Myths of the Greek and Roman Gods
Hesiod, Theogony (lines 132-232, 453-506, 617-735, 811-961)
(translated by R. Nickel)
The following extracts are taken from Hesiod’s Theogony to provide a continuous reading of the Succession Myth. Note that the title headings are my own, and not Hesiod’s.
At times, Hesiod uses the terms “Gaia,” “Ouranos,” “Tartarus,” “Ocean,” and “Sea” to refer to ancient gods who came into being at the beginning of the universe. At other times, he uses these terms to refer simply to geography: the earth, the sky, the underworld, and the ocean and the sea. In my translation, I alternate between using Gaia, Ouranos, Tartarus etc. as the proper names of gods involved in the story and as geographical features of our world. When the names are being used primarily to indicate geography, I replace “Gaia” in the Greek with “Earth”, Ouranos with “Sky” and so on. I use capital letters (the Sea, Ocean, the Sky etc.) as a way of indicating that, to an ancient Greek, the earth is always simultaneously a geographical place and a goddess, that the ocean is at one and the same time a huge expanse of water and the eldest of the Titan gods, and the sky above us also and always the god who is Gaia’s eldest son, first husband and first ruler of the universe.
The Children of Gaia & Ouranos: Titans, Cyclopes, & Hundred Handers
Koios, Kreios, Hyperion, and Iapetus,
Theia, Rhea, Themis, and Mnemosyne who remembers,135
Gold-crowned Phoebê and lovely Tethys.
After these, she bore her youngest, crooked-counseling Kronos,
most terrifying of her children, and he despised his potent father.
Then she gave birth to the Cyclopes, who possess a violent heart:
thundering Brontes, blazing Steropes, and strong-hearted Argês.140
They gave thunder to Zeus and crafted lightning for him.
In all other ways they resembled the gods,
except that a single eye was fixed in their foreheads.
They were called Cyclopes because one cylindrical eye
was fixed in the middle of their foreheads.145
Strength and violence and ingenious craft was in their works.
Three other children were born from the union of Gaia and Ouranos –
massive, violent children who should not be named:
Kottos, Briareus, and Gyges – magnificent, arrogant children.
From their shoulders, one hundred arms shot out,150
indescribable. From each one’s shoulders
fifty heads grew on powerful bodies.
Added to their massive form, they possessed unapproachable, powerful strength.
The Succession Myth: Part 1
All those who were born from Gaia and Ouranos
were awe-inspiring children, and their own father hated them155
from the beginning. When first any of them was born,
he would hide them all away, not allowing them to come up to the light,
in a hole of Gaia. Ouranos took delight
in his evil deed. But she, vast Gaia, groaned becoming more
crowded within, and she pondered a deceitful, evil craft.160
Right away, creating the class of metal known as grey adamant,
she fashioned a giant sickle and showed it to her children.
She spoke words of courage, though she grieved in her heart:
“Children of me and an arrogant father, if only you are willing
to obey, we could take vengeance for the evil outrage165
of your father, for he first plotted despicable actions.”
So she spoke, and fear seized them all. No one
spoke a word. But then, almost at once, great crooked-counseling Kronos
bravely addressed these words to his revered mother:
“Mother, I would undertake and accomplish this action,170
for I feel no respect for the one wrongly called father,
our father. For he first plotted despicable actions.”
So he spoke and vast Gaia rejoiced greatly in her heart.
She set him down, hidden in ambush, put in his hands
a sickle with jagged teeth, and revealed the whole cunning plot.175
Then he came, great Ouranos bringing Night with him, and all around Gaia,
in his desire for love-making, he stretched out and grew longer,
all of him. But his son, from his place of ambush, reached out
with his left hand; with his right, he grasped the vast sickle,
with its long jagged teeth, and eagerly sheared away180
the genitals of his own father. He hurled them away to be carried
behind him. Not without result did they fly from his hand.
The drops of blood that fell down,
Gaia received them all, and in the course of the revolving year,
she bore the powerful Furies and the massive Giants,185
gleaming in their armour and holding long spears in their hands,
and the nymphs they call the Ash-Tree Nymphs, all along the limitless earth.
