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Creation of the World for Ancient Greeks

The following are excerpts from Hesiod’s Theogony:

“In truth at first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundation of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros (Love), fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them. From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born Aether and Day, whom
she conceived and bore from union in love with Erebus. And Earth first bore starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. And she brought forth long hills, graceful haunts of the goddess Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of the hills. She bore also the fruitless deep with his raging swell, Pontus, without sweet union of love. But afterwards she lay with Heaven and bore deep-swirling
Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne and gold-crowned Phoebe and lovely Tethys. After them was born Cronos the wily, youngest and most terrible of her children, and he hated his lusty sire.

And again, she bore the Cyclopes, overbearing in spirit, Brontes, and
Steropes and stubborn-hearted Arges, who gave Zeus the thunder and made the thunderbolt: in all else they were like the gods, [145] but one eye only was set in the midst of their foreheads. And they were surnamed Cyclopes (Orb-eyed) because one orbed eye was set in their foreheads. Strength and might and craft were in their works.

And again, three other sons were born of Earth and Heaven, great and doughty beyond telling, Cottus and Briareos and Gyes, presumptuous children. From their shoulders sprang a hundred arms, not to be approached, and fifty heads grew from the shoulders upon the strong limbs of each, and irresistible was the stubborn strength that was in their great forms. For of all the children that were born of Earth and Heaven, these were the most terrible,
and they were hated by their own father from the first. And he used to hide them all away in a secret place of Earth so soon as each was born, and would not suffer them to come up into the light: and Heaven rejoiced in his evil doing. But vast Earth groaned within, being straitened, and she thought a crafty and an evil wile. Forthwith she made the element of grey flint and shaped a great sickle, and told her plan to her dear sons. And she spoke, cheering them, while she was vexed in her dear heart:

My children, gotten of a sinful father, if you will obey me, we should
punish the vile outrage of your father; for he first thought of doing shameful things.

So she said; but fear seized them all, and none of them uttered a word. But great Cronos the wily took courage and answered his dear mother:

Mother, I will undertake to do this deed, for I reverence not our father of evil name, for he first thought of doing shameful things.

So he said: and vast Earth rejoiced greatly in spirit, and set and hid him in an ambush, and put in his hands a jagged sickle, and revealed to him the plot.

And Heaven came, bringing on night and longing for love, and he lay about Earth spreading himself full upon her. Then the son from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him. And not vainly did they fall from his hand; for all the bloody drops that gushed forth Earth received, and as the seasons moved round she bore the strong Erinyes and the great Giants with gleaming armour, holding
long spears in their hands and the Nymphs whom they call Meliae all over the boundless earth. And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden. First she drew near holy Cythera, and from there,
afterwards, she came to sea-girt Cyprus, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass grew up about her beneath her shapely feet. Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and the foam-born goddess and rich-crowned Cytherea, because she grew amid the foam, and Cytherea because she reached Cythera, and
Cyprogenes because she was born in billowy Cyprus, [200] and Philommedes3 because she sprang from the members. And with her went Eros, and comely Desire followed her at her birth at the first and as she went into the assembly of the gods. This honor she has from the beginning, and this is the portion allotted to her amongst men and undying gods, — [205] the whisperings of maidens and smiles and deceits with sweet delight and love and graciousness.

But these sons whom he begot himself great Heaven used to call Titans (Strainers) in reproach, for he said that they strained and did presumptuously a fearful deed, and that vengeance for it would come afterwards.

But Rhea was subject in love to Cronos and bore splendid children, Hestia, Demeter, and gold-shod Hera [455] and strong Hades, pitiless in heart, who dwells under the earth, and the loud-crashing Earth-Shaker, and wise Zeus, father of gods and men, by whose thunder the wide earth is shaken. These great Cronos swallowed as each came forth from the womb to his mother’s knees with this intent, that no other of the proud sons of Heaven should hold the
kingly office amongst the deathless gods. For he learned from Earth and starry Heaven that he was destined to be overcome by his own son, [465] strong though he was, through the contriving of great Zeus.2 Therefore he kept no blind outlook, but watched and swallowed down his children: and unceasing grief seized Rhea. But when she was about to bear Zeus, the father of gods and men, then she besought her own dear parents, Earth and starry Heaven, to
devise some plan with her that the birth of her dear child might be concealed, and that retribution might overtake great, crafty Cronos for his own father and also for the children whom he had swallowed down. And they readily heard and obeyed their dear daughter, [475] and told her all that was destined to happen touching Cronos the king and his stout-hearted son. So they sent her to Lyctus, to the rich land of Crete, when she was ready to bear great Zeus, the youngest of her children. Him did vast Earth receive from Rhea [480] in
wide Crete to nourish and to bring up. To that place came Earth carrying him swiftly through the black night to Lyctus first, and took him in her arms and hid him in a remote cave beneath the secret places of the holy earth on thick-wooded Mount Aegeum; but to the mightily ruling son of Heaven, the earlier king of the gods, [485] she gave a great stone wrapped in swaddling clothes. Then he took it in his hands and thrust it down into his belly: wretch! He knew not in his heart that in place of the stone his son was left behind, unconquered and untroubled, [490] and that he was soon to overcome him by force and might and drive him from his honors, himself to reign over the deathless gods.

