5001 Zeus' eagle (detail). Ceiling at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.
"For there are new rulers
in heaven, and Zeus governs with lawless customs; that
which was mighty before he now brings to nothing."
(Chorus of Oceanids. Aeschylus,
Having examined the myth of
The Ages of the World, we may now turn to some basic features of "the Era of Zeus". As we learn, first from
Hesiod, and then from Apollodorus:
"Uranus was the first who ruled over the whole
Uranus (Sky) is both the son
and husband of Gaia (Earth). She is
"… the ever-sure foundation of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus …" (Hesiod, Theogony 117).
" … an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods." (Hesiod, Theogony 126).
Among the children of Uranus
and Gaia were the
Titans, who revolted against their
father, ending his rule. Then the rule of
Cronos began, but also he was overthrown by his sonZeuswho inaugurated a third reign (1). In the Theogony then, Hesiod counts three rulers of the
When in Works and Days the same author narrates
the myth of the races, he counts five races of mortal men.
Among these one was ruled by
Cronos, and four by
Zeus (there was no race of mortal
men when Uranus ruled the world).
These races he named using the metaphor of the metals (they
are the Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron races), except for
onethe Heroic racewhich comes between the Bronze
and Iron races.
Although Hesiod spoke of "races", posterity introduced
the notion of "ages" and reduced their number to four,
excluding the Heroic age (2). If we except the Orphic doctrines, there are only two complete versions of the myth of the races or agesthat of Hesiod (ca. 750 BC) and that of Ovid (43 BC - AD 17)although a number of important details have been provided by other authors throughout antiquity.
What is "an age"? A period of time with certain
characteristics. What is "a race"? A breed of mortal men
with certain characteristics. If a certain race coincides
with a certain age, both arising and ending simultaneously,
then it could be indifferent whether we talk of "race" or
"age". We may say that the age was called after the
characteristics of the race or that the race was called
after the age (if we gave pre-eminence to a Zeitgeist
or "spirit of an age"). An "age" could also be defined
after its ruler, and in that sense, we could even
distinguish "an age of Uranus". But since there were no mortal men at that time, we leave it aside …
The Hesiodic account shows that every race has a ruler,
but also that one ruler may govern several races:
Zeus created three races of mortal men, of which he destroyed one and will destroy another; he also ruled over yet a fourth which destroyed itself. The Hesiodic myth of the races may be summarized as follows:
When comparing Hesiod's account in Theogony 453ff.
with his references to the Golden race in Works and
Days 110, this question arises: How could the Olympians"the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus"have made a Golden Race flourishing under the reign of Cronos if they had been devoured
by him (except Zeus, who was in hiding)? We may surmount this difficulty by regarding "Olympus" as the ruler's seat in Heaven (whether the ruler is "a Titan god" or "a god") as Virgil seems to do when he says (in Aen.8.313): "First from heavenly Olympus came Saturn …" For we cannot
assume that the Golden Race was created after
Zeus released the
Titans; that would rather be the
rule of Cronos over the
Islands of the Blest. Plato
(523a) "Now in the time of Cronos there was a law concerning mankind, and it holds to this very day amongst the gods, that every man who has passed a just and holy life departs after his decease (523b) to the Isles of the
Blest, and dwells in all
happiness apart from ill; but whoever has lived unjustly and
impiously goes to the dungeon of requital and penance which,
you know, they call Tartarus." (Plato, Gorgias).
But such a "law concerning mankind" during "the time of Cronos" could not apply to the
Hesiodic golden race, who were incapable of evil. There were
no laws and no judges in the age of Cronos, as also Ovid informs us:
"Golden was that first
age, which, with no one to compel, without a law, of its own
will, kept faith and did the right." (Metamorphoses 1.89).
