The Birth of the Gods and of the Universe
In the beginning of the world, a somewhat strange deity first emerges from the void. The Greeks referred to it as Chaos. It is not a person, not even a fictional personage. We must imagine this primordial divinity as having no human traits: neither body, nor face, nor any defining characteristics. In truth, it is an abyss, a black hole at the heart of which nothing recognizable can be found. No object, no figure can be made out in the absolute darkness that reigns at the core of what is, fundamentally, total disorder. Moreover, at the origins of our story there does not yet exist anyone to see whatever is or is not there: no creatures, no men—not even any gods. Not only are there no living and sentient beings, there also is no sky, or sun, or mountains, or sea, or rivers, or flowers, or forests… . In short, in this gaping abyss that is Chaos, there is total obscurity. All is flux, confusion, and disorder. Chaos resembles a gigantic invisible precipice. As in a nightmare, were you to fall inside, you would fall forever … but that cannot happen, because neither you nor I nor anyone else exists as yet in this flux.
And then, quite suddenly, a second divinity bursts from this chaos for no discernible reason. A sort of miracle: an event of primary and fundamental significance, which Hesiod, the first poet to tell this story a long time ago (seventh century BC), makes no attempt to explain. With good reason: he has no explanation to offer. Something emerges from the abyss, that is all. A formidable goddess, in fact, called Gaia—which in Greek means “the earth.” Gaia is solid ground at last, the nourishing earth upon which plants will shortly grow, rivers spout forth, animals and gods and men be able to walk. Gaia, the earth, is at once the first element, the first piece of nature that is quite tangible and dependable—and is, in this sense, the contrary of chaos: from now on, whatever exists will not fall into nothingness because it is supported and held in place. But Gaia is also the first mother, mother earth, the original matrix from which all future beings, or almost all, will shortly begin to emerge.
Nonetheless—in order that the rivers and forests and mountains, the sky, the sun, the animals, mankind, and (above all) the other gods can spring into being one day upon Gaia, the goddess earth, or for them to emerge from Chaos, which will also produce its share of immortal beings—there needs a third divinity, in addition to Chaos and Gaia. This is Eros, or love. Like Chaos, Eros is certainly a god, but not an individual god. A life force rather, which makes other lives spring into being. Put differently, a vital living principle. It is therefore imperative not to confuse Eros, which can neither be seen nor assimilated, with a mere individual, with that other diminutive god of the same name who will put in an appearance much later, and whom the Romans will call Cupid. This latter-day Eros, if you like—so often represented as a chubby infant fitted out with little wings and a bow and arrows, whose darts unleash the passions—is a different god entirely from the primordial Eros of whom we speak: this abstract principle, as yet, whose primary purpose is to help all future divinities emerge from the shadows into light.
It is from these three primordial entities—Chaos, Gaia, and Eros—that everything will come to life, and the world will progressively organize itself. This must, in turn, raise the first and most fundamental question of all: How do we pass from the absolute disorder of origins to the harmonious and beautiful world we recognize around us? In other words, which will shortly be those of philosophy, how do we pass from chaos to “cosmos”: from disorder to the perfect and just regimen of a magnificently ordained natural dispensation upon which the sun gently shines? Here is where begins our first story, which tells the origins of all things and all beings—be they elements, men, or gods. It is the founding narrative of Greek mythology, and it is where we, too, must begin.
To come straight to the point, I must here mention a fourth “protagonist” in our strange drama. Hesiod’s poem, which serves as our guide at this point, mentions that another divinity is present at this moment of origins, namely Tartarus. Again, this is not an individual, at least not in any human sense of the term. It is first and foremost a place, obscure and terrifying, moist and mildewed, and forever plunged in total darkness. Tartarus is situated at the profoundest depths of Gaia, in the most subterranean basement of the earth. It is in this place—subsequently to be identified with hell—that the dead, when there are such, will be relegated, but also equally the vanquished or banished gods. Hesiod gives us an interesting clue as to how to locate or imagine this celebrated Tartarus, who or which is at once a god and a place, like the others: a divinity capable of having children, for example, but at the same time a piece of nature, a corner of the cosmos. Hesiod tells us that Tartarus is buried deep in the earth, as far below the surface as the sky is above it, and he adds an image that perhaps speaks most vividly: imagine a heavy anvil—in other words an enormous bronze table of the kind used by blacksmiths to hammer metal objects into shape. Yes? Well, it would take nine days and nine nights for this enormous and massy bronze object falling out of the sky to reach the earth, and a further nine days and nights for it to fall through the surface of the earth to the bottom of Tartarus! Which is another way of saying how profoundly this infernal place, which will terrify humans and gods alike, is embedded in the deepest abysses of Gaia.
Let us turn our attention back to Gaia, for it is here that things will really start happening—and let us tell the story in its proper order, rather than putting carts before horses, for as yet there is no sky or mountains, no men nor even any gods beyond those primordial entities that are (just to remind ourselves, and to name them in order of appearance) Chaos, Gaia, Tartarus, and Eros. Nothing else, as yet, has come into existence.*
But now, no doubt under the impetus of Eros, Gaia gives birth—all alone, without husband or lover, out of her own depths and her own resources—to a formidably powerful god: Uranus. And Uranus is the starry sky that, located above the earth (stretched out, in effect, or elongated: in other words, lying upon her), is its celestial double. Wherever Gaia is found—wherever, in effect, the earth is to be found—there is also Uranus, or sky, overhanging it point for point. A mathematician would say these are two sets of perfectly equal extension: there is not a square centimeter of Gaia to which there does not correspond the same square centimeter of Uranus… . Notwithstanding, and once again without need of any other god, Gaia produces further offspring from her loins: the mountains, called the Ourea, and the nymphs who inhabit them—ravishing young girls, though not human since they, too, are divinities—and, finally, Pontus, the sea god or liquid entity. As you see, the universe, the cosmos, is beginning to take shape—even if very far from finished.
You will also note that all aspects of the physical universe so far mentioned are considered at once “elements of nature” and divinities. The earth is the ground upon which we walk, the compost from which the trees grow, but also a great goddess who bears a name just like you or me: Gaia. So, too, the sky is one of the elements, the beautiful azure above our heads, but at the same time a divine entity, already individualized and likewise endowed with his own name: Uranus. The same for Ourea, the mountains; Pontus, the salt sea waves; or Tartarus, the infernal underground buried in the bottommost depths of the earth. As the case arises, these divinities will pair off and have children in their turn, which is how thousands of other more or less divine creatures will be born of these first gods. For the moment, let us leave the majority of them to one side so as to focus on the main thread of the narrative and the characters who play an indispensable part in the terrible drama that will soon unfold before an ordered world can finally be established—a true cosmic order, harmonious and stable, where humans are able to live and die.
In this primordial mythic narrative, the births of the natural world and of the gods are one and the same—which is why they overlap within the same story. Basically, to recount the birth of earth, sky, or sea is to recount the adventures of Gaia, Uranus, or Pontus. And the same goes for the rest, as we shall see. It is important to remember, for this same reason, that these earliest divinities, despite their having names, like you or me, are elemental forces of nature rather than individuals endowed with their own characters and psychologies. To set the world on course, it will be necessary subsequently to call upon other gods, cultural rather than natural forces, who will be more reflective and self-aware than are these earliest natural forces with which the universe began. It is, moreover, this path toward consciousness, ruse, calculation—in short, this progressive humanizing of the Greek gods—that will provide some of the most intriguing human interest (so to speak!) of our whole mythological saga… . But for the moment what is important is that, in the beginning, the births of the gods and of the natural elements merge into one. I realize that the two terms I am about to employ may be unfamiliar and thus seem complicated: “theogony” and “cosmogony.” What do they mean? In truth, these archaic Greek terms are quite simple, as well as interchangeable. The birth (-gony) of the world (cosmos) and the birth (-gony) of the gods (theo) are one and the same: the cosmogony, the birth of the cosmos, is also and reciprocally a theogony, a story about the origins of divinity.
Two things to be born in mind at this point: firstly, that the cosmos, albeit eternal like the immortal gods, has not existed forever. In the beginning it is not order but chaos that rules. Not only are the most complete disorder and most complete darkness in charge of proceedings, but also (as we shall see shortly) the first gods, far from being full of wisdom, as might be expected of gods, are on the contrary fueled by hatred and the most brutal passions—very rough-hewn, to the point that they are immediately at war with one another, in the most terrifying fashion. To say that at the outset the gods are not harmoniously disposed would therefore be an understatement, which is why the birth of the world, and of a cosmic order, is a protracted story that culminates in a “war of the gods.” A tale full of sound and fury, but one that also carries within it a kernel of wisdom: that the life lived in harmony with the order of things, even if doomed one day to perish, as is the case with us mortals, is far preferable to all other forms of existence, preferable even to an immortality that is “disordered,” so to speak, or “out of joint.”
Let us note secondly that during this epoch of origins, there is no dimension of space, properly speaking: between heaven and earth, between Uranus and Gaia, there is no void, there are no interstices, so closely are they entwined. The universe, consequently, does not have its present appearance at the very outset, with an earth and a sky separated by distance—as Hesiod’s image of the bronze anvil attempts to make us understand. Nor is there a dimension of time, or at least not in any sense comparable to what we experience, since the roll call of generations—at once symbolized and incarnated by the birth of new progeny—has yet to establish itself. Besides, those who live in time are, by definition, mortals, and mortals have yet to appear on the scene.
Let us see now how the universe as we know it will emerge progressively from these primordial elements.
The painful separation of the sky (Uranus) and
earth (Gaia): the birth of space and time
Uranus, the sky, is not as yet “overhanging”—is not yet “up there,” in the firmament, like a vast ceiling. He is, on the contrary, lashed down securely to Gaia, as closely as a second skin. He touches her; he caresses her all over, unceasingly. He is, so to speak, as clingy as it is possible to be, or, to speak plainly, Uranus makes love to Gaia continuously, unceasingly. It is his only activity. He is a monomaniac, obsessed by a single idea, that of erotic passion: he covers her with kisses, ceaselessly embracing her, burying himself in her—with the inevitable consequence that he fathers a whole string of children by her! And it is here that matters really start to get complicated.
