Cover Page



Half Title page

Title page

Copyright page





Overview of the Six Epics

Divine Contexts

The Mesopotamian Divine Succession Myth

The Greek Divine Succession Myth

Cosmic Implications


Chapter 1: The Epic of Gilgamesh

Further Reading Translations


Chapter 2: The Context of Homeric Epic

The Trojan War Epic Cycle

The Gods

Note on Spelling of Proper Names

Further Reading


Chapter 3: The Iliad

The Quarrel

Motivations for War

The Battlefield

Domestic Space: The Women

Temporarily Like Achilles: Diomedes

The Best of the Akhaians: Achilles

The Tragic Arc

Further Reading


Chapter 4: The Odyssey


The Suitors




Further Reading


Chapter 5: The Argonautika of Apollonios of Rhodes

The Alexandrian Context

The Argonautika before Apollonios

Apollonios’ Argonautika


The Gods


Further Reading


Chapter 6: The Context of Roman Epic

Rome: Legendary Beginnings

The March to Empire

Civil War

Intellectual Currents and the Aeneid

Homeric and Roman Epic

The Poets

Further Reading


Chapter 7: The Aeneid of Virgil

The Divine Apparatus

Dido and the Problem of Femininity

Aeneas as Odysseus

Turnus and the Problem of Achilles

Aeneas alius Achilles

Book 12

Further Reading


Chapter 8: The Metamorphoses of Ovid

Further Reading


Appendix: Chart of Olympian Gods and their Akkadian Counterparts

Glossary of Greek and Latin terms


Ancient Epic


This series will provide concise introductions to classical culture in the broadest sense. Written by the most distinguished scholars in the field, these books survey key authors, periods and topics for students and scholars alike.


Greek Tragedy
Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz

Roman Satire
Daniel Hooley

Ancient History
Charles W. Hedrick, Jr.

Homer, second edition
Barry B. Powell

Classical Literature
Richard Rutherford

Ancient Rhetoric
and Oratory Thomas Habinek

Ancient Epic
Katherine Callen King

Julia Haig Gaisser

R. Alden Smith

Katharina Volk

Roman Historiography
Andreas Mehl, translated by Hans-Friedrich Mueller

Title Page

To Esther and Wallis Pereira for their unfailing support, to the many graduate and undergraduate students from whom I have learned so much, and to research assistant extraordinaire, Catharine Platt McGraw


[most dates are approximate]

2700 BCE Gilgamesh King in Uruk
2100–2000 Summerian Gilgamesh epics composed in writing
1800 Earliest tablets of Summerian epics (Gilgamesh & Agga; Gilgamesh & Huwawa; Gilgamesh & Bull of Heaven; Death of Gilgamesh or Gilgamesh in the Netherworld)
1700s Akkadian epic composed = Old Babylonian Version
1500–1100 Middle Babylonian Versions (Hurrian and Hittite translations)
1200 Sin-leqe-unninni creates Standard Version
700 Oldest extant tablets of Standard Version
1400–1200 Bronze Age Greece
1184 Traditional date of Trojan War
750 Writing reintroduced to Greece
Traditional date for founding of Rome by Romulus
725–625 Iliad and Odyssey composed
600–500 Epic Cycle poems composed
400 Antimakhos of Kolophon composes the lost Thebaid and Lyde
335–23 Aristotle writes and lectures at the Lyceum in Athens
331 Alexander the Great founds Alexandria on the coast of
323 Alexander the Great dies
305–283 Founding of the Museum and Library at Alexandria under kingship of Ptolemy I (Soter). Alexandria is now the royal capital of Egypt.
284–270 Zenodotos, first Director of the Library at Alexandria, categorizes epic and edits the texts of the Iliad and Odyssey
285–? Kallimakhos catalogues the collection and writes poetry
at the Library of Alexandria
282–246 Reign of Ptolemy II (Philadelphos) at Alexandria
270–245 Apollonios of Rhodes composes the Argonautika while working as Director of the Library of Alexandria
264–241 First Punic War
235–204 Naevius composes Poem of the Punic War in Saturnian verse
218–202 Second Punic War
169 Ennius completes the Annales, composed in dactylic hexameter
149–6 Third Punic War, destruction of Carthage
132–121 The Gracchi brothers trouble the Roman Senate and are assassinated
107–100 Marius elected Consul six times
83–1 Sulla’s dictatorship
70 Virgil is born
63 Octavian (later Caesar Augustus) is born
51 Cicero writes “The Dream of Scipio”
49 Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon and marches on Rome
44 Julius Caesar elected dictator and assassinated
43 Ovid is born
38–35 Virgil completes the Eclogues
31 Octavian defeats Marc Antony and Cleopatra at Actium
29 Virgil completes the Georgics, begins the Aeneid
27 Octavian becomes Augustus
23 Ovid publishes the Amores, the first of many elegiac works
19 Virgil dies leaving manuscript of the Aeneid
8 CE Ovid’s Metamorphoses published when he is exiled
17 CE Ovid dies

