song with which he won a prize. It
seems reasonable to assume that this was the Theogony, especially since he says here that he dedicated
his prize to the muses of Helicon, who inspired his song. These are the same muses he calls on three
times at the beginning of the Theogony (1, 36, 115). The fact that Hesiod composed the Theogony for a
poetic competition did not detract from its authority for the Greeks, but we need to be more cautious.
In the Theogony, Hesiod makes a point of glorifying kings (81-97) and the kingship of Zeus (881-901). In
the Works and Days, he describes kings as “gift-eating”. Clearly the poems are written with different
audiences in mind; they also have different messages. In the Theogony itself, Hesiod constructs a kind of
One day (the Muses) taught Hesiod glorious song while he was shepherding his lambs under holy
Helicon, and this word first the goddesses said to me – the Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus who
holds the aegis: “Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to
speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things.” So
said the ready-voiced daughters of great Zeus, and they plucked and gave me a scepter, a shoot of
sturdy laurel, a marvelous thing, and breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be
and things that were before. And they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternally,
but ever to sing of themselves both first and last.
Hesiod pictures himself as a shepherd. Perhaps he was one, but the isolated life of a shepherd seems
such an ideal spot for a visit from mountain-dwelling muses that the notion of this entire picture as a
poetic invention suggests itself strongly. (The scepter is a symbol for the rich speech. As well as poets,
kings are the other people who carry it.)
Have you seen any other passages in Theogony or the beginning of the Works and Days that might
reveal a little bit of Hesiod’s character and background to us?
After his lengthy preambles, which highlight the rule of Zeus among the gods (53-80) and kings among
humans (81-97), as well as the muses (36-52), Hesiod finally begins the Theogony proper, his story of the
birth or generation, the gonê, of the gods (theoi), with four primordial entities.
First Chaos came to be, but next wide-breasted Earth, the ever-sure foundation of all the deathless ones
who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and
Eros, fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise
counsels of all gods and all men within them.
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Chaos, Earth (= Gaia), Tartarus and Eros all come to be spontaneously; they have no parents. Chaos is a
sort of gap or yawning. Perhaps it is just empty space, or perhaps it refers specifically to the gap that will
form between earth and sky. Earth will become a familiar figure. She is the home for everything else
that is happen (compare Homeric Hymn 30). The introduction of Tartarus next is curious. Tartarus will
become the lowest point below the earth, as far below Earth as Sky is above her. Later it’s been seen as
the place of the greatest punishment (717-831). Perhaps it’s best to see Tartarus as a setup for Eros, the
last and arguably the most important of these elements. Eros and his “erotic” energy will be the
necessary element in generating life through non-spontaneous means.
Aside from simply reading the text, another way of interpreting Hesiod’s four elements might follow
more psychoanalytic lines. According to this view, the four primordial elements might represent the four
stages of infant development. In the first, Chaos, which may involve the infant’s life in utero, its
consciousness is undifferentiated. Through birth and the infant’s separation from her mother, she
becomes aware of her mother’s existence as a distinct entity, as an “other”. Like Earth, the mother is the
foundation of life. When, however, the child is removed from her mother’s breast and put in the crib,
she feels the separation bitterly and screams as it transported into some sort of hell, like Tartarus. (If
you’ve ever been to a household with a young baby, you’ll know what the screams sound like.) At that
point the baby is filled with longing, one of the meanings of Eros, and desire to return to the Mother and
the security that she provides.
After the spontaneous generation of four primordial elements, Hesiod must populate the world with all
those elements that are familiar to humanity.
From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born Aether and Day, whom she
conceived and bore from union in love with Erebus. And Earth first bore starry Sky (Ouranos), equals to
herself, to cover her on every side, and to be in an ever-sure dwelling for the blessed gods. And she
brought forth high Mountains, graceful haunts of the goddess Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of
the hills. She bore also the fruitless deep with his raging swell, Pontus, without sweet union of love.
