Eatin' Kids & Killin' Dads: How the Greek World Came to Be
The ancient Greek world began with Chaos. It was the first thing to exist, sort of a semi-sentient nothingness. From Chaos came Gaia, who was the personification of Earth. She is essentially where we get the concept of Mother Earth and, obviously, the concept of Gaia. Gaia creates herself a companion, who is named Ouranos, and he is the sky and the universe. And, yes, that is Ouranos of planet fame, though sometimes spelled differently. You say Uranus, I say Ouranos, neither of us are wrong, but mine sounds less like we're in elementary school.
So Gaia and Ouranos, the earth and the sky, get together and had a slew of kids. These children are collectively called the Titans. I won't name them all individually because there are twelve and it would really be just a lot of nonsensical Greek names that you'll rarely read again. For now we’ll go with our main two Titans, those whose story this really is. They are Rhea, who is another Mother Earth type figure, though less the earth itself than her mother Gaia. And Kronos who is just a badass mother fucker and honestly an all around lunatic.
Gaia and Ouranos also conceived a number of monster-breed children in their time together, which they apparently had quite a lot of. The monster children are called the Hecatonchires and the Cyclopes, and there were three of each. The Hecatonchires are three giants who each have fifty heads and a hundred hands. Just picture that. How does it even work? Not to mention, what an amazing word. Hecatonchires. The Cyclopes are, as you might imagine, cyclops. One-eyed badasses known primarily for causing trouble for Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey. More on them later.
Back to our friend Kronos who we are told is destined to overthrow his father, Ouranos. And boy does he. Kronos envies his father from the start. Ouranos is the ruler of the universe. Essentially he is the sky and the universe, in the same way that Gaia is the earth. And Ouranos is kind of a dick, too. See he hides his and Gaia's monster-children away. He hides them in Tartarus which is a weird concept that is at once the darkest most awful depths of the Underworld, and well, a god/monster of some kind. It's basically all the definitions of a noun. Person, place, thing. Tartarus. Frankly I think he’s probably pretty fun at parties.
So this imprisonment makes Gaia angry, for obvious reasons, and she ultimately colludes with Kronos on how to punish Ouranos. Apparently she tried to rope a number of her Titan children into helping her overthrow Ouranos, but Kronos is the only one crazy enough to actually go along with his mother. Gaia gives him a sickle (which is that super scary looking knife thing that old-timey farmers used to cut hay, I guess. Or, more famously, it’s what the hooded figure of Death carries around). Gaia just tells Kronos to go for it. Kronos then sneaks up on his father, and uses the sickle to castrate his father. We don’t even know if he actually kills Ouranos, literally the number one part of the story is that Kronos castrates Ouranos. Kronos then tosses his father's important bits into the sea.
As they flew, Ouranos' precious parts spatter blood on land and finally land in the sea which causes foam to bubble up. We are told that from the blood that splatters on land are born the Gigantes, who are a race of giants, and the Erinyes, who are better known as the Furies. The Furies are women, it’s never clear how many there are, and are deities of vengeance. Basically if you do anything requiring major punishment they’re there to serve it up, and they're pretty hardcore. They appear most often in Greek plays featuring kids killing their parents, a common theme. Or the reverse.
Depending where you get your information, the Furies described as crones with snakes for hair, dog’s heads, bat wings, and bloodshot eyes. Basically they’re not ladies you want hounding you, and that’s completely aside from the fact that they’re straight up born from blood splatter.
And that's not all that the act of castration can create in the world of ancient myth. Oh no.
Like I mentioned, a sea foam erupted where the Ouranos’ bits landed. And from that foam our girl Aphrodite was born. That's right, the goddess of love, beauty, desire, pleasure, and procreation was born from the sea foam of castrated man-parts. Romantic, no? Just picture that classic painting, Botticelli’s the Birth of Venus. You’re picturing it? Aphrodite, or Venus in the Roman, looking all angelic in her clam shell, surrounding by beautiful figures, the sea as a backdrop…
That clamshell in floating on top of castration foam.
If you look up Kronos’ descendants on Wikipedia Aphrodite is literally listed under “Uranus’ genitals”. After Kronos overthrows Ouranos he re-imprisons the Hecatonchires and the Cyclopes in Tartarus. This time he has a dragon guard them, essentially making himself more restrictive that Ouranos was. So, obviously Gaia is feeling pretty psyched with her decision to help Kronos castrate and overthrow her partner.
