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.

The Idea of Revenge in the Iliad and the Odyssey

In both the Iliad and the Odyssey we encounter vengeance exacted by the protagonists.

In the Iliad, a poem explicitly about the “rage” or “wrath” of Achilles, we discover the rage that follows from the sorrow for the death of a loved one. In Books XV and XVI, the beloved companion, Patroclus, is killed by Hector of Troy who strips the beautiful armor of Achilles from his body. The Trojans proceed to defile and abuse the body of Patroclus. Upon hearing this news, Achilles is overcome with grief and sorrow, soon followed by rage -a desire to exact revenge upon Hector. His motives are guided by a will for requital. He longs to inflict an equal or greater amount of suffering on Hector. As a warrior, Achilles knows only vengeance, not justice. He is not governed by laws, or nomos, but rather justice belongs to the stronger man. Notably, the victory in the war to conquer Troy does not go to “swift-footed” Achilles, but instead to “long-enduring” Odysseus who devises the famous wooden horse plot to bring destruction to Troy.

However, in the Odyssey we discover vengeance of a similar kind. After 20 long years, Odysseus returns home from his ventures to rocky Ithaca where a cohort of suitors live in his palace, eat his food, and bathe themselves in excess and luxury hoping to court Penelope, his wife. Although, like Achilles, Odysseus is furious with rage, he cloaks himself in disguise as an old beggar. He tells false tales of his adventures:

“Falsehoods all,
but he gave his falsehoods all the ring of truth” (Book XIX 235-236)

Even to his close comrades and loyal supporters, he remains disguised. Revealing oneself is dangerous, threatening to elude the enduring qualities of the king of Ithaca. Even to his own wife, Odysseus’s identity stays hidden until the opportune moment of revelation when he violently destroys the suitors in a bloodbath.

Unlike Achilles, Odysseus has tact. His guile separates him from the wrathful warrior, who is left vulnerable by his exposed heel. Odysseus, on the other hand, is careful not to risk his enduring name by leaving any part of his plot open to exposure. Unlike in the Iliad, where the audience feels sorrow for the death of Hector as well as Patroclus, in the Odyssey we are gratified by the revenge exacted on the suitors. The Homeric decision to introduce the audience to both sides of the Trojan war, taking us both behind the walls of Priam and also into the tents of the Achaeans, is characteristically different from the one-sided poem about “a man” that is revealed in the Odyssey. We are given a clear hero in the Odyssey, like Orestes in in his triumphant return, Odysseus reclaims his throne and exacts his vengeance.

Book XVIII of the Iliad: Examining the Shield of Achilles

In Book XVIII of the Iliad, Achilles is distraught. Patroclus has been killed by Hector, and the armor of Achilles has been stripped and stolen by Hector. Thetis, Achilles’s goddess mother, travels to the house of Hephaestus to convince him to build a new shield for Achilles so he can return to the battle and exact vengeance on Hector.

Hephaestus, the crippled smith, constructs a massive shield with a silver shield strap and five layers of metal. He creates a “world of gorgeous immortal work” (564). This shield is curious for many reasons. Homer takes great length to describe its contents. It is also the only piece of armor forged by the gods, namely the lame smith, Hephaestus.

Hephaestus begins with the cosmos: the earth, the sky, and the sea -the ancient tripartite division of the known world. He also adds the sun and the moon, along with the constellations such as the Pleiades, the Hyades, Orion, the Great Bear (also called the Wagon, always watching the Hunter and alone is denied the plunge into the Ocean’s baths).

“Thetis Accepting the Shield of Achilles from Vulcan” by James Thornhill in 1710

Next, Hephaestus moves from the cosmic to the political. He constructs two “noble” cities filled with the mortal men. In one city, two men are feuding over a murder related to a wedding celebration. They press for legal action -a judge to cut the knot, as was customary in the ancient near east. The judge is to be awarded two bars of gold, to encourage the most just verdict.

In the second city, the men are deliberating about whether or not to plunder an enemy city or share the spoils among the people. They enter into conflict the opposing city as Strife and Havoc enter the fight.

Following the two cities, one of law, the other of war, however, both rife with conflict, Hephaestus creates a fallow field being tilled (the “wonder” of Hephaestus’ work), a king’s estate, a thriving vineyard with a young boy plucking his lyre, a collection of animals in herds, a meadow of sheep grazing, young boys and girls courting one another, and, finally, he forges the Ocean’s River. This concludes his forging of the shield, as he places it at the feet of Thetis.