For the children of Uranus and Gaia are in effect the first “real gods,” the first gods who are no longer abstract entities but instead become veritable “characters.” As I have been suggesting, we witness a progressive humanization of the divine, with the appearance of new gods possessed finally of an individual allure, with fully developed personalities and a psychology, with passions that are less brutal and more nuanced than their forebears—even if (as we shall see) these remain frequently conflicted, even ruinous: as we have noted, the Greek gods—unlike, for example, the Christian or Muslim or Jewish God—are far removed from the condition of perfect wisdom. And it is these divine offspring who will be called upon when it comes to creating order out of disorder, and the birth of a cosmos out of primary chaos. And they are going to need all the character they can muster, as well as courage and assorted other qualities, to set in tune a primordial universe that is becoming ever more complicated: this cannot be achieved blindly, by the mere play of natural forces, like Newton’s gravity. This order is so beautiful and so intricate that it must perforce depend on intelligent decisions being taken… . Whence that evolution to which the birth of the gods gives rise, progressively, as I shall now unfold.
Who in effect are these first descendants of Gaia and Uranus, of earth and sky? And what are their adventures prior to the full emergence of a balanced cosmic order?
Their number includes in the first place those whom their father Uranus calls the Titans: six boys and six girls, the latter sometimes referred to as “Titanes” and “Titanides” to distinguish them from their brothers. These Titans have three characteristics in common. Firstly they are, like all gods, perfectly immortal: no hope therefore of killing them if you find yourself going to war against them! Secondly they are endowed with colossal force, inexhaustible and superhuman, of which we can have no conception. This is why we still speak today of a “titanic” force and have given the name “titanium” to a particularly dense and resistant metal. Finally, these Titans are all of a consummate beauty. All in all, these are beings at once terrifying and fascinating, and of an extreme violence since they bear the mark of their origins: born in the depths of the earth and the nether regions of Tartarus, that infernal place that remains close to the primordial chaos from which Gaia herself perhaps emerged—Hesiod tells us that she came “after” Chaos, without making clear whether she was actually born of Chaos, though that is a plausible hypothesis. In any case, it is clear that the Titans are forces of chaos rather than of cosmos, beings of disorder and destruction rather than of organization and harmony.*
In addition to these six Titans and six sublime Titanides, Uranus begets three monstrous beings with Gaia, “in other respects like gods” says Hesiod, with the difference that they only have a single eye, enormous and planted in the middle of the forehead! These are the Cyclopes, who will also play a decisive role in the construction of an ordered and harmonious cosmos. Like their brothers the Titans, each Cyclops is endowed with extraordinary strength and limitless violence. Their individual names, in Greek, indicate this clearly enough, for they all evoke storm and tempest: first there is Brontes, which means “thunderer”; then Steropes, “lightning flash”; then Arges, “thunderbolt.” It is these beings who will give the future ruler of the gods, Zeus, his most fearful weapons: namely his thunderbolt and lightning flash, which Zeus will deploy against all adversaries, to blind them or strike them down.
Finally, the union of sky and earth gives birth also to three entirely terrifying beings, more frightening (if possible) than even the twelve Titans and three Cyclopes: they possess fifty heads each, and from their monstrous shoulders spring a hundred arms of unimaginable strength. For which reason they are called the Hecatoncheires, which in Greek means simply the “Hundred-Handed Ones.” They are so impressive that Hesiod proposes—before giving their names, nonetheless—that it is better not to name them for fear of rousing them and attracting their attention: the first is Cottus, the second Briareus, and the third Gyges. They, too, will play an important role, alongside the Cyclopes, in constructing the order of things to come.
The war of the gods: conflict between the first gods,
the Titans, and their children, the Olympians
The order to come: because, as I have remarked, we are still far from the achieved and harmonious cosmos that Gaia—from all we can deduce about her from her solidity (in contrast to the gaping abyss of Chaos)—must be wishing for in her prayers. In fact, so extreme are these contrasts that all-out warfare looms inexorably on the horizon. The primitive forces of disorder, themselves so close to the original chaos, will in effect be unleashed—and must be mastered, muzzled, and civilized, so far as possible, if a viable and ordered world is to emerge. But where will this gigantic conflict break out? And how will it end? This is the central subject of Hesiod’s founding narrative of Greek mythology—his cosmogony or “theogony”—for it is through this story that we shall pass finally from primitive disorder and violence to a well-regulated cosmic order that men will be able to inhabit and where they will seek, for better or worse, their destiny as mortals.
Here is how it starts.
Uranus loathes his children equally: the twelve Titans as much as the Cyclopes or the Hundred-Handed Ones. He bears a very particular hatred toward all of them. Why? No doubt because he fears that one of them will usurp him: not merely challenge his supreme power but steal from him she who is both his mother and his wife, namely Gaia. This is why Uranus (the sky) covers Gaia so closely and so effectively as to prevent their children from seeing the light of day. He leaves no space, not the least chink through which they might leave the womb of their mother earth. He relegates them indeed to the profoundest depths, the chaotic regions of Tartarus—for which his offspring will not forgive him. Nor does Gaia, who is pregnant with all these children and cannot keep within her all these unborn and compressed sons and daughters! So she addresses them, urging them to revolt against this dreadful father who has prevented them from freeing themselves, from spreading their wings and growing up—prevented them, literally as well as figuratively, from seeing the light of day. Cronus, the youngest, hears the call of his mother, who suggests a dreadful stratagem against Uranus, his own father: with the molten metal that flows in her entrails, at the deepest subterranean levels, Gaia forges a reaping hook (other versions of the story specify that is made of flint, but I stay faithful to Hesiod who refers to gray adamant—presumably meaning iron). The instrument is certainly trenchant and, specifies Hesiod, “sharp-toothed.” Gaia hands it to Cronus and invites him in plain terms to castrate his father!
The narrative of the castration of Uranus is very specific. It goes into details because these will have “cosmic” consequences, which is to say decisive effects upon the construction of the world. Arming himself with the iron sickle, Cronus waits for his opportunity. Uranus, as is his habit, stretches out in every direction and enters Gaia: Cronus takes his chance and grabs his father’s genitals with his left hand (a later accretion to the myth will claim that it is from this moment that “left-handed” comes to mean “sinister” and bear the stamp of infamy) and with his right hand quickly severs them with a single sweep. With his left hand, equally, he flings the unfortunate and bleeding genitals over his shoulder, “to lie where they might”—a detail that is by no means superfluous, or invented solely to add sadistic piquancy to the story, since from the drops of Uranus’s blood, which are all received by the earth and the oceans, further dreadful or sublime divinities will in due course be spawned.
I will say something more here about these divinities since we shall encounter them again in numerous mythological stories.
The first three beings to be born from the severed sex of Uranus are gods of hatred, vengeance, and discord (“discord” = eris, in Greek), for they bear the trace of their violent origins. The fourth, on the contrary, belongs not to the empire of Eris but to that of Eros, or love: namely, the goddess of beauty and of amorous passion, Aphrodite. Let us examine this more closely.
From the severed genitals of the unfortunate Uranus, and from his blood that soaks into the earth (Gaia), the firstborn are three terrifying goddesses named by the Greeks the Erinyes (Furies).*According to the poet Virgil, there are three of these avenging spirits, called Alecto, Tisiphone, and Megaera. It has to be said that the Erinyes are far from amiable: they are, as I have said, divinities of vengeance and hatred who pursue those guilty of crimes committed within the family, and who inflict unspeakable torments and tortures. They are preconditioned for this role from birth, so to speak, since their principal purpose is to avenge their father Uranus for the crime perpetrated upon him by his youngest son, Cronus. But beyond their personal vendetta, they play an important role in a number of mythological stories, where they act as avengers of all family crimes and, even more broadly, all crimes against hospitality—in other words, crimes committed against individuals who, although strangers, should be treated as members of the family. It is they, for example, who engulf poor Oedipus in the earth, who, without intending or wishing to do so, kills his father and weds his mother. They are also known as the Eumenides, which is to say the “well-wishers”—not in Hesiod’s poem but, for example, in the tragedies of another and slightly later Greek poet (sixth century BC), Aeschylus. In fact, this gentle appellation of “well-wishers” is devised to mollify them, and is used to avoid attracting their wrath. In Latin they would be known as the Furies. Hesiod does not speak of them in any detail, but later poets describe them as females of atrocious aspect: dragging themselves along the ground, baring their frightful claws, with wings that allow them instantly to overtake their prey, brandishing whips, their hair entangled with snakes, their mouths dripping with blood… . And since they incarnate destiny itself, which is to say the laws of cosmic order to which all beings must submit—even the gods are obliged more or less to abide by their decisions, which means that everyone (mortal or immortal) fears and detests the Erinyes… .
Next, with Gaia still covered in the blood of Uranus, which has soaked into the earth—into Gaia herself—a whole pleiad of nymphs springs forth. They are named the Meliai, which in Greek means young girls born of what we would now call ash trees. These, too, are formidable and warlike deities, since it is with the wood of the ash tree—from which the most effective arms are made, notably the bows and lances used in battle—that they extend their dominion.
In addition to the Erinyes and the Meliai, other equally terrifying beings are spawned from the blood of Uranus that soaks into the earth: namely the giants, or Gigantes, who spring out of the ground fully armed and armored, wholly dedicated to killing and carnage. Nothing frightens them, and nothing suits them better than wars and massacres. Here they are comfortably in their element. Hesiod tells us nothing more about them, but later versions of this same myth suggest that there was a revolt of the giants against the gods, which even gave rise to a dreadful war, referred to as the Gigantomachy, or “combat of the giants.” From which the gods, of course, emerged victorious, but to do so they needed the assistance of Heracles*—of whom more will be said later.
As we can see, all of the characters born thus far from the blood of Uranus mixed with the earth of Gaia are fearful beings, vowed to vengeance, hatred, or war. It is in this sense that the Erinyes, the Meliai nymphs, and the giants, or Gigantes, come firmly within the domain of that divinity named Eris: the personification of discord, from whom all conflict arises. Eris is, moreover, an obscure and shadowy entity, one of the daughters of Night, Nyx, and engendered after the manner of Gaia, without any need of husband or lover.
