Throughout the Theogony, violence is used as a necessary tool in order to obtain and preserve power by gods and humans alike. From the initial conflicts between successive generations of gods and goddesses, to the violent exploits of the Heroic Age, bloodshed and brutality are essential components of the poem. However, in the Theogony these acts of violence are not always entirely negative, but rather part and parcel with power, change, and generation—a necessary part of life.
Violence isn’t necessarily gratuitous in the poem, as it can sometimes serve a greater purpose. For instance, seemingly extreme violence is used as a means of obtaining and securing power by the gods, from Kronos’ clash with his father, Heaven, to the Olympian’s war against the Titans. Kronos’ castration of Heaven, and Zeus’ subsequent triumph over Kronos, both primarily rely upon violence in order to succeed. Indeed, the violence is so powerful that it affects the very foundation of the universe, as in the Olympians’ battle against the Titans: “Both sides displayed a feat of main force; and the boundless sea roared terribly round about, the earth crashed loudly, and the broad sky quaked and groaned.” While violence is in this case partially destructive, it is necessary in order for the Olympians to obtain power, meaning that violence can also be productive. Zeus’ strength and use of violence is depicted as unambiguously good, with Zeus, the most powerful god, representing the pinnacle of divinity. When Zeus punishes Prometheus for tricking him and stealing fire for humans, for instance, Zeus is characterized as “mighty,” “high-thundering,” and one “whose designs do not fail,” even as he enacts horrible punishments against Prometheus and mankind. Zeus’ use of violence not only maintains his supremacy over both the divine and mortal realms, but also highlights the way in which the power of the gods can have a profound effect on human life, for both good and ill.
Though often problematic and unsettling for modern readers, violence in the form of rape and coercion is used against women throughout the poem both to both perpetuate oneself and to control one’s descendants. However unsavory, this form of violence is used as a means to ensure the legacy and continued dominance of powerful gods and men. For instance, Heaven traps Earth along with her children in a prison, and she is described as “tight-pressed inside.” When Heaven visited Earth before the ambush, he was “desirous of love” and “spread himself over Earth, stretched out in every direction.” Heaven uses violence both in terms of fathering children onto Earth, and in keeping them trapped against their will, all in order to ensure his continued dominance in the realm of the gods. Similarly, and perhaps more disturbingly, Kronos fathers many children from Rhea but insists on swallowing them back into himself, until his scheme is disrupted by Rhea and Zeus. Zeus himself swallows his first wife Metis before she can bear him a son who might challenge his rule. Throughout the Theogony, the threat that women and children pose to the established order must be met with violence in order to maintain the status quo. Male characters in the poem utilize violence against women and children in order to control their lineages and to ensure their continued power.
Even in the human realm, heroes and heroines must make use of violence as a matter of course in their interactions with the world. In the world of the Theogony, violence, while sometimes gruesome, is an accepted and even celebrated means of obtaining power and propelling humans toward their goals. From Achilles “lionheart, breaker of men,” to heroes like Jason and Heracles, violence is a necessary part of success and a path towards immortality, in song if not in fact. These “children resembling the gods” must use god-like violence in order to achieve their aims. The other god-sprung creatures are all ferocious monsters, who use violence to stake their claim in the world of men. Creatures like the Chimera, the Sphinx, and the Nemean Lion are all described as terrible and physically threatening, “an affliction for men.” Although they are not themselves gods, their godlike characteristics are expressed in the form of their violent and chaotic natures.
Throughout the poem, violence is characterized as a tool used to achieve and maintain power, catalyze change, and guarantee a lineage, regardless of the consequences. While in some instances this violence is criticized—such as the actions of Heaven and Kronos—for the most part violence takes on a neutral significance, and in many instances is viewed as a necessary and even beneficial force in the world. While for modern readers these appeals to violence can be surprising and upsetting, the poem taps into visceral and often disturbing mythology in order to describe and contextualize some of humanity’s darkest impulses.
Violence and Power ThemeTracker
Violence and Power 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.
For from her is descended the female sex, a great affliction to mortals as they dwell with their husbands—no fit partners for accursed Poverty, but only for Plenty. As the bees in their sheltered nests feed the drones, those conspirators in badness, and while they busy themselves all day and every day till sundown making the white honeycomb, the drones stay inside in the sheltered cells and pile the toil of others into their own bellies, even so as a bane for mortal men has high-thundering Zeus created women, conspirators in causing difficulty.
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.