The Birth of Aphrodite
When first he cut off the genitals with adamant,
he threw them away from dry land into the surging sea,
and so they floated on the sea’s surface for a long time; all around, white foam190
arose from the immortal flesh, and in the foam
a maiden grew. First she drew near the holy island of Cythera;
from there she came to sea-girt Cyprus.
A revered and beautiful god emerged. Everywhere
grass grew beneath her slender feet. Aphrodite,195
foam-born goddess, well-garlanded Cythereia —
so gods and men alike call her, because she was formed
in foam, but also Cythereia, since she came past Cythera,
and Cyprogeneia, Cyprus-born, since she was born on wave-washed Cyprus.
And Philommeidês, laughter-loving, because she appeared from the genitals.200
Eros accompanied her, and lovely Desire followed,
when first she was born and as she entered the company of the gods.
From the beginning she has held this honour and received
this fated portion among women and men and immortal gods:
maidens’ whispers, smiles, and deceptions,205
sweet delight and delightful love-making.
But great Ouranos, their father, now called his children Titans, Overreachers,
quarrelling with the children he himself begot.
He kept saying that they had recklessly overreached and committed
a monstrous deed, for which in time to come there would be vengeance.210
The Children of Night
Night bore hateful Doom and black Destiny
and Death. She bore sleep, and the tribe of Dreams.
Next gloomy Night gave birth to Blame and painful Suffering,
though she lay with no one,
and the Hesperides who tend beautiful golden apples215
and fruit-bearing trees beyond the boundaries of famous Ocean.
She also bore the Fates and ruthless Dooms —
Klotho who spins, Lachesis who apportions, and Atropos who cuts the thread.
The Fates provide both good and evil to mortals at the time of their birth,
and pursue the transgressions of men and gods alike;220
these goddesses never let go of their fearsome anger
until they exact an ugly vengeance from anyone who sins.
Deadly Night also bore Nemesis — Retribution — a curse
for mortal men and women. Then she bore Deception and Affection,225
destructive Old Age and strong-hearted Strife.
The Children of Strife
Hateful Strife bore painful Toil,
Forgetfulness, Famine and tearful Pains;
Quarrels, Lies, Words, and Disputes;
Bad Government and Ruin who know one another well;230
and Oath, who most of all brings misery
to mortal men and women whenever they swear a false oath.
(For the next 220 lines, Hesiod continues with long catalogue lists of the birth of hundreds of divine beings, including nymphs in the sea, monsters, and rivers. The narrative of the Succession Myth continues at line 453 below.)
The Succession Myth: Part 2 (Kronos)
Rhea gave birth to shining children, overpowered by Kronos:
Hestia, Demeter, and Hera of the golden sandals;
strong Hades, who makes his home beneath the earth,455
his heart without pity; loud-sounding Poseidon;
and cunning Zeus, father of gods and men,
whose thunder makes the wide earth tremble.
Great Kronos swallowed them all, as each one
emerged from their mother’s womb to her knees,460
intending that none of Ouranos’ grandchildren
ever possess the honour of kingship among the immortals.
For he learned from Gaia and starry Ouranos
that he was fated to be overpowered by his own son,
in spite of his strength, through the plans of great Zeus.465
And so his vigilance was not careless, but watching closely
he swallowed down his children, and unceasing grief took hold of Rhea.
But when she was about to give birth to Zeus,
father of gods and men, she implored
her beloved parents, Gaia and starry Ouranos470
to devise a cunning plan so that she could bear her beloved child
unnoticed and the Furies of her father could exact vengeance
for the children great, crooked-counselling Kronos swallowed.
They listened eagerly to their beloved daughter, and obeyed.
They revealed to her all that was fated to happen475
concerning Kronos, the king, and his strong-hearted son.
They sent her to Lyktos, in the rich community of Crete,
when the time came for her to give birth to her youngest,
great Zeus. Immense Gaia received the child from her
to raise and keep safe in broad Crete.480
Carrying him through the swift dark night, she came first
to Lyktos. Taking the child in her arms, she hid him away
in a deep cave, beneath the hiding places of holy earth,
on the forest-covered mountain of Aegaion.
Wrapping a large stone in a baby’s blanket, Rhea offered it485
to Ouranos’ wide-ruling son, king of the earlier gods.
