Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Creation Mythology - Greece

Greek mythology is considered to be one of the most complex and in order to look at it in full one must look at its development over many stages, starting in the Bronze Age, through the Helladic period and up to the Archaic and Classical periods.  Many Greek creation myths contain elements of the early Pelasgian myth, which is named after Pelasgus and can be dated back to around 4000 BC.  The Pelasgians worshipped goddesses and their creation myth is dominated by a female creator.

Eurynome and Ophion by nathanspotts
In the beginning there was the Eurynome, the Goddess of All Things.  She emerged, naked, from chaos and, finding nothing on which to rest her feet, she split the water from the sky and danced across the waves.  As Eurynome danced she created the wind.  She captured the north wind and, rubbing it between her hands, transformed it into the serpent Ophion, who is also known as Boreas.  Ophion and Eurynome coupled and then, as a dove, Eurynome, laid the world egg.  Ophion, as instructed by Eurynome, encircled the world egg until it hatched, bringing the sun, moon, stars, and earth into being along with all of its plants and creatures.  Eurynome and Ophion lived peacefully on Olympus together, but Ophion became arrogant and tried to claim ownership of the universe. Eurynome was forced to banish him, head flattened and teeth broken, to the darkness beneath the earth.  Sometime later, Eurynome created the Titans and Titanesses who were given control of the planet and then she made the first man, Pelasgus.

Oceanus and Tethys Mosaic by Erkan Adıgüzel
Homer in the Iliad, which was written in during the 8th century BC, credits Oceanus and Tethys, a Titaness, with the creation of the first gods and the world.  Tethys was the ruler of the sea, while Oceanus surrounded the universe.  Homer’s version of events follows a similar theme to that found in the Pelasgian myth of creation

For lo!  I haste to those remote abodes,

Where the great parents (sacred source of gods!)

Ocean and Tethys their old empire keep,

On the last limits of the land and deep.

In their kind arms my tender years were past;

What time old Saturn, from Olympus cast,

Of upper heavens to Jove resign’d to reign,

Whelm’d under the huge mass of earth and main.

For strife, I hear, has made the union cease,

Which held so long that ancient pair in peace.

Then, in the late 8th century BC, we find Hesiod of Boetia and the first fully formed Greek myth of creation contained within his Theogony and Works and Days.  Theogony, meaning ‘birth of the gods’ is a thousand line poem which is presented to the reader as a hymn to Zeus and details the origin of the world and of the gods.  I will give you a summary of the poem, but if you want to read Theogony in full, you can do so here

The Goddess Gaia by thefantasim`
In the beginning there was Chaos and from Chaos comes Gaia, who was the earth; Tartarus, who was the Underworld; Eros, who was love, Erebus; who was darkness; and Night.  Gaia created Ouranos, or Uranus, who was the sky and from their coupling came the three Cyclopes, or Kyklopes; the three Hecatoncheires, who were strong and monstrous creatures known as the ‘hundred-handed’; and the twelve Titans: six brothers and six sisters. 

Hecatonchire by Orion35
The Titan Oceanus was the stream of Ocean which encircled the disc of the earth in early concepts of geography.  Oceanus fathered three thousand daughters and three thousand sons who were called the Oceanids. 

Oceanids by cirrusmin0r
The Titan Hyperion fathered Helius, or Helios, and both were gods of the sun.  The sun god lived in the East, and every day he crossed the dome of the sky in a four horse drawn chariot and descended in the West – into Oceanus, who encircled the earth – before sailing back to the East to begin a new day.

Hyperion by heartfullofhell
Phaethon, sometimes son of Hyperon or Helius or Apollo, wanted to find out if the Sun was truly his father, so he visited the palace of the Sun to find out.  Here the sun god reassured Phaethon that he was his father and that he could have anything he might desire.  Phaethon asked to drive the sun-chariot for one day and was granted his wish.  However, Phaethon was inexperienced and unable to control the horses.  He caused absolute havoc and met his death at the hands of Zeus or Jupiter.