But, as mentioned above, from the sexual organs of the Sky springs another goddess, who this time belongs not to Eris but on the contrary to Eros, and who is dedicated not to discord and conflict but to love (the closeness in Greek of those words seems to indicate a closeness in reality: that it is easy to slip from Eros to Eris, from love to hate)—and this is none other than Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and love. You will recall that the blood of the severed genitals of Uranus fell to earth, but Cronus flung the genitals as such over his shoulder, a great distance, and they disappeared into the sea—where they were carried on the waves and, blending with the white foam of the sea (in Greek, foam is aphros), gave birth to this young girl, Aphrodite, most beautiful of all the divinities. Goddess of tenderness, of mildness, of love’s sidelong smile. But equally, goddess of sexual brutality and of the ruses and duplicity necessary to seduce, to please the other, to place oneself in the most flattering light, or to flatter another—devices that are not always (to put it mildly) used in the service of the truth. Aphrodite is all of these things: she is the art of pleasing, of seduction and gloss, of vanity and jealousy; she is mildness itself, but she is also the flash of anger and hatred born of thwarted passions. In which respect, once again, Eros is never far away from Eris; love is never far from quarrel and conflict. When she emerges from the ocean foam either in Cyprus or at Cythera, according to Hesiod, she is already accompanied by two other minor deities who serve as her “retinue,” her companions and confidants: Eros is one of these, famously—and this time it is indeed Eros minor, of whom we spoke earlier, the diminutive figure who is often represented (long after Hesiod) as a small chubby boy armed with a bow and arrows. Secondly, at Eros’s side there is Himeros, or desire, which properly speaking always precedes love… .
On a cosmological level, in other words, in terms of the building of our cosmos—the world in which we mortals have yet to appear—the castration of Uranus has one absolutely crucial result, of which I shall speak briefly before we move on finally to the celebrated story of the war of the gods. This consequence is, quite simply, the birth of space and time.
The birth of space, firstly, because the unfortunate Uranus, under the effect of the atrocious agony caused by his mutilation, “takes flight,” at the end of which he finds himself taped to the ceiling, so to speak, thereby creating the space that separates earth and sky. Secondly, the birth of time, for a far more profound reason that is one of the keys to the whole of classical mythology: thanks to the opening up of space, the imprisoned children of Uranus—the Titans, in the first instance—can finally emerge from the earth. Which is another way of saying that the future, formerly blocked by the pressure of Uranus upon Gaia, opens up. Henceforth, future generations will inhabit the open air of the present tense. All those offspring symbolize life but also history. Moreover, life and the possibility of history—first incarnated by the Titans, who can finally leave the dark womb of earth—also entrain movement, disequilibrium, and, by the same token, the open and permanent possibility of disorder. Each new generation is a dynamic rather than stable addition, tilting the scales toward the chaotic and away from the cosmic—so much so that one thing at least is already entirely clear: fathers must beware their sons! And Cronus is better placed than anyone to understand this: it is he who has mutilated his own father, Uranus, and therefore he who is first to realize that his own children represent a threat to the status quo, to the one who already holds power. Put differently: we must be wary of Time, the creator of new life, but also the native realm of all disorders, of all the troubles and imbalances that are held in store. Cronus takes stock of this new incontrovertible reality: that history is full of dangers, and that if one wants to hold onto what has been gained and secure one’s power, it would be better to abolish history, so that nothing can ever change again… .
It is difficult to overestimate the profundity of the existential problem that begins to take shape in the crucible of this first and original mythological narrative. What it implies is that all existence, even that of the immortal gods, will find itself trapped in the same insoluble dilemma: Either one must block everything, as Uranus blocked his children in the womb of Gaia, in order to prevent change and the attendant risk that things will deteriorate—which means complete stasis and unspeakable tedium, such as must ultimately overwhelm life itself. Or, on the other hand, to avoid entropy one accepts movement—History, Time—which includes accepting all the fearful dangers by which we are most threatened. How, henceforth, can there be any equilibrium? This is the fundamental question posed by mythology, and by life itself! The answers provided by these stories are therefore full of interest, even for us today… .
But let us return to our story.
Cronus devours his children … except
Zeus, the last and littlest, who escapes
and in turn revolts against his father
Cronus, as I have said, is more conscious than anyone of the dangers that children pose for their fathers. And with good reason. He liberates his brothers and sisters, Titans and Titanides, still imprisoned underground by the violence of Uranus, but he takes a very different course of action with his own children. He weds his sister, Rhea, but each time she conceives and brings into the world a newborn, Cronus immediately swallows it whole, to avoid the possibility of his offspring rebelling against him one day, as he rebelled against his father, Uranus. For the same reason, no doubt, Cronus declines to liberate the Cyclops and the Hundred-Handed Ones from below earth. They are a little too dangerous, a little too violent not to provoke change, too, and therefore they pose a threat. Better, for the moment, to keep them locked up in the depths of Gaia, in the obscurity of Tartarus, the realm of mists and damp, which takes its toll on all of its inhabitants. These in turn conceive an inextinguishable hatred for their brother turned keeper.
With his sister, now his wife, the Titanide Rhea, Cronus will have six magnificent children: Hestia, goddess of the hearth, which means protector of the family; Demeter, goddess of the seasons (named Ceres in Latin, from which “cereal” derives); Hera, soon to become the wife of Zeus, future ruler of the gods; Poseidon, god of the sea; Hades, god of the underworld; and, finally, Zeus himself—last and littlest, who will become ruler of all the others… . But each time, as soon as the infant emerges from his mother’s womb and arrives, as Hesiod says, “at his father’s knee,” the latter swallows him whole and sends him straight to prison in the depths of his stomach. It is worth bearing in mind that Cronus’s parents, Gaia and Uranus, have warned him, predicting quite openly that one day or other he will have a son who will dethrone him and steal all of his powers.
Be that as it may, both his mother, Gaia, and his wife, Rhea, are dismayed by his behavior. Gaia ended by detesting her husband, Uranus, for preventing her children from leaving her womb and seeing the light of day. Rhea, in turn, begins to hate Cronus because, worse still, he consumes all her little ones, to the point that just before the last of them is born—we are speaking here of Zeus—Rhea goes and seeks advice from her mother and father, Gaia and Uranus: What can she do to avoid little Zeus being swallowed whole, just like all the others? Her parents advise her to leave immediately for Crete, or more precisely for Lyktos, where Gaia, who is better placed than anyone else to perform this rescue operation—since she is herself the earth—will shelter the newborn infant in a gigantic grotto concealed inside a mountain, itself covered by a forest. No risk here of Cronus detecting the existence of Zeus. However, to allay his suspicions, Cronus must be given something to swallow instead of a baby! So Rhea wraps up a large stone in swaddling clothes, and Cronus swallows it without noticing anything unusual.
In a safe place, and well concealed from the gaze of his father, little Zeus grows, nourished by the milk of the goat Amalthea, whose skin, it is said, could be pierced neither by arrows nor lances. It is with this hide that Zeus will create his famous shield, the “aegis,” which he will lend when the need arises to his daughter Athena. For the moment, he is turning into a magnificent adolescent, shortly to become an adult radiant with strength and beauty. The plot forged by Gaia and Rhea against Cronus meanwhile pursues its course. They arrange a stratagem by which Cronus is made to vomit and thus spit forth, one by one, all of his swallowed children, beginning with the youngest—in other words, with the stone that served as a decoy for Zeus.
Meanwhile, Zeus does something both very cunning and very prudent, still acting on the instructions of Gaia, who clearly wants the cosmos to be constructed with the active participation of all her children and grandchildren, without exception: he frees the Cyclopes whom Cronus had left chained in the depths of the earth. Overcome with gratitude, the latter present him with two magnificent gifts that will prove to be precious above all others since they will enable Zeus to become the most powerful and most feared of all the gods: namely the thunderbolt and the lightning flash, which will deafen, blind, and strike down all his enemies. For the same reasons, Zeus is smart enough to release the Hecatoncheires, the infamous Hundred-Handed Ones, brothers likewise of the Cyclopes and the Titans. In other words, by this act of liberation Zeus makes important and lasting allies. We may notice, in passing, all that is being gained by this progressive individualizing of the gods, which renders them more naturalistic, more cunning, more aware of the consequences of their actions as individual agents. Put differently: without intelligence or any sense of justice, without these more naturalistic attributes, the achievement of a harmonious world order would be inconceivable.
As might be expected, the revolt of Zeus and of his brothers and sisters—Hestia, Hera, Demeter, Poseidon, and Hades—against Cronus and the other Titans unleashes a monstrous war, a conflict of which we can have no conception: it is the whole universe that trembles, and the emerging cosmos finds itself on the brink of being returned immediately to chaos… . Mountains are hurled as you or I would throw stones! The entire universe is shaken to its foundations and threatened with annihilation. But what is unimaginable, for us mortals, is that no one can perish in the course of this conflict, waged as it is by beings who are perfectly immortal. The end therefore is not to kill, but to subjugate and reduce the adversary to immobility, to powerlessness. And the stakes are high: it is a question of ensuring that chaos—absolute disorder—does not triumph permanently over the possibility of a new order, the emergence of a veritable cosmos. In the end, thanks to the thunderbolt given by the Cyclopes, and thanks likewise to the formidable power of the Hundred-Handed Ones (in gratitude for their deliverance by Zeus), it is the second-generation gods—namely Zeus and his brothers and sisters, referred to hereafter as the “Olympians” because they conduct their war from the top of a mountain called Olympus, which will subsequently become their home—who carry the day. The Titans are blinded by lightning and buried alive under the rocks hurled by the Hundred-Handed Ones. Overwhelmed, they are finally chained and held hostage in Tartarus, the realm of black darkness, mists, and damp. Poseidon, one of the brothers of Zeus, constructs giant doors in bronze, impossible to break or to open, and the three Hundred-Handed Ones undertake to mount guard, all the more zealously given that their brother Titans had so few scruples about keeping them locked up underground, before Zeus liberated them… .
