From New World Encyclopedia
Goya's distressing image of Cronus devouring his children.

Theogony (Greek: Θεογονία, theogonia=the birth of Gods) is a poem by Hesiod describing the origins and genealogies of the gods of the ancient Greeks, composed c. 700 B.C.E. The title of the work is a compound word derived from Greek terms for "god" (theoi) and "seed" (gonia, which, in this case, is used as a synonym for "genesis" or "origin").

Although the text is often used as a sourcebook for Greek mythology, the Theogony is both more and less than that. Indeed, it is necessary to interpret the Theogony not as the definitive source of Greek mythology, but rather as a snapshot of a dynamic tradition as crystallized by Hesiod's encyclopedic and synthetic vision. This historical proviso should not be read as a critique of the poet, but merely an acknowledgment that the mytho-religious imagination of the Hellenes was simply too broad to be compellingly captured in a single work, regardless of its merits.


Hesiod's Theogony is a large-scale synthesis of a vast variety of local Greek traditions concerning the gods, organized into an overarching narrative that details their origins and rise to power. In many cultures, these accounts provide a means for societies to justify and reaffirm their native cultural, social and political traditions—as exemplified in the affirmation of Babylonian kingship in the Enuma Elish, of pharaonic rule in many Ancient Egyptian creation accounts, and of the Indian caste system in the Purusha Sukta. Conversely, the Theogony of Hesiod endorses no particular human institution, instead simply affirming the kingship of the god Zeus over all the other gods and the whole of the cosmos.

In formal terms, the text consists of a hymn invoking Zeus and the Muses, where this paean (delivered in the opening and closing chapters) provides a framing device for the body of the text. This topical and structural feature is paralleled in the much shorter Homeric Hymn to the Muses, which implies that the Theogony developed from the Hellenic tradition of oral poetry, as recited by the rhapsodes (Hellenic bards).[1]



As mentioned above, the creation account contained in the Theogony is framed by a prayer to Zeus and the Muses begins. Specifically, the text begins with a hymnic dedication to the sovereignty of Zeus, which is explicitly attested to in the song of his daughters, the Muses:

Come thou, let us begin with the Muses who gladden the great spirit of their father Zeus in Olympus with their songs, telling of things that are and that shall be and that were aforetime with consenting voice. … Then, next, the goddesses sing of Zeus, the father of gods and men, as they begin and end their strain, how much he is the most excellent among the gods and supreme in power. And again, they chant the race of men and strong giants, and gladden the heart of Zeus within Olympus,—the Olympian Muses, daughters of Zeus the aegis-holder.[2]

This device is also used to explain the author's seemingly boundless knowledge of things beyond the mortal ken by suggesting that he was instructed in divine lineages at the hands of the Muses: "And one day they taught Hesiod glorious song while he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon, and this word first the goddesses said to me—the Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus who holds the aegis."[3]

Later in this section, in the oft-debated "Kings and Singers" passage (80-103), Hesiod is depicted appropriating the authority usually reserved for sacred kings when he declares that the Muses have bestowed two gifts onto him: A scepter and an authoritative voice.[4] While these implements are both fairly obvious symbols of kingship, it seems likely that the purpose of this gesture was not literally meant to depict Hesiod (the poet) in a kingly role. Instead, it appears that the purpose was to imply that the authority of kingship now belonged to the poetic voice—a necessary concession, given the gravity of the poem's contents.[5]

Genesis and the first generation

After the speaker declares that he has received the blessings of the Muses and thanks them for giving him inspiration, he begins by describing the miraculous generation of Chaos, the first existent entity.[6] Soon after, Eros (sexual union), Gaia (Earth), and Tartarus also sprang into existence:[7]

Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundations of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros (Love), fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them.[8]

Soon after, Chaos spawned both Erebos (Darkness) and Nyx (Night). It should be noted that at this point, all existent deities had simply emerged through either parthenogenesis or spontaneous generation. Conversely, the later generations of gods would depend upon Eros, the personification of sexuality, for their existence. The first of these sexually engendered deities were Aither (Brightness) and Hemera (Day), both of whom were children of Erebos and Nyx. From Gaia came Ouranos (Sky), the Ourea (Mountains), and Pontus (Sea):

