Greek Cosmogonic Myths

By Andrew Lang.

Nature of the evidence—Traditions of origin of the world and man—Homeric, Hesiodic and Orphic myths—Later evidence of historians, dramatists, commentators—The Homeric story comparatively pure—The story in Hesiod, and its savage analogues—The explanations of the myth of Cronus, modern and ancient—The Orphic cosmogony—Phanes and Prajapati—Greek myths of the origin of man—Their savage analogues.

The authorities for Greek cosmogonic myth are extremely various in date, character and value.  The most ancient texts are the Iliad and the poems attributed to Hesiod.  The Iliad, whatever its date, whatever the place of its composition, was intended to please a noble class of warriors.  The Hesiodic poems, at least the Theogony, have clearly a didactic aim, and the intention of presenting a systematic and orderly account of the divine genealogies.  To neither would we willingly attribute a date much later than the ninth century of our era, but the question of the dates of all the epic and Hesiodic poems, and even of their various parts, is greatly disputed among scholars.  Yet it is nowhere denied that, however late the present form of some of the poems may be, they contain ideas of extreme antiquity.  Although the Homeric poems are usually considered, on the whole, more ancient than those attributed to Hesiod,[1] it is a fact worth remembering that the notions of the origin of things in Hesiod are much more savage and (as we hold) much more archaic than the opinions of Homer.


[1] Grote assigns his Theogony to circ. 750 A.D.  The Thegony was taught to boys in Greece, much as the Church Catechism and Bible are taught in England; Aeschines in Ctesiph., 135, p. 73.  Libanius, 400 years after Christ (i. 502-509, iv. 874).


While Hesiod offers a complete theogony or genealogy of deities and heroes, Homer gives no more than hints and allusions to the stormy past of the gods.  It is clear, however, that his conception of that past differed considerably from the traditions of Hesiod.  However we explain it, the Homeric mythology (though itself repugnant to the philosophers from Xenophanes downwards) is much more mild, pure and humane than the mythology either of Hesiod or of our other Greek authorities.  Some may imagine that Homer retains a clearer and less corrupted memory than Hesiod possessed of an original and authentic “divine tradition”.  Others may find in Homer’s comparative purity a proof of the later date of his epics in their present form, or may even proclaim that Homer was a kind of Cervantes, who wished to laugh the gods away.  There is no conceivable or inconceivable theory about Homer that has not its advocates.  For ourselves, we hold that the divine genius of Homer, though working in an age distant rather than “early,” selected instinctively the purer mythical materials, and burned away the coarser dross of antique legend, leaving little but the gold which is comparatively refined.

We must remember that it does not follow that any mythical ideas are later than the age of Homer because we first meet them in poems of a later date.  We have already seen that though the Brahmanas are much later in date of compilation than the Veda, yet a tradition which we first find in the Brahmanas may be older than the time at which the Veda was compiled.  In the same way, as Mr.  Max Muller observes, “we know that certain ideas which we find in later writers do not occur in Homer.  But it does not follow at all that such ideas are all of later growth or possess a secondary character.  One myth may have belonged to one tribe; one god may have had his chief worship in one locality; and our becoming acquainted with these through a later poet does not in the least prove their later origin.”[1]


[1] Hibbert Lectures, pp. 130, 131.


After Homer and Hesiod, our most ancient authorities for Greek cosmogonic myths are probably the so-called Orphic fragments.  Concerning the dates and the manner of growth of these poems volumes of erudition have been compiled.  As Homer is silent about Orpheus (in spite of the position which the mythical Thracian bard acquired as the inventor of letters and magic and the father of the mysteries), it has been usual to regard the Orphic ideas as of late introduction.  We may agree with Grote and Lobeck that these ideas and the ascetic “Orphic mode of life” first acquired importance in Greece about the time of Epimenides, or, roughly speaking, between 620 and 500 B.C.[1]  That age certainly witnessed a curious growth of superstitious fears and of mystic ceremonies intended to mitigate spiritual terrors.  Greece was becoming more intimately acquainted with Egypt and with Asia, and was comparing her own religion with the beliefs and rites of other peoples.  The times and the minds of men were being prepared for the clear philosophies that soon “on Argive heights divinely sang”.  Just as, when the old world was about to accept Christianity, a deluge of Oriental and barbaric superstitions swept across men’s minds, so immediately before the dawn of Greek philosophy there came an irruption of mysticism and of spiritual fears.  We may suppose that the Orphic poems were collected, edited and probably interpolated, in this dark hour of Greece.  “To me,” says Lobeck, “it appears that the verses may be referred to the age of Onomacritus, an age curious in the writings of ancient poets, and attracted by the allurements of mystic religions.”  The style of the surviving fragments is sufficiently pure and epic; the strange unheard of myths are unlike those which the Alexandrian poets drew from fountains long lost.[2] But how much in the Orphic myths is imported from Asia or Egypt, how much is the invention of literary forgers like Onomacritus, how much should be regarded as the first guesses of the physical poet-philosophers, and how much is truly ancient popular legend recast in literary form, it is impossible with certainty to determine.


