Reading Hesiod's Theogony (with Notes and Questions)
(Frazer translation)

When you read Hesiod, try to concentrate on the stories without worrying too much about the long lists and genealogies of gods. You will find out who the important gods are by listening in class, and reading these notes and "Greek History and the Gods." (packet 23-29). Read the introduction to the book, pp. 3-8 to learn about Hesiod's life and times. Read also pages 12-16 and "Characteristics of Oral Composition" in this packet. You will find Frazer's comments most helpful. My notes below are keyed (mostly) to page number. The poem starts with a hymn to the Muses, the nine goddesses who inspire poets (23-29). They are the daughters of Mnemosyne (Memory) and Zeus. Why do you think memory would be important to these early poets? What do you think the Muses are saying in lines 26-28?

Hesiod's Point of View

If the Theogony is about anything, it is about birth, the "birth of the gods" which is what the title means. In this early creation-time, the gods are synonymous with the universe (cosmos) and the order of the universe (cosmos). Yet throughout the Theogony, the gods behave in a most disorderly fashion. Why is this? There are many interesting answers to this question, but here's a start. The poem presents the creation of the gods and the universe and the consolidation of the gods' power as a struggle between fathers and sons and between male force and female birth.

As you read the Theogony, you should be aware that its author, Hesiod, shows a clear bias for the eventual winner of the fathers-sons struggle, the male sky-god Zeus, and a bias for the male against the female. In other words, it is probable that Hesiod slants or distorts parts of some stories in order to make Zeus and the male powers of brute force look good and to make some of the female powers focused around the natural cycle of birth and death look bad.

The cosmic order comes from "Chaos," which is Greek for "abyss" or "gap." After (from?) this abyss, three more first powers "come into being": Gaia ("Earth"), Tartaros (the dark area under the earth, more fully described later in lines 720-750) and Eros ("desire"--source of our English word "erotic"). At first, Gaia the earth, does not need males to help her give birth to the rest of her domain, namely the mountains, the sea, and the sky ["without any joy of desirable love" line 131]. It is only after she mates the male Ouranos (sky) that strife (called "Eris"--line 225) and division enter the world. Division, of course, is what usually happens in creation stories--from a start with an undifferentiated lump (or gap or abyss like "Chaos"), the universe begins to divide into more and more beings of increasing variety, diversity, and complexity. Thus, as Karl Kerényi points out, the order of the universe "was established by the unions and separations, the divine marriages and births, constituting a mythical history of the primordial beginnings which, taken as a whole, we call a 'theogony'" (33). As you read, notice the various kinds of "unions," "separations," and births which take place. At the beginning, the important group of gods is the 12 Titans (32-33), plus the Kyklopes, and the Hundred-Handers, early powers born of Gaia and Ouranos:

Chart showing births of the earliest Greek Gods

1. Chaos (Void) 

Night + Erebos
2. Gaia ("Earth") 

Ouranos ("Sky"),  Mountains,  Pontos ("Sea") 

Aether   Day
3. Tartaros 4. Eros ("Desire")

Gaia + Ouranos ("Sky")
12 Titans [including Ocean, Rhea, Cronus], Cyclopes, Hundred-handers

Something about his offspring bothers Ouranos, for he stuffs them back into the earth as soon as they are born. Perhaps it is the power of birth itself that threatens him, for (according to many commentators) he seems to be stuffing his kids back into the earth's womb itself, the source of birth-power. As you read, notice how often last-born sons are trouble for their fathers. This pattern is consistent until Zeus takes over, when a potential first-born son becomes the problem. Notice also how often the female, earth powers give birth to monsters who the male sky gods (or heroes) must defeat or kill. For example, the last-born son of Gaia is the monster Typhoeus, who is Zeus' final challenger for supremacy of the universe (78-83).

Notes and questions for the Creation and the earliest gods and powers (30-34)
Read also introduction (3-8). [Optional: Hymn to the Muses (23-29).]

(32) Ouranos = "sky"; Nymphs = minor deities of mountains, woods, and streams.
The barren, raging Sea = Pontos or "wave."
(30) Erebos is the darkness below the earth while Night is the darkness above it.
Tartaros is the huge cave-like space and territory under the earth.
Aither = the bright air in the upper atmosphere.
(32) Okeanos is the river of Ocean that circles the flat world.
(33) Kronos --meaning unknown (it does not mean "time"). The father of Zeus.

1. Why do you suppose the Greeks thought that each these four powers or beings (Chaos, Gaia, Tartaros, Eros) were necessary at the beginning of creation?

2. How do these first beings come to be? Does this seem to you to be good way to start the world? Why or why not?

3. Why do you suppose the Greeks thought that most of their world was created by birth? (Note different kinds of births.)