The Silver race was also created by "the Olympians", but
was destroyed by Zeus. The Brazen,
Heroic and Iron ages were made by
Zeus and ruled by him. On the wars
that destroyed the Brazen race Hesiod gives no details, but
we learn that the wars which destroyed most of the Heroic
race were those of Thebes and
Troy. The Iron race is Hesiod's own,
and should also be our own. For we have not yet witnessed
the destruction of the race he announced, and also Roman
authors from seven or eight centuries after Hesiod believed
they lived in the Iron Age. There is no disagreement on this
issue: for one reason or another no one thinks he lives in
the Brazen Ageeven less in the Silver or Golden. It is
true that our age may be given other names such as "Atomic
Age" or "Space Age". However, the myth of the ages is not
based on technological milestones, being rather a
description of the decay of man's spiritual qualities.
Accordingly, the "Iron Age" of myth should not be confused
with that age of iron which History affirms dawned about
1000 BC. (3)
Even a superficial look at the myths "proper" (i.e. the
divine myths or tales concerning, not heroes but gods) will
show CronosZeus' father and predecessorunder two contradictory lights.
On one hand, Cronos is "wily" and "most terrible" (Hes.The.137). We also learn (175ff.) how he, having received a jagged sickle from his mother, ambushed his father and castrated him. (4) Later, as both Hesiod (The. 453-467ff.) and Apollodorus (1.1.5) narrate, Cronos devoured his offspring
(except Zeus, who dethroned him).
Because of these and other events, Titanic brutality became
For obvious reasons, also
Cronos and the
Titans, denouncing their insolence and violence (Hes.The.209). And in general we notice that the Titans can be "outrageous" or indulge in "mad presumption and exceeding pride" like Menoetius (514), or be "full of
wiles" like Prometheus (510), or easy to deceive like Epimetheus whose scattered brain made of him from the first "a
mischief to men who eat bread" (512).
We may add that as
Cronos/Saturn was later identified
with Chronos (Time), he also
became the underlying cause of decay and the bringer of old
age. But there is probably no original mythological ground
for this identification which nevertheless reaches us from
On the other hand, Hesiod calls them "the former Titan gods"
(próteroi theoí), which means
they were no daemons or evil spirits. Also Pausanias
characterizes them as gods:
"The first to introduce Titans into poetry was Homer, representing them as
gods down in what is called Tartarus; the lines are in the
passage about Hera's oath. From Homer the name of the
Titans was taken by Onomacritus, who in the orgies
he composed for
Dionysus made the
Titans the authors of the god's
of Greece 8.37.5). (6)
Vision of the Golden Age.
9224: Franz Catel (Berlin 1778- Rom 1856) og J. J. Rubby (Plymouth 1750-Rom 1812). Guldalderen. Kopi efter A. J. Carstens. The Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen.
And if the Titans were gods,
then we may ask: Can a god ever be evil? Euripides makes
Iphigenia say: "That any god is evil I do not
believe," (Iphigenia in Tauris 390), but we cannot know for certain (unless we resolved that any divine being who is not good cannot be called "a god"if that helps). More important, however, is that we learn through the same Hesiod that a golden race of mortal men lived when Cronos reigned in heaven:
"And they lived like gods (115) without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, (120) rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods."
Reading this passage, it is easy to forgive
Cronos' "crimes" against other
deities, and conclude that, after all, such deeds do not
concern uswretched mortals as we are:
"… with the gods may
No mortal himself
At any time measure." (Goethe, Limits of Humanity).
In Works and Days, the poet invites us to admit
that Cronos was a gentle ruler towards mankindthe gentlesta ruler of immense kindness and generosity. His times "beyond the reach of all evils"when mankind lived in happiness, peace and abundancewere called in Hellas o epí
Krónou Bíos, and in Rome Saturnia
regna, and were known by posterity as "The Golden Age"
(8), remaining in the collective memory of mankind as a paradigm of paradisiac happiness (two para in a row should make the point).
As we learn through Hesiod, two violent revolutions
achieved the changes of rule in heaven. In both
Gaia (Earth) favors rebellion and
opposes the ruler of the day. First she incites the
"My children, gotten of a sinful father, if you will obey me, we should punish the vile outrage of your father …" (Hes.The.165).