[1] Lobeck, Aglaophamus, i. 317; Grote, iii. 86.

[2] Aglaophamus, i. 611.


We must not regard a myth as necessarily late or necessarily foreign because we first meet it in an “Orphic composition”.  If the myth be one of the sort which encounter us in every quarter, nay, in every obscure nook of the globe, we may plausibly regard it as ancient.  If it bear the distinct marks of being a Neo-platonic pastiche, we may reject it without hesitation.  On the whole, however, our Orphic authorities can never be quoted with much satisfaction.  The later sources of evidence for Greek myths are not of great use to the student of cosmogonic legend, though invaluable when we come to treat of the established dynasty of gods, the heroes and the “culture-heroes”.  For these the authorities are the whole range of Greek literature, poets, dramatists, philosophers, critics, historians and travellers.  We have also the notes and comments of the scholiasts or commentators on the poets and dramatists.  Sometimes these annotators only darken counsel by their guesses.  Sometimes perhaps, especially in the scholia on the Iliad and Odyssey, they furnish us with a precious myth or popular marchen not otherwise recorded.  The regular professional mythographi, again, of whom Apollodorus (150 B.C.) is the type, compiled manuals explanatory of the myths which were alluded to by the poets.  The scholiasts and mythographi often retain myths from lost poems and lost plays.  Finally, from the travellers and historians we occasionally glean examples of the tales (“holy chapters,” as Mr. Grote calls them) which were narrated by priests and temple officials to the pilgrims who visited the sacred shrines.

These “chapters” are almost invariably puerile, savage and obscene.  They bear the stamp of extreme antiquity, because they never, as a rule, passed through the purifying medium of literature.  There were many myths too crude and archaic for the purposes of poetry and of the drama.  These were handed down from local priest to local priest, with the inviolability of sacred and immutable tradition.  We have already given a reason for assigning a high antiquity to the local temple myths.  Just as Greeks lived in villages before they gathered into towns, so their gods were gods of villages or tribes before they were national deities.  The local myths are those of the archaic village state of “culture,” more ancient, more savage, than literary narrative.  Very frequently the local legends were subjected to the process of allegorical interpretation, as men became alive to the monstrosity of their unsophisticated meaning.  Often they proved too savage for our authorities, who merely remark, “Concerning this a certain holy chapter is told,” but decline to record the legend.  In the same way missionaries, with mistaken delicacy, often refuse to repeat some savage legend with which they are acquainted.

The latest sort of testimony as to Greek myths must be sought in the writings of the heathen apologists or learned Pagan defenders of Paganism in the first centuries during Christianity, and in the works of their opponents, the fathers of the Church.  Though the fathers certainly do not understate the abominations of Paganism, and though the heathen apologists make free use of allegorical (and impossible) interpretations, the evidence of both is often useful and important.  The testimony of ancient art, vases, statues, pictures and the descriptions of these where they no longer survive, are also of service and interest.

After this brief examination of the sources of our knowledge of Greek myth, we may approach the Homeric legends of the origin of things and the world’s beginning.  In Homer these matters are only referred to incidentally.  He more than once calls Oceanus (that is, the fabled stream which flows all round the world, here regarded as a PERSON) “the origin of the gods,” “the origin of all things”.[1]  That Ocean is considered a person, and that he is not an allegory for water or the aqueous element, appears from the speech of Hera to Aphrodite: “I am going to visit the limits of the bountiful earth, and Oceanus, father of the gods, and mother Tethys, who reared me duly and nurtured me in their halls, when far-seeing Zeus imprisoned Cronus beneath the earth and the unvintaged sea”.[2]  Homer does not appear to know Uranus as the father of Cronus, and thus the myth of the mutilation of Uranus necessarily does not occur in Homer.  Cronus, the head of the dynasty which preceded that of Zeus, is described[3] as the son of Rhea, but nothing is said of his father.  The passage contains the account which Poseidon himself chose to give of the war in heaven:

