How does Hesiod's writing on the gods differ from its supposed eastern models?

Hesiod’s writings date to the end of the 8th century B. C. and as such, are probably the oldest surviving work of Greek literature. His two most famous works are the Theogony and Works and Days. The latter is a poem addressed to his brother, and concerns ethical, mythical and agricultural information. The Theogony is the first epic poem composed by Hesiod, and is a mythical account of the creation of the world, and how the Greek gods were born.

Theogony literally means the genesis, or birth, of gods.

It deals with personified gods, such as Zeus and Apollo, as well as the gods seen as part of the physical universe, such as the earth, sky, stars and wind. It is almost certain that much of the material in the Theogony was not made up by Hesiod, but was rather part of the tradition of oral poetry, possibly dating as far back as the Neolithic origins of Indo-European myth, or to the Minoan-Mycenaean world and its relationships with eastern cultures.

Several near eastern theogonies have survived, and can be compared to the work of Hesiod.

However, it must always be kept in mind, that correlation does not prove causation. This means that although we can note differences and many similarities between Hesiod and the eastern parallels, we cannot say whether the near eastern myths directed Hesiod directly, or whether it simply became mixed into the traditional Greek theogonies over time. The two main models from near eastern literature are the Babylonian creation epic, the “Enuma Elish” and the Hurrian-Hittite “Kingship in Heaven” which is also known as the Song of Kumarbi.

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In order to understand the similarities, and therefore be able to see the differences, in each of these three main writings about the gods, we must first outline the story portrayed in each one. In Hesiod’s Theogony, the first thing created was Chaos, which he sees as a dark, gaping void. After Chaos came Gaia (earth), Tartara and Eros. Chaos gives birth to Erebos and Night, and Gaia gives birth to Ouranos (sky), the mountains, and the sea. She then couples with Ouranos and the Titans are produced, including “crafty Kronos”1. She also produces the Cyclopes and the three hundred-handers.

Ouranos hates his children and so hide them inside Gaia. Gaia asks her children for help, but all save Kronos are too afraid. He arms himself with a sickle, and slices off Ouranos’s genitals. The drops of blood from the genitals fall on the earth and produce the Erinyes, the giants and the meliai. The genitals were thrown into the sea, and from the foam emerged Aphrodite. Kronos then has six children with his sister, Rhea, but because of a prophecy that one will overcome him, he swallows them all. On the sixth child however, Rhea deceives him, and he swallows a stone instead of Zeus.

This means Zeus can grow up safely, after which Kronos vomits the stone, and the other children. There is then a ten year war between the Titans and the younger gods, which is won by the younger gods when Zeus employs the help of the hundred-handers on the advice of Gaia. The Titans are defeated and are trapped in Tartarus, far below the earth’s surface. After this, a huge monster called Typhoeus is created from Gaia and Tartarus, and is also defeated by Zeus’s thunderbolts. This makes Zeus the acclaimed king of the gods.

His first wife Metis is destined to give birth to a son stronger than Zeus, so he swallows her in order to stop the cycle of succession, but she still gives birth, and her daughter Athena emerges through Zeus’s skull. Zeus and his other wives then created many other divinities. Hesiod’s Theogony parallels much of the creation myth of the Near East ‘Kingship in Heaven’ as found in the Hittite library of Hattusas. The Kumarbi tale shows up in a Hittite text that predates Hesiod by some 500 years. After an invocation of various gods invited to listen to the song, the myth says that Alalu was once king for nine years.

In the ninth year his cupbearer Anu took over after a battle. Then Anu’s cupbearer Kumarbi, who was the seed of Alalu, fought and overcame him. Anu tried to flee to the sky, but Kumarbi caught him by the feet as he rose, bit off his genitals and swallowed them. In doing this he swallows at least three terrible gods, Tessub the storm-god, his attendant Tasmisu, and the river Tigris. Kumarbi spits out what he can, but some gods remain inside him, possibly including Marduk and ‘lust’. It is thought that one might have come out through his skull. Tessub also emerges from Kumarbi, and hears of the gods Ea and Kumarbi plotting.

He plans to do battle with Kumarbi, but the story is broken. All we know is that Ea becomes angry, and at the end of the song, Earth becomes pregnant and gives birth to two children, and then Ea is happy. The Enuma Elish means when from above, as the myth begins “When in the height heaven was not named, and the earth beneath did not yet bear a name”, Apsu, the river water, and Tiamat, the sea are mingles together, and gods were born inside them. From these gods were born Anshar and Kishar. Anshar was the father of Anu, who was the father of Ea, who was very wise and powerful.

