The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XIII

Hesiod, continued…

The Offspring of Father Sky and Mother Earth…

 The Hundred-Handed Ones; Cyclopes; Titans; and Giants…

The Emasculation of Uranos…

Cronos and Rhea…

The Birth of the Cretan Zeus…

The War between the Titans and Olympians

The Revolt of the Giants:  Ossa upon Pelion…

     After listing as the descendants of Chaos such antithetical abstractions as Night and Day, Tartarus (the realm of death) and Love (the agency of life), Hesiod returns to Gaea and Uranos, Mother Earth and Father Sky, the first recognizably human couple.  And from that moment on, things begin to go awry.

Amongst their first generation of offspring were monsters, strange gigantic creatures with the raw potency of hurricanes, earthquake, and volcano.  These brats not only played their music too loud, but three of them, Cottus, Briareos, and Gyes (“presumptuous children”, as Hesiod describes them), had a hundred arms and fifty heads.  A different species of giants, the Cyclopes, towered upwards like craggy mountains, and had only a single, enormous eye in the middle of their foreheads.

After giving birth to such a litter, Gaea might have excused herself from the marriage bed; instead, she and Uranos blithely continued to procreate.  Their next brood of monsters were the Titans, just as overgrown as the previous generation.  Of course, the Titans were something of an improvement; not all of them were merely destructive, and several, in fact, became minor benefactors who slightly advanced the cause of civilization.  But they too, in the end, turned out to be troublemakers.

Like a typical Mother, Gaea loved her children unstintingly, warts and all.  But Father Uranos soon repined; he positively despised and refused to accept paternity of the hundred-handed, fifty-headed creatures, and as each issued from Mother Earth’s various crevices and orifices, he simply pushed it back in.  The Cyclopes and Titans he left at large, and Gaea, indignant at Uranos’ maltreatment of their other children, enlisted them against him.


The boldest of them, the Titan Cronos, lay in wait for his father and ambushed him while “he spread himself full upon the Earth”, as Hesiod delicately puts it, wounding him grievously with a jagged sickle in the “thigh”.  From the blood that issued from Cronos’ “thigh wound”, as it euphemistically referred to, sprang another brood of monsters, the Giants.  From the same fecund blood came the Erinyes (the Furies), those fetching femmes fatales with writhing snakes for hair, and eyes that wept tears of blood, whose mission in life was to punish sinners and make others mad with yearning for revenge or mayhem.  And finally, from the foam created by Uranos’ member where it fell into the sea, issued Aphrodite, the foam-born goddess.

Having emasculated and then dethroned his Father Uranos, Cronos thereafter reigned for the next epoch as universal King, with his sister-queen, Rhea.  But as it turned out, he was no more devoted a father than his own.

Learning from Uranos and Gaea that one of his own children was destined some day to overthrow him, Cronos decided that the prudent thing was to swallow each immediately after its birth.  But when Rhea was pregnant with Zeus, her sixth child, she sought counsel with her parents as to how to save the baby from her husband’s infanticidal hunger, and in the process, to avenge her Father Uranos for the indignity that Cronos had inflicted upon him.

Rhea was advised to repair secretly to the island of Crete, where in a remote cave she might safely deliver and nurture the future lord of the world.  Having done so, she handed Cronos a great stone wrapped in swaddling clothes, which he supposed was the divine child, and promptly swallowed down.  Much later, when Zeus was fully grown, he forced his father, with the help of his grandmother Gaea, to disgorge the stone, along with his five older siblings.  The stone was eventually set up as a monument at Delphi, and thereafter venerated by generations of supplicants to the oracle;  it was called the “omphalos”, and said to be located at the very centre of the globe.


There followed a tumultuous war between Cronos (leader of his brother Titans) and Zeus (aided by his five brothers and sisters)–a war that shook the cosmos to its very foundations.  The Titans were eventually conquered, in part because Zeus released from their prison the hundred-handed monsters who came to his aid with their weapons of thunder, lightning, and earthquake; and partly because one of the sons of the Titan Iapetus, whose name was Prometheus–and who was incomparably wise–, went over to the Olympian cause.

Once he defeated them, Zeus was careful to make an example of his rebellious enemies.  He hurled them down into the depths of Tartarus, a full eighteen days’ journey from heaven, as Hesiod famously describes it–nine days as the bronze anvil falls from Olympus to earth, and another nine days from earth to the pit of Hell–, and bound them there in adamantine chains.  Prometheus’ brother, the Titan Atlas, suffered an even more grievous fate, having been made to bear upon his shoulders the Atlas Mountains along with the whole crushing weight of the earth and sky.

But even after his victory over the Titans, the peace was not completely secured.  Mother Earth gave birth again, this time to her most terrifying offspring, a creature named Typhon.

Typhon sported a hundred heads, from the eyes of each of which flashed fire, and the jaw of each dripped death.  Zeus dispatched him with his most powerful thunderbolt, leaving Typhon a smouldering pool beneath Mt. Aetna, whence periodically there burst forth rivers of molten lava, whenever Typhon’s anger boils over.

Still later, one more attempt was made to usurp the usurper Zeus.  The Giants, late-born sons of Gaea, rebelled, piling Mt. Ossa upon Mt. Pelion in their assault upon Olympus; but their overreaching ambition too was punished, and they were hurled down to Tartarus to join their fellow insurrectionists.

So ends the Theogony of Hesiod, a Byzantine and often bizarre roll-call of divine names and events which, nonetheless, follow a predictable (if notorious) cycle of infanticides, parricides, rebellions, and usurpations from generation to generation.

We can of course look upon these repetitions from any number of viewpoints.  As the Greeks themselves understood from the beginning, the immoral behaviour of the gods of myth was merely human behaviour projected into transcendence.  (For such anthropomorphisms, the mythic poets were either condemned as “liars” or excused as inspired allegorists, who took refuge in such symbolic fictions as were necessary to describe the ineffable Divine.)

But the more important explanation for the repetition of these motives is religious and psychological.  The overthrow of the first generation of the gods, the earth-born Titans, by the Olympians–the Titanomachy–looks back dimly to a period in Greek pre-history when the principal deity throughout the Mediterranean world was the Magna Mater, the Great Goddess of the Earth, upon whom Bronze-age agricultural peoples necessarily depended for their survival.  The masculine sky-religion of Zeus and his fellow Olympians only arrived with the migration from the north of the Hellenic tribes into the Greek mainland at the beginning of the third millennium B.C., and the transition from the older, chthonian (or earth-centred) religions to the later ouranian religion of storm and weather is undoubtedly what Hesiod’s Titanomachy mythological recalls.

More generally, however, the them of the Father-King’s being warned that a son will arise to overthrow him, and the son’s inevitable fulfillment of his father’s fears, is an age-old and universal archetype, made famous in modern times by Freud’s so-called “Oedipus complex” (to which we shall have to return).  But it is so fundamental to the cyclical rhythms of life and death, power and impotence, that it is hard to identify its origins or ultimate meaning.

It may well be based on the ancient tribal rite of the Killing of the King (or Priest King), whose term was fixed because it was believed that his powers were subject to exhaustion, and so, at the end of it, he was “slain” in a kind of mimetic drama by the heir apparent, thus ensuring the uninterrupted vitality of the tribe and its land.

But I doubt that this exhausts the significance of the archetype, which, as I have just said, expresses the universal alternation between death and life, darkness and life, which is an essential datum of our existence, and certainly the most powerful one in which the human psyche experiences it.  When we eventually turn to the myth of the hero, we will encounter innumerable examples of this motive.