Episode 8: Before Orthodoxy

Elementals, giants, titans and gods! Hesiod’s Theogony chronicles a great war – one which would leave a single entity sovereign over the cosmos.

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Hesiod’s Theogony

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 8: Before Orthodoxy. This program is on the Ancient Greek writer Hesiod’s poem, the Theogony, likely produced some time in the late 700s BCE, a poem about the origins of the universe and the gods.

Most of us know some Greek myths. There is the story of Perseus, son of Danae, who defeats Medusa and frees the Ethiopian princess Andromeda from the Kraken. And there’s the story of Theseus, who, after defeating the Minotaur with the help of the Cretan princess Ariadne, abandons her on the way home to Athens and thereafter leads a rather checkered life. There’s Bellerophon, the impious Corinthian hero who beats the monster called the chimera with the help of a winged horse that we call the Pegasus. The myth of Persephone, kidnapped by Hades, and thereafter brought back for part of the year by her mother Demeter, was especially well known to ancient Greeks. The Trojan War saga is perhaps the biggest bundle of Greek myths. At one point, it included not only the Iliad and Odyssey, which still survive today, but also the Cypria, Aethiopis, Little Iliad, Iliou persis, Nostoi, and Telegony, a group of lost epics that used to frame the works of Homer into a much longer story.

Callet - Jupiter and Ceres, 1777

Antoine-François Callet’s Jupiter and Ceres (1777). Ceres or Demeter is rebuking Zeus for letting her daughter Proserpine/Persephone get abducted by Hades, a story that appears in Volume 2 of Literature and History’s bonus series Rad Greek Myths, though not in the Theogony.

There are hundreds of Greek myths, and they form a neverendingly complicated web of gods, people, and creatures; grandparents, parents, and children; prequels and sequels. No collection can ever include all of them, and as we follow them into the remote past of Mycenaean Bronze Age, things only become more complex. Linear B tablets show that Dionysus was once di-wo-nu-so-jo, and that he once existed amidst gods with strange names, like Manasa and Rimios, in addition to the more familiar Zeus, Hera, and Poseidon.1 Like the name of Dionysus, the role of Dionysus changed over time in the ancient Mediterranean imagination, and more generally Ancient Greece’s gods experienced rises and falls in popularity over time and in different geographical regions. We can’t master all of it, any more than we could master the whole span of all the tales told by English speakers for a thousand years. The web of stories is too enormous, and much of it is lost in the shade of its Bronze Age prehistory, like a deep well made up of many disparate, small bricks that descends into darkness.

But at a few moments in ancient literary history, there were some major figures who worked to synthesize entire culture traditions into single works. The Biblioteca of a writer we call Pseudo-Apollodorus, dated some time around 100 CE, was one such effort. Much more famously, the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, finished around 8 CE, was a collection of 250 myths, epitomizing Roman literature’s centuries-long effort to enfold and synthesize Greek cultural traditions that had come before it. We know some of Ovid’s sources – Greco-Egyptian poets from the third century BCE, Athenian playwrights from the fifth century BCE, and before all of them the Homeric poems and the works of Hesiod.

Hesiod, again, was likely at work in the late 700s BCE. As we learned last time, he was among the first figures we know of in literary history to ever say anything about himself. And he was also among the first to work as a synthesizer, and a compiler – to take many disparate strands of Ancient Greek legend, and wire them together into a single story – the Theogony. If the Ancient Greek myths were ever mortared together into a single volume, a sort of bible of the Eastern Mediterranean, then the Theogony would be the Book of Genesis. And while in writing the Theogony, Hesiod drew on a broad variety of traditions, his compilation was, as Ovid’s would be, seven hundred years later, an exercise involving a huge degree of personal creativity and innovation.

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 and he may tell you to lay off the communion wine. The point is, in Hesiod’s day, standard versions of myths and legends had not yet been consecrated by institutions and authorities. There was still room for exuberant innovation, for variations on themes, and for a lot of imagination and improvisation. While a certain degree of orthodoxy was expected, entertainment value was equally important. The main idea of this episode is 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. Hesiod lived at the cusp between an oral culture still recovering from the Bronze Age collapse and an advanced written culture forming all over the eastern Mediterranean. 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 – as I said, Zeus, Hera, Poseidon and company all show up in the art of high Mycenaean 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 in the Theogony as something 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.

