Hesiod's Theogony: Ancient Greece's Creation StoryHello, and welcome to Literature and History, Episode 8: Before Orthodoxy. This one is on Hesiod’s Theogony, a poem about the origins of the universe and the gods. Let’s go back in time. Let’s pretend that it’s the 700s BCE, and we’re in Greece. This was Hesiod’s place and time. And let’s pretend we want to start a religion. Not some crazy cult religion where we all drink poisoned wine on the full moon of the third month or something like that. Just a good, standard ancient Mediterranean religion. Something that everyone in, say, 725 BCE will agree is totally normal. First of all, we’re going to need some gods. Our gods are going to need animal sacrifices and libation offerings – I mean we’re going to have to drop some of the tasty bits of the animals we’re eating into the fire and splash some wine in after them. Everybody does that around the Mediterranean and Fertile Crescent. And we’ll need some annual rituals. Maybe, around the winter solstice, we’ll have a feast? And five days after every new moon, we’ll leave food offerings on the graves of our ancestors. Also, totally standard. Maybe on the equinoxes, we’ll get drunk and hop some over fires. Then on the full moon after the summer solstice we’ll honor some ancestor who founded our religion. Uh – Chong, or Yolanda, or Danforth or something. Some founder. Whatever.
Now, how about some gods? We’ll need a sun god. Duh. You have to have one of those. And we’re going to need a goddess of love. Or god. Next, a god of the sea. Got to have that. What am I forgetting? Oh oh –oh everybody in the ancient Mediterranean had some kind of a god of food, wine, and all that. Oh, yeah, and a god of war. Check. Okay we’re getting these. We need some more, though. Maybe a trickster god – one who does goofy stuff but really messes things up sometimes. Okay, trickster god. Oh, maybe a goddess of marriage and chastity. Do we need that? I guess. Those are common enough that nobody will bat an eyelash at it. But I feel like I’m forgetting something. What am I forgetting?
[thunder] Hmm. Oh, it’s hard to do a podcast with all this blustery weather. Every time I do this podcast there’s some damned noise going on out there. [lightning] Oh, fine. You want to try and stop The History of Literature? I’m going to finish this episode, or may God appear in a pillar of cloud and strike me down with [lightning]. . .oh. Oh, okay. Yeah - thunder god. We need a thunder god. Or storm god. We get one of those, and we’ll be ready to set up some altars and some temples with all these folks. What was the name of Ancient Greece’s thunder god. Bel? No, he was Mesopotamian. Ba’al? Nah. That was the Canaan’s. Marduk! No – Babylonian. Aplu. No – Aplu was Etruscan. Thor? Nah, he was Norse. The Greek one – the Greek thunder god – he was a real handful. Hurling lightning. Sleeping with anything that had a pulse. Had the sex drive of a high school football team. No standards. That guy was loose. Zeus! Zeus! That’s it. I don’t like the name “Zeus,” though. I think we should call our thunder god Michelle. Or Daryl. Or Raul. Yeah. Yeah, I like that – Raul the Thunder God.
Alright, I’m through building a farcical Ancient Mediterranean religion. I did it because I wanted to show that when you take a familiar theological template, and make it your own, the experience can be imaginative and entertaining.. I think that in the twenty-first century, surrounded by orthodox creeds as we are, it’s difficult for us to understand the religious climate of Hesiod’s eighth-century BCE. To put it simply, the doctrines of Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, and the sects of Protestantism are well established and codified. You can’t go up to a priest and say, “Well, I know what it says in the Book of Acts, but in a version I prefer, Saint Paul rode into Asia Minor on the back of a fire breathing hippopotamus.” Well, you can tell a priest this, but you’ll be gently corrected. The point is, in Hesiod’s day, standard versions of myths and legends had not yet been fully consecrated by institutions and authorities. There was still room for exuberant innovation, for variations on themes, and for a lot of imagination and innovation. While a certain degree of orthodoxy was expected, entertainment value was equally important. The main idea of Episode 8is in its title: Before Orthodoxy, and the overall idea I want to offer you is that imagination and innovation have been as central to religious narratives as piety and reverence during many periods of human history. To repeat, in Hesiod’s time, embellishment, invention, and being entertaining by any means necessary were all perfectly acceptable components of a religious narrative – expected as much as reverence and piety.
