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date: 16 October 2019

cosmogonies and theogonies

Summary and Keywords

Early Greek cosmogonies and theogonies are mainly preserved in the form of hexametric poetry, rarely in systematic accounts, such as Hesiod’s, but more often within texts of broader mythical scope, as in Homer’s Iliad and the Homeric Hymns. The differing assumptions about the origins of and relations among the gods in these poems demonstrate the wide variety of cosmogonic traditions available in the Greek world and the poetic freedom to express or emphasize aspects of them. This is also evident in other sources for Greek theogony/cosmogony, such as the longer of the Homeric Hymns, which focus on specific gods, sometimes including their birth stories and framing their familial relations with other gods and with humans. The strand known as “Orphic” cosmogony or theogony runs parallel to the mainstream epic tradition (not without intersections), and underscores the connection between cosmogonic ideas and spiritual and philosophical movements. These alternative cosmogonies also served as a narrative and theological framework for mystery cults, which revolved around the figures of Demeter, Persephone, and Dionysus (e.g., Eleusinian and Bacchic groups). Other forms of expression of cosmogonies/theogonies (e.g., lyric poetry, tragedy, iconography) tend to follow the Homeric and Hesiodic traditions, which become a pan-Hellenic point of reference, but local and regional idiosyncrasies were always possible. A salient feature of Greek cosmogony/theogony is its intersection with the creation stories of the Near Eastern world, especially in the Mesopotamian, Anatolian, and North-West Semitic traditions. The study of Greek cosmogonies in recent decades has focussed heavily on disentangling and understanding the intimate relation between common motifs and the importance of adaptation and innovation. In turn, in the Roman world we see two main strands: the reception and creative adaptation of Greek cosmogonies (e.g., Ovid’s Metamorphoses), and the elaboration of different cosmogonic narratives driven by philosophical enquiry (e.g., Stoicism, Epicureanism), a movement that had in part already begun with the Presocratics and Plato.

Keywords: cosmogony, theogony, anthropogony, succession myth, Hesiod, Orphic texts, Plato, Ovid, Near Eastern cosmogonies, Neoplatonism


Cosmogonies narrate the origins of the universe (kosmos), and theogonies the origins of the gods (theoi). These two usually merge, as in the earliest attested exemplar of this genre in the classical world, Hesiod’s Theogony. These beginnings are often imagined as part of a creation process, hence taking the form of creation stories. Frequent themes include the appearance of natural elements abstracted as divinities and the birth and succession of gods. Stories about the creation of humankind, or anthropogonies, are rarely part of these cosmic-divine beginnings, as they are in other traditions (e.g., the Hebrew Bible), but are instead transmitted as separate tales within various types of works (e.g., the “Five Races” in Hesiod’s Works and Days). Sometimes these involve myths of autochthony (e.g., men and women emerging from the Earth after a great flood, or the Spartoi springing from the land in Thebes). The term “cosmogony” will be used here by default as the more inclusive category for all these “beginnings” stories. The birth of the gods or of other primordial beings can certainly be expressed through a variety of media, mainly iconography (e.g., representations of the births of Aphrodite, Athena, Pandora), as can, more broadly speaking, ideas about the order of the cosmos (e.g., the shield of Achilles, a meta-iconographic narrative). Since the most popular scenes usually conform to known traditions (and it is not easy to recognize independent cosmogonic ideas expressed iconographically), scholarship focusses on the available textual narratives. The exemplars are in fact not many: only one complete lengthy cosmogony (Hesiod’s Theogony) against a scattered array of fragmentary texts (mostly the Orphic cosmogonies) and brief or partial accounts inserted in longer non-cosmogonic narratives, as digressions or as passing allusions (e.g., in the Iliad, the Homeric Hymns, or Roman poetry). Yet the scattered testimonies represent a number of distinctive trends and a fascinating array of interconnections and variations. Greek cosmogonies stem from a genre that ultimately arose in Mesopotamia and was appropriated in Anatolia and the Levant (including in the Hebrew tradition). It is probably from those closer shores that it reached Greece sometime in the early Iron Age. In earlier Greek literature, the succession motif and Chaoskampf patterns of the Near Eastern type are the central point of organization and innovation, while religious and philosophical trends also have an impact in the genre of cosmogony, especially as expressed in Orphic literature and in Roman rehearsals of the genre (e.g., in Ovid’s Metamorphoses).