“Three brethren are we, and sons of Cronus whom Rhea bare—Zeus and myself, and Hades is the third, the ruler of the folk in the underworld.  And in three lots were all things divided, and each drew a domain of his own.”  Here Zeus is the ELDEST son of Cronus.  Though lots are drawn at hazard for the property of the father (which we know to have been customary in Homer’s time), yet throughout the Iliad Zeus constantly claims the respect and obedience due to him by right of primogeniture.[4]  We shall see that Hesiod adopts exactly the opposite view.  Zeus is the YOUNGEST child of Cronus.  His supremacy is an example of jungsten recht, the wide-spread custom which makes the youngest child the heir in chief.[5]  But how did the sons of Cronus come to have his property in their hands to divide?  By right of successful rebellion, when “Zeus imprisoned Cronus beneath the earth and the unvintaged sea”.  With Cronus in his imprisonment are the Titans.  That is all that Homer cares to tell about the absolute beginning of things and the first dynasty of rulers of Olympus.  His interest is all in the actual reigning family, that of the Cronidae, nor is he fond of reporting their youthful excesses.


[1] Iliad, xiv. 201, 302, 246.

[2] In reading what Homer and Hesiod report about these matters, we must remember that all the forces and phenomena are conceived of by them as PERSONS.  In this regard the archaic and savage view of all things as personal and human is preserved.  “I maintain,” says Grote, “moreover, fully the character of these great divine agents as persons, which is the light in which they presented themselves to the Homeric or Hesiodic audience.  Uranus, Nyx, Hypnos and Oneiros (heaven, night, sleep and dream) are persons just as much as Zeus or Apollo.  To resolve them into mere allegories is unsafe and unprofitable.  We then depart from the point of view of the original hearers without acquiring any consistent or philosophical point of view of our own.”  This holds good though portions of the Hesiodic genealogies are distinctly poetic allegories cast in the mould or the ancient personal theory of things.

[3] Iliad, xv. 187.

[4] The custom by which sons drew lots for equal shares of their dead father’s property is described in Odyssey, xiv. 199-212.  Here Odysseus, giving a false account of himself, says that he was a Cretan, a bastard, and that his half-brothers, born in wedlock, drew lots for their father’s inheritance, and did not admit him to the drawing, but gave him a small portion apart.

[5] See Elton, Origins of English History, pp. 185-207.


We now turn from Homer’s incidental allusions to the ample and systematic narrative of Hesiod.  As Mr. Grote says, “Men habitually took their information respecting their theogonic antiquities from the Hesiodic poems.”  Hesiod was accepted as an authority both by the pious Pausanias in the second century of our era—who protested against any attempt to alter stories about the gods—and by moral reformers like Plato and Xenophanes, who were revolted by the ancient legends,[1] and, indeed, denied their truth.  Yet, though Hesiod represents Greek orthodoxy, we have observed that Homer (whose epics are probably still more ancient) steadily ignores the more barbarous portions of Hesiod’s narrative.  Thus the question arises: Are the stories of Hesiod’s invention, and later than Homer, or does Homer’s genius half-unconsciously purify materials like those which Hesiod presents in the crudest form?  Mr. Grote says: “How far these stories are the invention of Hesiod himself it is impossible to determine.  They bring us down to a cast of fancy more coarse and indelicate than the Homeric, and more nearly resemble some of the holy chapters ([Greek text omitted]) of the more recent mysteries, such, for example, as the tale of Dionysus Zagreus.  There is evidence in the Theogony itself that the author was acquainted with local legends current both at Krete and at Delphi, for he mentions both the mountain-cave in Krete wherein the newly-born Zeus was hidden, and the stone near the Delphian temple— the identical stone which Kronos had swallowed—placed by Zeus himself as a sign and marvel to mortal men.  Both these monuments, which the poet expressly refers to, and had probably seen, imply a whole train of accessory and explanatory local legends, current probably among the priests of Krete and Delphi.”


[1] Timaeeus, 41; Republic, 377.


