Mythology

History of the Creation of the World
as understood by the ancient Greeks and Romans

"Mythology is the study of whatever religious or heroic legends are so foreign to a student's experience that he cannot believe them to be true.... Myth has two main functions. The first is to answer the sort of awkward questions that children ask, such as: 'Who made the world? How will it end? Who was the first man? Where do souls go after death?'... The second is to justify an existing social system and account for traditional rites and customs."

-- New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology

All generations of man have asked how, why, when, and where. Naturally curious, when answers are not readily available we try to figure them out for ourselves. What is lightning, what makes a volcano erupt, why are there tidal waves, how was the world created? These are just a few of the questions that were asked and answered in the myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
How or when the myths began is unknown. They were handed down as folk stories through an oral tradition for centuries prior to Homer's two great poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey (written down about 700 BCE). The stories continued to be told orally: poems were sung by bards and, as happens when a tale is told over and over again, subtle differences entered. Several variations of the same stories exist, even today. Some of the stories told seem to echo those of other traditions. Greeks made contact with many different peoples through trade and wars. It seems only natural they would share stories as each society tried to solve the mysteries of creation.

The ancient Greeks believed that in the beginning there was CHAOS, a vortex of emptiness. The world was without limits, with no plan, no order. In time Chaos worked itself into two realms, that of Earth and that of the Heavens. Thus gods did not create the world: the world created gods to bring calm to it. Gaea (Mother Earth) appeared in the chaos and with her Erebus (night), Ether (day), Tartarus (the darkest part of the underworld), and Eros (love). From Gaea came forth Uranus (the heavens), the Mountains, and Pontus (the seas).

