Summary and Analysis: Greek Mythology
The Beginnings — Creation
In the beginning there was only Chaos, an empty void. But somehow this enormous vacancy gave birth to Gaea, the earth, to Tartarus, the great region beneath the earth, and to Eros, the shining god of love and attraction. Chaos also bore Erebus, the darkness of the netherworld, and Night, the darkness over the earth. Then Erebus slept with Night, who gave birth to Ether, the heavenly light, and to Day, the earthly light. Later Night alone produced such beings as Doom, Fate, Death, Sleep, Dreams, Nemesis, and a long list of other atrocities that steal upon men in darkness.
Meanwhile Gaea, without help, gave birth to Uranus, the starry sky, to the Mountains, and to Pontus, the sterile sea. Uranus then became Gaea's mate and equal, for he covered her on all sides. This primordial couple, sky and earth, produced the twelve Titans, the three towering wheel-eyed Cyclopes, and the three terrible Hecatoncheires with fifty heads and a hundred arms apiece.
However, Uranus proved to be a harsh husband and father. Each of the Hecatoncheires hated him, and he hated them in return. In his anger Uranus pushed them back into Gaea's womb and kept them there. Gaea writhed in pain at this and plotted revenge upon her mate. She fashioned a flint sickle and called upon her other children to avenge her. The Titans and Cyclopes recoiled in fear of their father, and only the last-born Titan, Cronus, was daring enough.
That night when Uranus came to lie without Gaea the crafty Cronus was hiding in ambush. He grabbed his father's genitals and severed them with his mother's sickle. As the blood fell to earth the Furies, who punish crimes, the Ash-Tree Nymphs, and the race of Giants were created. Cronus heaved the members into the sea, and from the foam arose Aphrodite, the beautiful goddess of love, who floated along and stepped ashore at Cyprus. The mutilated Uranus either withdrew forever from the earth or else he perished. But before he did so he promised that Cronus and the other Titans would be punished.
After confining the Cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires to Tartarus, Cronus established his reign. He married his sister Rhea, and under his lordship the Titans produced many offspring. Yet Cronus could not allow his own children to survive, for both Gaea and Uranus had prophesied that Cronus would be supplanted by a son. When Rhea, his wife, gave birth to the gods and goddesses Cronus swallowed Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon shortly after each was born. Rhea was furious and took pains to save her sixth child, Zeus, from his father. She bore Zeus in secret and then gave Cronus a stone wrapped in swaddling bands to swallow instead.
Attended by nymphs, Zeus grew to manhood on Crete. Cronus, meanwhile, was growing old. So Zeus sought advice on how to defeat him from the Titaness Metis, who prepared an emetic potion. Disguised as a cupbearer, Zeus gave this potion to Cronus, who vomited up Zeus's brothers and sisters, as well as the stone Rhea had given him. The gods were alive and unhurt, and together with Zeus they triumphed over Cronus and bound him in Tartarus. Zeus then set up the stone at Parnassus, a monument to his victory over the Titan king.
Zeus's triumph, however, was far from secure. The other Titans, with the exception of Prometheus and Oceanus, rebelled under these upstart gods. For ten years the fighting lasted, a cosmos-shaking battle in which the elements of nature raged without check. Neither the gods nor the Titans could secure a decisive victory. But then Zeus went down to Tartarus and released the Cyclopes and the hundred-handed monsters. The Cyclopes awarded Zeus their weapons of thunder and lightning, and the Hecatoncheires pelted the Titans with boulders. And at last the Titans were defeated. Zeus imprisoned them in Tartarus, and he condemned the rebel Atlas to stand forever at the edge of the world and bear the heavens on his shoulders.
Gaea was enraged at the downfall of her children, the Titans. And through her union with Tartarus she gave birth to one last monster, Typhoeus, a dragon with a hundred heads that never rested. Terrified, most of the gods fled. But Zeus was captured and confined. Released by Hermes, Zeus finally destroyed the dragon by hurling lightning at it again and again, and by burying it under Etna in Sicily.
There was one more attempt to dislodge Zeus and the other Olympians from their mastery of the world. The Giants, who had sprouted from Uranus' blood, were dissatisfied, so they laid siege to Olympus by piling mountain upon mountain in an attempt to scale it. It required all the prowess of the gods and the assistance of the mortal Heracles to subdue and kill the Giants. Having vanquished the Titans, the dragon Typhoeus, and the Giants, the rule of the Olympians was undisputed.
That version of the creation was taken largely from Hesiod, a Greek poet of the seventh century B.C.. But here is an earlier story by way of contrast.
Eurynome, the goddess of all creation, arose from Chaos and separated the sea from the sky. Then, dancing naked upon the waves, she created the wind and rubbed it in her hands to create the serpent Ophion, who made love to her. Pregnant, Eurynome became a dove and laid the World Egg, and Ophion coiled about the Egg and hatched it. This Egg brought forth the cosmos and everything in it. Then Eurynome and Ophion settled on Olympus, but their union was unhappy. When Ophion proclaimed himself the Creator, Eurynome banished him to the netherworld. Finally Eurynome established the seven planets, each with a Titan and Titaness to rule it. When man appeared he sprang from the soil, and the first man, Pelasgus, taught the others to eat acorns, build huts, and make a rude garment.
The first version of the creation is intensely masculine and crude. The primary forces generate their opposites. Thus vacancy creates solidity, darkness creates light, the earth creates the sky and the sea, the first crime creates a goddess of love. Further, these forces are conceived as having sexes, and they copulate the way human beings do, and the 'female elements give birth to newer forces, and those forces have vague personalities.
Apart from childbearing, Gaea and her daughter Rhea have one important function. In anger they help their sons dethrone their own husbands. The relationship between the sexes is troubled, and the decisive factor in losing control of the world is mistreating one's children. The forces of nature are rendered in terms of the human family, which makes the creation both understandable and dramatic.
The most notable feature of this myth, however, is the drive for power and dominance. Uranus confines the mightiest of his offspring to Gaea's belly. Cronus castrates his father and the new generation of Titans takes over. Then Cronus consolidates his power by imprisoning his non-Titan brothers and by swallowing his own children. Zeus, his son, in turn dethrones him, and then must fight the Titans, the dragon, and the Giants to secure his own rule. In one myth even Zeus is warned that a hypothetical son by Thetis may defeat him. Power is the primary drive here. But this view of the world is not really pessimistic, for each generation of deities is an improvement over the last one. The Olympian gods under Zeus are the most enlightened generation, and only the ablest survive.
It is thought that the Titans were the old gods of Greece, and that the gods of the Indo-European invaders superseded them, particularly Zeus. Yet what is important about this story is that conflict is shown to be a cosmic principle. By fighting alone does the world progress, since only in that way can the victors, gods or men, establish their supremacy. And that supremacy is always subject to question in the end. Force determines who keeps power. Nevertheless, this view of the world in terms of conflict gave Greek civilization an extremely dramatic character.
It is precisely drama that is lacking in the early, Pelasgian account of the creation. There a female deity is all-important, perhaps reflecting a matriarchal society. Eurynome is playful in creating her wind-mate Ophion, and she is vicious in disposing of him when he claims to be the Creator. She can live without a masculine god, being self-sufficient. In this myth things seem to happen accidentally, from Eurynome's birth to the creation of man. There is no unifying principle at work here beyond that of feminine playfulness and pique. Given the two stories of the creation, it is easy to see why the one told by Hesiod achieved dominance, for it stemmed from a race of fighters.