After that, the strength and glorious limbs of the prince increased quickly, and as the years rolled on, great Cronos the wily was beguiled by the deep suggestions of Earth, [495] and brought up again his offspring, vanquished by the arts and might of his own son, …”

The ancient Greeks believed that the world was created in a manner much like the story of creation and Adam and Eve, in the Bible. But there are differences. In the Bible God creates the heaven and earth while in the Greek version heaven and earth get together to create the gods and goddesses. There is little mention of restrictions on the power of the Christian God. But not only are the Greek deities limited, but they are limiting. It is the concept of Law that does this. The Greeks were acutely aware that there were human laws and there were natural laws, and while you could break a human law,
most laws of nature could not be broken even by a deity. And though the heaven and earth created the deities, the deities, for the most part, created the laws. And though the suggestion is that man was created by the deities, Aristotle supported the idea of spontaneous generation. While Christians support the idea of intelligent design the Greeks are not unanimous. On the one hand they support the idea of a Universe ordered by laws but on the other they support the idea that such laws must be discovered because man is not a deity and must forever remain at a lower conceptual level.

Aristophanes, Birds line 693: “At the beginning there was only Chaos, Night, dark Erebus, and deep Tartarus. Earth, the air and heaven had no existence. Firstly, blackwinged Night laid a germless egg in the bosom of the infinite deeps of Erebus, and from this, after the revolution of long ages, sprang the graceful Eros with his glittering golden wings, swift as the whirlwinds of the tempest. He mated in deep Tartarus with dark Chaos, winged like himself, and thus hatched forth our race, which was the first to see the light.”

The quote from Aristophanes cannot be taken as an ancient Greek belief because of its presence in a comedy, but it does suggest that other, similar stories, may have represented such belief.

In the text The Greeks and Their Gods W.K.C. Guthrie presents what appears to be extremely relevant information on this topic. In reference to the Ionian and Pre-Socratic philosophers he points out that, “Speculation about the nature of reality had culminated in the opposite extremes of Eleaticism and atomism (Parmenides and Democritus), the one declaring that all motion was illusion and the real world was nothing but an immovable plenum, the other that the only realities were atoms and void and all perceptible qualities merely subjective. If either school were right, then the real nature of things was something utterly remote from the world in which, at it seems to common sense, we have to live our daily lives, and the ordinary m was quick to draw the conclusion that natural philosophy was of very little consequence to him.” (p.338) The Sophists built upon this separation a rejection of law in general, “There was no law in nature because cosmologies of the type of atomism left no room for any cosmic force save chance.” (p. 348). Plato’s analysis of the Sophist position was that, “They suppose the first cause to have been a random movement of matter without life, out of which life arose as a secondary manifestion.” (p. 348). Plato’s response was to assert that this was impossible. “Life must have been there first, and is the primary cause of the movements of matter.” (p. 348) The conclusion according to Plato is that “Soul therefore is the oldest of all things and the primary efficient cause of everything.” (p.349) Guthrie goes on to say that “The Ionians go round the problem of the origin of motion by the assumption that their primary world-stuff moved itself, that is, it was alive.” (p. 349) Guthrie also states that “…there is no doubt that Anaximander and Anaximenes thought it right to call the stuff of the world ‘God’.”. (p349) This analysis of creation concepts at the time of Plato seems to bring the notion of creation more in line with the later Christian view.

Aristotle Metaphysics 983Bline 17 states: In the same way nothing else is generated or destroyed; for there is some one entity (or more than one) which always persists and from which all other things are generated. All are not agreed, however, as to the number and character of these principles. Thales, the founder of this school of philosophy, says the permanent entity is water (which is why he also propounded that the earth floats on water). Presumably he derived this assumption from seeing that the nutriment of everything is moist, and that heat itself is generated from moisture and depends upon it for its existence (and that from which a thing is generated is always its first principle). He derived his assumption, then, from this; and also from the fact that the seeds of everything have a moist nature, whereas water is the first principle of the nature of moist things.

There are some who think that the men of very ancient times, long before the present era, who first speculated about the gods, also held this same opinion about the primary entity. For they represented Oceanus and Tethys to be the parents of creation, and the oath of the gods to be by water— Styx, as they call it. Now what is most ancient is most revered, and what is most revered is what we swear by.”