It’s a strange thing for us to imagine – to think that we could tell a story about Yahweh riding a pterodactyl, or Allah tilling a sacred pumpkin patch, and that the followers of these deities would nod appreciatively. The religions built around these deities have had centuries to mature and accrue writings and speculations. But Hesiod lived in a time when oral tradition was still the primary means of conveying tales of the sacred past, and tales change with each telling.
Hesiod’s culture was, as we talked about in the previous episode, solidifying after the first 776 BCE Olympic Games. Things were stabilizing after the Greek Dark Age, and they had a powerful new alphabet to use to write their stories. He lived at the cusp between an oral culture still recovering from the Bronze Age collapse and an advanced written culture forming all over the Aegean world. And it’s useful to think of his Theogony as symptomatic of a greater cultural pattern of slowly consolidating cultural traditions. Hesiod didn’t invent the Greek Pantheon - Zeus, Hera, Poseidon and company all show up in the art of high Minoan palace culture, preceding Hesiod by seven or eight hundred years. And it follows that he probably didn’t think of himself as an originator, or prophet, or conduit to divine messages. Instead, Hesiod likely saw his work as that of a compiler – someone who took existing traditions and theological figures and cast them into a single, grand narrative, like a musician taking the chart toppers of a decade and making a cover compilation of the greatest moments of the greatest songs, adding in his own contributions whenever he saw fit.
Let’s go on to Hesiod’s Theogony. The basic outline is that there is first a generation of primeval elementals, and then a generation of titans, and finally, a generation of gods. The genesis of these gods, and how they are produced by an elaborate web of incest, cannibalism, and tyranny, and their eventual triumph as the champions of cosmic order and justice, is at the core of the story you’re about to hear – a rollicking tale in which over a hundred divine beings spring from nothingness in just a few generations. So here is the beginning of Hesiod’s Theogony
The Beginning According to Hesiod[music] Before humankind, before our gods, before the progenitors of our gods – before even the earth and the stars, there was pure chaos, a churning, empty abyss, murky and always changing. Then the earth, Gaia, came into being, her form strong and fruitful. Gaia’s body would be the theater for all human existence. There also rose a region of darkness beyond chaos, a region called Tartaros, far from everything. Alongside the earth Gaia and the darkness Tartaros rose a force called Desire, or Eros, the force that animates all beings, and all things. From these three things – Gaia, the earth; Tartaros, the outer darkness; and Eros, the force of all desire, all other things came to be.
Over the course of an unknown period of time, the fundamental mechanisms of the universe sprang into being – some from intercourse, and some appearing spontaneously. Darkness and night were born, and then lightness and day. Gaia, the earth, gave birth to Ouranos, the shimmering heavens, which rested perfectly over her, encircling her far boundaries. Gaia birthed Mountains, and Nymphs, and great rivers, and finally the Ocean. Chaos, once empty, became populated with the children of Gaia and Ouranos, the heavens. Soon, the earth and heavens coupled to produce a race called the Titans. There were eleven of them to begin with, strong boys and beautiful, gold crowned girls. But the twelfth titan born to Gaia was not like the others. He was a wicked being, and his deeds would prove to be terrible. His name was Kronos.
[music] The children of the Gaia the earth, and Ouranos the heavens, increased in number. As young Kronos grew older, he watched as his parents’ coupling produced the Cyclopes, a crafty, vigorous race of beings with only one eye. But far worse than the Cyclopes, Kronos concluded, were his final three siblings, unspeakable creatures, each with a hundred hands and fifty heads, all terrifyingly powerful. As the spawn of Gaia the earth and Ouranos the heavens grew, Ouranos grew disgusted and afraid at his brood of children. He began to cram them into a hollow in the earth as soon as they were born, forcing his children underground, into depths from which they could not escape. The titan Kronos, who already loathed his prolific, lustful, and domineering father, was charged anew with hatred.
The earth, Gaia, was in excruciating pain over the titans, cyclopes, and hundred-handed giants that had been lodged under her mountains and valleys. She vowed to do something, and created a new mineral that had never existed before – flint. Out of this flint she fashioned a vast sickle, and with this fearsome weapon created, she summoned her sons. And this is what she said – I’m quoting from the Stanley Lombardo translation, published by Hackett Classics in 1993.
