'And once They taught Hesiod fine singing, as he tended his lambs below holy Helicon...'
Hesiod is possibly the oldest known epic poet of the archaic Greek era (Homer being a probable contemporary). There are only five works usually attributed to him, The Theogony, Works and Days, The Shield, The Catalogue of Women, and a small collection of miscellaneous poetry. Of these, only three survive, The Theogony, Works and Days, and The Shield, while only The Theogony and Works and Days have a good authenticity claim.
Born sometime around 700BC, he lived a farmer’s life out on the slopes of Mount Helicon, in Boeotia, central Greece. His father had given up an unprofitable sea career and moved to the hills to work the land and pasture his flocks. Hesiod recalls in the opening lines of The Theogony: it was one afternoon while tending his father’s flock that he heard the Muses calling on him to sing the great tale of the history of the Gods (The Theogony):
And They breathed into me wondrous voice, so that I should celebrate things of the future and the things that were aforetime. And They told me to sing of the family of the blessed ones who are forever, and first and last, always to sing of themselves
In the 8th century, Greek journeying to and exploration of the East was expanding rapidly. The cultural evidence of this is striking, not simply in the medium of art and sculpture but in the more expansive and deeper mechanisms of myth and speech. Perhaps, one of the most significant innovations at this time, was the Greek adoption of the Phoenician alphabet, the act of which made it possible for the likes of Hesiod and Homer to record their work, a method previously not ventured (at least as far as we know). As a recorder of oral tales, it is probably fair to say that Hesiod was writing primarily for the audience, not the reader. Inherent in these works are some slow, grating passages that perhaps lend themselves much better to spoken, performative modes of communication that they do to page-read verse.
Traditionally, critics do not laud Hesiod as an especially great writer, and though I read this volume in translation, its rather fragmented narrative is evident still. He is not so much read for his poetic genius as for the illuminating insight he lends into myth and social practice, especially for those archaic Greeks of agricultural stock. Some of the most famous Greek myths (Prometheus, Pandora, the ‘Golden Age’) enjoy their first inscriptions by the hand of Hesiod, and show considerable eastern influence. Given the nature of this type of poetry, it is difficult to discern what may be a literary device from what may be an oral trope. Hesiod’s claim that the Muses came to him while he tended his lambs and asked him to sing of the Gods was an encounter boasted by many poets thereafter, and for all we know was a claim made by many oral poets before him.
The Theogony is what basically amounts to a genealogy of the Gods: a comprehensive record of their origins - born from the vastness of the physical universe through to their establishment in the seat of power on Olympus. The first great entities, the dawn of creation, are Chaos and Earth. From their union some 300 Gods descend, many recognisable and worshipped deities, many others names that have long since been forgotten (It is likely in fact that the names attributed to the Muses were a creation of Hesiod himself). First are born the nymphs and deities of localised features in the landscape. Then there follows deities of the known and the unknown worlds, the land of men, and the land of the dead. Soon after come the Titans, ‘the most fearsome of children’:
A hundred arms sprang from their shoulders – unshapen hulks – and fifty heads grew from the shoulders of each of them upon their stalwart bodies. And strength boundless and powerful was upon their mighty form.
At junctures where there is possibility for enlivened expansion, Hesiod obliges. The Kronos myth is one such instance: Kronos, one of the Titans, in a bitter hatred of his father the Sky (who incidentally, despised the Titans for their ugliness), castrated his father (cf Osiris myth) as he launched over the earth at night-time (and in so doing confirms his place within a trope of world mythologies). From out of the blood that reigns down from the castrated Sky, the Giants are born, and the Cyclopes, springing up from the moistened Earth.
From continued unions and immaculate conceptions, members of the traditional pantheon finally make an appearance along with numerous chimeras and personified abstracts including: Neglect, Starvation and Memory. Zeus’s own father the castrating Kronos, on hearing a prophecy that one of his children will one day kill him, decides he will eat his offspring as they are born and thus thwart the prophecy. But alas, as is the way with such tales, he is tricked by his ever-suffering wife into eating a stone instead of the baby Zeus, whom she hides in a cave. Later, when grown (and sufficiently angry) Zeus emerges from said cave, kills Kronos and takes over as ruler of all. The Titans fall and are incarcerated in Tartarus (cf Satan and the fallen angels). A recurring theme, and I suppose not an especially surprising one, is the juxtaposition of binary opposites. Some Gods roam the Earth by day then hide through the night when other Deities have their turn. Night and Day, Tartarus and Elysium, land and sea, Earth and Sky, all classic constructs for the foundation of the mythological psyche.
