Myths of Greece and Rome Narrated with Special Reference to Literature and Art

Page: 4

“No sun yet beam’d from yon cerulean height;
No orbing moon repair’d her horns of light;
No earth, self-poised, on liquid ether hung;
No sea its world-enclasping waters flung;
Earth was half air, half sea, an embryo heap;
Nor earth was fix’d, nor fluid was the deep;
Dark was the void of air; no form was traced;
Obstructing atoms struggled through the waste;
Where cold, and hot, and moist, and dry rebell’d;
Heavy the light, and hard the soft repell’d.”
Ovid (Elton’s tr.).
Chaos and Nyx.

Over this shapeless mass reigned a careless deity called Chaos, whose personal appearance could not be described, as there was [13] no light by which he could be seen. He shared his throne with his wife, the dark goddess of Night, named Nyx or Nox, whose black robes, and still blacker countenance, did not tend to enliven the surrounding gloom.

Erebus, Æther, and Hemera.

These two divinities wearied of their power in the course of time, and called their son Erebus (Darkness) to their assistance. His first act was to dethrone and supplant Chaos; and then, thinking he would be happier with a helpmeet, he married his own mother, Nyx. Of course, with our present views, this marriage was a heinous sin; but the ancients, who at first had no fixed laws, did not consider this union unsuitable, and recounted how Erebus and Nyx ruled over the chaotic world together, until their two beautiful children, Æther (Light) and Hemera (Day), acting in concert, dethroned them, and seized the supreme power.

Creation of Gæa and Uranus.

Space, illumined for the first time by their radiance, revealed itself in all its uncouthness. Æther and Hemera carefully examined the confusion, saw its innumerable possibilities, and decided to evolve from it a “thing of beauty;” but quite conscious of the magnitude of such an undertaking, and feeling that some assistance would be desirable, they summoned Eros (Amor or Love), their own child, to their aid. By their combined efforts, Pontus (the Sea) and Gæa (Ge, Tellus, Terra), as the Earth was first called, were created.

In the beginning the Earth did not present the beautiful appearance that it does now. No trees waved their leafy branches on the hillsides; no flowers bloomed in the valleys; no grass grew on the plains; no birds flew through the air. All was silent, bare, and motionless. Eros, the first to perceive these deficiencies, seized his life-giving arrows and pierced the cold bosom of the Earth. Immediately the brown surface was covered with luxuriant verdure; birds of many colors flitted through the foliage of the new-born forest trees; animals of all kinds gamboled over the grassy plains; and swift-darting fishes swam in the limpid streams. All was now life, joy, and motion.


Refer to caption


[15] Gæa, roused from her apathy, admired all that had already been done for her embellishment, and, resolving to crown and complete the work so well begun, created Uranus (Heaven).

“Her first-born Earth produc’d,
Of like immensity, the starry Heaven:
That he might sheltering compass her around
On every side.”
Hesiod (Elton’s tr.).
The egg myth.

This version of the creation of the world, although but one of the many current with the Greeks and Romans, was the one most generally adopted; but another, also very popular, stated that the first divinities, Erebus and Nyx, produced a gigantic egg, from which Eros, the god of love, emerged to create the Earth.

“In the dreary chaotical closet
Of Erebus old, was a privy deposit,
By Night the primæval in secrecy laid;
A Mystical Egg, that in silence and shade
Was brooded and hatched; till time came about:
And Love, the delightful, in glory flew out.”
Aristophanes (Frere’s tr.).
Mount Olympus and the river Oceanus.

The Earth thus created was supposed by the ancients to be a disk, instead of a sphere as science has proved. The Greeks fancied that their country occupied a central position, and that Mount Olympus, a very high mountain, the mythological abode of their gods, was placed in the exact center. Their Earth was divided into two equal parts by Pontus (the Sea,—equivalent to our Mediterranean and Black Seas); and all around it flowed the great river Oceanus in a “steady, equable current,” undisturbed by storm, from which the Sea and all the rivers were supposed to derive their waters.

The Hyperboreans.

The Greeks also imagined that the portion of the Earth directly north of their country was inhabited by a fortunate race of men, [16] the Hyperboreans, who dwelt in continual bliss, and enjoyed a never-ending springtide. Their homes were said to be “inaccessible by land or by sea.” They were “exempt from disease, old age, and death,” and were so virtuous that the gods frequently visited them, and even condescended to share their feasts and games. A people thus favored could not fail to be happy, and many were the songs in praise of their sunny land.

“I come from a land in the sun-bright deep,
Where golden gardens grow;
Where the winds of the north, becalm’d in sleep,
Their conch shells never blow.
“So near the track of the stars are we,
That oft, on night’s pale beams,
The distant sounds of their harmony
Come to our ears, like dreams.
“The Moon, too, brings her world so nigh,
That when the night-seer looks
To that shadowless orb, in a vernal sky,
He can number its hills and brooks.
“To the Sun god all our hearts and lyres
By day, by night, belong;
And the breath we draw from his living fires
We give him back in song.”