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Theogony | Context

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Ancient Origins

Scholars believe that, in addition to ancient Greek myths, Near Eastern creation myths inspired Hesiod. Like the Theogony, the ancient Babylonian story Enuma Elish tells the story of how the world begins and goes through several generations. The universe begins in a similarly formless way: in the Enuma Elish, it is made of undifferentiated matter; in theTheogony it is Chaos. The first gods who appear in the Enuma Elish—Tiamat, goddess of the salty waters, and Apsu, god of the sweet waters, are imperfect and can be challenged, just as Ouranos and Kronos were challenged by younger rivals. In the Enuma Elish, Apsu, the first father, wants to kill his children, and Tiamat, the first mother objects. When earth and water god Ea overhears this plan, he slays Apsu and fathers Marduk with his wife, Damkina. This murder of the father starts a civil war in the heavens, led by Tiamat, who wants to avenge the death of her husband, with some of her children, against other of her children. That is reminiscent of the civil war between the Titans and the Olympians in the Theogony. Young Marduk bears many similarities to Zeus as well. He is a sky god. He is attractive and powerful. He has the ability to persuade others to join him—Marduk goes before an assembly, and Zeus gains the help of the other Olympian gods. And they both battle dragons who have an association with female goddesses. Tiamat herself is a female dragon. And Typhoeus, the dragon that Zeus battles late in the Theogony, is the final child of Gaia and the one who, uncharacteristically, causes her to turn against her other children. Furthermore, Marduk is often, like Zeus, depicted holding a thunderbolt.

It's important to remember that the idea of separate "western" and "eastern" cultures is a fairly modern one, and ancient Greeks adapted much of their cultural material from cultures in the area that became the modern Middle East, such as Persia and Egypt. It is also important to note that Babylon, a kingdom in ancient Mesopotamia that was conquered by the Greeks, was located in what is now Iraq. Its culture was centered along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Salt water and fresh water mingled at the delta where the Tigris and Euphrates met the sea. Thus their environment may have shaped their understanding of how they created their gods.

The ancient Hurro-Hittite myth Song of Going Forth, also known as the Kingship in Heaven cycle, belonging to a group of people who lived in Mesopotamia (now much of northern Syria and eastern Iraq) around 3000 BCE, has even more similarities. In that myth, the sky god Anu is castrated by Kumarbi, who is the son of Anu's rival. Then, Kumarbi gives birth to the storm god Teshub. He later fights sea monsters. That echoes the Greek story of sky god Ouranos being castrated by Kronos, then giving birth to another storm or sky god, Zeus. Again, Zeus also shows his prowess at fighting sea monsters when he defeats Typhoeus and buries him under Mount Etna.

Hesiod and Homer

Hesiod lived at about the same time as Homer, the Greek author of the Odyssey and the Iliad. Homer's Iliad, a sweeping story of war involving many heroes and plot turns, neatly fits modern notions of what an epic poem should be: long, elaborate, and grand in scale. But to the ancient Greeks and modern scholars alike, Hesiod is also an epic poet, even though his poems are much shorter and more didactic (meant to teach lessons) and lack the same sense of heroic struggle. They both are considered epic poets because they share a poetic tradition, language, and style. This would typically include a particular poetic meter—dactylic hexameter—and be composed in a poetic Ionian dialect, which could be understood by cultured audiences all across Greece but would not likely have been the dialect Hesiod used for everyday speech.

Epic Poetry

The word epic is derived from the Greek epos, which means "word," "speech," or "poem" and thus underscores the poetic nature of the genre. In ancient Greece epics were recited by bards, rhapsodes, or singers, at special occasions. Cultures transmitted them orally for centuries before writing them down.

The structure of epics comes from the long tradition of oral poetry. These poems are not memorized word for word. Instead, poets improvise from a base narrative structure. They rely upon formulas they can combine in a wide variety of ways. The poet knows the characters and major points of the story and has a large collection of formulaic descriptions for a range of characters, events, and situations. The poet composes the exact words during the performance, varying the words, based on context and individual style.

Epic poems often begin with an invocation of the Muse, as the Theogony does. The Muses were the nine Greek goddesses of various types of poetry and art, including Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. The invocation is the poet's request for divine inspiration.

Hesiod's poetry shows skill in the use of several oral poetry techniques. One of them is etymologizing characters in Theogony—attributing their names to meanings related to their identities. Hesiod codifies and names a number of minor figures who had been unnamed before, such as sea nymphs. He lists 50 daughters of the sea god Nereus, and he doesn't give them everyday names but rather names that have meaning, such as Themisto (lawful) and Nemertes (infallible). These qualities are logical in the context of the story.

Another technique is the use of ring composition: starting a section of a poem with a certain set of lines, digressing, and returning to that same set of lines at the end of that section. These repetitions give listeners a sense of closure. Hesiod also makes use of epithets, which are phrases associated with particular characters that are often presented when that character is referred to anew. Thus, Hesiod refers to "far-seeing" Zeus, "grey-eyed" Athene, "crooked-scheming" Kronos, "fair-haired" Rhea, "Great Father" Ouranos, and "broad-bosomed" Gaia (or Earth). These epithets are units of meaning fashioned to fit the meter of the poem that are variously used, depending on the metrical needs of a given line of poetry.

Pan-Hellenism

The period that Hesiod lived in, around 700 BCE, was a time of change and growth. Hundreds of years earlier, Greece's Mycenaean civilization had disintegrated, plunging Greece into what later Greeks would call the Dark Age. For hundreds of years afterward, Greece lay in poverty, its palaces empty, the landscape depopulated, the people bereft of both skilled craftsmen and gold.

By 800 BCE, however, Greece's fortunes were improving, and the population was increasing. Life was becoming more competitive, and a hunger for land was leading more people, such as Hesiod's family, to move to new places. Political units called city-states (poleis) were starting to develop in different parts of Greece. And yet, in spite of the fact that different cities in the Greek world wanted to be separate political powers, the Greeks, as a people, also hungered for a sense of common identity, ethnicity, and culture. That gave greater power to arts and religion as a source of developing a sense of pan-Hellenism, or common Greekness.

The first Olympic Games were held in 776 BCE—an occasion that united Greeks and had strong religious significance. Poetry contests at which rhapsodes, or oral poets, competed took place all across Greece's mainland, islands, and colonies. They also had religious significance: they were intended as a celebration of Zeus. It is likely that this is the kind of audience for which Theogony was created. But Theogony would have a greater power even than people of its day could have imagined. That's because, just as the Greeks were uniting in their culture, they were gaining a powerful new tool to spread it.

Through trade Greeks had become aware of the Phoenician alphabet and had adapted it for their own use by about 750 BCE. No matter how great a storyteller Hesiod was, and no matter how many brilliant storytelling techniques he employed, the Theogony might not have made much of an impact if his story had not been written down. No one now knows if Hesiod wrote his works himself or if a scribe helped him. But experts do believe the writing occurred within a short period of its original composition.
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