Notes on Hesiod

There is a popular ancient story about a contest between Homer and Hesiod, imagined from the contest recounted by Hesiod in Works and Days. In it, both poets choose their best passages from their works -Hesiod chooses his section on the rising of the Pleiades constellation from Works and Days. Ultimately, the round of aristocratic judges chooses Hesiod as the superior poet over Homer because they are determining which poems will be of more value to the masses in the polis. It is determined that Hesiod’s practical advice on farming, astronomy, and wealth will be more beneficial than Homer’s tales of War and Return. Even in his day, Pausanias recounts a story of seeing Hesiod’s winning tripod on display at Mt. Helicon for travelers to see.

However, other imagined sources suggest that Hesiod must have performed his other poem, on the genesis of the gods, called Theogony. Unlike in the Works and Days, wherein Hesiod (or “he who emits the voice”) speaks directly to Perses (or the “destroyer”) and in doing so speaks to the common citizen of the polis, in the Theogony the voice is directed toward an explicitly more aristocratic audience. This is evidenced by his rebuke of power-hungry kings in the former poem, but praise of strong kingly leadership in the latter poem.

In contrast to the book of Genesis, the Theogony is a considerably different account. In Genesis the birth of the earth and living things is brought by about by the single booming voice of God. However, in Hesiod the primal being is Chaos and Gaia, and the cosmos is filled with struggle and strife between the gods. The world is without order before anything else. Take, for instance, the revolt of Cronus (Zeus’s father) against his father Uranos. He castrates his father, throwing his severed testicles into the ocean giving birth to Aphrodite who floated and arrived on the island of Cyprus.

Chaos, earth, Tartarus, and Eros are all primal things in existence. Next, black Night comes from Chaos Erebus (the “darkness” of the underworld), and out of Night and Erebus comes Aether and Daylight. Earth gives birth to the mountains and seas, sleeps with Uranos and gives birth to the Oceans and eleven other children, including Cronus. Earth gives birth to the Cyclopses. Earth also gives birth to the vengeful Furies.

Cronus and Rhea become one and give birth to the gods, including Zeus. However Cronus is afriad of being overtaken so he swallows his children, much to the sadness of Rhea. Earth feeds to Cronus a stone wrapped like a baby but it is not Zeus, and he throws them up and Zeus overtakes Cronus. Zeus makes Atlas stand at the ends of the earth with the sky on his head and the earth on his shoulders, releases Pandora, and punishes Prometheus in chains by making an eagle eat his liver each day, later released by Heracles. Zeus tames the itans in Tartarus. The poem ends as it began, with a plea to the muses, only this time to sing of the mortal humans.

For this reading I used the Daryl Hine translation.

Two Myths in Hesiod’s Works and Days

In his poem, Works and Days, Hesiod writes a letter addressed to his brother, Perses, encouraging him to embrace the practical attitude and let Discord spur him to plow his fields and yield abundant crops. His purpose is to encourage strong values in Perses, ones that combat the impetus for laziness. However, he tells Perses that “the gods keep secret from humankind the means of survival” (42), thereby challenging Perses to discover the means of survival; to uncover the secrets. Similarly, Sir Francis Bacon will make a claim about the processes of nature being hidden by God for humans to discover in his anti-Aristotelian “New Organon” thousands of years later.

Hesiod and the Muse by Gustave Moreau in 1891

Why do the gods hide these secrets from humans? Hesiod responds, appropriately, with a myth. Zeus was angry that Prometheus so carelessly gave away the gift of fire to humans by deceiving the mind of Zeus. Laughing, in repayment to mankind, Zeus employs the lame Hephaestus to fashion a woman, with the help of the other Olympians, and he calls this “bane to industrious mankind” Pandora. Before Epimetheus accepts the gift of Pandora and forgets Prometheus’s command to deny any gifts from Zeus, mankind lives peacefully and with little strife. However, Pandora opens her great jar releasing miseries upon humankind, only Hope stays behind to hide in Pandora’s jar.

Hesiod then gives an “alternate story” if it is preferable, recalled later by Plato in the Republic. First, the immortals fashioned a race of articulate men, Golden, living when Cronus ruled (Zeus’s father). They lived well and peacefully, with many banquets and easy crop yields, until they were buried. Second, the Olympians fashioned a Silver race, which was inferior. They lived like children and committed violence on one another, never worshipping Zeus and making him angry. Third, Zeus fashioned a Bronze race, the offspring of ash trees. Their tools and armor were bronze, and they killed each other with them, sending them down to the cold underworld. Fourth, Zeus created a “new” generation who superior and lovers of “justice” (152). they were Demigods, the last prior to our own generation.

Hesiod laments this “iron” generation and all their suffering, though “there will always be good mixed in with the evil” (177). Zeus will destroy this race when children rise up against their fathers, and when the gods are not followed. Hesiod beckons Perses to pay attention to Justice, for whole cities can be lost with the actions of one evil man, and Hesiod also commands Princes to practice just deeds. In the first account the existence of strife and discord is justified, but hope is given space, as well, for Perses. In the second account, Justice is deemed a worthwhile pursuit, for the fate of mankind.

Following the myths at the outset, the remaining poem is composed of a series of instructions and advice to Perses who is to become a farmer. We are led to believe that he is somewhat feeble minded, contrasted with Hesiod’s great victories as a poet.

For this reading I used the Daryl Hine translation.