Hesiod’s Theogony

Hesiod’s Theogony is the earliest and only fully preserved and self-standing account of the origins of the universe and the gods in Greek literature. Traditionally Hesiod’s works are placed slightly after Homer’s (whose date is also debated but usually estimated to be between the mid- and late 8th century bce), but the two poetic corpora are completely independent of each other, and their relative placement is based on speculation (e.g., Martin West argued that Hesiod preceded Homer1). The poem consists of about 900 hexametric verses, although the point where it ends is debated, as in its transmitted version it flows into a series of accounts of women who bore children to Zeus and goddesses or semi-divine women who mated with men (and their respective offspring), leading into the separate poem known as the “Catalogue of Women.” In this way cosmogony and theogony turns into heroic, human genealogy. The cosmogonic narrative starts from the very beginning of the universe and leads from more abstract entities to more anthropomorphic ones, then to a succession of gods and their struggles for power. The Theogony culminates with Zeus’s victory over the older divine generations and his establishment of the “current” order of things. The cosmogonic section, therefore, is a prelude to the central story of Zeus’s birth and positioning among his ancestors and his peers, and his place as king over gods and men. In this sense, Hesiod’s Theogony runs parallel to the slightly later tradition of the longer Homeric Hymns, which are devoted to specific gods and in some cases mention or elaborate on the god’s birth (e.g., Aphrodite, Apollo, Hermes, but not in the case of Demeter). The Theogony, therefore, may have been conceived as a hymn to Zeus, framed by several invocations to the Muses, who are his daughters and the poet’s source of inspiration and wisdom. This “hymn” to the leading god would have uniquely taken the story to the very beginning of everything, as fitting to an exceptional god positioned in the middle of the world’s order.

Hesiod places at the beginning four self-generated elements, in this order: Chaos, Gaia/Gē (Earth), Tartarus (the Underworld realm), and Eros (Love). The idea of Chaos is as intriguing as it is long-lived. Presumably pointing to some sort of “opening,” “gaping void,” even “yawn” (cf. chasma), the word has no precedent or parallel in Homeric or Archaic literature; rather, its use after Hesiod seems to echo this initial cosmogonic formulation (even our “chaos” and “chasm” take us in a circle back to his chaos). We do not know where Hesiod’s semi-scientific speculation came from, but, in its effort to abstract the first natural elements (even if divinized), it anticipates the questions posed by natural philosophy, particularly as explored by the Presocratic thinkers in the 6th century bce. Within a few verses (Th. 115–123) the poem transitions between these primordial elements that mysteriously “came into being” and a theogony proper, that is, a chain of births of other divinized entities: after Chaos (by itself) generates Erebus (Darkness) and Nyx (Night), and after Gaia generates Uranus (Greek Ouranos, Sky), the entities start multiplying and sexual reproduction ensues. With few exceptions, this becomes the mode through which the world is populated by physical elements (e.g., Aither and Air, the Sea, the Sun, mountains), abstract notions (e.g., Memory, Natural Law/Custom [Themis]), and mythological characters with more or less clear correspondence to the natural or human world (the Titans, the Cyclopes, Gorgons, and other monsters). While Chaos and Gaia are productive entities, the role of Tartarus and Eros in this beginning is puzzling. Tartarus provides Gaia’s cosmic counterpoint as the underground realm and is “productive” only as Gaia’s mate (Th. 821–822), when they beget Zeus’s last opponent, Typhoeus. Eros, in turn, does not beget any particular gods, but rather is an essential force for the continuation of the universe’s reproduction, as he “dominates the mind and the thoughtful counsel” of both gods and men (Th. 120–121).

The plot leading to the ascension of Zeus to power is articulated as a succession of three generations of gods, led respectively by Uranus (Gaia’s son), Cronus (Greek Kronos, Uranus’s and Gaia’s son along with the other Titans), and finally Zeus (son of the Titans Rhea and Cronus, along with the other Olympians) (see Table 1).

Table 1. Schematic line of the succession of gods in the Greek and Near Eastern cosmogonies.


Philon of Byblos

Hebrew Bible

Ugaritic Deity lists



Chaos (plus Gaia, Tartarus, Eros)

Dark and windy air, chaos

Elioun (Hypsistos, “the highest”)

Tohu-wa-wohu (formlessness and void)



Apsu, Tiamat (sweat and salty waters)

Gē, Uranus (Earth and Heaven)

Gē, Uranus (Earth and Heaven)

Shamaim (wa) Arez (Heaven and Earth)

Arzu-wa-Shamuma (Earth and Heaven)

Anu (Sky)

Anu (Sky)

Cronus (astute god; grain god)

Castrates Uranus

Elos (=Cronus)

Castrates Uranus

Ilu (El, “God”)

Kumarbi (grain)

(blood of Alalu, not of Anu; fights Ullikummi, Castrates Anu

Ea (wise god, fights Apsu)


fights Typhōn

Demarous (= Zeus, Adodos)

fights Pontus

Zeus Belos

Baalu Halbi (storm god)

Baalu Zapuni (Baal Zaphon)

(son of Dagan, attested title Dimaranu)

fights Yam and Mot

Teshub (storm god)

Anu’s biological son but born from Kumarbi

fights Ullikummi

Marduk (storm god)

