Let there be gods: Hesiod’s ‘Theogony’

What is common to Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Clash of the Titans’? Hesiod’s ‘Theogony’

November 09, 2019 04:00 pm | Updated 08:40 pm IST

Brutal: Fresco by Vasari & Gherardi showing the mutilation of Uranus by Saturn.

Brutal: Fresco by Vasari & Gherardi showing the mutilation of Uranus by Saturn.

One of the two sources most commonly quoted by Socrates is Hesiod. A couple of his major works survive. One is Works and Days and the other is Theogony (meaning ‘the genealogy of the gods’). Hesiod probably lived around 700 years before Christ, and more or less in the same time as Homer, who is the other most frequently quoted Socratic source. As we have observed before, the collection of verses we know as Homeric might not be attributable to a single individual.

Devouring son

Interestingly, something similar occurs in the Persian quatrains we know as the works of Omar Khayyam. The fact is that many later poets wrote related verse and then inserted Khayyamian references to ensure their own verse’s longevity (we humans are known to favour something more if it is endorsed by others — all art valuation is based on this principle rather than quality).

However, this issue of several voices being fused into one does not apply to Hesiod even though he’s from the same period and he also did not ‘write’ so much as he was recited. The one thing that does strike the reader is how different the material that he put out is, even in terms of the tone of the voice. Works and Days is almost a secular work. It is bucolic and a farmer’s almanac, describing the seasons and the labour that goes into them. But let us have a look at the other work, Theogony . Most, if not all of what is known about the Greek pantheon, comes from this work. In that sense it is a sort of creation myth that speaks about how things like the earth, sky, days and night came to be.

From the union of Uranus (sky) and Gaia (earth) was produced Kronos (Saturn), who was ambitious. When the sky is descending to mount the earth, Kronos castrates his father. Having seized power, Kronos/ Saturn fears that his own children will overthrow him, and so eats them up. There is an outstanding though disturbing work by Francisco Goya titled ‘Saturn devouring his Son’.

One son survives this cull — Zeus, who is hidden away by his mother at birth. Zeus tricks his father into vomiting out his swallowed siblings. A long chain of unions and progenies is then described, which is too complicated to describe here.

Prometheus bound

To the reader it all seems strange and vague, but this is how all ancient creation myths have been recorded, from Babylon to India. The Mahabharat will make little sense to the reader who approaches it from the perspective of science and chronology. And like the others, Theogony is a brutal work, full of incest, of course, but also assuming that holding onto power is something that cannot be resisted.

To me, the most interesting character in the work is Prometheus, through whom Hesiod links the gods to us humans. Fire was seen as something that the gods possessed as a special gift and was denied to humans. Prometheus steals it and brings it to man. For this he is punished by being chained to a mountain, and having his liver eternally eaten by a raptor. The author of Frankenstein , Mary Shelley, thought of the creation of artificial life in the same way as Hesiod saw science and her novel is subtitled ‘The Modern Prometheus’.

Theogony became less known over time for obvious reasons. The Romans took over the Mediterranean from the Greek/ Macedonians a couple of centuries before Christ. And following the conversion of Constantine, the Church became the primary distributor of myths and legends for centuries.

It is the renewed interest in Greek culture during the Renaissance that brought back this work and others from the same era into the public schools of England, where students were taught what was thought of as the classical languages. Theogony is written in Epic Greek, the language of Homer, which is different from Biblical Greek, also known as Alexandrian or Koine Greek.

When Socrates speaks about Hesiod, he does so through exact quotations from his poems, much like we Indians would know a shloka or a ghazal . This means that Hesiod’s works were commonly known and popular. That is not the case any longer, of course, but the fact that even today we make movies that have Zeus and Prometheus and Perseus and Poseidon can be attributable to the work of Hesiod.

The writer is a columnist and translator of Urdu and Gujarati non-fiction works.

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