Henceforth, the Olympians—or at least the six original Olympians, of the generation of Zeus—are well and truly installed in power. Soon they will be twelve, as if to match the twelve Titans and Titanides. Zeus in effect has five brothers and sisters: Hestia, goddess of the hearth and of the home, protectress of the family; Demeter, goddess of crops and seasons; Hera, empress-in-waiting, who will become the wife of Zeus; Hades, god of the underworld, who will reign over Tartarus; and Poseidon, god of the rivers and seas, who makes the earth tremble with his famous trident. In the generation above, we will also count as an Olympian—that is to say as senior gods, those who rule over this world and carve up its affairs between them—Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and of love, who as we have seen was born of the blood of the castrated Uranus mixed with the foam of the sea. She is spared during the conflict of the gods because she is not born of Eris, or Discord. She can be considered therefore both as a sister of Cronus—of the same generation and sharing a father—but also as one of Zeus’s aunts. And then, from the generation that comes after Zeus and his five siblings, there are, of course, the children of the principal masters of Olympus, Hera and Zeus: these are Hephaestus, god of the forge and of craftsmen, and Ares, the terrifying god of war, followed by Athena, goddess of the ruse and of the arts, favorite daughter of Zeus, whom he conceived by his first wife, Metis. Athena, too, will sit on Olympus, where we shall also find those twins Apollo, handsomest of the gods, and Artemis, goddess of the hunt, who were born of the extraconjugal love of Zeus and Leto, herself the daughter of the Titans Coeus and Phoebe—which therefore makes Leto a first cousin of Zeus. Then there is Hermes, messenger of the gods, patron of eloquence, of travelers and of commerce. And, finally, Dionysus, strangest of all the Olympians, god of wine and of feasting, born (again) of the extramarital activities of Zeus and—uniquely among the Olympians—of a mortal mother: Semele, daughter of Cadmus, king of Thebes.
It should be made clear at this point that all these Olympian gods—and a number of Greek heroes such as Heracles (Hercules) and certain of the Titans, such as Cronus (Saturn)—will be given new Latin names by the Romans, who adapt and take Greek myth into new territory: Zeus will become Jupiter, Hestia becomes Vesta, Demeter becomes Ceres, Hera becomes Juno, Hades becomes Pluto, Poseidon becomes Neptune, Aphrodite becomes Venus, Hephaestus becomes Vulcan, Ares becomes Mars, Athena becomes Minerva, Apollo on occasion becomes Phoebus, Artemis becomes Diana, Hermes becomes Mercury, and Dionysus becomes Bacchus. This is the reason why, very often, we are more familiar with the Greek gods under their Latin appellations than by their original names. Despite which, they are the same personages: Hercules is none other than Heracles, Venus is none other than Aphrodite, and so on. It is, moreover, essential to be aware, at least roughly, of their respective powers and functions, for it is they who will carve up the world between them—and it is this division of powers, extending to the universe in its entirety and underwritten by Zeus, that is at the heart of the cosmic settlement. Further acquaintance with their roles and responsibilities will allow us, moreover, to understand a little more about them as individuals. Together with their respective tasks, different personalities also begin to emerge: little by little we enter the realm of culture, of politics, of justice—in short, the progressive humanizing of the divine of which I have spoken.
I will indicate these roles briefly, in summary form, without entering into detail as yet, and in each case I give both Greek and Latin names, so as better to follow the conclusion of this inaugural narrative:
Zeus/Jupiter Ruler of the gods and master of Olympus.
Hestia/Vesta Goddess of the hearth, who protects families and homes. Eldest daughter of Cronus and Rhea, she is therefore the first to be swallowed by Cronus and the last to be regurgitated by him; she is also therefore one of the sisters of Zeus.
Demeter/Ceres Goddess of seasons and of crops, she causes the flowers to grow, and the trees, and of course the “cereals.” She will have a daughter, Persephone, whom she adores, and who will be abducted by Hades to become his wife. In effect, Hades and Demeter will share Persephone. Each will have her for six months of the year, which is why nothing grows in fall and winter: Persephone is with Hades during this time, while her mother grieves and mopes and stops work. When Persephone returns, in spring, the sun comes back and everything revives!
Hera/Juno The “empress,” wife of Zeus. Frequently deceived by him and fearfully jealous, she pursues with her wrath the numerous mistresses of her husband, as well as their offspring born of adultery, like Heracles, whose name nonetheless signifies “glory of Hera”: it is she, in effect, who will ask him to accomplish the twelve famous (Herculean) “labors” in the hope that he will be killed while carrying out one or another of these tasks, because Heracles is not her son but the offspring of Alcmena, whom Zeus seduced by appearing to her in the guise of her husband, Amphitryon—for which Hera will never forgive him. Heracles nonetheless becomes a sort of lieutenant, Zeus’s second-in-command on earth, with a brief to kill monsters and thereby help maintain cosmic order.
Poseidon/Neptune God of the sea, it is he who unleashes tempests and hurricanes, by striking the ground with his trident. The offspring of this strange and disturbing god will include an impressive number of unruly monsters, including Polyphemus, the Cyclops whose one eye will be gouged out by Odysseus… .
Hades/Pluto Reigns over the underworld, together with his wife, Persephone, daughter of Demeter. More or less universally feared, even on Olympus, he is said to be the richest (ploutos) of all the gods because he rules over the greatest number of people: all of the nameless dead.
Aphrodite/Venus Goddess of beauty and of love, who is all charm but also practices every ruse and is mistress of every untruth.
Hephaestus/Vulcan God of the forge, of diabolical dexterity in his art, he is also the limping god (some accounts claim that he was thrown from the top of Olympus by his parents), the only god who is ugly, and yet he marries the most beautiful of goddesses, Aphrodite, who cuckolds him constantly, not least with Ares.
Ares/Mars Brutal, violent, even bloodthirsty, he is the god of war and one of the principal lovers of Aphrodite (there are plenty of others).
Athena/Minerva Favorite daughter of Zeus, and of his first wife, Metis (goddess of cunning). The story goes that Athena was born directly from the head of Zeus. In effect, Zeus swallowed Metis when he learned that she was pregnant, because it had been predicted that, if ever she had a son, he risked—like Uranus with Cronus, like Cronus with Zeus—being usurped. As it turned out, Metis was pregnant with a daughter, Athena, who thus found herself coming into the world inside Zeus, and who exited … through his head—which has a certain logic, after all, since she is the goddess of intelligence. She is also, like her brother Ares, a deity of war, but with this difference: that she wages conflicts with finesse, cunning, and intelligence—even if she is also able to wage arms with impressive ferocity when necessary. In this latter respect she is also the goddess of arts and technology or industry. It is war under its strategic aspect that she symbolizes rather than its brutality. At bottom she is like her father and embodies in feminine form all of his qualities: strength, beauty, intelligence.
Apollo/Phoebus The handsomest of the gods (as we say “an Apollo” to designate male beauty), one of the most intelligent, too, and the most musically gifted of them all. He is the twin brother of Artemis (Diana in Latin), goddess of the hunt. Both are the children of Zeus and Leto, who is herself the daughter of two Titans (Coeus and Phoebe), and therefore cousin to Zeus. Apollo is the god of light and of intelligence. He also inspires the most famous of all oracles, that of Delphi, which is to say the priests who claim to foretell the future. In Greek, Delphi means “dolphin,” because—according to certain mythological accounts posterior to Hesiod—Apollo, on arriving at Delphi, changed into a dolphin so as to lead a ship into port with the aim of turning its passengers into the priests of his new cult. He also killed a monstrous creature, which is called the Python, by leaving it to rot in the sun (in Greek “to rot” is pythein) after decapitating it. This snake or serpent had terrorized the inhabitants of Delphi, and in its place, Apollo installed his oracle, which is why Pytho is the ancient name for Delphi.
Artemis/Diana Also a daughter of Zeus and Leto, and twin sister of Apollo. Goddess of the hunt, she can be fearsome and cruel. For example, one day, when she was surprised entirely naked by a young man while bathing in the river, she changed him into a stag and let her hounds devour him alive… .
Hermes/Mercury Born of the union between Zeus and the nymph Maia, he is the most deceptive and knowing of all the gods. He is the messenger of Zeus, an intermediary in every sense of the term, which makes him as much the god of journalists as of tradesmen… . Many newspapers throughout the world still bear his name (the former London Mercury, the Mercure de France, Mercurio in Chile, Merkur in Germany, etc.). He gives his name to the science of “hermeneutics,” which concerns itself with the interpretation of texts. But he is also the god of thieves: while still an unweaned infant, only one day old, he manages to steal his brother Apollo’s entire herd of cattle! He even has the idea of marching them backward so that their hoof marks would mislead those who were looking for them. When Apollo discovers the theft, little Hermes offers a musical instrument to pacify him, the lyre, which he has constructed with the shell of a tortoise, drawing the strings from the guts of a cow. This will be the ancestor of the guitar, and since Apollo loves music above all else, he allows himself to be lenient toward this very singular urchin… .
Dionysus/Bacchus The strangest of all the gods, described as having been born from the “thigh of Jupiter,” meaning Zeus. In effect, his mother, Semele—daughter of Cadmus, king of Thebes, and of Harmonia, herself the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite—had imprudently asked Zeus to show himself to her in his true, divine form, without human disguise. Alas, humans cannot support the sight of the gods, least of all Zeus in all his blinding radiance. Granted the revelation of seeing Zeus “as himself,” poor Semele caught fire—while pregnant with Dionysus. Zeus snatched the fetus from its mother’s womb, saving it just before she was completely consumed by fire, then sewed the fetus into his thigh, removing it when it reached full term.
In the course of these pages we shall have frequent occasion to return to different aspects of these Olympian identities. You may already have noticed that the twelve have in the above summaries turned into fourteen. This is explained by the fact that ancient mythographers were not always in agreement as to a definitive list of gods, as is witnessed by the archaeological evidence drawn from monuments, which also offer contradictory lists. Sometimes Demeter, Hades, or Dionysus are not numbered among the Olympians, so that if we count all those mentioned in various accounts, there are indeed fourteen rather than twelve divinities. This is of no consequence, moreover, and changes nothing in our story: the essential point is to understand that there are higher gods and lower divinities, and that these fourteen—as listed above—are the principals, the most important players in the cosmogony, because it is these who, under the aegis of Zeus (which is to say under the protection of his famous shield fashioned from magical goat skin), will have the character and imagination to divide the world equably and arrange the organization of the universe so as to create a magnificent harmonious cosmic order.
Having said this, there are (as in a crime thriller) too many characters at the outset for us to keep them all clearly in mind, so I propose a small table to help us keep track of them all. You will soon become familiar with them, as I summarize their stories and list their individual characteristics. Let us begin our thumbnail theogony at the beginning, from the first divinity Chaos down to the Olympians, following their chronological order of appearance. I will restrict myself to the important deities, of course—to those who have major roles in the construction of the cosmos, which is what interests us here:
Cast of Principal Gods
1. There are, in the first place, six gods—from whom all others are descended:
Chaos, the dark and backward abyss.
