Hesiod: Theogony

Delahoyde & Hughes


“Theogony” means “birth of the gods.” This thousand-line poem comes from the end of the 8th century bce. Most generally it is a hymn to Zeus, king of gods and men, but it encompasses the origin of the world (cosmogony) and of the other gods.


As will be conventional in epic poetry hereafter, the work begins with honor to the Muses — the sources of inspiration for the arts and branches of learning, and “daughters of Zeus” (56). Because Hesiod is introduced as having been visited by the Muses at the foot of Mount Helicon, Helicon becomes synonymous with poetic inspiration in the Western literary tradition forever after. Hesiod presents himself as a shepherd, always a pleasant symbol of benevolent and unpretentious leadership. The Muses make Hesiod aware that “we know how to tell many falsehoods that seem real: but we also know how to speak truth when we wish to” (53). So how much truth do myths contain? (That’s the first question, embedded here, in the history of literary criticism.) Because the Greeks had no authorized “sacred” text, there was no fixed myth but rather a host of variations.


“Chaos” or a “yawning void” comes into being and then female and male principles and aspects of nature. At first things generate spontaneously but soon a more abstract sexuality takes over. Gaea and Uranus produce twelve Titans — six male and six female — and then incest is responsible for more beings. For much more detail concerning the generations of the Greek gods, click here.


Uranus attempts to repress creation and the story certainly gives Freud material for theorizing about the castration complex. Culturally the story reflects patriarchal paranoia. We hear one version of the birth of Aphrodite, goddess of love and sex, laughter and hoaxes, beauty, and the whisperings of maidens. Here’s a case of birth from the father.


The birth of grim personifications includes mention of Medusa and Pegasus. The snake-goddess is cast as a monster now in patriarchal, male-deity worshipping Greek culture. Cerberus and the Hydra are mentioned.


Lots of nymphs are listed.


Zeus makes campaign promises.
VIIHecate will later be identified with Artemis.


Here’s another next-generation attempt at repression: Cronus swallowing his kids. Rhea was originally a fertility goddess, probably identical to Cybele, the eastern goddess whose worship involved mystical frenzies, drums and cymbals, her young lover Attis, animals, and so on. Perhaps this din associated with her worship is etiologically related to the noise made so that the cries of the baby Zeus would not be heard by Cronus.

The stone taking the place of Zeus and then later vomited up by Cronus became a tourist site in ancient Greece. It was exhibited at Delphi and oiled daily by the priests.


Prometheus is a trickster figure and here pulls the old meat switch on Zeus, who in this version is omniscient. Prometheus’ further adventures are related at length in Hesiod’s Works and Days.


Ten years is the standard length of war in epics. Zeus and the Olympians are not more good or moral; they just outdo the Titans, who are somewhat imprisoned afterwards.


Tartarus is an early stage in the development of Hell.


Zeus is an archetypal dragon-slayer (like Marduk vs. Tiamat in Babylonian myth; Yahweh vs. Leviathan in the remnants of Hebrew myth). His sexploits probably reflect the subjugation of previous goddess religions by the conquering male-god worshipping religion brought by the invading Indo-Europeans.

Zeus has the same impulse but doesn’t fall into the mistakes of the previous generations of male rulers. He suppresses the woman, not the child. He forestalls opposition by disposing of the mothers and usurps the female reproductive role, particularly with the Olympians Athena and Dionysus.

This section also lists mortal heroes. For much more detail concerning the generations of the Greek gods, click here.

Works Consulted

Hesiod’s Theogony. Trans. Norman O. Brown. NY: The Liberal Arts Press, 1953.

The Theogony of Hesiod. Trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White. 1914. http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm.