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Story, myth, writings

Might, Cunning and Order in Hesiod’s Theogony

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Is the narrative of the unfolding cosmos in Hesiod’s Theogony an explanation of the contemporary world of the Ancient Greeks?

Hesiod’s Theogony, one of the earliest extant ancient Greek texts, charts the creation and evolution of the cosmos and the genealogy of the gods up to the reigning supremacy of Zeus. The text, full of divergent narratives and genealogical minutiae, is not easy to interpret. As an explanation of the contemporary world of the Greeks it is particularly troublesome, not only in light of limited archeological evidence and scant contemporary literature, but the very nature of its mythology makes historical evaluation largely a matter of supposition. Saying this, there are some general reflections that can be made on the basis of the text, especially concerning the importance of power and intelligence in shaping the burgeoning social order; yet such reflections are hardly explanations in the usual sense of the word.

The Theogony’s social context is largely unknown or suppositional. Judging mainly from his Works and Days, Hesiod seems to have been a poor shepherd who lived around the late 8th or early 7th centuries B.C.E., in Boeotia in what is now Greece.[1] However, since Hesiod only makes one brief mention of himself at the beginning of the Theogony,[2] we must admit that his supposed biography is not exactly pertinent to our question. Similarly, we can garner a rough idea of the historical pre-history of Greece from archaeological data, yet this sheds very little light on the cultural context of the Theogony, coming as it does at the end of a period regarded by historians as a dark age due to the scarcity of artifacts.[3] The poem’s divergent structure, declamatory opening song to the Muses, and prevalence of formulaic phrases[4] suggest oral storytelling; the myths recounted are believed to be of incalculable age.[5]  There are a number of scholarly theories regarding possible Indo-European,[6] Hittite,[7] and Mesopotamian[8] influences with the appearance of common motifs such as father castration, yet most of these merely confirm the existence of ancient links with the Near East and do not help to explain the contemporary culture which probably absorbed these elements centuries earlier.

Importantly, the Theogony is not an account of ancient Greek society but a somewhat obscure semi-chronology of the early Greek pantheon; this is not societal exegesis but mythology. We must interpret this text in accordance with the spirit in which we understand the Greeks to have taken their mythology. We know from subsequent literature that Greek myth is not dogmatic or systematic; there is no single canonical version of the Greek mythic corpus.[9] Greek myths are rather like traditional folktales rife with deliberate and accidental integrations of cultural ideas, such as legendary episodes, political biases, moral postures, religious beliefs, philosophical reflections, social customs and elements of pure entertainment. In most instances, it is impossible to untangle the web of integrated ideas with any degree of certainty; such a task is compounded by the multiplicity of meanings that a single element can possess. However, we can attempt a cautious reflection on such ideas, provided we are wary that a broad thematic examination will yield merely a suggestion of early Classical Greek cultural sentiments and not explanations of society or lifestyle in concrete detail.

The Theogony has something of a confusing structure. It begins with an appraisal of the Muses, who meet with Hesiod on Mount Helicon, inspiring him to declaim the Theogony (Hesiod, Theogony 1-115); this is followed by the story of the evolution of nature and the gods as the developing offspring of Chasm and Earth, through the generation of the Titans, then on to that of the Olympian gods. The poem wavers between sections of chronological narrative, mostly describing the transitions between the generations (for example, the story of Cronus against Sky at 154-83 and Zeus against Cronus at 453-506), and sections of lengthy genealogical listings of the pairings of the various gods and their offspring (such as at 241-382 and 901-1019). The genealogical asides often distort the chronology of the poem by interspersing details of much later events, for example, the account of the birth of Medusa includes the details of her death during the later Heroic Age (Hesiod, Theogony 270-94). This has the effect of further confusing the focus and final meaning of the text, especially when, for example, Zeus is described as organizing his war against the Titans (Hesiod, Theogony 391-4) before his birth is narrated (Hesiod, Theogony 465-500). I think this confusion is largely incidental and a result of the oral background; the pre-existent structure of the basic myths recounted does not fit perfectly into the chronological sequence. Yet I believe this structural distortion reveals that Hesiod is deliberately re-structuring the myths, twisting them into a super-narrative that may reveal a paradigm pertinent to the contemporary Greek ethos. This re-structuring could be seen merely as the necessary form for a poem, or it could be interpreted as an early form of rationalization, similar to the attempt of a scientist or historian to catalogue thoughts in a stratified sequence.[10]

