Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Padraic Colum

The Beginning of Things

Orpheus sang to his lyre, Orpheus the minstrel, who knew the ways and the stories of the gods; out in the open sea on the first morning of the voyage Orpheus sang to them of the beginning of things.

He sang how at first Earth and Heaven and Sea were all mixed and mingled together. There was neither Light nor Darkness then, but only a Dimness. This was Chaos. And from Chaos came forth Night and Erebus. From Night was born Æther, the Upper Air, and from Night and Erebus wedded there was born Day.

And out of Chaos came Earth, and out of Earth came the starry Heaven. And from Heaven and Earth wedded there were born the Titan gods and goddesses—Oceanus, Cœus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus; Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, gold-crowned Phœbe, and lovely Tethys. And then Heaven and Earth had for their child Cronos, the most cunning of all.

Cronos wedded Rhea, and from Cronos and Rhea were born the gods who were different from the Titan gods.

But Heaven and Earth had other children—Cottus, Briareus, and Gyes. These were giants, each with fifty heads and a hundred arms. And Heaven grew fearful when he looked on these giant children, and he hid them away in the deep places of the Earth.

Cronos hated Heaven, his father. He drove Heaven, his father, and Earth, his mother, far apart. And far apart they stay, for they have never been able to come near each other since. And Cronos married to Rhea had for children Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Aidoneus, and Poseidon, and these all belonged to the company of the deathless gods. Cronos was fearful that one of his sons would treat him as he had treated Heaven, his father. So when another child was born to him and his wife Rhea he commanded that the child be given to him so that he might swallow him. But Rhea wrapped a great stone in swaddling clothes and gave the stone to Cronos. And Cronos swallowed the stone, thinking to swallow his latest-born child.

That child was Zeus. Earth took Zeus and hid him in a deep cave and those who minded and nursed the child beat upon drums so that his cries might not be heard. His nurse was Adrastia; when he was able to play she gave him a ball to play with. All of gold was the ball, with a dark-blue spiral around it. When the boy Zeus would play with this ball it would make a track across the sky, flaming like a star.

Hyperion the Titan god wed Theia the Titan goddess, and their children were Helios, the bright Sun, and Selene, the clear Moon. And Cœus wed Phœbe, and their children were Leto, who is kind to gods and men, and Asteria of happy name, and Hecate, whom Zeus honored above all. Now the gods who were the children of Cronos and Rhea went up unto the Mountain Olympus, and there they built their shining palaces. But the Titan gods who were born of Heaven and Earth went up to the Mountain Othrys, and there they had their thrones.

Between the Olympians and the Titan gods of Othrys a war began. Neither side might prevail against the other. But now Zeus, grown up to be a youth, thought of how he might help the Olympians to overthrow the Titan gods.

He went down into the deep parts of the Earth where the giants Cottus, Briareus, and Gyes had been hidden by their father. Cronos had bound them, weighing them down with chains. But now Zeus loosed them and the hundred-armed giants in their gratitude gave him the lightning and showed him how to use the thunderbolt.

Zeus would have the giants fight against the Titan gods. But although they had mighty strength Cottus, Briareus, and Gyes had no fire of courage in their hearts. Zeus thought of a way to give them this courage; he brought the food and drink of the gods to them, ambrosia and nectar, and when they had eaten and drunk their spirits grew within the giants, and they were ready to make war upon the Titan gods.

"Sons of Earth and Heaven," said Zeus to the hundred-armed giants, "a long time now have the Dwellers on Olympus been striving with the Titan gods. Do you lend your unconquerable might to the gods and help them to overthrow the Titans."

Cottus, the eldest of the giants, answered, "Divine One, through your devising we are come back again from the murky gloom of the mid Earth and we have escaped from the hard bonds that Cronos laid upon us. Our minds are fixed to aid you in the war against the Titan gods."

So the hundred-armed giants said, and thereupon Zeus went and he gathered around him all who were born of Cronos and Rhea. Cronos himself hid from Zeus. Then the giants, with their fifty heads growing from their shoulders and their hundred hands, went forth against the Titan gods. The boundless sea rang terribly and the earth crashed loudly; wide Heaven was shaken and groaned, and high Olympus reeled from its foundation. Holding huge rocks in their hands the giants attacked the Titan gods.

Then Zeus entered the war. He hurled the lightning; the bolts flew thick and fast from his strong hand, with thunder and lightning and flame. The earth crashed around in burning, the forests crackled with fire, the ocean seethed. And hot flames wrapped the earth-born Titans all around. Three hundred rocks, one upon another, did Cottus, Briareus, and Gyes hurl upon the Titans. And when their ranks were broken the giants seized upon them and held them for Zeus.

But some of the Titan gods, seeing that the strife for them was vain, went over to the side of Zeus. These Zeus became friendly with. But the other Titans he bound in chains and he hurled them down to Tartarus.

As far as Earth is from Heaven so is Tartarus from Earth. A brazen anvil falling down from Heaven to Earth nine days and nine nights would reach the earth upon the tenth day. And again, a brazen anvil falling from Earth nine nights and nine days would reach Tartarus upon the tenth night. Around Tartarus runs a fence of bronze and Night spreads in a triple line all about it, as a necklace circles the neck. There Zeus imprisoned the Titan gods who had fought against him; they are hidden in the misty gloom, in a dank place, at the ends of the Earth. And they may not go out, for Poseidon fixed gates of bronze upon their prison, and a wall runs all round it. There Cottus, Briareus, and Gyes stay, guarding them.

And there, too, is the home of Night. Night and Day meet each other at that place, as they pass a threshold of bronze. They draw near and they greet one another, but the house never holds them both together, for while one is about to go down into the house, the other is leaving through the door. One holds Light in her hand and the other holds in her arms Sleep.

There the children of dark Night have their dwellings—Sleep, and Death, his brother. The sun never shines upon these two. Sleep may roam over the wide earth, and come upon the sea, and he is kindly to men. But Death is not kindly, and whoever he seizes upon, him he holds fast.

There, too, stands the hall of the lord of the Underworld, Aidoneus, the brother of Zeus. Zeus gave him the Underworld to be his dominion when he shared amongst the Olympians the world that Cronos had ruled over. A fearful hound guards the hall of Aidoneus: Cerberus he is called; he has three heads. On those who go within that hall Cerberus fawns, but on those who would come out of it he springs and would devour them.

Not all the Titans did Zeus send down to Tartarus. Those of them who had wisdom joined him, and by their wisdom Zeus was able to overcome Cronos. Then Cronos went to live with the friendly Titan gods, while Zeus reigned over Olympus, becoming the ruler of gods and men.

So Orpheus sang, Orpheus who knew the ways and the histories of the gods.