Myth Summary

Chapter 4: Zeus’ Rise to Power: The Creation Of Mortals


This epic battle was waged for ten years between Zeus and the Olympians and Cronus and the Titans. Cronus fought from Mt. Othrys; his allies were the Titans except for Themis and her son PROMETHEUS [proh-mee'the-us]. Prometheus’ brother ATLAS [at'las] sided with Cronus.
Zeus fought from Mt. Olympus and his allies, in addition to Themis and Prometheus, were his brothers and sisters, who had been swallowed by Cronus but later regurgitated, namely: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon. Also on his side were the Hecatonchires and the Cyclopes.
Zeus was victorious and the Titans were imprisoned in Tartarus, guarded by the Hecatonchires; and Atlas was punished with the task of holding up the sky.


Giants, called GEGENEIS [jee’je-nays and gay’ge-nays], since they were “born from the Earth,” challenged Zeus and the new order of the gods. They were defeated in a fierce battle and were imprisoned under the earth. Volcanoes, when they erupt, reveal the presence of the giants below.
TYPHOEUS [teye-fee'us], also called TYPHAON [teye-fay'on] or TYPHON [teye'fon] was a ferocious dragon-god, whom earth produced to do battle with Zeus, either separately, or alongside the giants in the great Gigantomachy. Zeus' triumph singles him out as an archetypal dragon-slayer.

  • The giants, OTUS [oh'tus] or OTOS and EPHIALTES [ef-i-al'teez], in a separate attack, failed in their attempt to storm heaven by piling Olympus, Ossa, and Pelion, one upon the other.
  • The Titanomachy and the Gigantomachy are often confused in literature and art, and details vary considerably.


There are several conflicting versions about the creation of mortals. According to the myth of the ages of humankind, men and women are the creation of the gods or Zeus himself. The following is a summary of Hesiod’s account. Ovid describes only four ages, omitting the Age of Heroes. This tale of human degeneration mingles fact and fancy in an astonishing manner, for ages of bronze and of iron are historically very real indeed.

The Age of Gold. In the time when Cronus (Saturn) was king in heaven, the Olympian gods made a golden race of mortals, who lived as though in a paradise, without toil, trouble or cares. All good things were theirs in abundance, and the fertile earth brought forth fruit of its own accord. They lived in peace and harmony, never grew old, and died as though overcome by sleep.  The earth covered over this race, but they still exist as holy spirits who wander over the earth.

The Age of Silver. The Olympian gods made a second race of silver, far less favored than the one of gold. Their childhood lasted a hundred years and when they grew up their lives were short and distressful. For they were arrogant against one another and refused to worship the gods or offer them sacrifice. Zeus in his anger at their senselessness hid them under the earth where they still dwell.

The Age of Bronze. Zeus made a third race of mortals, a terrible and mighty one of bronze. Their implements and weapons were of bronze, and they relentlessly pursued the painful and violent deeds of war. They destroyed themselves by their own hands and went down to the realm of Hades without leaving a name.

The Age of Heroes. Zeus made still another race, also valiant in war but more just and more civilized. This was the race of the heroes, also called demigods, who were involved in the legendary events of Greek saga. They fought, for example, at Thebes and in the Trojan War. When they died, Zeus sent some of these heroes to inhabit the Islands of the Blessed, a paradise at the far ends of the earth, ruled over by Cronus (Saturn), who had been deposed and freed by Zeus.

The Age of Iron. Zeus made still another race, that of iron, troubled by toil and misery, although good is intermingled with their evils. It is in this age that the poet Hesiod lived, and he exclaims in woe: “Would that I were not a man of the fifth generation but had either died before or had been born later.” He predicts further moral and physical disintegration and annihilation through war, until Zeus will finally destroy human beings when it comes to pass that they are born with gray hair on their temples. More and more will this become an age of wickedness, strife, and disrespect for the gods, until Shame itself and righteous Retribution will abandon mortals to their evil folly and doom.


Dominant in the tradition about creation is the myth that Prometheus (not Zeus) was the creator of human beings from clay and Athena breathed into them the divine spirit. In the version of Hesiod, although his account is far from logical and clear, it seems that Prometheus fashioned only mankind. Womankind was created later, through the agency of Zeus, in the person of Pandora.


Although Prometheus had fought on the side of Zeus in his war against Cronus, the two mighty gods soon came into conflict once Zeus had assumed supreme power.

The Nature of Sacrifice. Their antagonism began when Prometheus dared to match wits with Zeus. There was a quarrel between mortals and the gods, apparently about how the parts of the sacrificial animals should be apportioned. Prometheus divided up a great ox and for his creatures, us mortals, he wrapped the flesh and the rich and fatty innards in the ox’s paunch. For the gods, however, he deviously and artfully wrapped up the bones of the ox in its enticing, rich, white fat. He asked Zeus to take his choice between the two portions, and Zeus, fully aware of Prometheus’ deception, chose the bones attractively wrapped in fat. Thus it was that when the Greeks made sacrifice to the gods, they enjoyed feasting upon the best edible portions of the animals, while only the white bones that remained were burned for the gods.