And when Cronos agrees, she
"… rejoiced greatly in spirit, and set and hid him in an ambush, and put in his hands (175) a jagged sickle …"
Later (464), we learn that Gaia
and Uranus prophesied to
Cronos that he was destined to be
overcome by his own son. It was then that
Cronos started to swallow his
offspring. But when Rhea wished to
save her son (Zeus) from being
swallowed, Gaia and
Uranus devised a plan to rescue
the child, and Gaia helped her
daughter in several ways
(9) for the benefit of Zeus and the ruin of
Cronos, whom she before had helped
to seize power.
At first glance Earth's behavior could look erratic, but
we are told more than once that all this was unconditionally
(10) bound to happen.
Retribution overtook Cronos for two crimes: the castration and dethroning of his father, and the swallowing down of his own offspring (472). Cronos was defeated after a ten
years long heavenly war, largely by the new weapons of
"From Heaven and from Olympus (690) he came immediately, hurling his lightning: the bolts flew thick and fast from his strong hand together with thunder and lightning, whirling an awesome flame."
Hesiod describes the destructive power of
Zeus' weapons thus:
Men and gods lived side by side.
The gods shun man, and leave the earth.
There was everlasting Spring.
The Seasons appear.
There was no bloodshed, not even among animals.
Animals are slaughtered and sacrificed (Prometheus).
There was no womankind, only mankind, and men were born from the earth like a plant (they were autochthonous).
Womankind appears (Pandora), and humans are born from sexual intercourse.
The earth gave all things without being forced.
The earth must be tilled; sustenance depends on toil.
There were no technologies.
Man acquires fire and develops technologies (Prometheus).
Life was peaceful.
Violence and war prevail.
"The life-giving earth crashed around in burning, and the vast wood crackled loud with fire all about. (695) All the land seethed, and Ocean's streams and the unfruitful sea. The hot vapor lapped round the earthborn Titans: flame unspeakable rose to the bright upper air: the flashing glare of the thunderstone and lightning blinded their eyes for all that they were strong. (700) Astounding heat seized Chaos: and to see with eyes and to hear the sound with ears it seemed even as if Earth and wide Heaven above came together; for such a mighty crash would have arisen if Earth were being hurled to ruin, and Heaven from on high were hurling her down; (705) so great a crash was there while the gods were meeting together in strife. Also the winds brought rumbling earthquake and duststorm, thunder and lightning and the lurid thunderbolt, which are the shafts of great Zeus …"
Although the battle is finally won by the stones of the
Hecatoncheires (714ff.), we learn that the new ruler "thunders on high" and governs by the same weapons that gave him victory: thunderbolt, thunder, and lightning:
"In them he trusts and
rules over mortals and immortals."
Until then, Earth had hidden them (505), but the Cyclopes gave them to him (140, 504), and Pegasus fetches them for him (285), and now the wide earth is shaken by the thunder of Zeus (459).
Age of Division
Combining several sources, we may list some features of
the reign of Cronos and watch how
they were reversed under the rule of Zeus:
Some point out that Cronos, by
castrating his lustful father, separated Sky and Earth (11). But the division of the world becomes even more apparent when the era of Zeus begins:
"And in three-fold wise
are all things divided, and unto each hath been apportioned
his own domain. I verily, when the lots were shaken, won for
my portion the grey sea to be my habitation for ever, and Hades won the murky darkness, while
Zeus won the broad heaven amid the air and the clouds; but the
earth and high Olympus remain yet common to us all." (Poseidon to Iris. Hom.Il.15.187).
Division also prevails between men and gods, and among
men. Follow comments on the points above (3 to 7):
||The Covenant of Mecone
"It was he (Zeus) that in black serpents put their deadly venom, bade the wolves plunder and the ocean swell; shook honey from the leaves, hid fire from view, and stopped the wine that ran everywhere in streams …" (Virgil, Georgics 1.125).
