Hesiod begins his poem by invoking the Muses. He claims that the Muses appeared to him while he was tending sheep as a young man, and taught him the arts of song and poetry. He then details the history of the Muses, who are the nine daughters of Zeus, the king of the divine world, and the goddess Memory. Zeus gives the Muses power over the creative arts, including the ability to appear before and inspire mortals. The Muses, whose “carefree hearts [are] set on song,” bestow many blessings upon the men they favor, including beautiful speech, sound judgment, and the admiration of their peers. “Prudent kings” who have found favor with the Muses can easily diffuse conflict with their words and appeal to their people, who venerate them “as if [they] were a god.” The Muses will help Hesiod tell the story of the Theogony, making his poetry beautiful.
Here, Hesiod makes the Muses’ connection to Zeus explicit, emphasizing the fact that they are his daughters. As a result, he also emphasizes his own connection to Zeus, implying that because the Muses have decided to bestow their favor upon them, he is, by extension, also in Zeus’ good graces. Hesiod’s poetic ability is implied to be an indirect gift from Zeus, who grants the Muses the power to bestow artistic skill on worthy mortals. Hesiod begins the poem by emphasizing the cohesive nature of his world, one in which the human, the divine, and the natural comingle.
Hesiod then begins the Theogony in earnest, describing the first divinities that arise, among them Chasm, Earth, Tartarus, and Eros. These gods and goddesses are the foundation of the universe from which everything else—like Night and Day—subsequently stems.
These first deities provide both the material and genealogical basis for the rest of the poem; they are the forebears of all subsequent gods. These deities are both the places in which much of the action of the poem takes place, as well as characters with distinct personalities and genealogies. From the start, Hesiod emphasizes the way in which the natural and the divine intermingle: with gods and goddesses like Earth bridging the gap between the physical and the material, the world is suffused with the divine from the first moments of its existence.
Earth bears Heaven, and together they have many children, including Kronos, Rhea, and Kottos, Briareos, and Gyges From the start, Heaven is wary of his children and fearful that they might someday rise up and usurp his power. As a result, he imprisons Earth and her children in a cave, only visiting when he is “desirous of love.”
Heaven’s fear of his own children prompts him to brutal action in order to protect his rule, illustrating the ways in which violence can be used to maintain power. Similarly, Heaven essentially imprisons and rapes Earth, exerting violent patriarchal force in order to maintain dominance over her.
Frustrated with Heaven’s cruel treatment, Earth crafts a sickle (a kind of curved sword) of unbreakable adamantine, and entreats her children to conspire with her against him and set up an ambush. Only Kronos is courageous enough to take Earth up on her offer, vowing to exact revenge upon his “unspeakable father” for his wicked actions.
The conflict between Heaven and Kronos begins the initial cycle of succession in the realm of the gods. Once again, a violent action, this time in the form of an ambush, is necessary to secure power. The sickle, representative of both violent action as well as agricultural bounty, emphasizes the connection between the divine and natural worlds, as well as the implicit link between violence and generation.
Kronos, along with his mother, Earth, sets up an ambush for the next time Heaven comes to visit. When the time comes, Kronos uses the sickle to castrate Heaven, effectively defeating him and assuming his position as the ruler of the divine realm. The drops of blood from Heaven’s injury create the Furies, Giants, and some nymphs. Heaven’s genitals fall into the sea, creating a white foam from which the goddess Aphrodite is born.
Here Kronos fulfills the initial cycle of succession, deposing his father and setting himself up as the new king of the gods. In doing so, however, he replicates the existing power structures, foreshadowing his own eventual fate. The gods and monsters that spring from Heaven’s blood and genitals emphasize the sometimes gory details of genealogy and birth.
Hesiod continues the genealogy of the gods, listing the parentage of various divinities as well as creatures like nymphs. One of these figures is Medusa, a Gorgon who is slain by Perseus The genealogy continues with a list of monsters who in turn give birth to more monsters. Some of them continue to haunt humankind, while some have been slain by heroes such as Heracles.
Hesiod continues to emphasize genealogy throughout the poem, illustrating the ways in which the entire divine realm can be organized according to family relation. These gods, heroes, and monsters do not shy away from using violence to achieve their aims.
Hesiod then details the attributes and worship of Hecate, a goddess who is particularly attentive to her followers and guarantees good harvest and bounty to those who worship her. Hecate is especially honored among the gods because of this connection, and is held in high regard by Zeus himself.
Hesiod’s description of Hecate emphasizes the intimate connection between the human, the divine, and the natural. In favoring her devout worshippers, Hecate blesses them with natural bounty and agricultural good fortune, illustrating the inextricable connections between nature, humans, and the gods.