Map prepared by Cat Buckles

Map prepared by Cat Buckles


Why do students compelled to read ancient epics in college classrooms invariably discover that they have learned something valuable? What could a story composed thousands of years ago have to say to us today?

An active-duty Air Force captain who has served four tours in Iraq explains why he intends to tattoo “the wrath of Achilles” in Greek on his right Achilles tendon:

I want to mark the anger on my body for a lot of reasons … I try to imagine what that Myrmidon [Achilles] must have thought, and his frustration [at] serving for a king who did not want to listen to his best fighters to learn how to fight a war. (Email dated April 20, 2008, to the author)

Iraq Veteran Michael Zacchea, who has been slowly integrating himself back into peacetime society, says,

[Odysseus] resolved his issues by killing all the suitors … really the message is that I have to make my peace with people who, you know, did not go to Iraq or insulated [themselves] from the reality of Iraq. (Interview September 28, 2007 with David Brancchacio for PBS news show, NOW)

Achilles’ angry idealism and Odysseus’ difficult return from war clearly still speak to modern readers in urgent and personal ways.

Searing scenes invite questions about modern life, as when Aeneas’ effort to live only for an imperialist future leads him to hug his son goodbye encased in full armor (Aeneid 12. 432–442). In 1974, John Arthur Hanson, professor of classics and a keen observer of the ideological clash between the generation of the fifties and that of the sixties, saw a parallel between this scene and the “Puritan ethic” backbone of American capitalism, and he subsequently transformed it into “Mr Brass Bids Farewell to his Son Julius:”

But after he had buttoned up his heavy Harris tweed overcoat,

and clutched his briefcase,

He surrounded his son with his scratchy sleeves

and made a pass at kissing him – but his hatbrim got in the way.

“Boy,” he said, “from me you have to learn guts,

and where hard work gets you.

Ask some other guy about luck.

It’s because of my own efforts that you’ve got a roof over your head,

and you’re going to come into a big pile.

You just remember that, when you get some real balls on you.

You don’t need to look outside the family,

just be like your old man and your uncle Hector.”

Then he made a break for the carport.

Other epic protagonists generate similarly intense recognition. Gilgamesh’s struggles against the forces of nature resonate both with those who worry about the environment and anyone who has lost a loved one to death. Who could fail to be awed by Medea’s obsession for Jason or to sympathize with Arachne’s artistic rebellion?

The epic poems in which these memorable protagonists appear – the Epic of Gilgamesh, Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Argonautika, and Metamorphoses – remain a fount of inspiration for poets, dramatists, and musicians, partly because they tell good stories in an aesthetically beautiful way, but mostly because they wrestle with issues important to generation after generation of readers. They speak to hearts and minds concerned about human potentiality and limitation, about the consequences of passion (righteous anger, sexual love, intense grief, or desire for honor), and about the competing claims of civilization, the environment, and the need to reconcile self-interest with the common good. Their explorations of armed violence – what it achieves, what it costs, and what it serves – have much to impart to everyone who thinks about what heroism might mean today.

Chief among epic themes that are still of deep concern to modern societies are the basic implications of being human: intelligence gives us a godlike potential to master our environment, but we are limited by the deadly consequences of our not actually being gods. Human passions – anger, grief, pride, love – often interfere with intelligence, and while gods can make mistakes without serious consequences to themselves because they will always have a tomorrow, human mistakes can end life or make it permanently unbearable. Worst of all, human beings inevitably grow old and die. What meaning, then, attaches to our existence? Is there anything we can do to make ourselves outlive our ephemeral bodies? The latter is the question most consistently pondered by epic poems.