fights Tiamat

The first phase of this succession contains the motif of the castration of Uranus (Sky) by his youngest son, Cronus, with a sickle, at the instigation of Gaia (Earth). The separation of Earth and Sky follows, putting an end to the oppressive mating (Th. 154–182). The discarded blood and genitals of Uranus in turn become fertile ground for the emergence of a series of new elements: as his blood falls on the Earth, the Erinyes, Giants, and Nymphs appear, while the genitals are carried away on the sea. The love goddess Aphrodite is born from the foam (aphros) around them (Th. 183–205). The next ruler, Cronus, represents the Titans and is portrayed as a savage god whose only described action is to devour his own children as they are borne by his sister Rhea. This act is prompted by the fear of succession that will drive the rest of the narrative, since a prophecy by Gaia and Uranus had predicted Cronus’s usurpation by his own child (a motif repeated later for Zeus). Once again, the youngest child, Zeus, will turn things around, after he is saved by his mother’s trickery: she gives Cronus a stone to swallow, wrapped in swaddling clothes, instead of Zeus. The young Zeus is hidden and raised on Mount Ida in Crete, after which he returns to liberate his Olympian siblings, forcing Cronus to vomit the rock he had swallowed. Zeus then establishes his power through several wars, not before overpowering Cronus “by tricks and force” (Th. 596). The first war is waged against a coalition of Titans (the “Titanomachy,” Th. 617–720), resulting in the “incarceration” of the old gods in Tartarus (next to Cronus, cf. Th. 851). The second battle is waged against the fiery, multiple-headed, snake-like monster Typhoeus (or Typhōn), created by Gaia and Tartarus to challenge Zeus’s power (the “Typhonomachia,” Th. 820–880), and ends with the utter destruction of the hybrid creature. Both episodes represent the widespread and entrenched theme of Chaoskampf, which in many cultures involves the fight of a god or culture hero with a dragon-like monster. Through these wars Zeus establishes a new world order, and a new ruling mode, as he implements the art of political negotiation, drawing alliances and accruing support to be proclaimed as ruler. For instance, he first liberates from Cronus’s grip the Cyclopes, who give him the weapons of thunder and lightning (Th. 500–506), and later he brings the giants Cottus and Briareos/Obriareos back from Tartarus (Th. 645–663) to help him fight the Titans. The new leader also promises to reward his allies with a fair distribution of honors after his victory, a vow which he duly fulfills (Th. 881–885). The closing episode of the Theogony, however, shows that Zeus is still subject to the fear of succession, stirred by a prophecy like the one given to his father. Zeus solves this threat by gulping up his first wife, Metis (Wisdom), who is pregnant with the presumed next ruler of the gods. The child turns out to be Athena, who is later born from Zeus’s head. By this act the Olympian ruler is both engaging with the “old-school” strategy of interrupting the natural flow of father-son succession (cf. Uranus’s impeding the birth of Gaia’s children, Cronus “reversing” their birth by swallowing them), while he also establishes wisdom as an essential quality of his rule, whence it is expected for any worthy king. His child Athena also combines her mother’s wisdom (besides being born from Zeus’s head) and a masculine martial quality, while as a female she poses no threat to Zeus. The position of humankind in this cosmic story is not very clear, although men are assumed to exist at some point. This is made explicit in the Prometheus digression that occurs around the middle of the poem (Th. 535–612), repeated with some variation in the Works and Days (where the “Five Races” also provides a story of the evolution and corruption of the divinely created generations of men, W.D. 106–201). The son of the Titan Iapetus pays a heavy penalty for helping humanity to advance culturally and technologically, including the recovery of fire. The creation of woman (but not man) is described there as part of this retaliation process, as a punishment to men, both tempting and crippling. She is an obstacle for their advancement, and in the Works and Days, where she is called Pandora, she irresponsibly releases all the evils from the proverbial jar (W.D. 42–105). Hesiod’s Theogony is marked by deliberately broad coverage, as it conveys a great amount of genealogical information in the catalogue tradition and generally avoids geographical specification (situating the Muses in Mount Helicon in Boeotia, the mention of Pytho [i.e., Delphi], and of Zeus’s birth in Crete are some exceptions). Most see this as a deliberate effort to provide his audience with an encyclopedic and pan-Hellenic version of the cosmogonic traditions he has gathered. It is perhaps because of this that the creation of humankind as a whole is not narrated, since stories linked with multiple local myths and ideas of autochthony might have been difficult to synthesize to the satisfaction of a broad audience.

