Quæ Sumus: Hesiod

LITERATURE Essay 1: Homer, Hesiod, Homeric Hymns

Part 3: Introduction, Hesiod; What We Are

* * *

Hesiod, Augusta Treverorum, c. AD 250

THE SOURCE of our religious imagination is HESIOD, more than any other author he codified the liminal character of our nature, the traditions of our cults, our ritual practices, et cetera; yes, even into Christianity, that Roman assumption of Yahweh, the Jewish God, and his Son, our savior, Jesus. 

In the beginning, Hesiod, lists the creatures of heaven which by science, by inheritance, by common rehearsal we name the planets and the innumerable stars.  Hesiod accounts for the genesis of the world, sexual-familial hierarchies, the origins of our woes and the practice of our days.  Hesiod shares with us several autobiographical details: his home was rooted at the base of Mt. Helicon; he was awarded a tripod for performance of his verse; he was a thrifty family-man who likely composed his books in idle moments when at profitable leisure.  How he came to wisdom, why in beauty he shared thoughts with us, we cannot say; likely, to inform and to give pleasure, the purpose of all composition, as honest poets will admit.  Of his wisdom, well, this he inherited from the Mycenaeans and the Minoans, and in that time before memory, from the Akrotirian Aegeans who in genealogy preceded all we of the West, as lately philologists and archaeologists have admitted. 

Bertel Thorvaldsen, The Dance of the Muses at Mount Helicon, c. 1850, Thorvaldsen Museum

Many myths and much opinion is attached to Hesiod: progressive pedagogues pin upon him theories dear to political fancies; the Suda, Plutarch, and Pausanius embellish, although I am inclined to believe the account of Hesiod inscribing his verse upon lead tablets.  To better know the poet, we might picture him in winter, when the farm’s pressing chores are few, when he is fire-warmed, blanket-draped, considering, composing Theogony, Works and Days, and other pieces now lost to time and to memory.  Most scholars agree that Hesiod was active circa 700 BC, Homer’s younger contemporary; others suppose him the elder, following Orpheus and Musaeus; from this distance, we cannot be certain, after all, in 3,000 years who will be certain if Blake or if Byron was the elder poet, well, that is, if either is remembered at all; then, our dear English, and our lofty dreams of liberty might have dissolved into other, in-congruent tongues, into enveloping regimes tyrannical in all particulars. 


Works and Days


[Shield of Herakleous]

Greek (Laconian), Titans Atlas & Prometheus, c. 530 BC, Vatican Museum

Works and Days


LABOR is the universal lot of Man, who, if willing to work, will get by; perhaps we do not always get what we want, yet most times, if we try, we get what we need; id est, if the labor is honest in respect to the seasons, and true in honor of gods. 

            Muses who bestow glory through song: Come, tell of father Zeus and chant his praise; tell of men great or small, praised or no as Zeus wills.  Easily he raises up the small, makes low the great, humbles the proud and brings glory to the humble—easily he makes the crooked straight, blasts the glorious with high thunder from his lofty abode.  As you see and hear, heed me with justice, making judgements straight, Perseus [brother], I tell of true things.

translation, M. Curtis

Works and Days begins as advice to an idle brother, Perseus, a cheat who wastes his patrimony, who when at need pleads favors from Hesiod.  By the tone of the work, we assume that Hesiod is grown weary of providing his brother loans ill-spent and unrepaid, and we might consider this poem a disquisition on ethics, a prescription for success, a plea to repair the injustice of corrupt judges who awarded to Perseus the better part of Hesiod’s farm and family property, a property which, by indolent Perseus, is fallow, fallen into disrepair.

Ploughing, from a vase by Nicosthenes, Whibley, p. 637

In course, Hesiod cajoles his brother to avoid the Agora’s idle talk, to attend the necessities of farm, and Hesiod recounts mythological episodes, offers virtue insighting parables gnomically pointed; among these, “Prometheus and Pandora”, her release of all evils from the jar (not a box), the worst of which is Hope  Another notworthy episode is the “Ages of Man”, five in number, each age a degeneration, the Golden, Silver, Bronze, Heroic, and the present, Pereus-like, Iron Age of toil and of hardship, when men gray-haired-born ignore moral and religious standards, a time when we are abandoned by Aidos, goddess of shame and humility (she who discourages men from committing wrong), when we are punished by Nemisis who disposes retribution on our hubris (the boastful and the proud), and finally when we are damned by aegis-bearing Zeus who will, we expect, destroy wretched Man … and this final bit seems to be Hesiod’s oracular warning to his lay-about brother, Perseus.

And yet, the majority of Works and Days concerns, just that, the works and the days of the farm, a farmers’ almanac alike Poor Richard’s (Benjamin Franklin’s almanac); much the rest is a cosmology, yes, think Stephen Hawking; the remainder is a guidebook, a DK Series of useful information for farm and lifestyle where we find the earliest preserved accounts of several agricultural disciplines.  Exempli gratia:

            When Orion and Sirius come to mid-heaven, when rosy-fingered Dawn sees Arcturus, cut off the grape-clusters.

