The Rise of Zeus Order and Dominance of the Cosmos
Zeus Zeus, greatest and best of the gods, I will sing, Far-seeing ruler who brings all things to fulfillment And holds wise discourse with Themis, who sits nearby leaning toward him. Be gracious, Far-seeing one, son of Cronus, noblest and greatest! Homeric Hymn to Zeus Zeus is masculine, paternal authority, overwhelming power, and the morally- centered ruling voice of the universe.
The central story of Hesiod’s Theogony is how Zeus came to be the master of the Universe. • The Cosmos arose through the intermingling of three powerful generative principles: • Chaos • Earth (Gaia) • Eros (Attraction, Sex, Desire, Love) • Gaia gave birth to the Titans, may of whom are cosmic principles: • Helius (sun) • Selene (moon) • Eos (dawn) • Oceanus (Ocean)
The sacred Marriage of Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (Sky) is the primary generative element of the cosmos. Earth gives birth to all things; Uranus is the father of most of them. As each of his children was born, Uranus hid them all in the depths of Gaia and did not allow them to emerge into the light. And he delighted in his wickedness. But huge Earth in her distress groaned within and devised a crafty and evil scheme . . . Hesiod, Theogony
Cronus (Latin name: Saturn) takes the sickle his mother gives him and castrates his father Uranus. From the blood that falls from the severed genitals into the ocean, Aphrodite is born. So are the Furies. Cronus: Forum Romanum Aphrodite: VRoma Cronus and his sister/wife, Rhea, become king and queen of the Universe. Some notes: Chronus means time in Greek (similar but not the same word). For the Romans, Saturn was the king of an earlier blessed golden age.
“The Greeks did not suppress the horrible and horrifying; they selected from it and used it boldly with profound insight and sensitivity.” (M&L 46). Cronus made the same mistake his father did. He refused to let the world go forward. As each of his children was born, he swallowed it, until finally Rhea hid the youngest one, Zeus, and gave him a rock instead. What are the parallels between the first and second generations?
Clear-voiced muse, sing a hymn to the mother of all gods and all mortals too. The din of castanets and drums, along with the shrillness of flutes, are your delight, and also the cry of wolves, the roar of glaring lions, and the resounding forests. Homeric Hymn to the Mother of Gods Zeus was hidden away on Crete, raised by nymphs, fed with honey from bees and the milk of the goat Amalthea. Curetes (kouroi, young men) clashed their shields to keep his cries from being heard by Cronus. This dancing and clashing may be related to the worship of Cybele, an eastern mother-goddess similar to Rhea.
Interesting that the patriarchal father and king of the gods should be allied with and helped by these feminine, natural powers early on in his life . . . • Zeus returned and forced his father to cough up his siblings: • Sisters Hestia, Demeter, and Hera • Brothers Hades and Poseidon • There followed a huge battle for dominance between the gods and Titans . . . the Titanomachy.
Titanomachy The battle raged for 10 years, Titans vs. Zeus. With Zeus were the gods, the Cyclopes and Hecatoncheires, and a few Titans: among them Themis and Prometheus.
After the battle, Zeus cast lots with his brothers to divide up the known universe. Zeus won kingship of land and sky. Hades won the realm of death. Poseidon won the oceans.
The Titans were bound and imprisoned in Tartarus. The idea of binding is important for Zeus – the powers are still there, but they are controlled and subordinated. The natural powers cannot and should not be destroyed, but Zeus can control or at least manage them, in his ordered universe. The Titanic powers of Helius, Selene, Eos, and Oceanus are obviously still working today . . . in service of order. Zeus and his brothers cast lots to determine who would rule what – but fate clearly makes sense, when Zeus, who freed his brothers, wins kingship over the world.
Zeus defeated (then apparently reintegrated) the Titans, establishing order. But he then had to defeat the giants. Gigantomachy
Gaia, for reasons unknown, gave birth to a race of giants who attacked the gods. Why did the helpful, supportive mother of all suddenly produce a race of giants to attack Zeus? Gaia emerges from the earth as her sons, the giants, are defeated by the gods.
