Greek Creation Stories and the Story of Persephone
A mythology of a people is more than the stories they tell of their gods and goddesses and heroes. They also have stories explaining how the world was created, how humans were created, and why certain things, like the seasons, came to be.
Creation of the World
In the beginning there was Chaos—a void, a vast emptiness, nothingness. Chaos gave birth to Gaia, the earth. Gaia was the earth goddess, the embodiment of the earth. In our modern world we might think of her as “Mother Earth.” Gaia then gave birth to Uranus and he became ruler of the sky. Since he surrounded Gaia, as the sky surrounds the earth, he became her equal as well as her offspring.
Birth of the Titans
Uranus and Gaia had many children. Their first children were the Hecatonchires, monsters with 50 heads and one hundred hands. Uranus hated his “children” and was afraid that they would overthrow him so he pushed them back into Gaia’s womb.
Then she gave birth to the Cyclopes, monsters who each had a single eye in the middle of their foreheads. They were master craftsmen and made thunder and lightning for Gaia. However, Uranus was afraid of them too and threw them into Tartarus, a deep place beneath the earth.
Gaia finally gave birth to the Titans. There were twelve of them, six gods and six goddesses. This set of children were not monsters, but instead had human characteristics. Once again, though, Uranus was afraid of his children and pushed them back into Gaia’s womb. As you can imagine, Gaia grew tired of this! She talked to them in her womb and her youngest Titan, Chronus, said he would kill Uranus. Finally, when Uranus came to visit Gaia, Chronus attacked him with a flint sickle that Gaia had given him. How Gaia was able to give a sickle to a child in her womb, I don’t know!
All of the children came out. Chronus put the Hecatonchires in Tartarus with the Cyclopes and then became the king of the Titans, and Rhea, his sister, became his wife. They lived in peace for a time. But, Chronus could never truly be at peace. Both Gaia and Uranus had predicted that one of Chronus’ children would overthrow him. The bizarre cycle continued.
Birth of the Olympian Gods
When Rhea gave birth to her first five children Chronus swallowed them whole (the five children: Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Hera, and Demeter). Rhea was upset and when she was due to have her sixth child she tricked Chronus. She wrapped a stone up in a blanket and gave that to Chronus to swallow. He had no idea he had been tricked and believed the stone to be his child. Rhea then fled to the island of Crete and gave birth to her baby, who she named Zeus. She knew that Chronus could not know about Zeus, so she left him on the island with the nymphs, and there a she-goat nursed him.
Zeus survived and thrived on the island and when he became a young man Rhea brought him to live with them. Chronus did not know that this young man was his son. Zeus waited on Chronus and gave him a potion that made him throw up all of the children he had swallowed. They all came out fully grown!
These “children” of Chronus fled with Zeus to Mount Olympus where they started a war with the Titans. They got the name of the “Olympian” gods, because their home base during the war was Mt. Olympus, and ever after in the stories their home is on that mountain.
Battle Between Titans and Olympians
This war between the Titans and the Olympians lasted for ten years. During the war Zeus freed the Cyclopes from Tartarus. The Cyclopes were master craftsmen and made weapons for the gods. They made:
- Zeus’s thunderbolts
- Poseidon’s trident
- Hades’ cap of invisibility
- Artemis’s silver bow and quiver of arrows
These are the weapons that these gods and goddess came to be associated with when depicted in art.
In Norse mythology the dwarves are master craftsmen and create weapons for the gods.
It was a long and terrible battle. Zeus brought back the Cyclopes and the hundred handed giants to fight on his side as well. Also, two of the Titans switched sides and joined the Olympians. Eventually the Olympians won the battle and the Titans were thrown into Tartarus with the hundred handed giants guarding them. Atlas was forced to hold the world on his back as punishment, because he had been the leader of the Titans in battle and fought the most fiercely against the Olympians.
Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades had to draw lots to determine who would rule which part of the world. Zeus drew the sky, Poseidon the seas and water on earth, and Hades the dead and the Underworld. Since the sky is over all of the things, Zeus became the king of the gods.
The Olympian Gods and Goddesses
Zeus and Hera “married” and became the king and queen of the gods, although Zeus was the most powerful of them all. Zeus had loads of children who became the other Olympian gods and goddess, famous heroes, and entities like the Muses.
Zeus was the father of (among others): Aphrodite, Athena, Ares, Hephaestus, Hermes, Apollo and Artemis, Dionysus, Hebe, the Muses, the Fates, Persephone, Heracles, Perseus, and Helen of Troy.
Creation of Humans
Prometheus and Epimetheus were two Titans who fought on the Olympian side and were not sent down to Tartarus after the Olympian victory. Instead, Zeus gave them the task of creating humans. In one story Prometheus created man out of clay and then Athena breathed life into them. Another story was that Prometheus made man and then held them up so the wind could breathe life into them. Zeus gave Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother, the job of giving the animals and humans gifts, which was a strange choice since Epimetheus was not very smart. His name means “afterthought” and true to his name, he did not think ahead—he gave the animals all the good qualities, like fangs and claws and speed and fur. Prometheus had to step in and help the poor humans out. Prometheus gave humans the ability to walk upright, to think, speak, and to reason. Some of the other gods and goddesses chipped in and helped the humans too. Humans were given information on what to eat and how to hunt and all the other things we do.
