Creation Myths

Demodocus sang, too, of the gods, and an important body of Greek mythology takes place in a wider cosmic setting. Some myths describe the creation of the universe. Hesiod summarizes them in his short epic poem, Theogony (‘Birth of the Gods’) – a fusion of Greek and Near Eastern traditions. Here the world is born from the void of Chaos, generations of gods vie for supremacy, and sons castrate or otherwise weaken fathers to seize ultimate control. A bewildering array of gods and goddesses populates this early world, many the personifications of abstract concepts such as Vengeance, Lawlessness, Fate and Harmony.

Such creation myths have their roots many millennia before Hesiod in early man’s attempts to explain his environment and his place within it, and many of their themes are shared across different cultures. For example, the story of a great flood sent to punish (or annihilate) mankind, whose only survivors, a pious couple, subsequently repopulate the world, appears throughout the Near East, while common to many of the world’s great religions is the patriarchal explanation that a woman (be she Eve or Pandora) caused all human misery.

Creation Myths Photo Gallery

Universal Myths

Even myths that at first seem quintessentially Greek contain universal folk-tale motifs as three examples show. The first involves a baby abandoned to die, who returns to claim a throne. Central to the myth of Oedipus, this theme plays an important role too in the tale of the Trojan Paris, as well as of Pelias and Neleus, respectively king of Iolcus and founder of Pylos. A variation is the story of Perseus, set adrift in a casket with his mother Danae. In certain circumstances throughout antiquity babies were exposed to die, and the motif of a child surviving to grow up and wreak deliberate or accidental vengeance no doubt reflects real fears.

A second example betrays another anxiety, this time about the written word, which for early Greeks must have seemed both magical and sinister. Letters written by rejected women wrongly accuse two mythological characters of rape: Hippolytus, who is killed as a result, and Bellerophon, who lives to be exonerated.

In a third motif an adventurer overcomes adversities and wins the love of a foreign princess. Sometimes (Perseus and Andromeda) the outcome is benign; sometimes (Jason and Medea; Theseus and Ariadne) it is disastrous. Occasionally it turns expectations on their head. Rather than journeying to an unknown land, Oedipus unwittingly returns home to defeat the monstrous Sphinx and claim the hand not of an exotic princess but of his own mother.

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