Hamilton begins by explaining the sources she used for this chapter (as she will do from now on). She takes this chapter mostly from the Greek poet Hesiod, but some from Aeschylus. The Greek universe begins with nothing but Chaos. Somehow this amorphous nothingness has two children, Night and Erebus (the underworld where death lives). Then, miraculously, Love is born golden-winged from the darkness and death. Love then creates Light and Day.
The diversity and intricacy of the stories partly comes because Hamilton uses such wildly different sources. The creation story is vague and mysterious, but it is significant that personified Love is the first force of life and light in the universe. Love will be an important theme in many of the myths, and is often associated with beauty.
Earth then appears, though it is never explained how, and Earth gives birth to Heaven. Both entities are simultaneously places and vague personalities – they are alive, but also make up everything at once. Mother Earth and Father Heaven first give birth to monsters. Hamilton compares them to our modern knowledge of dinosaurs and mammoths, though the Greek monsters were vaguely human.
In her introduction, Hamilton compared Greek mythology with the religions of other cultures – those she finds more “primitive” – and praised the lack of monsters and terrifying magic among the Greeks. But this creation story shows the monsters of their past, along with surprising violence and incest – as Heaven is both Earth’s son and her husband.
Three of the monsters have a hundred hands and fifty heads each, and three are Cyclopes, giants with only one huge eye. Then come the Titans. These are just as strong as the monsters, but not quite so destructive.
The ugliness of these monsters is comparable to the monsters of other early cultures. They feature a natural characteristic like hands and eyes subtracted or multiplied it until it becomes grotesque.
Father Heaven hates his monstrous children, so he imprisons them within the earth, except for the Cyclopes and the Titans. Earth asks her children to help her against cruel Heaven, and the Titan Cronus wounds him badly. From his blood come the Giants and the Furies (terrible creatures who pursue and punish sinners). After that Cronus and the Titans rule the universe for long ages.
The violence and patricide that spawns creation begins here, as Cronus overthrows his father Heaven. This is only the beginning of this cycle, however, in which there is little sense of justice or vengeance, but only the surety that bloodshed will lead to more bloodshed.
Then comes the gods’ rebellion. Cronus had learned that one of his children would overthrow him, so he tried to avoid his fate by swallowing them as soon as they were born. When Rhea (Cronus’ sister-queen) gives birth to Zeus, however, she is able to secret him away to Crete, and she gives Cronus a stone wrapped in baby clothes to swallow instead.
This story shows that the mysterious power of fate – at the very least as a story-telling device – is older and stronger than the gods themselves. Even a Titan could not avoid his destiny.
When Zeus is grown, he forces Cronus to disgorge the stone along with Cronus’s five earlier children, and the stone is later set up at Delphi as a holy place. After this the sibling gods rebel against Cronus and the Titans. The war almost destroys the universe, but Zeus and the gods eventually win with the help of the hundred-handed monsters and one sympathetic Titan: Prometheus.
The irony that will be emphasized in later tragedies is already apparent here, as in trying to avoid his fate Cronus unwittingly sealed it. Zeus and Rhea might not have decided to overthrow their husband and father if he had not so cruelly swallowed all his infant children.
Zeus punishes the Titans by chaining them in Tartarus, far beneath the earth. Prometheus’ brother Atlas is forced to constantly hold up heaven and earth on his shoulders. After that Earth gives birth to a terrible monster called Typhon, but Zeus was is able to defeat it with the help of his thunderbolts. Later there is a rebellion of the Giants, but again the gods are victorious. After that Zeus and the Olympians rule undisputed.
Prometheus and Atlas will become important figures in later myths, and are still familiar archetypes even in modern society. Zeus seems secure in his dominion, but time will soon show that he too is fated to be overthrown by one of his children. This is the kind of tragic fate that will later be exploited by writers like Sophocles.
In Greek mythology the Earth was a round disk divided by the Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea (which they first called the “Unfriendly Sea,” but later the “Friendly Sea”). Around the disk flowed the great river Ocean.
This picture of the earth seems especially foreign to the modern reader, and seems incongruous with the familiar humanity of many of the myths.
Outside of Ocean’s perimeter lived mysterious peoples like the Cimmerians, who lived in a land of endless night, or the Hyperboreans in the far north, a blissful land near the dwelling of the Muses. The Ethiopians were in the far south, where they were often visited by the gods. Also on Ocean’s bank was the happy land of the blessed dead.