Either way, the Theogony seems to be an account of the establishment of order[11] – this much is obvious from the contrast between the opening primitivity of Chasm and his ilk, and the concluding ordered hierarchy of Zeus’ pantheon. However, the exact nature of this new order is not immediately apparent on first reading. We may initially be confused by apparent similarities between the old and new orders – there are ways in which the poem can be considered as a mere continuity rather than a progression. For example, both orders exemplify the power of brute force; Sky’s constriction of Earth (Hesiod, Theogony 156-61) and Cronus’ defeat of his monstrous father (Hesiod, Theogony 174-90) may not seem significantly different in sentiment from Zeus’ swallowing of Metis (Hesiod, Theogony 886-90) or his punishing defeat of Typhoeus (Hesiod, Theogony 853-68). Cunning or intelligence also plays a pivotal role on both sides: Earth deviously exhorts Cronus to attack his father (Hesiod, Theogony 163-6), Prometheus is cunning in his fire-theft (Hesiod, Theogony 565-6), while Zeus contrives to create woman (Hesiod, Theogony 567-84), and entices Obriareus, Cottus and Gyges to fight on his side in battle (Hesiod, Theogony 639-53). In fact, the entire Theogony can be seen as an alternation of acts of deceit with acts of force.[12] Scholar Stephanie A. Nelson argues that Hesiod attempts to change or gloss over elements of pre-existing myth in order to fit this plan;[13] for example, he tries to make Zeus’s devouring act – properly an act of force – into an act of cunning to fit the structure: “he [Zeus] deceived her [Metis’] mind by craft and with guileful words he put her into his belly” (Hesiod, Theogony 888-9).

But the Olympian ordering principle is not simply a continuity of the primitive brute force and cunning of the earlier gods; it is a new combining of these elements – this integration is the new order. The two principles of intelligence and force are united at last in the figure of Zeus.[14] This “puts an end to the continual overthrow of cunning through force and of force through cunning.”[15] The transformation is epitomized when Zeus swallows Metis and assumes the wisdom (Metis) unto himself (Hesiod, Theogony 886-90). This is a key coming together of opposites – not only of cunning and force but also of genealogy, of mother and father.[16] Recall, Zeus’s father and grandfather performed similar acts of constriction and absorption – but of their offspring not their wives (Hesiod, Theogony 156-61, 459-62). In fact, it is their wives who cunningly plot against them with the next generation (Hesiod, Theogony 163-6, 467-74). Zeus essentially stops (or contains) this endless cycle of parental violence and cunning patricide by absorbing the mother instead of the son. Zeus uses his unique combination of masculine force and feminine wisdom to re-order the cosmos hierarchically. He does this both genealogically, by taking multiple wives and filling out the hierarchy with his progeny, and diplomatically, by absorbing pre-existing gods into his new order through the distribution of honours (Hesiod, Theogony 884), the apportioning of roles and duties.[17] Nelson notes that Hesiod appears to pointedly avoid the myth that the gods decided their stations by casting lots – “[n]ot chance, but the combination of intelligence and force in Zeus are, for Hesiod, the sole source of divine order.”[18]

This divine order is reflected simultaneously in the natural cosmological order and the divine familial/political order under the reign of Zeus; in fact, it is possible to read these two ‘orders’ as not just concurrent but equivalent.[19] Zeus is not like the God of the Abrahamic traditions who positions himself wholly outside nature and time; Yahweh upholds a social morality considered to be intrinsically right – this is why he is so dogmatic. Zeus only appears in this way at the moments in which he is personified and acts on the world.[20] At other times, he appears to be guided by a nature which unfolds of its own accord.[21] This nature is often exemplified in subsequent texts by the prophesies of the Fates; in the Theogony the prophecies come from primeval Earth and Sky (Hesiod, Theogony 889), forces which Zeus has largely subjugated and assumed. These two aspects of Zeus are also represented in the narrative sections of the poem, where Zeus directs the action, and in the genealogical sections, where he is apparently produced and guided by a self-motivated unfolding.[22] And yet these two threads are represented as the same god; for the archaic Greeks, “the paradigmatically divine event [was] a natural one.”[23] Zeus’s laws, his morality, his deeds, his hierarchy, and his existence, his progeny, and the pre-existing nature of the world – are one.

