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The Mythical Origin of Justice

Hesiod1, an eighth-century B.C. poet from the region of Boeotia in central Greece, employed myth to reveal the divine origin of justice. His long poem The Theogony (“The Genealogy of the Gods”) details the birth of the race of gods from primordial Chaos (“void” or “vacuum”) and Earth, the mother of Sky and numerous other children. This myth about the succession of the gods owed its inspiration to Near Eastern myths, another example of the importance of contact with that region for the cultural as well as economic development of Greece as it emerged from its Dark Age. Hesiod explained that, when Sky began to imprison his siblings, Earth persuaded her fiercest male offspring, Kronos, to overthrow him by violence because “Sky first contrived to do shameful things.”2 When Kronos later began to swallow up all his own children, Kronos's wife had their son Zeus overthrow his father3 by force in retribution for his evil deeds. These vivid stories, which had their origins in Near Eastern myths like those of the Mesopotamian Epic of Creation, carried the message that existence, even for gods, entailed struggle, sorrow, and violence. Even more significantly, however, they showed that a concern for justice had also been a component of the divine order of the universe from the beginning. In his poem Works and Days, Hesiod identified Zeus as the fount of justice in human affairs, a marked contrast to the portrayal of Zeus4 in Homeric poetry as mainly concerned with the fates of his favorite aristocratic warriors. Hesiod presents justice as a divine quality that will assert itself to punish evil-doers: “For Zeus ordained that fishes and wild beasts and birds should eat each other, for they have no justice; but to human beings he has given justice, which is far the best.”5

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