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Theogony | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Invocation of the Muses

The poem begins with an invocation of the Muses on Mount Helicon who taught Hesiod, a shepherd, to sing. He says they gave him the ability to sing of the past and the future: They "plucked and gave a staff to me, a shoot / Of blooming laurel ... / And breathed a sacred voice into my mouth." He then describes the Muses who sing in beautiful harmony, their voices filling the halls of Zeus and echoing to the peak of Mount Olympus where the gods and goddesses live.

The Muses sing of the Titans, the first gods, and their children, the Olympians. Then they sing of Zeus, the chief of the Olympian gods, and of the race of Giants. The Muses are the daughters of Mnemosyne (Memory) and Zeus, who lay with her nine nights, producing nine daughters. They live in Olympus with Desire and the Graces. Zeus, wielder of thunder and lightning, had become the king of Olympus by defeating his father, Kronos, and divided power among the Olympian gods.

The nine Muses impart the ability to speak well, solve disputes, and offer sage advice to lords favored by heaven. The Muses and Apollo are responsible for minstrels and players on the lyre. When a man has sorrows on his mind, if he hears a bard sing of the glorious deeds of men of old or of the Olympian gods, he forgets his grief.

Hesiod hails the Muses and asks them for song to celebrate the race of immortal gods, the children of Ouranos (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth), and Night and the Sea. He asks the Muses to tell him how the gods and earth and everything on it arose, how the gods shared their honors and captured Olympus, and what came first in creation.

The First Generations of Gods

First there is Chaos, and next comes Gaia, on which the gods, Tartarus, and Love all stand. Love (Eros) makes men weak and overpowers the mind. From Chaos comes Night and Erebos (Darkness), and Night, with the help of Erebos, gives birth to Day and Space. Then Gaia bears Ouranos (Heaven) to cover her and to be a resting place for the gods. Then she brings forth hills and the nymphs. Then on her own, she bears the sea (Pontus). Then, after lying with Ouranos, she bears the Titans: Oceanus and Koios, Kreius, Iapetos, Hyperion, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Tethys, Phoebe, and last of all "crooked-scheming" Kronos. Next Gaia bears the three one-eyed Cyclopes—Brontes, Steropes, and Arges—who will ultimately give thunder and lightning to Zeus. Then she bears the three mighty hundred-handed, fifty-headed monsters: Kottos, Gyes, and Briareus.

Ouranos hates these monsters and hides them from Gaia when they are born. But Gaia, pained by this, creates a sickle of flint (a hard stone) and pleads with her sons to take revenge on their father: "'My sons, whose father is a reckless fool, / If you will do as I ask, we shall repay / Your father's wicked crime.'" When Kronos agrees, Gaia gives him the sickle, hides him, and explains her plan. When Ouranos comes to lie in love with Gaia, Kronos cuts off his father's genitals with the sickle and flings them into the sea. Drops of the blood of Ouranos fall upon Gaia, causing her to give birth to the Furies, who punish those who kill or attack their parents, the Giants, and the nymphs known as Meliae. The genitals, floating on the sea first near Cythera and then near Cyprus, collect foam around them and grow into a girl who becomes Aphrodite (later the Olympian goddess of love and beauty), whose name is sometimes interpreted as "the foam-risen." Ouranos reproaches his sons and calls them "Titans," which some interpret as "straining in insolence," and predicts punishment will strike them in the future.

Then Night gives birth to a host of frightful beings, including Doom, Death, Sleep, Blame, Distress, the Destinies, and the three Fates that punish sinners. Night also gives birth to Nemesis (who punishes hubris), Deceit, Age, and Strife, who herself bore a number of beings who cause people grief or sadness.

Pontus's first son is Nereus, later known as the Old Man of the Sea, who, along with Doris, the daughter of Oceanus, begets 50 daughters, including Amphitrite, who becomes the wife of Poseidon (god of the seas) and Thetis, the mother of Achilles, hero of the Iliad. Thaumas, another son of Pontus, fathers Iris and the Harpies. Pontus's son Phorkys lies with Ceto, who then bears the Graiae (grey-haired crones) and the three snake-haired Gorgons, two of whom are immortal and the mortal Medusa. Poseidon lies with Medusa, and when the hero Perseus cuts off her head, out springs Chrysaor and the winged horse Pegasus, who later comes to bring thunder and lightning to Zeus.

