Myths and Creatures of the Past: How the World Began

1 03 2010

Notes from my class:

How the World Began – according to ancient Greeks

  1. Keywords for Today
    1. Polytheism: existence of many gods.
    2. Succession: dynasty.
      1. i.      Doesn’t take place peacefully.
      2. ii.      Gods kill/fight each other.
  2. Conflict
  3. Major Gods
    1. Zeus – King of the gods/weather
    2. Hera – Queen of the gods/family
    3. Aphrodite – Love (son might be Eros)
    4. Ares – War
    5. Athena – Intelligence/crafts
    6. Apollo – Light/oracles/music
    7. Dionysus – Wine
    8. Artemis – Hunting/virginity
    9. Hermes – Communication/travel/thievery
    10. Hephaestus –Fire/metallurgy
    11. Demeter – Agriculture
    12. Poseidon – Ocean/earthquakes
    13. Hades – Underworld
    14. Ancient Greek world was basically the Mediterranean and some of northern Africa.
      1. Asia Minor was considered their second home land.
      2. Traded with Egypt.
        1. i.      Egypt comes up in Greek mythology.
        2. Greek Mythical Periods
          1. Creation – universe emerges; role of Uranus (Heaven) and his castration by Cronus.
          2. Golden – rule of Cronus; rebellion of Zeus, Titans battle the Olympians.
          3. Silver – Rule of Zeus; revolt of the giants; creation of mankind (?); adventures of Prometheus.
          4. Bronze – Deucalion’s Flood; Argonautic expedition; Trojan War (c. 1200 B.C.); Homecoming of the Greek Hermes; Return of the Sons of Hercules (= Doric invasion?): ends around c. 1100 B.C.
          5. Iron (post mythical but not quite “historical”) – Extermination of Bronze Age kingdoms, “Dark Ages” (c. 1100 – 800 B.C.); reintroduction of writing into the Greek world (c. 800 B.C.).
          6. P.78-79
            1. Out of Chaos/Chasm is born Gaea (“Earth”). Gaea gives birth to Uranus (“Sky”). Eros is also born early.
              1. i.      Chaos means “empty” to ancient Greeks.
              2. ii.      Eros means “desire” especially “sexual desire.”
                1. Unclear of whether he is the son of chaos, Gaea, or something else.
  4. Gaea conceives by Uranus, gives birth to natural phenomena and geographic features.
    1. i.      Even though he is her son, they get together.
    2. ii.      Rivers, mountains.
  5. Authoritative (and most common) Greek creation story, first told by Hesiod (c. 8th C.B.C or 750 B.C. in our time).
  6. Hesiod
    1. Style and language similar to Homer, but slightly later.
    2. Wrote long poems on the generations of gods (Theogony) and poetic advice on agriculture (Works and Days in ch.5).
      1. i.      Theogony means “birth of the gods.”
  7. Obscure identity, like Homer.
  8. Literacy just starting in Hesiod’s time.
  9. Uranus and Cronus (p.79-85)
    1. Uranus fathers the Titans (incl. Rhea and Cronus) by Gaea – but doesn’t like them, keeps pushing them back into Gaea’s womb.
    2. Earth (Gaea) gives sickle to Cronus, Cronus castrates Uranus.
  10. Uranus’ severed genitals give birth to Aphrodite as blood mingles with ocean water.
    1. i.      Drips of blood from his genitals give birth to goddesses of vengeance.
    2. Other Earth – Sky Myths of the World
      1. Polynesian Sky -Father and Earth-Mother separated by their children.
        1. i.      The children pushed the sky up as they populated the world.
  11. Egyptian myth of Sky-Mother and Earth-Father, separated by Moisture.
  12. Answers the primitive question: why is the sky so far from earth? Note also parent-children relationships.
  13. The Coming of Zeus and Titanomachy (p.99-92)
    1. Cronus marries Rhea; hates his children, eats them up.
    2. Rhea gives a rock instead of baby Zeus to Cronus; Zeus hidden in Crete while he grows up in a cave.
      1. i.      Popular site of pilgrimage back then.
  14. Cronus vomits up his children; they + Zeus fight against Cronus and the Titans. Zeus’ final victory.
  15. Giants and Monsters
    1. Gigantomache – (giant), they were children of Gaea. Had snakes instead of legs. Gods fought against and subdued them.
    2. Cerberus – three-headed dog. Gatekeeper of the Underworld. Involved in various stories such as Hercules.
