Before I began Hesiod’s long poem Theogony, I wondered what it could possibly be about. I mean, what a strange title. If I had even remotely been paying attention to word roots I could have figured it out, but it took me until about halfway through the poem before the light bulb came one. Turns out Theogony is a genealogy of the Greek gods. And boy howdy, are there a lot of gods! If you’re like me you’ve learned the standard stories about Kronos and Zeus and Hera, Aphrodite, Ares, Athena, etc, etc. But that’s not all.
In the Greek pantheon every river is a god or goddess. Styx? Goddess. The rivers were born of the god Okeanos and the goddess Tethys. These two gods are brother and sister whose parents are Gaia and Ouranos. Ouranos is Gaia’s son who she had without consort. Gaia, along with Chaos, Tartaros, and Eros is one of the original gods who got this crazy world going. Other gods born at various times from various parents include the Fates, the muses, the graces, Panic, Terror, Harmonia, Discord. Whenever, it seems, the Greeks needed to be able to talk about something big, it became a god, not an archetype, but an actual being who caused panic and terror and discord, or inspired music or poetry. Think about what that means for a minute. Think about what it means to say that Aphrodite caused Paris to fall in love with Helen and take her to Troy. Paris suddenly isn’t as responsible for his actions. No one is. People become pawns and playthings with little or no agency of their own. It’s a bit trippy to think about.
One of the more astonishing things for me is that there were loads of gods before Zeus and company even came on the scene. Zeus, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon are all siblings, their parents, Kronos and Rheia were also brother and sister. Their parents were Gaia and Ouranos, mother and son. The harpies, the giants, the cyclopses (cyclopi?), the gorgons, were all born from god/goddess pairings which goes to show even inbreeding among the godly doesn’t always work out so well. All of these matings and offspring are enough to make the head spin and I was thinking that I would need to make a chart so I could keep track of them all. Thankfully Lattimore, the translator, thought of it first and provides five pages-worth of charts which I am going to definitely photocopy because they are so useful.
Humans get a blurb in Theogony too. Zeus created man. Men ran around doing their thing for quite some time, free of women to tell them to put the toilet seat down or pestering them about drinking from the milk carton and then leaving it empty in the fridge. Prometheus (who is Atlas’s brother and son of the gods Iapetos and Klymene) had to go and mess things up by stealing fire from Zeus. Prometheus gets his by getting his liver eaten everyday, and men got theirs too, because Zeus, with the help of Athena, decided to make women:
But when, to replace good,
he had made this beautiful evil
thing, he led her out
where the rest of the gods and mortals
were, in the pride and glory
that the gray-eyed daughter of a great
father had given; wonder
seized both immortals and mortals
as they gazed on this sheer deception,
more than mortals can deal with.
For from her originates the breed
of female women,
and they live with mortal men,
and are a great sorrow to them
and hateful poverty they will not share,
but only luxury.
It goes on like this for another forty or fifty lines. Curiously there appears to be a disconnect between mortal women and goddesses. Goddesses are not thought ill of, far from it, they are courted and appeased. But mortal women, evil incarnate.
In spite of the misogyny, Theogony is an interesting poem and I am glad I read it. Not only did I get a bit of an education in the Greek gods, but I also got a glimpse into pre-Socratic Greek thought and begin to understand what a huge change it was when the gods became abstractions instead of reality.