The prim/ordial elements populate the world initially through partheno/genesis, that is virgin (parthenos)
birth (genesis). As an incorporeal entity, Chaos gives birth to Erebus (darkness) and Night, which proceed
to mate and produce their opposites, Aether (brightness) and Day. (Consider for a moment that there
isn’t yet a sun, but we already have Night and Day. Weird.) Earth gives birth to Sky, the Mountains, and
Pontus, the salt water sea. These start to give shape to the world, but the Mountains and Pontus are
infertile regions, which seems a product of their parthenogenetic birth.
Nota bene. Gaia is not the goddess of earth; she is Earth. Likewise, Ouranos is not the god of sky; he is
Earth’s union with Sky results in the generation of Titans:
Ocean, Hyperion, Coios, Kreios, Iapetus, Cronos, Tethys, Theia, Phoibe, Themis, Mnemosyne, Rhea
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Six males and six females, their individual names are hardly important. Ocean and Tethys will populate
the sea. Hyperion (he who goes –ion over hyper-, like the sun) and Theia (her name may mean simply
“aunt” or it may be a lengthened form of thea, goddess) are associated with the sky. Their son will be
the sun, Helius, their daughters the moon, Selene, and dawn, Eos (372). As well as the elements of
nature, there are Themis and Mnemosyne, Justice and Memory, abstract qualities. The proliferation of
gods and goddesses that follows from this point in the text, especially in 211-452, can only be of real
interest to avid compliers of lists (not to me). What will be important for us will be the role of these
Titans and their descendants play in the ongoing stories of the Theogony and in other stories. Iapetus’
son Prometheus, for instance, gives us a very important story about the status of humans (521-616).
Zeus’ marriages to Themis and Mnemosyne will be important for the regulation of nature and for poetry.
Rhea is the mother of the gods, that is, the Olympian gods, and that is how she is described in Homeric
Nota bene: The almost countless names littered through the Theogony are impossible to master outside
of the context of the stories that make them really meaningful. It seems inconceivable that anyone
should have admired this sort of composition as a display of oral poetry. Even if it were a mnemonic tour
de force, it would put many to sleep. Hesiod’s great achievement, what he is likely to have been admired
for, is his ability to organize these many names into a systematic whole. As you read more and more
texts in classical mythology you will see how often abscure names from local mythologies are dropped
into stories. That is probably where they belong, in local mythologies, each with a different set of stories.
Hesiod’s attempt to organize so many names into a coherent whole represents a new kind of thinking,
one that attempts to impose a system, some rationality, where none existed in the first place. In order
for Hesiod to do this, it seems absolutely necessary that he wrote down lists of names and categorized
them before collating hem into his system. That indicates how important writing was both for the
composition of Hesiod’s poetry and for its transmission to later generations. Aside from a few
memorable stories, like the emasculation of Ouranos (154-206), Prometheus (521-616), the subduing of
Cronos (453-506), the Titanomachy (617-721), and the Typhoeomachy (820-85), most of the Theogony
can, and I think should, be read like a reference book, with careful use of the index to isolate just the
lines and names needed.
The Emasculation of Ouranos
Hesiod breaks off his lists of gods to tell the story of how Cronos overcame his father Ouranos (Sky)
(154-206). This story begins what is called the Succession Myth, which eventually results in the reign of
Zeus. Ouranos does not let his children be born from Earth. He hides them instead in a recess or hole of
her. The usual readings of this passage is that the hole is Earth’s womb and that Ouranos prevents the
birth by “plugging” her by continuous sexual copulation. That certainly makes sense of Earth groaning
(159-60) and of the issue being settled by Ouranos’ castration, testicles, and all. But it’s curious that
Hesiod does not make the sexual imagery more explicit. In fact the copulation is not continuous, since
Ouranos approaches Earth in anticipation of sexual pleasure. (176-77).
Earth recruits Cronos to perform the task:
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“Children of me and a sinful father, if you will obey me, we should punish the bile outrage of your father;
for he first thought of doing shameful things.” So she spoke; but fear seized them all, and none of them
uttered a word. But great Cronos the wily took courage and answered his dear mother: “Mother, I will
undertake to do this deed, for I do not revere our father of evil name, for he first thought of doing
The repeated emphasis put on the primary culpability of Ouranos