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.

Commentary on the Form of the “Homeric Hymns”

The collection of hymns, commonly called the “Homeric Hymns” or “Homerica,” are a compilation of thirty-three prayers to the gods. They have erroneously been attributed to Homer by the moderns due to the dactylic hexameter formula -the same poetic form of the Homeric epics.

Recall the prayer to the god Osiris in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, The Homeric hymns follow a similar thread. The hymns are not only dedicated to, but also addressed directly to the gods, such as “To Demeter” or “To Apollo”. The belief is that humans can communicate with the divine producing songs of great beauty. Additionally, each song tells a story or paints a picture of each god: Zeus’s “long locks” or Pallas Athena’s “grey eyes.” Each hymn is a short ‘snapshot’ that is both informative to the Greeks, and also intended to be pleasing to the gods.

Narrative is the best form to communicate with the gods because the humans utilize flattery in order to gain favor from the gods, like the wolf and Chauntecleer in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. For the Greeks, the gods take many different forms, sometimes as humans, but they never fully embody a man. It would be too degrading to their nature. However the hymns, like prayers, are the bridges between the divine and the mortals. By singing, the Greeks believe they can reach the gods, along with animal sacrifices, and in so doing, garner favor among the gods.

For this reading I used the Oxford World Classics edition translated by Michael Crudden.

Genesis I: The Seven Days of Creation Examined

Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” (1508-1512), a fresco featured on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The following narrative is a close examination of the seven days of creation as outlined in Book I of Genesis using Robert Alter’s magnificent translation of the Hebrew Bible. Each day unfolds in an orderly devolution, concluding with the creation of mankind. What does this extraordinary moment tell us about the nature of theology?

Day One – Light and Darkness

“When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, ‘Let there be light.’ and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And it was evening and it was morning, first day.” (1:1-5).

For Day One, our anonymous narrator (who is presumably not yet created) gives us a clue as to the imagined picture of the world before the first day. The earth was “welter and waste and darkness over the deep.” Welter and waste meaning “emptiness or futility” as part of the intricate rhyming scheme in the opening lines, and it is also located “over the deep.” Over what deep? How are we to imagine this space? In addition to this mysterious spacial recognition, God’s breath hovers over the water, God is presumably not located in the deep, and He also has the capacity for movement, or motion. This “hovering” motion is attached to God’s breath-wind-spirit (ruah) and it denotes a rapid back and forth movement. It is also worth noting that God also has the capacity for speech. In this case, speech precedes and predates humanity. The light and the dark are spoken into existence by God, as are many other things. In Genesis I, the world is a creative act, an act of mimesis, by a demiurge.

Rather than explaining the ultimate origins of the universe as a creation ex nihilo, it is important to recognize that God begins to create. He makes an imposition of order upon the chaotic elements of the cosmos, similar to the taming of Chaos in Hesiod’s Theogony, or the purpose of Marduk’s battle with Tiamat in the Enuma Elish creation story of ancient Mesopotamia. In other words, God does not create substance from pure nothingness.

In other Mesopotamian accounts, as well as in the Greek accounts, the gods are always generated or created at a certain point. They have an origination at a particular point in time. However in the Hebrew Bible, God simply is. He is not created. Or at least an account of His creation is not given in the text.

From the outset, God demonstrates human properties in his own actions. He 1) creates and 2) breathes and 3) speaks and 4) sees. All of these activities are brought to us in the past tense because they are not currently happening. They are collected recollections from someone else who wrote it down. Who was able to give this account? Who is the author of the beginning? This question presents a problem for us. Tradition places this person squarely in the mind of God who gives this strange account of origins to Moses, however an unlikely account of origins is still foreign to us. We must rely on testimony and then accept it as divine revelation if it is to be believed at all. Time, space, language, and morality all appear to predate this strange cosmology. We are not given any textual evidence as to its authorship.

To delineate things –by creating a divide between lightness and darkness– God speaks. His speech is primal. His speech is what brings order to the chaotic elements around Him. Before dividing the light from darkness, God sees the light, and sees that it is good. Here, we are given a rare glimpse into the mind of God and also His purpose of creation. He notices a moral component to his creation. In order for His work not to be thrown back into chaos, he must create something that is good. Order is good, chaos is not good. And the good is placed in a superior position to the darkness, though we are given no acknowledgement of the moral status of darkness.

Day one begins a noticeable principle that continues for the first three days of creation. The first principle for half of this day’s creation is separation or distinction, and the principle for the second half of creation is local motion. Within these first three days, God separates and divides the formless world. The conjunction “and” is used 12 times in verses 1-5 to invoke considerable continuity and motion.

