There is a modern tendency to think of cosmogony as an attempt to substantiate foundational truth. In our modern brains we feel entitled to an origination story that is comprehensible and reductive. Carrying with us the pock marks of humanism, even at a subterranean level, we feel uncomfortable with the unknown. The humanist mantra is a rejection of dogma and superstition in exchange for critical thinking and rationalism; humans exist in the center of this world in an almost Copernican model. Nothing exists outside of our ability to comprehend.
At its heart cosmogony asks the question: How did we get here and what is our purpose? Beneath the narrative emerges an ordered system of belief that attempts to describe our creator and creation. Our modern approach to cosmogony looks similar to a lab with test tubes and beakers. Evidence is more important than narrative, and the “what" is frequently valued above the “why”.
Hesiod, writing between 750- 650 BC, very quickly locates himself geographically in the spectrum of knowledge. He is a mortal human, a shepherd, watching his flocks at the foot of Mount Helikon, and as such there are some things no mortal will ever truly understand. The Theogony doesn’t open with Hesiod, he’s not the protagonist; instead the narrative begins while the Muses are on Mount Helikon, where no human being can observe their sacred rites.
And having bathed their silken skin in Permessos
Or in Horse Spring or the sacred creek Olmeios,
They begin their choral dance on Helikon’s summit
So lovely it pangs, and with power in their steps
Ascend veiled and misted in palpable air
Treading the night and in a voice beyond beauty
[5-10 trans: Stanley Lombardo]
Hesiod doesn’t go looking for the Muses, they come to him, while he his alone with his flock, and they don’t bring great tidings but rather they say:
Hillbillies and bellies, poor excuses for shepherds:
We know how to tell many believable lies
But also, when we want to, how to speak the plain truth.
Hesiod does not claim to be infallible or omnipotent. He is a poor excuse for a shepherd, how could he possibly presume to describe the secrets of the universe? The Muses hand him a staff of laurel, and breathe into him a divine voice that will allow him to speak poetry of the past and future, and so he begins.
(Hilariously Lucian, writing five hundred years later, is underwhelmed by Hesiod’s future telling abilities. This is understandable because the Theogony seems to end suspiciously in the past, with no hint of the future in sight. In his “Word with Hesiod” he lodges his complaint with the bard in an imaginary discussion:
Either the alleged promise of the Muses to disclose the future to you was never given, and you are--excuse the expression--a liar: or it was given, and fulfilled, but you, niggard, have quietly pocketed the information, and refuse to impart it to them that have need: or, thirdly, you have composed a number of prophetic works, but have not yet given them to the world; they are reserved for some more suitable occasion. I do not presume to suggest, as a fourth possibility, that the Muses have only fulfilled half of their promise, and revoked the other,—which, observe, is recorded first in your poem. Now, if you will not enlighten me on this subject, who can? As the Gods are 'givers of good,' so you, their friends and pupils, should impart your knowledge frankly, and set our doubts at rest.)
To recap: Hesiod, a mere mortal, is shepherding his flocks, when the Muses emerge from the invisibility of the night to teach him divine secrets, in which he may or may not be able to discern fact from fiction. Truth is the gods and they will do with it what they want.
After the Muses prep Hesiod, he begs them to start at the beginning, the reverse order of the Muses opening hymn to the deities [10-20] that starts with Zeus and works it’s way back to Gaia, Oceans and the black one, Night. Hesiod wants to begin with Chaos.
If modern origin stories are held to a scientific standard, Hesiod and his contemporaries
were playing jazz. The poet Jared Carter compares the oral tradition of poetry to a New Orleans jazz performance, the poets riff and play off each other, there are chord changes and shared melodies that build off of tradition. There is a common theme, but the poet is given much autonomy and freedom. 1
We can see this in how Hesiod and Homer differ in their birth narrative of Aphrodite. In Hesiod’s version Aphrodite is the product of her father, Ouranos’ castration, while in Homer’s version Aphrodite is the daughter of Zeus sans castration. A bit different.
Hesiod’s version is so graphic and extreme it would be wrong not to go into it in minute detail:
In the beginning there was only Chaos, the Abyss,
But then Gaia, the Earth, came into being.
So far so good. But then Tartaros shows up, the dim underground world, and next Eros, who is allegedly the loveliest of all immortals. Eros ends up being a sidekick to Aphrodite, and doesn’t really have a prominent role to play in the Theogony outside of fomenting a general atmosphere of febrile desire. (If I had to distill the Theogony into one line it would be: A lot of nouns (person, place or thing) getting it on with other nouns in a frequently graphic and disturbing way.)
