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The origins of the Greek Gods

According to Hesiod’s Theogony, chaos is the realm from which all that is manifest was born.

The first of all creation was Gaia, the earth mother, and Eros, the archetype for Love and the impulse that creates. Chaos produced Night and Erebos (the underworld), which is the realm through which the dead must pass. Night and Erebus produced Day and Space.

Gaia, who is frequently referred to as Earth, gave birth to Heaven, who was her first-born and her equal. Heaven is another name for Ouranos, also known as Uranus. When Gaia mated with Ouranos, she gave birth to Oceanus (ruler of the watery realm), Koios (associated with the intellect), Kreius (associated with rulership), Iapetos (associated with the voice), Hyperion (associated with scrutiny), Theia (associated with vision), Rhea (associated with agriculture and harvest), Themis (associated with justice), Mnemosyne (associated with memory), Tethys (associated with the seas), Phoebe (associated with the Moon) and Chronos, a.ka. Kronos, (associated with time).

Gaia is one of the most important concepts in Greek myths. She is not only the powerful force that issues all creation, she is also the platform on which all material existence occurs (Nature). So one must always think of Gaia in a dual manner as “all that is manifest,” and “all that can be manifest.” But in spite of her power, she does not appear that much in Classical literature although her presence is frequently implied, and, mostly, she remains a powerful but silent force of nature.

What is prevalent in Classical literature, and particularly in Theogony, is the mother-goddess/son-lover motif and homosocial relationships, which are two themes frequently used to explain our evolution and existence. While the mother-goddess/son-lover themes frequently suggest how men self-fashion themselves utilizing the endless cycle of birth and death (this motif is informed by Eros and Thanatos impulses), the homosocial themes suggest how patriarchal laws organize the material realm and promote ethnic societies.

Homosocial relationships should be understood, in the broadest sense, as the bonds established by men, frequently erotic, in which males support each other’s advancement and well being through supportive associations and exchanges. This term was coined by feminist Gayle Rubin and further developed by Eve Sedgwick. Homoerotic and homosocial themes throughout Classical literature emphasize masculine bonds and power dynamics within society, where young men frequently benefited socially, politically and financially through association with older established males. Hence, order or chaos within a society was reflected by the integrity and establishment of male bonds, and social order was contingent upon negative or positive male associations.

The mother’s claim to parentage is a far more complicated idea in Classical Greek literature, even though the mother-goddess motif is a principle component to what is understood as existence. As mentioned earlier, the mother-goddess, exemplified by Gaia, is the theme that conveys the foundation of all material reality and the force that maintains it. However, as homosocial bonds took root and grew in Classical culture, themes of matriarchal power became challenged by patriarchal views, which questioned the integrity and usefulness of matriarchal power structures.

In the following quote taken from “The Eumenides” of the Oresteia, written by Aeschylus, and translated by Richmond Lattimore, Apollo describes the parental claim to a child;

“the mother is no parent of that which is called her child, but only nurse of the new-planted seed that grows. The parent is he who mounts. A stranger she preserves a stranger’s seed, if no god interfere” (Lattimore 658-661).

In other words, Apollo proposes that the mother’s relationship and function in her child’s life is solely as a nurturer, while the father is the sole parent that has ancestry or legal claims to the children they both produce. This theme of masculine domination and ownership of children became apparent as Apollonian ideals became prevalent in society. The typical apollonian ideal was masculine, symmetrically perfect, orderly and refined. All that was masculine was idealized, and the feminine became viewed as too vulgar and savage.

In fact, matriarchal society was generally viewed as primitive, and matriarchal codes of justice were depicted as emotional driven codes of revenge, and compensation based on vendettas or blood retribution. As the matriarchal system was systematically replaced by patriarchal judicial and social values, themes of noblesse oblige, and justice based on financial restoration or retribution became common. The transition from matriarchal to patriarchal values was less than smooth, and most sagas of family strife and victories pay homage to this complex interchange of the maternal and paternal forces in existence with admixtures of blessings and curses from vengeful, or merciful, gods and goddesses to patriarchs and patrons who exemplified either model or neglectful behavior towards them, or each other.

It should also be pointed out that Apollonian philosophies are firmly grounded in the homoerotic culture, where young beautiful male adolescents were idolized. Usually, when these beautiful men formed strategic alliances with the male gods, they were protected by divine intervention and made god-like on the earthly plane, and heaped with bountiful rewards for their behavior and alliances. When these beautiful adolescent males formed alliances with the goddesses, then the mother-goddess/son-lover motif usually appeared where the young beautiful male youth becomes the consort to the mother-goddess and then suffers and accident, and is usually killed, but reborn into something new and eternal.

According to Anne Cashford and Jules Baring, in their book The Myth of the Goddess, Evolution of a Symbol, the mother-goddess/son-lover motif is the concept of the son, depicted as a primal force of growth, who must die and be reborn, all through the mother goddess. Hence, although the son will die, having mated with the mother, he will be reborn again, but in another form. This, of course, serves as a mythical model for evolution. But in so doing, it becomes a matriarchal method of evolution, whereas patrilineage and inheritance is clearly the masculine archetype.