"… before the Cretan king (Zeus) held sceptre, and before a godless race banqueted on slaughtered bullocks, such was the life golden Saturn lived on earth, while yet none had heard the clarion blare, none the sword-blades ring, as they were laid on the stubborn anvil." (Virgil, Georgics 2.532).
A new covenant is arrived at during the banquet of Mecone (Hes.The.535ff.) when Prometheus instituted the
first blood sacrifice, apportioning what belonged to the
gods and what belonged to mortal men. Also the division of
humans into men and women must be traced to that first
sacrifice. For Prometheus attempted to deceive Zeus with the
portions, and as a consequence Zeus hid fire from men. Then Prometheus stole fire from
heaven, but as a price for it Zeus sent Pandora, from whom
womankind descends. Humans were thus divided into two kinds
(men and women), being separated from the gods except for
one last tenuous link: the blood sacrifice.
The ox slaughtered by Prometheus at Mecone has been
remembered at least in two ways. On one hand it was the
first of a long chain of blood sacrifices which at any time
could reestablish or reinforce the covenant between the new
ruler of heaven and the race of mortal men and women
inhabiting earth. On the other hand, the generic ox was also
remembered by a series of authors (among which Aratus,
Virgil, Ovid, Seneca, Aelian, etc.) as an eloquent milestone
in the history of human "evolution" which for these authors
rather means "decay" (since they generally believe that
mortal men go from bad to worse and from worse to worst).
The sacrificed ox then allowed man to preserve his weakened
relation with the gods, but it also came to represent his
cruelty and ingratitude. For, as the story goes, man first
yoked the ox and forced it to work for him, and at a later
age he devoured the same animal that had helped him.
The sacrifice at Mecone, although performed by Prometheus, was approved by Zeus, who accepted one of the
portions as his own. Prometheus disguised the
portions so that Zeus would choose
the inferior one, but from the Hesiodic account we learn
that Prometheus could not
deceive the god:
Prometheus paid for his tricks. 3732: Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1751-1829: Die Qualen des Prometheus. Landesmuseum Oldenburg, Das Schloß.
"Zeus whose wisdom is everlasting, saw and failed not to perceive the trick …" (Hes.The.550).
Zeus accepts the inferior (12) portion knowingly, and thereby obtains a reason for hiding fire and the fruits of the earth which men must now seek through hard work. But if Zeus allowed the first Promethean
trick, could he not have allowed the second one: the theft
of fire? In any case, as a result of this second trick Pandora was sent down to earth.
Thus the Age of Cronos is
reversed. From now on humans will be born from sexual
intercourse, they will shed the blood of animals and suck
their juices, and they will earn their sustenance by forcing
the earth through hard toil. They may use fire as a tool for
survival, but they will also burn and cook each other with
it. So besides the benefits derived from fire and crafts,
also division, bloodshed, toil, theft, punishment, and
retaliations are what Prometheus and his beloved
race of mortal men obtained at the Covenant of Mecone, when
"The Era of Zeus" dawned.
These events leave us with at least one inscrutable
issue: Why should Zeus seek reasons
to put a heavier burden upon mankind?
Because of these accounts (the Covenant of Mecone, and the myth of the Five Races), some scholars and writers have called Hesiod "morose" and "pessimistic", and his terms "simplistic" and "idiosyncratically negative". Also we are often reminded that Hesiod was "a small farmer", a circumstance apparently limiting his good judgement. But if his profession, besides being a poet, were that relevant, then we would have to consider that Homer, besides being a poet, was perhaps just "a vagabond".
Apparently Hesiod has deserved this criticism for
exposing the hostility of Zeus towards mankind, and the decadence of man. He identified his
own race as "the iron race" and wished to have been born
either before or afterwards his time. That could be
pessimistic enough, but that "afterwards" shows that Hesiod
envisaged a new, better race, succeeding the iron race,
which could be taken as an "optimistic" trait. The idea of
palingenesis or recurrence (contemplated by Hesiod as well
as by Plato and Virgil) may be regarded as an attempt to
solve the difficulty posed by the dark sides of the era of Zeus (see also Recurrence).
Lund, Winter 2005