The Asexual Revolution: Parthenogenesis in Hesiod’s Theogony (revised)

While reading through Hesiod’s Theogony, I was struck by his repeated distinction between the manner of the deities’ reproductive cycles. Initially, I thought Hesiod was choosing to focus on important lineage while ignoring the specifics of every individual’s parentage. He begins his history of the universe with the first of many documentations of birth: “Chaos was born first and after her [sic] came Gaia” (Hesiod 116). Although this translation of Hesiod uses female pronouns for Chaos, the original Greek precedes Chaos with “τὸ,” a neuter pronoun. I was confused at first by the absence of a father figure here, but I assumed it must have been unimportant. Soon afterwards, however, Hesiod clearly distinguishes between the abilities of birth from nothing and birth from mating: “Chaos gave birth to Erebos and black Night; / then Erebos mated with Night and made her pregnant / and she in turn gave birth to Ether and Day” (123-125). A closer reading of the work as a whole revealed many instances of this asexual reproduction, or parthenogenesis (παρθενογένεση), each similarly indicated by Hesiod as a viable method for the reproduction of his gods. After this discovery, my thoughts went wild; included in this story of the gods and the universe is a mechanism by which non-male deities reproduce without male partners! What could it symbolize? When is it employed? By contrast, when is sexual reproduction employed? How are beings born out of parthenogenesis different from their sexually-produced counterparts? Full of questions, I reread the passage with a closer attention to detail.

Near the beginning of Hesiod’s work, he uses parthenogenesis to establish the natural hallmarks of the universe. Chaos births Gaia, Erebos, and Night. Gaia births Ouranos/Sky, the Mountains, Nymphs, and Pontos/Sea (126-131). Night births Death, Sleep, Dreams, and other similar abstractions (210-219). For the most part, the beings formed asexually have in common an inherent connection to nature and a devaluation of self. While Gaia and Ouranos sometimes act as individuals, they are usually thought of as literally the earth and the sky as opposed to individual embodiments of earth and sky like Demeter and Zeus. An immediate example of this distinction is in Gaia’s birthing of Pontos asexually followed by her birthing of Okeanos sexually: “she bore Pontos, the barren sea with its raging swell… But then / she did couple with Ouranos to bear deep-eddying Okeanos” (131-133). Here, we Hesiod employ parthenogenesis to create the ocean, but employ sexual reproduction to create the deity of the ocean. So, parthenogenesis seems to be employed by female deities to create beings that are closer to the natural world than the more cultured and individualistic entities created by the addition of a male sexual partner. The presence of a male parent creates a more cultured child, while the absence of a male parent creates a more natural child.

Through the lens of parthenogenesis, the Theogony is reminiscent of Sherry Ortner’s “Is female to male as nature is to culture?” on two levels. First, this asexual method of reproduction reinforces the connection of women and nature by making birth a talent of female deities without the need for males. Second, it seems to produce beings that are more primal and less individual, suggesting that full consciousness and egoism is dependent on male parentage. Ortner’s hypothesis that women are seen as closer to nature and men as more removed from it lines up perfectly. However, this hypothesis does not account for all instances of parthenogenesis in the Theogony, and Hesiod’s last employment of the asexual mechanism is perhaps his most fascinating.

Shortly after Zeus swallows Metis and she gives birth to Athena in his head, Hera gets angry at her husband and plots revenge in a most unusual fashion: birth. As a way of subverting his authority, she asexually produces her son Hephaistos: “Hera wrangled with her husband and because of anger, / untouched by him, she bore glorious Hephaistos” (927-928). This instance of parthenogenesis stands out from the others, as Hephaistos is an Olympian and not a primal nature deity. Evidently, the meaning behind Hesiod’s use of asexual reproduction is slightly different here. Notably, Hera’s motivation for the birth was “anger,” so she clearly intends to create a challenge to Zeus in some way. In later myths, Hephaistos does challenge Zeus by attempting to physically intervene in one of Zeus and Hera’s fights. Zeus ends up overwhelming him and throwing him from Olympus, resulting in his lameness. Taken symbolically, the message seems clear: Hera attempts to challenge the patrilineal line of divine power by creating a son without a father, and that son is not powerful enough. Zeus triumphing over Hephaistos could stand in for Zeus triumphing over Hera herself, and for male parentage triumphing over the attempt of parthenogenesis at creating an individualistic deity (rather than a primal one). Although Hera’s asexual birthing stands out, it ends up reinforcing the Hesiod’s point earlier in the narrative: women are closer to nature, and female deities have trouble creating beings other than natural ones through parthenogenesis.

