Mythos, by Stephen Fry

Learn how the Ancient Greeks envisaged creation.

Stephen Fry’s fascination with myths and legends began at a young age after reading Tales from Ancient Greece. From there, his interest only continued to grow as he encountered new mythologies from different people and cultures.
Although the Greek myths contain similar narrative arcs to those from many other countries, it was the Greeks who first created coherent narratives full of life, color, and detail. It was always the Greek stories, that Fry says, “lit me up inside.”
Mythos begins at the beginning, but neither end with the end. Fry says that if he’d done that, then Mythos would have been “too heavy even for a Titan to pick up.” In our case, we can’t hope to cover the richness of the myths in a single episode, so we’ve presented the beginning – how the gods came into being from Chaos; the story of Prometheus, his role in the creation of mankind, and Pandora.
So sit back, settle in, and prepare yourself to meet creative, warlike, vengeful, wise, compassionate, ferocious, loving, tender – and brutal gods.
Creation and the First Order

Scientists today propose that the Universe started with the Big Bang.  But the Greeks believed that in the beginning, there was only Chaos. What exactly was that? Perhaps a divine being, perhaps just nothing at all, or as Fry says, perhaps a “grand cosmic yawn.” Whatever the case, one thing scientists agree on is that everything will eventually return to Chaos or entropy.
But just as you might wonder who or what came before the Big Bang, you might also wonder who or what came before the Greek’s Chaos. The answer is that there was nothing before Chaos. Indeed, the world before was meaningless as Time itself didn’t yet exist.
From out of Chaos, two creations emerge: Erebus, the darkness, and Nyx, the night. Upon their creation, Erebus sleeps with his sister, and from their union spring forth Hemera, day, and Aether, light. Simultaneously – remember, there’s no Time yet – two other entities come into being: Gaia, the earth, and Tartarus, the underworld. None of these are gods or goddesses. There are no stories about them. These are primordial deities, the First Order of divine beings. It’s from them that all the gods, monsters, and heroes of Greek mythology later arise.
Gaia has two sons all of her own: Pontus, the sea, and Ouranos, the sky. Ouranos is often referred to as Uranus – a name that now engenders great hilarity to children of all ages!
Gaia’s son, Ouranos, covers her. Not just as the sky covers the earth but also, as Fry puts it, “a stallion covers a mare.” At that moment, Time begins, and with it, personality, drama, character, and meaning. From the union of Gaia and Ouranos spring 12 beautiful healthy children – six male, and six female – the Titans. These 12 will eventually become the Second Order of divine beings. But in addition to them, there are two sets of particularly unattractive triplets: the Cyclopes – one-eyed giants; and the Hecatonchires – who have 50 heads and 100 hands. Although Gaia loves them, Ouranos is revolted by them – so much so that he pushes them back into Gaia’s womb. Gaia, in agony, and unhappy about the treatment of her offspring at the hands of their father, begins to plot Ouranos’s downfall.

The Second Order

For nine days and nights Gaia labors tirelessly at the top of a great mountain, Othrys. She forges a sickle from adamantine – meaning “untameable” – which consists of flint, granite, diamond, and ophiolite. After hiding it, she approaches each of her beautiful children, the Titans, to suggest they kill their father and rule the cosmos with her. Each has a reason or excuse not to – except Kronos, the youngest, strongest, most handsome, and moodiest of the siblings. He’s always hated his father and readily agrees.
Gaia leads him to Mount Othrys, where Kronos takes the sickle and they wait for evening. As Ouranos covers Gaia once more, Kronos swings the sickle and slices off Ouranos’s genitals. Kronos catches them and hurls them far away while Ouranos writhes on the ground in agony. Ouranos curses Kronos telling him he’ll be destroyed by his own offspring. Kronos banishes his father to live out eternity deeper in the ground than even Tartarus.
Kronos then returns to Mount Othrys. None of the other Titans question his authority. After a great feast, he takes his sister Rhea aside and sleeps with her. Rhea is overjoyed as she adores him.
Rhea becomes pregnant – but the words of his father ring in Kronos’s ears. When Rhea gives birth to a beautiful girl, Kronos steps forward, snatches her, and swallows her whole. The same fate befalls the next four of their children, Kronos swallowing them as easily as swallowing an oyster or a spoonful of jelly. By the time she’s pregnant with their sixth child, Rhea’s love for Kronos has turned to hatred. She hatches a plan.
First, she visits Crete where she meets with a she-goat, Amalthea, and the Meliae, the nymphs of the ash trees. Then, she finds a smooth, bean-shaped rock and swaddles it in linen. Everything is set.
One afternoon, when she knows her time is near, she begins to scream as if she’s giving birth – louder and louder. Then there’s silence followed by Rhea’s best imitation of a crying baby. As predicted, Kronos shows up, takes what he believes to be the baby, and swallows it whole. He leaves his grief-stricken wife whose sobs quickly turn to laughter once he’s finally gone.
Rhea travels to Crete, where, assisted by the she-goat and the nymphs, she gives birth to a baby boy. She names him Zeus.

