Greek Mythology Stories Part 1 – Although conﬂicting accounts were inevitably offered of the origins of the gods Aand the physical universe, Hesiod’s Theogony, an epic history of the divine order composed in about 700 BC, came to be accepted by the Greeks as the standard mythical account of the earliest history of the world; and we will thus adopt it as our main guide in the ﬁrst section of this book, while examining how the world and the lesser and higher deities were supposed to have come into exist- ence, and how Zeus and the Olympian gods attained supreme authority.
The Greeks in Early Times
Before considering Hesiod’s cosmogony, it may be useful to picture how the world was visualized by the Greeks in early times. They began with the notion that early peoples generally seem to possess, namely that its real form corresponds to the form that it appears to have when as much of it as can be viewed at once is observed from their particular viewpoint. Now unless the observer is shut in between long lines of hills like an Egyptian, or conﬁned to an island or archipelago like the in- habitants of the South Paciﬁc, the world might appear to take the form of a circular disc, more or less level except where mountains or hills rise up from it, and capped by the immense roof or dome of the sky. On the one side the sun and stars can be seen rising above the horizon, while on the other they disappear at their setting; and as they always rise on the same side, in the east, they must presumably make their way back again, either under the ground or by some other hidden route.
This and no other was the earliest Greek picture of the world, presupposed by the earliest legends and surviving inconsistently into later ones. More speciﬁcally, the Greeks supposed that the boundary of this disc of the earth was formed by the stream of Ocean (Okeanos), which was not an ocean in the modern sense but a great river ﬂowing around in a circle. The sky was envisioned as a substantial roof or dome, sometimes said to be made of bronze or iron. It rose a considerable height above the earth, but not an immeasurable distance. The residence of the gods was now imagined as being the sky itself, now the summit of Mt Olympos on the north- eastern borders of Greece. If one could pile three large mountains one above another, as the gigantic Aloadai set out to do when they revolted against the gods it would be sufﬁcient to form a ladder to heaven. The tale of Phaethon’s ascent in the chariot of the Sun, to take but one instance, implies that if one could travel far enough to the east, one would reach the place where the sky touches the earth and the sun-god begins his ascent. Far to the west on the other hand, where the sun goes down, there was a place of darkness, near which an entrance to Hades could be found, as we will see in connection with Homer’s account of Odysseus’ visit to the world of the dead. Hades was commonly pictured, of course, as a murky realm that lay somewhere far beneath the earth, and might thus be reached through one of the many deep rifts in the strata of the Greek rocks, katavóthra as they are called in the native tongue, such as the famous one at Tainaron in the southern Peloponnese. This is amply witnessed in the myths of Orpheus, Herakles and other heroes who were said to have made incursions into Hades by such routes whilst still alive.
The Hesiod’s Cosmogony about Greek Mythology Stories
It may be noted that Homer and Hesiod can speak of a place as lying beneath the earth and at the edges of the earth as if there were no conﬂict between the two concepts. In stating, for instance, that some monsters were conﬁned beneath the earth by their father Ouranos, Hesiod says that he ‘made them live beneath the broad-path earth, where they suffered anguish, being set to dwell underground in the furthermost distance, at the bounds of the great earth’; or in a passage in the Iliad, Homer speaks in similar terms of the banished Titans.
Of the actual geography of the world, a differing amount was known, as might be expected, in different ages. In the Homeric epics, Greece proper and part of the coast of Asia Minor are familiar ground for the most part, but beyond that, little enough is known. The more distant adventures of Odysseus are located in a fairy- tale realm, even if fabulous places on his itinerary came to be identiﬁed with real places in the seas around Italy in the later tradition. To Aeschylus, some two centuries later, southern Italy is familiar territory enough, but the interior of Asia Ninor begins to fade into the unknown and marvellous; and after the conquests of Alexander, those who wanted a land of wonders had to go further again, to India or Northern Europe. Little was ever known about the regions of Africa that lay to the south of the lands that fringed its Mediterranean shores.
Having this conception of the world in which they lived, the Greeks from quite early times were interested in the question of its genesis; and it is natural that Hesiod’s theogony, or account of the origins and successive generations of the gods, should start with a cosmogony, to explain how the many-layered universe that forms the seat of their rule came into being.
