Birth of the Olympian Gods and Goddesses


How did the world start according to your world view? Was there a sudden cosmic spark emerging from nowhere? Did life then emerge from some sort of almost living form? Did a supreme being create the world in seven days and form the first woman from the rib of the first (male) human? Was there a great swirling chaos from which emerged a frost giant and a salt-licking cow? A cosmic egg?

Greek mythology contains creation stories that are very different from either the familiar story of Adam and Eve or the Big Bang.

In Greek myths about the early world, themes of parental treachery alternate with tales of filial betrayal. You'll also find love and loyalty. There are all the essentials of good plot lines. Birth and cosmic creation are linked. Mountains and other physical parts of the world are born through procreation. Granted, it is procreation between things that we don't think of as procreating, but this is an ancient version and part of the ancient mythological worldview.

     1. Parental Treachery:
In Generation 1, the sky (Uranus), who is seemingly without any love at all for his offspring (or maybe he just wants his wife all to himself), hides his children inside his wife, Mother Earth (Gaia).

     2. Filial Betrayal:

In Generation 2, the Titan father (Cronus) swallows his children, the newborn Olympians.

     3. In Generation 3, the Olympic gods and goddesses have learned from the examples of their ancestors, so there is more parental treachery:

     Zeus swallows one mate and sews the soon-to-be born offspring of another inside himself after he kills the mother.

     Hera, the wife of Zeus, creates a god -- without a mate, but even he isn't safe from his parents, for Hera (or Zeus) hurls her son from Mt. Olympus.

1st Generation

"Generation" implies a coming into being, so that which was there from the beginning is not and cannot be generated. What has always been there, whether it be a god or a primeval force (here, Chaos), is not the first "generation." If, for convenience, it requires a number, it can be referred to as Generation Zero.

Even the first generation here gets a bit tricky if examined too closely, since it could be said to cover 3 generations, but that's not terribly relevant for this look at parents (particularly, fathers) and their treacherous relations with their children.

According to some versions of Greek mythology, in the beginning of the universe there was Chaos. Chaos was all alone [Hesiod Theog. l.116], but soon Gaia (Earth) appeared. Without benefit of a sexual partner, Gaia gave birth to

  • Uranus (Sky) to provide covering and father half-siblings.

With Uranus serving as father, mother Gaia gave birth to

2nd Generation

Eventually, the 12 Titans paired off, male and female:

  • Cronus and Rhea,
  • Iapetus and Themis,
  • Oceanus and Tethys,
  • Hyperion and Theia,
  • Crius and Mnemosyne, and
  • Coeus and Phoebe

to produce rivers and springs, second generation Titans, Atlas and Prometheus, moon (Selene), sun (Helios), and many others.

Much earlier, before the Titans had paired off, their father, Uranus, who was hateful and rightly fearful that one of his sons might overthrow him, shut all his children inside his wife, their Mother Earth (Gaia).

" And he used to hide them all away in a secret place of Earth so soon as each was born, and would not suffer them to come up into the light: and Heaven rejoiced in his evil doing. But vast Earth groaned within, being straitened, and she made the element of grey flint and shaped a great sickle, and told her plan to her dear sons."
- Hesiod Theogony, which is all about the generation of gods.

Another version comes from 1.1.4 Apollodorus*, who says Gaia was angry because Uranus had thrown his first children, the Cyclopes, into Tartarus. [See, I told you there was love; here, maternal.] At any rate, Gaia was angry with her husband for imprisoning their children either within her or in Tartarus, and she wanted her children released. Cronus, the dutiful son, agreed to do the dirty work: he used that flint sickle to castrate his father, rendering him impotent (without power).

3rd Generation

Then the Titan Cronus, with his sister Rhea as wife, sired six children. These were the Olympic gods and goddesses:

  1. Hestia,
  2. Hera,
  3. Demeter,
  4. Poseidon,
  5. Hades, and, lastly,
  6. Zeus.

Cursed by his father (Uranus), the Titan Cronus was afraid of his own children. After all, he knew how savage he had been towards his father.

He knew better than to repeat the mistakes his father had made in leaving himself vulnerable, so instead of imprisoning his children in his wife's body (or Tartarus), Cronus swallowed them.

Like her mother Earth (Gaia) before her, Rhea wanted her children to be free. With the help of her parents (Uranus and Gaia), she figured out how to defeat her husband. When it was time to give birth to Zeus, Rhea did it in secret. Cronus knew she was due and asked for the new baby to swallow. Instead of feeding him Zeus, Rhea substituted a stone. (No one said the Titans were intellectual giants.)

Zeus matured safely until he was old enough to force his father to regurgitate his five siblings (Hades, Poseidon, Demeter, Hera, and Hestia). As G.S. Kirk points out in The Nature of Greek Myths, with the oral rebirth of his brothers and sisters, Zeus, once the youngest, became the oldest. At any rate, even if the regurgitation-reversal doesn't persuade you that Zeus could claim to be the oldest, he became leader of the gods on snow-capped Mt. Olympus.

4th Generation

Zeus, a first generation Olympian (although in the third generation since the creation), was father to the following second generation Olympians -- put together from various accounts:

  • Athena,
  • Aphrodite,
  • Ares,
  • Apollo,
  • Artemis,
  • Dionysus,
  • Hermes,
  • Hephaestus, and
  • Persephone.

The list of Olympians contains 12 gods and goddesses, but their identities vary. Hestia and Demeter, entitled to spots on Olympus, sometimes surrender their seats.

Parents of Aphrodite and Hephaestus

Although they may have been Zeus' children, the lineage of 2 second-generation Olympians is in question:

  1. Some claim Aphrodite (the goddess of love and beauty) sprang from the foam and severed genitals of Uranus. Homer refers to Aphrodite as the daughter of Dione and Zeus.
  2. Some (including Hesiod in the introductory quote) claim Hera as sole parent of Hephaestus, the lame blacksmith god.
    " But Zeus himself gave birth from his own head to bright-eyed Tritogeneia (29), the awful, the strife-stirring, the host-leader, the unwearying, the queen, who delights in tumults and wars and battles. But Hera without union with Zeus -- for she was very angry and quarrelled with her mate -- bare famous Hephaestus, who is skilled in crafts more than all the sons of Heaven."
    Hesiod Theogony 924ff

    It is interesting, but to my knowledge insignificant, that these two Olympians who had uncertain parentage married.

    Zeus as Parent

    Many of Zeus' liaisons were unusual; for instance, he disguised himself as a cuckoo bird to seduce Hera. Two of his children were born in a manner he might have learned from his father or grandfather; that is, like his father Cronus, Zeus swallowed not only the child but the mother Metis while she was pregnant. When the fetus had fully formed, Zeus gave birth to their daughter Athena. Lacking the proper feminine apparatus, he gave birth through his head. After Zeus had frightened or burned his mistress Semele to death, but before she was completely incinerated, Zeus removed the fetus of Dionysus from her womb and sewed it into his thigh where the wine god-to-be developed until ready for rebirth.

    *Apollodorus, a 2nd Century B.C. Greek scholar, wrote a Chronicles and On the Gods, but the reference here is to the Bibliotheca or Library, which is falsely attributed to him.