Throughout Hesiod’s Theogony, a poem from circa 700 B.C., the poet details the multiple successions that occur in the realm of the gods. From the origins of the first Greek gods and goddesses, to the rise of the Titans, to their overthrow by the Olympians, succession is shown to be a natural dynamic among the gods. However, this process reaches its conclusion as well as its ultimate zenith with Zeus, illustrating the ways in which not only brute force, but also craft, compromise, and collaborators are necessary to obtain and maintain power.
As a child, the Titan Kronos overthrows his father, Heaven, in order to become king of the gods. While Kronos does employ trickery in order to deceive and overpower his father, it is significant that he largely acts alone, which characterizes his succession as an individual shift of power rather than the culmination of a larger, cooperative conflict. From the beginning, Heaven hates and fears his children, locking them inside a cave with their mother, Earth, so that they won’t pose a threat to his power. With help from his mother, Kronos schemes to ambush Heaven and attack him with a sickle (a curved, sword-like weapon) made of adamant. Here Heaven is characterized as doing “wicked work,” and the imprisonment of his children and their mother is “ugly behavior.” Meanwhile, Kronos is depicted as a hero, claiming that he is “not afraid of our unspeakable father.” Succession here is depicted as an actively good thing—the overthrow of a despotic ruler by his brave and heroic son. When he ambushes his father, Kronos castrates him—both literally in the context of the story, as well as figuratively in terms of his power over the gods and his ability to act as ruler and father. This also thwarts his ability to create other powerful children who might one day challenge Kronos’ rule. Here, the poem seems to indicate that sons overthrowing their fathers is—while sometimes violent—inevitable, natural progression. Nevertheless, in assuming his father’s position as king of the gods without cooperating with others in order to consolidate his power, Kronos sets himself as just another iteration of the same cycle rather than a true innovation.
When Zeus then overthrows his father Kronos, he continues the cycle of succession. However, he does so with the help his own craft as well as a cadre of other gods—both Olympian and Titan—and in doing so cements his power not only over Kronos, but over the entire divine realm. Kronos, like his father before him, is immediately distrustful of his offspring by Rhea, and swallows them so that “none but he […] should have the royal station among the immortals.” He has already learned from Heaven and Earth that one of his own children will be his undoing. However, with the help of her parents, Rhea gives birth to Zeus in secret and is able to fool Kronos by giving him a stone to swallow in the baby’s place. Here, Kronos is shown to be subverting the natural order, literally swallowing his children so that they return to his body rather than succeed him in the world. He also directly imitates his own father, with similar consequences. However, this iteration of the succession is significant because Zeus does not declare war on his father by himself—instead, he tricks Kronos into spewing back up all of Zeus’ siblings, and also enlists the help of the specific Titans that Kronos had treated poorly. This coalition of gods, with Zeus at its head, is much more powerful than a single god acting alone. Zeus and his allies war against the Titans, eventually overthrowing them and banishing the offending gods to “a place of decay, at the end of the vast earth” where there is “no way out.” In this way, Zeus fulfills the cycle of succession and takes his father’s place as the ruler of the gods, and fathers a new generation of immortals. Zeus repeats the cycle that his father carried out before him, illustrating the cyclical nature of the succession myth. However, this new iteration of the cycle marks a significant departure, as this time an entire generation of gods have risen up against their forebears, and named Zeus their leader, cementing his power.
Unlike his father and grandfather, however, Zeus represents the pinnacle of divine power. He succeeds in holding onto his power and preventing another succession not only through brute force, but also through cooperation and compromise that ensures continued change and growth in the divine realm, albeit with Zeus still at its head. Zeus is careful to destroy any potential threats to his power quickly, as when he destroys Typhoeus, an exceedingly strong Olympian god, who “would have become king of mortals and immortals, had the father of gods and men not taken sharp notice.” He also swallows Metis, the mother of Athena, before she gives birth to the goddess, “so that no other of the gods, the eternal fathers, should have the royal station instead of Zeus.” Here Zeus breaks the cycle of succession, and comes to represent divine permanence, immortality, and authority rather than cyclical change. However, this doesn’t mean stagnation, as it did with previous generations—instead, Zeus allows for birth and change on his own terms, and only uses force against those who pose a true threat to his authority. Unlike his father and grandfather, Zeus does not try to halt the generative cycle completely. Instead, he fathers many children, impressive gods and goddesses in their own right, as well as many half-divine heroes and heroines. In this way he innovates upon the cycle, allowing change and growth to take place while still maintaining his position of power. Zeus has literally defeated Kronos—who, fittingly, is the god of time—in order to remain the king of heaven perpetually.
In the successions of power among the gods, the poem illustrates the cyclical succession that takes place between parent and child, one generation to the next. Zeus is unique in that he is the ultimate god, and new generations are unable to surpass him. Zeus maintains his power not only through the exercise of force, but also through an alliance with other gods and goddesses, transforming the cycle of succession from one of individual fathers and sons to one that incorporates the entire divine realm.
Cycles of Succession ThemeTracker
Cycles of Succession Quotes in Theogony
For all those that were born of Earth and Heaven were the most fearsome of children, and their own father loathed them from the beginning. As soon as each of them was born, he hid them all away in a cavern of Earth, and would not let them into the light; and he took pleasure in the wicked work, did Heaven, while the huge Earth was tight-pressed inside, and groaned.
Great Heaven came, bringing on the night, and, desirous of love, he spread himself over Earth, stretched out in every direction. His son reached out from the ambush with his left hand; with his right he took the huge sickle with its long row of sharp teeth and quickly cut off his father's genitals, and flung them behind him to fly where they might.
For he learned from Earth and starry Heaven that it was fated for him to be defeated by his own child, powerful though he was, through the designs of great Zeus. So he kept no blind man's watch, but observed and swallowed his children.
Then she wrapped a large stone in babycloth and delivered it to the son of Heaven, the great lord, king of the Former Gods. Seizing it in his hands, he put it away in his belly, the brute, not realizing that thereafter not a stone but his son remained, secure and invincible, who before long was to defeat him by physical strength and drive him from his high station, himself to be king among the immortals.
The Olympian Lightner called all the immortal gods to long Olympus, and said that whoever of the gods would fight the Titans with him, he would not smite any of them down from his privileges, but each one would keep the honour he had had before among the immortal gods. And he said that whoever was unhonoured by Kronos and unprivileged, he would set him in the path of honour and privileges, as is right and proper.
Great Olympus quaked under the immortal feet of the lord as he went forth, and the earth groaned beneath him. A conflagration held the violet-dark sea in its grip, both from the thunder and lightning and from the fire of the monster, from the tornado winds and the flaming bolt. All the land was seething, and sky, and sea; long waves raged to and fro about the headlands from the onrush of the immortals, and an uncontrollable quaking arose. Hades was trembling, lord of the dead below, and so were the Titans down in Tartarus with Kronos in their midst, at the incessant clamour and the fearful fighting.