In around 700BC, a shepherd left his flocks on the slopes of Mount Helicon in central Greece and travelled east. When he reached the coast, he took passage to Chalcis on the island of Euboea, just off the mainland. It was the first time the shepherd had been at sea. At Chalcis, the funeral of a local king was taking place and, as part of the mourning rituals, athletes were competing in honour of the dead. As usual, alongside the sporting events, there was a poetry competition. A later legend even pretended that Homer himself had entered the lists. The shepherd from Helicon did take part in the contest and performed his poem about the origins of the gods. His name was Hesiod and he won a bronze tripod.
The poem that Hesiod sang at the competition is today called Theogony. Together with Homer’s epics, The Odyssey and The Iliad, it is among the earliest surviving Greek verse. Theogony recounts how the gods were born, how they fought each other and how Zeus ended up as the leading deity. The story is a Freudian nightmare of fathers eating their sons and sons mutilating their fathers.
After a hymn of praise to the Muses, Hesiod began,
First came the Chasm, and then broad breasted Earth... Earth bore first of all one equal to herself, starry Heaven, so that he should cover her all about, to be a secure seat forever for the blessed gods.
Thus, for Hesiod the world just existed. It was not created and had no creator. The Earth simply sprang spontaneously into being from the emptiness of the Chasm (the Greek word is more usually translated 'chaos'). Here the gods, even the oldest, are of the world and exist only within it. Zeus himself is among the third generation of the gods. Despite being immortal and enjoying marvelous powers, he cannot claim any credit for making the world. He is as much part of it as the humblest insect. This must mean that the gods are comprised of the same stuff that the universe is ultimately made of. As to what stuff that is, or where it came from, Hesiod provides no answer. It is doubtful he ever thought to ask the question.
In the first episode of Theogony, the god Kronos castrated his father, Heaven, with a sharp-toothed sickle on the advice his mother, the Earth. Admittedly, Heaven deserved it. He had imprisoned all his previous children in a cavern deep within the Earth, which she found mightily uncomfortable.
Kronos himself, now ruler of the gods, knew he was destined to be overthrown by one of his children. He attempted to curtail this fate by swallowing them all at birth. His wife, the goddess Rhea, grew angry with this behaviour, and substituted a large rock for her youngest son Zeus. Kronos gulped down the boulder without even noticing the subterfuge. Zeus was brought up in secret on the island of Crete. On reaching maturity, he castrated Kronos and became king of the gods himself. Zeus learnt that a son of his first wife, Metis, would replace him. To avoid the fate of his father he swallowed his wife before she could give birth. So far, this desperate measure seems to have worked. Or at least, when Zeus was finally deposed, it was by the God of the Hebrews and not by the son of Metis.
All this raises very difficult questions about Greek religion. If Hesiod and his fellow countrymen really did believe that the gods, and Zeus in particular, were fornicating patricides with a sideline in cannibalism, why did they worship them? And if they didn’t believe this, how dare they say such things about the gods? Because, with the exception of a few intellectuals, almost all Greeks did believe in the gods and worshipped them sincerely. The amount of wealth that went into building temples and idols tells us that this was a genuinely religious society. Hesiod was fully aware that Zeus had deposed his father and eaten his wife. But he still expected that the king of the gods should be the guarantor of justice.
Classicists continue to argue over these issues. Perhaps the answer can be found in the way that a monarch is regarded by his subjects. They can distinguish between the sacred office of the king and the pathetic individual who might occupy the throne at a given time. Kings demanded loyalty not because they were good, but because they were royal. Maybe Hesiod worshipped Zeus because he was divine, not because he was Zeus. And if he had been deposed by his son, as was foretold, Hesiod would have had no qualms in transferring his reverence.
Much of Hesiod's material for Theogony came from the mythology of other Middle Eastern civilisations such as the Babylonians. But it is only since the original texts have been found in archaeological digs that scholars have realised the extent to which Greek myths have their roots in the East.
The Babylonian creation myth preserved in these tablets is usually known as the Enuma Elish after its first two words. For a long time, scholars assumed it must date from the early second millennium BC, making it far older than the Greek equivalent. However, nowadays many prefer a date of about 1100BC.
The Enuma Elish was primarily intended to celebrate Marduk, the chief deity of the Babylonians. Nonetheless, it has some key similarities to the Greek story told by Hesiod. Both the Babylonians and the Greeks imagined that creation sprang from pre-existing chaos or emptiness. In the Babylonian cycle, the chaos was called Apsu and had some sort of evil personality. His wife was a great monster called Tiamat.
The initial creation is described as follows:
When the skies above were not yet named
Nor earth below pronounced by name,
Apsu, the first one, their begetter
And maker Tiamat, who bore them all,
Had mixed their waters together…
Then gods were born within them.
The reference to a mingling of waters sounds like some sort of sexual reproduction. In any case, as a result, Tiamat had several children who resided inside her. They started to make a racket and this led Apsu into a plot to murder the child-gods. Tiamat helped their leader Ea to kill him. The resemblance to the story of Kronos as told by Hesiod is obvious. However, the motif of god slicing off his father’s genitals is found in a Hittite rather than Babylonian source. These tales must have been carried westward by traders or settlers, perhaps, as Robin Lane Fox suggests, the Euboeans who hosted the poetry competition where Hesiod had triumphed. As texts produced by the Hittites and other near eastern civilisations are translated and published, it has become clear that Hesiod, Homer and their fellow poets had a rich stock of traditions to draw upon.
Ea himself had a son called Marduk, like Zeus a third-generation god. And like Zeus, Marduk did battle with the old gods, led by Tiamat. After the battle, Marduk celebrated his victory by creating the earth and heavens from her carcass. He then created plants, animals and mankind. The Greeks would have instantly recognised the Babylonian legends as resembling theirs. Both feature a plethora of gods engaged in an orgy of sex and violence. But neither the Greeks nor the Babylonians claimed their gods created the universe. Creation just doesn't seem to be a religious question. No wonder the philosophers of Melitus stepped in.
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