Gaia said, “Listen to me, children, / [W]e might yet get even / With your criminal father for what he has done to us. / After all, he started this whole ugly business” (65). Gaia’s many sons, even the fifty headed giants, looked at one another uncertainly. Crammed together in the folds of the underground, the sons of heaven and earth worried what sedition might bring. But not Kronos. He had hated his father for a long time. “I might be able to bring it off, Mother,” he said. “I can’t stand Father; he doesn’t even deserve the name.”1. Gaia smiled, her vast earthen heart stirred with new warmth, and she handed Kronos the jagged sickle.
[music] Kronos, freed from the bounds of the earth, lay hidden in ambush. He saw his father approaching. The vastness of the night sky followed Ouranos like a cape. Filled with his characteristic lust, he settled himself over Gaia, but instead of finding her, he experienced sudden, pain. Kronos, swinging the sickle, had cut off his father’s genitals. Gore splattered everywhere, and in each place where blood dropped there arose beings – Furies, Giants, and nymphs.
The genitals of Ouranos, sliced off with such ferocity, flew all the way into the sea. There they landed and floated, and floated, and floated, collecting around them foam from the white caps of the sea. Out of this foam, there arose a goddess, Aphordite. She floated to an island, shining and beautiful, so lovely, in fact, that when she came to shore and began walking the new fresh grass appeared beneath her bare feet. Aphordite, joined by Eros, would have no small role to play in determining the lives and fates of gods and men thereafter.
The triumph of Kronos over his father Ouranos seemed like it might hearken in a period of prosperity. Though Ouranos cursed his many children, they were now free from the confines of the earth, and Gaia no longer had to contain such multitudes of beings. Castrated, Ouranos could no longer continue to produce such crops of monsters and abominations. Yet in spite of Kronos’ victory, peace and prosperity would not descend over the cosmos. For one, Kronos, as we’ll see, was his father’s son, capable of the same lusts and cruelties. And additionally, the once empty universe was becoming populated with legions of beings, beings whose very natures were opposed to one another.
The Tyranny of Kronos[music] Soon the creatures on Gaia began producing other creatures. From Night descended Doom, Fate, Death, Sleep, and the world of Dreams. Night issued Blame, Grief, the Destinies, and the ruthless sisters of the Fates, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, who decide the events in the lives of all beings. Night birthed Deception and Old Age, and worst of all, the horror called Eris, or Strife. From Strife came the privations of existence – Toil, Forgetfulness, Famine, Pain, Battles Fights, Murder, Lies, Lawlessness, Recklessness, and Oaths.
The children of the Sea were not so baneful. Fifty girls, goddesses and nymphs, with flowing hair, were born to the Sea, diligent in their unique abilities and crafts. The Sea and Ocean’s descendants generated beautiful Dawn, the sun Helios, the forces of Strength, Victory, and Vying, the winds Zephyros and Boreas. From the Sea and Ocean descended the various creatures of ancient Greek myth – harpies, gorgons, Geryon, Echidna, Cerberos, Hydra, Chimaira, and the Sphinx. From them also gushed the world’s rivers, dozens in number. And as the universe became populated with such a plurality of beings, Kronos began to reveal his true nature.
Kronos raped his sister Rheia. From such an ignominious beginning arose the core six figures of the Olympian pantheon. Hestia was born, the virgin goddess of the homestead, state and family. Next came Demeter, goddess of the harvest, law, and sacred cycle of life and death. Then, Hera was born, goddess of marriage and women. Hades came next, the formidable and pitiless lord of the underworld. After Hades came Poseidon, the lord of the sea, who made all shores shudder with his might. Rheia became pregnant with Zeus, the wise and judicious god of thunder, the aegis of the Greek pantheon.
But the Olympians were just kids, and Zeus was not yet born. And all of them were subject to the abuses of a despotic father – a father who’d heard that he’d be overthrown by his own children. Kronos believed the prophecy, and acted to prevent it from coming true. As soon as each child was born, he devoured it. Such was the fate of Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon. On the verge of giving birth to Zeus, poor Rheia could not stand to lose another child to the ravages of Kronos. She conspired with Gaia and Ouranos. She would make Kronos pay for devouring his children, and for castrating his father. The earth and heavens agreed. When Zeus was born, he was hidden in the earth, and brought up on the broad and beautiful island of Crete.