All these circumstances appear to be good evidence of the great antiquity of the legends recorded by Hesiod.  In the first place, arguing merely a priori, it is extremely improbable that in the brief interval between the date of the comparatively pure and noble mythology of the Iliad and the much ruder Theogony of Hesiod men INVENTED stories like the mutilation of Uranus, and the swallowing of his offspring by Cronus.  The former legend is almost exactly parallel, as has already been shown, to the myth of Papa and Rangi in New Zealand.  The later has its parallels among the savage Bushmen and Australians.  It is highly improbable that men in an age so civilised as that of Homer invented myths as hideous as those of the lowest savages.  But if we take these myths to be, not new inventions, but the sacred stories of local priesthoods, their antiquity is probably incalculable.  The sacred stories, as we know from Pausanias, Herodotus and from all the writers who touch on the subject of the mysteries, were myths communicated by the priests to the initiated.  Plato speaks of such myths in the Republic, 378:

“If there is an absolute necessity for their mention, a very few might hear them in a mystery, and then let them sacrifice, not a common pig, but some huge and unprocurable victim; this would have the effect of very greatly diminishing the number of the hearers”.  This is an amusing example of a plan for veiling the horrors of myth.  The pig was the animal usually offered to Demeter, the goddess of the Eleusinian mysteries.  Plato proposes to substitute some “unprocurable” beast, perhaps a giraffe or an elephant.

To Hesiod, then, we must turn for what is the earliest complete literary form of the Greek cosmogonic myth.  Hesiod begins, like the New Zealanders, with “the august race of gods, by earth and wide heaven begotten”.[1]  So the New Zealanders, as we have seen, say, “The heaven which is above us, and the earth which is beneath us, are the progenitors of men and the origin of all things”.  Hesiod[2] somewhat differs from this view by making Chaos absolutely first of all things, followed by “wide-bosomed Earth,” Tartarus and Eros (love).  Chaos unaided produced Erebus and Night; the children of Night and Erebus are Aether and Day.  Earth produced Heaven, who then became her own lover, and to Heaven she bore Oceanus, and the Titans, Coeeus and Crius, Hyperion and Iapetus, Thea and Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Tethys, “and youngest after these was born Cronus of crooked counsel, the most dreadful of her children, who ever detested his puissant sire,” Heaven.  There were other sons of Earth and Heaven peculiarly hateful to their father,[3] and these Uranus used to hide from the light in a hollow of Gaea.  Both they and Gaea resented this treatment, and the Titans, like “the children of Heaven and Earth,” in the New Zealand poem, “sought to discern the difference between light and darkness”.  Gaea (unlike Earth in the New Zealand myth, for there she is purely passive), conspired with her children, produced iron, and asked her sons to avenge their wrongs.[4]  Fear fell upon all of them save Cronus, who (like Tane Mahuta in the Maori poem) determined to end the embraces of Earth and Heaven.  But while the New Zealand, like the Indo-Aryan myth,[5] conceives of Earth and Heaven as two beings who have never previously been sundered at all, Hesiod makes Heaven amorously approach his spouse from a distance.  This was the moment for Cronus,[6] who stretched out his hand armed with the sickle of iron, and mutilated Uranus.  As in so many savage myths, the blood of the wounded god fallen on the ground produced strange creatures, nymphs of the ash-tree, giants and furies.  As in the Maori myth, one of the children of Heaven stood apart and did not consent to the deed.  This was Oceanus in Greece,[7] and in New Zealand it was Tawhiri Matea, the wind, “who arose and followed his father, Heaven, and remained with him in the open spaces of the sky”.  Uranus now predicted[8] that there would come a day of vengeance for the evil deed of Cronus, and so ends the dynasty of Uranus.


[1] Theog., 45.

[2] Ibid., 116.

[3] Ibid., 155.

[4] Ibid., 166.

[5] Muir, v. 23, quoting Aitareya Brahmana, iv. 27: “These two worlds were once joined; subsequently they separated”.

[6] Theog., 175-185.

[7] Apollod., i, 15.

[8] Theog., 209.


This story was one of the great stumbling-blocks of orthodox Greece.  It was the tale that Plato said should be told, if at all, only to a few in a mystery, after the sacrifice of some rare and scarcely obtainable animal.  Even among the Maoris, the conduct of the children who severed their father and mother is regarded as a singular instance of iniquity, and is told to children as a moral warning, an example to be condemned.  In Greece, on the other hand, unless we are to take the Euthyphro as wholly ironical, some of the pious justified their conduct by the example of Zeus.  Euthyphro quotes this example when he is about to prosecute his own father, for which act, he says, “Men are angry with ME; so inconsistently do they talk when I am concerned and when the gods are concerned”.[1] But in Greek THE TALE HAS NO MEANING.  It has been allegorised in various ways, and Lafitau fancied that it was a distorted form of the Biblical account of the origin of sin.  In Maori the legend is perfectly intelligible.  Heaven and earth were conceived of (like everything else), as beings with human parts and passions, linked in an endless embrace which crushed and darkened their children.  It became necessary to separate them, and this feat was achieved not without pain.  “Then wailed the Heaven, and exclaimed the Earth, ‘Wherefore this murder?  Why this great sin?  Why separate us?’  But what cared Tane?  Upwards he sent one and downwards the other.  He cruelly severed the sinews which united Heaven and Earth.”[2]  The Greek myth too, contemplated earth and heaven as beings corporeally united, and heaven as a malignant power that concealed his children in darkness.