Another fact of life recognized by all six epic poets is that most people want power but almost all who get it abuse it. Long before Lord Acton talked about absolute power corrupting absolutely, Babylonian, Greek, and Roman poets explored the catastrophic effects of a powerful person’s refusal to acknowledge the claims of others, depicting it as stemming from a failure to acknowledge limits. This is what the Greeks called hubris, an extreme type of arrogance. In the epics, abuses of power range from general exploitation of a populace to violence against individuals and even the gods. In the case of violated gods, sometimes their retaliation is limited to the offender; often, however, they send wars, plagues, famines, and other disasters to coerce recompense and teach lessons. How a hero reacts to his own or to another’s power is an important, if not central, interest in all six epics. All are concerned with ways to control the arrogance of power, but some focus more on internal restraints, that is, moral codes and self-control, and others on external ones like social codes and counteractive physical force.

Both the efficacy and effect of violence are concerns for many poets. Physical force is used sometimes to counter abuses of power, sometimes to support or commit them. Often it has unintended consequences. Although all epic heroes must be capable of committing great bodily injury to enemies, none of these six epics celebrates violence. Instead, they are careful to balance their heroes’ violence with the more cooperative virtues of compassion and intelligence, and they invite their audiences to view many of their heroes’ violent deeds with ambiguity even when they are committed in the service of “good” causes.

What exactly is an epic? “Epic” comes from the Greek epos, which means “word,” and, by extension, a “story told in words.” Only certain kinds of stories told in certain kinds of words, however, qualified as epic for the ancient Greeks and Romans. First and foremost, epic stories had to be told in verse, not prose, and they had to be told in a specific kind of verse: the six-beat hexameter line that was considered to be the most stately and dignified of all classical meters. Less discriminating Greeks apparently considered all works written in this meter (scientific treatises, genealogies, martial exhortations, hymns to a god, stories about the gods interacting with each other) to be epics, but Aristotle, fourth-century BCE Athenian scientist and literary critic, is more exacting: epic poetry must tell a long but focused story with the same kinds of reversals, disasters, and recognitions that we find in tragedy; its language must be highly adorned with metaphors and exotic words; and the poet must not speak in his own voice, but must keep himself in the background (Poetics 1447b, 1459–1460). Lastly, the subject of epic must be the deeds of heroes, a criterion so important that Aristotle uses the word “heroic” interchangeably with “hexameter” to designate the meter proper to the genre.

Heroes were a special class of men, superior beings whose deeds earned them a status between a human and god. Most of them had a divine parent or grandparent, and they could do things that no modern man could do. The age in which they lived and fought and died was named the Age of Heroes, a legendary period that preceded the modern age of ordinary people by hundreds of years. Some of them, like Herakles, performed deeds in individual story cycles, but most participated in at least one of the three major story cycles that became cultural touchstones throughout Greece: the Voyage of the Argonauts, the Theban Troubles, and the Trojan War. In archaic and classical Greece, the spirits of long-dead heroes were regularly invoked by priests who hoped they would protect the localities in which they were buried, and their stories were continually evoked by poets and rhetoricians who made them speak anew to modern cultures. In other words, ancient heroes continued to affect religious, political, and cultural life long after their magnificent muscles were thought to have ceased wielding swords and spears.

Since the Babylonian, Greek, and Roman communities were male dominated, epic action revolves around male heroes. Orbiting around the heroes are women and deities, enabling, hindering, motivating. There is a clear differentiation between male and female roles and a tendency to associate the male with cultural progress and the female with repetitious natural cycles. The female is usually more concerned with preserving or perpetuating biological life, the male with preserving his name or enhancing social position. Both sexes can be equally concerned with revenge. Only in the later epics is emotionality per se labeled a female characteristic; in Gilgamesh, the Iliad, and the Odyssey, men as well as women love, weep in grief, and suffer moments of despair. The poets of Gilgamesh and the Iliad are even willing to depict their heroes in an agony of fear, clearly not feeling that this detracts from their heroism. In the Aeneid, on the other hand, fear and open lamentation are closely associated with females, as are all strong passions except love of father and country. Achilles’ desire for heroic revenge, which is honorable in the Iliad, in the Aeneid is portrayed as primitive and as the province of the goddess Juno.

Larger-than-life representatives from the Age of Heroes, who illuminate human action through their closeness to the divine, help to create the seriousness that characterizes epic genre. Heaps of dead enemies and conquered monsters are not an end in themselves; only when a hero’s action engages the whole poetic universe, the gods as well as his human community, can it rise to epic status. Presenting it in verse and enriching it with metaphorical language may be important, but they are not enough: epic action must profoundly affect or illustrate important community values.