Gaia, mother earth, solid and reliable.
Eros, life principle, the love that makes everything reach toward the light of being.
Tartarus, at once dreadful deity and infernal place, situated in the profoundest depths of Gaia, full of black darkness, mist, and damp.
Uranus, the sky, and Pontus, the sea, both of which are self-engendered by Gaia, without benefit of lover or spouse.
With the exception of Gaia, who has incipient traces of personality, these first gods are not yet proper individuals endowed with consciousness or character traits; rather they are forces of nature, primordial elements from which to construct a cosmos.*
2. The offspring of Gaia and Uranus, comprising three distinct sets—first, the Titans and their sisters, the Titanides:
And, on the female side:
Secondly, the three Cyclopes, who will be imprisoned underground by Cronus and who will give Zeus his thunderbolt after he releases them—respectively:
Steropes (lightning flash)
Finally, the “Hundred-Handed Ones,” or Hecatoncheires:
3. The offspring born of the severed sex of Uranus, whether from the drops of his blood falling to earth (Gaia) or from his genitals cast into the sea (Pontus). These are all brothers and sisters—or, in the case of Aphrodite, the half sister—of the Titans, the Cyclopes, and the Hundred-Handed Ones. There are once again three new lines of descent, to which is added Aphrodite.
The Erinyes, goddesses of vengeance (they are out to avenge the affront suffered by their father at the hands of Cronus). We know from the Latin poets that there are three of them and that the youngest is named Megaera. They are also (euphemistically) called the Eumenides, which means “Well-Wishers”; the Romans named them the Furies.
The Meliai nymphs, goddesses of the ash tree, which furnished the wood to make weapons of war during this epoch.
The giants, who come into the world fully armed and armored.
Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and of love, born likewise from the discarded sex of Uranus, but in this case mixed with the foam of the sea rather than with the earth.
Note that the three first-mentioned divinities (the Erinyes, the giants, and the Meliai) are gods of war, of Discord—which Hesiod also characterizes as a divinity: Eris, a daughter conceived singlehandedly by Nyx, the Night, without any lover—while Aphrodite proceeds not from the domain of Eris but from that of Eros, or Love.
4. The children of Cronus and of his sister, the Titanide Rhea. Succeeding the Titans comes the second generation of “real” gods, namely the original Olympians:
Hestia (Vesta in Latin), goddess of the hearth.
Demeter (Ceres), goddess of crops and seasons.
Hera (Juno), empress, second and last wife of Zeus.
Poseidon (Neptune), god of the sea and of rivers.
Hades (Pluto), god of the underworld.
Zeus (Jupiter), ruler of the gods.
5. Olympians (second generation):
Hephaestus (Vulcan), god of the forge, son of Zeus and Hera.
Ares (Mars), god of war, brother of Hephaestus, son of Zeus and Hera.
Athena (Minerva), goddess of war, of cunning, of arts and industry, daughter of Zeus and Metis.
Apollo (Phoebus) and Artemis (Diana), the twins: god of beauty and intelligence, goddess of the hunt, born of the involvement of Zeus and Leto.
Hermes (Mercury), Zeus’s messenger, son of Zeus and Maia.
Dionysus (Bacchus), god of wine and of feasting, son of Zeus and the mortal Semele.
Let us now take up the reins of our story.
The original settlement, and the
genesis of the idea of a cosmos
Zeus finally marries Hera, who will remain forever his true and final spouse. Nevertheless, not only does he have innumerable liaisons with other females, mortal and immortal, but he also has already previously been married—not once but twice. This is relevant because these two marriages have “cosmic” implications and an essential role in the construction of the world, which is what interests us here. In effect, Zeus is married first to Metis, then to Themis—firstly to the goddess of cunning or, if you prefer, of intelligence, and secondly to the goddess of justice.
Why Metis? Metis of the ruse, of intelligence, is daughter of the Titanide Tethys and of one of the first Titans, Oceanus—Ocean—which is to say, in the vision of the world implicit in Hesiod’s poem, the gigantic river that encircles the whole of the earth. Of Metis, Hesiod tells us only that she knows more than the other gods and (it goes without saying) more than any mortal man: she is intelligence itself, ruse personified. In short order she is also pregnant, expecting a daughter of Zeus, the future Athena, who will appropriately become the goddess of cunning, of intelligence and the arts of warfare—albeit, as we have seen, of tactical and strategic war rather than the messy and brutal conflicts that are the province of Ares. The grandparents of Zeus, Uranus and Gaia—who, you will recall, saved him from being swallowed by Cronus by prompting his mother, Rhea, to conceal him in an underground grotto—warn Zeus of the dangers lying in wait for him: if one day Metis has a son, he, too, will dethrone his father, as Cronus dethroned Uranus and as Zeus himself dethroned Cronus. Why so? Hesiod does not say, but we may suppose that any son of Zeus and Metis will necessarily be endowed with the attributes of his parents: the greatest possible strength, that of the thunderbolt, allied to his mother’s intelligence, which as we know is superior to that of all other mortals or Immortals. Not to be trusted, therefore: this child could turn into an absolutely fearsome adversary, even for the ruler of the gods. (Let us note in passing that the Greeks are not as misogynist or “antiwomen” as they are often made out to be: it is very often women who embody intelligence, without in any way diminishing their other assets such as physical attraction and prowess.)
Be that as it may, in order to avoid having a child who will usurp him, Zeus quite simply decides to swallow his wife (swallowing is a peculiarity of this family), the unfortunate Metis. A later variant to the story claims that, among her other resources and ruses, Metis has the capacity to change her form and appearance at will. She can transform herself whenever she likes into an object or an animal. Zeus is going to do exactly as Puss in Boots did when faced with the ogre: in the fairy tale, the cat asks the ogre to change himself into a lion, which terrifies her dreadfully. Then, acting the innocent, she asks him to change into a mouse … at which point she pounces on him and gobbles him up. Zeus does the same: he asks Metis to change into a droplet of water … and, as soon as she does so, he drinks her up! As for Athena—the daughter with whom Metis is pregnant when she is swallowed—she will be born directly from the head of Zeus. She springs from his cranium to become, in her father’s image, the most intelligent and, in combat, the most redoubtable goddess of them all.
Let us not forget one important detail in this story: swallowing is not the same thing as eating, chewing, or crunching. The one who is swallowed is not only still alive but unharmed. Just as the children of Cronus remain alive in their father’s stomach—the proof of which is that when Cronus regurgitates, they reappear in rude good health—so, too, Metis, swallowed by Zeus, remains alive and, so to speak, undamaged. We will encounter this notion again in our fairy tales, for example in Grimm’s “Seven Little Kids,” where the kids, although swallowed by the wolf, are discovered alive and kicking when the wicked wolf’s stomach is opened up! In the case of Metis, being swallowed signifies, symbolically of course, that Zeus is going to endow himself by this stratagem with all the qualities that the son of his union with Metis would doubtless have been endowed. He already has the power conferred on him by the Cyclopes presenting him with thunderbolt and lightning flash, but he now possesses in addition—thanks to Metis, concealed in his inmost depths—intelligence superior to all other mortals and Immortals.
This is why Zeus is henceforth invincible—why he becomes ruler of the gods: because he is at once the strongest and the most intelligent; the most brutal, if need be, but also the wisest. And it is precisely this wisdom that will persuade him (contrary to Uranus and Cronus) to practice the greatest justice in organizing the new cosmos, and in dispensing honors and responsibilities between those who have helped him to overcome their forebears, the generation of Titans.
This point is absolutely essential to Greek myth: it is always through justice that one gains one’s ends, ultimately, because justice is fundamentally nothing more than a form of adherence to—adjustment to—the cosmic order. Each time someone forgets this and goes against the rule of order, the latter is in the end restored, destroying the interloper. This lesson of human experience emerges already in veiled form in mythology: only a just order is permanent, and the days of injustice are always numbered.
This is why, having married Metis and, so to speak, incorporated her—literally concealed her inside himself—Zeus takes a second wife, who will be just as important as the first in helping him to maintain power at the heart of a nascent cosmos: namely Themis, or Justice. Themis is one of the daughters of Uranus and Gaia. She is therefore a Titanide, with whom Zeus will have children who symbolize perfectly the virtues necessary to the construction and maintenance of a harmonious and balanced cosmic order: this being always the focus of our story, which, as we can now see, tells how everything passes from initial chaos to a viable and magnificently organized cosmos. Among the children of Zeus and Themis is Eunomia, meaning “wise laws,” or dikè, justice in the sense of a proper division of things. Then there are the deities known as the Moirai, goddesses of destiny—also referred to as the Fates—whose task is to distribute good and ill fortune among mortals and also to determine the lifespan of each individual.* Often they arrange things so that this apportioning occurs randomly, in other words according to what the Greeks looked upon as the higher justice: after all, in life’s lottery we are all equals; there are no favorites, no special passes… . Finally, there is a group of goddesses whose names evoke harmony: these include the Three Graces, goddesses of such things as charm, beauty, creativity, and so forth.
We can therefore see quite plainly what this second marriage of Zeus signifies: just as it is not possible to be ruler of the gods and master of the universe by brute force alone without the aid of intelligence as symbolized by Metis, so, too, it is impossible to assume these responsibilities without invoking justice—in other words without Themis, the second wife of Zeus, who will be as indispensable to him as the first. In other words—and contrary to Cronus and Uranus, his father and grandfather—Zeus understands that he who would rule must exercise justice. Even before the end of the war against the Titans, moreover, he already promises those prepared to join him in the fight against the first gods that the division of the world will be carried out with fairness, in a harmonious and equal manner. Those who already enjoy privileges will retain these; those who lack privileges will be granted them. Hesiod gives the following account of Zeus’s decision:
The Olympian Zeus, great Lightener, called all the immortal gods to Olympus, and said that whoever of the gods would fight the Titans with him, he would not withdraw from them any of their privileges, but each would keep the honour he had held hitherto among the immortal gods. And he added that whoever was unhonoured by Cronus, and unprivileged, he Zeus would set him in the path of honour and privileges, as is right and just [Themis].