Ceto also bears Echidna, part beautiful goddess and part huge, frightening snake who eats raw flesh in a hidden cave. Loved by the horrible monster Typhoeus, Echidna bears a brood of fierce offspring who become known as some of the most celebrated monsters in Greek mythology, antagonists for heroes to come: Cerberus, the hound of Hades with 50 heads; the eight-armed Hydra, who is later killed by Heracles; the Chimaera, a fierce monster that is part lion, part goat, and part snake, who is later caught by Belleraphon and Pegasus; the Sphinx, who plagues Thebes; and the Nemean lion, also conquered by Heracles. Tethys and Ocean bear many rivers and many daughters who figure in various Greek myths as well as the 3,000 nymphs known as Oceanids.

Theia bears to Hyperion a son, Helios, (the sun), a daughter, Selene, (the moon), and another daughter, Eos, (the dawn), who bears the winds and the stars. Krios fathers Astraios, Pallas, and Perses, and Pallas sleeps with Styx, Ocean's daughter, who bears Victory, Glory, Power, and Force. Later, when Zeus fights the Titans, he promises that any of the original gods who supported his cause would gain new honors under his rule. Styx is the first deity to join him in Olympus along with her children, where she is honored as the oath of the gods and where her children live at Zeus's side.

Phoebe lies with Koios and bears three daughters: Leto, Asterie, and Hekate, the last of whom is greatly honored by Zeus and loses none of the honors or privileges she had under the Titan gods. Even though she has no brothers, she is revered. She helps men in war and competitions, favors horsemen and sailors, helps livestock to increase, and is a nurse to the young.

The Birth of the Olympians

Kronos forces himself upon Rhea, who bears Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and finally Zeus, who later becomes the chief of the Olympian gods. As each child is born, Kronos gulps it down, because he had heard a prophecy that he would be overthrown by one of his own sons. The poem describes this saying, "He seized it in his hands and thrust it down / Into his belly, fool!" Rhea grieves, but just before she is about to deliver Zeus, she asks Gaia and Ouranos to hide the child and punish Kronos. Gaia and Ouranos agree and have her come to Crete where Gaia hides the child in a cave and gives Kronos a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes, which he then swallows.

Zeus grows up, and Gaia induces Kronos to vomit up his swallowed children. First, he vomits up the stone, which Zeus later sets near Mount Parnassus for men to marvel at. Zeus frees his uncles, the Cyclopes, from the bonds Kronos had put them in, and they later reward him with the thunderbolt.

Prometheus and Pandora

The nymph Klymene marries Iapetos and bears Atlas, Menoitios, Prometheus, and Epimetheus. The latter causes trouble for men by accepting Pandora, the first woman, a gift of Zeus. Zeus casts Menoitios into Erebos, forces Atlas to hold up the heavens with his hands, and binds Prometheus in unbreakable chains, while setting an eagle to come to him daily to eat out his liver, which grows back every night. Ultimately, Heracles kills the eagle and frees Prometheus. Zeus, although angry with Prometheus, approves because the act increases the honor of his son Heracles.

Crafty Prometheus is punished for deceiving Zeus. Prometheus arranges two sacrifices for Zeus to choose from: one with the meat and hide hidden in an ox's stomach, and the other with the bones hidden in the fat. Even though Zeus knows the trick, it enrages him, and he plans to punish mortal men in the future. This is the reason humans burn ox-bones to the gods and keep the meat and hides for themselves.

Angered, Zeus vows to keep fire from men. But Prometheus steals fire and hides it in a hollow fennel stalk in order to give it to man. When Zeus discovers the theft, he is furious: "Zeus / Who thunders in the heavens ate his heart, / And raged within to see the ray of fire / Far-seeing, among men." As a punishment to man for receiving fire, he has Hephaistos create Pandora, a beautiful maiden, adorned and dressed by Athene and wearing a crown of gold. All are amazed to see Pandora, the "lovely curse," the "hopeless trap." She is the mother of the race of womankind, who are no help to men but who share their wealth. Like drones in a beehive, women benefit from the work of others.

The second punishment to men as the price of fire is that if any man fails to marry a woman, he will have no one to care for him when he grows old, and distant relatives will divvy up his property when he dies. A good wife is a mix of good and evil, but a bad wife is the source of nothing but pain.