And Earth first bare starry Heaven [Ouranos], equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. And she brought forth long Hills, graceful haunts of the goddess-Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of the hills. She bare also the fruitless deep with his raging swell, Pontus, without sweet union of love. But afterwards she lay with Heaven and bare deep-swirling Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne and gold-crowned Phoebe and lovely Tethys. After them was born Cronos Kronos the wily, youngest and most terrible of her children, and he hated his lusty sire.[9]

As noted above, the union of Ouranos and Gaia created a generation of monstrous offspring, including the twelve Titans: Okeanos, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetos, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Tethys, and Kronos; the three Kyklopes (Cyclops): Brontes, Steropes, and Arges; and the three Hecatonchires (literally, "hundred-handers"): Kottos, Briareos, and Gyges.

Second generation

Because Ouranos foresaw that one of his children would overthrow him, he imprisoned each of them in the bowels of the earth (which entailed literally concealing them within the body of his consort Gaia). This caused her considerable discomfort and led her to plot against her lover. Of her children, only Kronos was willing to avenge his mother's agony:

"My children, gotten of a sinful father, if you will obey me, we should punish the vile outrage of your father; for he first thought of doing shameful things."
So she said; but fear seized them all, and none of them uttered a word. But great Cronos the wily took courage and answered his dear mother:
"Mother, I will undertake to do this deed, for I reverence not our father of evil name, for he first thought of doing shameful things."
So he said: and vast Earth rejoiced greatly in spirit, and set and hid him in an ambush, and put in his hands a jagged sickle, and revealed to him the whole plot.
And Heaven came, bringing on night and longing for love, and he lay about Earth spreading himself full upon her. … Then the son from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father's members and cast them away to fall behind him.[10]

Despite being severed from their source, the deity's genitals (and the blood that flowed from them) retained their generative power, such that the blood that flowed from them produced the Erinyes (the Furies), the Giants, and the Meliai. Retrieving the offending organ, Kronos then cast them into the Sea (Thalassa), which roiled, foamed, and created the goddess of Love, Aphrodite (which is why in some myths, Aphrodite was said to be the daughter of Ouranos and the goddess Thalassa).

Lesser descendants of the second generation

After the castration of her erstwhile lover, Gaia mated with Pontos to create a descendant line consisting of sea deities, sea nymphs, and hybrid monsters. One child of Gaia and Pontos is Nereus (the Old Man of the Sea), who marries Doris, a daughter of Okeanos and Tethys, to produce the Nereids, the fifty nymphs of the sea. Another child of Gaia and Pontos is Thaumas, who marries Electra, a sister of Doris, to produce Iris (Rainbow) and three Harpies. Gaia also united with Tartaros to produce Typhoeus, whom Echidna married to produce Orthos, Kerberos, Hydra, and Chimera. From Orthos and either Chimera or Echidna were born the Sphinx and the Nemean Lion.

Meanwhile, Nyx, in addition to the children borne from her union with Erebos, also produced offspring parthenogenically: Moros (Doom), Oneiroi (Dreams), Ker and the Keres (Destinies), Eris (Discord), Momos (Blame), Philotes (Love), Geras (Old Age), Thanatos (Death), Moirai (Fates), Nemesis (Retribution), Hesperides (Daughters of Night), Hypnos (Sleep), Oizys (Hardship), and Apate (Deceit).

From Eris, a spate of injurious and offensive deities arose, including Ponos (Pain), Hysmine (Battles), the Neikea (Quarrels), the Phonoi (Murders), Lethe (Oblivion), Makhai (Fight), Pseudologos (Lies), Amphilogia (Disputes), Limos (Famine), Androktasia (Manslaughters), Ate (Ruin), Dysnomia (Anarchy and Disobedience), the Algea (Illness), Horkos (Oaths), and Logoi (Stories).

