Theogony Made Simple
(As published in the February 2020 issue of Fiddler’s Green.)
by Craig Conley
We are all descended from the gods.
—Emperor Julian, “Fragment of a Letter to a Priest”
The risk inherent in tracing one’s theogony is that one might prove a relation to a forebear one doesn’t believe in. Yet this isn’t so unusual — don’t we all have relatives we can’t accept, whose names go unspoken (whether or not they are technically unpronounceable)?
Just as mundane genealogy is likely to reveal – gulp – ancestors with unsavory histories (perhaps who even committed atrocities), theogony, too, requires a brave leap of faith, a suspension of disbelief, a generous helping of the religious tolerance that makes our ideal world go round. Just as we don’t get to choose our parents, we don’t get to choose our deified progenitors, so we cannot trace our sacred lineages according to preconceived notions. A Christian may genuinely feel “a child of God,” but that does not necessarily imply a direct bloodline to the historical Jesus (though just in case, see Baigent, Leigh & Lincoln’s The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail). Indeed, we must go about this backwards, not beginning with our current belief system and tracing step by step into the past the way one would begin a genealogy with one’s parents and grandparents, but rather beginning with the First Cause and tracing forward through time.
And this science allows for, even requires, inspiration along the way. Call it prompting from a Muse or an even profounder source; call it “future memory,” if you prefer; your inner voice will unfailingly guide the process. In your heart of hearts, you will be able to trust in the accuracy of your chart.
A typical first question for theogony is: are you a child of Mother Earth or of Chaos? For our examples, we’ll arbitrarily use Greek terminology for the primeval forces, acknowledging of course that different traditions have different names for the same energies at play in the universe.
If your instinctive answer is Chaos, that leads to the primordial deities of darkness (Erebus), night (Nyx), rarified atmosphere (Aether), day (Hemera), sleep (Hypnos) and death (Thanatos). Your next consideration, then, is: are you a day or night person? Or is sleep your favorite state of consciousness? Or do you lean toward the macabre? Or is your head always in the clouds? In this way, as you can see, you begin finding lineages that are indisputably inherent to your very being.
If you answered not Chaos but Mother Earth (Gaia), that connects to Father Sky (Uranus), the primordial mountain deities (Ourea), and the primordial sea (Pontus). Your next consideration, then, is: are you attracted more to the mountains or to the sea? Or is the sky where your eyes tend to wander? Making these simple distinctions will illuminate the lineages that have woven the fabric of your very being.
The easiest way to follow the intricacies of the Greek model is via Hesiod’s Theogony (c. 700 BC). The Egyptian deities’ family tree is also readily available through the most basic research, as are the Norse, Japanese, Hindu, Celtic, and so forth. Granting that we are all born into a milieu, and not discounting the possibility that we were born into the correct milieu, detachedly consider which mythology of a foreign culture has most intrigued you over the years; that system is perhaps the best starting point for your personal theogony tree. Using a “foreign” system actually assists in your objectivity. You’ll be focusing on the traits of the personified energies, and the relatively exotic names will be less likely to get entangled with the (however righteous) biases of your personal belief system. The names, of course, vary from culture to culture, but the forces behind those names are the workings of the cosmos. So we don’t get caught up in particulars of theology.
Follow the deity generations in this manner until you reach those who mated with mortals and produced demi-god or otherwise legendary offspring. God-human interbreeding has been very, very common through history. It is obviously from this point that your spiritual heritage will manifest on the earthly plane, and the roots of family names will begin to be established. At this juncture you will begin discovering royal heritage as well.