So let’s hear the most famous parts of Hesiod’s Theogony. The basic outline of this poem 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.[music]

The Theogony

The Beginning According to Hesiod

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 there came 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 Rise of Kronos

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. Ouranos 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 genealogy of the gods from the theogony

A very thorough Czech diagram of the Olympian family tree. . .or bush, as described in Hesiod’s Theogony, courtesy of Adam from cs [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.

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. Kronos had hated his father for a long time. “I might be able to bring it off, Mother. I can’t stand Father; he doesn’t even deserve the name.”2 Gaia smiled, her vast earthen heart stirred with new warmth, and she handed Kronos the jagged sickle. [music]

The Fall of Ouranos in the Theogony

Freed from the bounds of the earth, Kronos 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, Ouranos 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.

Botticelli's Birth of Venus from the Theogony'

The most famous painting of Venus’ somewhat yucky origin story, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus was probably done some time in the 1480s, some 2,200 years after Hesiod’s Theogony.

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 ocean. Out of this foam, there arose a goddess, Aphordite. This moment of this text, by the way, is the source of Sandro Botticelli’s famous painting, The Birth of Venus. To return to the Theogony, Aphrodite 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 humans 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. [music]

The Theogony‘s story of the Birth of the Olympians

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.

altar of the twelve gods (louvre) from the theogony

Altar of the Twelve Olympian gods, from 6th-century BCE Athens, the generation that comes to ascendancy in Hesiod’s Theogony Photograph by tetraktys via Wikimedia Commons.

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 summit 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. Rheia conspired with Gaia and Ouranos. She would make Kronos pay for devouring his children, and for castrating his own 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. Zeus 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. [music]

The War with the Titans in the Theogony

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 large that they could rip chunks out of cliffs and hurl them at the titans.

Peter Paul Rubens titanomachy from theogony

Peter Paul Rubens’ Fall of the Titans (1637-8). The War of the Titans, or Titanomachy, is one of many Ancient Near Eastern stories of generations of gods vying for primacy. This story, which appeared prominently on the Parthenon’s sculptures, was most famously set down by Hesiod in the Theogony.

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. Zeus 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. Hesiod writes, “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. In the Inferno, when the Italian poet Dante Alighieri created his own theological compilation two thousand years after Hesiod, Dante recorded seeing the titans in one of the lowest basements of hell. Dante writes, “As, when mist dissolves, the gaze little by little makes out the shape of what the vapor-thickened air had hidden, so, boring through the thick dark atmosphere, drawing closer and closer to the edge, my error fled and my fear grew.”3 And Dante sees a titan there, “a chain wrapped about him from the neck down, so that on what we saw of him it made five full turns.”4

To return to Hesiod, 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,
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)

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. And with that, the last hope of the Titans was extinguished.

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 all of Zeus’ last great mortal enemy. [music]

The Theogony‘s conclusion: Zeus Sires Many Children

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.
Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier - Jupiter Asleep on Mount Ida, 1785

Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier’s Jupiter Asleep on Mount Ida (1785) offers a rare image of Zeus and Hera getting along rather nicely. They have not quite begun their notorious bickering in Hesiod’s Theogony.

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 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 was why she was born from his head. 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 more famous figures from Greek mythology, like Persephone, the reluctant wife of Hades, the smith god Hephaistos, the 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 bulk of the Greek myths we often meet him in mid-career, already a lightning-wielding patriarch, we should 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, Zeus 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 important in the mythological tradition. Now you know Hesiod’s Theogony. [music]

Oral Narration and Ancient Greek Instrumentation

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 that history is 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 requires 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 made use of prefabricated elements from earlier Greek mythology, 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. 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.