Taking it in his hands, he put it down inside his belly,
the vile fool. He did not think in his mind that,
in place of the stone, his son remained for the future
untroubled, undefeated, soon to overpower him,490
deprive him of his honour, and rule among the immortals.
Swiftly the strength and shining limbs
of our king grew, and in the course of a year,
tricked by Gaia’s cunning advice,
great, crooked-counselling Kronos disgorged his children,495
defeated by the skill and strength of his son.
First he vomited out the stone which he’d swallowed last.
Zeus set it down in the wide-wayed earth,
in holy Delphi, in the vales of Mount Parnassus,
to serve as a sign hereafter, a wonder for mortal men and women.500
Zeus releases the Cyclopes
He then released his uncles from cruel bondage,
[thundering Brontes, blazing Steropes, and strong-hearted Argês,]
sons of Ouranos, their father, who had foolishly imprisoned them.
They repaid the favour of Zeus’s kindness
and gave him thunder and the fiery thunderbolt
and lightning which earlier vast Gaia had concealed.505
Trusting in these he rules over mortals and immortals.
[Hesiod now interrupts the Succession Myth with a lengthy digression on the god Prometheus and how he stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. We will skip over this for now, since Prometheus will be the focus of Lessons 5 and 6.
Hesiod returns to the Succession Myth, picking up where he’d left off. After Zeus releases his uncles the Cyclopes, he releases his other triplet uncles, the Hundred Handers. Both sets of uncles will be Zeus’s faithful allies in the war against the Titans that is about to begin.]
Zeus releases the Hundred Handers
When their father, Ouranos, first became angry in his soul with the Hundred Handers –
Briareus, Kottos, and Gyges — he bound them with powerful chains,
envying their extreme manliness, form, and size.
He settled them beneath the wide-wayed earth.620
There, enduring pain as they dwell beneath the Earth,
they sit, at the farthest limits of vast Gaia,
grieving deeply and experiencing much sorrow in their hearts.
But the son of Kronos and the other immortal gods,
those whom fair-haired Rhea bore through intercourse with Kronos,625
brought the Hundred Handers up into the light again, following the advice of Gaia.
For Gaia told them everything in detail:
that, with the aid of these ones, they would win victory and glorious renown.
For much too long the Titans and all the gods fathered by Kronos had been fighting,
against one another in powerful battles, achieving only painful toil.630
The famous Titans were fighting from the top of Mount Othrys,
and the gods who are givers of good things from the top of Mount Olympus,
those gods whom fair-haired Rhea bore, going to bed with Kronos.
Enduring painful battles against one another,
they fought without end for ten years.635
There was no release from harsh strife, no end
for either side. The war’s outcome hung in the balance.
But then Zeus gave the Hundred Handers what they lacked –
nectar and ambrosia, the food of the gods.
Immense strength then grew in their chests,640
Then Zeus, father of gods and men, spoke to them:
“Hear me, glorious children of Gaia and Ouranos,
that I might speak what the spirit in my breast compels me to say.
For too long now against one another645
We have been fighting every day for victory and power,
the immortal Titans and those of us fathered by Kronos.
Reveal your great strength and invincible arms
to the Titans, as you oppose them in painful battle.
Remember my kind friendship, and all that you suffered650
beneath the misty darkness before you came up to the light
from painful bondage through my wise planning.”
So spoke Zeus, and straightaway blameless Kottos answered him:
“You are a strange one! You reveal what is not unknown.
We ourselves know that your mind and your judgment are superior,655
and you were born to be the immortals’ champion against deadly cold harm.
By your goodwill, from misty Darkness and our harsh chains
we have come up once again, lordly son of Kronos,
gaining that which we thought beyond hope.
And so now, with stubborn purpose and a willing spirit,660
we shall defend your power in the dreadful din of battle,
as we fight against the Titans in strong encounters.”
So spoke Kottos, the Hundred Hander, and the gods, givers of good things,
praised him when they heard his words. Their spirits longed for war
more than ever before. They roused up unenviable battle,665
all of them, males and females both, on that day,
the Titans and all those whom Kronos sired,
and those ones Zeus brought up from Darkness beneath Earth to the light,
terrifying and powerful beings possessing infinite strength.