Hesiod’s Theogony and Near Eastern traditions

We have no precedent for the cosmogonic genre in Greek before Hesiod. We cannot, therefore, evaluate the extent of his innovation or the origin of the traditions he conveys. Euboea, Boeotia, and Kyme in Aeolia (Asia Minor) are all areas whose mythological traditions may have explained some of Hesiod’s choices, as they are associated with the poet’s self-reported biography (W.D. 635–640; 654–657). The closest cosmogonic traditions we do have are those stemming from Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and the Levant. The points in common with different patterns and motifs in those older traditions have indeed been long noticed and have occupied a great deal of modern scholarship (see Discussion of the Literature). To highlight the main and most striking parallels, both the Mesopotamian and the Hurro-Hittite literatures preserve epic narratives structured around the succession of generations of gods, moving from more abstract entities and tyrannical gods to a new order that culminates with the victory of the storm god or weather god over his enemies. The Hittite theogony known as “Kingship in Heaven,” but possibly originally entitled “Song of Birth” (part of the Kumarbi Cycle, adapted from Hurrian myths), provides the most striking parallel with Hesiod’s succession myth. In this epic, the Sky God (Anu) is castrated (this time by mouth, not with a sickle) by the leader of the next generation, Kumarbi, who is a sort of grain god like Cronus. Although the details are lost because the cuneiform tablet is broken, the result of this castration is that Kumarbi ingests the Sky’s genitals and the Hurrian weather god Teshub is born (called Tarhunt by the Hittites and Luwians). Other stories from the same epic narrate the fights of this weather god against Kumarbi and several enemies created or sent by him, such as Ullikummi (a giant rock) and the serpent Hedammu. The castration of the Sky is such an exact parallel to Hesiod’s episode of Cronus’s castration of Uranus that there is little doubt about the connection between the Anatolian and the Greek traditions, especially as they are inserted within a similar structure of violent succession of god-kings (Sky–Grain–Storm/Weather) (see Chart 1). In the myth of Ullikummi, moreover, there is an explicit mention of the “ancient copper saw with which they cut apart heaven and earth,”2 which reminds us of the adamantine sickle with which Cronus castrated Uranus and thus provides yet another instance of the shared motif. Similarities also highlight difference and innovation. The Hurro-Hittite succession is, for instance, not linear from father to son, like the Greek one, but rather seems to reflect the rivalry between two interlocked families. Likewise, in the Mesopotamian (specifically Babylonian) creation story of Enuma Elish, the storm god Marduk (Ashur in the Assyrian redaction) fights not against his father but against the primordial water goddess Tiamat, his distant ancestor and a representative of the older chaos. More political and symmetrical family dynamics drive the Canaanite Baal Cycle. In this Ugaritic epic poem, the storm god also rises to the throne of his father Ilu (El), after winning rather equally matched fights against the sea god Yam and against Death (Mot), while aided by the war goddess Anat (all of these characters are his siblings). These distant relatives of the Greek Theogony, in turn, help us appreciate Hesiod’s orderly and streamlined succession pattern from father to son, and his insistence on the legitimacy of Zeus’s rule as a mirror of his general praise of monarchy (clear also in the Works and Days).

The succession of kings in heaven, therefore, with the storm god’s victory, is a shared motif in the eastern Mediterranean, with testimonies in the Late Bronze Age and a clear impact on Iron Age cosmogonies, such as the one articulated in Hesiod, which attained broad acceptance in the Greek world. Other motifs also point to such an exchange of cosmogonic ideas; for instance, Hesiod’s chaos has been compared with the Hebrew Bible’s void at the beginning of creation (tohu-wa-bohu, Gen.1.2). On the other hand, the mention of Ocean and Tethys as the primordial couple in the Iliad (Il. 14.201, cf. 14.302) reflects a tradition in which two water deities marked the beginning (absolute or not; chaos is not mentioned). This idea brings Homeric cosmogony closer to the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish. In fact, from these passing allusions some scholars reconstruct the existence of an explicit cosmogonic narrative at the beginning of the Epic Cycle (Martin West’s “Cyclic cosmogony”3). The Homeric poems, however, are clearly not concerned with consistent cosmogonic accounts, and need not rely on one single tradition. In turn, the importance of water in Genesis also resonates with the Mesopotamian primordial waters Apsu and Tiamat. The figure of Yahweh as a storm god, victorious over the waters and the snaky monster Leviathan, is also an adaptation of these shared tropes, in this case through the adaptation of Canaanite myths to the Yahwistic repertoire.

Admittedly, we do not know how or where these similar mythologies met. The contact between the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean at all levels (artistic, economic, political) had been intense since the Late Bronze Age, and continued without a complete interruption during the Iron Age, intensifying in the 8th and 7th centuries, during the so-called orientalizing phase. The entanglements between these civilizations are, therefore, too multi-leveled and multi-directional to point to one specific channel of transmission. Mesopotamian, Anatolian, and Levantine (e.g., North-West Semitic) elements may have reached Greek circles directly or through mediated channels, and the eastern stories may have themselves been influenced by Greek epic at one point (Egyptian influence in cosmogony, on the other hand, is less evident, although not totally absent4). It is possible that the Greek settlements on the coasts of Anatolia (where Hesiod claims to have roots) and the intense dealings of Greeks with Phoenicians (whose writing system they adopted and adapted) were particularly key for these intersections. Because little of Phoenician cosmogony and literature in general has survived, it is difficult to assess their influence in the area of cosmogonies. Where we do have testimonies, these show signs of significant overlap with other Near Eastern and especially Anatolian and Canaanite mythologies (see Orphic cosmogonies). If we add the clear archaeological and written evidence of Phoenicians and Greeks living in close proximity throughout the Mediterranean during the key centuries, exchange with these North-West Semites is a likely explanation, if not necessarily the only one.5