Kronos knew that his mate had given birth again, and expected to devour the offspring, but Rheia tricked him. She gave him a stone, wrapped up in a baby’s clothes. Kronos ate the stone, none the wiser, content that he’d be safe from his son. Only, Zeus was free, and he was growing older and stronger. He prepared for battle, first by freeing the Cyclopes, long ago bound by Ouranos. These one eyed creatures, grateful for their liberation, gave Zeus the power of the thunder and lightning. With this new weapon, Zeus was ready to make war on his father, just as Kronos himself had once faced Ouranos.
The Rise of Zeus[music] At the start of the war, Zeus was able to make Kronos regurgitate the other five Olympian gods. When the sides were drawn, the Olympians, the Cyclopes and some other powerful gods stood against the Titans. Neither side prevailed. Ten years passed, and the war was cataclysmic. But Zeus had a secret weapon. Three of the hundred handed, fifty headed giants, were on Zeus’ side, since he’d freed them. At a key moment, ten years into the fighting, Zeus released these juggernauts. They were so vast that they could rip chunks out of cliffs and hurl them at the titans.
At the apex of the fighting, the world was almost ripped to pieces. The ocean screamed. The sky creaked and groaned. The slamming of feet and bodies on the surface of the earth made even the eerie, mist-covered lands of Tartaros shake. Zeus held nothing back. He knew that he would either win victory for his brothers and sisters or be devoured and digested by their infernal father. His lightning bolts ripped through the air, blazing with white fire, liquefying continents and boiling the vast waters. He covered the Titans with a calyx of blazing fire, and the heat was so intense that even Chaos, the oldest of things, felt its pulsations. The winds were so strong that they caused earthquakes.
The three hundred handed giants saw that Zeus’ fire had turned the tides of the battle. They charged the cowering titans and bound them, and the titans were cast down into the outer darkness of Tartaros. Tartaros was far from the earth – a lump of metal falling from earth to Tartaros would take nine days. From Tartaros, the titans have never budged. “There the Titans are concealed in the misty gloom / By the will of Zeus who gathers the clouds, / In a moldering place, the vast earth’s limits” (81). Girded by bronze doors that Poseidon fashioned, and guarded by the hundred handed giants, the Titans still rest, to this day, confined to endless, musty night.
The banishment of the Titans did not go unnoticed. Gaia, shocked at the wholesale defeat of her immediate relatives, had one more child. This child was the spawn of Gaia and Tartaros, the outer darkness, and its name was Typhoios. Hesiod describes Typhoios as
A god whose hands were like engines of war,It was again up to Zeus to defend the Olympians from this colossal new enemy. Zeus and Typhoios locked into combat with one another, and once again the earth shook under the strife of divine combat. Fire enveloped the ocean and tidal waves exploded against the shore. Hades shivered at the sounds of his younger brother’s furious combat, and in distant Tartaros, the titans huddled fearfully together. Zeus smashed the monster with his fire until he tore a hole through the earth and sent it down to Tartaros. The last hope of the Titans was extinguished.
Whose feet never gave out, from whose shoulders grew
The hundred heads of a frightful dragon
Flickering dusky tongues, and the hollow eyesockets
In the eerie heads sent out fiery rays,
And each head burned with flame as it glared.
And there were voices in each of these frightful heads,
A phantasmagoria of unspeakable sound,
Sometimes sounds that the gods understood, sometimes
The sound of a spirited bull, bellowing and snorting,
Or the uninhibited, shameless roar of a lion,
Or just like puppies yapping, an uncanny noise,
Or a whistle hissing through long ridges and hills. (84)
Yet even in his demise Typhoios was still a bane to mankind. From him came the wet storms – the heavy rains that blast along the top of the oceans. The typhoon, named after its divine progenitor, topples fleets, floods homes and farmlands, and reminds us of Zeus’ last great mortal enemy.
[music] In this fashion, Zeus, youngest of the six core Olympians, came into power. Once the necessity of freeing his siblings from prison, and then fending off titanic opponents had passed, his primary interest seemed to change from being the guardian of the gods to being sort of sexual nuclear reactor – one who would occasionally pull his pants up in order to go and fight someone.
He first took a wise and cunning woman as his bride, Metis, but, she was too cunning, and Zeus had to eat her. He married Themis, who gave birth to the seasons. He married the fates, Klotho, Lakhesis, and Atropos. He married the nymphs Eunomia, Dike, and Eirene, and the beautiful daughter of the ocean, Eurynome. Four nymphs. In the purest sense of the word, Zeus was becoming a nymphomaniac. Zeus bedded his sister Demeter, and Mnemosyne, mother of the nine muses, and then Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis. Finally, he married Hera, with whom he had three children. Perhaps because he was finally sexually satisfied, Zeus paused for a moment, but he was still so virile that on one occasion, he couldn’t even wait for a woman to be around in order to make a baby, and simply hatched forth the goddess Athena out of his own head. Another story for the way this happened was that by eating his very first wife, the clever Metis, Zeus somehow became filled with the spirit of Athena, and this is why she was born from his head.
