As a contemporary of Homer, Hesiod composed smaller-scale epic poems which touched on the myths of creation, the Gods, Ancient Greek agriculture, and other cultural touchpoints at the time. In his most well-known work, Theogony, Hesiod retells the Greek God creation myth beginning with the formation of Chaos and Gaea, leading to Zeus’ overthrow of Kronos, and down to the birth of Medea and the sons of Odysseus. In all, it is a brief 1,000 lines (30 or so pages), but it forms the basis for so much of what we now know about Greek mythology.
Being contemporaries, Homer and Hesiod are often thought of together, but their differences are vast. Hesiod would be more akin to the Bible whereas Homer may be akin to Paradise Lost. One is the base creation myth and the morals and culture of the time, where the other takes these myths and melds them to form an epic poem to expound on these themes. (Of course, this comparison is in no way perfect and I’m sure someone would complain about it, but it gets my point across best). So what we have in Hesiod is a poetic story of what the Ancient Greek’s may have looked at as their “Bible” (not Hesiod’s version, but the actual mythic events themselves) or their religious origin story.
Theogony is filled with many familiar stories that are compacted into brief lines. For instance, the story of Rhea wrapping up a stone in a cloth and giving it to Kronos pretending it was his son. Kronos, as he did for the many sons previous, swallowed the stone whole in order to prevent his son’s foretold usurpation of him. This son, of course, is Zeus, who was left in a cave to grow unbeknownst to Kronos, and one day does in fact usurp his father and the rest of the Titans. But there is also another lesser-known story that happens before this concerning Kronos and his father, Uranus. Uranus, both Gaea’s son and lover, pained her by hiding their children away on Earth. After suffering for so much time, Gaea gives her children a sickle, and Uranus takes it to cut off the genitals of his father when he next tries to lie with her. Kronos throws the genitals into the ocean where they dissolve and turn to foam and from the foam, Aphrodite is born. From there until his eventual usurpation, Kronos becomes the ruler of the Gods.
The poem touches on many other important and well-known stories, namely: Prometheus bringing fire to the humans and Zeus chaining him up to be feasted on by an eagle day after day, or even the Gods war against the Titans. There are some lesser-known ones such as Zeus’ battle with Typhon and the Cyclopes’ creation of his thunder and lightning as a weapon. And then there are more obscure ones such as the birth of the Eumenides (the Furies) and that of Pegasus. But other than this cataloging of births and battles and wars, what else is there in Theogony that one may not expect?
Well, there are some incredibly interesting cultural touchpoints as well. For example, Hecate was not an often mentioned God in Greek myth at that time. Homer never once mentioned her name and in future texts, she became known more for darker themes – as the goddess of witchcraft, magic, and necromancy, for a few. But with Hesiod, she is written about in a far purer way, almost as if he himself (or even his family) worshipped her: “Hecate, whom Zeus son of Kronos honoured above all others” or “she is the most honoured by the immortal gods” (these quotes are around line 411). This worship suggests a few facts. First, different households may have worshipped all the Gods as a whole, but they also favored certain ones to elevate above the rest. The second is the transformation the Gods can have over time. If we are to believe Hesiod about her greatness and light when he was writing (as we probably should) it appears that a Gods place, purpose, and domain could still vastly change over time. Going from that beautiful image that he conjured to a darker more fear-inducing Goddess is quite the transformation.
So whether you are considering reading it for our earliest written version of Greek creation myths, or to learn more about how the Greek’s culture and how they worshipped, Theogony is a highly worthwhile read that can be finished in a little over an hour (or, spend a few days with it to better soak up its passages). It is an easy read too, and there are many companions and guides online that can help show the family lineage of the Gods in a more visual style, or, there are many notes which expound on some of the lesser discussed Gods in the poem. Works and Days is Hesiod’s other poem which we still have, and I’ll get around to writing about that one soon as well.
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