Orphic Cosmogonies

The only other main body of cosmogonic ideas is the literature credited in antiquity to the figure of Orpheus, hence known as “Orphic” poetry. Most of these testimonies are transmitted by late authors (such as the 5th–6th century ce Neoplatonist philosopher Damaskios), whose philosophical or theological concerns led them to engage with the genre. There are exceptions, such as the perplexing mid-4th century bce Derveni Papyrus, which contains a philosophical commentary on an Orphic cosmogony, and passing allusions to Orphic ideas by authors such as Plato and Aristophanes. Another important source is the Rhapsodies (also known as Hieros Logos), a late Hellenistic mélange of previous Orphic cosmogonies, and a main source for ideas of this type during Roman times. Whatever we understand by Orphism,6 it is clear that cosmogonies were an important part of it, and Orphic cosmogonies were inseparable from a particular set of philosophical preoccupations and religious beliefs. These were especially associated with mystery cults and their afterlife expectations, particularly in Dionysiac and Eleusinian circles.7 Several reported Orphic cosmogonies explicitly added Dionysus to the more traditional succession of gods, resulting in the following succession: Heaven-Earth (Uranus-Gaia/Gē) > Cronus-Rhea > Zeus, and > Dionysus (these include Hieronymos’s cosmogony, the Rhapsodies, possibly Eudemos’s cosmogony, and the one quoted by the Derveni Papyrus). In terms of speculation about the first stages of creation, moreover, these cosmogonies present further innovations from the “standard” Hesiodic model (or else stem from originally different traditions, although they would have kept Hesiod’s verses in mind): Night is the first element in several of them (Derveni, Eudemos, Rhapsodies), while Water appears first in Hieronymos’s cosmogony. A new primordial entity, Time (Chronos), also appears prominently in Orphic tradition (after Water in some, and as a first element in Pherekydes’s cosmogony, along with Zas and Chthonia). In the Derveni Papyrus, in turn, Uranus is born from Night, not from the Earth, another difference from Hesiod. The elements of Aither, Chaos, and Night appear further down the chain in some Orphic cosmogonies (Hieronymos), as does a surprising feature, a Cosmic Egg, which is generated by Time and which produces a uniquely Orphic figure named Phanes (“one who shines forth”?), also called Protogonos (“First Born”) and Erikepaios. The “regular” generations of gods (Heaven-Earth, Cronus, etc.) then usually follow after these Orphic first elements.

While the figure of Dionysus was distinctly emphasized in Orphic cosmogonies, it is also clear that Zeus occupied a central position as a divinity who brought together ancient forces and provided the perfect balance. So much is clear in the “Hymn to Zeus,” reproduced in the Derveni Papyrus and in later sources: “Zeus was born first, Zeus last, he of the shining thunderbolt, Zeus is the head, Zeus the middle, from Zeus everything was created” (DP col. 17.2, 18.1, 19.8; OF 243). In the Orphic Rhapsodies, moreover, Zeus swallows Phanes/Protogonos (Erikepaios), much as he did with Metis in the Theogony, in order to acquire the power of the primordial creative elements (OF 241). At the same time, the “Hesiodic” mutilation act is also appropriated by Zeus, who castrates Cronus (instead of Cronus castrating Uranus) and thus acquires his father’s power as well (e.g., OF 225). Yet in a strange variant in the Derveni Papyrus, Zeus swallows the “phallus of the Sky” or else the “venerable” Sky (col. 13.3), depending on the interpretation of the term aidoion, becoming again the main regenerative power in the universe.

These variations are also not lacking in interesting points of contact with the Near Eastern cosmogonies. In fact, they present different parallels from the “mainstream” Hesiodic tradition, showing once more the complex entanglements of mythological creation across cultures in contact. For instance, the castration by swallowing that is apparently present in Orphic cosmogony mirrors the Hurro-Hittite motif more closely than Hesiod’s poem does. The emphasis on the regenerative capacity of the storm god in Orphism, where he literally regenerates the universe, also draws this Greek tradition closer to the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish, where Marduk does exactly that. The mysterious Cosmic Egg, in turn, is unique to Orphic and Phoenician cosmogonies, judging by the three exemplars we have, transmitted by Damaskios (who also transmits Orphic cosmogonies) and by Philon of Byblos in the fragmentary Phoenician History (respectively Damaskios, De principiis 125c; Eusebios of Caesarea, P.E. 1.10.1-318). Despite its late and fragmentary sources, the “egg” cosmogony is an older phenomenon, already satirized by Aristophanes in the 5th century bce (Birds 688–702), where the comedian garbles several Orphic elements, making Night the mother of an egg “full of air,” from which Eros is born. From Eros, mingling with Chaos in Tartarus, the race of birds is born, which naturally claims its divine rights (what else would emerge from a winged, egg-born creature?).9 Eros was in fact another important element in some of these fragmentary cosmogonies (e.g., in Pherekydes and the Phoenician cosmogonies), but also in Hesiod. As for the time deity, the Orphic figure and the Oulomos (“Eternal”) of the Phoenician cosmogonies (with a Semitic name) suggest the existence of a shared “Time-Egg” cosmogony, possibly transmitted to the Greeks through contact with Anatolian or Phoenician circles.10 The castration, in turn, does not seem to be a popular North-West Semitic motif, as it does not appear in Ugaritic or Phoenician fragments, although Philon of Byblos includes it in a rather forced way in his purported Phoenician narrative (P.E. 1.10.29). The motif is most likely Anatolian and probably made it into Philon’s account through Hesiod, a case that exemplifies how motifs can flow in several directions and even circularly, from the Levant to Greece and back.