One hundred arms jut out from their shoulders,670
for each one of them, and each has fifty heads
growing up from their shoulders on powerful necks.
Then they took their places against the Titans in the grievous conflict,
holding giant rocks in their massive hands.675
The Titans, from the other side, strengthened their ranks
eagerly. Both sides revealed the violent work of their hands.
All around, infinite Pontos, the Sea, resounded dreadfully.
Gaia, the Earth, roared loudly and the wide Ouranos, the Sky, groaned
as he was shaken. From its very foundations, tall Olympus quaked680
beneath the force of the immortals. The heavy pounding of their feet,
the shrill noise of unspeakable retreat
and powerful weapons came all the way to misty Tartarus.
So they hurled painful missiles at one another,
and the cries of both sides reached up to starry Ouranos,685
as they came toward each other with great war cries.
No longer did Zeus hold back his strength. But straightaway
his heart filled with rage, and he revealed all his force.
From Sky and from Olympus at once
he advanced in a hail of lightning. The lightning bolts690
flew from his powerful hands in a dense rain
of blazing thunder, a thick, flaming tornado.
All around, life-bearing Gaia screamed,
as she burned. Limitless forests howled loudly in the fire.
All the Earth, the streams of Ocean, and the barren Sea695
boiled. Hot blasts engulfed the Earth-born Titans,
as never-ending flames reached the shining upper air.
Strong though they were, the blazing flare
of lightning and thunder blinded their eyes.
The unspeakable heat bore down even on Chaos.700
It seemed to those who had eyes for seeing and ears for hearing
as though Earth and broad Sky were coming together.
So loud was the thud of Gaia being fallen upon and
and of Ouranos as he fell on her from above.
So great was the sound of the gods as they came together in strife.705
The winds caused shaking and clouds of dust,
producing flashing thunder and blazing lightning,
missiles of great Zeus, and they brought clamour and shouting
into the midst of both sides. An infinite roar of deadly strife
arose, and the power of their actions was revealed.710
The battle turned against the Titans. Before this they charged at one another
and fought without end through powerful encounters.
Now in the front ranks, Kottos, Briareus,
and Gyges, hungry for battle, roused up bitter war.
From their powerful hand they sent three hundred rocks715
flying, their missiles casting shadows over the Titans.
They sent the Titans down beneath the wide-wayed Earth
and bound them fast in painful chains,
vanquishing them, powerful though they were, with their hands.
The Fate of the Titans & the timê of the Hundred Handers
As far beneath Earth as Sky is above Earth720
just so far beneath Earth is misty Tartarus.
Falling for nine days and nine nights from Sky,
a bronze anvil would reach Earth on the tenth day.
Equally from Earth to misty Tartarus,
falling again for nine days and nine nights from Earth,725
a bronze anvil would arrive in Tartarus on the tenth day.
A fence of bronze runs around it. All around Tartarus,
three rows of Night pour down, encircling his neck. Above him,
the roots of Earth and the barren Sea grow down.
There the Titan gods, in misty darkness,
are hidden away through the plans of cloud-gathering Zeus730
in a moldy place, at the furthest boundaries of vast Gaia.
For the Titans, there is no exit. Poseidon made the doors
of bronze, and a wall runs along on both sides.
There Kottos, Briareus, and great-hearted Gyges
reside, jailers trusted by aegis-bearing Zeus.735
[Hesiod now provides an extended description of the geography and most famous inhabitants of Tartarus, including Hades, Persephone, Cerberus, the river Styx and many others. This long digression, which we will skip over, answers a fundamental question for the ancient Greeks: what will the afterlife be like? What awaits all of us in the underworld? Because he has become the instrument of the Muses, Hesiod, like all Muse-inspired poets, has access to this knowledge. But can we trust these capricious goddesses? After all, they may know how to tell the truth, but they also know how to tell lies indistinguishable from the truth. We really have no choice but to trust them, since we have no other way of finding out what awaits us in Tartarus.
After the digression on Tartarus, Hesiod resumes the main narrative of the Succession Myth, briefly returning to Zeus’s uncles and allies, the Hundred Handers and then moving onto Zeus’s last obstacle before he can become ruler of the universe: the monster Typhoeus.]
