Hesiod's Theogony, Myths and Meaning

by Moya K. Mason

Ancient Greeks were interested in understanding their place in the world around them. They were very interested in the roots of their existence, and wanted to know how they fit into the world around them. Greek myths contributed to this effort. They looked around their world and asked why? And in groping for the answer to this question, mythology and myths were born. Central to the lives of Ancient Greeks and found fittingly in the center of Hesiod's Theogony was a myth that discussed the connection they had to the gods and to the universe, in general. The Prometheus myth looks at man's connection to their gods, and their connection to other men, animals, and the entire realm of existence.

At an early time in their existence, men and gods lived together in harmony. The earth itself brought forth the bounty, without men having to till the earth. In this age,

...they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods (Hesiod).

Life in this Golden Age was a life of leisure, relaxation, and joy. An ideal state or a utopia was experienced by all, until the fall of man. Prometheus believed that Zeus would destroy mankind, so he decided to use cunning and deception to save them from the Olympian God. When Zeus demanded man's best food as a sacrifice to him, Prometheus arranged for a meeting with the gods to determine which part of the animals were to be sacrificed to them. He carved up an ox and divided the meat into two bundles: one with bones wrapped in juicy fat, and one with the best meat hidden inside the animal's stomach. Zeus chose the one that appeared to be the best bundle, the one wrapped in fat. We are never told why.

Prometheus matched himself in wit with the almighty son of Cronos. For when the gods and mortal men had a dispute at Mecone, even then Prometheus was forward to cut up a great ox and set portions before them, trying to befool the mind of Zeus. Before the rest he set flesh and inner parts thick with fat upon the hide, covering them with an ox paunch; but for Zeus he put the white bones dressed up with cunning art and covered with shining fat (Hesiod).

Although it seems that because the gods loved to be worshipped, man needed to sacrifice the fat to them since the smell rises much higher than meat's.

Zeus, most glorious and greatest of the eternal gods, take whichever of these portions your heart within you bids. So he said, thinking trickery. But Zeus, whose wisdom is everlasting, saw and failed not to perceive the trick, and in his heart he thought mischief against mortal men which also was to be fulfilled. With both hands he took up the white fat and was angry at heart, and wrath came to his spirit when he saw the white ox-bones craftily tricked out and because of this the tribes of men upon earth burn white bones to the deathless gods upon fragrant altars (Hesiod).

Zeus uses this incident as a reason to take fire away from man as a punishment.

So spake Zeus in anger, whose wisdom is everlasting; and from that time he was always mindful of the trick, and would not give the power of unwearying fire to the Melian race of mortal men who live on the earth (Hesiod).

Men were now closer to animals, both eating meat but without fire. Man's position is faraway from the god's that he emulated.

Prometheus then steals fire away from Mount Olympus in a hollow fennel stalk in an attempt at doing the right thing for mankind. Since he succeeds, Prometheus is an example of a culture hero, who against all odds, including the mighty Zeus, he perseveres. Now man is in the midway position between the gods and the animals, and can cook his food again. Man never ate each other, so that always separated them from animals. This antithesis is very prevalent in Greek thought and culture, and was later coined as nomos and phusis. Nomos is seen as culture, civilization, and almost god-like, while phusis is the opposite - an animal existence, which was rooted in the wild side of nature.

Now that men has fire again, Zeus decides to give them the worst thing possible: the first woman, which the gods made in the form of a "bitch's mind and a knave's heart."

And Zeus who thunders on high was stung in spirit, and his dear heart was angered when he saw amongst men the far-seen ray of fire. Forthwith he made an evil thing for men as the price of fire; for the very famous Limping God formed of earth the likeness of a shy maiden as the son of Cronos willed. And the goddess bright-eyed Athene girded and clothed her with silvery raiment, and down from her head she spread with her hands a broidered veil, a wonder to see; and she, Pallas Athene, put about her head lovely garlands, flowers of new-grown herbs. Also she put upon her head a crown of gold which the very famous Limping God made himself and worked with his own hands as a favour to Zeus his father. On it was much curious work, wonderful to see; for of the many creatures which the land and sea rear up, he put most upon it, wonderful things, like living beings with voices: and great beauty shone out from it.
But when he had made the beautiful evil to be the price for the blessing, he brought her out, delighting in the finery which the bright-eyed daughter of a mighty father had given her, to the place where the other gods and men were. And wonder took hold of the deathless gods and mortal men when they saw that which was sheer guile, not to be withstood by men.
For from her is the race of women and female kind: of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth. And as in thatched hives bees feed the drones whose nature is to do mischief - by day and throughout the day until the sun goes down the bees are busy and lay the white combs, while the drones stay at home in the covered skeps and reap the toil of others into their own bellies - even so Zeus who thunders on high made women to be an evil to mortal men, with a nature to do evil. And he gave them a second evil to be the price for the good they had: whoever avoids marriage and the sorrows that women cause, and will not wed, reaches deadly old age without anyone to tend his years, and though he at least has no lack of livelihood while he lives, yet, when he is dead, his kinsfolk divide his possessions amongst them. And as for the man who chooses the lot of marriage and takes a good wife suited to his mind, evil continually contends with good; for whoever happens to have mischievous children, lives always with unceasing grief in his spirit and heart within him; and this evil cannot be healed (Hesiod).