The Hephaistos myth also serves to break the cycle of father-son power transfer that comes before his birth. From the genesis of the immortals onwards, leadership consistently passes from father to son through a violent contest of the two: first from Ouranos to Kronos, then from Kronos to Zeus. The storyline of Hephaistos’ challenging of Zeus is an attempt at a parallel to these previous power transfers, but Hera’s son fails to challenge her husband’s authority and win. Hephaistos’ loss, then, symbolizes not only the triumph of Zeus over Hera, but the triumph of Zeus’ patriarchy as the only, unquestionable patriarchy. Hephaistos’ failure signals the end of one phase of Hesiod’s Theogony and the dawn of the Olympian mythology that prevails afterwards. Thus, the success of Zeus’ authority is predicated on the failure of Hera’s and through her, of women. Beyond his symbolic significance as an agent of Hera’s challenge to Zeus, Hephaistos is usually disregarded as a masculine role model in the Ancient Greek mythological canon. His lameness makes him less desirable and less masculine, as he cannot participate in warfare like the other male gods. He is most directly contrasted with Ares, god of war, through their contest over Aphrodite. Although the goddess is officially married to Hephaistos, she often cuckholds him through her affair with Ares. Hephaistos therefore loses an unofficial battle over the “ownership” of his wife. Parthenogenesis seems less capable of producing masculine deities when compared to sexual reproduction.

In general, I found two parallel thematic employments of parthenogenesis by non-male beings: the creation of natural elements of the universe and the creation of (failed) agents of resistance to the otherwise patrilineal power cycle of the Theogony. I found it particularly interesting that the important distinction in allowing a deity to employ parthenogenesis is not femininity, but rather the absence of masculinity, in reference to the ability of gender-neutral Chaos to create children. Hesiod seems to be proposing a system that recognizes those with maleness and those lacking maleness as forming a dichotomy of sex; he therefore defines “female” negatively and as fundamentally related to positively-defined “male.” It was interesting to compare Hesiod’s mythological formation of this representation of gender with the medical texts of Aristotle and Hippocrates, regarded as scientific opinions at the time of their writing. In his medical text, Hippocrates theorizes that women are born of a “weak form” of sperm “prevail[ing] in quantity” in sexual intercourse (Hippocrates). Evidently, Hesiod merely reflected the opinions of his society onto his story of the gods’ creation of the universe, creating a justification for the philosophical opinions of the society in which he lived.

Could myths like the Theogony have been used to reinforce the patriarchy as it operated in ancient Greek society? It seems likely Looking forward, I hope to see more examples of asexual birthing in other myths, as so much of its meaning remains a mystery to me. Do only deities employ parthenogenesis? Are there myths of humans reproducing similarly? Is this purely a Greek mythical tool, or are there elements of it in other contemporary civilizations? Do philosophers of ancient Greece comment on the idea of asexual reproduction, and if so how do they use it to frame a conversation about gender? I’m excited to keep exploring parthenogenesis going forward, though I’m sure I’ll uncover many more questions than answers.


Works Cited

Hesiod, and Apostolos N. Athanasakes. Theogony. Works and Days ; Shield / Hesiod. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1983. Print.

Hippocrates. “On the Generating Seed and the Nature of the Child.” Intercourse, Conception and Pregnancy. N.p.: n.p., Cos, 4th Cent. B.C. N. pag. Print.


3 thoughts on “The Asexual Revolution: Parthenogenesis in Hesiod’s Theogony (revised)

  1. Hi Andy!
    I am so happy you chose to rewrite this essay as I found it fascinating!
    I think the connection to Hippocrates was brilliant. I hadn’t considered how myths might have affected scientific texts, or at least what counted as scientific to them. I believe the connection is a very important one. The myths of ancient Greece served a purpose to affirm the patriarchy and structure of society. It makes sense then that Hippocrates would be influenced by them when he wrote his medical texts, which only continued to further the opinions Hesiod wrote.
    There are many questions around this topic and you touched on many very interesting ones(looking at other civilizations for asexual reproduction sounds very interesting). I am curious to see how this feedback loop of myth and science has transferred to modern societies. How do the folktales or stereotypes passed down from generation to generation influence the supposedly objective pursuit of science?
    There are so many different ways to continue analyzing this topic! It’s interesting to see how such a small detail could mean so much in terms of the structure of a society and important to keep in mind in our society.


  2. Pingback: castration culture shows ancient, bloody grip in Hesiod’s Theogony – purple motes

  3. Pingback: Castration culture revealed in Hesiod’s Theogony

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