Some of these values are political. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, explores kingly responsibility via its hero’s monster slaying, city building, and quest for knowledge. The Iliad and the Odyssey use Achilles’ prowess and Odysseus’ multifaceted intellect to explore what kind of man deserves to be at the top of a given political system, who deserves to be the Greek army’s commander in chief or the king of Ithaka. The Aeneid uses Aeneas’ piety to examine not only what kind of man, but also what nation deserves to rule.

Closely related to these political aspects of epic are social and theological, or cultural, ones. Gilgamesh probes the human condition in a universe of both irascible and beneficent gods who must all be respected despite their being sometimes at odds. Achilles’ choices restore the community’s heroic ethic while validating a tragic vision of life in which the gods’ favor ensures glorious death. Odysseus’ success, on the other hand, confirms the idea of hereditary kingship called into question by the Iliad, while it validates a “comic” vision of life in which the gods’ favor secures prosperous survival. The hero’s desire for self-fulfillment is paramount in all three. Aeneas’ achievement, on the other hand, promotes a hierarchical ranking of nations at the same time as it elevates self-sacrifice to supreme worth: in the Aeneid, Jupiter’s favor ensures national survival, and validates – or seems to validate – a superior national character.

The poets of both the Argonautika and the Metamorphoses challenge epic norms by marginalizing the heroes and the heroism of their predecessors and by calling attention to the artifice of their creations. Nonetheless, both offer value systems that could be described as important to their communities. The Argonautika promotes communal cooperation rather than individual heroics, while the Metamorphoses, more negatively, encourages wariness against clinging to or heroizing any story, identity, or power.

Overview of the Six Epics

Just as modern poets are inspired by Greek and Roman epic, Greek poets were inspired by the ancient poetry of western Asia, the area that today includes Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine. The epic poetry that came from southern Mesopotamian civilizations (first Sumer, later Babylonia) was especially influential. After many years of neglect, mainstream English speakers are now beginning to recognize the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh as a masterpiece and its hero, grief-stricken Gilgamesh, as a forerunner of Homer’s Achilles.

Composed in three stages (roughly 2100, 1700, and 1200 bce), this magnificent poem originated in ancient Sumer as five short epics that focused on King Gilgamesh’s extraordinary feats against warriors, monsters, and the obliterating forces of nature. All his deeds were performed in the context of defending and improving his city. These five Sumerian poems evolved first into a long Old Babylonian epic concerned with Gilgamesh’s struggle against human mortality. A final poet created the still longer Babylonian Standard Version, which focuses firmly on the value of cultural immortality as counterweight to biological death. In this final version, Gilgamesh lives on for future generations both in the walled city he built and in the adventures he experienced and “recorded.” The Epic of Gilgamesh celebrates the hero’s extraordinary learning as much as it does his conquering of monsters, his story as much as his city.

The Iliad and Odyssey were most likely composed on the west coast of Asia Minor around 700 bce. Their poet(s), whom we, like the Greeks, will call Homer, emphasized the idea of cultural immortality in epic song as much as did the poet of Gilgamesh. In the Iliad, however, the emphasis is on its potential to compensate for heroic death in battle. City-building, which plays a central role in Gilgamesh, does not become supremely important again until Virgil’s Aeneid, for the heroes of the Iliad and the Odyssey pride themselves rather on being city-sackers. However, if we define “city” more loosely to include community and its shared values of governance, as opposed to the lawlessness found in nature, we find that “city” values do play a role in the Homeric epics, especially the Odyssey, where the hero’s goal includes not only reuniting with his wife and son, but also reestablishing the proper political functioning of his kingdom. The Iliad’s tragic vision is very much concerned with community, in this case a community of warriors, but more in the sense of showing how vulnerable a human community is when its leader forces its greatest hero to choose between his responsibility to members of the community and his responsibility to its broken ideals, that is, between the ethical self and the unethical community.

The Iliad and Odyssey became the touchstone for all classical literature created in Athens, Alexandria, and Rome, and they are essential for understanding all other classical genres as well as subsequent manifestations of epic poetry. These two universally known monumental poems shaped Greek and Roman concepts of narrative structure, tragedy, comedy, war, marriage, relationships between human and divine beings, and achieving immortality through fame. Aristotle modeled his definition of epic on the Iliad and Odyssey, and all epic poets and readers seem to have regarded the Homeric poems as the standard of epic excellence. Hellenistic and Roman authors could work either with or against the Homeric poems; they could not ignore them.

