HESIOD (LITERATURE)

Career: Lived c. 700 BC. According to the poet himself, he lived in Ascra in Boeotia (central Greece), and tended sheep on Mount Helicon; won a tripod at the funeral games of Amphidamas in Chalcis; the story of his meeting and contest with Homer was probably a fictional account. Died: Said to have died in Locri or Orchomenus.

Publications

Collections

[Works], edited by Friedrich Solmsen, R. Merkelbach, and M.L. West. 1970; revised edition, 1983; translated by J. Mair, 1908; also translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White [Loeb Edition; prose], 1936; also translated by Richmond Lattimore, 1959; Dorothea Wender, 1973; Apostolos N. Athanassakis, 1983; R.M. Frazer, 1983; selection as The Essential Hesiod, translated by C.J. Rowe, 1978; as Works and Days; and Theogony, translated by Stanley Lombardo, 1993; as Hesiod’s Works and Days, translation with commentary by David W. Tandy and Walter C. Neale, 1996; also translated by David Grene, 1998.

Verse

Theogonia, edited by M.L. West (with commentary). 1966; edited and translated by Richard Caldwell, 1988; as Theogony, translated by Norman O. Brown (prose), 1953; also translated by M.L. West, with Works and Days, 1988.

Opera et dies, edited by M.L. West (with commentary). 1978; as Works and Days, translated by M.L. West, with Theogony, 1988.

Critical Studies:

Hesiod and Aeschylus by Friedrich Solmsen, 1949; The World of Hesiod: A Study of the Greek Middle Ages c. 900-700 BC by A.R. Burn, 1966; Hesiod and the Near East by Peter Walcot, 1966; The Language of Hesiod in Its Traditional Context by G.P. Edwards, 1971; The Winged Word: A Study in the Technique of Ancient Greek Oral Composition as Seen Principally Through Hesiod’s ”Works and Days" by B. Peabody, 1975; Hesiod and the Language of Poetry by Pietro Pucci, 1976; Hesiod and Parmenides by M.E. Pelikaan-Engel, 1977; The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women: Its Nature, Structure, and Origins by M.L. West, 1985; The Architecture of Hesiodic Poetry by Richard Hamilton, 1988; Hesiod by Robert Lamberton, 1988; Heat and Lust: Hesiod’s Midsummer Festival Scene Revisited by J.C.B. Petropoulos, 1994; Greek Myths and Mesopotamia: Parallels and Influence in the Homeric Hymns and Hesiod by Charles Penglase, 1994; Hesiod and Aeschylus by Friedrich Solmsen, 1995; God and the Land: The Metaphysics of Farming in Hesiod and Vergil by Stephanie A. Nelson, 1998; Homer and Hesiod:


Myth and Philosophy by Richard Gotshalk, 2000.


Antiquity attributed a number of poems to Hesiod: besides Theogonia (Theogony) and Opera et dies (Works and Days), the only ones which are both nearly intact and probably genuine, there is a fragmentary Catalogue of Women (or Eoiai), a spurious Shield of Herakles, and some others of which we know little more than the titles.

The Theogony begins with a prayer-song celebrating the Muses, recounting their encounter with the poet on the foothills of Helicon, and invoking their power to fill him with true song. They start with a cosmogony. Chaos, the primal chasm, came first into being, then Earth, the Underworld, and Eros, sexual desire, the primal energy from which further creation flowed. Once he has established that primordial being is a unity, and material if also divine, the poet interests himself mainly in the emergence of the various gods, and the generations of their rulers. First in power were nature gods, Earth and Heaven; then came Cronus and the Titans, who ruled by force and violence; these were replaced by Zeus and the Olympians, the present regime, characterized by intelligence as well as power, and a deathless being which transcends nature. The shift in power from Earth and Sky is accomplished by a savage fulfilment of the Freudian Oedipal wish: the boy Cronus, at the instigation of his mother Earth, castrates his father Heaven and takes his throne. The triumph of Zeus over Cronus is different, a triumph of practical intelligence. Cronus is deceived by his mother Earth into swallowing a stone when he intended to devour his son Zeus. Zeus had the sense to free the spirits of lightning and thunder, who armed him with weapons to crush Cronus and the Titans, weapons he still uses. Mental agility will keep Zeus in power: warned that his first wife Metis (Intelligence) is to give birth to Athena, her father’s equal in strength and wisdom, and a son destined to rule, Zeus swallows Metis and procures her power for himself: Athena is born from his head, and the son is never conceived.

A myth is needed to illustrate the quality of intelligence that rules the world, and Hesiod adapts Prometheus. The hero first tricks Zeus into granting humans the better share of sacrifices. Zeus does not undo, but rather compensates, by withholding fire from mortals. Prometheus steals the fire; again Zeus compensates, fashioning the first woman, regarded by Hesiod as a mixed blessing at best. Divine retribution is creative rather than destructive, a balancing which achieves a kind of justice.

If the cosmos began as a unity, it is a unity no longer: the transcendent has seemingly emerged from primal matter and become Olympian. But Olympus is not born, any more than it was present at the beginning: its becoming is as mysterious as its supernatural being. Though beyond nature, it is somehow above us; occasionally called Heaven, it is in fact a place beyond the sky. At the other pole lies Tartarus, the Underworld, where the defeated Titans dwell, along with Night, Sleep, and Death. Above Tartarus is a chasm, perhaps identical with primordial Chaos; then comes the natural world and the monsters ”beyond the sea,” such as the Gorgons, Echidna, and the defunct Medusa.

The Theogony’s suggestion of a close connection among Zeus, Earth, and Justice is developed into an elaborate theodicy in the Works and Days. The premises are, not unexpectedly, questionable; but the argument is highly rational. Zeus is a just god, who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. The good, in this Iron age of ours, are those who honour the goddess good Strife, competition; the wicked are worshippers of bad Strife—battle, disputation, and theft legal and illegal. Strife (Eris) is thus the energy of human purposes, just as Sexual Desire (Eros) is the energy of the Theogony. We all desire wealth, but it must be acquired justly, through good strife, or else the gods will destroy us, our offspring, our cities. And this means that we must work. It was not always thus: as the myths of Prometheus-Pandora and of the Decadence from the Golden Age reveal, Zeus has punished human arrogance by hiding our livelihood. But the life of hard work is not a mere avoidance of evil, rather a fulfilment of justice, an honourable response to the act of a just Zeus. Hesiod’s paradigm for work is the life of the farmer, who struggles to be in harmony with Zeus, Heaven and Earth, divinities of Olympus and of Nature. This life is depicted in the imperative mood: ”Now plough, now sow, now reap,” a device which combines description with prudential—and moral—imperative. The poem ends with a superstitious Catalogue of Good and Bad Days for doing things, which many scholars have adjudged spurious. But the bulk of the poem is a well thought-out and logical vindication of a life of honourable competition in harmony with nature and a just God.

The style of Hesiod is the oral-epic style of Homer. Whether Hesiod utilized writing is not known, but he probably shaped and reshaped his poems for many years. Their final form is somewhat, but probably not radically, different from what we read. Catalogue poetry such as the Theogony, didactic verse such as the Works and Days, will have its wearisome moments for modern readers. But—to name only a sample—the opening portions of both poems, and the description of Zeus’ battle with the Titans and of the Underworld in the Theogony, are exceedingly powerful reflections of apocalyptic inspiration.

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