Gaia gives birth to Oranos, the starry Heaven. “Just her size, a perfect fit on all sides.” And then without any sexual love (Hesiod feels its important we know this) she gives birth to the barren raging sea.  And this is where things start to go down hill. You know that part about the Heavens being the perfect fit for the Earth? Well, Ouranos has his way with his mother every evening when the sun sets, he envelops her. Their union produces the Titans, and Kronos, the youngest Titan is disgusted by his lecherous father.
As Gaia gives birth to the Cyclopes her progeny becomes more and more monstrous and terrifying. The hundred handed monsters are strong and hulking and Ouranos loathes them. So he decides to stuff them back into the hollow of the Earth as soon as they are born and keep them there forever.
Jenny Clay puts it this way: “Genealogy now gives way to narrative as Hesiod relates how Uranus refused to allow his offspring to be born, “but kept all of them hidden and did not allow them to come up into the light”  apparently by blocking the birth canal through continuous sexual intercourse.” 2 Yikes?
Gaia comes up with a plan. A cunning and evil trick. She will goad her children into destroying the offending ‘member’ of their dysfunctional family.
Listen to me, children, and we might yet get even
With your criminal father for what he has done to us.
After all, he started this whole ugly business.
Her children are shocked and horrified at what their mother is asking of them, all but Kronos.
I think I might be able to bring it off, Mother.
I can’t stand Father; he doesn’t even deserve the name.
And after all, he started this whole ugly business.
And thus the moral doctrine of vengeance is born, and the defendant limps up to the stand, her belly swollen with hundreds of children battling each other to escape and she makes her case:
“He started it!”
So that evening, when Ouranos descends over the earth, Kronos is waiting for his father. In an ambush, clutching the sickle his mother created for him out of flint, he reaches up with his left hand and:
The fiendishly long and jagged sickle, pruning the genitals
Of his own father with one swoop and tossing them
Behind him, where they fell to no small effect
Earth soaked up all the bloody drops that spurted out,
And as the seasons went by she gave birth to the Furies
And to the Giants gleaming in full armor, spears in hand,
And to the Melia, as ash-tree nymphs are generally called.
The genitals themselves, freshly cut with flint, were thrown
Clear of the mainland into the restless, white capped sea,
Where they floated a long time. A white foam from the god-flesh
Collected around them, and in that foam a maiden developed…
Aphrodite is her name in speech human and divine, since it was in foam
She was nourished.
By comparison, in Book Twenty of the Iliad (20.107) ...Apollon tells Aeneas that his mother, Aphrodite, is the daughter of Zeus.
So there is something else going on here. These aren’t narratives that aspire toward truth of any kind. The details aren’t important, instead what emerges is the chaos and violence as gods run around begetting each other, this trajectory is not sustainable. The monsters get more and more terrifying and the cycle of revenge has been established.
Jenny Clay divides the Theogony into three major succession myths. The first is completed with the brutal narrative of Kronos castrating his father. Despite his methods, Ouranos was attempting to suppress the female generative force of Gaia which ultimately will lead to a radically destabilized cosmos. But Ouranos is instead suppressed and loses his ability to generate life in the process. After another two hundred lines of genealogies we come to Kronos who picks up the mantel from his father and begins the cycle again. Kronos and his sister Rheia produce the Olympians; Kronos is terrified that his offspring will “subdue” him, so he waits for each child to be born and then devours them.
Rheia comes up with a plan to allow her youngest son to live. She will hide him away deep within the caverns of the earth and in his place swaddle a large stone. As one would expect, the plan works flawlessly, considering there is very little difference from a human baby and a rock. Eventually, after Zeus is strong and has finished appropriately flexing his glorious muscles, Gaia suggests to Kronos that he vomit up all his offspring (this part is a little hazy…) And the first thing Kronos vomits up is not a human baby after all…but a stone.
Zeus took the stone and set it in the ground at Python (Delphi)
Under Parnassoss’ hollows, a sign and wonder for men to come.
And he freed his uncles, other sons of Ouranos
Who their father in a fit of idiocy had bound.
They remembered his charity and in gratitude
Gave him thunder and the flashing thunderbolt
And lightning, which enormous Earth had hidden before.
Trusting in these he rules mortals and immortals.