Apollonios’ Argonautika, written in Greek Alexandria around 260 bce, is interesting both for how it brilliantly reworks Homer and for its extensive influence on Virgil’s Aeneid. This Hellenistic poet celebrates a different kind of literary heroism, one that is collective rather than singular, and one that seems unconcerned with mortality. The Argonauts want fame, but not in the context of compensation for death. Although much of the epic seems like a pure adventure story, a kind of epic seriousness is achieved by the foundational rituals with which the Argonauts transform the landscape and bring a touch of civilization to the “barbarian,” that is, non-Greek, world. Apollonios also interjects into epic a new passion imported from Greek tragedy, obsessive erotic love, and along with it a tragic heroine, Medea, who is more memorable than most of the male heroes.

Virgil’s Aeneid incorporates and reworks not only Homeric epic and Apollonius’ inventions, but the best of Greek and Roman lyric, narrative, and philosophic poetry. The Aeneid deploys a singular heroic protagonist like those of the Homeric poems, but subordinates the Homeric ego to a collective purpose. Perhaps because its author had witnessed both civil war and the ascendancy of an emperor, the Aeneid insists that the truly epic struggle is not for the happiness or immortality of a singular self, but for the perhaps unachievable ideal of dispassionate leadership. The result is an overtly nationalist but profoundly ethical masterpiece whose vast influence on subsequent art and literature makes it, like the Iliad and Odyssey, essential reading for any student of western culture.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses differs in many essential ways from the above five epics, not least in that it has no protagonist. No questing, angry, or foundational king focuses its verses. The “hero” of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is “shapes changing” in an apparently endless progression from the origin of the world to his present-day Rome. Ovid’s poem plays with his predecessors’ ideas of heroism, identity, and immortality while challenging epic norms of unity, heroic singularity, and martial prowess. Because of these challenges, and because of its apparent lack of seriousness, some scholars refuse it the name of epic. Nonetheless, the Metamorphoses is often studied together with Homeric and Virgilian epic, largely because Ovid chose to make it epic in form and also because there is no better way of appreciating this tragicomic masterpiece.

Divine Contexts

Since epic ponders universal questions only within specific cultural settings, it is important to become acquainted with the major gods and goddesses whose myths shaped the poets’ religious and cultural worlds. The gods in Mesopotamia and those around the Aegean Sea lived in similar hierarchies and share many features, but their relationship to each other and to their human worshipers was significantly different. What follows is a brief account of the Greek and Babylonian Divine Succession Myths, which names all the gods important to the epics, and a summary of their major differences. At the end of the book there is appended a list of major gods that may be used for reference as you read about the epics themselves. Although I focus on “national” to the exclusion of local gods, it is important to know that every river was a god and that every beautiful woodland, meadow, or cove was alive not just with trees and plants, but with numerous protective nymphs and fauns.

The Mesopotamian Divine Succession Myth

Sumerian myth tells of a struggle among primal Mesopotamian gods, but the issue is status or class rather than absolute rule. One group of gods, the Anunna, forced another group of gods, the Igiggi, to do all the work of growing and cooking food and building and maintaining palaces to dwell in. When the Igiggi gods rebelled, a war did not ensue. Instead, the Anunna gods created human beings to do the work for all the gods, who can now live in relative harmony.1

Anu (Heaven), the supreme god, together with Enlil (Storm God) and Ea (God of Underearth Waters) ruled the other gods. The goddess Ereshkigal ruled in the Netherworld. Ishtar (Goddess of Sex and War), sister of Ereshkigal, ensured fertile cycles of birth and death, and was nearly as powerful as the three dominant male gods. In some myths she is the daughter of Anu, in others of Sin, the Moon God. Her brother Shamash (Sun God), ruled the skies during the day, bringing injustice to light, while his father the Moon God ruled the sky at night and spoke darkly to humans through oracles.

The Greek Divine Succession Myth2

Gaia (Earth) came into being from chaos, and she bore Uranos (Sky) and Pontos (Deep Sea). Both became her husbands.