    3. Chimera – Lion with goat’s head on back and snake for a tail.
    4. Typhonomachy (p. 92-94).
      1. Typhoeus another of Gaea’s instruments of revenge.
      2. Typhoeus chases away the Olympians – they change into animals in Egypt to hide from T.!
      3. But Zeus is caught, his sinews cut and imprisoned.
      4. Tricky Hermes rescues Zeus, Zeus subdues T with his thunderbolt.
      5. The Babylonian Enuma Elish (Before 1100 BC).
        1. Tiamat (saltwater) and Apsu (fresh water) slush together – mud, earth and sky are born.
        2. Anu (“sky”) and other younger gods born – Apsu wants them dead.
        3. Clever Ea destroys Anu. Marduk is born.
        4. Tiamat wants to destroy the younger gods – Marduk unites his gods and kills Tiamat and her lover Kingu.
        5. The Hittite Succession Myth (also c. 1100 B.C.).
          1. Outline
            1. i.      Alalush deposed by Anush (sky god)
            2. ii.      Kumbarbi revolts against ANush and bites off his genitals.
            3. iii.      Teshub (storm god) borm from Kumarbi’s genitals defeats Kumarbi, reigns supreme after battling monsters.
            4. iv.      Anush – Uranus
            5. Major Themes
              1. No single, all-powerful.
              2. Three generations of gods culminating in the Olympians (succession myth)
              3. Vicious family conflicts.
              4. Modeled on Near-Eastern (Babylonian and Hittite) myths rather than reflection of historical migrations/invasions?
                1. i.      Indo-Europeans displaced native peoples, this was reflected in the violent successions (more powerful in the 19th century).
                2. ii.      Early 20th century, it was found that these Greek succession myths were very similar to those of the Babylonians. Now think that these are probably just stories of less violent interactions.
                3. Names to Remember (p.108) memorize these for the final
                  1. Ancient author: Hesiod Theogony)
                  2. Greek gods: Aphrodite, Zeus, Hera, Chaos, Gaea, Uranus, Eros, Titans, Cronus, Rhea.
                  3. Greek Monsters: Giants, Cerberus, Chimera, Typhoeus.
                  4. Near-Eastern gods: Marduk, Tiamat, Anu, Kumarbi.
                  5. Hero/mortal: Hercules.
                  6. Zeus/Jupiter/Jove
                    1. Ruler of the Universe.
                      1. i.      Controls thunder, rain, etc.
                      2. ii.      Guards justice, especially rules of hospitality (Zeus Xenios).
  16. Mature bearded make; muscular body; holds thunderbolt and/or scepter; attended by victory and/or eagle.
  17. History of extra-marital affairs.
  18. Physique conforms to the Greco-Roman ideal of the male ruler/patriarch.
  19. Yet even Zeus cannot resist eros or change fate.
  20. Often seems to connive at other deities scheming behind his back (though he typically wins in the end).
  21. Victory (by whom he is oftentimes accompanied) is winged, because news of victory must be fast.
  22. Wearing a “wreath” – crown made of vegetable material.
  23. Zeus the Abductor/Rapist/Adulterer
    1. Numerous stories of Zeus having affairs with mortal women (sometimes against their will) and at least one boy (Ganymedes).
      1. i.      In earlier versions, the boy was just abducted to serve as a winebearer.
      2. Hera/Juno the Queen
        1. Zeus’ sister and consort.
        2. Concerned with conjugal fidelity, childbirth, household harmony.
        3. Statues shown with Zeus; nicely clothed with decorum; bound hair; may hold scepter; may be crowned; favorite animal is peacock.
          1. i.      Carries libations in her statues.
            1. Pouring out of a drink as an offering to a deity.
    2. ii.      Sometimes holds a scepter, has golden sandals, seated on a throne.
  24. Shows up on some Roman coins.
  25. Hera’s Revenge
    1. Not happy with infidelities of Zeus.
    2. Examples of punishment: lo (changed to a cow); Semele (burned up); Hercules (made mad, burns himself up in the end).
    3. Zeus and Hera as a normative couple in ancient Greek thinking?

