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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.
The third creation myth also starts with humans fashioned out of inanimate material. This time, Zeus, angry at the wickedness of the world, sends a great flood to destroy it. Only two mortal beings survive: Prometheus’s son, Deucalion, and Epithemeus and Pandora’s daughter, Pyrrha. After the flood, a voice in a temple orders the two to walk about and cast stones behind them. These stones become the first ancestors of the humans now inhabiting the earth.
These next stories come from a wide variety of Greek and Roman sources. We pick up again with Prometheus, who, chained up in the Caucasus, has occasion to comfort a dazzling white heifer. It turns out to be no ordinary cow but a woman named Io whom the perpetually unfaithful Zeus has seduced and then transformed into a cow to hide his transgression from Hera. Not so easily deceived, Hera asks Zeus to give her the cow and then imprisons her. Hermes, sent by Zeus, frees Io. Hera retaliates by sending a gadfly to annoy Io endlessly, forcing her to wander all over the world. At last encountering Prometheus, weary Io learns she will soon be turned back into a human, will bear Zeus a son, through whom she will be the ancestress of Hercules—the hero who eventually frees Prometheus.
Europa is another victim of Zeus’s lust. He spies the lovely maiden in the fields one day and then transforms himself into a beautiful, friendly bull. Charmed, she climbs on the bull’s back, but he suddenly becomes frenzied and charges over the sea. Taking Europa to Crete, away from Hera’s watchful eye, Zeus returns to his form and seduces her. Her descendants include two of Hades’ judges—Minos and Rhadamanthus—and the continent of Europe is named for her.
Another famous casualty of justice is Polyphemus, one of the Cyclopes, the one-eyed monsters who were the only original children of Earth not banished by the Olympians after their victory. They are also the forgers of Zeus’s thunderbolts. Best known for his encounter with Odysseus, Polyphemus is also the victim of a tragic infatuation, as Galatea, the beautiful, cruel sea nymph, never returns his feelings.
Several floral-origin myths tell how the narcissus, hyacinth, and blood-red anemone flowers came into being. There are two stories of the narcissus. In the first, Zeus creates it as a bait to help Hades kidnap Persephone. The second and more famous tale concerns a handsome young man named Narcissus. Self-obsessed, he constantly breaks the hearts of others enamored of his beauty, including the nymph Echo—who could only repeat what was said to her, hence the modern meaning of echo. Finally, the goddess Nemesis, who is the personification of righteous anger, punishes Narcissus, allowing him to love no one but himself. He dies gazing at his own face in a pool of water, unable to break free from the sight. The nymphs who have loved him, albeit unrequitedly, create a flower in his name.
The hyacinth is created when Apollo accidentally kills his dear friend Hyacinth with a discus (in another version, jealous Zephyr, the West Wind, caused it to strike Hyacinth). Apollo makes the flower as a remembrance of his companion. The red anemone has a similar story. Adonis—a youth so handsome that even the goddess of love, Aphrodite, is enamored—is loved by everyone who sees him. Persephone and Aphrodite share him until a boar gores him during a hunt. Adonis goes forever to Persephone’s realm of the dead, and the red anemone springs up where his blood hit the earth.
These stories establish the fundamentals of Greek civilization very broadly, but the details leave us a strangely incomplete picture of the origins of civilization. Phenomena that we understand in other ways find wholly different explanations. In Greek myth, the universe creates its own gods, while we are used to it happening the other way around. Moreover, the Greeks consider the earth to be a flat disk surrounded by a river named Ocean, beyond which live strange, inaccessible peoples, rather than as a spherical globe that orbits a star.
Perhaps the most strikingly foreign elements in these stories are the violence, incest, and immorality that lie at their heart. Zeus kills his father Cronus, who himself has wounded his father Heaven gravely. Earth and Heaven have both a mother-son and husband-wife relationship, just as Zeus and Hera have both a brother-sister and husband-wife relationship. Zeus is cruel to Prometheus, just as Hera is cruel to the innocent women Zeus seduces. Meanwhile, humanity’s lot is one of death, destruction, and inevitable doom at the hand of Zeus—who will himself one day be overthrown.
Hamilton believes that this sinister tone—found even in the flower myths—is a vestigial trace from an older tradition. She points out that, although human sacrifice was not a part of Greek culture when these myths were written down, the connection between human blood and the growth in the fields suggests an older time when such sacrifice was used to promote springtime growth. The constant pain, deceit, and violence of the myths are not merely relics, however, but also reflect aspects of real life in the ancient world. As wars were common and existence was difficult, it makes sense that even the divine members of this world mirror this hardship.
These early myths, however, also emphasize noble values. Perhaps most surprising is the central motif of love: despite the violence and darkness, love remains the primary and essential virtue of the myths—the inexplicable force at the center of the creation of Heaven and Earth. Love is constantly celebrated in the morals of the stories: Prometheus displays noble, selfless love for humanity; Zeus’s crime against his father is forgivable because he is acting out of filial love and obedience; Apollo’s love for Hyacinth and Aphrodite’s love for Adonis create beautiful flowers out of their lovers’ blood; and Zeus’s indiscretions can be interpreted as more than mere maliciousness because they come out of love, not a desire to cause further rupture with his wife. Perhaps most telling of all, the cruel punishment given to Narcissus is his incapacity to really love anybody. Love is important because it inspires kindness and trust—the moral foundation upon which Greek civilization rests.
Another value stressed here is justified rebellion against unjust authority. Prometheus embodies this virtue, defying Zeus repeatedly to help mankind, even in the face of terrible torture. Zeus himself defies his father in the face of injustice. Violence is a constant in the world, but the myths help make sense of it by drawing the distinction between cruel violence and justified violence. As we can see, justified violence often results in rewards—as Zeus becomes ruler of the Heavens—while cruel violence only begets retribution.
These hallmarks—love, trust, the glory of rebellion against unjust authority, and the idea of reward for upright actions and retribution for evil—form the core of the myth’s moral element. The Greeks used these myths to guide their actions, separating good from evil, what pleases the gods from what displeases them, what results in fortune from what results in misfortune. Yet a stranger, subtler role of fate also braids itself into this pattern. Time and again, the gods and other supernatural beings try to thwart their fates and fail. Cronus’s attempt to prevent his overthrow only plants the very seed that ensures that downfall, making Rhea so miserable that she saves Zeus, who subsequently kills Cronus. These themes—which come up again and again in the stories to come, most notably in the story of Oedipus—reflect the ancient Greeks’ puzzlement over the workings of the world and the reason that good deeds sometimes reap unhappiness. In these myths, then, we see the groping for answers that perhaps introduced the Greeks to philosophy.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Mythology!