            Get yourself two male oxen, nine years old—in full maturity, in strength undiminished, able to do their best work—such a pair will not fight as they drive the furrow, nor shatter the plow and leave all your work gone to nothing.

            Plow your harvest when the daughters of Atlas, the Pleiades, are rising, and plow again when they are setting.

            While yet in mid-summer, command your slaves, “It will not always be summer: build barns.”

            When building a house, do not leave it rough-hewn, a place where crows can nest and croak.

Hesiod even gives to us the best time of year for sailing, and ends in customary advice: Happy the man, and lucky, who knows all these things I have told, who does his work without offence to the deathless gods, who avoids transgression, and discerns the omens of birds.  Really.  Good advice: Study the birds.



LET US BEGIN our song with the Heliconian Muses, those who embrace mighty Mount Helicon, who upon its violet-like springs, around the altar of magnificent Kronios dance on dainty feet; who, after bathing tender bodies in the spring of the Horse, in the Permessos, or in the holy Olmieos at Helcion peak, design those beautiful, erotic dances which compel desire. 

translation, M. Curtis

“Tree of Creation”

Well, I mean to say, when bidden by these beguiling creatures to circulate divine stories, as Hesiod reports that he was, which man would not.  Therefore, we have Theogony, “Genealogy of Gods”.  You probably should know that Hesiod describes the manner of his seduction: He was in business, tending sheep when the Muses said to him, “Wild, wretched shepherd, mere belly, we know how to speak false things true; then too, when we choose, to utter truth.”  I paraphrase.  Then, the Muses give Hesiod a shoot of laurel which breathed into the poet a divine voice, a voice suitable to celebrate the things afore time, and of course, the Blessed Gods.  Yes, Hesiod was the Gods’ chosen prophet   

John Flaxman, Compositions from the Works Days and Theogony of Hesiod, Title Page, 1817, British Museum

Thegony the hymn, the poem, contains some 1,022 verse lines which begin in a nothingness of Chaos, a chaos from which existence arose spontaneously (think, “big-bang”… what was old is new, again), id est, Gaia (Earth), Eros (Erotic Desire), Tartarus (Underworld), Erebus (Darkness), Nyx (Night) which, from Night and Desire was born Day, Sky, Mountains, Sea, and, as by erotic pairings extending ever on, the verdent generation multiplying, inhabiting all the universe, the Titans, the Gods, the Men, we mortal creatures, merely bellies.

The genealogy-in-full is to vast for detail, here.  In overview, you might conceive a genesis descending from beings infinitely-large to we creatures of the middle-ground, a manner of devolution, a selective breeding—Hesiod knew of selective breeding, as did Darwin—a “survival of the fittest” (some hungry children ate their parents), and a finch-like “expansion, increasing in complexity”, a flock of man spreading in mischief over the Earth, causing innumerable inconvenience to the Gods.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Pandora, 1881, private coll.

In Theogony there is lust, and there is power, punishment, pleasure and innumerable children; there is truth in metaphor, in allegory, in science, and in fact.  In metaphor, we observe that Uranus is devoured by his son, Kronos, who in turn is physically defeated by his son, Zeus, who attempts to destroy men by the gift of Pandora, “All Gifts”, a woman who … well … will make deadly trouble for husbands; yet, in truth, Hesiod implies that in woman, man is made whole by marriage through the gift of children.  For complete details, survey Theogony; for synopsis, see below. 



Gnomic Sayings

FROM THE GREEK, gnome, “thought” or “opinion”, from the base word “to know”; a gnome is a species of pithy saying, as in a maxim, aphorism, adage, et cetera, each form offering instruction; id est, wisdom, either great or small, sincere or ironic.  Gnomic sayings are found in both verse and in prose in all manner of wisdom literature, and significantly, in comedy.  We will visit these sayings again, soon, in Simonides, later, in the Bible, in Shakespeare, and memorably, in the poet, Pope.  From our first significant, gnomic writer, Hesiod, a brief selection.  Too, before we begin, you should notice the turn of phrase, the set-up—when you hear the moral tone, look for a comma or other mark, and there, the drumroll, afterwards, the punchline.

AD XIV, Theogony, Greek manuscript with scholia written in the margins, Biblioteca Marciana, Gr. 464, fol. 158v

           He who is bent on harming another, harms himself.

            He who neither thinks for himself nor learns from others, is a failure as a man.

            Do not let some sweet-talking woman beguile your good sense with fascination of her shape: it’s your barn she’s after.

            There is nothing better for a man than a good wife, nothing worse than a bad one.

            If anything happens which ought not happen, neighbors come to your aid as they are: relatives dress first.

* Part Three of the first essay or the 280-plus essays of “Quæ Sumus: What We Are”.

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