[1] Euthyphro, 6.

[2] Taylor, New Zealand, 119.


But while the conception of heaven and earth as parents of living things remains perfectly intelligible in one sense, the vivid personification which regarded them as creatures with human parts and passions had ceased to be intelligible in Greece before the times of the earliest philosophers.  The old physical conception of the pair became a metaphor, and the account of their rending asunder by their children lost all significance, and seemed to be an abominable and unintelligible myth.  When examined in the light of the New Zealand story, and of the fact that early peoples do regard all phenomena as human beings, with physical attributes like those of men, the legend of Cronus, and Uranus, and Gaea ceases to be a mystery.  It is, at bottom, a savage explanation (as in the Samoan story) of the separation of earth and heaven, an explanation which could only have occurred to people in a state of mind which civilisation has forgotten.

The next generation of Hesiodic gods (if gods we are to call the members of this race of non-natural men) was not more fortunate than the first in its family relations.

Cronus wedded his sister, Rhea, and begat Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and the youngest, Zeus.  “And mighty Cronus swallowed down each of them, each that came to their mother’s knees from her holy womb, with this intent that none other of the proud sons of heaven should hold his kingly sway among the immortals.  Heaven and Earth had warned him that he too should fall through his children.  Wherefore he kept no vain watch, but spied and swallowed down each of his offspring, while grief immitigable took possession of Rhea.”[1]  Rhea, being about to become the mother of Zeus, took counsel with Uranus and Gaea.  By their advice she went to Crete, where Zeus was born, and, in place of the child, she presented to Cronus a huge stone swathed in swaddling bands.  This he swallowed, and was easy in his mind.  Zeus grew up, and by some means, suggested by Gaea, compelled Zeus to disgorge all his offspring.  “And he vomited out the stone first, as he had swallowed it last.”[2]  The swallowed children emerged alive, and Zeus fixed the stone at Pytho (Delphi), where Pausanias[3] had the privilege of seeing it, and where, as it did not tempt the cupidity of barbarous invaders, it probably still exists.  It was not a large stone, Pausanias says, and the Delphians used to pour oil over it, as Jacob did[4] to the stone at Bethel, and on feast-days they covered it with wraps of wool.  The custom of smearing fetish-stones (which Theophrastus mentions as one of the practices of the superstitious man) is clearly a survival from the savage stage of religion.  As a rule, however, among savages, fetish-stones are daubed with red paint (like the face of the wooden ancient Dionysi in Greece, and of Tsui Goab among the Hottentots), not smeared with oil.[5]


[1] Theog., 460, 465.

[2] Theog., 498.

[3] x. 245.

[4] Gen. xxviii. 18.

[5] Pausanias, ii. 2, 5.  “Churinga” in Australia are greased with the natural moisture of the palm of the hand, and rubbed with red ochre.—Spencer and Gillen.  They are “sacred things,” but not exactly fetishes.


The myth of the swallowing and disgorging of his own children by Cronus was another of the stumbling-blocks of Greek orthodoxy.  The common explanation, that Time ([Greek text omitted]) does swallow his children, the days, is not quite satisfactory.  Time brings never the past back again, as Cronus did.  Besides, the myth of the swallowing is not confined to Cronus.  Modern philology has given, as usual, different analyses of the meaning of the name of the god.  Hermann, with Preller, derives it from [Greek text omitted], to fulfil.  The harvest-month, says Preller, was named Cronion in Greece, and Cronia was the title of the harvest-festival.  The sickle of Cronus is thus brought into connection with the sickle of the harvester.[1]


[1] Preller, Gr. Myth., i. 44; Hartung, ii. 48; Porphyry, Abst., ii. 54. Welcker will not hear of this etymology, Gr. gott., i. 145, note 9.