Other Archaic and Classical cosmogonies

Outside the Hesiodic and Orphic traditions, there is little interest in cosmogony as a genre (the genre was more popular in the Near East). Instead, other poems rehearse theogonic ideas that meet with Hesiod’s account or diverge from it. In Homer’s Iliad, for instance, Aphrodite is the daughter of Zeus and Dione (Il. 4.370 ff.), not of Uranus as in the Theogony; likewise, Hephaestus is the son of Zeus and Hera (Il. 1.578, 14.338, Od. 8.312), while in the Theogony he is begotten by Hera alone, in “revenge” for Zeus’s begetting Athena (Th. 924–929); in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, the younger god imitates his father by fighting the monstrous serpent Python at Delphi, as Zeus had fought Typhōn. But Typhōn is said there to be the child of Hera (not of Gaia), who was, again, reacting to Zeus’s sole parenting of Athena (H.Ap. 305–352). These few examples show that there was room for variation and creativity within a broadly accepted but flexible and expandable pantheon and a mostly predictable picture of the politics of the divine family.11

In turn, the philosophical strand driven by natural and metaphysical enquiry runs parallel to the mythological one (with some influence upon it), but it departs from the literary narrative form or, in the case of Plato, simply produces different types of narratives. While Plato’s description of the afterlife cycle in the “Myth of Er” bears a clear imprint of Pythagorean and Orphic ideas (Rep. 614b–621d), in the Timaeus a philosophical speech attributes the creation of the cosmos to a demiurge god, including a detailed description of the materials and building blocks and techniques used. The importance of the four elements (fire, water, air, and earth) follows Presocratic lines, while the perfect spherical shape of the resulting universe, mirroring its divine creator in self-sufficiency and intelligence, reflects aspects of Platonic metaphysics and theory of the spheres (Tim. 29d–34b). These ideas would be greatly influential in later times, especially in Roman circles (e.g., cf. Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio,” in De re publica 6.9–26) and through the reception of Platonism in early Christianity. The interlocutors of Plato’s dialogues also toy with both traditional and completely innovative ideas of the creation of human beings. In the Protagoras, the gods form animals and people from earth and fire (and their combinations), while Prometheus and Epimetheus are in charge of distributing among them skills and qualities (Prot. 320c–324d). In the Symposium, by contrast, Aristophanes proposes a comic but highly inspired version of creation, whereby three genders of human beings were begotten as perfect spheres from the earth (female), the sun (male), and the moon (androgynous). After their partition by an angry jealous Zeus, the halves of each type constantly search for their other halves, hence explaining the resilience of love and the different types of sexual relations (male-female, female-female, male-male) (Symp. 189c–193d).

Cosmogonies in Later Periods

Cosmogony continues to be a rare choice for literary creation, while cosmogonic ideas continue to be cultivated within the non-mainstream realms of Orphism and mystery cults, fragmentarily attested (see Orphic cosmogonies). Where cosmogony appears in Hellenistic and Roman times, we see two main strands: the reception and creative adaptation of earlier Greek cosmogonies, and the elaboration of different cosmogonic narratives driven by various philosophical schools (e.g., in Stoicism, Epicureanism), a tendency that in part started already among the Presocratics and Plato. In the first type we can place, for instance, the brief cosmogony sung by Orpheus in Apollonius’s Argonautica (3rd century bce), which in about twenty verses combines elements that ring many different bells: Hesiodic, Empedoclean, Orphic, even Egyptian. Apollonius crafts a rather impersonal narrative where cosmic changes happen in a flowing, non-violent way (Argon. 1.495–515). In turn, the manner in which the legendary poet Orpheus soothes the quarreling Argonauts with a cosmogony (of all stories possible) is indicative of a “restoring” quality that made cosmogonies apt for some types of spiritually and even physically healing rituals (in the Near East they were recited at the New Year celebration and also as part of healing spells12).

Jumping to the Augustan era, there is another such elaboration in the opening of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Met. 1.1–88). The Roman poet chooses to begin with a cosmogony his thread of intertwined stories about transformations. In Ovid’s elaboration there is also a variety of influential trends. Hesiodic gestures are not lacking, such as the appearance of Chaos at the beginning, and the overall power of Love over mortals, immortals, and nature alike (cf. role of Eros or Pothos in previous traditions). But Ovid deploys cosmogony as a tool to express his overtly philosophical agenda: the world starts as a chaotic mass (as in Epicureanism), gradually ordered by a single abstract god who acts as an “arranger” of that Chaos. The change from disorder to order culminates in the creation of animals and the superior human beings, who “turned their eyes to heaven.” His near contemporary Virgil paid less attention to cosmogony, but added two cosmogonic strokes to his poems. In the Eclogues, the satyr Silenus entertains an audience of nymphs and satyrs with mythological tales, which he prefaces with a brief cosmogony that revolves around the first physical elements, like Ovid’s (not around the generations of gods). Silenus’s cosmogony also highlights the initial vast void (embracing Hesiod’s chaos) and the first four elements of natural philosophy, earth, air, sea, and fire, from which emerge the subsequent, differentiated natural features (Ecl. 6.31). At the end of the first book of the Aeneid, following in Apollonius’s steps, Virgil makes up a brief cosmogonic account (Aen. 1.740–747), addressed to an audience of Trojans and Carthaginians at Dido’s court. The song is depicted as foreign, and hence Virgil skillfully conveys both vaguely familiar and alien elements in an astrological account similar to Apollonius’s, except that he replaces Orpheus with a “Tyrian” bard, a pupil of Atlas (a figure associated with North Africa and the West) and not of the Greek Muses.