These strange, unreachable lands rarely appear in the myths. Beyond the real, dynamic lives of the gods and mortals Greek mythology seems to grow vague around its edges.
At this point it was time for humans to be created. There are three stories about how it came about. In one Prometheus and his brother, scatterbrained Epimetheus (“afterthought”) are assigned with making mortals. Epimetheus foolishly gives all the best gifts to animals first, but Prometheus fashions humans in the shape of the gods, and then he steals fire from the sun for their gift.
Prometheus, who had helped the gods against the Titans, now helps mortals against the gods. He will become a symbol of heroism and bravery in the face of injustice because of this, and beloved by mortals for helping them when they were weak.
A second creation story has the gods making humans using metals. They start with gold, and these humans are almost perfect. Then the gods experiment with metals of progressively lower quality; the silver race is foolish and keep injuring themselves, the bronze race loves war and eventually destroys itself, and then comes a race of heroes. The last is the iron race, the humans that now reside on earth. They are the worst humans yet, each generation more sinful than the last, and one day Zeus will destroy them too.
Like the creation story of the gods, this version of the creation of mortals also paints a bleak picture, filled with violence and degradation. The present-day humans are the worst that have ever been, with little hope for redemption, and they are doomed to be destroyed by Zeus someday.
Hamilton returns to the first myth, and describes how Prometheus tricks Zeus on mankind’s behalf again – he arranges it so that humans get the best part of a sacrificed animal, and the gods are left with the bones and fat. Zeus is enraged, and he avenges himself first on humans and then on Prometheus.
Prometheus is an almost wholly good character, and Zeus appears as the villain in the stories they share. Again the first stories about the world seem full of cruelty and trickery.
In both of these myths only men are created. Zeus creates the first woman – Pandora – as a punishment for men, implying that all women have a nature to do evil and act as “beautiful disasters” to men. Another story involves Pandora, but blames her curiosity instead. The gods gave her a box into which each had put some misfortune or evil, and they told her never to open it. Pandora opened the box, releasing all the troubles of the world. The only good thing the box held was Hope, which now is humanity’s only comfort in their misfortunes.
Like with the story of Eve in the Bible, the Greeks blamed a woman’s curiosity for all the troubles of the world. Pandora’s mistake is in a way a kind of hubris, the sin most frequently punished by the gods, as she desires knowledge of something the gods have withheld. Many myths will involve someone failing because of disobeying a single, simple command.
Zeus then punishes Prometheus for helping humans (even though Prometheus had earlier helped Zeus conquer the Titans). Zeus has Prometheus chained to a rock for eternity. This is a punishment, but also because Zeus learned that he, like Cronus, is fated to one day give birth to a son who would dethrone him. Only Prometheus knows the name of the son’s mother, so Zeus tries to get Prometheus to reveal the name as he is chained in agony.
Like his own father, Zeus tries to avoid his inevitable fate by performing cruel actions, in his case torturing Prometheus, implying that these cruelties will in fact seal his fate. Even the early Greeks were clearly intrigued by the idea of fate, and struggled with the fact that bad things could still happen regardless of attempts to avert them.
Prometheus never gives away his secret, so Zeus punishes him further by sending an eagle to tear out Prometheus’ liver every day. Because of this, Prometheus stands as a symbol of rebellion against unjust power. Prometheus is later freed, either by Chiron the Centaur dying for him or by Hercules slaying his tormenting eagle and breaking his chains.
Prometheus is one of the few truly heroic figures of these early myths. His noble love for humanity seems to reflect the pure Love that gave birth to the universe, a light in the darkness of violence and random cruelty.
Hamilton then tells the third creation story, where humans are created out of stone. They are so wicked that Zeus decides to destroy them, and he send a great flood that covers all but the tallest mountain. Only two mortals survive, Prometheus’ son Deucalion and Pandora’s daughter Pyrrha. Prometheus saves them by warning them to stay afloat in a wooden chest.
The flood myth reflects those of many other ancient cultures, including the story of Noah and the Ark. It also resonates with the idea that all humans are inherently sinful, and cannot escape being destroyed by the gods.
Zeus pities these two, especially because they are faithful worshippers, and he ends the flood. Deucalion and Pyrrha find an old temple and a voice commands them to throw stones behind them. They do so, and the stones become people, the ancestors of today’s humans.
Again humans are associated with a kind of element being brought to life, and the present mortals are a “lowly” element like stone. In this story piety and humility are the virtues worth saving.