Even the Titans and other primal concepts (like Night, shown here) fight on the side of order against the giants. She is slinging a serpent-wound jar at a Giant who is part-serpent himself. Giants represent ancient, primal chaos – the old times, before order and law. Boo, Giants! Night vs. a giant
Gigantomachy is an important theme in Greek sacred art, often appearing on temple sculptures. Here is a version c. 525 BCE from a small building in Apollo’s sanctuary of Delphi. The figure in the chariot is probably Cybele (parallel to Rhea), and Herakles is with her.
In this later version, from an altar in Asia Minor c. 180 BCE, Zeus is defeating three giants single-handed. Why do the giants have serpent legs? Why do they sometimes not?
From the shoulders of this frightening dragon a hundred snake-heads grew; fire blazed from all their eyes. In all the terrible heads voices emitted all kinds of amazing sounds; for at one time he spoke so that the gods understood, at another his cries were those of a proud bull bellowing in his invincible might. But are Zeus’s struggles over? Noooooo . . . Typhoeus (a.k.a. Typhon), another chaos monster, rises to attack him.
Zeus defeated Typhoeus with his thunderbolt. The thunderbolt, made by the Cyclopes, was also the decisive weapon in the battle with the Titans. It shows Zeus as a sky god, and emphasizes his uncontestable power. The natural world is firmly integrated into these spiritually meaningful stories about the establishment of cosmic order.
Another multi-level story: Level one: Zeus and the gods kick butt! Level two: we know the material history of the world – where we came from, what the elemental powers are like in the historical sense we can understand. Level three: we have a social model for how we are supposed to work: a family and our allies, led by a strong paternal authority whose power and decisions cannot be contested. Level four: perhaps this reflects a de-ized view of real historical events, explaining the influx of Indo-European peoples c. 2000 BCE Level five: aren’t we anxious about chaos? Isn’t it nice to know that those chaotic monsters were defeated? What other levels might there be in this story?
Mesopotamian Influences? Mesopotamia was the first area in the world to develop agriculture, metalworking, and “complex culture” (i.e. urban and hierarchical). The Greeks clearly learned from their technology; did they adapt their myths and other beliefs as well?
The Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish, features a battle between the new generation of gods, led by the warrior god Marduk, against the old generation, led by the earth-dragon mother of gods, Tiamat. There are elements in common with the Titanomachy and with the battles against the giants and Typhoeus. “Dragon of Marduk”, Detroit
The Hittite poem “Kingship in Heaven” describes a multi-generational battle for command much like the Uranus/ Cronus/ Zeus battle, but even (to us) stranger . . . Anush the eagle [the old god] flew into the sky, but Kumarbi [the young one] grabbed his feet and pulled him down from the sky. Kumarbi bit off his genitals. His sperm went into Kumarbi’s stomach. He swallowed Anush’s sperm and he was happy and he laughted. [But] Anush said: You should not rejoice! I have placed a burden in your middle. First, I have made you pregnant with the storm god . . . You will perish, hitting your head on the mountain Tashshu! Hittite “Kingship in Heaven” The storm god, eventually the ruler in heaven, finally emerged through Kumarbi’s penis to rule the universe.
The Rise(?) of Humans The Place of Mortals in the New Cosmos
Prometheus In the Biblical Creation story, God created humans as his crowning achievement. In Greek myth, Zeus may not have created humans at all. In many versions, that task was left to Prometheus, a figure who was often in conflict with Zeus, but favored humans for reasons unknown. Ovid gives two possibilities Then man was born; either the creator of the universe, originator of a better world, fashioned him from divine seed, or earth retained seeds from its kindred sky and was mixed with rain water by Prometheus and fashioned by him into the likeness of the gods who control all. Thus earth that was crude and without shape was transformed . . .
How important are humans in the grand scheme of things? How much do the gods care about humans? • Hesiod describes human life as sordid and depressing, getting worse and worse through five ages: • Gold: everything was carefree and easy . . . • Silver: childish, without mature happiness, slighting the gods. • Bronze: warlike, cruel, self-destructive. • Heroic age: Like our world, but superior, filled with courageous heroes descended from the gods. • Iron: the grim, wearying age we live in now.