On day one, God provides two names: light becomes Day, and darkness becomes Night. Does this imply that Day is good since it is an extension of light? The text does not supply an answer. After God’s first moment speaking light into being, every other day begins with “And…” The continuation is always continued in a conjunction. Curiously, we have the ability to measure time, such as days, without the sun and moon which are not introduced until day four.

Day Two – Waters and Heavens

“And God said, ‘Let there be a vault in the midst of the waters, and let it divide water from water.’ And God made the vault and it divided the water beneath the vault from the water above the vault, and so it was. And God called the vault Heavens, and it was evening and it was morning, second day” (1:6-8).

On Day Two the word vault, or raki’a, is introduced to suggest a hammered-out slab in ancient Hebrew, but the celestial English connotation is also appropriate. The vault is beckoned to appear in the midst of the waters (plural) to divide water from water (singular). The vault divides the water that lies beneath the vault from the water above the vault. This is a delineation, similar to light and darkness, or Day and Night. It is a barrier put in place to distinguish above from below. It is a reference point. Recall the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey.

God then gives a name to the vault, calling it Heavens (plural). On the second day, God noticeably does not identify any aspects of his creation as “good.” God is only quoted when speaking of things like “Let there be light.” The latter names, such as Day, Night, and Heavens are capitalized (proper nouns denoting importance) but they are not quoted by God.

Day two is the only day in which God does not look to see whether or not his creation is good. Is there nothing good about the division between the waters and the heavens on day two? Or is it that God merely cannot judge the moral quality of this division, as he once could with Day and Night? Would it be good if there was no division between the waters and the heavens? Perhaps these questions can be addressed in Genesis VII during the Flood narrative. The conjunction “and” is used seven times on day two, approximately half the number of times used on Day One. Day Two indicates less motion than Day One, but is distinguished by the spoken creation of the vault.

Day Three – Earth, Seas, Plants, and Trees

“And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heaven be gathered in one place so that the dry land will appear,’ and so it was. And God called the dry land Earth and the gathering of waters He called Seas, and God saw that it was good. And God said ‘Let the earth grow grass, plants yielding seed of each kind and trees bearing fruit of each kind that has its seed within it upon the earth.’ And so it was. And the earth put forth grass, plants yielding seed, and trees bearing fruit of each kind, and God saw that it was good. And it was evening and it was morning, third day.” (1:9-13).

On Day Three God accomplishes chiefly two things. He speaks of a division between the dry land and the water, calling them Earth and Seas. He then sees their moral qualities, that they are good. Does he mean that the activity of dividing things is good? Or merely the effects of division? Or the activity of naming something? Or that this division is entirely complete and is therefore good? The text is unclear.

Second, God beckons forth the earth to 1) grow grass  2) plants yielding seeds 3) and trees bearing fruit across the earth. Again, God sees it and acknowledges that it is good. What does God see that is good here? Is it the reproductive cycle? Is it that the earth has followed his command? What is good about what God sees? As in day one, day three requires 12 conjunctions (“and”) implying greater motion in the activity of creating a division and the biosphere. Day three concludes God’s principle of separation or distinction and it signals a new beginning –namely the principle of local motion.

Day Four – Sun, Moon, and Stars

“And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the heavens to divide the day from the night, and they shall be signs for the fixed times and for days and for years, and they shall be lights in the vault of the heavens to light up the earth.” And so it was. And God made the two great lights, the great light for the dominion of day, and the small light for the dominion of night, and the stars. And God placed them in the vault of the heavens to light up the earth. And to have dominion over day and night and to divide the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And it was evening and it was morning, fourth day” (1:10-19).

On Day Four, God invokes a more specific temporal dimension of his creation with the first mention of days and years. He creates markers to delineate the days and years, perhaps for his human creation to discern the time of their lives. These are the sun and moon, to mark the day, and the stars, to mark the years. Implicit throughout his creation is the form of number. By creating “signs” God intends to signify something, to communicate a concept. These “signs” are the protean symbols that endure throughout the changing years. Again, God sees that his creation on day four is good. Is the dominion of time good? Is all of his creation good? What exactly does God see that is good?

In this chapter, we see the phrase that “God made…” which is unlike in day three wherein He speaks and does not make. On Day One, God created and divided, on Day Two he makes, on Day Three he only speaks, and on Day Four he makes again. His ultimate creation requires a combination of speaking, dividing, and making. The conjunction “and” is used 14 times in day four to denote considerable motion.