I got to thinking about Zeus. What was it like for him to fly all over the Aegean world, sleeping with everyone in sight? And I thought, “What if Zeus travelled forward through time, and got cast in a western?” It seems quite possible to me. It would be an R-rated western, at the very least. I thought, “What kind of a song would he sing, if he were some kind of cowboy in a western, riding out, just after his victory over Kronos?” And I decided that this was the song he would sing.
That, again, was the song of Zeus, riding out into the Aegean to begin flipping through his divine rolodex of sexual conquests. Now, while the Theogony starts to wind down with the tales of Zeus’ many lovers, the story still isn’t quite over.
The origins of dozens more Greek gods are set out in the closing hundred lines of the Theogony – a chain of who begat whoms that includes Greek mythology’s B-list deities, like Persephone, the reluctant wife of Hades, the smith god Hephaistos, war god Ares, the herald and messenger Hermes, and the wine god Dionysos. And then begins the origin stories of half human and fully human Greek heroes – Ariadne, Herakles, Perseis, Phaethon, Jason, Akhilles, Aineias, Circe, and some of the nymphs Odysseus encounters in his voyages.
Zeus had been victorious over the titans, and was now the father of dozens of divine and semidivine beings. He was thus the natural ruler of gods and humans. While in the Greek myths we often meet him in mid-career, already a lightning-wielding patriarch, we must remember that he spends a fair amount of time in the Theogony as an underdog, youngest of six children, harrowed by a cannibalistic father. By the end of Hesiod’s poem, however, he is the center of it all, the defender of order and justice, the wise and righteous, the occasionally disputed, but always victorious sovereign of the gods.
The end of the Theogony is an overwhelming catalog of births. The final threat to Zeus has been squelched, and the epic war between the generation of gods is supplanted by epic breeding and childbirth. It’s easy to giggle a little at the sheer spectacle of such prolific lovemaking at the culmination of the grave and serious story of the origins of the world. But in the long, loosely organized list of begats that wraps up the Theogony, Hesiod is attempting to inscribe into his poem all of the major figures of Greek narrative and religion, so that from the flux of primeval chaos, his listener would travel all the way forward, into the realm of the populous present, with the origins of all things explained. The hastily written baby boom that caps off the Hesiod’s poem might sit a little awkwardly atop the dark war story that comes before it, but both halves of the poem are equally entertaining. Now you know Hesiod’s Theogony.
Greek Oral Tradition, Meter, and Music[music] Let’s get back to the main idea of this episode – that imagination and innovation were valued parts of religious narratives during Hesiod’s time, because no broad reaching institutions had stewardship over what was orthodox, and what wasn’t. I want to start by talking about oral tradition. One of the great mistakes we make when we presume history as an upward slope that leads to us is that we dismiss oral tradition as some blundering forerunner to written language. Not to romanticize the Paleolithic or Neolithic, but I think that a culture of trading yarns along a stream bank or over a campfire would require a certain degree of mental vigor, imaginative improvisation, and linguistic energy no longer demanded of us quite so much. When the best means of leisure time entertainment is exchanging great stories, the person who’s best at that is a popular figure in the tribe.
It’s normal for us to tell the same story multiple times. We exaggerate, and we misremember, and we distort, and we gloss over, all for means of accomplishing various purposes. And it’s an art form. Our translator Stanley Lombardo agrees with the American Poet Jared Carter that Hesiod’s art form was more like a jazz improvisation than a classical recital. The two scholars compare Hesiod’s work to “the art of early New Orleans jazz musicians, live performers who played not by rote but by heart, improvising from their common store of melodies, riffs, and chord changes, developing out of the shared tradition of their personal styles, and transmitting the art to the next generation” (19). Hesiod had his scraps of motifs and changes in the figures of the old Greek pantheon, but what he does with them in the Theogony is not a pious recitation – it’s a creative literary work, its thousand lines ringing with Hesiod’s distinct energy.