[lyre and aulos]

Those two sounds you’re hearing right now 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. [demonstration] And the aulos is a small reed flute, often played 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. [demonstration] One of the flutes holds down a tone, and the other plays a melody on top of it. The lyre and the aulos, which later became the tibia in Roman culture, were literature’s best friends in the ancient Mediterranean basin, accompanying the poetry of Hesiod, Homer, and Sappho, the plays of Sophocles, and Aristophanes, and later Roman dramatists like Plautus and Terence.

A good deal of Greek poetry, Hesiod’s not excluded, was composed in a meter called dactylic hexameter. Dactylic hexameter was the epic meter, and everyone knew its sound. Six hundred years later, when Roman writers began to create satires of epics, they used dactylic hexameter, telling silly stories in the same meter that had once been used in the august tales of Homer and Hesiod.

I’ve taught literature enough in a classroom 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 unstressed – stressed unstressed 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.
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.5

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 English poetry 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.

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 into 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 poetry’s original 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 that the line that follows “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater” is 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 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 other occasions, the unexpected directions you find yourself taking as a result of the limitations imposed 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. The audience will throw stuff at 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, 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 Stanley 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 sky
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)

What a powerful description! Hesiod 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.

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 might generalize, organized religion can be an intellectually demanding, and generative 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 captors into chickens. But Hesiod could do this. And in the Theogony, these innovations happen all the time. [music]

Hesiod, Homer, and History

On a simple level, the Theogony can understood as shorthand for 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, analogously, 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. 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 are 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 Hesiod’s long 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.

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 six episodes will be on the works of one of the most important literary figures ever to have lived anywhere, a figure who used to begin European literary history before we began learning about the Bronze Age texts of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and elsewhere. But after three thousand years of being in circulation, Hesiod’s contemporary Homer is still a shadow, standing with one foot in the early Iron Age, and the other foot in the late Bronze Age. He may have been a single individual, roughly a contemporary of Hesiod – a citizen of Chios or some other region in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Homeric poems as they now stand may have been the product of many compilers working together and putting a long history of oral tradition into print, as Hesiod was doing. Whoever, and whatever Homer was, the Homeric epics, for sheer influence and circulation, are almost unparalleled in literary history. To me, the Iliad is something like a meteor – something so far advanced beyond its own times, in depth of characterization, in narrative consistency, in its staggeringly powerful portrait of the beauty and frailty of the human condition – that it seems to have come from another galaxy.

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. Homer’s gods 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 in distinguishing themselves while they were alive – through spectacular acts of bravery, cunning, and violence. Above all, they believed in excellence. 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. One of my students once asked me which two works of ancient literature he should read. And I told him he should the Iliad. And then read the Iliad again. I was joking. Sort of. In the next episode, we’re going to the northwestern part of modern day Turkey, to a city called Ilion, and Illium, after which Homer’s Iliad is named. We’re going to the Trojan War. Try a quiz on this program at literatureandhistory.com if you want to test what you remember about the Theogony. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and if you want to hear a song, I’ve got one for you. If not, see you soon.

Still here? So, I got to thinking about Zeus. Zeus is a horny, horny being – both in the Theogony as well as in the Homeric epics and beyond. I got to wondering what was it like for him to fly all over the Aegean world, copulating with anything that had a pulse. And I thought, “What if Zeus travelled forward through time, and got cast in a western?” It seems quite possible to me. You know, you hear about things like this happening all the time. It would be an R-rated western, at the very least, a spaghetti western, in which the head of the Olympian pantheon galloped around ancient Greece, looking for various objects to sate his unending lust. I got to thinking, “What kind of a song would Zeus 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. This one’s called “It is Time for Zeus to Have Sex.” I hope it’s fun, and Homer, Achilles, and Hector and I will see you next time.


1.^ See Chadwick, John and Ventris, Michael. Documents in Mycenaean Greek. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974, p. 127. The authors note the source of this name as fragment Xa06.

2.^ Hesiod. Works and Days and Theogony. Translated by Stanley Lombardo. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1993, p. 65. Further references noted parenthetically.

3.^ Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Translated and Edited by Robert M. Durling. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 485.

4.^ Ibid, p. 487.

5.^ 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.