The War with the Titans

Ouranos (Heaven) had imprisoned his sons, the hundred-handed monsters, in Gaia (Earth) because he envied their looks, size, and masculinity. So when Zeus and the other gods are fighting the Titans, Gaia advises him that if he frees his uncles, they will help him win. The war between the Olympians and Titans had persisted for 10 years, with neither side winning. But when the hundred-handed monsters receive nectar and ambrosia, the drink and food of the gods, their spirits rise, and Zeus calls on them to battle the Titans. They join in the battle, hurling giant rocks with their hundred hands, and when they clash with the Titans in battle, the sea roars, the earth rumbles, heaven and even Olympus is shaken. Their steps can be felt down as far as Tartarus. Then Zeus comes from Olympus wielding thunder and lightning, with fire everywhere that burns the earth and boils the oceans. Flames rise to heaven, blinding the Titans, and it sounds as if Ouranos (Heaven) is crashing down on Gaia (Earth): "Just such a mighty crash arose from the gods." Dust storms and earthquakes ensue. Finally, the tide of battle turns against the Titans.

Kottos, Briareus, and Gyes hurl three hundred rocks one after the other and defeat the Titans, chain them up, and send them down to Tartarus, which is as far below earth as earth is below heaven. It would take a falling anvil nine days and nights to reach Tartarus from earth. Far below the roots of earth, Tartarus is bound by a bronze wall and then by a triple thickness of Night. The Titan gods are imprisoned there, guarded by the hundred-handed monsters.

Tartarus and Typhoeus

Tartarus is misty and murky, and it would take a man a year to find the bottom, as he is blown here and there by random gusts of wind. It is also the home of Night, where Atlas holds up the heavens. Night and Day greet each other whenever they change places as they cross the bronze threshold: one waits while the other is on earth. Night brings Sleep and his brother Death, who is an enemy even to the immortal gods.

Further on is the house of Hades, god of the underworld, and of Persephone. The monstrous Cerberus stands guard in front, waiting to eat anyone who emerges from the gates of Hades. There also lives Styx, the oldest daughter of Ocean. Occasionally, when the gods quarrel and one tells a lie, Zeus sends Iris, the messenger, to fetch sacred water from the river Styx. If a god breaks an oath sworn on water from the Styx, he must lie for a year in a trance with no nectar or ambrosia. After that he is shut out from the banqueting and assemblies of the other gods for nine full years. The Titans live in this place the gods loathe, at the ends and sources of earth and Tartarus and the sea and the heaven, beyond the gloom of Chaos, guarded by the hundred-handed monsters.

Then Tartarus lies with Gaia, who bears the fearsome Typhoeus, who has a hundred dragon heads with eyes flashing fire, issuing all sorts of voices resembling a variety of animals. Typhoeus threatens to challenge Zeus's rule, but Zeus attacks him with thunder and lightning, and again Earth and Olympus shake from the combat, and the seas boil from Zeus's lightning and the fire issuing from Typhoeus's many eyes: "The whole earth boiled / And heaven and the sea." The battle causes great waves and earthquakes, and shakes the Titans living in Tartarus. Zeus burns the monsters' heads with lightning, lashes him with a whip, and throws him down. Flames shoot up from the monster, scorching and melting the earth. Zeus then hurls him down into Tartarus. From him come all the fierce, stormy winds that plague men at sea.

The Rule of Zeus

Now Zeus, ruling as king of the immortals, takes as his first wife Metis, the wisest of gods. But he hears from Gaia and Ouranos that she will bear outstanding children, first Athene, and then a son who would aspire to compete with Zeus: "a son / With haughty heart, a king of gods and men." So he thrusts Metis down into his belly just before she is to give birth to Athene so that no other god can compete with him and so that Metis can advise him. He then takes Themis as his second wife, who bore the Horae: Order, Peace, and Justice. She then bears the Fates: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Next, Eurynome, Ocean's daughter, bears him the lovely Graces: Aglaia, Euphrosyne, and Thalia. Zeus's union with Demeter, goddess of agriculture and grain, produces Persephone, who is later stolen by Hades. With Mnemosyne, he fathers the nine Muses. Leto bears him Apollo, god of truth, light, medicine, music, and she also bears him Artemis, goddess of the hunt and wild animals. Finally, Zeus takes Hera as his wife, who bears Hebe, the cupbearer of the gods, and Ares, god of war.

