let’s imagine you’re thinking of writing a book. What are you going to write about? Your
family perhaps, your quirky friends, some ex-lover who wronged you (after having
righted you so nicely), the day-to-day living tips you learned from your cat? Or maybe
you’re an ex-lawyer, ex-Navy Seal, ex-secret agent or ex-medical examiner whose
insider information will drive a nail-biter narrative. But how about this as a topic for your
first book: the origin of the gods and the history of the world. Nice modest project, no?
But that’s what Hesiod, an eighth-century B.C. contemporary of Homer, opted for as the
subject of his first book, the Theogony — no small proof of how much Western
literature has changed in the last twenty-eight hundred years.
Now Hesiod probably didn’t invent all his material (much of it he could have taken from
oral legends passed down, or from written sources that predate his), but it’s still great to
imagine him trying to pitch it to a Hollywood producer: Well, Mr. Coppola, it’s kind of
this classic tale of birth and rebirth, of gods being created out of nothingness or out of the
side of each other’s heads, of sons castrating their fathers and genitals floating on the sea
and turning into goddesses, that kind of thing . . . Francis Ford would probably look him
deep in the eye, put his hand on his shoulder and say, Best lay off that crack pipe, son.
But while much of the Theogony is decidedly distant to the modern sensibility,
the one thing it shares with much modern literature, sadly, is its leaning toward
misogyny. In a book that otherwise makes almost no reference to normal human reality,
Hesiod pauses long enough to take some gratuitous potshots at our mothers, wives and
sisters. Women are the curse Zeus inflicted on mankind because his son Iapetos stole fire
and brought it to us, and apparently we haven’t been forgiven.
Yet among the gods at least, it’s not the females who cause trouble but the fathers and* * *
sons. Iapotos stole the fire from Zeus. Zeus, meanwhile, vanquished his father
Kronos, who had eaten all of his other children. And Kronos, as we will see below, also
had a father to fear, and with the help of his mother took matters into his own hands.
Centuries before Sophocles and millenia before Freud, Oedipal myths were in full force,
nowhere more clearly than in Hesiod.
From the Theogony by Hesiod translated by Dorothea Wender
These most awful sons of Earth and Heaven
Were hated by their father from the first.
As soon as each was born, Ouranos hid
The child in a secret hiding-place in Earth
And would not let it come to see the light,
And he enjoyed this wickedness. But she,
Vast Earth, being strained and stretched inside her, groaned.
And then she thought of a clever, evil plan.
Quickly she made grey adamant, and formed
A mighty sickle, and addressed her sons,
Urging them on, with sorrow in her heart,
“My sons, whose father is a reckless fool,
If you will do as I ask, we shall repay
Your father’s wicked crime. For it was he
Who first began devising shameful acts.”
She spoke, but fear seized them all, and none
Replied. Then crooked Kronos, growing bold,
Answered his well-loved mother with these words:
“Mother, I undertake to do the deed;
I do not care for my unspeakable
Father, for he first thought of shameful acts.”
He spoke, and giant Earth was glad at heart.
She set him in a hiding-place, and put
Into his hands the saw-toothed scimitar,
And told him all the plot she had devised.
Great Heaven came, and with him brought the night.
Longing for love, he lay around the Earth,
Spreading out fully. But the hidden boy
Stretched forth his left hand; in his right he took
The great long jagged sickle; eagerly
He harvested his father’s genitals
And threw them off behind. They did not fall
From his hands in vain, for all the bloody drops
That leaped out were received by Earth; and when
The year’s time was accomplished, she gave birth
To the Furies, and the Giants, strong and huge,
Who fought in shining armour, with long spears,
And the nymphs called Meliae on the broad earth.
The genitals, cut off with adamant
And thrown from land into the stormy sea,
Were carried for a long time on the waves.
White foam surrounded the immortal flesh,
And in it grew a girl. At first it touched
On holy Cythera, from there it came
To Cyprus, circled by the waves. And there
The goddess came forth, lovely, much revered,
And grass grew up beneath her delicate feet.
Her name is Aphrodite among men.
© Dorothea Wender