This is to say that Zeus proposes to all the gods an equal division of rights and obligations, of responsibilities and honors, the latter of which will subsequently be rendered to them by men in the form of cults and sacrificial offerings. For as we know, the Greek gods adore being adored, and they especially appreciate the fragrant odor of grilled meat prepared for them by mortals in the course of their magnificent “hecatombs,” referring to due and proper sacrifices. Hesiod goes on to describe how Zeus determines to reward the Hundred-Handed Ones and the Cyclops, as well as those Titans who, following the example of Oceanus, chose not to league against him with Cronus. In particular, Oceanus has the good sense to persuade his daughter Styx—the goddess who is also the river that runs through the underworld (once more, a deity is coterminous with a piece of the physical cosmos) to join Zeus’s camp together with her children, Kratos and Bia, god of power and goddess of force. In recompense for which, Styx will be honored eternally and her two children will bear the greater honor of forever remaining by Zeus’s side. Without going into too much detail, this whole episode shows Zeus’s understanding that a durable cosmic settlement must be founded on justice: to each must be allotted his fair share, and it is only by such means that the order established will remain stable. To maintain power requires justice and intelligence as well as force. Not only are the Cyclopes and the Hundred-Handed Ones needed, but so, too, are Themis and Metis.
The birth of Typhon and his struggle against
Zeus: maximal threat, but also a chance finally
to bring life and time into equilibrium
You would think that by now they have all had enough of warfare. Not by a long shot, however, for a formidable adversary lies in wait for Zeus: namely Typhoeus or Typhon (Hesiod gives him both names), born of Gaia and her union with the dreadful deity Tartarus. Of all monsters, this is the most terrifying. To start with, out of his arms there spring a hundred serpent heads whose eyes flash fire. In addition, Typhon possesses something even more terrible: from these heads issue voices that give out every kind of indescribable sound. For they can speak all languages: they can talk to the gods intelligibly, but equally bellow like a bull, or roar like a lion, or—worse, because the contrast is so appalling—imitate the adorable yappings of a young puppy! In short, this monster has a thousand facets, symbolizing his proximity to chaos. As Hesiod intimates, were he to carry the day against Zeus and become master of mortals and Immortals alike, no power will ever again be able to challenge him. The resulting catastrophe is easy to imagine: with Typhon, the forces of chaos threaten to triumph once and for all over those of the cosmos, disorder over order, violence over harmony.
But the question remains: Why Typhon? How do we explain why he is aided by Gaia, who has always taken the side of Zeus—who saved him from his father, Cronus, who warned him of the risks in having a son who might usurp him in turn, who gave him the idea of swallowing Metis and, moreover, advised him (so judiciously) to set free the Cyclopes and the Hundred-Handed Ones if he wanted to win the war against the Titans … Why would this kind and loving grandmother wish at this stage to harm her grandson by unleashing against him an appalling purpose-built monster in league with the dreadful Tartarus? The reason is not clear. Hesiod tells us absolutely nothing concerning the motives of mother earth.
We can, however, risk two plausible hypotheses: the first and more obvious explanation is that Gaia is unhappy with the fate Zeus has visited on her elder children, the Titans, by incarcerating them in the pit of Tartarus. Even if she has not always looked out for them, they are her children, and she cannot merely resign herself to the dreadful end assigned to them. This is true, no doubt, but there is something unsatisfying about a merely psychological explanation: after all, this is a serious business; we are talking about the creation of the world, the cosmos itself, and moods or scruples do not really enter into it. A second hypothesis is more likely: if Gaia created Typhon to confront Zeus, it is because the forces of disorder and chaos needed to be harnessed in order for the world to be brought into equilibrium. By unleashing this new monster, Gaia will in effect give Zeus the chance to integrate the forces of chaos into the cosmic order once and for all. In this sense, what is at issue in this episode is not merely the seizure of political power, as has so often been remarked, but cosmology as such. What Typhon incarnates, therefore, is nothing less than time, history, life itself. Cosmos and chaos must be fused—this is undoubtedly what Gaia intends, for if the “forces of order” triumph entirely, the world will be completely rigid and devoid of life.
In Hesiod, the account of the combat between Typhon and the Olympians is therefore central, albeit briefly and summarily described: we learn only that the struggle is terrifying, of unimaginable violence, that the earth is shaken to its Tartarean foundations, to the point that Hades himself—lord of the underworld, who inhabits its profoundest depths—trembles, as do the Titans, Cronus foremost, who have been incarcerated in this hell since they lost their struggle against the Olympians. We also learn that, as a result of Zeus’s thunderbolts and the fire breathing of Typhon, the earth catches fire, is transformed into lava, and runs like molten metal. All of this has significance, of course: the poet wants to make his audience understand that what is at stake in this fearful combat is nothing less than the cosmos itself. With Typhon, the entire universe is threatened in its harmony and structure. But in the end Zeus will carry the day, thanks to the weapons the Cyclopes have given him: thunderbolt and lightning flash. One by one, the heads of Typhon are scorched on every side, and the monster is sent packing to where he belongs: Tartarus!
As Jean-Pierre Vernant has correctly insisted, it is not without relevance that Hesiod’s terse account is embroidered and heightened by subsequent mythographers. Given what is crucially at stake in this final episode in the construction of the world—a case of knowing which will triumph, ultimately, chaos or order, but also of understanding how life itself is brought within the realm of order, and time integrated into an everlasting equilibrium—it is hardly surprising that this theme became elaborated in later tellings and retellings. If Typhon triumphs, the construction of a just and harmonious cosmos is a lost cause. If Zeus obtains victory, on the contrary, justice will reign over the universe. With the stakes so high, it would be truly surprising, even disappointing, not to have a more beefed-up account of this conflict—something a little more cliff-hanging and dramatic than what is in truth the somewhat bare account in Hesiod. Later mythographers therefore gave themselves wholeheartedly to the story, and it is interesting to trace the successive elaborations in two texts that, each after its fashion, attempted to synthesize preceding versions of the story.
The first of these works is titled The Library of Apollodorus. I should say something about the title and about the author, since we will have frequent recourse to them, and there is room for confusion here. Firstly, the word “library” generally does not refer to a single book but rather to a place—a room, shelves—where books are stored. Moreover, if we look at the origins of the word, this is entirely correct: in Greek theke means a chest or box in which something is deposited, in this case books (biblios)—hence (in French) bibliothèque, or “library.” However, the word “library” was often used figuratively, to mean a compendium that, by analogy with a piece of furniture, contains within itself all that is known about a particular subject—which exactly describes the Bibliothèque, or Library, of Apollodorus, in whose pages we find a sort of digest of all the available mythological knowledge of the age. It is, therefore, a work that summarizes many other works, which is why it has come to be known as a library. The second crux: it was believed for a long time that this work, an indispensable source for Greek myth, had been compiled in the second century BC, by one Apollodorus, a scholar, grammarian, and mythographer. We now know that this is by no means the case, that The Library was probably compiled in the second century AD (rather than BC), by an author who is therefore quite other than this Apollodorus, and about whom we know precisely nothing. And since we know nothing of him, and because old habits die hard, we continue today to refer to “The Library of Apollodorus,” even though it is not a library and it was not compiled by Apollodorus! The work is no less precious for our purposes, however, since its author—whoever he was—had access to texts that are now lost, any distant recollection of which we owe to him.
But let us return to our story, and to the version given by our “pseudo”-Apollodorus. In his account, the suspense is already a lot more drawn out than in Hesiod. What in the theater is called dramaturgy, in other words the staging of the action, is also more intense because, at the outset, contrary to what occurs in Hesiod, it is Typhon who succeeds in bringing down Zeus. The unfortunate Zeus, as we shall see, literally “loses his nerves.” In effect, Typhon, as we know, is a full-fledged monster, a being whose appearance is so terrifying that on seeing him the gods of Olympus themselves are overcome with panic. They take flight toward Egypt and, so as to pass unnoticed and avoid the fearful blows of Typhon, transform themselves into different animals—not, it must be said, one of their proudest moments… . Zeus, however, stands his ground. Courageous as ever, he attacks Typhon with his thunderbolts but also, seizing him bodily, with a sickle—no doubt the same that his father, Cronus, used to cut off the sex of the unfortunate Uranus. But Typhon disarms Zeus and, using the sickle against him, manages to cut the tendons from his arms and feet so that the ruler of the gods, although not mortally wounded—which, being immortal, is of course impossible—is nevertheless completely incapacitated. Unable to move, he lies on the ground like the wreck of himself, closely guarded by Delphyne, a fearful she-dragon in the service of Typhon.
Fortunately, Hermes is at hand, and as you will see, it is not for nothing that he is, among other accomplishments, the god of thieves. In this instance he enlists the help of one Aegipan—probably another name for Pan, one of Hermes’s sons, known as the god of flocks and shepherds. He is also said to have invented a flute with seven reeds that he called the syrinx, after the nymph of that name, with whom he fell in love but who transformed herself into a reed to escape his attentions… . Unlikely as it may seem, it is with the soft airs from this flute that Pan succeeds in distracting the attention of Typhon, during which time Hermes manages to steal back the divine sinews of Zeus, which he hastens to restore to Zeus’s body. Upright once more, the latter resumes battle, launching himself in pursuit of Typhon, thunderbolt in hand. But here again external assistance is required. The three Moirai—daughters of Zeus and the goddesses who decide the destiny of men but also sometimes of gods, destiny being the law of the universe and therefore superior even to the Immortals—lay a trap for the monstrous Typhon: they give him a taste of fruits that they promise will make him invincible. In effect, these are drugs that destroy his strength, so that Typhon, enfeebled, is finally vanquished by Zeus. He is struck down and incarcerated beneath Mount Etna, whose eruptions are meant to signify the final convulsions of this terrifying creature!
In order to give an idea of how these myths were being presented at this time—the second century BC—I will quote from the text of Apollodorus himself. Then we shall see how, three centuries later, in the hands of another mythographer called Nonnus, the same story has become substantially enriched and elaborated.