The second myth, in which Cronus swallows his children, has numerous parallels in savage legend.  Bushmen tell of Kwai Hemm, the devourer, who swallows that great god, the mantis insect, and disgorges him alive with all the other persons and animals whom he has engulphed in the course of a long and voracious career.[1]  The moon in Australia, while he lived on earth, was very greedy, and swallowed the eagle-god, whom he had to disgorge.  Mr. Im Thurn found similar tales among the Indians of Guiana.  The swallowing and disgorging of Heracles by the monster that was to slay Hesione is well known.  Scotch peasants tell of the same feats, but localise the myth on the banks of the Ken in Galloway.  Basutos, Eskimos, Zulus and European fairy tales all possess this incident, the swallowing of many persons by a being from whose maw they return alive and in good case.


[1] Bleek, Bushman Folk-lore, pp. 6, 8.


A mythical conception which prevails from Greenland to South Africa, from Delphi to the Solomon Islands, from Brittany to the shores of Lake Superior, must have some foundation in the common elements of human nature.[1]  Now it seems highly probable that this curious idea may have been originally invented in an attempt to explain natural phenomena by a nature-myth.  It has already been shown (chapter v.) that eclipses are interpreted, even by the peasantry of advanced races, as the swallowing of the moon by a beast or a monster.  The Piutes account for the disappearance of the stars in the daytime by the hypothesis that the “sun swallows his children”.  In the Melanesian myth, dawn is cut out of the body of night by Qat, armed with a knife of red obsidian.  Here are examples[2] of transparent nature-myths in which this idea occurs for obvious explanatory purposes, and in accordance with the laws of the savage imagination.  Thus the conception of the swallowing and disgorging being may very well have arisen out of a nature-myth.  But why is the notion attached to the legend of Cronus?


[1] The myth of Cronus and the swallowed children and the stone is transferred to Gargantua.  See Sebillot, Gargantua dans les Traditions Populaires.  But it is impossible to be certain that this is not an example of direct borrowing by Madame De Cerny in her Saint Suliac, p. 69.

[2] Compare Tylor, Prim. Cult., i. 338.


That is precisely the question about which mythologists differ, as has been shown, and perhaps it is better to offer no explanation.  However stories arise—and this story probably arose from a nature-myth—it is certain that they wander about the world, that they change masters, and thus a legend which is told of a princess with an impossible name in Zululand is told of the mother of Charlemagne in France.  The tale of the swallowing may have been attributed to Cronus, as a great truculent deity, though it has no particular elemental signification in connection with his legend.

This peculiarly savage trick of swallowing each other became an inherited habit in the family of Cronus.  When Zeus reached years of discretion, he married Metis, and this lady, according to the scholiast on Hesiod, had the power of transforming herself into any shape she pleased.  When she was about to be a mother, Zeus induced her to assume the shape of a fly and instantly swallowed her.[1] In behaving thus, Zeus acted on the advice of Uranus and Gaea.  It was feared that Metis would produce a child more powerful than his father.  Zeus avoided this peril by swallowing his wife, and himself gave birth to Athene.  The notion of swallowing a hostile person, who has been changed by magic into a conveniently small bulk, is very common.  It occurs in the story of Taliesin.[2] Caridwen, in the shape of a hen, swallows Gwion Bach, in the form of a grain of wheat.  In the same manner the princess in the Arabian Nights swallowed the Geni.  Here then we have in the Hesiodic myth an old marchen pressed into the service of the higher mythology.  The apprehension which Zeus (like Herod and King Arthur) always felt lest an unborn child should overthrow him, was also familiar to Indra; but, instead of swallowing the mother and concealing her in his own body, like Zeus, Indra entered the mother’s body, and himself was born instead of the dreaded child.[3]  A cow on this occasion was born along with Indra.  This adventure of the [Greek text omitted] or swallowing of Metis was explained by the late Platonists as a Platonic allegory.  Probably the people who originated the tale were not Platonists, any more than Pandarus was all Aristotelian.


[1] Hesiod, Theogonia, 886.  See Scholiast and note in Aglaophamus, i. 613.  Compare Puss in Boots and the Ogre.

[2] Mabinogion, p. 473.

[3] Black Yajur Veda, quoted by Sayana.