While traditional cosmogony would influence popular imagination and art well into late antiquity, the different philosophical trends, and especially Platonism and later Neoplatonism, avoided the more capricious anthropomorphic agents of Greek mythology, in turn partly shaping later theological articulations of cosmic origins, even in early Christianity. In certain intellectual-religious circles, however, such as those reflected in the “apocryphal” Christian traditions, the corpus associated with Gnosticism, and extra-biblical Jewish texts, the genre continued to be productive as a platform for elaborations on God’s creation of the world and the role of the first couple (Adam and Eve) in that process.


Overall, we can see cosmogony, with its modalities of theogony and anthropogony, as a relatively narrow genre, vis-à-vis the more abundant and varied heroic epic and other mythological preoccupations (e.g., foundation stories, love stories, underworld journeys). Beyond its rare preservation in full texts devoted specifically to the topic (Hesiod’s Theogony is an exception), the genre was not particularly widespread, at least in the literary medium. It surfaces with enough force to be preserved in two traditions, the Hesiodic and the Orphic, whose influence we can then trace in other literary and philosophical works that merely flirt with the genre. In turn, Greek cosmogonies clearly engaged with different Near Eastern traditions, whether represented in earlier texts (Hurro-Hittite, Sumerian and Babylonian, Ugaritic), or in later testimonies running parallel to the Archaic and later Greek cosmogonies (e.g., Babylonian redactions of the Mesopotamian stories, Israelite and Phoenician elaborations of Canaanite mythologies). Each strand plays with commonly rehearsed patterns, but always in different variations that highlight culture-specific world-views, especially concerning political structures and religious beliefs.

Discussion of the Literature

The study of Greek creation stories has traditionally focussed on little more than Hesiod (it did not earn a separate entry in the previous OCD editions), but the topic has seen a surge of scholarship in the last decades, triggered by the addition of new relevant texts during the second half of the 20th century. On one hand, Hesiod’s Theogony attracted renewed interest as the literatures of the Near East became progressively deciphered and available. Especially important were the Hittite and the Ugaritic texts with their array of comparable pantheons and divine struggle motifs. If the previously deciphered Mesopotamian texts had provided a fresh background for the Hebrew Bible’s creation and flood stories, the Anatolian and Canaanite texts now stimulated further enquiry in the background of Hesiod’s succession myth (Hoffner 1998, Parker 1997, Baumgarten 1981; and Attridge and Oden 1981). Martin West’s (West 1966) seminal commentary on the Theogony set the basis for a new line of comparative study of Greek cosmogony and epic more generally, and was followed by more overarching works, especially by Walter Burkert (Burkert 1992, Burkert 2004), West himself (West 1997), and others (e.g., Bremmer 2008, López-Ruiz 2010), partly or exclusively dedicated to cosmogonies. The comparative approach was also expressly applied to the Orphic cosmogonies (West 1983, Bernabé 2003), a field which has, in turn, grown exponentially, especially with the appearance of the exceptional testimony of the Derveni Papyrus, the oldest original manuscript preserved in Europe. This renewed interest in things Orphic and cosmogonies has led to new editions of the Orphic fragments (Bernabé 2004), and numerous studies on the texts and other corpora related to them (e.g., on the Orphic or Bacchic Gold Tablets). These two separate expansions on the corpus of cosmogonies stemming from the Greek world and its neighboring cultures feed into each other, and we might expect continuing efforts to discern the way in which the Greek traditions relate to Near Eastern myths (e.g., Haubold 2002–2003; Ulf 2009; López-Ruiz 2014). Still, much work can be done in this comparative arena, which requires the rare bridging of disciplines and languages, and collaboration between experts in usually separate fields. Comparison with Indo-European myth, on the other hand, has also been explored (e.g., West 2007). Comparison is, however, only one route by which to approach these and other myths, and the previous emphases on structural, psychoanalytical, and ritual dimensions of the cosmogonic stories have not been forgotten (e.g., Clay 2003, Clay 2006; Edmunds 2014). In sum, cosmogony, more than any other type of myth, has provided the definitive gateway for the study of Greek myth and literature as part of a broader cultural continuum freed from the exclusive traditional fixation on its Indo-European roots. Now that this has been established, much effort is channeled towards refining comparative strategies, so that in the process we can meaningfully illuminate the Greek traditions themselves in their originality and emic relevance, as well as unveil the complexities of cultural exchange that these texts encode.

Primary Texts

Athanassakis, Apostolos N., ed. and trans. The Homeric Hymns: Translation, Introduction, and Notes. 2d ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. Texts (ed. Allen and Sikes, 1904) also available online via Perseus Digital Library.Find this resource:

Attridge, Harold W., and Robert A. Oden, eds. and trans. Philon of Byblos: The Phoenician History; Introduction, Critical Text, Translation, Notes. Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monographs 9. Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1981.Find this resource:

Baumgarten, Albert I. The Phoenician History of Philon of Byblos: A Commentary. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1981.Find this resource:

West, Martin L., ed. Hesiod: Theogony, Edited with Prolegomena and Commentary. Oxford: Clarendon, 1966. Text (ed. Evelyn-White, 1914) also available online via Perseus Digital Library.Find this resource:

Bernabé, Alberto, ed. Poetae epici Graeci Testimonia et Fragmenta Pars II: Fasc. 1: Orphicorum et Orphicis similium testimonia. Bibliotheca Scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana. Leipzig: Teubner, 2004. Abbreviated as OF (= Orphic Fragments) for in-text citations.Find this resource:

