Age of Gods

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Age of Gods - Greeks

Enlightenment Essays 1

The First Gods
One type of narrative about the age of gods tells the story of the birth and conflicts of the first divinities: Chaos, Nyx (Night), Eros (Love), Uranus (the Sky), Gaia (the Earth), the Titans and the triumph of Zeus and the Olympians. Hesiod's Theogony is an example of this type. It was also the subject of many lost poems, including ones attributed to Orpheus, Musaeus, Epimenides, Abaris and other legendary seers, which were used in private ritual purifications and mystery-rites. A few fragments of these works survive in quotations by Neoplatonist philosophers and recently unearthed papyrus scraps.

The earliest Greek thought about poetry considered the theogony, or song about the birth of the gods, to be the prototypical poetic genre—the prototypical muthos—and imputed almost magical powers to it. Orpheus, the archetypal poet, was also the archetypal singer of theogonies, which he uses to calm seas and storms in the Argonautica, and to move the stony hearts of the underworld gods in his descent to Hades. When Hermes invents the lyre in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, the first thing he does is sing the birth of the gods. Hesiod's Theogony is not only the fullest surviving account of the gods, but also the fullest surviving account of the archaic poet's function, with its long preliminary invocation to the Muses.

The Olympian gods
Another type tells the story of the birth, struggles and exploits, and eventual ascent into Olympus of one of the younger generation of gods: Apollo, Hermes, Athena, etc. The Homeric Hymns are the oldest source of this kind of story. They are often closely associated with cult-centers of the god in question: the Homeric Hymn to Apollo is a compound of two earlier narratives: one telling of his birth at Delos, the other of his establishment of the oracle at Delphi. Similarly, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, with its tale of the abduction of Persephone by Hades, narrates the back-story of the Eleusinian Mysteries.

The Age of Gods and Men
Bridging the age when gods lived alone and the age when divine interference in human affairs was limited was a transitional age in which gods and men moved freely together.

The most popular type of narrative that confronts gods with early men involves the seduction or rape of a mortal woman by a male god (most often Zeus), resulting in heroic offspring. In a few cases, a female divinity mates with a mortal man, as in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, where the goddess lies with Anchises to produce Aeneas. The marriage of Peleus and Thetis, which yielded Achilles, is another such myth.

Another type involves the appropriation or invention of some important cultural artifact, as when Prometheus steals fire from the gods, when Tantalus steals nectar and ambrosia from Zeus' table and gives it to his own subjects - revealing to them the secrets of the gods, when Prometheus or Lycaon invents sacrifice, when Demeter teaches agriculture and the Mysteries to Triptolemus, or when Marsyas invents the aulos and enters into a musical contest with Apollo.

Yet another type belongs to Dionysus alone: the god wanders through Greece from foreign lands to spread his cult. He is confronted by a king, Lycurgus or Pentheus, who opposes him, and whom he punishes terribly in return.

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