There exist Tartarus’ shining gates and bronze threshold,811
unmovable, fixed in place by far-reaching, ever-growing
roots. Beyond and far-removed from all the other gods
dwell the Titans, beyond even gloomy Chaos.
The famous allies of loud-thundering Zeus815
make their homes there by the foundations of Ocean —
Kottos and Gyges. Briareus too: the loud-roaring
Earthshaker, Poseidon, made him his son-in-law,
and gave him his own daughter, Cympoleia, to marry.
But, once Zeus had driven the Titans from the Sky,820
vast Gaia gave birth to her youngest son, Typhoeus,
by intercourse with Tartarus through gold-adorned Aphrodite.
His hands were strong, able to accomplish his works,
and the feet of this powerful god never grew weary. From his shoulders
a hundred snake heads grew, flicking825
dark tongues of a terrifying serpent. Fire shot out
from his eyes under the brows on his monstrous heads.
From all the heads, fire blazed wherever he looked.
In all the terrifying heads were voices
sending out unspeakable sounds. At one time,830
they made sounds understood by the gods; at another time,
came the voice of a proud, invincible bull, bellowing its strength;
then the voice of a lion with shameless spirit,
and at another time, like that of puppies, a wonder to hear.
Sometimes he hissed, and the high mountains echoed back the sound.835
On that day a deed beyond all help would have been accomplished,
and he would have ruled over mortals and immortals,
if the father of gods and men had not thought quickly.
He thundered hard and powerful. All around, Earth
resounded horribly, so too broad Sky above,840
the Sea, streams of Ocean, and regions underneath Earth.
Tall Olympus shook under the immortal feet
of the king as he set out, and Earth groaned.
Searing heat from both of them oppressed the violet-coloured Sea,
from thunder and lightning, and from the monster’s fire,845
from scorching winds and flaming thunderbolts.
All the Earth boiled, and Sky and Sea too.
Around and over shores and sea cliffs giant waves raged
beneath the immortals’ onslaught, and an immense earthquake began.
Hades, lord of the dead below, trembled;850
so did the Titans, allies of Kronos, in the lowest parts of Tartarus,
from the endless noise of dreadful battle-strife.
When Zeus unleashed his mighty wrath and seized his weapons —
thunder, lightning, and blazing thunderbolts —
he leaped from Olympus and struck. He engulfed855
all the appalling heads of the terrifying monster in fire.
And once he overpowered him, flogging him with blows,
Typhoeus crashed down, his limbs broken, and vast Gaia groaned.
Flames shot up from the thunderstruck lord,
in the dark, rugged valleys of the mountain860
where he was struck. Most of vast Gaia was on fire
from the unspeakable heat, and she melted like tin
made molten in open cauldrons through the arts
of craftsmen, or as iron, which is strongest of all,
mastered by blazing fire in mountain valleys,865
melts in the shining Earth through Hephaestus’ skill.
Just so, Gaia was melting from the blaze of flaming fire.
Zeus, overwhelmed with rage, hurled him into broad Tartarus.
From Typhoeus comes the wrath of wet-blowing winds,
except for Notos the South, Boreas the North, and Zephyr the West Wind —870
these come from the gods, a great blessing for mortals.
The other winds blow without purpose on the Sea,
a great torment for mortals; they rage with evil blasts.
They start howling when you least expect them, scattering ships,
and the sailors drown. No remedy exists for their evil,875
not for the men who encounter them at Sea.
So too across the infinite blooming Earth,
they destroy the lovely fields of Earth-dwelling women and men,
and fill Gaia with dust and grievous turmoil.
Zeus becomes king
But when the carefree gods had accomplished their labour,
and decided the issue of honours with the Titans, by force,
then they urged far-seeing Olympian Zeus,
by the shrewd advice of Gaia, to be king and ruler
of the immortals. And he skillfully divided honours among them.885
The Wives of Zeus
Zeus, now king of the gods, chose as his first wife Metis,
because, among gods and mortal men and women, she knows most.
But when she was about to give birth to the goddess
owl-eyed Athena, he deceived her mind with a trick.
Using wily words, he placed her down into his belly,890
by the shrewd advice of Gaia and starry Ouranos.
For they advised him, so that no one else of the eternal gods,
other than Zeus, should ever hold the honour of kingship.