Zeus is raised on milk from Amalthea and manna from the Meliae. Rhea visits him as often as she can and teaches him the art of revenge. Zeus grows into the strongest and most handsome male ever created. He’s so striking that he’s “almost painful to look upon.”
Zeus learns that his father is his enemy – he tried to eat him, after all. Rhea tells him that his father rules by fear and has no loyalty or trust.
When Zeus is 16, his mother takes him to a friend of hers, Metis, to prepare him for what’s to come. She teaches him patience, craft, and guile. He learns how to look into the hearts of others and judge their intentions. Metis teaches him reason, the art of planning, and how to let his head rule his heart.
On the day of his 17th birthday, Zeus is ready. Metis prepares a potion and Rhea takes him to Mount Othrys.
Kronos is awake, sleepless, and frustrated. Banned from their conjugal bed by Rhea, he almost feels happy when he hears her approaching. She tells him that she’s brought him a present – a lovely boy to be his cupbearer. Zeus smiles and offers Kronos a goblet which he snatches greedily. Kronos admires the boy as he quaffs the contents in one draft.
Kronos professes his love to Rhea anew, but she scoffs and asks him how he dare talk of love when he ate all but one of her children. Kronos finds his mind becoming foggy and his stomach turbulent. He asks himself, “What does she mean by all but one?” He distinctly remembers eating them all.
It’s at that moment that Zeus reveals himself for who he is as he steps out of the shadows. Kronos feels suddenly nauseous and then, as the emetic effects of Metis’s potion kick in, vomits up first the stone and then, one by one, the five children he’d swallowed. Very quickly afterward, the potion’s soporific ingredients take effect and Kronos falls into a deep sleep.
Zeus tries to pick up the sickle to administer the coup de grâce but finds that the weapon Gaia forged for Kronos can’t be used against him. His mother and his released brothers and sisters embrace Zeus and swear allegiance to him. They agree to establish a new order. And they decide they’ll no longer call themselves Titans. No, from now on they’ll be gods. And not just any old gods, but the gods.

The Clash of the Titans and the Third Order

Rhea and her children put some distance between themselves and the Titans. When the other Titans learn of the downfall of Kronos, it seems likely that war will ensue.
And indeed, it does. It’s a violent and destructive conflict that lasts ten years. Mountains bellow fire and the ground quakes and cracks. Islands and land masses form. Continents shift and reshape.
In a straight battle, the Titans would probably have beaten the upstart self-styled gods, but Zeus releases the Cyclopes and Hecatonchires and they readily agree to fight alongside the new gods. Their participation proves decisive. Eventually, the Titans call for a ceasefire.
Zeus moves quickly to make sure that the Titans can never challenge his new order. Atlas is sentenced to hold up the sky forever. He groans there for eons under the weight until he eventually solidifies into the Atlas Mountains. Zeus sends Kronos into exile to travel the world measuring out eternity in days, hours, and minutes. Today we think of him as “Old Father Time.”
Not all the Titans are punished though. Those who fought on the side of the gods are rewarded. Prometheus, for example, is rewarded with Zeus’s companionship.
Zeus envisages a new home and assembly for the gods who’ll go on to number 12 – he calls it a dodecatheon. He also knows that this, the Third Order of divine beings, must go on to manage better than the previous two.

