Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The War of the Titans

We start with a story which probably captured your imagination as a small child, it certainly did mine. We go to the earliest myths of Greece, those of the birth of the gods of Olympus and their defeat of the Titans and ascension to mastery of the Heavens. ‘Where is this stuff written?’ is a question I am often asked. It is all in a short poem called the Theogony (The birth of the gods). As far as Creation myths are concerned, this one is truly awe inspiring. Its words tell of the birth of the original creation of the Earth and Sky from Chaos (a Greek word meaning ‘The Chasm’, which did not acquire the meaning of confusion and disorder until more recent ages).

The War of the Titans
Painting by Rubens
The union of Earth and Sky gave birth to Night and Day, Air and Ocean, Nymph and Titan. The youngest of the Titans, Kronos, was then born. A ‘crooked schemer and the most fearsome of children’, Kronos hated his father for his immoral passions and lay ever in wait to take his place as Master of the Cosmos. His chance soon came, when Earth gave birth to the Cyclopes and three monstrous sons. They were known as the Hecatonchires, fearsome Giants who had a hundred arms and fifty heads, and ‘Strength boundless and powerful was on their mighty form’. Sky despised them and hurled them into the Underworld, devoid of light. Earth was displeased with the treatment of her offspring, and appealed to her others to help her. Kronos alone rose and swore to punish Sky. He did just that. One day he ambushed Sky and severed his manhood, which fell to the Ocean and gave birth to Aphrodite, the goddess of lust. Kronos now stood triumphant, and the Titans were now supreme. Night then gave birth to Doom, Fate, Sleep, Death, Jeer, Misery, Resentment, Deceit, Old Age, Intimacy, Strife, Toil, Neglect, Starvation, Pain, Battle, Combat, Bloodshed, Slaughter, Quarrels, Lies, Pretence, Argument, Disorder, Disaster, Oath and accursed Old Age. In short, the Cosmos became polluted with the things which destroy goodness.

Then came the gods and goddesses that we know. Kronos had by his sister Rhea five offspring:

                  " Hestia, Demeter, and gold sandalled Hera,
Mighty Hades who lives under the Earth,

Merciless of heart, and Poseidon the booming Shaker of Earth,

And Zeus the resourceful, father of gods and men,

Under whose Thunder the broad Earth is shaken. "
                                        - THE CHILDREN OF KRONOS
But Kronos heard a prophecy that he would be overcome by his own child, so he proceeded to swallow his children to make sure his rule would never end. Rhea, like Earth before her was displeased. When Kronos was about to swallow Zeus, she substituted a great stone in his place, while Zeus was raised in secret on Crete. When Zeus grew up, the War of the Titans (the Titanomachy) began. Zeus made Kronos throw up his siblings, and the stone. The stone was later placed on the Earth at Delphi, to mark the very centre of the cosmos (which is still represented at Delphi today).

The War reached its tenth year and was brutally destructive, yet no side had the advantage. Zeus went to the Underworld and offered the Giants freedom from their chains if they would side with him. They agreed, and the Cyclopes forged thunderbolts for Zeus, and the Hecatonchires were unleashed upon the Titans:

" Both sides displayed a feat of main force; and the boundless sea roared terribly round about, the Earth crashed loudly, and the broad sky quaked and groaned. Long Olympus was shaken to its foundations by the onrush of the immortals..."
                                                             - THE WAR OF THE TITANS IS BEGUN

The Titans were overpowered by the Giants and the lightning from Zeus. The younger gods hurled the Titans down to Tartarus, the deepest and darkest part of the Underworld, and sealed them behind gates of Adamantine. So deep below the Earth was Tartarus, one could drop a bronze anvil from the Earth’s surface, and it would fall for nine days and reach Tartarus on the tenth. But Earth was displeased that Zeus had imprisoned her brood. Two terrible monster gods were born to her – Echidna and Typhon. From their union, all the famous beasts of Greek myth were created – the fifty (Not three) headed canine guardian of the Underworld Cerberus, the baleful Hydra, the monstrous hybrid that was the Chimaera, the savage Lion of Nemea, the deceitful Sphinx and the demonic hound Orthus. These creatures would roam the Earth terrorising man, until great heroes would conquer them.