Sacrifice at Mekone Hesiod tells this story, set in times when gods and humans still met face to face. He opens it with a scene of torture: The Titan Iapetus had four sons. Zeus flung one into Tartarus. Another, Atlas, has to hold up the world. A third, Prometheus, lies chained to a rock, with an eagle eating his liver out. What did he do to deserve this terrible punishment? He defied the gods to help humans, tricking Zeus to establish a sacred ritual of sacrifice which favored humans and made them forever separate from gods. Atlas and Prometheus, c. 550 BCE
Blood sacrifice was one of the most powerful rituals of the ancient Greeks. Meat was a luxury, so large animals, like sheep, cows, pigs and goats, were usually slaughtered in honor of the gods. In family or state festivals, chosen animals would be prepared, led to an altar in procession, then ceremonially killed in front of festival participants. A small portion of meat was burned on the altar, for the gods. Humans shared the rest.
If the animals were slaughtered in honor of the gods, why did humans get the bulk of the meat? The Mekone story explains this practice. Prometheus deceived Zeus . . . Or was he deceived? Either way, conflicts escalated. Zeus hid fire. Prometheus stole it back. So Zeus planned the ultimate revenge . . . Pandora
Hesiod, a real misogynist, points to this as the beginning of human troubles. Previously the human race used to live completely free from evils and hard work and painful diseases. But the woman removed the great cover of the jar with her hands and scattered the evils within and for mortals devised sorrowful troubles. Hope alone remained within there under the edge of the jar . . . Hesiod, Works and Days What is the “moral” of the Pandora story? What is its etiological function?
Pandora may be a more profound figure though. Her name means “All gifts” – because all the gods gave her gifts? or because she brings all things, good and evil, to humans? As in the Adam and Eve story, a woman brings evil to humans. But perhaps, as Joseph Campbell suggests, women, representing life processes, real birth, & real death, represent the real world, not “paradise.”
Sources: Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound Aeschylus was the first great Athenian playwright, writing about 450 BCE. Prometheus Bound was part of a trilogy of plays, produced for the festival of Dionysus in Athens. Athenian drama explored issues significant to the polis – it made you feel “pity and terror,” but it also made you think. Theater at Delphi, ANU
Prometheus Bound emphasizes Zeus’s arbitrary, dictatorial cruelty. But only this one play of the trilogy survives. Would the rest have changed the picture? While Prometheus lies bound to the rock, surrounded by his nieces the Oceanids, he encounters various characters and converses with them. Among them is Io, a young girl turned into a cow because of Zeus, whose descendant Herakles will free Prometheus. Prometheus reveals how much he gave to humans: fire, yes, but many other technologies – carpentry, farming, metal working, ship building – he is a culture hero. Prometheus is a culture hero, and a trickster – a figure known for his helpful but disruptive and deceitful actions. These two roles are often combined in world mythologies.
Mesopotamian Influences? The Flood: In many mythologies of the Mediterranean, a huge flood destroys most of humankind. In the Near East, this is a major theme: Noah in the Bible, Utnapishtim in the Gilgamesh epic, and Athrahasis in other Mesopotamian myth, are all survivors of floods the gods sent to punish human beings. There is also an Egyptian flood story. In the Bible, God punished humans for impiety. In other Mesopotamian stories, the gods punish humans for either impiety, or making too much noise! Scholars argue over whether the flood was a real event, or a mythologization of the smaller but still devastating floods that affected the area.
Local legends: In Arcadia, there was a ritual held to Lycaon every nine years, in which the young man chosen to play the leading role was transformed into a wolf. If he went for nine years without killing a human, he would regain his human form. If not, he was a wolf forever. • The flood was not a major myth for the Greeks. Ovid (later, influenced by many sources) tells it at most length. • Impiety is an issue, as seen in the story of Zeus and Lycaon. This is a very old motif: the seemingly powerless stranger who turns out to be a god (or witch or fairy or king) • Deucalion (son of Prometheus) and Pyrrha (daughter of Epimetheus) repopulate the world.
Group discussion There are a lot of hostile encounters between Zeus and human beings – go over the main ones discussed in chapter 4, and if you know of others, bring them in. What does it mean that there are so many points of conflict? What are relationships like in general between humans and gods in Greek culture, from what you have seen? If you are aware of other traditions, compare human/divine relationships there as well.