All these gods were very noisy, and neither Apsu nor Tiamat could control them. Apsu decides to destroy them, supported by Mummu. Tiamat does not agree and tells the younger gods, who then fall silent. Ea comes up with a plan to cast a magic sleep on Apsu, and then steal his sash, crown and radiance. He ties Apsu up, kills him, and lives on top of him with Damkina, and they produce a son called Marduk. Anu gives Marduk the four winds to play with, but he uses them to make dust storms and whirlwinds, making Tiamat restless. The other gods inside her get annoyed, and try to convince her to avenge Apsu’s death.

She agrees, and eleven species of monster are created for the war. One of Tiamat’s sons, Kingu, is given supreme power and the Tablet of Destinies. Ea is shocked when he hears of this, and goes out to try and use his spells on Tiamat, but she is too powerful, and he retreats in fear. Anshar then send Anu to try and calm Tiamat down, but this also fails. Ea asks Marduk to offer his services as saviour of the gods, which he does, and becomes king. He arms himself with a bow, a mace, lightning, a net, and his winds, and also created seven more wild winds.

He captures Tiamat in the net, and uses the winds against her when she opens her mouth to swallow him. He then shoots an arrow through her mouth, which pierces her heart. Her allies try to escape, but they are all captured and tied up, and Kingu has to give the Tablet of Destinies to Marduk. Marduk then splits Tiamat in two, and creates heaven and earth. He uses Ea’s help to slay Kingu and makes mankind from his blood. The gods then build Babylon in honour of Marduk, and the poem ends in a recital of Marduk’s names, and a short epilogue.

It can be easily seen that there are many similarities between these three theogony myths. Which influenced which cannot be established, but it can be guessed that the song of Kumarbi, and the Enuma Elish both had some kind of influence on Hesiod’s Theogony. It is by looking at the similarities between these tales, that the differences can be ascertained. In the Hittite song of Kumarbi, we have a sequence similar to that seen in Hesiod’s Theogony, in which Alalu has no Greek counterpart, but Anu is parallel to Ouranos, Kumarbi to Kronos, and Tessub to Zeus. Anu’s name even directly corresponds to Ouranos as both mean Sky.

Kumarbi was a corn god, and many scholars think that Kronos was a god of harvest, due to his wielding of a sickle, and the celebration of his festival after the harvest. Tessub, like Zeus, is a storm god. Another similarity between Hesiod’s Theogony and the Hittite myth is that both Anu and Ouranos have their genitals cut off before going to heaven, and from these genitals more divinities arise. Anu warns Kumarbi about the trouble he will be in, just as Ouranos warn the Titans that they will have to pay for castrating him “There will be revenge afterwards. “3.

Kumarbi and Kronos both have a number of gods inside them for a while, including the storm god. Both stories also involve deliberate acts of swallowing by the host god. At one point in the Hittite story Kumarbi says he is going to eat one of his children, as Kronos does in the Greek version. Both are given a stone instead, and in both cases, the stone is set up as a cult object. Also, one god seems to come from Kumarbi’s skull, in the same way Athena does from Zeus’s. This shows how closely the Theogony seems to follow the story in the Hittite song of Kumarbi, using similar motifs, and paralleled events.

There are several differences between the two as well, although the similarities far outweigh these. One of the main differences is that there is no equivalent character in the Theogony to the character of Alalu, apparently a god of the earth, in the Hittite myth. The other main difference concerns the episode in which there are gods inside the host god, either Kumarbi or Kronos. In the Hittite myth, the gods get inside Kumarbi when he swallows Anu’s genitals. They are then left inside Kumarbi, waiting to be born.

In the Theogony, Kronos deliberately swallows each of the gods, after their birth, as an attempt to undo the prophecy that one of his children will overcome him. Also, the reasons for swallowing the stone seem to de different, although the broken text of the Song of Kumarbi makes this difficult to clarify. In Hesiod’s version, Kronos swallowed the stone, thinking it was Zeus, but in the Hittite story the storm god Tessub still needs to be born, and so it is a possibility that he swallowed the stone as an emetic aid. After the castration of the sky god we can perceive another variation in the myths.