After Homer and Hesiod, the oldest literary authorities for Greek cosmogonic myths are the poems attributed to Orpheus.  About their probable date, as has been said, little is known.  They have reached us only in fragments, but seem to contain the first guesses of a philosophy not yet disengaged from mythical conditions.  The poet preserves, indeed, some extremely rude touches of early imagination, while at the same time one of the noblest and boldest expressions of pantheistic thought is attributed to him.  From the same source are drawn ideas as pure as those of the philosophical Vedic hymn,[1] and as wild as those of the Vedic Purusha Sukta, or legend of the fashioning of the world out of the mangled limbs of Purusha.  The authors of the Orphic cosmogony appear to have begun with some remarks on Time ([Greek text omitted]).  “Time was when as yet this world was not.”[2]  Time, regarded in the mythical fashion as a person, generated Chaos and Aether.  The Orphic poet styles Chaos [Greek text omitted], “the monstrous gulph,” or “gap”.  This term curiously reminds one of Ginnunga-gap in the Scandinavian cosmogonic legends.  “Ginnunga-gap was light as windless air,” and therein the blast of heat met the cold rime, whence Ymir was generated, the Purusha of Northern fable.[3]  These ideas correspond well with the Orphic conception of primitive space.[4]


[1] Rig-Veda, x. 90.

[2] Lobeck, Aglaophamus, i. 470.  See also the quotations from Proclus.

[3] Gylfi’s Mocking.

[4] Aglaophamus, p. 473.


In process of time Chaos produced an egg, shining and silver white.  It is absurd to inquire, according to Lobeck, whether the poet borrowed this widely spread notion of a cosmic egg from Phoenicia, Babylon, Egypt (where the goose-god Seb laid the egg), or whether the Orphic singer originated so obvious an idea.  Quaerere ludicrum est.  The conception may have been borrowed, but manifestly it is one of the earliest hypotheses that occur to the rude imagination.  We have now three primitive generations, time, chaos, the egg, and in the fourth generation the egg gave birth to Phanes, the great hero of the Orphic cosmogony.[1]  The earliest and rudest thinkers were puzzled, as many savage cosmogonic myths have demonstrated, to account for the origin of life.  The myths frequently hit on the theory of a hermaphroditic being, both male and female, who produces another being out of himself.  Prajapati in the Indian stories, and Hrimthursar in Scandinavian legend—“one of his feet got a son on the other”—with Lox in the Algonquin tale are examples of these double-sexed personages.  In the Orphic poem, Phanes is both male and female.  This Phanes held within him “the seed of all the gods,”[2] and his name is confused with the names of Metis and Ericapaeus in a kind of trinity.  All this part of the Orphic doctrine is greatly obscured by the allegorical and theosophistic interpretations of the late Platonists long after our era, who, as usual, insisted on finding their own trinitarian ideas, commenta frigidissima, concealed under the mythical narrative.[3]


[1] Clemens Alexan., p. 672.

[2] Damascius, ap. Lobeck, i. 481.

[3] Aglaoph., i. 483.


Another description by Hieronymus of the first being, the Orphic Phanes, “as a serpent with bull’s and lion’s heads, with a human face in the middle and wings on the shoulders,” is sufficiently rude and senseless.  But these physical attributes could easily be explained away as types of anything the Platonist pleased.[1]  The Orphic Phanes, too, was almost as many-headed as a giant in a fairy tale, or as Purusha in the Rig-Veda.  He had a ram’s head, a bull’s head, a snake’s head and a lion’s head, and glanced around with four eyes, presumably human.[2]  This remarkable being was also provided with golden wings.  The nature of the physical arrangements by which Phanes became capable of originating life in the world is described in a style so savage and crude that the reader must be referred to Suidas for the original text.[3]  The tale is worthy of the Swift-like fancy of the Australian Narrinyeri.


[1] Damascius, 381, ap. Lobeck, i. 484.

[2] Hermias in Phaedr. ap. Lobeck, i. 493.

[3] Suidas s. v. Phanes.


Nothing can be easier or more delusive than to explain all this wild part of the Orphic cosmogony as an allegorical veil of any modern ideas we choose to select.  But why the “allegory” should closely imitate the rough guesses of uncivilised peoples, Ahts, Diggers, Zunis, Cahrocs, it is less easy to explain.  We can readily imagine African or American tribes who were accustomed to revere bulls, rams, snakes, and so forth, ascribing the heads of all their various animal patrons to the deity of their confederation.  We can easily see how such races as practise the savage rites of puberty should attribute to the first being the special organs of Phanes.  But on the Neo-Platonic hypothesis that Orpheus was a seer of Neo-Platonic opinions, we do not see why he should have veiled his ideas under so savage an allegory.  This part of the Orphic speculation is left in judicious silence by some modern commentators, such as M. Darmesteter in Les Cosmogonies Aryennes.[1]  Indeed, if we choose to regard Apollonius Rhodius, an Alexandrine poet writing in a highly civilised age, as the representative of Orphicism, it is easy to mask and pass by the more stern and characteristic fortresses of the Orphic divine.  The theriomorphic Phanes is a much less “Aryan” and agreeable object than the glorious golden-winged Eros, the love-god of Apollonius Rhodius and Aristophanes.[2]


[1] Essais Orientaux, p. 166.

