Out of all the millions of myths around the world today, I think we can agree that Greek mythology is arguably the most famous. A significant reason for this is that the ancient Greeks were very media-savvy. The Greek myths that we know today are known primarily from representations on visual media dating from c. 900 BCE to c. 800 BCE onward as well as from written literature.
The ancient Greeks also started what we roughly know now as “product placement.” In this case, the “product” was myths and legends. Mythical narration plays an important role in nearly every genre of ancient Greek literature. They covered their bases so thoroughly and entwined the gods into the mortals’ narratives so well that, although we have of course lost many ancient Greek writings and visual representations, we are still familiar with the gods and heroes as if they were members of our own extended family.
Among the earliest literary sources, and arguably the most famous, are Homer’s two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Any reader of Homer would recognize the close relationship between the gods and human destinies. The study of Homer is also one of the oldest topics in scholarship. The earliest preserved comments on Homer concerning his treatment of the gods which is not unlike the religious debates we see today. Hostile critics such as the poet Xenophanes of Calophon denounced Homer’s depictions of the gods as immoral. The allegorist Theagenes of Rhegium defended Homer by arguing that the Homeric poems are allegories and thus never meant to be taken literally. These kinds of debate only served to propel Homer and his work even further. As one American political consultant said, “If you’re not controversial, you’ll never break through the din of all the commentary.” In other words, any publicity is good publicity.
Hesiod, a possible contemporary with Homer, offers in his Theogony (Origin of the Gods) the fullest account of the earliest Greek myths, dealing with the creation of the world; the origin of the gods, Titans and Giants. He also includes elaborate genealogies, folktales, and etiological myths. Hesiod also includes the myths of Prometheus, Pandora and the Five Ages of Man in his Works and Days, a didactic poem about farming.
Both Homer and Hesiod are central to the history of ancient Greece. They received their greatest endorsement from none other than the “father of history,” Herodotus himself, who credits them with giving the Greeks their gods: “For Hesiod and Homer I suppose were four hundred years before my time and not more, and these are they who made a theogony for the Hellenes and gave the titles to the gods and distributed to them honours and arts, and set forth their forms: but the poets who are said to have been before these men were really in my opinion after them. Of these things the first are said by the priestesses of Dodona, and the latter things, those namely which have regard to Hesiod and Homer, by myself.”
Not much is known about the actual life of Hesiod. He started his working life as a young shepherd in the mountains. He says that his father left his home at Aetolian Cyme because his life of sea-trading was unprofitable; “he settled near Helicon in a miserable hamlet, Ascra, which is bad in winter, sultry in the summer, and good at no time.” Hesiod then moved on to be a small peasant on a hard land after his father’s death. While tending his flock on Mt. Helicon, he claims that the Muses appeared to him in a mist. It should be noted that this is a common claim. Two of the easiest way to distinguish oneself from the market these days is to be the first or the best. Leaders in the ancient world liked to distinguish themselves by associating themselves to the deities or ancient heroes. Hesiod, like many other epic poets, claims to have been inspired by the Muses and tells his audience that this happened “while he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon”.
The Theogony covers the beginning of the world with Chaos, followed by Gaia, Tartarus, and Eros. It then moves on to Gaia’s creation of Uranus, and their parenting of the Titans, Cyclopes and other giants. He tells us about Cronus’ castration of Uranus and the parenting of Cronus and Rhea of the Olympian gods. Cronus, as we know, ate his divine children as soon as they were born, with only Zeus surviving, who later forced Cronus to throw-up the other Olympians. Hesiod took great care to cover the story of Prometheus and his punishment by Zeus for giving fire to humans and the Titanomcahy, the great battle between the Titans and Olympians which Zeus won, casting the Titans and Typhoeus into Tartarus. He also devoted sections to Zeus and his many wives and the birth of Hercules.
The Works and Days, again, begins with an appeal to the Muses, but then goes on to address Hesiod’s brother, Perses, urging him to put aside their dispute, “Perses, lay these things in your heart, and do not let that Strife who delights in mischief hold your heart back from work…”. Hesiod dedicated Works and Days to his brother, giving him advice on life, farming, sea trade, as well as religious and social expectations. On a personal note, although Works and Days tended to be a little overlooked compared to the Theogony, this work appeals to me more due to its humanity and attempt at making the myths and belief that the brothers would have already known relevant to their day to day human existence.