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Commentary

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


Archetypal themes once again abound, and embedded in them is a mythological etiology that provides causes and explanations for such eternal mysteries as the following: What is the nature of god or the gods? Where did we come from? Do we have a dual nature, an earthy body and a divine spirit? What is the source of and reason for evil? Who invented the wheel? Here are some important motifs.

  • Prometheus, the trickster.        
  • Prometheus, the culture hero, inventor of language, mathematics, the arts, and just about everything.
  • Promethean fire, the symbol of defiant progress.
  • The nature of sacrifice.
  • The creation of mortals with a body and a soul.
  • Rivalry of gods, with human beings as their pawn.
  • The loss of paradise and degeneration.
  • Evolution from savagery to civilization.
  • The first woman, bringer of evil.
  • The nature of hope.
  • The wickedness of mortals and the flood.

The universality of these themes is confirmed by the many parallels, particularly in the mythologies of the Near East (MLS, 103–109). A dominant motif common to them all is that of succession to power. The Flood archetype is particularly fascinating because of its presence in virtually all cultures.

Prometheus in Music and Literature. We may listen to the grandeur of the creative spirit of Prometheus, expressed by Beethoven in his music (especially the overture) for the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, and by Schubert in his setting of the fine poem by Goethe, “Prometheus,” expressing not only the defiance of the Titan but also the independence of mortals from the Olympian gods (MLS p. 736). Other symphonic music listed in the Music section of the Bibliography is worth hearing, particularly that of Lizst. The extant Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus presents a Prometheus defiant against the tyranny of Zeus; but in the lost plays of Aeschylus’ Prometheus trilogy, Zeus must have been the victor. This same defiant Prometheus is the hero of Shelley’s dramatic poem “Prometheus Unbound,” in which Prometheus, the champion of humanity, is freed and Jupiter (Zeus) is overthrown! The great American composer Samuel Barber has written music for Shelley’s poem.

Pandora, the First Woman? The most obvious interpretation of Hesiod is that Pandora was the first woman (like Eve in the Bible) and responsible for evil. Thus for the Greeks, the world before Pandora was populated only by men—an extremely difficult concept. Did Prometheus create only men out of clay? Hesiod’s account is riddled with irreconcilable contradictions because various stories have been awkwardly but poetically conflated. In the myth of the Ages of Mankind, both men and women are created by Zeus or the gods, and both men and women are held responsible for evil, for which they are punished by the gods.  Should we assume that Pandora was sent with her jar of evils (and Hope) to a happy humankind? At any rate, amidst all this confusion, Hesiod is more accurately condemned as a misanthropist, rather than only a misogynist.

Parallels in Myths of Greece and the Ancient Near East. Similarities in archetypal patterns may be detected in the myths of Greece and the ancient Near East. The most evident links are to be seen in the Near Eastern accounts of Creation, Succession, the Flood, Descent to the Underworld, and the hero-king Gilgamesh.

The major Near Eastern poems to be studied for comparative purposes are:

  • Enuma Elish (“When on high”)
  • Atrahasis (“the extra-wise one”)
  • Epic of Gilgamesh
  • Kingship in Heaven
  • The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld


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