[lyre and aulos]
Before we leave the subject of music, let’s talk about Greek meter and oral performance. This is one of those moments when podcasting is a really useful format. Those two sounds you’ve been hearing are the main instruments that Greek poets used to accompany themselves when they performed – the lyre, and the aulos. Now the lyre is a small harp. And the aulos is a small flute, often played – get this – in pairs by the same person. The double aulos performance is quite a sight, actually – the person playing looks kind of like a walrus fingering two tusks at once. One of the flutes holds down a tone, and the other plays a melody on top of it.
A good deal of Greek poetry, Hesiod’s not excluded, was composed in a structure called dactylic hexameter. I’ve taught literature enough to know that most of us don’t know our meters and feet – so again it’s convenient that this is a podcast, so I can demonstrate to you what dactylic hexameter sounds like. The dactyl is a poetic foot – a single metric unit, that goes stressed unstressed – stressed unstressed, or, conveniently, dactyl dactyl dactyl dactyl. And all hexameter means is that there are six of those – six of those metric feet, or dactyls. It’s a structure that sounds exotic to our ears. I redid the first few lines of the Theogony – and it’s an invocation to the muses – so you can hear what it would sound like in Greek meter, with Ancient Greek instrumental accompaniment. So here it is.
WE will now SING of the MUses of HElikon HIGH holy SMILing there.Well, there it is, my best attempt at dactylic hexameter, lyre and aulos, and Hesiod’s invocation to the muses of Mount Helicon. English poetry is much more often in shorter meters – tetrameters or pentameters, and is less likely to use feet with three parts, like dactyls, dactyls, dactyls, so the structure of Hesiod sounds strange to us. Nonetheless, I thought that beyond providing the moderately interesting experience of hearing poetry the way many ancient Greeks did, that my little demonstration could support the main idea of this episode – that before institutions standardized religious doctrines, the generation of religious narrative and rhetoric was an improvised, imaginative activity. Part of the reason for this was the distinct demands of poetic meter.
FEET soft as PETals in PURple springs DANcing on Altars of KRONion.
JUST after BATHing their SILKen skin SINGing on HELikon’s HIGH summit.
SO lovely IT’S painful POWer in ALL their steps CLIMBing through MISty air.
SWIMming through DARK night and CHANTing in VOIces so ACHingly BEAUtiful. . .
ONCE they taught HESiod SINGing as I pastured MY flocks on HELikon.
THEY gave me A staff of LAURel so FRESH so that I might sing POetry.
THEIR breath passed INto me SO that I COULD sing of GODS and of LINeage.3
Composing within a tight metrical structure is challenging. In fact, when you first think about metrical structure, it seems merely to be confining. Why in the world would Shakespeare compose all those sonnets in such a strict fourteen line, iambic pentameter form, with an identical rhyme scheme? Why would Dante have such a bizarre obsession with the unusual rhythmic structure of the Divine Comedy? Why has poetry historically had such a fetish for imposing limits on itself?
There are two answers. One is fascinating. And the other is even more fascinating. We’ll start with the merely fascinating one. If you go back to the deep history of poetry, before our contemporary misunderstanding of it as a merely a way of wooing coy mistresses, before Shakespeare’s sonnets, before Dante’s writings, before, even Hesiod, you have to understand that one of its purposes was actually recordkeeping. Oral traditions were passed down in verse so that the deeds of ancestors and the traditions of peoples would be preserved. The meter and rhyme wasn’t there to impede the flow of free expression so much as to serve as a memory device. When you’re writing in iambic tetrameter, and you’re using predictable end rhymes, it’s far easier to lock clusters of lines together in your memory. I might say, for instance, “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater,” as a first line. If you know the meter, you already know a lot about the next line. You know its exact syllabic structure. You know it’s going to go DAH dah DAH dah DAH dah DAH dah. And you know approximately what the final word will sound like. It’s going to sound like “Eater.” So you’re much more likely to be able to remember two lines together – “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater / Had a wife and couldn’t feed her.” You wouldn’t say, for instance, “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater / Believed in paying his taxes on time.” So, the first reason poetic meter and rhyme have always been with us, beyond merely that it sounds cool – which is super important, also – is that it helps us remember.