Rhea and Kronos have many children but, fearing the same fate as his father, Heaven, Kronos swallows them back into himself so that they will not threaten his power. Unhappy with this state of affairs, Rhea conspires with Earth and Heaven to trick Kronos and spare the baby Zeus, whom she is pregnant with, from being consumed. Instead, she gives birth to Zeus in secret and gives him to Earth to raise, while giving Zeus a swaddled rock to swallow in place of the baby.
Kronos, like his father before him, uses brute force to attempt to secure and maintain his power, and believes that his children pose a distinct threat to his authority. Meanwhile, Rhea is powerless to defy Kronos’ cruel actions, illustrating the ways in which violence is used against women and children throughout the poem in order to exert and maintain power.
When Zeus matures, he begins to pose a significant threat to his father, Kronos. He even tricks Kronos into spitting back up the children—Zeus’ siblings—that he has swallowed, thereby gaining valuable allies in his conflict against the Titans. Zeus also sets the Cyclopes free from the bondage Kronos placed upon them, further strengthening his forces.
The poem then details a conflict between Prometheus and Zeus. During a ritual sacrifice, Prometheus tricks Zeus into taking a lesser portion of meat. He also steals divine fire and gifts it to humankind against Zeus’ wishes. As a result, Zeus has Prometheus chained to a mountain, condemned to have his liver eaten daily by an eagle. Zeus also dispenses punishment to humans in the form of Pandora and her box of evils, as well as the curse of females more generally.
While Prometheus may be an especially crafty god, even he cannot escape the violent retribution of Zeus, who punishes him with endless torment of the most gruesome sort. The connection between the divine and the human is embodied in Prometheus’ gift of fire to humans, as well as in the punishment humanity receives (like sickness and death) from Zeus in the form of Pandora’s box. The story of Pandora and her infamous box is further detailed in Hesiod’s poem Works and Days.
Zeus and the other Olympian gods wage war against Kronos and the other Titans for control of the divine realm. Zeus enlists the aid of Kottos, Briareos, and Gyges, whom he frees from their bondage. In thanks, they gift Zeus with “thunder and lightning and the smoking bolt, which mighty Earth had kept hidden up to then.” After the battle has waged on for some time, Zeus encourages his forces to redouble their efforts. With renewed vigor, they finally conquer Kronos and his allies, banishing them to Tartarus. Zeus assumes rule as king of the gods in his victory.
Zeus uses his powerful allies in order to challenge and triumph over the reigning Titans, helmed by his father, Kronos. Unlike Kronos, Zeus uses his skill as a leader and collaborator in order to prevail; however, strength and violence are not without their merit, as the savage Obriateos, Kottos, and Gyges make a significant impact during the battle.
Hesiod then details other inhabitants of the underworld adjacent to Tartarus, including the river Styx, whose waters compel the drinker to speak the truth. Zeus relies on water from the Styx for other gods and goddesses to swear oaths upon.
Here Hesiod further elaborates upon genealogy, emphasizing the ways in which everything in the divine realm is connected by blood, from the heights of Olympus to the depths of Tartarus.
After Zeus assumes power, Earth bears a final child, this time with Tartarus, who is named Typhoeus. Typhoeus is remarkably strong and formidable, and poses a significant threat to Zeus’ power. Thinking ahead, Zeus quickly moves to preemptively destroy Typhoeus before Typhoeus has the chance to overthrow Zeus. While they wage a fierce battle, Zeus is eventually victorious, and all that is left of Typhoeus are some vicious winds that don’t bode well for sailors.
Zeus, unlike his father and grandfather before him, excels at using collaboration and compromise to get and keep his power. However, he also relies on brute force, especially in his destruction of Typhoeus, whom he brutally kills before the young god can pose a threat to Zeus’ power. While Typhoeus may have been thoroughly defeated, he still has a lingering presence in the natural world in the form of stormy weather.
Zeus takes the goddess Metis as his first wife, but swallows her when she is pregnant with Athena, fearing the threat that any clever new children could pose to his continued power. Zeus then takes a succession of other lovers and wives, resulting in a great many children both human and divine. He also gives birth to Athena from his own head, rather than allowing Metis to give birth to her.
Zeus continues to use violence to prevent further succession and to maintain his power, even as he allows new generations to be born. While Zeus does have children, he exerts complete control over them, as in the case of Athena and Metis, refusing to allow his first wife to give birth to and collaborate with a child that could potentially spell his doom.
Hesiod then details the genealogies of many other divine beings and heroes, including those with half-divine, half-human parentage such as Heracles, a prominent hero who partakes in many adventures, including slaying the monster Medusa and freeing the god Prometheus. Hesiod thus completes the historical genealogy from the first moments of existence up until the heroic age.
By incorporating the details of genealogy and succession from the birth of the universe up to the exploits of human heroes and heroines, Hesiod situates the world of the poem as one that is ordered by and relies upon ties of family relation. Significantly, even in the human world, violence is consistently used as a means to achieve one’s goals, no matter how brutal.