This uniting of social, familial, and natural forces under a powerful intelligent ordering principle permits a greater philosophical flexibility than with a moralistic or dogmatic mindset. This flexibility is exemplified in the Theogony not only by Zeus’ multifarious identification and participation with the earlier generations of the gods, but by the inconsistencies which he takes in his stride. For example, at 520, Zeus is described as binding Prometheus and setting an eagle to tear our his liver every day. Then we are told this eagle was subsequently killed by Heracles, and Prometheus was freed (Hesiod, Theogony 525-27). We might be given to wonder here how all-powerful Zeus could be so defied. But Hesiod explains that such was “not against the will of Olympian Zeus,” (Hesiod, Theogony 527) who apparently allowed the eagle to be killed “so that the glory of… Heracles would become even greater than before” (Hesiod, Theogony 527-30). Here Zeus seems to be in conflict with himself, and yet we are assured of his consistency – we have switched from Zeus’ ‘acting’ aspect to his ‘happening’ aspect. This suggests that what appear to be inconsistencies are human, not divine notions; Zeus is playing an ordered game which humans will never completely understand, like nature and life itself in its often unpredictable mysteriousness.[24] Thus nature (and Zeus) is both contained within and beyond the Olympian order, itself exemplified by an intelligence which both subsumes and unfolds alongside natural processes – rather like the processes of empirical rationality, testing and ordering while unfolding in accordance with natural laws.

This orderly paradigm is, I believe, the principal explicating suggestion we can take from Hesiod’s Theogony concerning the archaic Greek world. It appears reflected in the new centralizing city-state of the polis, which could be seen as uniting political structure,familial household genealogy, and the sometimes mysterious processes of nature and time by means of a dynamic but evolving order, both powerful, intelligent and socially flexible.[25] This intelligent order may foreshadow the development of rationality in subsequent centuries, with the result that Hesiod’s text could be interpreted as midway between mythology and early philosophy.[26] However, this is only a reflection on the order of Zeus as exemplified in the mythology of Hesiod’s epic poetry; it is not an explanation of the ancient Greek world or its prevailing cultural ethos. For this, more corroborating evidence is required.


Primary sources:

Hesiod Theogony trans. G. W. Most, from Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, Testimonia (Cambridge, MA, 2006).

Secondary sources:

Athanassakis, A. N. Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, Shield, 2nd ed. (Baltimore, 2004).

Holscher, T. ‘Myths, Images, and the Typology of Identities in Early Greek Art’ in E. S. Gruen (ed.) Cultural Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean (Los Angeles, 2011).

Hine, D. Works of Hesiod and the Homeric Hymns (Chicago, 2005).

Kirk, G. S. The Nature of Greek Myths (London, 1974).

Luce, T. J. The Greek Historians (London, 1997).

March, J. The Penguin Book of Classical Myths (London, 2008).

Most, G. W. Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, Testimonia (Cambridge, MA., 2006).

Nelson, S. A. God and the Land (Oxford, 1998).

Pomeroy, S. B., Burstein, S. M., Donlan, W., Roberts, J. T., and Tandy, D. W. Ancient Greece: a political, social and cultural history, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 2012).

West, M. L. Hesiod: Theogony and Works and Days (Oxford, 1988).

[1] Pomeroy (2012), 120; Nelson (1998), 37.

[2] Hine (2005), 5.

[3] Pomeroy (2012), 57.

[4] March (2008), 8.

[5] Hine (2005), 7; Pomeroy (2012), 92-3.

[6] Athanassakis (2004), 3.

[7] Kirk (1974), 117; West (1988), xii; Pomeroy (2012), 59.

[8] Pomeroy (2012), 83.

[9] March (2008), 4.

[10] Luce (1997), 11; Holscher (2011), 50.

[11] Athanassakis (2004), 5.

[12] Nelson (1998), 46.

[13] Nelson (1998), 99.

[14] Nelson (1998), 43, 46, 99, 101; Athanassakis (2004), 6.

[15] Nelson (1998), 46.

[16] Nelson (1998), 101.

[17] Nelson (1998), 103.

[18] Nelson (1998), 103.

[19] Nelson (1998), 44, 105.

[20] Nelson (1998), 61, 62.

[21] Nelson (1998), 61, 62.

[22] Nelson (1998), 62.

[23] Nelson (1998), 62.

[24] Nelson (1998), 71.

[25] Pomeroy (2012), 104.

[26] Most (2006), lxvii; Hine (2005), 18.

Written by tomtomrant

25 August 2013 at 8:16 pm

2 Responses

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