At this point Kronos is ruling the world. And now he and Rhea get together, because in the beginning of time, what can you really do but hook up with your siblings? I say that as if this is the only time it happens. It isn’t, Greek mythology is full of it. Rhea and Kronos, like their parents before them, also have a slew of kids. But Kronos has learned that one of his children is destined to overthrow him just as he had his own father. This does not jibe with Kronos. But his solution is not to stop having children (because spoilers ancient Greek gods are horny, like, all the time) but instead his solution is to just eat all his children therefore solving the problem. Easy peasy.
So Rhea is popping out kids: god after god after god. Poseidon and Hades and Hera and Demeter and Hestia. And they're all being swallowed up by Kronos. Finally Rhea gets sick of her husband eating all their children (I mean, who wouldn't!) and she devises a plan. When Rhea gives birth to their next child, instead of giving him to Kronos (because I guess before this she'd just been handing him all the kids to eat?), she gives him a rock all wrapped up as if it's a baby, which he promptly consumes.
This child she manages to save is none other than Zeus, future king of the gods. Rhea hides him on the island of Crete where he's raised in a cave on Mount Ida by any number of people or things, depending which version of the myth you read. The point is: Zeus grows up to be old enough and strong enough to finally overthrow his father, Kronos, bringing truth to the prophecy. Something that happens time and time again in Greek mythology, if there’s a prophecy, there’s no point in trying to fight it because it will inevitably come true no matter what you do.
When Zeus is old enough he sets out to take revenge on his father. Pretty valid, if you ask me. Avenging your siblings which your father has been eating uncontrollably. Zeus forces Kronos to expel his siblings, the gods. Whether this means Zeus simply hits Kronos really hard on the back and out pop a bunch of full grown gods, or whether Zeus slices him open all gory like, is unclear. The former is unlikely, sure, but wouldn’t it be a great visual?
The point is now Zeus has his siblings back: they are the gods Poseidon, Hades, Hera, Demeter, and Hestia. And they're all pretty pissed. Zeus is on a spree now, next he frees Kronos' monster siblings from Tartarus: the Hecatonchires and the Cyclopes. The Cyclopes are pretty killer when it comes to forging weapons, they’re kind of the Gordon Ramsay of the forge. And they go to work. For Zeus they create his signature lightning bolts, for Poseidon his trident, and for Hades his helmet of darkness. And for the ladies? Shit all. Because the women had to work for their power like all badass females.
At this point Zeus has basically assembled an Avengers-style superhero team: We’ve got Zeus with his gigantic white-beard, wielder of lightning bolts. Poseidon, getting all stabby with his trident. Hades sporting his helmet of darkness, which actually just makes him invisible. And Hera, Hestia and Demeter just being powerful badass goddesses, picture them in Wonder Woman stance.
The gods and monsters wage a war against the Titans, being Kronos and his non-monster siblings. This war is called the Titanomachy, and is not to be confused with a 'Clash of the Titans', because that movie didn't actually include any Titans. And don't even get me started on the Kraken. A Kraken is from NORSE mythology for god’s sake.
The war went on for ten years, and was fought in the Greek region of Thessaly.
So the gods fought with the help of the Hecatonchires who flung stones at the Titans. And you can just imagine how many stones three hundred-handed dudes can throw. It's a lotta stones.
There are two Titans who didn't fight alongside Kronos, and who instead sided with Zeus. At the risk of introducing too many names (as if I haven't done that already), they were Themis and Prometheus. I point this out because Prometheus has his own exciting adventures still to come, and Themis will be mentioned at a later date. Let's just say when it comes to Prometheus there's a jar and fire, and no epically disappointing Alien movie in sight.
The Titanomachy is one of the most ancient stories in mythology. By that I mean it takes place so far back even in the mythology itself, that it's kind of history's history. Myth wrapped in myth. It's the origin story for the gods who would go on to form the pantheon gods of Greek mythology: the Olympians. Almost all Greek myth revolves around the Olympians, so the Titanomachy serves as a backdrop to their rule. Once it’s all over Zeus and his pals have defeated the Titans. Not one to break with tradition, Zeus imprisons them in Tartarus. This time the Hecatonchires act as the guards. They get payback for being imprisoned themselves, and Zeus keeps their three hundred hands hidden away. Only one Titan escapes Tartarus, and that is Atlas. But he did not escape punishment, he now has the privilege of holding the earth on his back, keeping us all steady. We just want to make sure he doesn't shrug, or we'll get caught up in some anarchic objectivist disaster world.