4. How do you suppose Gaia could give birth to Ouranos, the Mountains, and the Sea "without any joy of desirable love" (line 131)?

5. Have you ever seen the sky mating with the earth? What events in nature could account for this image of mating?

Generic Creation Questions

1. Why do you think the author(s) (Hesiod) is telling this creation story?
2. What do you think are the main messages of each creation story?
3. Show how the order, characters, and manner of creation are like or unlike. How do these comparisons show different attitudes towards nature, psychology and the relations between gods and men in each culture?

Theogony, Notes and Questions on Kronos, Ouranos, and the Birth of Aphrodite

(33) Kyklopes = literally, "circle eyed ones." Kottos, Briaros, and Gyges --for obvious reasons, these monsters are called the Hundred-Handers.
(35, line 161) grey adamant --in Greek, adamantos, the source-word for the English "diamond." An unknown but clearly special metal (or stone?).
(36, line 185) Furies, goddesses who avenge wrongs done against parents. See line 473.) Meliai or ash-tree nymphs Because of its strength, the ash was used to make spears.
(36, lines 192-3) Kythera = island off southern Greek coast; Kypros = Cyprus.

1. Why do you suppose Ouranos was afraid of his children and thus kept "let them not rise to the light" (35)?

2. Can you visualize where the children are hidden?

3. Give some reasons why Gaia sides with her children.

4. What was a sickle normally used for? Can you connect its normal use to its use here?

5. Comment on the symbolism of Kronos' deed. Why does this act end Heaven's power? Do you think Ouranos deserves his punishment?

6. Can you see any similarities between this story and the Adam and Eve story?

7. Why do you suppose Kronos is so eager to get back at his father Heaven (Ouranos)?

8. Why is it appropriate that the Furies, the warlike giants, and the Melian nymphs are born from drops of blood? (p. 36-- see comment on p. 37.)

9. Why might Aphrodite's strange birth be an appropriate one for her? (See comment on pp. 37-8.) Compare to Pandora's peculiar birth.

Notes and Questions for Children of Night and Monsters (38-40; 43-47)
[Just hit the high points outlined in these notes.]

R. M. Frazer notes that 'the children of Night are powers connected with darkness, whether physical or spiritual." Even the Hesperides, whose name means "daughters of the evening star," dwell near "the darkness on the other side of Okeanos, near the house of Night" (39). The Hesperides (line 215) are three goddesses who, along with a serpent (see p. 46, lines 333-5) guard the tree at the end of the earth that bears golden apples. Later, Herakles will steal some of these golden apples. The dark powers born here determine men's fates, punish them for hubris or other transgressions (the Destinies or keres and Nemesis), or bring them misery of some sort (Old Age and Eris, or "Strife").
The Gorgons born at page 43, line 274 are female monsters with serpents growing from their scalps instead of hair. One look from the mortal Gorgon, named Medusa, could turn a man to stone. Early Greek shields and buildings often had Gorgons painted or sculpted on them to frighten away enemies and demons. Jane Ellen Harrison theorizes that the Gorgon represented the death-aspect of the mother goddess cycle. She quotes the Roman author Cicero: "all things go back to earth and rise out of the earth" (52). She speculates that the Gorgon head probably originated as a ritual mask, "an ugly face made as hideous as possible so as to scare both men and daemons. Ordinarily the the Gorgoneion [mask] had pendant tongues, glaring eyes, protruding tusks. It was an image of fear incarnate" (52). Perhaps it is this death aspect of the goddess that the male forces in the Theogony find horrible and monstrous. 

Further notes:
(44, line 278) He of the Black Mane is Poseidon. The Typhaon on p. 45, line 306 is the same as Typhoeus, defeated by Zeus on pp. 78-82.
(45; line 327) Phix = the Sphinx, a monster later destroyed when the hero Oedipus answered her riddle.
(48, line 361 and p. 51 lines 389-401) Styx--In this context, a river in the underworld, not a rock group. Styx and her children are the first to side with Zeus on his war against the Titans. Later (lines 775-806), Hesiod describes how the gods swear their most sacred oaths by pouring out waters of the river Styx.
(51, line 384) Victory --in Greek, "victory" is nike, but she's a goddess, not a shoe.
(53-56) Hekate = Local earth-goddess who was important to Hesiod. She re-appears as Demeter's helper in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.

Questions for Children of Night and Monsters (38-40; 43-47)

1. Night bears some avengers of evil (Fates, Destinies, Nemesis), but also bears some evils themselves: Deceit, Old Age, Eris. Why?

