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Creation Myth

According to the Theogony, Chaos, the dark, silent abyss from which all things were created, first
produced Gaia, or Earth. Gaia (also spelled Ge) brought forth Ouranos, or the Heavens. The offspring of
Gaia and Ouranos are divided loosely into two generations of "Titans." The first generation of Titans
were twelve in number: six of whom were male and six female. The second generation of Titans consisted
of the offspring of Hyperion (from the first generation) and included Eos (Dawn), Helios (Sun), and
Selene (Moon); and the offspring of Iapetus (also from the first generation), which included Atlas,
Prometheus, and Epimetheus—among others. These Titans mated with each other and produced a
multitude of gods and goddesses.
Cronus, the youngest of the Titans, and his sister Rhea were parents of six of the twelve Olympians.
Cronus, fearing that one of his offspring would depose him, consumed the first five of his children as they
were born. Rhea begged her parents to help her save her next child, and they answered her plea by
spiriting her away to Crete, where Zeus was born. Rhea hid Zeus in a cave, then returned to Cronus and
tricked him into thinking he was consuming Zeus by feeding him a stone wrapped in a blanket. Zeus
remained in Crete, and when he grew to manhood, he returned to Mount Olympus to wage war on
Cronus. He forced Cronus to disgorge the children he had swallowed, and they, together with Zeus,
fought against Cronus and his allies, the other Titans. The Titans were defeated and exiled, and Zeus
became the ruler of the Olympians and god of the sky.

The Nature of Myths

A myth is a traditional utterance (muthos) originating in the pre-literate periods, which is later written
down (almost always in the form of poetry), or conveyed through painting, song, drama, or other art
forms. Although some myths recount the story of gods and goddesses and their relations to humans, most
myths are concerned rather with the interactions of human beings with one another. A very very small
percentage of myths may have their roots in far-off historical events (we tend rather to call these “sagas”
or “legends,” which are especially common in the Roman world), but most myths have no relation
whatever to history—that is not their “purpose.” It is difficult to explain the real “purpose” of any myth—
much less myths as a whole—but I would suggest that they are “art to think with.” What this means is
that they present, in artistic format, universal anxieties or concerns and, as such, contain a “truth” that
may have nothing to do with the “facts” of the world.

In studying mythology, you will find that there are various and often conflicting versions of the same
story. Why isn’t there just one version? Which version is the “right” one? The answer lies in the fact that
there is no “right” version of a myth: rather, each artistic representation of a myth—Homer’s Iliad,
Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Euripides’ Medea, Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica—serves as a “snapshot”
photo of some aspect of the myth, told through the political, social, and economic order of the
day. Therefore, it is misleading, for example, to refer to the myth about Dionysus’ birth, as if there was
only one myth or one version thereof. It would be more accurate to refer to the myth of Dionysus’ birth as
told by Euripides in the Bacchae or the myth of Dionysus’ birth as found in the Orphic tradition.
However, although there is no “right” version of any myth, there certainly could be a “wrong” version!
How? Because although each representation of a myth—a poem, a play, a painting—will differ a bit from
all others, it must still be recognizable as that myth. If it differs so much from the “original” myth—that
original, pre-literate utterance—that it is not recognizable as such, then it would be a “wrong” version.
For instance: the Greeks must win the Trojan War. The Trojan War myth (which is really a myth about
“War” or—as has been argued—“Burial”) can be retold over and over and over, but one constant is that
the Greeks win. Change this, and it is no longer the Trojan War myth at all, and so would be a “wrong
An additional complication is the tremendous chronological difference among sources of myths. Ovid’s
epic poem Metamorphoses, for example, is one of the best ancient sources for Greek myths—but it was
written in the first century B.C.E., at the very beginning of Roman Empire, and in Latin rather than
Greek! It would be incorrect to look to Ovid for evidence of myths current in, say, fifth-century Athens,
unless one can find corroboration of Ovid’s version in texts produced in fifth-century Athens.
In short, a myth is never static and unchanging. To cite a modern example, James Joyce adapts the
Ulysses theme in his novel Ulysses. The novel differs dramatically from the cinematic retelling of the
story in the 1955 film Ulysses, and indeed from the more recent O Brother, Where Art Thou?, although all
have as their subject the hero of Homer’s Odyssey (Odysseus is the hero’s Greek name; Ulysses his
Roman name.). So, too, in the ancient world there were many different versions of—and uses for—the
same myth.