The second reason – and don’t worry, we’ll get back to Hesiod in a moment, because this is related – the second reason is that in many cases the very strictness of poetry does not stifle, nor hinder creativity, but instead inspires it. When you have to work within strict confines, you have to innovate. On some occasions, the confines will, in fact, hinder what you’re trying to accomplish. But on others, the unexpected directions you find yourself taking as a result of the limitations opposed on you will lead you to radically creative steps you would otherwise never have come to. Rousseau famously said “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains,” but poets who work in strict meter know that an opposite structure is possible – that chains, or bars, or hindrances, can shake loose radical creativity and permit the mind to achieve unexpected, and exhilarating freedoms.
Jazz musicians understand this. Play your instrument over the chords to a Duke Ellington song, or more challengingly, a Charlie Parker tune. You can’t just stay in your own key and play what you want. The song will leave you. You have to not only know the song, but to know it well – to know its flatted fifths, dominant sevenths, its turnarounds and resolutions. When you know all of the cadences and back corners of a song or poetic meter – and both are relevant to Hesiod – your musical or linguistic facility is overall heightened, far more, I think, than if you just played in a single key or composed in free verse. Use all the different weight sets in the gym – even the weird and awkward ones, and you get really fit. Connectedly, challenge yourself with the discipline of initially daunting poetic structures, and your power and verve as a writer grow in proportion.
Hesiod, Poetry, and the Religious ImaginationHesiod, like all poets who have written in cultures that prize tight meter and rhyme, believed in linguistic and narrative innovation. And the Theogony proves it. I’m going to read Lombardo’s translation of a specific passage. This passage describes how the titans were exiled to Tartaros, and the utter despair of their banishment. Remember, Tartaros is way out there, far from earth, and the Titans were exiled there.
A bronze anvil falling down from the skyWow. What a powerful description! He could have just said, “The titans were exiled to Tartaros.” Or if he were a Christian writer using stock phrasing, he’d say something like, “They were cast down into the fiery pits, where they suffered the eternal wrath of the divine father.” But Hesiod doesn’t say this at all. He says Tartaros is nine days beneath the surface of the earth as an anvil falls – even the object he uses seems to underscore the leaden darkness of the place. Night coils around the neck of Tartaros three times, creating a sense of strangulation in the description. The bronze wall around it is beaten, the gloom there is misty – it’s described as moldering and dank. These details aren’t strictly necessary to the recitation of the story. But as a poet, Hesiod had to put them there, perhaps in places to fill the demands of meter, and in others because the idea of a fallen caste of gods suffering in inky gloom is worth a bit of extra literary effort. Hesiod’s doomed titans show up two thousand years later in Dante’s Inferno, and his nine day anvil fall even later in Milton’s Paradise Lost. The medieval Italian and the Renaissance Englishman had no theological common ground with Hesiod. Their religions and cultures were thousands of years and miles apart. But they were poets. And though poets can be pious, they also care about creating something that sounds powerful, and trading these traditions through time and space.
Would fall nine days and nights and on the tenth hit earth.
It is just as far from earth down to misty Tartaros.
There is a bronze wall beaten round it, and Night
In a triple row flows round its neck, while above it grow
The roots of earth and the unharvested sea.
There the Titans are concealed in the misty gloom
By the will of Zeus who gathers the clouds,
In a moldering place, the vast earth’s limits.
There is no way out for them. Poseidon set doors
Of bronze in a wall that surrounds it.
There [the great hundred handed giants]
Have their homes, the trusted guards of the Storm King, Zeus.
There dark Earth and misty Tartaros
And the barren Sea and the starry Sky
All have their sources and limits in a row,
Grim and dank, which even the gods abhor. (81)
So when I named this episode “Before Orthodoxy,” it wasn’t with the intention of saying that, for instance, in the year 150 CE something called “Orthodoxy” took place, and thereafter all the creative energy of religion stopped and it became merely a process of contentedly conforming to sacred traditions. The artistic energy of writers, painters and sculptors in the Judeo-Christian world show us that we have never stopped imagining and reimagining the world of the supernatural, and theological. Every figure on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, every stone sculpture of a saint or patriarch in a cathedral, and even every modern work of religious fiction is doing the same work Hesiod was – taking existing sacred traditions and performing work of interpretation. A modern imam or preacher, if he wants any attendees in his congregation, understands that the work of writing a sermon requires creativity and mental stamina. Far from being an act of blind conformity, as some secularists might generalize, organized religion can be a generative, intellectually demanding, and really imaginative. experience.