From Metis, wise children were destined be born,
first a daughter, owl-eyed Tritogeneian Athena,895
endowed with courage and prudent counsel, equal to her father.
But then, after that, she was fated to bear a son,
a king of gods and men, born with overwhelming strength.
Before that happened, Zeus placed her down into his belly,
so the goddess might advise him on good and evil.900
Second, Zeus brought home bright, just Themis, who bore the Seasons —
Good Governance, Justice, and flowering Peace —
who oversee the works of mortal men and women.
And she bore the Fates, whom shrewd Zeus gave an immense honour —
Clotho the Spinner, Lachesis the Allotter and Atropos the Unbending:905
for mortal women and men, they assign possession of good and evil.
Third, Eurynome, the daughter of Ocean, a goddess of enticing beauty,
bore to Zeus the fair-cheeked Graces —
glittering Aglaia, joyful Euphrosyne, and lovely festive Thalia.
From their eyes, as they look our way, desire radiates910
and loosens our limbs. Under their eyelids, beauty inhabits their glances.
Then Zeus went to the bed of bountiful Demeter.
She bore white-armed Persephone, whom Aidoneus
seized from her mother, and shrewd Zeus gave his permission.
5. Mnemosyne (Memory)
Then Zeus fell in love with lovely-haired Mnemosyne.915
She bore the Muses who wear gold ribbons in their hair,
nine daughters whose delight is festivals and the joy of song.
Leto too joined in love with aegis-bearing Zeus,
and bore Apollo and arrow-pouring Artemis,
captivating children surpassing all of Sky’s descendants.920
Last of all, Zeus made Hera his lush and fertile wife.
She gave birth to youthful Hebê, Ares, and Eileithyia,
joining in love with the king of gods and men.
Zeus himself gave birth from his head to owl-eyed Athena,
fearsome rouser of battles, leader of armies, never wearying925
queen who rejoices at the clash of arms, wars, and battles.
But Hera raged in strife with her husband, and joining
in intercourse with no one, gave birth to renowned Hephaestus,
who surpassed all the descendants of Ouranos in skill of his hands.
More and more children
From Amphitrite and the resounding Earth-Shaker,930
huge powerful Triton was born, who in the Sea’s depths
with his beloved mother and lordly father
lives in a golden palace, an awesome god. And to Ares,
the piercer of shields, Aphrodite of Cythera bore Fear and Terror —
awful gods who cause panic in crowded battalions of men,935
in ice-cold war with city-destroying Ares —
and Harmony, whom bold Cadmus made his wife.
Maia, daughter of Atlas, bore famous Hermes, the immortals’ messenger,
to Zeus, after she came into his marriage bed.
Cadmus’ daughter, Semele, joining in love with Zeus.940
bore a shining son, joyful Dionysus —
a mortal mother and an immortal son. Both are gods now.
Alkmene bore might Herakles,
joining in love with cloud-gathering Zeus.
Famous broken-footed Hephaestus made Aglaia,945
youngest of the Graces his blooming wife.
Golden-haired Dionysus took blonde Ariadne,
daughter of Minos as his blooming wife.
Zeus, son of Kronos made her ageless and immortal.
The heroic son of fair-ankled Alcmene,950
mighty Herakles, once he finished his grievous Labours,
made the daughter of great Zeus and Hera who walks in golden sandals
his revered wife, on snow-covered Olympus,
Happy and blessed, who finished his great work and lives
among the immortals, free from pain and old age forever.955
To Helios, the Sun who never grows weary, the famous daughter of Ocean,
Perseis, bore Circe and king Aietes.
Aietes, son of Helios who shines on mortals,
married fair-cheeked Idyia, a daughter of Ocean,
the perfect river. She bore fair-ankled Medea960
mastered in lovely intercourse through gold-adorned Aphrodite.
[The Theogony continues for another 50 or so lines, as Hesiod turns to the children born to goddesses who had sex with mortal men: Demeter, Eos (the Dawn goddess), Thetis, Aphrodite, Circe and so on. In this way, Hesiod ends his poem in a glorious celebration of procreation, as all the gods take their cue from Zeus, joining in love with each other and with mortal men and women to produce more and more gods and heroes.]