Homosocial bonds promoted masculine hegemony of power in Classical society. Therefore, patrilineage and themes of inheritance became very important in Classical literature. In fact, inheritance and blessings from the gods became intermingled themes, and things that could be inherited extended beyond the material to such things as temperament, heroism, integrity and valor. Commonly, desirable dispositions were viewed as rewards received from respectful worship and obeisance to the gods.

The co-existence of matriarchal and patriarchal patterns of evolution is clearly expressed in classical creation myths, where the mother-goddess/son-lover motif is expressed through Gaia and her mate Ouranos, and the evolution that occurs through patrilineage is expressed through Chronos and Zeus.

Ouranos and his mother, Gaia, created the Hecatonchires. The Hecatonchires had 100 arms and 50 heads each. They were named Cottus, Briareus, and Gyges. These powerful creatures were so offensive to Ouranos that he imprisoned them in the underworld, which in effect means he imprisoned them within Gaia, since she represents Nature. Gaia was so angered by Ouranos’ actions that she enlisted the aide of Chronos to free the Hecatonchires. Chronos accepted the challenge and with the sickle that Gaia gave to him, he castrated Ouranos. From Ouranos severed genitals, which were thrown in the sea, a foam spread and the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite was born. From Ouranos’ blood, which fell on Gaia, the Erinyes (a.k.a. The Furies) were born. The Erinyes were the sisters of revenge, who hunted down wrongdoers.

The saga continues when Rhea and Chronos, who are now husband and wife, are foretold that Chronos will give birth to a child who will overthrow him, as he overthrew Ouranos. To prevent such an occurrence, Chronos swallows his offspring. Subsequently, when Rhea became pregnant with Zeus, she sought a way to ensure his existence. After Zeus was born, to prevent Chronos from swallowing him, she substituted a rock in swaddled clothing and gave it to Chronos who swallowed it thinking it was the infant. Rhea quietly led Zeus away to Crete where he was reared by the nymphs Adrasta and Io, who were sisters. Upon coming of age and power, Zeus enacted the prophecy by enlisting the aide of the Titans to overthrow Chronos, who was becoming increasingly more tyrannical. Zeus overthrew Chronos and freed his brothers and sisters. Chronos was sent to the underworld to dwell, and Zeus became Lord of the gods of Heaven, on Mount Olympus. Gaia’s birth of Chronos, by Ouranos, represents the mother goddess son-lover motif, by default of her being his mother, and because he is, in effect, recreated into something new when Aphrodite emerges from his severed testicles.

Ouranos ultimately overthrows Chronos, and through this usurpation, Chronos assumes power and become father to Zeus, who, in turn, overthrows him. All three Titans, Ouranos, Chronos and Zeus, represent the continuum of evolution through patrilineage. Their challenged relationships depict the need for homosocial networking in order to peacefully evolve and share power. If homosocial bonds are not established, then evolution will likely occur through revolution.

The Greek creation myth has influenced most societies and has considerably impacted Western culture. In the broadest sense, the concept of patrilineage is still prevalent today as a means through which contemporary societies transfer power and ideologies. A couple of complicated variations on the patrilineage motif are:

The Daedalus and Icarus storyThe Daedalus and Icarus story, which captures the idea of the idealistic and zealous son not taking the sage advice of his father, which is a broad metaphor for the idealistic youth rejecting the wisdom of authority. He, subsequently, is punished by Apollo, who functions as another metaphoric patriarchal figure through his association with the sun, which is responsible for giving life on earth, and for melting Daedalus’ wings, and consequently tumbling him to the ground. Obviously, one lesson to be derived from this myth is that ambition and rewards are subject to and granted from obedience to rules and authority, which is usually bestowed from a father or god (and god as father is another common theme found in Classical myths).

The infamous House of Atreus: A royal lineage of dysfunctional father-son relationships, which will produce many tragedies for each of its generations. We are led to believe the Atrean curse stems from the arrogance of Tantalus, who had the nerve to feed his son to the gods, (which is a reflection of the Zeus motif), and a metaphor for the suppression of evolution, since killing one’s sons destabilizes patrilineage.

House of AtreusThese examples are meant to reveal the how patrilineage is, nonetheless, a complicated precedent upon which Classical society perceived its stabilization and prosperity. In fact, Zeus, the ultimate patriarch, in spite of his rebellious origins, ultimately establishes with his brothers Poseidon and Hades, and his sons Apollo, Ares, and Hermes the concept of fraternity, which is the root of homosocial bonds.

However, you should notice that I mention Zeus’ relationships with his sons and not his daughters. Clearly, not all relationships are treated equally. Notably rare or absent are strong and productive mother-children relationships, which probably stems from the fact that the mother was basically viewed as a breeding and nurturing force in a child’s life, and not an equal parent to the father. As to be expected, many father-daughter relationships, which are fundamentally based on obedience, are also prevalent in Greek myths, with Zeus and Athena’s father-daughter relationship being the most popular.

All in all, the Greek mythological canon is centered on relationship structures, frequently masculine, and commonly involving the theme of evolution. These relationships are explored through vast collections of stories that focus on human nature and the balance, or imbalance, of matriarchal and patriarchal forces.

Also see: List Of The Major Greek Gods

<< Back to Greek Mythology section



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