Zeus has usurped his father, the second succession is accomplished with a military coup instead of castration, and now Zeus must battle and control the unruly gods. He punishes Atlas with infinite sky holding, Prometheus has a shaft driven through his middle and daily an eagle perches on the shaft and slowly eats his liver, only to have it grow back each night for a process of infinite liver consumption and regeneration. Moral of the story: Don’t mess with Zeus. But Prometheus is eventually saved from the eagle/liver ordeal and immediately schemes a way to give fire to mortals. Playing tricks on Zeus doesn’t go well, but this time it is not Prometheus who is punished, but the mortal men themselves. Their curse? Women.
He made this lovely evil to balance the good,
Then led her off to the other gods and men
Gorgeous in the finery of the owl-eyed daughter
Sired in power. And they were stunned,
Immortal gods and mortal men, when they saw
The sheer deception, irresistible to men.
From her is the race of female women,
The deadly race and population of women
A great infestation among mortal men,
Hesiod goes on in this misogynistic manner for another twenty lines, until he gets to his conclusion which is basically: can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. If a man is fated to marry an abusive woman, there is no help for him, nothing can be done. He will live with pain in his heart, and mind and spirit suffering an incurable evil. Kind of intense.
Finally we have arrived at the Titanomachy, the great ten year battle between Zeus and his Olympians, and the Titans. When Zeus finally wins, the gods persuade him to be their king, thus completing the last succession myth, god by election.
His first act as King of the gods is to make Metis (translated: cunning intelligence) his wife. When Metis is about to deliver her first child, Athena, the ‘owl-eyed goddess,’ Zeus feels threatened, as his father and grandfather before him. His grandfather tried hiding his offspring in the womb of the earth with little success. Kronos had tried to swallow his children himself, burying them within his own ‘womb’ (It’s the end of the Bronze age…men have wombs too). Zeus decides he’ll try things a little differently and swallow both his wife and his future children all in one go, so he stuffs Metis into his stomach  and in doing so appropriates not only her cunning intelligence but also her female power of generation. Thirty-five lines later:
From his own head he gave birth to owl-eyed Athena,
The awesome, battle-rousing, army- leading, untiring Lady
whose pleasure is fighting and the metallic din of war.
Zeus and Memory, “with the beautiful hair”, together create the nine Muses and at this point the poem has gone full circle. Creation of the physical world has been completed, Gaia is subdued, Metis has been incorporated into Zeus and succession is no longer a threat. Zeus persuades the gods to focus their sexual interest on mortals and procreation between the gods and mortals begins and culminates in the race of heroes. The last phase of history has begun.
As the poem ends, the genealogies of heroes emerge and begin to cement themselves into the histories of men. Hesiod has moved beyond the tradition of a local cult into a larger myth, creating a new story for a Panhellenic people. The most powerful families of Iron Age Greece will trace their families lineage to the gods and legitimize their divine authority to rule.
I mentioned above that the point of cosmogony is ultimately to answer the questions: How did we get here and what is our purpose? Throughout the Theogony a world is crafted that is very dark and erratic. It is a world comprised of binary oppositions; between Eros, who brings things together with desire, and Eris, who tears things apart with strife. Men take their place, not as captains of their destinies, but haunted by them.
Hesiod thinks poetry can help.
…Happy is the man
Whom the Muses love. Sweet flows the voice from his mouth.
For if anyone is grieved, if his heart is sore
With fresh sorrow, if he is troubled, and a singer
Who serves the Muses chants the deeds of past men
Or the blessed gods who have their homes on Olympus,
He soon forgets his heartache, and of all his cares
He remembers none: the goddesses’ gift turns them aside.
The Theogony doesn’t really discuss the purpose or even genesis of mortal men, they sort of show up as a side note; a counterpoint to the divine and immortal. Hesiod makes a claim that Zeus establishes justice for the gods and men…but it’s a “might makes right” form of justice and men are caught between the wiles and whims of the erratic deities (as Homer makes very apparent throughout the Iliad and the Odyssey.) Man’s lot is to survive. And when survival looks bleak there is always poetry to comfort even an isolated shepherd.
Lucian- A Word with Hesiod
Hesiod - Theogony translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914
Hesiod: Works and Days and Theogony Translated by Stanley Lombardo (I heard a rumor that this is the best translation and it was amazing. The best by a long shot.)
Literature and History: Before Orthodoxy: Hesiod's Theogony.
Hesiod: The Other Poet - Hugo Koning
All quotes from the text of the Theogony are from: Lombardo, Stanley. Works and Days and Theogony. Hackett Publishing, 1993.
1. Carter, Jared. “Hesiod: Poet and Peasant Overtures.” Chicago Review, Winter, 1990.
2. Clay, Jenny Strauss. Hesiod’s Cosmos. Cambridge University Press, 2003.