2. How is the local mother goddess Hekate (54-5) in some ways like the "master of animals" in hunting mythologies?

Theogony,The Birth of the Olympians and Zeus' Rise to Power (56-61)

(56) Hestia goddess of the hearth, source of heat, cooked food, and center of family life. Important in daily life, but not in stories. Demeter goddess of grain (wheat).
Hera goddess of marriage, later marries Zeus.
powerful Hades god of the underworld, brother of Zeus. A god, not a devil.
(57) the roaring Shaker of Earth = Poseidon, god of the sea and earthquakes.
Zeus = chief Greek god, most powerful and wise, a sky god associated with thunder, known for his numerous affairs with both goddesses and mortal women.
(57, line 472) her father's Erinys = the Furies. See lines 183-87 and comment on p. 37.
(59, line 499) holy Pytho = Delphi, Greece's most sacred shrine.

Questions (56-61)

1. Why do you suppose the gods are allowed to commit incest (Rhea and Kronos, Zeus and Hera) but men cannot?

2. Name some reasons why Kronos might want to swallow his children as they are born.

3. What do you think is the meaning of lines 472-6, "how her father's Erinyes might be an avenger / great Kronos"? ["Erinyes" = Furies] (Who is Rhea's father?) See lines 183-87 and the comment on p. 37.

4. Do you see any significance in Zeus' being hidden in a cave?

5. What could the cave and the stone that Kronos swallows symbolize? Do you think Kronos gives birth?

Theogony, Zeus defeats his enemies ("Titanomachy") and ends succession (68-86) [Skip the Prometheus and Pandora story (61-68) for now.]

(68) Briareos, Kottos, and Gyges --the Hundred-Handers, born on p. 66, are now freed so they can help Zeus defeat the Titans.
(69) lofty Mount Othrys . . . Olympos are two mountains, about 70 miles apart, each visible from the other on a clear day. Zeus' group of gods live atop Mount Olympos; hence they are called Olympians.
(72, lines 696-7) chthonian / Titans = "Titans born of the earth." The Titans are associated with the earth here, while the Olympian gods are associated with the sky. Notice that the defeated Titans are confined in the deepest part of the earth, Tartaros (lines 720-750).
(75, line 746) son of Iapetos = Atlas.
(76, lines 769-70) a frightening dog = Kerberos, three-headed (or fifty-headed) dog who guards the entrance to the Underworld. Son of Typhoeus (lines 306-312).
(83) Metis --her name means "cunning intelligence."
(84, line 895) Tritogeneia = Athena. Her unusual birth is described at lines 924-926.
(84, line 903) the Moirai = the Fates, born on p. 38, lines 219-20. Note how often the sequence birth / marriage is repeated in the Theogony.

Questions (68-86)

1. Hesiod didn't really tell us how Zeus forced Kronos to throw up that stone (58-59), nor did he depict Zeus fighting his father. Why do you think Hesiod skims over these details? What do you think all this stuffing / castrating / swallowing / vomiting might symbolize?

2. Why do you suppose Hesiod is not more specific about which Titans Zeus is fighting?

3. What do you think this battle between the Olympian gods and Titans means? Is it a continuation of the father-son battles we saw earlier? Note that the Titans are called "chthonian" ("earthborn") and that Zeus is a sky god.

4. Why do you suppose Hesiod describes the underworld and the oaths of the gods at such length (74-78)? What is he trying to impress upon the reader / listener of the poem?

5. What do you think Typhoeus could symbolize? (Notice that he is Gaia's last-born son, sired by Tartaros.) Why must Zeus defeat him? Why do you think Frazer says that monsters like Typhoeus are "naturally thought of as arising out of the earth" (82)? Why do you think Zeus is depicted as fighting the earth? Vase painting: Zeus fighting Typhoios (Perseus Project).

6. Give some reasons why it is appropriate that both the defeated Titans and Typhoeus are imprisoned in Tartaros.

7. Name some reasons why Zeus would want to swallow his first wife Metis (83-85). What similarities and differences do you see between this swallowing and Kronos' earlier gobbling of his children?

8. Why do you think Athena is born from Zeus' head (line 924) and not from a woman's womb? Here are three views of the Birth of Athena (Berlin vase); Birth of Athena (Boston vase); Birth of Athena (detail of Boston vase).

9. Why do you think Zeus has so many affairs? What do they show about him, or what religious purpose could they serve? Note that Zeus' mating and engendering is extended to the other gods and goddesses in the final section (86-90) of the poem.

10. In what ways could the Theogony be seen as a poem about mating and birthing? female vs. male power? sons vs. fathers?

11. Why should Zeus be the god most worthy of respect and worship? What do you think of him? Why do you suppose Hesiod likes him so much? What powers do you think Zeus represents?