The Theft of Fire. Zeus was enraged at Prometheus’ attempt to deceive him and wreaked  his vengeance upon mortals, the creatures of Prometheus. He took away from them fire, essential to their livelihood and progress. Prometheus, defiantly our champion, once again tricked Zeus (who this time was presumably at first unaware?) by stealing in a hollow fennel stalk fire from heaven and restoring it to earth. Zeus was stung to the depths of his heart by Prometheus’ outrage and “contrived an evil thing for mortals in recompense for the fire,” namely, the woman Pandora.

The Punishment of Prometheus. A further defiance of Prometheus was his refusal to reveal to Zeus a crucial secret that he knew and Zeus did not. If Zeus mated with the sea-goddess Thetis, she would bear a son who would overthrow his father. Thus Zeus faced the terrible risk of losing his power as supreme god, like Cronus and Uranus before him. The outcome of Zeus’ anger against Prometheus for his rebellious championship of mortals and his obstinate refusal to warn Zeus about Thetis was a dire punishment. Zeus had the wily and devious Prometheus bound in inescapable bonds to a crag of the remote Caucasus Mountains in Scythia, with a shaft driven through his middle. And he sent an eagle to eat his immortal liver each day, and what the eagle ate would be restored again each night. Generations later, however, Zeus worked out a reconciliation with Prometheus and sent his son Heracles to kill the eagle with an arrow and release Prometheus. Zeus avoided mating with Thetis, who married a mortal, Peleus, and bore a son Achilles to become mightier than his father.


The woman that Zeus sent as a beautiful and treacherous evil to mortals in punishment for their possession of Prometheus’ stolen fire was named PANDORA [pan-dor'a] (“all gifts”). He had Hephaestus fashion her out of earth and water in the image of a modest maiden, beautiful as a goddess. Athena clothed her in silvery garments and her face was covered with a wondrously embroidered veil. She placed on her head lovely garlands of flowers and a golden crown, beautifully made and intricately decorated by Hephaestus; and she taught her weaving. Aphrodite bestowed upon her the grace of sexual allurement and desire and their pain. Hermes contrived in her breast wheedling words and lies and the nature of a thief and a bitch. All at the will of Zeus.

Zeus sent this snare to the brother of Prometheus, named EPIMETHEUS [ep-i-mee'the-us], who received the gift even though his brother had warned him not to accept anything sent from Zeus. The name Prometheus means forethought, but Epimetheus means afterthought.

Pandora’s Jar. Zeus sent with Pandora a jar, urn, or box, which contained evils of all sorts, and as well hope. She herself removed the cover and released the miseries within to plague human beings, who previously had led carefree and happy lives: hard work, painful diseases, and thousands of sorrows. Through the will of Zeus, hope alone remained within the jar, because life without hope would be unbearable in the face of all the horrible woes unleashed for poor mortals. In Hesiod, Pandora is not motivated toopen the jar by a so-called feminine curiosity, whatever later versions may imply.


In addition to Hesiod’s account, Aeschylus’ play Prometheus Bound is fundamental for an understanding of the archetypal Prometheus. Aeschylus powerfully establishes Prometheus as our suffering champion who has advanced human beings, through his gift of fire, from savagery to civilization. Furthermore, Prometheus gave us the hope denied to us by Zeus, which, however blind, permits us to persevere and triumph over the terrible vicissitudes of life. Prometheus is grandly portrayed as the archetypal trickster and culture-god, the originator of all inventions and progress in the arts and the sciences. At the end of the play, Prometheus is still defiant, chained to his rock, and still refusing to reveal the secret of the marriage of Thetis. The conflict between the suffering hero and the tyrannical god was resolved in the lost plays of Aeschylus’ Prometheus trilogy (i.e., group of three connected plays). In that resolution, Aeschylus presumably depicted Zeus as a god of wisdom who, through the suffering of Prometheus, established himself in the end as a triumphant, almighty god secure in his supreme power, brought about through his divine plan for reconciliation.