Prometheus Tricks Zeus
Zeus decided that humans had to sacrifice an animal to the gods and that Prometheus should choose which part of the animal was to be sacrificed and which the humans could eat. Prometheus had become fond of his new humans and wanted them to have the best part of the sacrificial animal, so he tricked Zeus. Prometheus wrapped up two piles of meat that he’d taken from an animal. In one pile he put the good meat, wrapped it up to hide it, and then put it under entrails. He hoped the entrails would be so gross and unappetizing that Zeus would not pick that pile. In the other pile he put bones, but then put the fat on top, hoping Zeus would choose the nice fat. True to Prometheus’s plan, Zeus picked the pile with the fat. The humans got the pile with the entrails on top but the good meat underneath. Humans got the win. Zeus was not happy.
Prometheus also went up to Olympus and took fire for the humans so they wouldn’t be cold and they could cook their food. Taking fire from Olympus was forbidden and for this and for the other trick Zeus punished Prometheus. He chained Prometheus to a rock and everyday an eagle came and pecked out his liver, which would then grow back each and every night. This happened until the hero Heracles killed the eagle and freed Prometheus.
Another story about Humans, the Titans, and Zeus…
This is the story of Pandora (Pandora means “the gift of all”). Zeus was angry at Prometheus for tricking him, and even though he had punished Prometheus, he wanted to punish the humans as well. At this point, there were only men on earth. Zeus went to Hephaestus, who was a very talented craftsman and metalworker, and asked him to make a beautiful woman. He created a woman as beautiful as a goddess—Pandora. The other gods gave her gifts of clothes and jewelry and fragrances. She was given a box covered with jewels and carvings and decorations, but it came with a condition: she could not open it. Pandora agreed, and she went to live with other humans. Eventually Pandora gave in to temptation and opened the box. Inside were sorrow, hunger, anger, disease, madness, and all the other horrible things we know as humans. Pandora became frightened and shut the lid. One thing remained in the box—hope. From that moment on the humans recognized that the gods were supremely powerful and did what they could to appease them. But humans always have hope.
The Story of Persephone in the Underworld and the Seasons
Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, and Demeter loved her daughter very much.
One day Persephone wandered off when out picking flowers with her friends. She wanted to pick a narcissus flower, but the roots were so deep that she couldn’t get it out of the ground. Finally, she tugged hard, a hole opened up out of the ground, and Hades raced out of the chasm in his chariot drawn by black horses. He grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her into the chariot and raced back down to the Underworld. Persephone cried out. Demeter heard her daughter’s cries, but when she looked for Persephone she could not find her. She searched for nine days and nine nights. She met up with Hecate who offered to help Demeter find Persephone. They finally came upon the sun (Helios) who told them that Persephone was in the Underworld, because she had been abducted by Hades.
Demeter also found out from Helios that Zeus gave Hades permission to abduct Persephone, even though she was his own daughter! Demeter was so distraught when she found out what had happened to her beloved daughter, and that Zeus himself took part in it, that she shunned her life as a goddess. She wandered the earth disguised as a mortal. While she wandered, the earth became barren and the fields grew fallow and the crops failed. She looked like a sad and weak old woman. During the time she pined for her lost daughter the crops did not grow, and the people became hungry. Every living thing was in danger of starving.
Zeus finally had to get involved. He had all of the gods go down to earth and talk to Demeter, but she wouldn’t budge. She wouldn’t return life to the earth while her daughter was in the Underworld. Zeus realized that Hades would have to give Persephone back, and he sent Hermes to the Underworld to tell Hades. When Hermes arrived in the Underworld he saw Hades and Persephone on their thrones, and she looked miserable. When Hermes told her Zeus wanted her to return she was happy, but Hades was not. However, he knew he couldn’t disobey Zeus and would have to give her up. But before she left he offered her pomegranate seeds. He knew that if she ate anything in the Underworld she’d have to come back. Persephone didn’t know this rule, and she ate four pomegranate seeds.
Hermes took Persephone to Demeter, and they were very happy to be reunited, but when Demeter found out that Persephone had eaten in the Underworld she grew concerned and went to Zeus to see what could be done. Unfortunately for Demeter and Persephone, the rule was unbreakable; she ate food in the Underworld and would have to stay there. But Zeus came up with a compromise. Persephone had to go back, but only for four months out of the year, one month for every pomegranate seed she ate. Demeter agreed and she allowed the crops to grow again. From that time on Demeter and Persephone spent most of the year together. During their time together the earth was fertile and the crops grew—spring and summer. When Persephone went to the Underworld for her four months the world became cold and sterile—autumn and winter.