After reminding his audience of Gaia’s indignation at Zeus’s treatment of her firstborn children, our pseudo-Apollodorus gives the following account (as before, my own remarks appear in italics and between brackets):
When the gods had defeated the giants, Gaia, whose anger was all the greater, had intercourse with Tartarus and gave birth to Typhon, in Cilicia. He was a hybrid between man and beast, and in both size and strength he surpassed all the other offspring of Gaia. Down to his thighs he was of human form, but of such prodigious size that he rose higher than all the mountains, and often his head even scraped the stars. With arms outstretched he could reach the west on one side and the east on the other; and from these arms there sprang a hundred dragons’ heads. From the thighs downward he had massive coils of vipers, which, when they were fully drawn out, reached right up to his head and emitted violent hissings. He had wings all over his body, and unkempt hair springing from his head and cheeks floated around him on the wind; and fire flashed from his eyes. Such was Typhon’s appearance and such his size when he launched an attack against heaven itself, hurling flaming rocks, hissing and screaming all at once, and spouting a great stream of fire from his mouth. When the gods saw him rushing at heaven, they took flight for Egypt, and when pursued by him they transformed themselves into animals. While Typhon was still at a distance, Zeus pelted him with thunderbolts, and as the monster drew close, struck at him with an adamantine sickle, and as he fled pursued him closely as far as Mount Casion, which rises over Syria. And there, seeing that Typhon was severely wounded, he grappled with him in hand-to-hand combat. But Typhon enveloped him in his coils and held him fast; and wresting the sickle from him, he cut the tendons from his hands and feet. And raising him on his shoulders, he carried him through the sea to Cilicia, and put him down again when he arrived at the Corycian cave [the grotto where Typhon lives]. Likewise he placed the tendons there, hiding them in a bear’s skin, and set to guard them the she-dragon Delphyne, who was a half-beast and half-woman. But Hermes and Aegipan made away with the tendons and fitted them back into Zeus without being observed. When Zeus had recovered his strength, he made a sudden charge from heaven, on a chariot of winged horses, pelting Typhon with thunderbolts and pursued him to the mountain called Nysa [this will also be the birthplace of Dionysus, whose name signifies “god of Nysa”], where the Fates tricked the fugitive, persuading him that if he tasted the ephemeral fruits he would be strengthened thereby. Coming under pursuit once more, he arrived in Thrace, and joining battle near Mount Haimos, he began to hurl entire mountains. But when these were thrust back on him through the force of the thunderbolts, a stream of blood gushed from him onto the mountain, which is said to be why it was called Haimos, “the bleeding mountain.” And when he started to flee across the Sicilian sea, Zeus hurled Mount Etna at him, which lies in Sicily. This is a mountain of enormous size, and there rise up from it, even to this day, eruptions of fire that are said to issue from the thunderbolts hurled by Zeus. But that is quite enough on this matter.
This text shows clearly enough how mythical subject matter was treated at this period. There is, in effect, sufficient “sensational” detail so that storytellers could embroider around the basic narrative, thus keeping their audiences on tenterhooks.
We find the same basic scenario, but infinitely more developed and enriched with anecdotes and dialogue, in the hands of our second author, Nonnus of Panopolis, in a lengthy work of mythography titled the Dionysiaca, whose two opening cantos are devoted to the combat between Typhon and Zeus. Nonnus is known above all for this epic poem, which is mostly concerned with the adventures of Dionysus (as its title suggests). The work was written in Greek, in the fifth century AD—thus three centuries after The Library of Apollodorus and ten centuries after Hesiod, which gives some idea of the time required to constitute what we read today as “Greek mythology,” as if this were a single work rather than the accumulation of many sources and versions. The text of Nonnus is particularly precious for our purposes since it constitutes a veritable trove of information about Greek myths.
In Nonnus, the account of Typhon and Zeus is slightly different from that of Apollodorus. Principally, as we shall see, it is richer, more intense and more dramatic. Nonnus constantly underlines what is at stake “cosmically” in this conflict—with a luxuriance of detail that tells us a great deal today about how these myths were understood by contemporary audiences. For Nonnus, there is no doubt that the survival of the cosmos literally depends on the outcome of this conflict: if Typhon wins, the Olympian gods will be categorically subjected, one and all, to the usurper—who will assume the place of Zeus, to the point of seating himself next to Zeus’s wife, Hera, whom Typhon has always coveted, hoping to take her from Zeus.
But let us look more closely at how the story unfolds in Nonnus’s account.
As in Apollodorus, the gods of Olympus are at first overtaken by fear at the sight of Typhon and, as in Apollodorus, they flee—literally terrified. And in this account, too, Zeus “loses his nerves”: his tendons are severed and hidden in a place known only to Typhon. But here it is no longer Hermes who plays the principal role in the comeback of Zeus. Instead, Zeus himself conceives a plan of battle and enlists the help of Eros—who has the ear of Aphrodite—and Cadmus, the wily king and legendary founder of the city of Thebes, who is also brother to the beautiful Europa, whom Zeus has just abducted by transforming himself into a bull. To recompense Cadmus for the services he will render to Zeus, the latter promises to him in marriage the ravishingly beautiful Harmonia, herself none other than the daughter of Aphrodite and Ares, god of war. He also promises Cadmus a supreme honor: that the gods of Olympus will be present at his wedding (note in passing how all these stories are interwoven, for it is one of the daughters of Cadmus and Harmonia, Semele, who will fall in love with Zeus and give birth to his son Dionysus).
The stratagem dreamed up by Zeus deserves close attention, as it indicates the cosmic scale of the struggle against Typhon. In effect, Zeus asks Cadmus to disguise himself as a shepherd. Armed with the syrinx of Pan, that superb instrument that produces the most enchanting sounds, and assisted by Eros, Cadmus plays music so soft and so seductive that Typhon falls under its charms. Typhon now promises Cadmus a thousand things (including the hand of Athena) if only he will keep playing, and likewise play at the forthcoming wedding of Typhon and Hera—Zeus’s wife, whom Typhon still counts on making his own just as soon as he has dealt with her illustrious husband. Certain of himself, Typhon walks into the trap and falls asleep, lulled by the panpipes. Cadmus can now recover the sinews of Zeus, who fits them back and is now ready and able once again to seize victory.
This version of events, as I have said, is highly significant. Worth noting especially is that it is through music—the cosmic art above all others since it relies entirely upon a structure of sounds that must, so to speak, “rhyme” or accord with one another—that the cosmos is saved. This is also underlined by the fact that the victory prize, for Cadmus, is indeed the hand of Harmonia herself.
Here again, I prefer to cite the original text so that you can hear for yourself the terms that Zeus employs to invite Cadmus and Eros to set the trap for Typhon:
“Look alive, Cadmus, pipe away and there shall be fine weather in heaven! Delay, and Olympus is scourged, for Typhon is armed with my heavenly weapons … [as well as possessing the sinews of Zeus, Typhon has in effect stolen his thunderbolt and lightning flash, which, as you may imagine, Zeus is anxious to recover as quickly as possible]. Become a herdsman just for one day; make a tune on your sorcerous shepherd’s pipes, and save the Shepherd of the Universe [i.e., Zeus, master of the universe, speaking of himself in the third person]… . Bewitch Typhon’s wits by the sovereign remedy of your coaxing pipes and their melodies! I will give you ample recompense for your service, two gifts: I will make you saviour of the world’s harmony, and husband of Harmony. You also, Eros, life principle and patron of fecund marriages, bend your bow, and the universe is no longer adrift [for Typhon, charmed not merely by the music but also by the arrows of Eros, will fall into the trap prepared for him, thereby allowing the world to be saved].”
It is indeed the cosmos itself, in its entirety, that appears at this point to be menaced with destruction by Typhon and that must be saved, through Zeus, by the music the goddess Harmonia will bring to her marriage with Cadmus. So Cadmus plays the flute, and Typhon, the measureless brute, falls beneath its charms like a mere girl. And, as we have said, he makes a thousand promises to persuade Cadmus to accompany his triumph on the day of his wedding to the wife of his immortal enemy. And Cadmus leads him into the trap: he proposes that with a different instrument, the lyre, which is a stringed instrument, he might play far superior music than is possible with the flute of Pan. He would even surpass Apollo, the god of musicians. Quite simply, what he needs are strings, if possible made out of divine tendons, which can be tuned to a pitch for true music making! The lyre being an instrument capable of harmony, in the exact sense: unlike the humble flute, several strings can be played simultaneously, and consequently, chords can be played that “accord” several different sounds at the same time. The lyre can therefore be regarded as the more “harmonious” instrument and, in this sense, as more “cosmic” than the flute, whatever its other merits (we shall encounter this opposition between melody and harmony again in the story of Midas). Of course, the stratagem devised by Cadmus is aimed at recovering the tendons of Zeus:
He finished; and Typhon bowed his flashing eyebrows and shook his locks: every hair belched viper-poison and drenched the hills. Quickly he ran to his cave, brought out the sinews of Zeus, and handed them to the crafty Cadmus as a gift of hospitality, those sinews which had fallen to the ground in the battle with Zeus. The guileful shepherd thanked him for the immortal gift; he handled the sinews carefully, as if they were later to be strung on his harp, then hid them in a hole in the rock, kept safe for Zeus giant-slayer. Then with pursed-up lips he let out a soft and gentle breath, pressing the reeds and muting the notes, so as to sound a melody more seductive than ever. Typhon pricked up all of his many ears and listened, and knew nothing. The Giant was bewitched, while the counterfeit shepherd piped by his side, as if sounding the rout of the Olympians with his pipes; but he was celebrating the imminent victory of Zeus, and he sang the death of Typhon to Typhon sitting by his side.
As soon as Zeus is on his feet again, warfare resumes, menacing even more than earlier the entire cosmic order:
The earth’s hollows were revealed, as the monster’s missiles cleft it often. Doing so, he freed a liquid vein, and as the chasm opened, the subterranean channel bubbled up with flooding springs, pouring out the water from under the uncovered bosom of the earth. And rocks were thrown up, falling from the air in torrential showers which were hidden in the sea… . And from these hurtling masses of earth new islands were born, which rooted themselves spontaneously in the sea… . Already the foundations of the steadfast cosmos are shaking under Typhon’s hands… . The indissoluble bonds of harmony are dissolved… .
In a manner that helps us vitally to understand the meaning of this whole narrative, the goddess Nike (meaning “victory”), who accompanies Zeus and is yet another direct descendant of the Titans, declares, in her terror, to the master of Olympus:
“Even if I am called a Titanid [which is to say the daughter of a Titan], I wish to see no Titans reign on Olympus, but you and your children.”