Phorkys and Keto, two siblings, married each other and produced the Graiae, the Gorgons, Echidna, and Ophion. Medusa, one of the Gorgons, produced two children with Poseidon: The winged-horse Pegasus and giant Chrysaor, at the instant of her decapitation by Perseus. Chrysaor married Callirhoe, another daughter of Okeanos, to create three-headed Geryon.

In the family of the Titans, Okeanos and Tethys marry to make three thousand rivers and three thousand Okeanid Nymphs. Theia and Hyperion marry to bear Helios (Sun), Selene (Moon), and Eos (Dawn). Kreios and Eurybia marry to bear Astraios, Pallas, and Perses. Eos and Astraios would later marry to produce Zephyros, Boreas, Notos, Eosphoros, Hesperos, Phosphoros and the Stars (foremost of which Phaenon, Phaethon, Pyroeis, Stilbon, those of the Zodiac and those three acknowledged before). From Pallas and Styx (another Okeanid) came Zelos (Zeal), Nike (Victory), Cratos (Strength), and Bia (Force). Koios and Phoibe marry to make Leto, Asteria (who later marries Perses to produce Hekate). Iapetos marries Klymene (an Okeanid Nymph) to sire Atlas, Menoetius, Prometheus, and Epimetheus.[11]

Third and final generation

Kronos, having taken control of the Cosmos, wanted to ensure that he maintained power. He asked the advice of the Delphic Oracle, who cautioned that one of his sons would overthrow him. As a result, the monstrous deity found it necessary to swallow each of the offspring that he sired with Rhea: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus (in that order). The Titaness objected to her consort's cannibalistic depredations and asked Gaia and Ouranos for their help in saving her children. Following their advice, Rhea surreptitiously replaced the infant Zeus with a swaddled rock and sent the infant to the island of Crete to be raised:

But Rhea was subject in love to Cronos and bare splendid children, Hestia (18), Demeter, and gold-shod Hera and strong Hades, pitiless in heart, who dwells under the earth, and the loud-crashing Earth-Shaker, and wise Zeus, father of gods and men, by whose thunder the wide earth is shaken. These great Cronos swallowed as each came forth from the womb to his mother's knees with this intent, that no other of the proud sons of Heaven should hold the kingly office amongst the deathless gods. For he learned from Earth and starry Heaven that he was destined to be overcome by his own son, strong though he was, through the contriving of great Zeus (19). Therefore he kept no blind outlook, but watched and swallowed down his children: and unceasing grief seized Rhea. But when she was about to bear Zeus, the father of gods and men, then she besought her own dear parents, Earth and starry Heaven, to devise some plan with her that the birth of her dear child might be concealed, and that retribution might overtake great, crafty Cronos for his own father and also for the children whom he had swallowed down. And they readily heard and obeyed their dear daughter, and told her all that was destined to happen touching Cronos the king and his stout-hearted son. So they sent her to Lyetus, to the rich land of Crete, when she was ready to bear great Zeus, the youngest of her children. Him did vast Earth receive from Rhea in wide Crete to nourish and to bring up. Thither came Earth carrying him swiftly through the black night to Lyctus first, and took him in her arms and hid him in a remote cave beneath the secret places of the holy earth on thick-wooded Mount Aegeum; but to the mightily ruling son of Heaven, the earlier king of the gods, she gave a great stone wrapped in swaddling clothes. Then he took it in his hands and thrust it down into his belly: wretch! he knew not in his heart that in place of the stone his son was left behind, unconquered and untroubled, and that he was soon to overcome him by force and might and drive him from his honours, himself to reign over the deathless gods.[12]