Gaia and Uranos are the progenitors of generations of Uranian gods, gods who in the third generation took Olympos as their center of power. Uranos impregnated Gaia, but would not let his children be born because he was jealous of Gaia’s attention. Gaia became angry and formed an alliance with one of the unborn sons held within her womb. She created a sickle out of a stone and gave it to Kronos with instructions to castrate his father the next time he came to lie with her. After Kronos castrated him, Uranos drifted off to become elemental sky, no longer involved in divine affairs. Blood from Uranos’ severed genitals dripped on the earth, where it gave birth to the Furies, who avenge crimes against kin. Where the genitals fell into the sea, sperm mingled with sea foam to beget Aphrodite.

Once Uranos was emasculated, all of Gaia’s children came forth. This generation of gods are called Titans. In addition to Kronos, the most important of them are: Mnemosyne – “Memory,” mother (with Zeus) of the nine Muses; Okeanos, “Ocean,” and Tethys, who together gave birth to all rivers, lakes, springs, and wells, and also to Metis, mother of Athena; Rheia, Kronos’s sister-wife; Themis, goddess of Natural Law, whose name means roughly “What has been established;” Hyperion, “He who moves on high,” who fathered Helios, the Sun, and Selene, the Moon; Iapetos, who is important mostly as the father of Prometheus, whose name means “Foresight;” and Phoebe, “Radiant,” whose daughter is Leto, mother of Apollo and Artemis.

Kronos was naturally the Titans’ ruler. He took as wife his sister Rheia, and begot six children, whom he feared because of a prophecy that one of his offspring would dethrone him. At the moment of birth he swallowed each of them, thus angering mother Rheia and causing her, like Gaia before her, to turn to a son for vengeance. When baby Zeus was born, Rhea wrapped a stone in swaddling clothes and gave it to Kronos to swallow. She reared Zeus in secret, and she and Gaia helped him release his two brothers and three sisters and then overcome Kronos. Kronos, and the Titans who sided with him, were thrown into Tartaros, which lies as far below the surface of the earth as Olympos lies above it. Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades drew lots to determine their realm in which each would be supreme – sky, sea, and underworld – but they share the earth (see Il. 15. 187–193). Hades took up residence in the underworld, but Zeus, Poseidon, and their sisters Hera, Demeter, and Hestia took possession of Olympos.

The other god of the oldest generation, Pontos, is the progenitor of generations separate from but not warring with the Olympian gods. Pontos fathered Nereus, a sea god who fathered Thetis, mother of Achilles, and forty-nine other daughters, all of whom have names and personalities but who are collectively called Nereids, “Daughters of Nereus.”

The same thing that happened to Kronos and Uranos would have happened to Zeus had he not learned a prophecy and acted in time. Zeus was having sexual relations with his cousin Metis, daughter of Okeanos, when he learned from his grandmother that after bearing the daughter with whom she was now pregnant, Metis was destined to bear a son who would surpass his father. Zeus did not wait to swallow the threatening child at birth, as his own father had done, but immediately swallowed the pregnant mother instead. This secured him a triple advantage: not only would the son who might challenge him never be conceived, but immortal Metis (Shrewd Counsel) now lived inside his own body, and her daughter Athena, subsequently born from his head, would regard him as her sole parent and give him total allegiance.

Zeus’s marriage to Hera produced two sons: Ares, god of war, and Hephaistos, god of fire and the forge.3 Zeus’ marriage did not preclude him from having offspring with many goddesses. With Titan Leto, he fathered twins Apollo and Artemis, divinities of the sun and moon, respectively. With the nymph Maia, he fathered Hermes, god of messengers, hidden treasure, and thievery. With Semele, a minor goddess who comes into recorded mythology as a mortal woman, he fathered Dionysos, god of wine and nature. The Iliad also makes Zeus the father of Aphrodite via the womb of a goddess named Dione, whose name means roughly “Mrs. Zeus.” These eight children of Zeus live with him, Hera, Poseidon, and Demeter above Mount Olympos.

Later, both Zeus and Poseidon courted Thetis, daughter of Nereus and granddaughter of Pontos. Then Themis (or Prometheus) revealed a prophecy that Thetis would bear a son more powerful than his father. Both gods not only withdrew their suit, but also forced Thetis to marry a mortal so that her offspring could never challenge them. Thus the Olympian regime with Zeus at its head was permanently stabilized. And thus Achilles was born half-mortal, to the endless sorrow of his mother.

