THE BIRTH OF THE WORLD
The world is created out of Chaos
This is a tale like no other you have ever heard. It begins in a time long, long ago, deeper in the past than any tale which has ever been told. To begin our story at its beginning we must go back countless centuries and move ever further backwards in time, searching for the beginning, the beginning of time which never was.
In that far distant age there lived, as there had always lived, a god named Chaos. He was all alone, and round him there was nothing but utter emptiness. In those times there was neither sun, nor light, nor earth, nor sky. There was nothing but a formless void and thick darkness stretching to infinity.
Untold centuries rolled by like this until, at last, Chaos grew tired of living by himself. It was then that he first thought of creating the world.
The first thing he did was to bring the goddess Earth into being. She was lovely beyond description; filled with strength and life, she grew and spread and enfolded huge expanses within her embrace. On her our world was founded.
Then Chaos created fearsome Tartarus and black Night, and straight after that the lovely and radiant Day.
The kingdom of Tartarus was deep and dark beyond imagining, as far within the earth as chaos was above it. If one dropped an iron anvil from that void it would go on falling for nine days and nine nights, and only at dawn on the tenth day would it reach the earth. And then, if it went on falling from the earth towards Tartarus, it would go on down for another nine days and nine nights and only on the morning of the tenth day would it reach those depths. That is how deep within the earth Tartarus lies, and that is why the darkness there is so thick and black. And Tartarus is boundless. If you entered it, you would move endlessly onwards, dragged on and buffeted by raging whirlwinds, and even in a year you would be unable to reach the far side.
In the heart of this frightful region, which even the immortal gods are afraid of, rise the dark courts of Night, forever wrapped in black clouds. Here Night sits all day, and when dusk falls, he spreads out over the earth.
Uranus ruler of the world
Now that Chaos had played his part, it was the turn of the goddess Earth to help in the creation of the world. She wished to begin with something beautiful, and so she gave birth to the goddess Love who brought the beauty of life to the world. Then she bore the boundless blue Sky, the Mountains and the Seas. All of them were mighty gods, but the greatest of them all was Uranus, the Sky. And so the goddess Earth, the mother of all things, bedecked and beautified the world and rejoiced in its creation.
Now, however, the mightiest god in the world was Uranus, who wrapped the earth in his blue mantle and covered it from edge to edge. He sat on his majestic golden throne borne up by clouds of many colours and from there he ruled the whole world and all the gods.
Uranus married the goddess Earth and she bore him many immortal children. Among them were the twelve Titans, six male and six female. The Titans were huge gods of fearsome power. Indeed, one of them, Oceanus, was so huge that he spread out over the whole earth. He fathered countless offspring. All the rivers upon earth were his children and he had three thousand daughters, the Oceanides, who were the goddesses of springs and rivulets.
Another Titan, Hyperion, and his wife, the Titaness Theia, brought three more lovely deities into being: the bright Sun, rosy-fingered Dawn and the silvery Moon.
The last of the Titans was the crafty and ambitious Cronus; but of him we shall have more to say later.
Among the other children of Uranus and Earth were the angry Cyclopes, huge gods with a single eye in the middle of their foreheads. The Cyclopes had mastery over fire and held sway over the thunder and lightning. They lived among the high mountains, and on the summit of one they had a fire which always burned, a huge volcano which they used to forge weapons and armour. The Cyclopes were creatures of awesome power, and when they moved among the mountains, lightning flashes and claps of thunder shook the earth and the whole world trembled at their passing.
But of all Uranus’ children, the three largest and most terrible were the Hundred-handed giants, creatures whose strength was so great that they could hurl rocks as big as mountains and make the whole world shake.
There were now many gods, but Uranus continued to rule the world and keep order. His power was immense, his every wish was law, and all obeyed his commands. The years of Uranus’ rule were happy ones, for in those days there were neither death, nor evil nor hatred.
But there is an end to all things. One day, Uranus flew into a rage with his children, the Titans and the Hundred-handed giants. They had treated him with disrespect and so he decided to punish them severely. Earth, seeing his rage, knelt before him and begged him to forgive them.
“My lord,” she cried. “Lord of the whole world; I beg you, forgive our children and do not bring disaster upon the family of the gods.”
But the anger of Uranus was terrible to behold. “Mother of the gods,” he answered, “when children cease to respect their father they must be banished from the light of day. If I let them go unpunished they will challenge me again, and may even cast me down from the throne of the gods.”
And with these words he opened the earth and hurled the Titans and the Hundred-handed giants into the dark depths of Tartarus where there is neither the light of day nor even the dim shade of night but thick, murky darkness without end.