Greek Mythology: Chaos
First of all, so Hesiod tells us, came CHAOS. This word, which seems literally to mean ‘gaping void’, signiﬁes something more than mere empty space; for Chaos is a primal feature of the universe, a murky reality which will be represented in the forthcoming genealogies as the source of much that is dark and negative in the world. It is worth noting that Hesiod imagines it as something that is solid enough to be affected by the heat of Zeus’ thunderbolt. When the universe is fully constructed, it will be situated between Earth and the lowest region of all, Tartaros.
Although chaos is a neuter noun in Greek, Chaos is treated as female in so far as it is personiﬁed as a deity. It should be remarked that the word Chaos carried no connotations of disorder or confusion in early usage.
If Chaos comes ﬁrst, she is followed by three other entities, ﬁrst broad-bosomed Gaia (Earth), the ever-sure seat of the gods, and then gloomy Tartaros in a recess of the broad-pathed earth, and ﬁnally Eros, the personiﬁcation of love or, perhaps more accurately, of desire. Although it is quite often assumed that all three are born out of Chaos as her offspring, this is not stated by Hesiod nor indeed implied, for the emergence of Chaos and her three successors is described in a single sentence governed by the same verb geneto (‘came to be’). Gaia, Tartaros and Eros are best regarded as being primal realities like Chaos that came into existence independently of her. Chaos will form a distinctive family of her own, as we will see, through two children of hers who are explicitly stated to have been born from her.
Of these four primal entities, two alone will be of genealogical signiﬁcance, Chaos and, above all, Gaia. EROS is introduced at this early stage because he is the motor that will drive the process of mating and procreation that will bring everything else into being. As a mythical agent, he could be pictured in a variety of ways, whether as an ancient and all-powerful cosmic force as in the present context, or as a potent force of nature who inspires all living beings with procreative desire, or as a mischie- vous boy-god (or even child-god) who pricks gods and mortals with his arrows to inﬂame them with desire. Broadly speaking, he grows younger and more frivolous as time progresses; he will be considered further in his nature as a god of love when we come to deal with Aphrodite. It is harder to say why Hesiod should have included TARTAROS among these ﬁrst beings. He may perhaps have done so because Tartaros is set so much apart from everything else in the world; for it will be the nethermost region of the completed universe, lying far beneath the earth (or in its very deepest recesses), at a lower level even than Hades. It is stated in a subse- quent passage in the Theogony that Tartaros lies as far beneath the earth as heaven rises above the earth, and that a bronze anvil cast down from the earth would fall down for nine days and nights before reaching Tartaros on the tenth. Or according to a comparable but somewhat different reckoning in the Iliad, Tartaros lies as far beneath Hades as heaven rises above the earth. As originally conceived, Tartaros served as a remote and secure prison for banished deities, and was wholly separate from Hades, which was a home for dead mortals. In the course of time, however, the distinction became increasingly blurred, and authors from Plato onward regu- larly use Tartaros as a convenient name for the region of Hades in which the undeserving dead suffer posthumous punishment. The personiﬁed Tartaros was occasionally named as a father of sinister children, such as Typhon in the Theogony, or of Echidna and Thanatos (Death) in later sources.
The next stage in the development of the universe commenced when Chaos and Gaia proceeded to generate further children from themselves without contact with any male partner.
Chaos produced a son and daughter by such means, EREBOS and black NIGHT (or NYX in Greek). Night is far more important than her brother because she will found the main branch of the family of Chaos by generating a dismal brood of children from herself; for the most part, the children and grandchildren of Night will not be mythical ﬁgures of any substance, but rather personiﬁcations of dark, destructive and negative forces. Erebos is a ﬁtting brother for Night as a personiﬁcation of darkness, especially of the darkness of the Underworld; his name was used quite often from the time of Homer onwards as a poetic name for the Underworld in its nature as a realm of gloom. He fathered two children by Night, a daughter, DAY (or HEMERA in Greek), and a corresponding brother, AITHER, who personiﬁes brightness as manifested in the bright upper air. Although it may seem odd at ﬁrst sight that these radiant children should be born into this family of darkness, it is really perfectly logical since Night and Day, and the dark and the bright, are interrelated opposites that succeed one another. Brightness is bound to enter the world, moreover, at a later stage than darkness because its emergence marks a positive advance in the development of the universe. From the classical period onward, Hemera was quite often identiﬁed with Eos (Dawn), the goddess who brings the light of day.