This perfectly illustrates, once more, what is at stake: If Typhon wins, the forces of chaos—such as animated the earliest divinities—will carry the day, and the cosmic idea will be extinguished once and for all. Furthermore, when Typhon launches into battle he makes no bones about desiring this outcome, as is seen in the way he mobilizes his “troops,” namely the innumerable limbs that form his own vast body. He does not hesitate to command them to destroy all order, and even to declare openly that when the conflict is over he will set free those gods of chaos incarcerated by Zeus in the pit of Tartarus, starting with Atlas, one of the sons of the Titan Iapetus, who is said to carry the entire cosmos on his shoulders—just as he will likewise free Cronus:
“Smash the house of Zeus, O my hands! Shake the foundation of the universe, and the blessed ones with it! Break the divine bar of Olympus, which turns of its own accord! Drag down to earth the heavenly pillar, let Atlas be shaken and run away, throwing down the starry vault of Olympus, and fear no more its circling course… . And cannibal Cronus, eater of raw flesh [who devoured his own children], I will drag up once more into the light, who is also my brother [they are all in effect descendants of Gaia and of the gods of Chaos] to help me in my task, out of the underground abyss; I will break those constraining chains [just like Zeus, who had freed the Cyclopes and the Hundred-Handed Ones, Typhon has grasped that he, too, needs to make allies]. I will bring back the Titans to the Ether [i.e., into the light of heaven, which contrasts with the shades of Tartarus], and I will settle under the same roof as myself, in the sky, the Cyclopes, those sons of Earth. I will make them forge new weapons of fire; for I need many thunderbolts, because I have two hundred hands to fight with, not a paltry single pair like the Cronides [which is to say Zeus—Cronides signifying merely ’son of Cronus’].”
Observe how transformed the story has become since Apollodorus, but also how “logical,” so to speak, and how significant these transformations are. For example, Cadmus rather than Pan is now the key figure. At the same time, they are as alike as brothers: Pan is the god of shepherds and inventor of the pipes; Cadmus disguises himself as a shepherd, and it is by means of these pipes that he will outwit Typhon. It is easy to imagine how, in the course of telling and retelling the same stories, more by oral transmission than by written word, such transformations would have occurred.
In the end, of course, as in Hesiod and as in our pseudo-Apollodorus, victory is granted to Zeus. More so than his precursors, though in the same spirit, Nonnus lays emphasis above all on the fact of harmony restored, and the reversion to a cosmic order that was so threatened during the conflict. The great morsels of earth, like the stars in the sky, will find their proper places again, and nature will position them in harmonious relation to one another once more:
After which, Nature—who governs the universe and regenerates its substance—closes up the gaping rents in earth’s broken surface. She seals once more with the bond of indivisible joinery those island cliffs which had been rent from their beds. No longer is there turmoil among the stars: the Sun puts back the flowing-maned Lion, who had been dislodged from the path of the Zodiac, in position beside the Maiden who holds the corn-ear; the Moon-goddess takes the Crab, now crawling over the forehead of the heavenly Lion, and fixes him in place once more, opposite cold Capricorn.
Or, to put the matter plainly, everything is restored again, and the stars are back in their original position, so that Zeus can keep his promises and celebrate the marriage of Cadmus and Harmonia… .
But what remains of Typhon? The answer is that what remains of him are two scourges for humans to endure, and here Nonnus is completely faithful to Hesiod. On the sea there are those hurricanes or tempests called “typhoons,” which is to say ill winds against which unfortunate mortals can do nothing—other than perish, of course. And on land, there are the terrible storms that periodically ravage the crops men put all their care into cultivating. Which means, significantly, that it is essentially for the benefit of the gods, rather than for mankind, that the cosmos attains, from here on, a form of perfection. The forces of chaos are all under control, and any persisting minor disturbances are exclusively confined to the human sphere. As Jean-Pierre Vernant has emphasized, by confining the residue of Typhon’s harmful powers to earth, the gods signify their intention to export the dimensions of time, disorder, and death to the world of mortal men—the sphere of the Immortals being sheltered henceforth from any and all adverse weather. Which is to say that, in their eyes, all remaining imperfections in the order of things are secondary and superficial. Besides, if we reflect more deeply on the matter, it is not even certain that these are truly imperfections, for if there were no dimension of time, of history, and therefore not a modicum of disorder, of disharmony and disequilibrium, nothing would ever happen! A perfectly harmonious and balanced cosmos would be completely ossified. Nothing would move; everything would be condemned to total immobility; we would all be bored to death. In this sense, it is fortunate that there remains a portion of chaos, that the conquered and incarcerated Typhon should make himself heard from time to time: this is perhaps the ultimate significance of those columns of steam and those violent blasts of wind that persist after this final episode of the cosmogony.
If we follow Hesiod, we have now covered all the stages through which the Olympian gods pass to arrive at the creation of the cosmos. However, according to certain later traditions, for which Apollodorus as usual provides the echo, there is an intermediate stage between the Titanomachy and the war against Typhon—namely a “Gigantomachy,” or “war against the giants.” According to this version, in effect, Gaia, before “constructing” Typhon with the aid of Tartarus, had come to the rescue of the giants who revolted against the gods—and it was indeed because her children were annihilated by the Olympians that she created Typhon in retaliation. As I have said, there survives no trace of this Gigantomachy in the archaic accounts, neither in Hesiod nor in Homer. The hypothesis, however, is not illogical: it fits well with the story of Typhon, or in other words with the idea that all the forces of chaos have to be progressively mastered, including those represented by the giants, before arriving at a balanced cosmos.
Which is why it is worth spending a moment on this famous quarrel.
The Gigantomachy: the combat of gods and giants
As we have seen, the giants are born of the blood of Uranus, which has been shed over the earth by his son Cronus. Thus they belong, like Typhon and like the Titans, to the most archaic circle of divinities, those who are still close to Chaos and who unceasingly menace the creation of that balanced, just, and harmonious order to which Zeus has vowed himself. For Hesiod, the construction of this beautiful universe is manifestly achieved with the victory of Zeus over Typhon. As I have suggested, however, certain later authors considered that it must first have been necessary also to muzzle the giants to arrive at a perfected cosmos. In thrall to that form of immoderate and literally deranged arrogance that the Greeks called hubris, the giants (on this account) decide to storm Olympus. The poet Pindar makes several allusions to this episode.* But as so often we have to wait until Apollodorus for a more detailed account of this war, although it is mentioned by the Latin poet Ovid (first century AD), whose Metamorphoses is one of the earliest sources to offer a coherent account of it. Both authors place the Gigantomachy before the struggle against Typhon. In Apollodorus, as I have said, it is because Gaia is furious at Zeus for bringing down the giants that she conceives Typhon, so as to ensure that the chaotic and Titanesque forces—of which she is also the mother—should not disappear totally in the interests of an immutable and motionless order.
It is in this perspective that we should read these two accounts, equally interesting and revealing of the problem posed by the need to integrate all of the anticosmic forces, without exception.
In Ovid, first of all: The struggle unfolds at a time when the earth is already peopled by a human race, the “race of iron”—an especially corrupt, disreputable, and violent crew. But Ovid adds that the higher regions of the Ether—in other words the summits of Olympus where the gods reside—are at this time no better off than the lower regions. No longer are they a safe haven, for the giants have decided to make themselves lords of everything, and as they are truly gigantic, they simply pile huge mountains on top of one another so as to make a sort of staircase allowing them to scale Olympus and besiege the gods! Ovid does not say much about the war as such, except that Zeus resorts to his favored weapon, the thunderbolt, to make the mountains fall upon the giants, who find themselves immediately buried under colossal masses of earth. Wounded, they lose great rivers of blood, and Gaia, anxious to prevent this race from being wiped out entirely—for they, too, are her children—produces from the mixture of blood and earth that flows from the rubble a new living species with a “human form,” but which nonetheless exhibits a violence and taste for slaughter that recall its origins.
Apollodorus’s account is more detailed. He describes, blow by blow, how each of the Olympian gods gets stuck into the task of getting rid of the giants: Zeus, of course, but also Apollo, Hera, Dionysus, Poseidon, Hermes, Artemis, the Moirai, etc. The combat is of extreme violence, dreadfully bloody. To give an example, Athena is not content with slaying the giant named Pallas, but flays him alive to make out of his skin a sort of shield with which she protects her own body during the battle. As for Apollo, he shoots an arrow straight into the right eye of one of his adversaries while, for his part, Heracles places another arrow in the victim’s left eye. In short, no quarter is given to the enemy… . Above all, in keeping with what Pindar suggests, the aid of a demigod is required in the struggle to categorically put an end to the giants: it is Heracles who, each time a giant is floored by a god, assists in finishing him off… . As always, however, force alone is not enough. Gaia, who plays her usual two-sided game—she wants the creation of a durable and balanced cosmos, but at the same time she does not want the primordial forces of chaos to be entirely eliminated—plots to help the giants by giving them an herb that will make them immortal. After all, the giants are her children and it is normal that she should protect them. But as always with Gaia, a deeper motive intervenes: without the forces of chaos, the world will be inert, a place where nothing will ever happen again. Balance and order are no doubt necessary, but if it is left to them alone, the universe will ossify. Therefore the other aspect of her legacy must also be preserved, which incarnates—even at the cost of violence—the principle of movement that is essential to all life.
Meanwhile Zeus, who is all-knowing, sees her coming and takes it upon himself—and here is a measure of his cunning and intelligence, his metis—to go and cut all the herbs of immortality that Gaia has caused to grow so that the giants have now lost all chance of victory… .
With this last episode, the cosmogony is complete. For this war was truly the final episode in the history of the construction of the world. After the death of the giants and the victory of Zeus over Typhon, the forces of chaos we have seen at work during the whole course of this primordial narrative are finally muzzled or—more precisely—integrated into the fabric of the whole and, in the literal sense of the phrase, “put into their place” beneath the earth. The cosmos is finally and solidly established. Clearly there remain, within the human world, some ill winds, occasional earthquakes, the odd volcanic eruption. But by and large, the cosmos is now erected on foundations that are built to last.
It remains for us to know what place we mortals are to occupy in this scheme of things. It remains to be seen likewise how we come into being, and why.