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Mythology Summary and Analysis

by Edith Hamilton

The Creation of the Earth

Mother Earth (Gaea) and Father Heaven (Ouranos) give birth to the first generations of life on earth. Some of their children are monsters, with power as great as volcanoes, but without a distinct character like individual humans. Three of these monsters have one hundred hands and fifty heads. Three others have only one eye in the middle of their foreheads and are known as the Cyclopses. Besides the monsters, Earth and Heaven give birth to a race of Titans, who are large, powerful, and not necessarily malevolent. Father Heaven is malicious and mean, however, treating his children horribly, even locking up all his monster children in a cave in the earth. Distraught by this behavior, Mother Earth begs her children to rebel against him. Only one does, a Titan named Cronus (Saturn).

From then on, Cronus becomes ruler of the universe with his sister, Rhea, as queen. It was prophesized that Cronus would be overthrown by his own son, so every time they have a child, Cronus swallows him or her. But Rhea succeeds in sending her sixth child secretly to Crete. In order to do so, Rhea wraps a rock in swaddling clothes, which the king swallows instead of the child.

Eventually when the son, Zeus, grows up, he rebels against Cronus and forces him to disgorge his five brothers and sisters. A war breaks out with the Titans, led by Cronus, against Zeus and his siblings. Zeus wins the war partially because he releases all the monsters from the cave in the earth, and also because one Titan, Prometheus, sides with him.

When he rises to power, Zeus punishes all the Titans and monsters who fought against him. He punishes a Titan named Atlas (brother of Prometheus) by forcing him “to bear on his back forever the cruel strength of the crushing world.” Although two small rebellions attempt to remove Zeus and his siblings from power, the gods establish themselves as the new rulers of the universe.

Analysis

This creation story sets a foundation for the Greek myths. With this history established, Zeus and his siblings are clearly the ruling powers on Mount Olympus. Zeus has won a kind of divine order for the universe in which he metes out justice. In the generations of the Titans and of Ouranos, there was a fair amount of chaos and monstrosity. By the time of Zeus, however, the divinities seem a bit more human. We will meet the gods who are more like Zeus time and time again.

Fate is stronger even than Cronus, a second-generation divinity. In this way, the myth raises a fundamental question: who controls fate? Are his parents still somehow in charge? Although many stories seem to suggest that the gods control the fate of all things, this tale reveals that some powers may be beyond everyone’s control. By leaving such fundamental questions unanswered, the myth refuses to make it easy for the reader to develop a concept of fate; it is mysterious. In the future, fate will continue to be unstoppable, despite everyone’s best efforts to circumvent it, and it will be no less mysterious when all the attempts to circumvent fate actually contribute to its inevitable unfolding.

The creation story also sets a basis for seeing the world as one of conflict rather than cooperation. With such fighting and violence in its very foundation, it is no wonder that harsh punishments and tough realities are to come. Indeed, the myths often present a dog-eat-dog world in which kindness is rare and forgiveness even rarer, one where strength in battle is often the key to success. This is not to downplay the value of love and friendship in other myths, but it is perhaps to show why such relationships are of special value in such a conflicted world.

Note that the first generation of divinities includes something of a gender balance: there are both a mother and a father. By the time of Zeus, a single male god is in control. If the gods are to be examples for humans, good or bad, which generation should be the model for human rule? Zeus’s regime, that of a single male king, is the one that succeeds.

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