Hesiod's Theogony

From Near Eastern Creation Myths to "Paradise Lost"

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Stephen Scully
  • Oxford, UK: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Stephen Scully offers a terrific overview of Hesiod’s Theogony, the work that was the ancient Greek counterpart to Genesis 1 and 2, the two biblical creation myths. Scully discusses the pre-Greek origin of the myth, non-Greek parallels to the myth from the ancient world, and the influence of the work in ancient times and beyond. He takes the story down through John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), which he deems a Christian refutation of Hesiod’s and other pagan cosmogonies.

Scully presents the changing estimation of the Theogony in Western literature. He shows how Hesiod was revered in some times—even above Homer—and in other times was scorned and ridiculed. He shows how, as with other ancient texts, allegory came to be employed to save Hesiod. He compares the status of the Theogony with that of Hesiod’s other main work, Works and Days.

Scully’s focus is thematic. He continually contrasts the view of Hesiod on the cosmos and civilization to that of Homer. He also matches up the Theogony with the Babylonian Enuma Elish, a particularly helpful comparison, and with various other Hellenistic and Roman works. His analyses are exact and detailed. His pages are filled with information and suggestions. I thought that I knew the secondary literature, but I have learned so much from Scully. His book is organized chronologically, going from pre-Greek to Hellenic to Hellenistic to Roman and on to medieval, counterparts. He is interested as much in similarities as in differences. His analysis of the mixed reaction of Plato to Hesiod is outstanding.

Scully takes for granted that the Theogony is myth, but he presupposes that characterization rather than works it out. For him, myth is like science: it is an explanation of events in the physical, if also social, world. The difference is in the explanation itself. Mythic explanation is personalistic: an event happens either because a god wills it, or because an effect on a god automatically has an effect on the natural phenomenon controlled by the god. For example, either a god wills the growth of vegetation or the growth of vegetation is the automatic consequence of the god’s physical state.

Scully continually refers to Hesiod’s “myth-think,” but this phrase is misleading. Among theorists of myth, Lucien Levy-Bruhl and then Ernst Cassirer pioneered the view of myth as less of a set of thoughts more as a way of thinking. The same holds for Sigmund Freud, the one theorist discussed in the book, and even more for C. G. Jung, who is not discussed.

For Scully, myth-think is anthropomorphism. He therefore contrasts Hesiod’s explanations of events to the impersonal causes of the Presocratics, and he limits myths to creation myths, so that again, myth is the primitive counterpart to science. He pits ancient philosophers against the poets. This opposition is the ancient counterpart to the modern opposition between theorists of myth and myth itself.

Scully’s approach fits that of nineteenth-century theories of myth, according to which myth is a part of religion, and did for our forbears what natural science does for us moderns. Here myth and science are mutually exclusive. But this view of myth, while still widely found, has long been succeeded by theories which reconcile myth with science. They do so in varying ways. Some twentieth-century theories read myth symbolically (Rudolf Bultmann, Hans Jonas, and Albert Camus), which does not quite mean allegorically. Myth can here be wholly secular—as above all for Camus—though it can still be religious. Other theories find functions in myth other or more than those of explanation (Bronislaw Malinowski, Mircea Eliade). Myth may remain tied to religion but, as for Malinowski, need not do so.

Still other twentieth-century theories reject both the traditional subject matter and the traditional function of myth. As different as Freud and Jung are from each other, the subject of myth for both is anything but the external world. It is the human world—better, the human mind, and the unconscious part of the human mind. Myth can be deciphered only by disentangling it from the outer world. The function of myth for the two is to enable one to encounter one’s unconscious in itself. No view of myth could be more removed from that of the Theogony as an explanation of the external world!

Scully devotes more attention to Freud than to any other theorist, but for him, a Freudian analysis concentrates on the city—that is, as opposed to the cosmos. Scully himself has written elsewhere on the city, but Freud’s own emphasis is on the family. City life is a projection of immediate family life.

Scully links the Freud of Totem and Taboo (1913) to the Freud of Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). However, Freud’s preoccupation changes, especially in response to World War I. For the Freud of Totem and Taboo, sexuality is the prime motivator in human behavior. More precisely, the motivator is guilt over sexual desires and their consequences. In Civilization and Its Discontents aggression replaces sexuality as the key spur to human action. In fact, sexuality, because it unites persons, serves as a foil to aggression.

Theories of myth are generalizations about myth. They seek the similarities among myths. There are no “theories” of Hesiod’s myth in particular, but there are two opposing explanations of similarities: independent invention and diffusion. Diffusion was much more common in centuries past than it is now, where it is confined to regional similarities. Scully considers both kinds of explanations, perhaps not always consistently.

Scully’s is not a survey of theories of myth and need not be. As a rich presentation of Hesiod’s Theogony from almost all angles in its history, it is excellent.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert A. Segal is sixth-century chair in religious studies at the University of Aberdeen.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen Scully is Associate Professor of Classical Studies at Boston University. He has published on Homer, Hesiod, Sophocles, Plato, Vergil, George Chapman, and Freud. His books include Homer and the Sacred City, Euripides' Suppliant Women, with Rosanna Warren, translation, essay, and notes, and Plato's Phaedrus, translation, essay, and notes.






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