But there is a difference between Hesiod and the person who stands at the pulpit in the twenty-first century. The difference is, again, that Hesiod’s century fell at the end of the Greek Dark Age, and that far from inheriting a Bible or Qur’an, he inherited a bundle of nonstandard stories. While a preacher might be permitted to guess at what might have happened at this or that moment of Jesus’ life, that preacher would not be permitted to create an entirely new story that, for instance, Jesus snapped his fingers and turned his Roman assailants into chickens. But Hesiod could do this. And in the Theogony, these innovations happen all the time.
[music] I actually wrote a whole version of this episode and erased most of it before creating what you’ve just heard. What happened was that I realized that the straightforward historical interpretation of the Theogony that I’d written was so simple that a single paragraph would do it justice. And I was embarrassed, but I just plowed onward. So before we conclude, I’ll give you that interpretation in just a few sentences.
The Theogony has often been understood as a meta narrative about what was happening as Greece pulled itself out of its dark age. Just as primeval chaos gave way to feuding generations of gods, and finally an orderly pantheon superintended by Zeus, Ancient Greece, so the analysis goes, ascended from the squalor of generations of scattered subsistence farming and transformed into a prosperous network of collaborating city states. It’s a pretty simple parallel. Chaos equals dark age, and panhellenic Greece equals Olympian pantheon. Well, we don’t really know whether Hesiod wrote his divine history because he was inspired by what he saw going on around him. But we do know, with certainty, that two of the ideas pervading both Works and Days and the Theogony were justice, and order.
In the Theogony, in addition to a dozen others, Zeus marries Dike, the goddess of justice and moral order. Works and Days is filled with references to the importance of justice and fair judgment, and memorably emphasizes that Zeus gave people laws and justice, which is what separates us from animals. Both of these ancient poems, in different ways, contrast anarchy with justice and order, and it is only through discipline and industriousness on the part of humanity, and divine leadership on the part of Zeus, that justice and order can be preserved. It’s easy to place this general opposition of order against chaos into the 700s BCE, and theorize that both of Hesiod’s great poems were products of their historical time and place.
[music] Now, listen up. There’s been an elephant in the room during this and the previous episode. Even maybe a mastodon. Or a Tyrannosaur. The next five episodes will be on the works of one of the most important literary figures ever to have lived anywhere.
Hesiod’s contemporary Homer was not concerned with farming techniques. He wasn’t worried about people putting away enough grain to get them through the winter, nor ne’er-do-wells squandering time at the marketplace. Homer’s concern, especially in the first of his two epics, was war.
If you happen to remember, one of the ages of man in Hesiod’s Works and Days was called the Age of Heroes. This is the age that concerned Homer. Homer’s gods were not a neatly structured divine hierarchy underneath Zeus. They were a mosh pit. His universe was not an orderly place where justice prevailed. It was fundamentally chaotic. There was no good, nor evil – only force. What mattered most to Homer’s heroes was not morality nor civility, nor going to heaven. They believed distinguishing themselves while they were alive – through spectacular acts of bravery, cunning, and violence. Above all, they believed in excellence, and battle. If Hesiod’s poems are from a period of blossoming civilization, Homer’s are from a time long before that period, from a time when you kept your bronze sword sharp and slept by your helmet, because nothing else in the world could be depended on. For the next episode, I suggest you put a pillow down by your feet, because I don’t want your jaw to get hurt when it hits the floor. We’re going to the east of Turkey, to a city called Ilion, and Illium, after which Homer’s Iliad is named. We’re going to the Trojan War. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and I’ll see you next time.
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1.^Hesiod. Works and Days and Theogony. Translated by Stanley Lombardo. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1993, p. 65. Further references noted parenthetically. Link
2.^Ibid, p. 8.
3.^Ancient Greek poetry often substituted spondees (stressed stressed) for the first few feet of a line. The fifth foot of the hexameter is almost always a dactyl, and the sixth either a spondee or a trochee (stressed unstressed). So my full on dactylic hexameter here, while perhaps useful for the purposes of demonstration, is nonetheless a simplification.
2.^Ibid, p. 8.
3.^Ancient Greek poetry often substituted spondees (stressed stressed) for the first few feet of a line. The fifth foot of the hexameter is almost always a dactyl, and the sixth either a spondee or a trochee (stressed unstressed). So my full on dactylic hexameter here, while perhaps useful for the purposes of demonstration, is nonetheless a simplification.