Myths and Creatures of the Past: Minotaurs

1 02 2010


I thought it fitting that I begin with the minotaur, which was one of the first creatures from Greek mythology I was exposed to. Some of you might be familiar with the creatures somewhat disturbing origins. Then again, fewer and fewer things evoke disgust these days, so maybe not.

To be concise, there once was a king by the name of Minos who was contending with his brothers for the rule of Crete. Poseidon sent him a white bull from the sea. Minos had promised the god of the seas (and horses and earthquakes) that he would sacrifice the animal but grew greedy and used a different bull from his herd. Unsurprisingly, Poseidon figured it out and grew angry – as the Greek gods and goddesses were quick to do – and basically cursed Minos’ wife by making her fall  truly, madly, deeply in love with it. Basically, she tricked the bull into mating with her.

Their offspring (science and the restrictions to reproduction can just shut up) was a monstrous beast: THE MINOTAUR!

With the body of a man and the head and tail of a bull, you can imagine the reaction it drew from the people of Crete as it wrought chaos and destruction on the small island.

If you want to read more on the creature and his Greek adversary, Theseus, click on this link.

I remember reading a whole series of fantasy books which took place from a Minotaur’s perspective which I thoroughly enjoyed. The series was called The Minotaur Wars byRichard A. Knaak. I read them awhile ago though, so I couldn’t tell you what age I recommend them for, though I was at least thirteen.

See if this aligns with your view of what these creatures looked like:

Some creative writing (criticism welcome):

It took him no time to crest the hill, his muscular legs pounding away at the ground in complete sync with those of his warrior brothers. Without pause, he pushed forward, unslinging his heavy axe as he ran towards the human ranks ahead. He silently praised the brilliant innovator who had come up with the coverings for their hooves. This invention, tailored specifically to the needs of their current undertaking, would forever change his people’s warring abilities. What he and his unit were doing was in complete breach of the treaty his king had made with the human leaders many moons ago, but Alhmas was simply a soldier and did not concern himself with such matters.

Of his unit, he was the most senior and thus was given command. While he may not have paid much attention to politics and diplomacy, one craft in which he did excel was that of war. As such, it was no great surprise to him that his superiors had chosen this night for their operation. Minotaurs were not much better suited for these winter conditions than their human counterparts, their nighttime sight just as useless. In these conditions, an attack was the last thing the humans could have expected.

Dispatching the sentry posts, few as they were, was simple enough, though he had not seen any action and ached for his opportunity to repay the humans for their ambition and arrogance. Quick to anger, Alhmas snorted but regained control of himself quickly lest his men follow his example and give away their intent.

From his elevated height, Alhmas had a perfect view of the city which lay at the bottom of the valley. A tactical nightmare, he thought pleasantly as his units closed the distance between themselves and the city. It seemed the entire city was sleeping, none privy to the danger that charged upon them from above. They were within the last fifty yard stretch when all hell broke loose around him. Following a volley of arrows from the walls, men camouflaged in white sprung from the ground and delivered death to those in his unit. Their plans of climbing the walls unnoticed and opening the gates from within were now moot. Alhmas grabbed his horn and blew it mightily, sounding a retreat. He cleaved an unwitting human with his axe and made short work of two more before backing off himself.

As far as he could tell, their casualties were still at a minimum as he himself joined his fleeing comrades. He faltered in his step as he saw a horde of enemies rush down at him from the trees. He roared as he charged at them, his body and mind yearning for human blood.