Unlike the other shields or pieces of armor described throughout the poem, the shield of Achilles is sobering, and less ferocious. It’s subject matter is a world unto itself. It covers both the natural world as well as the political. It portrays a cosmos filled with conflict, strife, and envy, as is the nature of the Greeks.

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.

Phemius and Demodocus: Two Bards Considered

Homer Singing with his Lyre, early 19th century (oil on canvas)
Homer by Felix Boisselier, early 19th century

In Homer’s Odyssey, we encounter two different examples of poets, one hailing from the halls of Ithaca, and the other from the land of the Phaeacians. We hear neither one speak -Phemius is silent until the closing books of the text when he pleads for his life. As with all things inherited from the ancients, we notice the meticulous primacy placed on speakers in the poem, for speakers are capable of being put on trial, based on the knowledge we have of them. Homer, for example, removes himself at least one step, by invoking the muse at the outset -that is, by shrouding his face behind the ambiguous relationship between himself and the goddess. In doing s he conceals his authorship. In addition, the tales of the warrior’s Homecomings from Troy are sung by the poets, though we know they could have no knowledge or experience of Troy, and the bulk of the Odyssey is told not by Homer, but rather by Odysseus himself as he recounts his many twists and turns to Alcinous at the court of the Phaeacians. Keeping this ambiguity of the individual agency of the poets over their craft in mind, let us examine the two bards we meet in the Odyssey.

Phemius, the bard of Ithaca, is first introduced to the us in Book I of the Odyssey. His character is pitiable. He is forced by the suitors to sing pleasing songs with his lyre, yet he does not explicitly express his allegiance to the suitors. He sings a song of lament about the Achaeans in the Trojan War, and of long lost Odysseus who has never returned. This song, notably different from the songs experienced by Odysseus when he stays with the Phaeacians, impels Penelope to considerable grief. Penelope, in tears, asks Phemius to stop playing the song as it is painful for her to think of Odysseus. Telemachus, defiantly, reprimands her and allows the song to continue. Later, in Book XXII, we encounter Phemius again, begging for his life at the feet of Odysseus. He claims that he never wanted to play music for the suitors, and Telemachus vouches for Phemius. However, Odysseus, while sparing his life, commands Phemius to play wedding songs that will drown out the dying sounds of the suitors strewn across his house.

Phemius is the first bard we encounter. He is a self-taught player of the lyre and we only hear about his songs of sorrow, until commanded by Odysseus to play wedding songs -joyous songs. He successfully escapes the fate of death at the hand of Odysseus, when he reminds Odysseus that he is both a singer for humans, as well as the divine -“for gods and mortals.” He has been “inspired” by the gods with all manner of songs. He is also an oral poet who composes his own material, rather than copying those that came before him. He represents the uncomfortable mix of tradition and novelty -the latter of which the suitors are so fascinated.

In Book VIII, we are introduced to Demodocus. As the poet of the Phaeacians, Demodocus sings three songs -the first and the third of which bring Odysseus to tears, though they are concealed beneath his blur cape, noticed only by King Alcinous. Like Phemius, Homer does not allow us to hear him speak, only about his songs. After the first song, the pitiable music is interrupted for rigorous competition. For the second song sung by Demodocus, who is revealed to be blind like homeros meaning either “blind” or “hostage”, Demodocus sings of the love between Ares and Aphrodite -they make love in Hephaestus’s house, until spotted by Helios, god of the sun who notifies an angry Hephaestus, but Ares is eventually defended by Poseidon. The song ends with the two gods being freed and flying to their separate islands. Next, two people of the court dance -Odysseus notices their great dancing skills.

Odysseus, curiously, praises Demodocus as a man he ‘respects more than any other on earth’ (Book VIII, 546-550) because he has probably been taught by the Muse, Zeus’s daughter, or the god Apollo. He then beckons Demodocus to sing of Odysseus’s wooden horse trap, built by Epeus with Athena’s help “true to life as it deserves” (556). Invoked by the Muse, Demodocus obeys and brings Odysseus to tears. Again, Alcinous notices and commands Odysseus to reveal his name and his story. In response Odysseus plays the role of poet, or “maker” in Book IX by detailing the Odyssey, proper.

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.