Cosmic Implications

The Greeks’ violent Succession Myth shows a progression from more elemental gods (Earth, Heaven, Sea) to more anthropomorphic gods who rule various elements (Zeus who rules the heavens, Poseidon who rules the sea). More importantly, it reveals two immense tensions within Greek culture: intense competition between fathers and sons and a related competition between husbands and wives. The wife’s prime goal is to keep her young children alive, even if it means “killing” the father, while the husband’s is to preserve his own power even if it means killing his children (immortality through one’s children is not an issue with gods). From this divine behavior, we can extract what the Greeks would have assumed to be “natural” female and male behavior: that is, women are focused on biological survival and men on power. Homeric epic confirms this inference, but on the human plane, father–son competition for power shifts to brother–brother or simply male-on-male competition. The quarrel between Achilles and the older, sceptered king Agamemnon over who is “best of the Akhaians” is an example of the latter.

Perhaps the most important element in the Succession Myth is the extreme violence by which power is transferred and “progress” is made. Females, too, fully participate in violence, but with this difference: they use cunning to aid a male to commit the physical violence that will effect the transfer of power. The exclusively violent transfers of power seem to indicate that all living beings, including intelligent ones, are programmed to respect physical more than verbal prowess. In the human realm as portrayed in epic, in fact, negotiations mostly fail, and order is established and maintained only by physical force. As Odysseus says in Iliad 14, 85–87: “Zeus has made war our lot, from youth to old age, until each of us dies.”

One thing that is striking to one steeped in Greek mythology is that in the early Babylonian pantheon the generations coexist in power. Anu is parallel to the Greek Uranos, whose name also means heaven, or sky, but he has not been castrated or otherwise ousted from his seat of power. He may be more remote than the other gods, but he is still supreme. Enlil corresponds to Zeus, God of the Lightning Bolt, but he has not overthrown his father nor is he the father of all the Olympian gods who are not his siblings. Both generations of Mesopotamian gods make appearances in epics about Gilgamesh, but only the youngest generation of Greek gods, the ones who make their home on Olympos, are important in Greek and Roman epic. The absence of zero-sum familial competition in the Mesopotamian cosmogony mirrors the relative lack of civil strife in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Succession myths aside, there is often dissension among the gods, dissension that makes it difficult for human beings to achieve success without paying great prices. Tragic epic universes portray heroes caught in this dissension. For example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Shamash and Ea privilege human intelligence and culture, while Ishtar and Enlil promote natural processes and a natural justice that treats human beings as no more important than other elements of the world; Gilgamesh cannot obey the Sun God without violating prerogatives of the Storm God. In the Iliad, opposing groups of gods headed by Zeus and Hera protract the war that makes immortal glory possible; this protraction increases the agonizing loss of life and helps bring into sharp focus the impossible choices human beings must make. The Aeneid privileges the fiercely competitive Greek pantheon over native Italian gods; drawing on succession myths that pitted divine fathers against mothers, it magnifies the Iliadic quarrel between Jupiter (Zeus) and Juno (Hera) into a cosmic opposition between masculine forces of rationality and culture and female forces of irrationality and raw nature, using these forces simultaneously to validate the hero’s achievement and to question the possibility of human progress.

Comic epic universes, that is, those with happy endings, play down cosmic dissension, at least at the highest levels. Zeus and Athena in the Odyssey and Zeus and Hera in the Argonautika are in total harmony; the heroes’ major obstacles in both epics are human wickedness, monsters, and the elements. Poseidon’s one appearance on Olympos marks the Odyssey’s only true tragedy; throughout Odysseus’s trials he is an elemental rather than an Olympian god. Olympian harmony allows the Odyssey‘s poet to work with clear categories of good and evil, justice and injustice, categories that are somewhat muddied in tragic universes.

In the highly self-conscious Argonautika and Metamorphoses, Greek and Roman gods inhabit a purely literary cosmos. They have devolved to divine machinery in an essentially secular world. Not until poets like Dante, Tasso, Spencer, and Milton deploy their heroes in Christian universes do gods again power European epic with the cosmic reverberations it had in its origins.


1 Later Babylonian myth did recount a divine succession story that is in some ways similar to the Greek, but the decisive battle is not between father and son divinities, but between an older widowed goddess and the young male god who had “killed” her husband. There is no hint, however, that its two major actors, Tiamat and her nemesis Marduk, son of Ea, were known to the poet of Gilgamesh.

2 The Succession Myth is found in Hesiod’s Theogony, which was composed roughly at the same time as the Iliad, and in Apollodorus’s Library 1.1–2, which was compiled during the Roman empire.

3 Such is the parentage given Hephaistos by the Iliad. Later myths make Hera the sole parent of Hephaistos.