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Vasileios Ragkousis 1

Vasileios Ragkousis
GE Cluster 30A
Essay #1 draft
The emergence of Zeus and the Greek gods
Lauri Honko in his article The problem of defining myth stresses out the challenging
nature of attempts to define myth. Nevertheless he formulates a descriptive definition based on
four distinct criteria: form, content, function and context (Honko 48-51). He claims that myth is a
narrative, in terms of form, cosmogonic in terms of content, ontological in terms of function and
is used as the basis of ritual in the societies that the myth flourishes (Honko 50-51). The Greek
narrative of the emergence of Zeus as the king of the Greek Pantheon in Hesiod’s Theogony will
be examined through the spectrum of these four criteria in order to determine the degree to which
the narrative is suitable to the definition of myth that Honko proposes.
Before actually commencing with the analysis of the primary text it is sensible to
introduce the historical background in which Hesiod wrote. Frazer’s translation “The poems of
Hesiod” is utilized as the source of the primary text and the source of background information
pertaining Hesiod and his historical context. Hesiod was a poet of rural origins who lived
roughly around 750 and 650 BC in Boiotia in Greece. As we know from references in his poems
he was deeply religious and competed in poetry competitions, which justifies his writing of the
Theogony. In fact the poetry contest of Amphidamas serves as the best evidence we have for the
time when Hesiod lived He lived in a transitional era between the Geometrical and Classical
Greece when philosophy and classical art did not yet flourish in Greece and when the political
system would shift from the Mycenaean kingdoms to the classic era city states (Frazer 4-8).
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Hesiod was the first author to provide a detailed account of the Greek Pantheon and its
emergence, however, it is not to be assume that he came up with it; evidence from previous
written texts suggest that the Greek religion pre-existed (Frazer 5).
The Chapter of the Theogony that is of special interest for our purposes is the Rise of
Zeus (Lines 453-500) which essentially is the culmination of the previous events and
progressions of the Theogony. Rhea and Kronos mate for the former to give birth to six children
which are the elder Olympian gods: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus. However,
Kronos devours his own children in fear of his own son succeeding him as the king of the gods
as the prophecy by Gaia suggested. Rhea watches five of her offspring being devoured and
grieves heavily. She decides to make a plea to Ouranos and Gaia in order to save her lastborn
Zeus. As a result she gives birth to Zeus at Lyktos in Krete and deceives Kronos by giving him to
eat a rock rather than Zeus. Eventually Zeus manages to beat Kronos through trickery and force
and manages to force him to spit the rock along with his siblings. The rock still stands at the
basin of the mountain Parnassus at Pytho (otherwise known as Delphi) as a reminder of Zeus’s
Coming back to Honko’s four criteria, it should be sensible to elaborate slightly more on
the concepts of form, content, function and context as interpreted by Honko. According to
Honko “In terms of its form myth is a narrative which provides a verbal account of what is
known of sacred origins”. Written or oral narratives undoubtedly fall under this category.
However, myth can be presented through other media (ikons, ritual, dances etc) which are
nevertheless based on verbal narrative (Honko 50). In the case of the Rise of Zeus it is starkly
clear that the text is a written narrative with a religious purpose and theme. The sacred tone is
especially evident through the use of embellishing characterizations for revered figues such as
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“great lord Ouranos”, “Kronos, the clever deviser” (Frazer 58). As a result the first criterion is
evidently satisfied by the particular narrative
Myths, as far as the second criterion (content) is concerned, are narratives of cosmogonic
events. They function as a way to elaborate on why the world, society, culture and humanity
evolved in a specific way and how it came to be in its present state. The narrative of Zeus ascend
to power qualifies as myth in regards to content, since the main theme is revolving around events
that led to the formation of the world and its reshaping into its present state. The gods, as
evidenced in many sacred Greek narratives (such as Homer’s Hymn to Demeter) are responsible
for the creation of many aspects of life, namely Demeter is responsible for fertility of the land,
Zeus manipulates thunder and storms, Poseidon controls the tide etc. As a result the Rise of Zeus
in Hesiod’s Theogony is both explicitly, through the creation of the Gods, and implicitly,
through the elements that Gods are going to create, referring to cosmogonic events.
Honko argues that: “Myths function as examples as models”. It is commonly argued that
myths act as behavioral models and mediums through which morals are transmitted, or that they
are self sufficient realms that feature their own set of rules and laws. A generalization that
incorporates both these views is that myths are accounts of important events and aspects of life
and the universe (Honko 51). Applying this criterion to the primary text of the Theogony we
observe that the Rise of Zeus incorporates themes of great relevance and vital importance to
human life such as vengeance, maternal love and deception which are presented through the
interactions of the dramatis personae, Kronos, Rhea and Zeus. Therefore the narrative satisfies
this criterion as well.
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Finally Honko refers to context as the last criterion to determine a myth. Context
according to Honko is associated with ritual and essentially the projection and repetition of
sacred events that happened in the distant past. Ritual essentially gives life to the events and
ideas that myth addresses and adds a sacred overtone to them. As Honko phrases it “What was
once possible and operative in the beginning of time becomes possible once more and can exert
its influence anew”. The relation of the Theogony narrative to this criterion is more subtle but is
still identifiable. The rock that Kronos spits as a result of Zeus use of force and deception is said
to have landed on Pytho (Delphi) as a reminder of Zeus ordeal. This rock is also refered to as
omphalos. As suggested by Leicester B. Holland in his article The Mantic Mechanism At Delphi
page 213 such rocks were used as altars for animal sacrifices for the Olympian Gods. The
interesting fact is that the place where such an altar is evidenced is the same that is mentioned by
Hesiod, Pytho or Delphi. As a result we can now observe the projection of myth into reality
through ritual as Honko suggests for his context criterion. Therefore we can safely consider that
the narrative of the Rise of Zeus satisfies this last criterion as well.
The story of the rise of Zeus is clearly a narrative of sacred events occurring in the distant
past, talks about events that led to the creation of the world, concerns itself with themes of
fundamental importance to human existence and is used as script for ritual. As a result, it can be
conjectured that the narrative is indeed a myth according to Honko’s definition and analysis of
the aspects of myth.
1) Frazer, R. M.. The poems of Hesiod. 1st ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983. Print.
2) Dundes, Alan. Sacred narrative, readings in the theory of myth. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1984. Print.
3) Leicester B. Holland
American Journal of Archaeology , Vol. 37, No. 2 (Apr. - Jun., 1933), pp. 201-214