Mount Etna, under which Typhon was imprisoned by Zeus.
Photograph by Josep Renalias
Typhon himself was a fearsome beast, the greatest and most lethal monster in Greek mythology, with a hundred snake heads which spat fire so hot that the very Earth itself began to melt. So tall was he that his shoulders reached the stars, and his roar was so intense that all the gods but Zeus fled in panic. Zeus began a titanic battle with Typhon, which shook the Cosmos so severely that even the Titans down in Tartarus quaked in fear. Zeus launched a thunderbolt at each of Typhon's heads and hurled Mount Etna at the monster, pinning him under the Earth (The Greeks believed the eruptions of Etna to be fits of Typhon's rage, when he tries to break free, covering the land in fiery lava).

The victorious gods divided the Cosmos between them, Zeus became the King of the Gods and lord of thunder, Poseidon was given the Seas and Hades was given the Underworld to rule. So the current order was established, and the Olympians became the Masters of Heaven. A fascinating story is it not? This is the very foundation of Classical Greek mythology and identity, apart from a great story. Inspiring stuff, which forged the common links between all Greeks in a time where there was no Greece, only warring city states.

The Theogony is a short, quite readable poem and available extremely cheaply at Amazon:

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
Hesiod and Theognis (Classics)
(Slightly academic, but not dull)

Oxford World's Classics:
Theogony and Works and Days (Oxford World's Classics)
(Nice and readable)

Loeb Classical Library:
Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, Testimonia: v. 1 (Loeb Classical Library)
(For something a bit special, including the original Greek text alongside)

United States

Penguin Classics:
Hesiod and Theognis (Penguin Classics): Theogony, Works and Days, and Elegies
(Slightly academic, but not dull)

Oxford World's Classics:
Theogony and Works and Days (Oxford World's Classics)
(Nice and readable)

Loeb Classical Library:
Hesiod: Volume I, Theogony. Works and Days. Testimonia (Loeb Classical Library No. 57N) (v. 1)
(for something a bit special, including the original Greek text alongside)

Friday, 20 August 2010

What is it all about?

The power of inspiration and its ability to influence the lives of men and the course of nations has always been my greatest passion to discover. Look at the Iliad of Homer, which shaped the common identity of the entire Greek race, infusing a common identity in a world of constant strife. Or the Gospels of the New Testament, whose words spurred on both Lord and peasant alike to leave the squalor and desolation of medieval Europe to raise the banner of Christ over the Sepulchre of Jerusalem on the First Crusade. Or the tales of Arthur, King of the Britons, whose legend would foster the ideas of chivalry and fill young boys with a desire to one day be a great knight.

Everything in existence is in the past. The first sentence of this post is in the past to those who have read it.  Is it any less important than the last because of this? The same applies to mankind. Should we fool ourselves into thinking our ancestors were not directly related to us, to absolve us from their experience and what we would call wrongdoing? The Greeks realised two thousand years ago that the Earth is round, an idea ridiculed by the Heliocentric astronomers of the Middle Ages. The Earth was then flat, anything else was laughable. Now who do we think was ridiculous? Less than eighty years ago, a very famous scientist said that the computer would never be smaller than the size of a room, yet here I am writing this on a computer I can fit in a bag and carry with me. To assume that the present ideas are the best is the enemy of progress. It is in this spirit that I turn to the words of our ancestors. I do not claim to profess that old is perfect. It is not. But it can be used, and our insight employed, to create perfection. After all, all it takes is one well phrased sentence which can fire inspiration in us.

I read every day. A day in which nothing is learned is a day wasted. Yet not all of us possess the time to indulge this. Since the Classics are my profession as well as my passion, I thought I would share what I have found with you, here, on this blog. On the Wednesday of each week, I will look at a new passage or book which I think you may be interested to read about. Who knows, you too might be inspired to pick up what before seemed like an old tome, and engage with the minds of those who lived hundreds if not thousands of years ago!