But Zeus produces Athene from his own head, a war goddess also associated with wisdom. Hera, angered by this act, bears Hephaistos, god of metal work and craft, on her own as well. Amphitrite and Poseidon produce Triton, an important sea god. Ares and Aphrodite produce Terror and Fear, who accompany their father in war. Atlas's daughter Maia lies with Zeus and bears Hermes, messenger of the gods and god of commerce. Zeus then begets Dionysus, god of wine, upon the mortal Semele. Alcmene unwittingly lies with Zeus and bears Heracles, the great hero. Heracles married Hebe and having lived his life as a mortal hero, now resides, immortal, among the gods. Ocean's daughter Perseis bears to Helios the beautiful Circe, the sorceress mentioned in Homer's Odyssey, and King Aeëtes, who fathered Medea, wife of Jason in the story of the Golden Fleece.

At this point the poet says farewell to the Olympians, and directs the Muses to sing of goddesses who lay with mortal men and bear godlike children. Demeter lies with Iasion and bears Ploutos, spreader of great riches. Harmonia, the child of Aphrodite, bears to Cadmus Ino, Semele, and several other characters important in Theban mythology. The Oceanid Callirhoe bears to Chrysaor the hero Geryon. Eos bears to Tithonus Memnon, king of Ethiopia; and to Kephalos she bears Phaethon. Jason, after performing tasks for King Pelias, marries Medea. Thetis, child of Nereus, bears to Peleus the famed hero Achilles. Aphrodite lies with Anchises and begets Aeneas, the Trojan prince. Helios's daughter Circe loves Odysseus and bears him children, as does Calypso.

Analysis

Generational Succession: From Chaos to Order

The Theogony is the story of the succession of four generations of cosmic rulers culminating in the ascendance of the Olympian sky-god Zeus. The three transfers of power—from Gaia (Earth) to Ouranos (Heaven), then to Kronos, and finally to Zeus—involve remarkable acts of brutality and betrayal, which are finally supplanted by the stability and justice of the reign of Zeus, who is portrayed as a wise and fair ruler supported by his subjects. This characterization of Zeus makes sense coming from Hesiod, who is writing at a time when Zeus is considered to be the ruler of the gods, and who, in his other works, portrays Zeus favorably. (In other Greek works, Zeus is sometimes portrayed as being more devious, disloyal, and unjust.)

The story of the succession is one of loathing, anger, envy, and retribution in which wives betray husbands, fathers imprison their children, and sons usurp their fathers' power. In many cases, the gods are produced through sexual relationships, but there is little sense that these relationships create a sense of family, love, or loyalty. Gaia, the mother of all, bears her partner and the father of her children, Ouranos, who immediately begins to act like an autocrat, imprisoning his offspring whom he envies and loathes for their "overwhelming masculinity." This action antagonizes Gaia, who then begins scheming against Ouranos to punish him for his wickedness, and devises the plan by which her son Kronos brutally castrates and overthrows his father. The shameful father is undermined by the shameful act of his son, aided by his wife-consort. Ouranos then reproaches his sons and predicts they will be punished for their deed. Fearing his parent's prophecy, Kronos gulps down his children as they are born. Grieving, his sister-wife Rhea then appeals to her parents for help. In retribution for his wicked treatment of his parents and children, Ouranos, Gaia, and Rhea hatch a plan to deceive Kronos and allow Zeus to grow strong enough to challenge his father and ultimately defeat him in a devastating war.

In taking his revenge against his father, Zeus is portrayed as acting with justification, righting past wrongs, and enjoying the support of those he rules. The plan by which Zeus escapes being swallowed and is allowed to grow and thrive is first mentioned in the context of bringing the Fury down on Kronos—by punishing the Titan for his wrongs. In this way, Zeus is seen as an instrument of justice. Zeus frees his imprisoned uncles, the Cyclopes, who then in gratitude give him thunder and lightning, the weapons with which he will defeat his father and the Titans. The same is true of Kottos, Gyes, and Briareus, the hundred-handed monsters, who fight for Zeus out of gratitude for being freed.