Sources of Myths

The earliest sources of Greek myth date to writings from the eighth century B.C.E. and include the Iliad,
the Odyssey, and the Theogony. These writings reflect an oral tradition that originated centuries earlier in
civilizations in and around Greece. The Iliad and Odyssey are epic poems attributed to a blind poet by the
name of Homer, and first put into writing (we do not know by whom) circa 750 B.C.E. The Iliad tells the
story of the last year of the Trojan War and the quarrel between the greatest Greek warrior, Achilles, and
the commander of the Greek army, Agamemnon. The Odyssey recounts the story of the Greek warrior
Odyssey’s lengthy and dangerous return home after the Trojan War.
The Theogony (“Birth of the Gods”) is attributed to Hesiod, who lived in Boeotia in central Greece circa
700 B. C. It is a long narrative poem that compiles various oral versions of stories (i.e., myths) from
different locations, arranging them in a more or less orderly fashion. The Theogony also includes stories
of newer gods not mentioned in the Iliad or Odyssey. Hesiod describes how the gods were created, their
struggles with each other, and the nature of their divine rule; his poems are our earliest sources for the
famous myths of Prometheus and Pandora.
Another ancient source of myths are the Homeric Hymns, an anonymous compilation of 33 hymns written
over a period of a few centuries (700 B.C.E. to perhaps 400 B.C.E. ). The poems were attributed to
Homer in antiquity because they are written in the language and meter associated with
the Iliad and Odyssey.In fact, we know neither the authors of these hymns nor the specific region in which
the hymns were produced. The works are called “hymns” because of their poetic form. The majority of
the hymns—some of which are quite fragmentary (meaning we do not possess the entire original poem)
celebrate members of twelve Olympians, the gods and goddesses who dwelled on Mount Olympus.

Interpretations of Myths

How should people of the twenty-first century century interpret myths that grew out of ancient Greek
culture? Several principles should guide us as we attempt to decipher the meaning of a myth. First, we
should be aware of the circumstances surrounding its production—the time period, location, political
situation, and so on. We must also consider its source and be sensitive to the nature of the source, whether
it is tragedy, lyric poetry, a historical text, vase painting, sculpture, etc. We should ask, too, if our
interpretations of myths tell us more about ourselves than about the original meanings of the myths. If we
fail to take account of these factors, we run the risk of making false inferences not only about classical
mythology in general but about the people and culture that produced it as well.
One of the most controversial questions surrounding the interpretation of myths is whether or not we can
extrapolate from myth to history. For example, the Theogony describes a divine generation overseen by a
female divinity, Gaia. Some scholars interpret this to mean that ancient Greek society must at one point
have been matriarchal.
However, we should remember that Hesiod wrote in the eighth century and came from Boeotia. It would
be wrong, therefore, to conclude that Hesiod speaks for all Greeks, at all times, in all places—much less
Greek peoples who would have existed many centuries before his time. It is even problematic to argue
that Hesiod reflects views prevalent in his own state of Boeotia; an author does not necessarily mirror the
views of his peers. It is wise to keep this perspective in mind when thinking about your own
interpretations of myths, or reading the interpretations of others.

Multiple Versions of Myths

The Theogony recounts stories of different generations of gods and goddesses. If gods and goddesses are
immortal, though, why is more than one generation needed? And what happens to the deities of earlier
generations? Scholars think that the Theogony represents an attempt to make sense out of different divine
systems that were prevalent in Greece at different times. It has therefore been argued that, at one point,
various populations of Greeks gave primacy to Gaia and her generation; and that at another point, much
later on, to Zeus and his generation. This change may have come about as new populations entered Greek
society, either through migration or invasion. The new peoples brought with them their own stories,
which merged with, or in some cases supplanted, those of the Greeks.
The Theogony takes these seemingly disparate groups of divinities and rather than assert the superiority of
one over the other, accommodates them by means of a mythological account that views them as similar to
a human dynasty or regime. Moreover, in the view of Hesiod and other authors, these older divinities do
not “die”; they simply yield their power and influence to the subsequent generation.