Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Hesiod: Theogony (725 BCE)

Okay, here begins this weird project- blogging the canon- with a rejiggered writeup on Hesiod....

In the beginning, there was Chaos. Most early cosmologies agree on this. The Babylonian Enûma Eliš embodies chaos in the goddess Tiamat, a badass bitch who must be destroyed before civilization can commence; she is also winter, but what great poetic insight it is that chaos is winter! The Bible is unique in describing the chaos as formlessness and darkness with God bringing light, and thus skipping over the void altogether. In most of the polytheistic mythologies, however, Chaos danced drunk in the void, screwed in the darkness, and spawned all sorts of wild monsters. This seems to me the more accurate account, told here by Hesiod in about 725 BCE.

Hesiod begins by evoking the Muses, those nine “fresh-voiced daughters of Zeus” who call on men to sing and speak beautifully. By supernatural means, the Muses guide us as we create literature or lead kingdoms through our speech. The uncanny ability of some men to cast a spell over each other with their honeyed words is a recurrent theme in Western literature down to the present, likely because the democratic republic is a recurrent governing structure. Hesiod describes leaders, poets, and singers in the same Mused group. Perhaps, we’re more skeptical now about great oral persuaders. We think of them as Don Juans, great seducers- as Hitler described political leaders- with the public as a virginal damsel in distress! We think all too often of Hitler in general, but especially when describing the ability of hypnotic orators to shift public opinion. The ideal orator to the founders of modern democracy was Cicero; our jaundiced eyes think of Cagliostro or Machiavelli. Perhaps we need to revive the Muses, beautiful women schooling us in how to seduce through our words.

The Muses call on Hesiod to describe the Old Gods, the primitive deities whose fighting hashed out the current order that rules on Mount Olympus. He’s a bit of an anthropologist, here, detailing the earlier polytheistic panoply that, compared to the rowdy roundtable discussions on Mount Olympus, appears downright savage. This is saying something: the Greek gods weren’t exactly models of congeniality themselves. But there is something more irrational and lurid to the early gods; they’re pure inchoate Id, like something out of the psychopathological imagination. This is characteristic of most early creation myths.

But Hesiod is not writing a cosmology, but a theogony- a geneology of the gods, here establishing Zeus as their King. Eric Voegelin writes, in characteristically difficult prose: “The theogonic speculation of a Hesiod was not the beginning of a new religious movement in opposition to the polytheistic culture of Hellas.” Nevertheless, here Zeus does achieve near omnipotence and there is a brief mention of a creator “God”. The Hebrew shift to a single deity radically removed from mundane existence has not yet come to Greece; but the old immanent polytheism isn’t exactly cutting it either. This suggests the work was written in a time of social crisis.

According to Hesiod, in the beginning, there was Chaos; then appeared Earth (Gaia), Love, and the murky depths of the underworld, Tartarus, all by a sort of spontaneous generation. This was a time of great creation: Chaos gave birth to Night and Erebos (more Underworld); Earth gave birth to Heaven; Night & Erebos gave birth to Day; and finally Earth mated with her son Heaven (Ouranos) and gave birth to the Ocean, and eleven gods, the Titans, including the clever Cronos, who would become his father’s enemy, and later be killed by his own son, Zeus. Greek creation mythology, and actually all early creation mythology, abounds with incest and the war of sons against fathers.

Here, Ouranos provokes Gaia’s anger. Repulsed after she gives birth to three monsters, he shuts the beasts up inside of her, which understandably rubs her the wrong way. Gaia then tries to turn her sons against their father, succeeding with Cronos, who takes a jagged sickle and cuts off his father’s genitals, throwing them over his shoulder! Ouranos had a fairly impressive cock; the splattered drops of blood produce the Furies and Giants from the soil, while the severed schlong, bobbing Bobbit-like in the ocean, becomes Aphrodite.

Dark Night, meanwhile, gave birth to Blame, Distress, the ruthless Fates, Work, Nemesis, Forgetfulness, Famine, Strife, Fights, Murders, Lawlessness and Ruin, and other abstracted horrors. The gods and goddesses flood the world with offspring, in fact, and it becomes difficult to keep the beasts in Hesiod’s menagerie straight in your mind. He writes too much! There are some kind gods, such as Leto and Hekate, who help humans, but nothing can protect them from the more capricious and vicious gods. Men would have no chance of surviving in this wild jungle of gods and monsters, and the world of the Greeks seems terrifying, hounded on all sides by cruel forces beyond human control.

Eventually, though, the gods fell in line under a powerful ruler. Cronos becomes something of a tyrant, but is haunted by the thought that one of his children will overthrow him. After Cronos forces himself on the Titan Rhea, she gives birth to the first Olympians: Demeter, Hestia, Hades, Hera, Poseidon, and Zeus. Afraid of his children, Cronos swallows them, but Rhea has other plans. She hides Zeus and gives Cronos a stone to swallow, causing him to throw up the other children. Zeus and the Olympians will eventually defeat the Titans, driving them underground, and then he will dethrone Cronos and become the King of the Gods.

Mortal men are created in this time, and Prometheus steals fire for them, angering Zeus. But men are powerless over gods. They’re also powerless over women. No romantic, Hesiod believes that Zeus created womankind to deceive and manipulate men. Without a wife, man dies alone; but even a good wife is half-evil. Hesiod’s misogyny gets tiresome; to him, all women are Raymond Chandler fatales.

His misogyny extends to the gods, of course; the highlights being goddesses conspiring with their children to kill their mates. But I think it’s part of a larger war of all against all. The fundamental nature of the world is war. Mythology anthropomorphizes the forces of nature, but it also reveals something about how these people see human societies. For Hesiod, even the order of civilization is maintained by the regular use of violence.

(Okay, Canon fans! Tune in next time for: Hesiod: Works and Days)

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