[2] Argonautica, 1-12; Aves, 693.


On the whole, the Orphic fragments appear to contain survivals of savage myths of the origin of things blended with purer speculations.  The savage ideas are finally explained by late philosophers as allegorical veils and vestments of philosophy; but the interpretation is arbitrary, and varies with the taste and fancy of each interpreter.  Meanwhile the coincidence of the wilder elements with the speculations native to races in the lowest grades of civilisation is undeniable.  This opinion is confirmed by the Greek myths of the origin of Man.  These, too, coincide with the various absurd conjectures of savages.

In studying the various Greek local legends of the origin of Man, we encounter the difficulty of separating them from the myths of heroes, which it will be more convenient to treat separately.  This difficulty we have already met in our treatment of savage traditions of the beginnings of the race.  Thus we saw that among the Melanesians, Qat, and among the Ahts, Quawteaht, were heroic persons, who made men and most other things.  But it was desirable to keep their performances of this sort separate from their other feats, their introduction of fire, for example, and of various arts.  In the same way it will be well, in reviewing Greek legends, to keep Prometheus’ share in the making of men apart from the other stories of his exploits as a benefactor of the men whom he made.  In Hesiod, Prometheus is the son of the Titan Iapetus, and perhaps his chief exploit is to play upon Zeus a trick of which we find the parallel in various savage myths.  It seems, however, from Ovid[1] and other texts, that Hesiod somewhere spoke of Prometheus as having made men out of clay, like Pund-jel in the Australian, Qat in the Melanesian and Tiki in the Maori myths.  The same story is preserved in Servius’s commentary on Virgil.[2]  A different legend is preserved in the Etymologicum Magnum (voc. Ikonion).  According to this story, after the deluge of Deucalion, “Zeus bade Prometheus and Athene make images of men out of clay, and the winds blew into them the breath of life”.  In confirmation of this legend, Pausanias was shown in Phocis certain stones of the colour of clay, and “smelling very like human flesh”; and these, according to the Phocians, were “the remains of the clay from which the whole human race was fashioned by Prometheus”.[3]


[1] Ovid. Metam. i. 82.

[2] Eclogue, vi. 42.

[3] Pausanias, x. 4, 3.


Aristophanes, too, in the Birds (686) talks of men as [Greek text omitted], figures kneaded of clay.  Thus there are sufficient traces in Greek tradition of the savage myth that man was made of clay by some superior being, like Pund-jel in the quaint Australian story.

We saw that among various rude races other theories of the origin of man were current.  Men were thought to have come out of a hole in the ground or a bed of reeds, and sometimes the very scene of their first appearance was still known and pointed out to the curious.  This myth was current among races who regarded themselves as the only people whose origin needed explanation.  Other stories represented man as the fruit of a tree, or the child of a rock or stone, or as the descendant of one of the lower animals.  Examples of these opinions in Greek legend are now to be given.  In the first place, we have a fragment of Pindar, in which the poet enumerates several of the centres from which different Greek tribes believed men to have sprung.  “Hard it is to find out whether Alalkomeneus, first of men, arose on the marsh of Cephissus, or whether the Curetes of Ida first, a stock divine, arose, or if it was the Phrygian Corybantes that the sun earliest saw—men like trees walking;” and Pindar mentions Egyptian and Libyan legends of the same description.[1]  The Thebans and the Arcadians held themselves to be “earth-born”.  “The black earth bore Pelasgus on the high wooded hills,” says an ancient line of Asius.  The Dryopians were an example of a race of men born from ash-trees.  The myth of gens virum truncis et duro robore nata, “born of tree-trunk and the heart of oak,” had passed into a proverb even in Homer’s time.[2]  Lucian mentions[3] the Athenian myth “that men grew like cabbages out of the earth”.  As to Greek myths of the descent of families from animals, these will be examined in the discussion of the legend of Zeus.


[1] Preller, Aus. Auf., p. 158.

[2] Virgil Aen., viii. 315; Odyssey, xix. 163; Iliad, ii. xxii.  120; Juvenal, vi. 11.  Cf. also Bouche Leclerq, De Origine Generis Humani.

[3] Philops. iii.



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