Back to ENG 204 World Mythology Course Index

The Theogony viewed on a male/ female axis

Female (earth; food, birth)
Male (sky; eat, birth?)
Gaia (Earth) gives birth, without help, to Ouranos (Sky).
Ouranos tries to prevent female birth, but loses his own reproductive power instead. 
But Aphrodite, goddess of love, is born from the ruins of his power.  Kronos plays male hero-bad-boy. Later, he swallows his own kids, except for 
Zeus, hidden in a cave by mom and Gaia.  Kronos forced to "give birth" by vomiting.
Kronos and other Titans and Typhoios, all "earth-born,"  are defeated by Zeus, a sky god. Titans are imprisoned deep in underworld (earth). 
First wife Metis ("cunning intelligence")  is swallowed by Zeus (86), who then gives birth to Athena (female virgin who will not give birth) through his head. 
Zeus hides bios (livelihood, food, fruits of earth) from earth and men.  Prometheus helps men get best portions of meat--and later, he helps get fire back (cooking; sacrifice). 
Zeus hides fire; later, he decides to balance fire with an "evil," Pandora--"all gifts" [of the earth?].  Gods get fat and smoke [sky motif]. (But Zeus eats at least one female, Metis--to gain wisdom and avoid overthrow by first son.) 
Pandora ("all gifts") is fashioned from clay (earth motif),  but by order of Zeus. She is not born, but made by other gods. 
Or was Pandora originally an earth goddess, bestowing gifts, food (bios)?  Hesiod says women are parasites, good only for bearing sons (78). 
Men get women, but  women sit around and eat all day (bios). 
Pandora opens jar in which bios (food) is usually stored,  but evils (disease, old age, death) are let out instead of food. Hope (of some food after hard work?) is left in the jar. 

Women (Pandora) tend fire and give birth, which leads to disease, old age, and death. (But the mother-goddess stresses the cycle of death and re-birth.) Birth ends in death for men and sometimes means a power-struggle for male gods. (So male gods want to take over birth-power? The birth of Athena shows what male births are like?) Pandora is the result of a power (food?) struggle between men and gods or between Prometheus and Zeus, just as Aphrodite and the female spirits of vengeance, the Furies, are the result of a generational (father vs. son--birth?) struggle between Kronos and Ouranos, or between Gaia and Ouranos. But humans need first sons to inherit and "support" (78) them in old age. Who do you think wins in the end, earth or sky, female or male?

Lycaon, Deucalion, and the Flood

(b) umble soup made of tripe or intestines. Some versions of the story say that it takes place in the age of iron.

(h) littered a stick = a white dog gave birth to a stick.

Hellen = eponymous ancestor of all Greeks; his name is identical to the Greeks’ name for themselves: Hellenes. (The Greeks, both ancient and modern, call their country Hellas.) Hellen's sons were Dorus (Dorians), Aeolus (Aeolians), and Xuthus. Xuthus' sons were Ion (Ionians) and Achaeus (Achaeans), thus accounting for the four major divisions of Greek peoples.

1. Name some similarities and differences among the Flood story, the Prometheus and Pandora story, and the story of the five ages. Notice what each story says about cooking, hospitality, and eating. What happens when humans act like beasts?

2. Why do you suppose Zeus decided to wipe out all men for the crime of one man, Lycaon?

3. Why do you think the storytellers had the earth repopulated in the way they did? What do you think of the story’s explanation?

4. Is mankind better or worse off after the flood? What do you think the lesson of the flood is for Deucalion and Pyrrha?

Generic Flood Questions

1. Why do you suppose flood stories are so popular? What events or religious tenets might flood stories explain?

2. Floods may cleanse but they also destroy. Why do you think flood stories often occur shortly after the creation?

3. Why are humans destroyed in each story? Why are the flood heroes picked to survive? What do your answers reveal about each culture's concerns, and its view of the relations between men and gods?

4. How does the flood affect the gods? (Note their reactions to sacrifices.) How does various gods' behavior before, during, and after the flood affect each culture's and/ or your view(s) of these gods?

5. Compare and contrast the rewards that each flood hero gets after his journey. (Ziusudra gets eternal life--packet 101.) Why do you think these particular rewards are given in each case?

6. Compare and contrast the covenant and / or promise given at the end not send another flood. No covenant or promise?--why?

7. In what ways is the world different after the flood? What does each story tell us about the relations between gods and men in each culture?

8. Some flood stories end with an emphasis on the descendants of the flood hero (packet 88). Do you see any significance in the ways mankind reproduces (or in the ways the gods limit life-spans or reproduction) at the beginning or end of each story?

9. Do you think the lessons that each story teaches are similar or slightly different? Do the gods learn any lessons after the flood?

10. Study flood questions in the packet.