The Theogony ends with the marriages of the classic Olympian Gods and their interactions with men and lesser immortals. An evident eastern trope is the movement from the cataloguist beginning to the succession myth towards the end (this is apparently of likely Babylonian influence) where we learn how Zeus defeated the Titans and took control over all. This trope was a long practiced one in eastern mythological tradition.
It would be impossible to name all the different types/categories of deities recorded in this work; The Theogony is basically a kind of a glorified list. There is little poetic elaboration and it can be something of trail for anyone unfamiliar with Greek names. Still, to discover an uncompromising catalogue of the Greek pantheon, from the remotest beginnings to Hesiod’s ‘modern age’ is definitely worth a read.
The other work in this volume, Works and Days may equally be named, ‘Hesiod’s Guide to Healthy Living’. Basically this work takes the form of a kind of sermon on how to find moral comfort in a good honest farming life. This work is unique in illuminating archaic Greek social/moral practices and prescriptions. It combines a heady blend of abstract reasoning with traditional and local dogma.
Mans struggle against the daily grind is inextricably linked to the Pandora (cf Eve) myth which we are given an account of. Angry at being tricked by Prometheus (cf Christ) into giving fire to mankind, Zeus creates Pandora who is in turn tricked into opening the forbidden jar. (And yes, ‘jar’, for apparently, Hesiod speaks of a traditional Greek amphorae as the pot containing all the world’s ills, and it was a later confusion by Erasmus that named it as a box, for which it has been traditionally known ever since). Once opening the Jar (cf Eve eating the apple), Pandora releases the world’s ills (cf Fall):
For formerly the tribes of men on earth lived remote from ills, without harsh toil and the grievous sicknesses that are deadly to men. But the woman unstopped the jar and let it all out, and brought grim cares upon mankind. Only Hope remained there inside her secure dwelling, under the lip of the jar, and did not fly out, because the woman put the lid back in time by the providence of Zeus the cloud-gatherer who bears the aegis. But for the rest, countless troubles roam among men: full of ills is the Earth, and full the sea…Thus there is no way to evade the purpose of Zeus.
From this mythologised beginning, Works and Days goes on to relate basic tips for agricultural practice, including, what seasons are most fitting for what kind of labour, how best to treat your labourers, and how best to choose a wife:
In due season bring a wife into your house, when you are neither many years short of thirty nor many beyond it: this is your seasonable marriage…Marry a virgin so that you may teach her good ways, and for preference marry her who lives near you, with all circumspection in case your marriage is a joke to the neighbours. For a man acquires nothing better than the good wife and nothing worse than the bad one, the foodskulk, who singes a man without a brand, strong though he be, and consigns him to premature old age.
Being a moral honest farmer is as much about maintaining your social fruits as the yields of your land. Hesiod touches briefly on the best methods of seafaring, before ending with the proper ritual and daily conduct that ought to be shown to the Gods. It is a fascinating compendium of superstition and social ethics. For instance:
Do not urinate standing turned towards the sun; and after sunset and until sunrise, bear in mind, do not urinate either on the road or off the road walking, nor uncovered: the nights belong to the blessed ones. The godly man of sound sense does it squatting, or going to the wall of the courtyard enclosure…And never urinate in the waters of rivers that flow to the sea, or at springs…
Works and Days, is likely to be following a tradition of moral didactic poetry, where the addressee is a known felon of all that the narrator remonstrates against. Without a doubt this is a somewhat disordered and fragmented text, and as with The Theogony, one valued more for its content than the clarity and beauty of delivery. Again, the closest poetic parallels are eastern – Egyptian, Sumerian, Babylonian, though the hexameter delivery is essentially Ionian Greek. The work reads like a collection of proverbs, rather tenuously linked together but deeply illuminating the simple rituals of daily life.
As one of the oldest known European poets, and these works being some of the earliest written European texts, it is difficult not to be seduced by Hesiod. And from a mythological and social perspective, these texts are fascinating. But it is the frustratingly flippant style that proves quite tedious and makes gaining a sense of the wider picture quite difficult. Still, thoroughly enjoyable all the same, and for one toying with an alphabet at the dawn of the writing era, one can forgive a certain literary clumsiness.