A great many luminaries have established legendary, mythic, and divine ancestry. Delve deeply enough into Celtic ancestry, for example, and you’re guaranteed to find fairy connections and deified lineage (approximately 50 to 60 generations back). Plato’s father traced his ancestry to the sea god Poseidon, while Plato’s mother traced hers to the archon Dropides. The Hapsburgs of Austria traced their ancestry back to the Egyptian fertility god Osiris. Julius Caesar descended from the goddess of love, Venus. The Scandinavian kings traced their ancestry to the fertility god Freyr in the guise of Ing or Yngvi. The highest Hindu caste, the Brahmins, trace their ancestry to the god of ultimate reality, Brahma. Emperor Wang Mang traced his ancestry back to the legendary Yellow Emperor, lord of the underworld. Marcus Antonius traced his ancestry to the god Hercules, as did Hippocrates before him. The Ptolemies claimed to be descended from the god of wine, Bacchus. The Tongan chiefs trace their ancestry to the sky god Tangaloa. The emperors of Japan traced their ancestry to the goddess of the sun, Amaterasu. Galba traced his ancestry back to Jupiter on his father’s side. All of the royal families (except Essex) go back to the Scandinavian all-father god Odin. The Navajo people trace their ancestry to the goddess Changing Woman. The Shahs of Kathmandu claimed to be descended from the preserver god Vishnu. Augustus traced his ancestry back to the mythical hero and founder of Rome, Aeneas. The Yoruba people trace their ancestry to the god of thunder, Shango. Genghis Khan traced his ancestry back to the lunar deity. Clovis of the Franks traced his ancestry back to the mythical hero Merovius.
What are your own chances of being related to a fairy queen, a Chinese immortal, or Zeus’ half-human daughter Helen of Troy? The chances increase exponentially, the farther through time we journey. The formula for the number of ancestors in a given generation is 2n = x, where n is the number of generations back and x equals the number of individuals in that generation. Within 40 generations, any one person has a trillion ancestors.
Forget “the old country,” forget the Fertile Crescent and the Garden of Eden. The Mayan kings traced their genealogy billions of years before the Big Bang. Crucially: “Our ancestors are not only the human inhabitants which make up our family systems. Although for most people veneration of the ancestors is restricted to the human ancestors, it is imperative at this time in history that we include the wider breadth of our relations. Could we not trace our ancestry all the way back to Australopithecus? ... Sinking deeper, we might find ourselves in deep relation with the stones, with elemental water itself—even the fire of stars burns in our bodies!” (Jason Kirkey, The Salmon in the Spring, 2009). Recall that the burial tablets of initiates into the Ancient Greek mystery cults sport claims of divine lineage. One having been struck by lightning, for example, proved a connection to Zeus. This “ritual genealogy” replaced traditional family lines so as to determine one’s place in the cosmos, unhindered by ordinary distinctions of gender, family, or clan (Radcliffe G. Edmonds, “Who Are You? Mythic Narrative and Identity in the ‘Orphic’ Gold Tablets,” Mystic Cults in Magna Graecia, 2009).
Yet the biggest question lingers: can we honestly own up to an deified heritage? To stand upon the shoulders of the mighty requires not only a colossal step up but also concerted balancing and adjusted perspectives. What a hefty responsibility comes with owning exalted heritage. What an effort of imagination it takes to draw our birthright into the limelight so as to illuminate the missing branches in our family trees. When missing branches are of sacred origin, we find ourselves facing some rather profound questions and challenges. To what crown (or crowning glory) are we the natural successors? To what dignities? What traditions are our responsibility to keep alive? What untapped powers? If our Weltanschauung does not account for an Otherworld, how can we reconcile our nymph-glands? How are the descendants of an exotic deity to appease another holy ghost? Truly, to quest for the higher echelons of human life, to scale ancestral branches, is to hang topsy-turvy with Odin on the World Tree.
Craig Conley is the author of Heirs to the Queen of Hearts: Tracing Magical Genealogy, which lists all the family names connected to Alfred the Great, who in turn proved his descent from the god Odin. Conley has also writen the dictionaries Magic Words (Weiser Books) and One-Letter Words (HarperCollins), as well as A Field Guide to Identifying Unicorns By Sound, How To Believe in Your Elf, The Care and Feeding of a Spirit Board, and dozens of other titles. Browse his works at MysteryArts.com.