Dalley, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Hoffner, H. A., Jr. Hittite Myths. 2d ed. SBL Writings from the Ancient World 2. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Kouremenos, Theokritos, George M. Parássoglou, and Kyriakos Tsantsanoglou, eds. The Derveni Papyrus. Edited with Introduction and Commentary. Studi e testi per il “Corpus dei papiri filosofici greci e latini” 13. Florence: Olschki, 2006.Find this resource:

López-Ruiz, Carolina. Gods, Heroes, and Monsters: A Sourcebook of Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern Myths in Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. See Part 1.Find this resource:

Parker, Simon B., ed. Ugaritic Narrative Poetry. SBL Writings from the Ancient World 9. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997.Find this resource:


Bernabé, Alberto. Hieros logos: Poesía órfica sobre los dioses, el alma y el más allá. Madrid: Akal, 2003.Find this resource:

Betegh, Gábor. The Derveni Papyrus: Cosmology, Theology, and Interpretation. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Bremmer, Jan N. Greek Religion and Culture, the Bible, and the Ancient Near East. Jerusalem Studies in Comparative Religion 8. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008.Find this resource:

Burkert, Walter. The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Burkert, Walter. Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Edmunds, Lowell, ed. Approaches to Greek Mythology. 2d ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Haubold, Johannes. “Greek Epic: A Near Eastern Genre?” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 48 (2002–2003): 1–19.Find this resource:

Laks, André, and Glenn W. Most, eds. Studies on the Derveni Papyrus. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.Find this resource:

López-Ruiz, Carolina. When the Gods Were Born: Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

López-Ruiz, Carolina. “Greek and Near Eastern Mythology: A Story of Mediterranean Encounters.” In Approaches to Greek Myth. 2d ed. Edited by Loewll Edmunds, 154–199. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Noegel, Scott B. “Greek Religion and the Ancient Near East.” In A Companion to Greek Religion. Edited by Daniel Ogden, 21–37. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2007.Find this resource:

Rutherford, Ian. “Hesiod and the Literary Tradition of the Near East.” In Brill’s Companion to Hesiod. Edited by F. Montanari, A. Rengakos, and C. Tsagalis, 9–36. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.Find this resource:

Strauss Clay, Jenny. Hesiod’s Cosmos. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Strauss Clay, Jenny. The Politics of Olympus: Form and Meaning in the Major Homeric Hymns. 2d ed. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Ulf, Christoph. “Rethinking Cultural Contacts.” Ancient West and East 8 (2009): 81–132.Find this resource:

West, Martin L. The Orphic Poems. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.Find this resource:

West, Martin L. The East Face of Helikon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

West, Martin L. Indo-European Poetry and Myth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.Find this resource:


(1.) Discussed in Martin L. West, The Making of the Iliad: Disquisition and Analytical Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), chap. 2.

(2.) Tablet III, 24, transl. Mary Bachvarova, “Song of Ullikummi,” in Carolina López-Ruiz, ed., Gods, Heroes, and Monsters: A Sourcebook of Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern Myths in Translation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 153–163.

(3.) E.g., Martin L. West, The East Face of Helikon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 282.

(4.) On Greek and Egyptian mythology, see Ian Rutherford, “Mythology of the Black Land: Greek Myths and Egyptian Origins,” in A Companion to Greek Mythology. Edited by Ken Dowden and Niall Livingstone (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2011), 459–470.

(5.) For the Near Eastern parallels to Hesiod’s Theogony, see commentary by Martin L. West, Hesiod, Theogony (Oxford: Clarendon, 1966); Carolina López-Ruiz, When the Gods Were Born: Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010).

(6.) On the Orphic poems, see Martin L. West, The Orphic Poems (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983).

(7.) See discussion in Fritz Graf and Sarah I. Johnston, Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets, 2d ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), especially 66–93. Also Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui, Orphism and Christianity in Late Antiquity (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2010), 18–30.

(8.) For Damaskios’s text, see Brill’s New Jacoby (BNJ = previous FGrH) 784 F4; for Philon of Byblos, BNJ 790, both with commentaries and bibliography.

(9.) For a comparison of the Phoenician and Orphic cosmogonies, see López-Ruiz, When the Gods Were Born, 130–170.

(10.) Martin L. West, “Ab Ovo: Orpheus, Sanchuniaton, and the Origins of the Ionian World Model,” Classical Quarterly 44.2 (1994): 289–307, reprinted in Martin L. West, Hellenica III (Oxford: Clarendon, 2013), 59–88.

(11.) On the divine dynamics in the Homeric Hymns, see Jenny Strauss Clay, The Politics of Olympus: Form and Meaning in the Major Homeric Hymns, 2d ed. (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2006), and on Hesiod’s works, Jenny Strauss Clay, Hesiod’s Cosmos (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

(12.) Walter Burkert, “Itinerant Diviners and Magicians: A Neglected Element in Cultural Contacts,” in The Greek Renaissance of the Eighth Century B.C.: Tradition and Innovation, edited by Robin Hägg (Stockholm: C. H. Beck, 1983), 115–119 (esp. 119).

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