Prometheus and the First Humans

Prometheus is a strong, good-looking, well-mannered Titan. He’s also become Zeus’s favorite. The fondness is reciprocal.
One week before the inauguration of the dodecatheon Prometheus, who’s been sleeping in long grass, is woken up by Zeus who has a plan he wants to share. He excitedly tells Prometheus he wants to create a new race of beings similar in every way to the gods but smaller and with less power. They’ll have consciousness, though, and they’ll worship the gods and be their playthings. There’ll only be males so as not to anger Hera with more females for him to get involved with.
Having found the perfect clay from which to form the new beings, with the help of a good dollop of Zeus’s saliva, Prometheus sets about creating. He tells Zeus to come back before nightfall.
When Zeus returns to admire Prometheus’s handiwork, he’s not alone. He’s brought along his favorite daughter, Athena. Both Zeus and Athena are enamored with the new beings. Zeus hasn’t brought Athena along just for the ride though; it’s Athena who breathes life into each of Prometheus’s new creations.
Prometheus vows to become their friend, not their god. He’ll teach them how to farm, how to cook, and how to forge tools. But before Prometheus can continue Zeus roars and says there’s one thing they’re never to have: fire.
With a clap of his hands, these first humans multiply and multiply, and soon they occupy every corner of the earth. There’s no disease, no poverty, no famine, and no war. The gods, Titans, and immortals all enjoy the humans’ company.  It’s a fabulous time to be human; a golden age.

Fire, the Wrath of Zeus, and Pandora

Later, Prometheus thinks to himself that it’s a shame that these creatures are only males. Yes, they’re happy, but they also have a life that’s safe and unchallenging. They have no zest. He decides what they really need is fire.
He’s never disobeyed Zeus before, yet in this matter, he’s determined. He climbs Mount Olympus unseen, and while the gods are eating and drinking he ignites a fennel stalk and flees from the mountain with it. At first, humans are afraid of fire. But with the help of Prometheus, they soon learn that once tamed, fire has many uses.
When Zeus surveys the landscape and sees little orange flickers everywhere, he’s furious and in no doubt as to who’s responsible. He decides to exact revenge first on mankind, and then on Prometheus.
He orders Hephaestus to create a beautiful young female. Each of the gods contributes toward her creation and talents, so they name her Pandora – which in Greek means “all-gifted.” Pandora receives one more gift which Zeus presents to her, a pithos – a sealed decorative earthenware jar. Zeus tells her that she must never, ever, open it as it contains nothing of interest to her. “Never!” she repeats, shaking her head.
Hermes takes Pandora by the hand and transports her to where Prometheus’s brother Epimetheus lives. Hermes presents Pandora as Epimetheus’s “wife-to-be.”
The pair get married. They’re very much in love, and happy too, but Pandora has a little niggle in her head: What’s in the jar?! Although she knows she’s not to open it, temptation finally gets to her. Sneaking out one night into the garden where she’s previously buried the jar, she digs it up and twists open its lid.
There’s a fluttering of wings as a cloud of dreadful creatures spews out, screaming and howling. Zeus, disguised as a wolf, smiles as he watches the mutant descendants of the dark evil children of Nyx and Erebus spread over the world – hardship, pain, starvation, anarchy, lies, quarrels, disputes, wars, battles, manslaughters, and murders. They’ll blight the earth forever. Pandora finally puts the lid back on the jar. But what she doesn’t realize is that only one flying creature has remained locked inside – where it’s destined to remain for eternity – hope.
Punishment for Prometheus follows swiftly. Zeus chains him to a rock. There, for eternity, each day his liver will be torn from his body and eaten by two vultures before it grows back ready for the next day.
Despite the promise of eternity, one day, a hero will come in defiance of Zeus to set humanity’s champion free. But that story, well, that story’s for another day.
Final Summary

We hope you’ve enjoyed Mythos, by Stephen Fry. Here’s a quick recap.
In the beginning, there was only Chaos. Everything in the Universe came from Chaos. The First Order of divine beings was overthrown by Kronos when encouraged by his mother Gaia, he gelded his father, Ooronus. Later, Kronos was overthrown by his own son, Zeus.
Prometheus created the first humans and became their friend, teaching them many things and giving them fire. Zeus was angered by this and punished the humans by unleashing evils upon the world when Pandora opened her jar. Unfortunately, she trapped hope in the jar for eternity.

OK, that’s it for this Minday, see you next week for a new amazing book talk.