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Hesiod

Category: Poet

Gustave Moreau - Hésiode et la Muse - 1891

Hesiod was a Greek poet generally thought by scholars to have been active between 750 and 650 BC, around the same time as Homer.  The dating of his life is a contested issue in scholarly circles.  Two main works are attributed to Hesiod:

  • Works and Days  - In Works and Days Hesiod divided time into five ages:--the Golden age, ruled by Cronos, when people lived extremely long lives 'without sorrow of heart'; the Silver age, ruled by Zeus; the Bronze age, an epoch of war; the Heroic age, the time of the Trojan war; and lastly the Iron age, the corrupt present. This is similar to Hindu and Buddhist concepts of the Kali Yuga. The idea of a Golden Age has likewise had a profound impact on western thought. Works and Days also discusses ethics, ‘extols hard work, and lists lucky and unlucky days of the month for various activities’.
  • The Theogony  - presents the descent of the gods, and, along with the works of Homer, is one of the key source documents for Greek mythology; ‘it is the Genesis of Greek mythology’. It gives the clearest presentation of the Greek creation myth, starting with Chaos, from which descended all the gods and men; it mentions hundreds of individual gods, goddesses, demi-gods, elementals and heroes.

There appears to be some argument amongst scholars about the attribution of Hesiod’s work.  The problems are compounded by the fact that much poetry was itself passed down orally from poet to poet and can thus never be said to be original - only adapted.  For example, the first ten verses of the Works and Days may have been borrowed from an Orphic hymn to Zeus.  Pausanias asserted that the Boeotians showed him an old tablet made of lead on which the Works and Days was said to be engraved.  Overall the interesting hypothesis emerges that Hesiod was simply recording much of what he had learnt in his Initiation into the Greek Mysteries – of which more in a moment.

 

Life

Hesiod's extant work comprises poems where he provides a few details of his life in the narrative, including three explicit references in Works and Days, as well as some passages in his Theogony that ‘support inferences’. We know that, for example, Hesiod tended to distance himself from ‘the charmed circle of aristocratic rulers’, preferring instead to protest against their injustices in a tone of voice that has been described as having a "grumpy quality redeemed by a gaunt dignity”.

M.L. West [Introduction to Hesiod: Theogony

Both bear the marks of a distinct personality: a surly, conservative countryman, given to reflection, no lover of women or life, who felt the gods' presence heavy about him

 

We know that his father came from Cyme in Aeolis (on the coast of Asia Minor, a little south of the island Lesbos), and crossed the sea to settle at a hamlet, near Thespiae in Boeotia, named Ascra, "a cursed place, cruel in winter, hard in summer, never pleasant" (Works, l. 640).  One very intriguing thing about his narrative is that Hesiod's father migrated from Asia westwards to mainland Greece, the opposite direction to most colonial movements at the time, and Hesiod himself gives no explanation for it. But there are vital clues.  It appears that Hesiod was very spiritually gifted - he appears to have had visions.  He describes a meeting between himself and the Muses on Mount Helicon, where he had been pasturing sheep.  The goddesses presented him with a laurel staff, a symbol of poetic authority (Theogony, ll. 22–35).

Boeotia

Thus it is possible that his family moved in order that Hesiod was able to gain access to the Mystery religions.  Boetia was a region in ancient Greece. Its largest city is and was Thebes.

Works and days appears to be a relatively straightforward account of, for example, Hesiod's patrimony in Boetia.  He had a small piece of ground at the foot of Mount Helicon, which occasioned lawsuits with his brother Perses, who seems at first to have cheated him of his rightful share thanks to corrupt authorities or "kings" but later became impoverished and ended up scrounging on the thrifty poet (Works l. 35, 396).

Some scholars have seen Perses as a literary creation, a foil for the moralizing that Hesiod develops in Works and Days, …. Gregory Nagy, sees both Persēs ("the destroyer": πέρθω / perthō) and Hēsiodos ("he who emits the voice:" ἵημι / hiēmi + αὐδή / audē) as fictitious names for poetical personae.

And it may all be symbolic – mountains, farmers, kings……  In fact, the more one studies Works and days, the more one suspects it is entirely symbolic, from beginning to end.

 

His father employs a friend (l. 370) as well as servants (ll. 502, 573, 597, 608, 766), an energetic and responsible ploughman of mature years (ll. 469–71), a slave boy to cover the seed (ll. 441–6), a female servant to keep house (ll. 405, 602) and working teams of Oxen and mules (ll. 405, 607f.).[13] One modern scholar surmises that Hesiod may have learned about world geography, especially the catalogue of rivers in Theogony (ll. 337–45).

He had a sad ending – at least in legend.  Plutarch describes how the Delphic oracle warned Hesiod that he would die in Nemea, and so he fled to Locris, where he was killed at the local temple to Nemean Zeus, and buried there.

According to Aristotle's Constitution of Orchomenus, when the Thespians ravaged Ascra, the villagers sought refuge at Orchomenus, where, following the advice of an oracle, they collected the ashes of Hesiod and set them in a place of honour in their agora, next to the tomb of Minyas.

Observations

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