After Zeus matured, he consulted Metis (goddess of craftiness and guile), who helped him concoct an emetic potion that would force Kronos to disgorge his siblings. and thereafter waged a great war on the Titans for control of the Cosmos (the Titanomachy). This internecine, cosmic conflict raged for ten years, with the Olympian gods, Cyclopes, Prometheus and Epimetheus, and the children of Pallas on one side, and the Titans and the Giants on the other (with only Oceanos as a neutral party). Eventually, Zeus released the "Hundred-Handers" to shake the earth, allowing him to gain the a decisive advantage over his opponents. After their defeat, the Sky God banished his rivals to the black depths of Tartaros. Because Prometheus aided Zeus in the conflict, he was not exiled like his brethren. However, the text then proceeds to describe Prometheus interceding on behalf of the nascent human race (first obtaining fire for them and then giving them the right to the meat of sacrifice, while the gods had to content themselves with the bones). Due to his trickery, Zeus sentenced the Titan to a life of perpetual torment, though he was eventually freed by Heracles.[13] To punish the human race for their transgressions, Zeus created Pandora, a distressingly curious woman who was responsible for the propagation of many human ills.[14]

In the years that followed, Zeus married seven wives. The first was the Oceanid Metis, whom he swallowed to avoid the birth of a son that would overthrow him (as had been the case with his father and grandfather). As a result, he would later "give birth" to Athena from his head. His second wife was Themis, who bore the three Horae (Hours)—Eunomia (Order), Dike (Justice), Eirene (Peace) and the three Moirae (Fates)—Klotho (Spinner), Lachesis (Alotter), Atropos (Unturned), as well as Tyche. Zeus then married his third wife, Eurynome, who gave birth to the three Charites (Graces). The fourth wife was his sister Demeter, with whom he sired Persephone, who would later marry Hades and bear Melinoe, Goddess of Ghosts, and Zagreus, God of the Orphic Mysteries, and Macaria, Goddess of the Blessed Afterlife. The fifth wife of Zeus was another aunt, Mnemosyne, from whom came the nine Muses—Kleio, Euterpe, Thaleia, Melpomene, Terpsikhore, Erato, Polymnia, Urania, and Kalliope. His sixth wife was Leto, who gave birth to Apollo and Artemis. The seventh and final wife was Hera, who gives birth to Hebe, Ares, Enyo, Hephastios, and Eileithyia. Though Zeus never married again, he continued to indulge in many adulterous affairs.

In the years after the war, Poseidon also married with Amphitrite and produced Triton. Ares and Aphrodite would marry to generate Phobos (Fear), Deimos (Cowardice), and Harmonia (Harmony), who would later marry Kadmos to sire Ino (who with her son, Melicertes would become a sea deity) Semele (Mother of Dionysos), Agaue (Mother of Actaeon), Polydorus, and Autonoe (who would later be driven in to perpetual Bacchic Frenzy by her nephew, Dionysos). Helios and Perseis birth Kirke (Circe), who with Poseidon would mother Phaunos, God of the Forest, and with Dionysos mother Comos, God of Revelry and Festivity. And with Odysseus, she would later give birth to Agrius. Atlas' daughter, Kalypso, would give birth to Odysseus' children, Telegonos, Teledamus, Latinus, Nausithoos, and Nausinous.


  1. Leonard Muellener, The Anger of Achilles: Mênis in Greek Epic (Cornell University Press, 2005, ISBN 0801489954).
  2. Ancient History, Theogony. Retrieved May 13, 2008.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Hesiod, Theogony 30-3.
  5. Kathryn B. Stoddard, "The Programmatic Message of the 'Kings and Singers' Passage: Hesiod, Theogony 80-103," Transactions of the American Philological Association 133:1 (Spring 2003): 1-16.
  6. Mondi (1989).
  7. Bulfinch, 19.
  8. Ancient History, Theogony 116-120. Retrieved May 13, 2008.
  9. Ancient History, Theogony 124-138. Retrieved May 13, 2008.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Powell, 84-87.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Powell, 111-115.
  14. Powell, 118-122.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Brown, Norman O. "Introduction." In Hesiod's Theogony. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1953.
  • Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch's Age of Fable or Beauties of Mythology. London: S. W. Tilton, 1894.
  • Mondi, Robert. "ΧΑΟΣ and the Hesiodic Cosmogony." Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 92 (1989): 1-41.
  • Powell, Barry B. Classical Myth, second edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998. ISBN 0-13-716714-8.

External links

All links retrieved April 30, 2023.


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