Hesiod’s “Birth of the Gods” in Generational Conflict

The Hebrew Scriptures tell us a story of creation at once familiar and remote. It is familiar because it is the basis for Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, yet it is remote in the cosmological structure it articulates. God rests outside of history, prior to and beyond the created universe, so that divinity may be defined as an absence of everything we know in human experience. Christianity even suggests a via negativa, a “negative route”, as the path towards the comprehension of the divine. In perhaps the most succinct summary of this concept, St. Augustine defines God as aliud, aliud valde ab istis omnibus, “other, entirely other from all of these [worldly] things” at Confessions 7.10.16.

The Abrahamic God’s “otherness” can be observed in the transcendence of time. Everything in human experience is limited, measured, and contextualized by a sense of time, while the divine realm is eternal and everlasting. This sense of a divine eternity was not entirely absent from classical antiquity. Although Plato’s theory of Forms is not an outright ‘negation’ of the world of experience, it does suggest that truth resides in a higher timeless realm, above and beyond the imperfections of temporal experience. This idea influenced all subsequent philosophy in antiquity, and prepared the groundwork for Christian theology.

Yet the earliest Greek theology, the theology of the age of Homer, presents the gods through a kind of via positiva, as the divine nature is presented in analogy with the human experience. Hesiod’s Theogony is the rough Homeric equivalent of the Book of Genesis. This text has suffered from an unfortunate tendency not to translate the proper names and titles of ancient text even where such translation would dramatically illuminate the appreciation of the reading public. Considering that the Theogony would be somewhat scandalously rendered as The Birth of the Gods, we should not be surprised that the dominant intellectual tradition has left the title in a polite classical obscurity.

If the Abrahamic God is beyond comparison with the natural world, Hesiod’s gods may be explained as metaphors for certain elements and aspects of the natural world. In the first of many generations of gods, Earth (Gaia) gives birth to Sky (Uranus), “equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods” (Theogony 125).  From these two elements Time (Cronus) is born, who overthrows his father Sky by castration and establishes the reign of the Titans (Time is literally chronos, and this metaphor has been disputed, but I trust Plutarch’s sense of Greek religion). The god Time then fathers a new generation of gods who will dwell on Olympus, the Olympians. Yet, still mindful of his crime against Sky, he swallows his own children in an attempt to preserve his rule. Skylight (Zeus) tricks Time into regurgitating his brothers and sisters, and banishes him from the heavens.

In this myth of divine succession, Hesiod presents the cosmos as one of generational strife, a conception extremely relevant in our time, which is being increasingly conscious of generational divisions. Though I am sure some exists, I have never encountered any historical literature prior to the 20th century which defines definite generations with particular attributes. Beginning with the notion of a Lost Generation of World War I, we in modernity have begun to unconsciously slide back towards the Hesiodic model, in which each generation has its own particular sense of the meaning and purpose of life, and comes into conflict with the collective “gods” of other times. Relatively short ages of human history are defined by the rise and fall of generations with labels worthy of the Titans — Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, the Greatest Generation. The advance of modern sociology has once more magnified the generational drama at the heart of the earliest Greek religion.

The image of the god Time swallowing his own children can offer us profound insight into the retrogressive forces against which any novelty and innovation must struggle. The aged past does not passively resist novelty and change, but often seeks to actively destroy the very future to which it gave birth. This tragic intuition about the nature of time and generational secession need not be accepted as fate, but the metaphor is also not informing us about merely contingent facts of reality. Hesiod is placing this struggle at the heart of the Greek metaphysical vision, at the very birth of the gods, so that the frictions we experience in the passage of time are manifestations of a dynamic divine order, patterned and enduring despite its transformations in time.

Saturn Devouring His Son
Saturn Devouring His Son, Francisco de Goya (1819-23)

While many humane precepts have emerged from the monotheistic faiths, they do not offer such penetrating insight into a world of change, full of both regression and novelty. Gods who themselves suffer in anthropomorphic generation can teach us in a different kind of via negativa, through a tragic example. When young, we may be the victims of an overbearing, reactionary past; when old, we may frustrate and destroy the dreams of our children, even when we have the best of intentions. The memory of youthful aggression can us leave us paranoid of the young, while the young have no frame of reference by which they may empathize with the old.

Hesiod’s mythopoetic articulation of these truths demands that we do not flee these generational cycles in search of eternity, but rather face them as the very essence of life. Those who induct us into the world create our universe as the collective divinity of the prior generation, while in adulthood we populate and educate the world anew, like the divine Mothers and Fathers of so many religious traditions. Revising the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, if we wish to live better than the gods, we should know our parents, imagine our children, and create ourselves.

Cupid, Venus, and Hope Beat Saturn
Cupid, Venus, and Hope Beat Saturn, Simon Vouet (1645-6) — A remarkable reimagination of the myth!

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