Day Five – Fish and Birds

“And God said, “Let the water swarm with the swarm of living creatures and let fowl fly over the earth across the vault of the heavens.” And God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that crawls which the water had swarmed forth of each kind, and the winged fowl of each kind, and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the water in the seas and let the fowl multiply in the earth.” And it was evening and it was morning, fifth day” (1:20-23)

On Day Five, God speaks with a command, He then engages in the activity of creation, and directly commands his creation to “be fruitful and multiply.” He speaks twice: once to allow for the creatures to swarm and fly, and then again to command them to procreate, to fulfill their local motion. Living beings capable of sense perception are addressed directly by God and given a purpose, unlike the partitions divided on the previous days. The conjunction “and” is used 12 times to denote substantial motion.

Day Six – Creatures of the Earth and Humans

“And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of each kind, cattle and crawling things, and wild beasts of each kind.” And so it was. And God made wild beasts of each kind and cattle of every kind and crawling things on the ground of each kind, and God saw that it was good. And God said, “Let us make a human in our own image, by our likeness, to hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and the cattle and the wild beasts and all the crawling things that crawl upon the earth.

And God created the human in his image,
in the image of God he created him,
male and female he created them.

And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and conquer it, and hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and every beast that crawls upon the earth. And God said, “Look, I have given you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the earth and every tree that has fruit bearing seed, yours they will be for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and to all the foul of the heavens and to all that crawls on the earth, which has the breath of life within it, the green plants for food.” And so it was. And God saw all that he had done, and, look, it was very good. And it was evening and it was morning, sixth day.”

On Day Six we are given adam the generic term for “a human.” Rather than implying a particularly maleness such as “man,” the Hebrew refers to all human beings and it is not preceded by ben meaning “son of”. Man is given his dominion to rule. However, the word radah is not the typical verb for “rule” or “dominion” but it often implies absolute or even fierce mastery and is used to inform the humanity of their purpose.

God sees the creatures of each kind and calls them good, but noticeably, He does not command them to “be fruitful and multiply.” Instead, He quickly moves to the crescendo of his creation, that of the human. Human is created not by God alone. Rather, God beckons others, the “us” (or perhaps the royal “we”) and implores them to create human –male and female– in their likeness so that humans may hold sway over the creatures which are good. Who is God speaking to when he says “Let us make a human in our own image”? Is he joined by other gods? Is the statement meant to address other beings, gods, or is it merely a reference to the royal “we”?

Unlike other days of his creation, God blesses humans and says to them –presumably, there is more than one human– to “Be fruitful and multiply” and to go throughout the earth and also to “conquer” it. He only blesses the birds and the swarms of fish, but never instructs them to conquer. This injunction to conquer the earth is unlike any other command yet given by God. Why would God want humans to conquer His creation?

Next, God tells humans to “Look” –in a similar way that God was able to see things, and see that they were “good.” He gives the plants and the trees to humans for food, and also to creatures he gives the green plants (not all the plants including the trees bearing fruit). Humans are apparently vegetarian from the beginning. To everything with the “breath of life” he gives the plants. God, alarmingly, does not look at humans and notice that they are good. Presumably humans are, therefore, not goodHowever, God does look upon his creation – after the author briefly steps off the page and commands the reader to “look”- to see all that He had done and that God sees that it was “very good.” This is the only place in which the adjective “very” is used to emphasize the augmented moral quality of the totality of creation. Thus, the zenith of God’s creation is complete –should we consider God’s creation a moral ascent or a descent?

In closing, God and man have a tumultuous relationship throughout Genesis. The recalcitrant humans continually break his laws, they are prone to murder and deceit, they are devoid of a purpose. How does God respond to these problems He finds in humanity, a creature which has been made in his own image?

God appears to find humans unpredictable and unruly. Humans are confusing to God, and they are noticeably not characterized as good. God has trouble identifying an appropriate sexual partner for the humans –He first brings the animals forward to adam to identify one who will be his match. God also has trouble satiating the human’s need to eat –He first provides them with vegetables and plants to eat rather than the creatures. Adam’s vegetarianism and sexual confusion along with his frustrated relationship with God make for an antagonizing relationship from the start. It is not until Exodus that God attempts to reconcile this antagonism by introducing moral law, the Mosaic law, to encourage a well-ordered flock that will act in full prostration to the whims of the shepherd.

For this reading I used Robert Alter’s illuminating translation of the Torah.