by: Edith Hamilton

Part One, Chapters III–IV

Summary: Chapter III — How the World and Mankind Were Created

As she does through the rest of the book, Hamilton begins the chapter with a note explaining and evaluating its sources—an important note, as the various sources can tell radically different stories. Chapter III comes mostly from Hesiod, one of the earliest Greek poets.

In the beginning of the universe there is only Chaos. Chaos somehow gives birth to two children, Night and Erebus (the primeval underworld) out of the swirling energy. Love is born from these two, who in turn gives birth to Light and Day. Earth appears; its creation is never explained, as it just emerges naturally out of Love, Light, and Day. Earth gives birth to Heaven. Father Heaven and Mother Earth then create all other life, first producing a host of terrible monsters—the one-eyed Cyclopes and creatures with a hundred hands and fifty heads. Then the Titans are born. One of them, Cronus, kills Father Heaven, and the Titans rule the universe. From the blood of Heaven spring both the Giants and the avenging Furies.

Next comes a dramatic coup. Powerful Cronus, learning that one of his children is fated to kill him, eats each one as he or she is born. His wife Rhea, upset, hides one baby by replacing it with a stone for Cronus to eat instead. This infant eventually grows up and becomes Zeus, who forces Cronus to vomit up his brothers and sisters. The siblings band together against the Titans. With the help of one sympathetic Titan, Prometheus, and the monsters whom the Titans had enslaved, Zeus and his siblings win. They chain up the Titans in the bowels of the earth, except for Prometheus and Epimetheus, his brother. Prometheus’s other brother, Atlas, is sentenced to forever bear the weight of the world on his shoulders as punishment.

The Greeks viewed Earth as a round disk divided into equal parts by the Mediterranean (the Sea) and the Black Sea (first called the Unfriendly, then the Friendly Sea). Ocean, a mystical river, flowed around the entire disk, and mysterious peoples—the Hyperboreans in the north, the Ethiopians in the far south and the Cimmerians in parts unknown—lived outside Ocean’s perimeter.

There are three stories about the creation of humankind. In one, wise Prometheus and his scatterbrained brother Epimetheus are put in charge of making humans. Epimetheus bungles the job and gives all the useful abilities to animals, but Prometheus gives humans the shape of the gods and then the most precious gift of all—fire, which he takes from heaven. Later, Prometheus helps men by tricking Zeus into accepting the worst parts of the animal as a sacrifice from men. Zeus tortures Prometheus to punish him for stealing fire and to intimidate him into telling a secret: the identity of the mother whose child will one day overthrow Zeus (as Zeus had Cronus). Zeus chains Prometheus to a rock in the Caucasus, and every day an eagle comes to tear at his insides. Prometheus never gives in, however.

In the second creation myth, the gods themselves make humans. They use metals, starting with the best but using ones of progressively worse quality. The first humans were gold and virtually perfect; the next were silver; then brass, each worse than the last. The humans now upon the earth are the gods’ fifth and worst version yet—the iron race. Full of evil and wickedness, each successive generation worsens until, one day, Zeus will wipe it out. There is also an explanation for how the perfect creatures of the Golden Age grew wicked. Zeus, outraged at Prometheus’s treachery in giving humans fire and helping them cheat the gods with their offers of sacrifice, decides to punish men. He creates Pandora, the first woman, who, like the biblical Eve, brings suffering upon humanity through her curiosity. The gods give Pandora a box and tell her never to open it. She foolishly does, however, allowing all the evils of the universe pent up inside to rush out. The one thing she manages to retain in the box is Hope, humans’ only comfort in the face of misfortune.