Gaea and Uranus united and bore many children. They had some beautiful children who were called Titans: there were 12 of them and they resembled men and women but were of much grander stature. Among them were
  • Cronus, the youngest and most powerful
  • Mnemosyne, goddess of memory
  • Themis, guardian of peace and justice
  • Rhea, who would be known as the 'Great Mother'
  • Oceanus, representing the great river that encircled the world
  • Tethys, Oceanus' wife, and mother of the river gods
  • Hyperion, father of the sun, the moon and dawn
  • Iapetus, father of Atlas
  • Prometheus, who carried the gift of foresight
  • Epimetheus, whose special gift was hindsight.
Gaea and Uranus also had six children who were monstrous: the three Hecatoncheires (each with 100 hands and 50 heads) and the three Cyclopes (each with only one eye).
Uranus did not like any of his children, but he particularly disliked the monsters. He confined them to the lower regions of earth called Tartarus. Gaea, as most mothers would, did not feel any of her children should be thus punished. She asked the Titans to rebel with her against Uranus. All refused except one. Cronus, who is pictured carrying a sickle because he was associated with agriculture, used that same sickle to kill his father Uranus. It was a common event in Greek myths that when a god died, others sprang from the blood. In this case, from drops of Uranus' blood grew the Giants (a race of fierce fighters) and the three Furies (avengers with hair of live serpents).
Cronus now took Rhea as his wife and assigned various roles to each of the Titans. He himself took over the role of Uranus in controlling the world -- and what a world he had won! Those early days of Cronus' reign were considered a Golden Age for mankind: the earth provided for them without toil and there was peace. Men lived as the gods did, free from worry, and when they died, they became guardians of the living. But this harmony would come to an end.
Rhea and Cronus had several children: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus. As each was born, Cronus swallowed the newborn lest he or she grow to dethrone him, just as he had done to his own father. Rhea was not pleased to see her children disappear into his huge mouth! When Zeus, the youngest, was born, she wrapped a rock in swaddling clothes and tricked Cronus into thinking he had swallowed the infant. Zeus was secretly sent to Mount Ida on the island of Crete, where he was raised by nymphs. All this time, the other five children were still residing in the stomach of Cronus. When Zeus finally grew to maturity, with the help of his grandmother Gaea he forced Cronus to cough up all his siblings. From their exile in Tartarus Zeus also released the monster-children of Uranus, who gratefully sided with him against Cronus.
Now there were two powerful forces at odds with one another, each making a stand on a separate mountaintop. Cronus and most of the other Titans fought against Zeus, his siblings, and the monsters. The Cyclopes gave Zeus the thunderbolt and lightning, and the Hecatoncheires provided him with earthquakes. The war continued for ages and at every battle the whole earth shook, forests burned, rivers boiled, and the noise deafened. The Titans finally were hurled in fire from their mountaintop, captured, and sent to Tartarus. Atlas, the son of a Titan, was punished with the duty of holding the world upon his shoulders. Prometheus and Epimetheus had refused to fight against Zeus and thus now escaped confinement. Indeed, for a time Prometheus served as chief advisor to Zeus.
Zeus now divided up the world amongst his siblings. He chose Hera to rule as his queen; Poseidon was given command of the seas; Hades, control of the underworld; Hestia, dominion over home and hearth; and Demeter, rule over agriculture. Zeus himself would rule as king over all gods and men from their mountain, Olympus (which the Greeks believed to be the highest mountain in the world). Henceforth, these six gods, along with some of their children, would be known as Olympians.
This was an agricultural age: Zeus had created the seasons, and now men needed to work for food. Winter also meant a need for shelter, so houses had to be built. Mankind began to feel self-sufficient and forgot to revere the gods. Zeus became unhappy with them and destroyed them all. He then asked Prometheus to help him build a new race. Prometheus took clay from a riverbank in Arcadia, molded it into the image of the gods, and breathed life into it.
Unfortunately this new race was not as strong as those who had preceded them, and they had problems competing with the wild animals for food. Prometheus pitied them and asked Zeus to share the gift of fire with them so they would not be cold and could forge weapons to kill the animals. Zeus did not want man to have this gift, lest they consider themselves equals to the gods. But Prometheus disobeyed Zeus and taught mankind not only what fire was but how to use it. During this stage of development men also learned to tame animals, write, build ships, determine the seasons, and heal the sick.
Zeus was not pleased with what he saw and resolved to punish Prometheus. With the help of Hephaestus, god of the forge, he created a beautiful woman called Pandora ("all gifts" in Greek). Zeus sent her, together with a large sealed container, to Prometheus. But the Titan suspected a trick and refused to receive her. Zeus then sent her to Epimetheus who, although forewarned, could not turn down the beautiful gift. Pandora explained that her dowry was in the container. Together they opened it up, and all the ills of the world escaped: diseases, anxieties, jealousy, blame, power -- these flew out and scattered over the world. By the time the lid was replaced, all that was left inside was hope.
Zeus was angry at the outcome: now mankind was inflicted with many evils and yet Prometheus remained untouched. He sent two giants to capture Prometheus and, with Hephaestus' unwilling help, Prometheus was chained to a mountain. Each day an eagle flew to him to eat his innards, and each evening he was restored so that the next day he would suffer anew. Zeus offered to release him from this torture if he would swear to obey the king of the gods, but Prometheus would not yield.
Zeus became incensed that mankind was making such a mess of the world, so he sent a great flood. But Prometheus -- whose very name means "forethought" -- warned his son, Deucalion, of the coming catastrophe. Deucalion took refuge with his wife, Pyrrha (daughter of Epimetheus and Pandora), atop Mount Parnassus. Zeus could have raised the waters to engulf them too, but he took pity on them. When the waters subsided, Deucalion and Pyrrha went to a temple to give thanks, where they heard a voice say "repeople the earth with the bones of your mother." They interpreted 'bones of your mother' to mean stones of the earth, so they walked the area, casting stones behind them. The stones thrown by Pyrrha became women and those thrown by Deucalion became men. This race of 'stone' people, according to the ancient Greeks and Romans, became our ancestors.
Joan Jahnige, February 2001     


Notes:
Delphi is located near the top of Mount Parnassus, and here one finds what the ancient Greeks thought to be the very center of the earth. Legend says that Zeus wanted to know the position of the center of the earth, so he sent two eagles to find it. They met above Mount Parnassus and identified the 'omphalos.' However, Delphi had been a sanctuary for Gaea long before Zeus reputedly sent his eagles on their search. Thus, it is plausible that Deucalion and Pyrrha found an old temple there, still standing after the flood waters had receded.
The names of the gods are given here in Greek form, but Romans took over most of the stories and changed most of the names. Zeus became Jupiter; Hera became Juno; Hestia became Vesta; Demeter became Ceres; and Poseidon became Neptune. Sometimes (but not always) the Romans identified Hades as Pluto.
Sources:
Myths and Their Meanings, Allyn and Bacon, Inc., Boston, 1984 pp. 12-23
Mythology, Edith Hamilton, New American Library, New York, 1969, pp. 24-74
Gods, Men and Monsters, Peter Bedrick Books, New York, 1977, pp. 11-20
New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, Hamlyn Publishing Group, Ltd., London, 1959, pp.87-97
Classical Mythology, Morford and Lenardon, Longman Publishers, NY, 1971, pp. 37-77
Last updated: June 26, 2001

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the Early Gods
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