Io. This divine plan of Zeus for reconciliation with a defeated Prometheus entailed the suffering of IO [eye'oh], a priestess of Hera who was loved by Zeus. Hera found out and turned Io into a white cow. She appointed a guard to watch over Io, a very good one indeed, since he had many eyes (perhaps as many as one hundred), and his name was ARGUS [ar'gus] PANOPTES [pan-op'teez] (“all-seeing”). Zeus rescued Io by sending Hermes to lull Argus to sleep and cut off his head. Henceforth Hermes was given the title ARGEIPHONTES [ar-ge-i-fon'teez] (“slayer of Argus”). Hera set Argus’ eyes in the tail of a peacock, her favorite bird, and continued her jealous persecution of Io by sending a gadfly to drive her mad. Frenzied, Io in her wanderings over the world encountered Prometheus. In Aeschylus, these two “victims” of Zeus commiserate with each other. We learn, however, that Io will find peace in Egypt, where she will be restored to her human form and bear a son, EPAPHUS [ep'a-fus] or EPAPHOS, a name that means “he of the touch.” Io had become pregnant, not through sexual rape, but by the mere touch of the hand of god, and among the descendants of Epaphus would be mighty Heracles destined to bring about the release of Prometheus. The fulfillment of the will of Zeus was in the end accomplished.


Lycaon and the Wickedness of Mortals. In the Age of Iron, Zeus took the form of a man to find out whether reports of the great wickedness of mortals were true. He visited the home of LYCAON [leye-kay'on] or LYKAON and announced that a god was present, but Lycaon, an evil tyrant, only scoffed and planned to kill Zeus during the night to prove that the visitor was not a god. Lycaon even went so far as to slaughter a man and offer human flesh as a meal for Zeus, who in anger brought the house down in flames. Lycaon fled but was turned into a howling, bloodthirsty wolf, a kind of werewolf in fact, since in this transformation he still manifested his human, evil looks and nature. Disgusted with the wickedness that he found everywhere he roamed, Zeus decided that the human race must be destroyed by a great flood.

Deucalion and Pyrrha. Zeus allowed only two pious mortals to be saved, DEUCALION [dou-kay'li-on] or DEUKALION (the Greek Noah), the son of Prometheus, and his wife PYRRHA [pir'ra], the daughter of Epimetheus. When the flood subsided they found themselves in their little boat stranded on Mt. Parnassus. They were dismayed to discover that they were the only survivors and consulted the oracle of Themis about what they should do. The goddess ordered them to toss the bones of their great mother behind their backs. Deucalion understood that the stones in the body of earth are her bones. And so the stones that Deucalion tossed behind his back were miraculously transformed into men, while those cast by Pyrrha became women. In this way the world was repopulated.

Hellen and the Hellenes. Deucalion and Pyrrha had a son named HELLEN [hel'len]. The ancient Greeks called themselves HELLENES [hel'leenz] and their country HELLAS [hel'las], and so Hellen was their eponymous ancestor.


It cannot escape notice that many Greek myths that explain the creation of the world have been influenced by Near Eastern forerunners. Though the exact path of that influence is now impossible to reconstruct, the consequences of this early Greek contact with the older civilizations of the TigrisEuphrates river valley cannot be denied. Commercial contact between the Greeks and the Near East seems the most likely conduit.  This contact took place mainly in two distinct periods: the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries B.C. and the eighth and seventh centuries B. C.  Five basic myths have proved especially fertile: the Creation, Succession, the Flood, the Descent to the Underworld, and the hero-king Gilgamesh.

A number of peoples have told and retold these myth archetypes in many different versions.  The most important of these civilizations, for our purposes, are the following:

  • The Sumerians (fourth millennium B. C.), with centers at Ur and Uruk, developed cuneiform (“wedge-shaped”) writing and the unique religious structure known as the ziggurat (a temple tower).
  • The Akkadians (third millennium B. C.) absorbed the Sumerians; their chief center was at Babylon, which reached the pinnacle of its development around 1800 under King Hammurabi.
  • The Assyrians (late second millennium B. C.), a northern Akkadian people, conquered Babylon in 1250 and established an empire with its capital at Nineveh.
  • The Hittites (second millennium B. C.) would absorb the Hurrians of northern Syria after 1400 and establish an empire in Anatolia (the central and eastern area of modern Turkey). Their capital was at Hattusas (modern Boghaz-Köy).

Sumerian, Babylonian, and Akkadian myths tell, like Hesiod, of order arising out of disorder, without an intelligent creator (cf. the creation story in Genesis). There is a concept akin to the Greek Chaos (“void”). These creation accounts, by their very nature, include myths of Succession, the Flood, and the creation and recreation of man.

Enuma Elish. The Babylonian Enuma Elish (“When on high…”), ca. the second millennium B.C. is the best-known myth of creation. In the beginning APSU (the freshwater ocean) and TIAMAT (the saltwater ocean) beget ANU (sky) and EA or ENKI (earth). Ea destroys Apsu and brings forth MARDUK. Marduk, a god of the younger generation, usurps the rule of the god Enlil and battles Tiamat, much as Zeus battles Typhoeus. Tiamat is blown up like an enormous balloon and rent in two. After the death of Tiamat, Marduk creates in the sky Esharra as a home for the gods. Those who followed Tiamat, such as KINGU, are imprisoned.  Marduk brings order to the world and creates human beings from the blood of Kingu, who by this time has been killed.  Human beings are to serve the gods. Marduk’s temple with its ziggurat is constructed at Babylon and called Esagila.