If Chaos will become the progenitor of all manner of negative and harmful forces through her daughter Night, Gaia will be the progenitor of all that is posi- tive and substantial in the world, including the features of the physical universe that have yet to emerge, and the deities who preside over every department of nature, and all the great gods and goddesses. Gaia’s family will be built up in a different way from that of Chaos, for she will begin by generating two male partners from herself and then mate with them to found two separate lines of largely different character. As the ﬁrst and greatest of her self-generated children, she brings forth ‘starry OURANOS (Sky), equal to herself, to cover her over on every side’; and she then generates two prominent features of her own topography that could be regarded as being in some sense distinct from herself, the Mountains (Ourea) and the ‘barren sea with its seething billows’ as personiﬁed in PONTOS or Sea. Gaia will take Ouranos as her consort to found the main divine family from which the Olympian gods and goddesses will spring; and she will found a smaller and more specialized family through a liaison with Pontos, consisting mainly of sea-gods and nymphs and beings of a monstrous or grotesque nature who needed to be set apart from deities of the Olympian order.
Summarize of Greek Mythology
To summarize, there were four primal realities, Chaos, Gaia, Tartaros and Eros, which apparently entered existence independently of one another; and the two that were of genealogical signiﬁcance, Chaos and Gaia, prepared for the foundation of the three great families of Hesiod’s system by generating children from themselves, Chaos a daughter who would found a family through parthenogenesis, and Gaia two sons with whom she would mate to found two families by the normal processes of generation. Since the family of Chaos’ daughter Night occupies a place apart in Hesiod’s scheme, we will begin with that before passing on to survey the two fami- lies that were founded by Gaia, the greater through her union with Ouranos, and the lesser through her association with Pontos.
As was noted above, there were other mythical cosmogonies that followed a different pattern from that of Hesiod. Night (Nyx) was elevated to a higher position in some, ﬁguring as the ﬁrst being of all in one Orphic cosmogony, and as a member of the ﬁrst couple with Tartaros or Aer in schemes ascribed to Mousaios and Epimenides respectively. The Iliad refers, by contrast, to a tradition in which the ﬁrst couple were Okeanos and Tethys, two deities of the waters. Some of the most interesting and elaborate schemes are those preserved in the Orphic literature (i.e. in apocryphal writings ascribed to the legendary singer Orpheus from the late archaic period onwards). A characteristic feature of these was the world-egg from which a demiurge or creator-god – who was given various names such as Phanes, Protogonos or Eros – was supposed to have sprung. Aristophanes refers to the world-egg in a gentle parody of an Orphic cosmogony in one of his comedies, the Birds: Chaos, Night, Erebos and Tartaros existed ﬁrst of all when there was neither earth, nor air, nor sky; and in the bosom of Erebos, black-winged Night brought forth a wind- egg from which golden-winged Eros (the demiurge) emerged. According to one scheme from the Orphic literature, Chronos, unageing Time, existed ﬁrst of all and gave birth to Aither, Chaos and Erebos; and Chaos created an egg from Aither, from which Phanes or Protogonos emerged, a bisexual being who then mated with himself to set the course of creation in train. In the ensuing account of the successive generations of gods and their conﬂicts, traditional matter from Hesiod was drawn in where appropriate.
The rationalistic cosmogonies that were developed by the early philosophers from the sixth century BC onwards marked a new departure (though not an absolute break, since they would not have taken the form that they did if it had not been for the inﬂuence of early myth and of mythical patterns of thought). Starting from an undifferentiated arche¯ or ﬁrst principle, for instance water or air, such schemes set out to explain in purely rational terms how the various elements (aither, air, ﬁre, water, earth) separated out and then how the fully differentiated universe came to be formed from these elements. Features of the traditional Hesiodic cosmogony were sometimes reinterpreted in the light of such speculations in the later tradition. A good example of this can be found in the cosmogony at the beginning of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which Chaos becomes a formless mixture of the elements or prin- ciples of matter, hot and cold, soft and hard, heavy and light. After this initial disorder was resolved, by some god or some process of nature, the different elements separated out and came to predominate at different levels in the universe, ﬁery aither in the vault of heaven, and air below it, and earth at the lowest level of all, embraced by the waters of the sea. According to other reinterpretations, Chaos was identiﬁed with the primordial water or ﬁre (an idea supported by false etymologies that derived its name from cheisthai, to ﬂow, or kaio¯, to burn), or was said to signify the empty space that must ﬁrst exist if things are to have a place to exist in. Much later, we still ﬁnd traces of the classical cosmogony mingling with accounts derived from the Hebrew creation-myth; thus in a paraphrase of Genesis, falsely ascribed to St Cyprian and written in very indifferent Latin hexameters, the tradi- tional chaos replaces the ‘deep’ of the original.