Selene and Endymion by Umina

Another daughter of Hyperion was Selene, a goddess of the moon who drove a two-horse chariot.  The goddess of the moon later became Artemis or Diana.  Selene fell head over heels in love with the hunter Endymion and would abandon her duties to visit the cave where Endymion lived.  Endymion was eventually granted endless sleep and eternal youth.


Eos by Vildamir
The goddess of the dawn was Eos or Aurora.  She was the third child of Hyperion and, like Selene, drove a two-horse chariot.  Eos fell in love with the human Tithonus, or Tithonos, and stole him away.  Zeus granted her wish and made Tithonus immortal, but Eos forgot to ask that Tithonus be given eternal youth and he grew old.  While Eos remained devoted to him, her love cooled.  Eos and Tithonus had a son, Memnon, who was killed by Achilles during the Trojan saga.  Eos stole away other lovers, including Cephalus who later became the husband of Procris.


Ouranos hated his children and, as they were about to be born, he hid them inside Gaia.  Gaia was very angry with Ouranos and wished for revenge.  Her appeal was granted by Cronus, who accepted a sickle fashioned by his mother and castrated Ouranos, his father.  The severed genitals of Ouranos were cast into the ocean and from them grew Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love.


Cronus devours one of his offspring by Peter Paul Rubens
Cronus, or Kronos, or Saturn, and Rhea, had several children who were eaten by their father Cronus.  Cronus became afraid that he would meet his end at the hands of one of his children.  Rhea was aware of Cronus’ fear and, when Zeus was to be born, she hid the birth from Cronus.  Zeus was taken to Crete while Cronus was given a stone wrapped in baby’s clothes to eat.  Rhea hid Zeus in a cave and he eventually grew up to overthrow his father.  Zeus went on to marry his sister Hera, or Juno, and they became the king and queen of the gods.

Another Greek creation myth came from the religious system Orphism, named after the mythological poet and musician Orpheus.  The Orphic cult developed during the late 7th century BC.  In contrast to Homer’s Olympian religion, Orphism was mostly concerned with the destiny of the soul.  The following poem is an account of creation, where time makes the silver egg of the cosmos and from the egg come the Orphic.  He was the first god and was known as Protogonos.  Protogonos was bisexual and from him came the seeds of all gods and men.  The poem is a parallel of Iranian religion, who put much emphasis on Zurvan, the god of time.  Time creates the egg from which comes Phanes-Dionysus.  Phanes, the creator, makes Nyx (the night), his daughter and he is both her mother and father.  Nyx is the only one lucky enough to behold the creator and over much time she join with Phanes and brought Gaea (earth), Uranus (heaven), and Cronus (light) into being.

Greek Relief 'Phanes'

The Sixth Orphic Hymn

O mighty first-begotten, hear my orayer,
Twofold, egg born, and wandering through the air;
Bull-roarer, glorying in thy golden wings,
From whom the race of Gods and mortals springs.
Ericapius, celebrated power,
Ineffable, occult, all shining flower.
‘Tis thine from darksome mists to purge the sight,
All-spreading splendour, pure and holy light;

Hence Phanes called the glory of the sky,
On waving pinions through the world you fly.

It was said that Zeus swallowed Phanes-Dionysus and, in capturing the source of being in his belly, was able to make the world anew.  The Orphics also told of Dionysus being eaten by the Titans.  Once the Titans were destroyed, mankind was able to emerge from their ashes.  And so manking contained both the evil of the Titans and the goodness of Dionysus.  In some Orphic myths, Dionysus is brought back by Persephone and/or Demeter.

That’s all for today.  Next time we will continue on with creation mythology – this time from the East.

Useful Resources
Encyclopedia of Ancient Deities by Charles Russell Coulter& Patricia Turner
A Dictionary of Creation Myths by David Adams Leeming
Creation Myths of the World: An Encylopedia by David A. L.eeming
Iliad by Homer 
The Many Faces of Creation: A History of Man's Search for His Place and Purpose by Vern A. Westfall

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