Pandora, as she was called, then unleashed all the evils of mankind out of a jar. Zeus refused to allow her to release Hope. The creation of Pandora and the devastation brought on by her curiosity led man out of the Golden Age and into a progressively worse level of existence. With Pandora came the necessity for man to till the fields to eat and feed their wives and offspring. No longer was there any leisure time or any real hope left for them. This pessimism was evident when Hesiod, who lived in the Iron Age, says that times are the worst he can imagine, almost as bad as death:

Thereafter, would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils. And Zeus will destroy this race of mortal men also when they come to have grey hair on the temples at their birth. The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as aforetime. Men will dishonour their parents as they grow quickly old, and will carp at them, chiding them with bitter words, hard-hearted they, not knowing the fear of the gods. They will not repay their aged parents the cost of their nurture, for might shall be their right: and one man will sack another's city. There will be no favour for the man who keeps his oath or for the just or for the good; but rather men will praise the evil-doer and his violent dealing. Strength will be right and reverence will cease to be; and the wicked will hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him, and will swear an oath upon them. Envy, foul-mouthed, delighting in evil, with scowling face, will go along with wretched men one and all. And then Aidos and Nemesis, with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil (Hesiod).

Hesiod lived in the 8th century BC, around the same time or shortly after Homer. He was a farmer in Boeotia, a region of central Greece, and we know little more than that. His poetry set down in writing, the genealogy of the Greek gods. Works and Days and the Theogony are the only two complete works we have of his. The entire sequence of events described in the Prometheus myth, including the sacrifice trick, the theft of fire, the creation of women, the discussion of women and marriage, and the punishment of Prometheus, all seem to point to the inevitability of life. The myth also tells us that evil is more equitable than it seems; old age and disease are in some ways the fault of people; and if man had behaved better, then things wouldn't have ended up so bad for him. If man had learned to improve his behaviour, things might have even improved. The myth of Prometheus explains the reasons for man's plight, telling them that the outcome was their own fault, and that if they hadn't fought with the gods and tried to exist on their level, then everything would have been better for man. Eventually, they would have been given "woman" but she wouldn't have been Pandora. In fact, the gods were justified in everything they had done to man; men were really their own worst enemy.

For these ancient peoples, nothing was done without the gods in mind because they were terrified of them and what they could do to them. Mythology was so deeply ingrained into society that it affected how people lived their lives, and was directly responsible for society's perception of women and the manner they were treated in every day situations. Greek myths were passed down through the generations and did contain important messages about life, in general, and life- within-society, in particular. To the Greeks, the gods and their role in society were central to their lives - they were very real to them. By telling the stories, the traditions of their culture were communicated. People learned how their place in the world and in the universe came to be. Myths also explained that by sacrificing to the gods, they were still able to connect with them. Back in the Golden Age, they had lived happily with the gods; now their only connection was sacrificial rites.

Greeks were interested in understanding their existence and that is why myths were born. Out of their insatiable curiosity came the seeds of philosophy, eventually leading to our own western philosophy. Plato was the first to coin the word muthologia, but that was hundreds of years after the original traditional stories were told. Even Plato, who was firmly entrenched in the use of logos, and showed contempt for myths in general, still used them. All the intellectuals did. The move from muthos to logos never completely happened.

The Greeks used their myths to attempt to make sense of all the disorder around them, to put order where there was none, and by doing so, justified the way the gods treated them. And the myths helped to explain why their world was the way it was. Out of it all came the birth of philosophy, which continues to look at our place in the universe and to answer the age old question of the existence of gods. If mythology can explain what a society's views and values are, and if Western society evolved out of and was formed by the Ancient Greeks and Romans, then it is possible to garner insight into today's society by studying ancient myths.

Therein lies the great importance of the study of mythology, for it can help to explain creation, existence, death, and morality. As H.R. Ellis Davidson said in Gods and Myths of Northern Europe:

The study of mythology need no longer be looked at as an escape from reality into the fantasies of primitive peoples, but as a search for the deeper understanding of the human mind. In reaching out to explore the distant hills where the gods dwell and the deeps where the monsters are lurking, we are perhaps discovering the way home (Davidson 1964,24).

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Davidson, H.R. Ellis. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hesiod. 2007. Hesiod the Homeric Hymns and Homerica, trans. by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Charleston, SC: BiblioLife.

Copyright © 2017 Moya K. Mason, All Rights Reserved

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