Atrahasis. The Babylonian Atrahasis (“the extra-wise one”), composed around 1700, recounts the exploits of the hero ATRAHASIS, who corresponds to UT-NAPISHTIM of the Gilgamesh Epic. Both are akin to the Hebrew Noah and the Greek Prometheus (god of wisdom and crafts) and Deucalion (survivor of the flood). In this version the gods bitterly chafe under Enlil’s rule, and as a consequence Enlil orders the creation of human beings, to perform the labors previously demanded of the gods; and so Enlil orders the death of the wise god GESHTU-E and from a mixture of earth and Geshtu-e’s flesh and blood, human beings are created. Enlil will later order the destruction of human beings by flood, but Atrahasis, who is favored by Enki, will survive. Eventually there is a reconciliation between Enlil and Enki.

Epic of Gilgamesh. The Epic of Gilgamesh contains the best known of the early flood myths. GILGAMESH, hero and god, king of Uruk, has been oppressing his people. To mediate his harsh rule, the gods create a rival, a “wild-man” of the forest, known as ENKIDU. Enkidu wrestles Gilgamesh but is defeated, after which the two become fast friends. They go on a quest to kill HUMBABA (or HUWAWA), the guardian of the Pine (or Cedar) Forest and there cut down a sacred tree. After they return to Uruk, Gilgamesh spurns the advances of ISHTAR, who sends the Bull of Heaven to destroy him. Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the bull, but one of them must atone for this sacrilege with his life. The gods decide that Enkidu must die. After Enkidu’s painful death, Gilgamesh, now in turmoil over the presence of death in the world, goes on a quest to find immortality. Gilgamesh’s journey is a type of Underworld experience, where he must cross the waters of death and meet Ut-napishtim, who lives at “the mouth of the rivers.” Ut-napishtim has achieved immortality as a survivor of the flood. Gilgamesh will be unsuccessful in his quest and eventually will return to Uruk.

This brief sketch of the main elements in the Epic of Gilgamesh will serve to highlight a few observations.  Gilgamesh himself was an historical figure, king of Sumerian Uruk, ca. 2700 B. C.  His legends were refashioned into various Assyrian versions dating from about 1700.  He stands as a figure akin to Odysseus or Heracles, a wise hero and slayer of beasts. Like Odysseus, his quest for immortality requires a descent to the Underworld. Like the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu serves as a major theme.  Though the flood myth is not of particular significance in Greek myth, it has a stronger presence in Ovid’s (Latin) narrative of Deucalion and Pyrrha (Metamorphoses 1.260–421) and the Lydian flood involving Baucis and Philemon (Metamorphoses 8.689–720).

Kingship in Heaven. The Hittite-Hurrian poem Kingship in Heaven recounts myths of succession and of the separation of earth and sky. KUMARBI (corresponding to the Sumerian Enlil) bites off the genitals of Anu (a sky-god) and swallows them. From the genitals is born TESHUB or TARKHUN (a storm-god). After his birth, Teshub plots with Anu to overthrow Kumarbi. Though the poem is fragmentary, Teshub appears to have been successful. Thus in the succession myths we have a structure that is paralleled in Greek mythology: Apsu/Enlil/Marduk; Anu/Kumarbi/Teshub; and Uranus/Cronus/Zeus.

The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld. The Akkadian poem The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld (second millennium B. C.) contains the most important example of an early myth of the descent to the Underworld. (The Akkadian version reworked an earlier Sumerian tradition in which Ishtar is called by her Sumerian name, INANNA.)  Ishtar/Inanna is a daughter of Anu and sister of ERESHKIGAL, queen of the Underworld and wife of NERGAL.  Ishtar has many of the same associations of Aphrodite, including love and sexual procreation. Ereshkigal corresponds to Persephone. Ishtar, like Persephone and Eurydice (wife of Orpheus), must depart from and later return to the Underworld. Her consort, DAMUZI (TAMMUZ), is similar to Adonis and Attis.  In both versions of the story Ishtar decides to visit the Underworld; she leaves instructions to help her return to the world of the living, should she die there. Ereshkigal orders her death, but she is restored to life through the advice of Enki (Sumerian version) or the help of her vizier (Akkadian version).  The Akkadian narrative ends with Ishtar mourning the death of Damuzi.  In the Sumerian version Ishtar is angry with Damuzi for failing to mourn her later return to the world, and she hands him over to demons to suffer death.

Though some of the similarities between the Greek creation myths and the Near Eastern counterparts may be due to no more than chance, the myths of succession, the Flood, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the myth of Ishtar and Damuzi show strong evidence for direct contact between the Greeks and cultures of the Near East.

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