Cronus casts Uranus from his throne
Uranus’ wife was heartbroken to see the Titans confined to the bowels of the earth; for were they not her children? She decided to speak to them and urge them to resist. “Alas,” she said when she had found them. “How can I live for ever, knowing that my children are locked up in inky Tartarus? Which of you dares to become the new ruler of the gods? Your father has reigned for long enough. Now it is someone else’s turn.”
The Titans bent their heads, and so did the Hundred-handed giants. The power of Uranus was fearsome, and a hundred times more so when he was enraged. Not all the Titans were afraid, however. The eyes of one of them lit up with joy. This was Cronus, who had always longed to be lord of the world himself. He knew his father had made no mistake in casting them into Tartarus. But now, his turn had come.
With the help of his mother, Cronus escaped from his dark prison into the bright world of day. Unused to the light, his eyes were so dazzled that they could see nothing of the shining world which spread itself before them. But they soon grew used to the light, and then Cronus saw the fair earth with its high mountains, its broad blue seas and its boundless, light-filled skies, while the warmth of the sun fell like a gentle caress upon his body.
“Mother Earth,” he cried, “thank you for letting me see this wonderful world again, this world which I will make my own. And now, farewell! I know the task which lies before me!”
And immediately, Cronus was lost to his mother’s sight. He fashioned a great sickle, wrapped himself in a cloud and flew high in the sky, waiting for an opportunity to present itself. It came just as he had wanted it. Finding Uranus sleeping, he slyly crept up on him, and in a moment the deed was done. He struck his father, wounded him horribly and left him powerless – as powerless to rule the world again as to father other children.
“A double success!” said Cronus to himself. “For now I have nothing more to fear from Uranus.” Scarcely had this thought passed through his mind, however, when his father’s heavy curse came echoing like the roar of a wild beast, whilst all nature darkened and thunder and lightning shook the world.
“My curse upon you, misbegotten spawn – and what you have done to your father may your own children do to you!”
This was enough to freeze the blood in any veins, but it left Cronus completely unconcerned. He was so overjoyed by his success that he had no room in his mind for disturbing thoughts. He released the other Titans from Tartarus, and this gave him an even greater feeling of security, for on them he could found his rule more firmly. But the Hundred-handed giants he left imprisoned, for he feared their power, whilst he knew the Titans well and could always use them to further his own interests. One Titan alone refused to help Cronus. This was Oceanus, who considered it so terrible for a son to wound his own father and seize his throne that he had no wish to be a party to Cronus’ plans. And so he withdrew to the far corners of the world and lived in peace, wanting no share in his brother’s unlawful rule.
However, the reign of Cronus, founded as it was upon such an evil deed, loosed a host of misfortunes upon the world. To punish Cronus, the goddess Night gave birth to a brood of fearsome deities such as Death and Fraud, Nightmares and Strife, vengeful Nemesis and a host of others. From his father’s throne Cronus now ruled over a world filled with terror, cheating, hatred, anguish, vindictiveness and war. Now and ever after, both gods and men would pay for Cronus’ sin.
The birth of Zeus
Even all-powerful Cronus himself was seized by a great fear. He was no longer certain that his rule would endure for ever. He now remembered his father’s curse with horror and feared that his own children would rise against him as he had done against Uranus.
And so he took a horrible decision; he ordered his wife, Rhea, to bring him every child she bore, and each time that she did so he would swallow it alive. In this way he consumed five infants which Rhea bore him: Hera, Demeter, Hestia, Hades and Poseidon.
Rhea was now with child again, and she was at her wits’ end. She could not think what to do to save the infant. So she went to her parents, Uranus and Mother Earth, who advised her to have her baby in Crete, in a cave on Mount Dicte, well hidden among the forests. In this sacred cave, Rhea gave birth to her child and entrusted it to the nymphs of the forest who had helped bring the baby into the world. She then returned secretly to the palace of Cronus and began to cry out that she had been seized by birth pangs.
The fearsome Cronus believed that his wife really was in labour, and he did not fail to remind her once again of his cruel orders: “Get it over with, woman, I can’t bear your screaming – and bring me the child immediately it is born.” And with these heartless words he left Rhea’s room.
As soon as he had gone, Rhea took a stone, wrapped it in cloth so that it could not be seen and a little later presented it to her husband in place of the child. Cronus suspected nothing, and swallowed the stone with satisfaction.
The baby that escaped was Zeus.
Excerpted from The gods of Olympus by Menelaos Stephanides
Copyright © by Dimitris Stefanidis. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.