In Hesiod’s version Ouranos only plays a minor role in the story after he is succeeded, and only gives advice or warning, whereas in the Hittite story, Anu still plays an important part. The religious aspect of the Hittite text seems to be different to that of the Theogony, as the storm god Tessub does not appear to be a proper match to Hesiod’s Zeus. Hesiod tells us of an invincible Zeus, who wins over both the Titans and Typhoeus, which does not seem to compare to Tessub, in that he also suffers defeat. There are also many striking similarities between the Theogony and Enuma Elish.

Both myths begin with a pair of elemental parents that have many children, who remain inside their mother and cause her distress. The father in both stories; whether Apsu in the Babylonian version, or Ouranos in Hesiod’s Theogony; hates the children and wishes to suppress them, against the mother’s wishes. The young gods in each story are struck with fear, but then one of them, the clever god, Ea or Kronos, comes up with a plan to overcome the father. In each story, the clever god is the son of the sky, and the father of the final king. In the Enuma Elish, Ea is the clever god, son of Anu, the sky, and father of Marduk, the final king.

In Hesiod’s Theogony, the pattern followed is replicated, with Kronos being the clever god, son of Ouranos, the sky, and father of Zeus, the final king. Marduk and Zeus share another similarity. Both have to take part in a battle and defeat their massive opponent, and take over their rule as the king of the gods. Both also use wild winds and lightning bolts as their weapons. In the succession part of the Theogony, Gaia gives birth to Ouranos, the sky. The sky is seen as a cover or a roof, which is paralleled in the Enuma Elish, when Marduk cuts Tiamat in two and “One half of her he established as a covering for heaven”.

The same method must be used to find the differences between the Enuma Elish and the Theogony, as was used to find the dissimilarities between Hesiod and the Hittite myths. In looking at the similarities, the differences can be seen. The main difference is obviously the fact that the Enuma Elish is not actually a theogony, in that it does not attempt to give a complete genealogy of the gods, unlike in Hesiod. In the Theogony, after Gaia gives birth to Ouranos, she produces the mountains, however in the Enuma Elish, Marduk creates the mountains from Tiamat’s udder.

In the Enuma Elish, Apsu seems to be compared to Ouranos, as the bad parent who wishes to destroy his children. However, although Tiamat does not agree with Apsu, she remains fairly neutral at first, whereas Gaia encourages and helps her son Kronos come up with a plan to get revenge on Ouranos. After revenge has been brought about on Apsu and Ouranos by Ea and Kronos, respectively, we see another difference between the texts, as Ea is a good father to Marduk, and helps him rise to power, whereas Kronos clashes with his son Zeus, and is by no means a good parent like Ea.

The final main difference between the Enuma Elish and the Theogony is that at the end of the Enuma Elish, Marduk is praised, by the recital of all fifty of his names, whereas in the Theogony, although many lists of names do appear, the list at the end is not the names of Zeus but is a description of his wives, and the children produced to make the well known Greek Pantheon. Another difference is that in both the song of Kumarbi and the Theogony, there is some kind of castration of the father god, but in the Enuma Elish there is no such theme as Apsu is killed, not castrated.

The castration of Ouranos in the Theogony seems to represent the separation of Heaven and Earth, which were previously together. There does not appear to be any similar significance placed on this act in the Kumarbi myth, and the Enuma Elish does not even have a comparable act, let alone a shared significance. Another detail shared by the song of Kumarbi and the Theogony is that of conflict of the final king with his father.

In the Enuma Elish, Marduk’s conflict is not with his father, but with Tiamat and Kingu. There are several other differences between Hesiod’s writing on the gods and it’s supposed eastern models. One of these variations is seen at the start of the Theogony, in which Hesiod composed a hymn to the muses. The muses are purely Greek figures, with no eastern parallels, so have no counterpart in either the song of Kumarbi or the Enuma Elish.

The succession myth near the beginning of the Theogony begins with the cosmogony, which also does not appear to be modelled on any eastern myth, and neither does the birth of Aphrodite, as her birth from the foam seems to be a Greek concept. It is obvious that there are many similarities between Hesiod’s writing on the gods and the similar eastern texts, but the extent of the differences makes it difficult to see which myth influenced which, and we simply have to accept that there are many overlapping, but different, theogonies in the ancient world.

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How does Hesiod's writing on the gods differ from its supposed eastern models?. (2017, Dec 22). Retrieved from

How does Hesiod's writing on the gods differ from its supposed eastern models?
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