Hesiod portrays Zeus in his victory as generous and fair minded. He doesn't automatically punish all the gods who had been standing under the rule of the Titans. Because he honors Styx, Victory, Glory, Power, and Force (the children of Styx) always accompany Zeus. He also honors Hekate, and does not "snatch away the rights she had / Under the Titan gods of old." Because he "fulfill[s] his vows / To all ... he rules greatly." Even his treatment of Prometheus reveals his ability to contain his wrath: he allows Heracles to free Prometheus in order to increase the honor of his son, which is a big change from the way fathers treated sons previously in this story.

With the Titans and Typhoeus defeated and safely confined to Tartarus under the watchful eyes of the hundred-handed monsters, the chaos and brutality of the previous upheavals have come to an end. Now, Zeus does not simply grab power for himself, but is urged by the other gods to rule the immortals, and he assigns "rank and privilege to each," dividing "power among the gods / Fairly." His first act is to wed Metis, the wisest of all deities, and, when she is about to give birth, he thrusts her into his belly on the advice of Gaia and Ouranos, thereby appropriating her wisdom when he gives birth to Athene, who becomes his adviser. Even though swallowing one's family members is portrayed negatively in the case of Kronos, the text doesn't suggest that Zeus's action echoes his father's. Accompanied by Victory, Glory, Power, and Force, Zeus is portrayed as a just monarch, having fathered Order, Peace, and Justice, the Fates, and the nine Muses who make possible Hesiod's song.

The Masculine Subduing the Feminine

The Theogony is also a story of the triumph and rule of male deities over threatening females. Female figures—including Gaia, Night, and Echidna—seem to challenge the ruling male figures by bearing terrifying offspring that plague males. The hundred-handed monsters and Cyclopes must be imprisoned; the dreaded offspring of Night must be endured; and the progeny of Echidna must be subdued by male heroes. However, by the end of the story, Zeus has created a stable order in which male supremacy survives unchallenged: his time seems to be spent primarily producing children with accommodating women.

The tale begins with the female Gaia and Night giving birth to both male and female beings. Procreative power, initially in female hands, is then appropriated by male entities through the operation of Love (Eros), so that male-female copulation becomes the primary process of creation. Ouranos doesn't overthrow Gaia, but rather dominates her sexually, and Gaia's retaliation occurs during an act of copulation. Like her mother, Rhea "is forced by Kronos" to bear children, and she betrays him by deceiving him about the birth of his child.

Although the males rule, female scheming undermines them with sons loyal primarily to their mothers. The first two male rulers—Ouranos and Kronos—are defeated through mother-son conspiracy. The pattern seems about to repeat itself with Zeus when he wisely swallows Metis, thereby appropriating her power and preventing the birth of a son who would overthrow him. By birthing Athene himself, he takes over the traditionally female function of childbirth, producing a daughter who will advise him rather than compete with him for power as a son might do. Zeus also removes the threat of other formidable female figures—Styx and Hekate—by honoring them and appropriating their power.

The Power of Song

Hesiod begins the Theogony with the epic convention of invoking the Muses: he, the poet, is merely the mouthpiece through which the Muses, daughters of Memory and goddesses of song, speak. Great emphasis is placed on the power of the Muses to sing and inspire poetry. Indeed, the first hundred or so lines focus on the Muses, who gave the shepherd Hesiod a staff and breathed into him the ability to sing. The poet describes the beauty of their song resounding through the halls of Zeus on Olympus. The power and charm of the Muses can be indirectly attributed to Zeus, who is their father and under whose rule they sing on Olympus. And, of course, it is his story they are telling in this tale. They have other powers: the power to ease pain by distracting listeners and enabling them to forget grief and evil, and the power to grace a lord's words so that others admire him.

Theogony Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Ouranos and Gaia produce three sets of offspring.

Rising Action

2 Ouranos hides the Cyclopes and the Hundred-Handed monsters.

3 Kronos castrates Ouranos.

4 Kronos swallows his children.

5 Kronos vomits his children.

6 Zeus frees his uncles, the Cyclopes.

Climax

7 Zeus and the Olympians battle the Titans.

Falling Action

8 Zeus sends the Titans to Tartarus.

Resolution

9 Zeus defeats Typhoeus and sends him to Tartarus.

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