The only other children of Gaia and Ouranos that escape this purge are Echidna and Typhon, and don't ask me why they escape it because they are terrifying. Like, Zeus you’re going to have this whole war to overthrow these pretty benign Titans, but you’re not going to get rid of Echidna and Typhon, really? Let me explain.
Typhon is a monster described as having a hundred snake heads writhing atop his shoulders. These heads breathe fire and make every imaginable noise. I’m saying they’re described as sounding like a lion, and a bear, and literally every other scary noise on the planet only the sounds are coming out of a hundred snake heads atop this man’s body. It’s terrifying. Sometimes they even say he has wings. So that's an added bonus. And Echidna, well she is a half-snake, half-woman which frankly is more than enough to turn me off. Together they spawn most of the epic monsters of myth, including but not limited to:
- Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the standard, non-Tartarus, Underworld. Cerberus also stars as Fluffy in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone;
- Hydra, who is a many-headed serpent thing with the awesome skill of growing back two heads whenever you cut off one. You'll know her from Disney's animated Hercules. Old Herc had a tricky time with that one; and
- The Chimera, a sometimes fire-breathing lion-goat-snake monstrosity which leant it's name to the now nearly forgotten, but oh-so-wonderful, show Dark Angel. RIP.
So we're now at a point where the remaining gods are Zeus and his siblings and they have to decide what the new world order is going to be. The three brothers (because Ancient Greece, like every god damn thing, was a patriarchy), split up the world by drawing straws, or something in that general vein, they probably didn’t have straws. Zeus rules over the air and the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades is stuck with the underworld which is why he's always pissed off. The earth itself is left as a free for all, basically no one was permitted that much power, not to mention the earth essentially is Gaia, though she no longer figures into the mythology itself.
As for the women-folk, they get some decent roles, unlike the mortal women of ancient Greece. Hera because Zeus' sister-wife, because like I said, Rhea and Kronos were not the only married siblings, and is the goddess of women and marriage. Hestia is the goddess of the hearth and fire. And Demeter is the goddess of the harvest and agriculture.
From there the pantheon of the Olympians is rounded out by Aphrodite, who I mentioned earlier. She of the castration foam and a select few of Zeus' many children, who deserve stories of their own but there is an entire episode on the slut that is Zeus. Irony of ironies, given his wife is the goddess of marriage. Hera gets the short end of the stick, to be sure.
For now we'll just say that of Zeus’ children, those who become Olympians are:
- Apollo and Artemis, who are twins: Apollo is the god of music, truth, prophecy, light, and the sun, Artemis is a the badass virgin Goddess of the hunt;
- Athena, also badass virgin, and the goddess of wisdom, war, craft, and diplomacy. That's war AND craft, but also warcraft I suppose;
- Ares, the god of war, who is not super popular among his brethren. Bit of a loose cannon, really;
- Hermes, messenger god and an all around trickster. He is basically the same cutie patootie from the animated Hercules. Little crazy, wears a helmet and sandals with little wings so he can fly around. Carries around the caduceus staff that ultimately comes to represent medicine.
- Hephaestus, who is god of the forge and husband of Aphrodite (though she isn’t a big fan of his, she is one of the few who takes a real shine to Ares); and
- Dionysus, god of the vine, wine, and general debauchery who eventually takes Hestia's spot in the Olympian order when she becomes sick of the other Olympians' bullshit. Hestia's kind of the secret badass that way. Not willing to take the petty squabbles of the Olympians.
The Olympians, now having established themselves as the ruling order of gods, settle atop mount Olympus, hence their name. From there, as we'll find out, they watch the humans from afar. Sometimes jumping in to start or stop wars, or to spread their godly seed.
A general rule, though. The Olympians are not able to show themselves to humans in their true god form. A human can't survive it, so typically they find creative ways of interacting. And therein lies the fun of Greek myths. What lengths will the gods go to to have sex with mortals?
And there it is. The beginning of everything. It will only get crazier from here.