The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology

By Robin Hard | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO

THE BEGINNINGS OF THINGS

FIRST BEGINNINGS

Although conflicting accounts were inevitably offered of the origins of the gods and the physical universe, Hesiod’s Theogony, an epic history of the divine order composed in about 700 BC (see p. 9), came to be accepted by the Greeks as the standard mythical account of the earliest history of the world; and we will thus adopt it as our main guide in the first section of this book, while examining how the world and the lesser and higher deities were supposed to have come into existence, and how Zeus and the Olympian gods attained supreme authority.

Before considering Hesiod’s cosmogony, it may be useful to picture how the world was visualized by the Greeks in early times. They began with the notion that early peoples generally seem to possess, namely that its real form corresponds to the form that it appears to have when as much of it as can be viewed at once is observed from their particular viewpoint. Now unless the observer is shut in between long lines of hills like an Egyptian, or confined to an island or archipelago like the inhabitants of the South Pacific, the world might appear to take the form of a circular disc, more or less level except where mountains or hills rise up from it, and capped by the immense roof or dome of the sky. On the one side the sun and stars can be seen rising above the horizon, while on the other they disappear at their setting; and as they always rise on the same side, in the east, they must presumably make their way back again, either under the ground or by some other hidden route. This and no other was the earliest Greek picture of the world, presupposed by the earliest legends and surviving inconsistently into later ones. More specifically, the Greeks supposed that the boundary of this disc of the earth was formed by the stream of Ocean (Okeanos), which was not an ocean in the modern sense but a great river flowing around in a circle. The sky was envisioned as a substantial roof or dome, sometimes said to be made of bronze or iron. 1 It rose a considerable height above the earth, but not an immeasurable distance. The residence of the gods was now imagined as being the sky itself, now the summit of Mt Olympos on the north-eastern borders of Greece. If one could pile three large mountains one above another, as the gigantic Aloadai set out to do when they revolted against the gods (see p. 91), it would be sufficient to form a ladder to heaven. 2 The tale of Phaethon’s

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