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June 8, 2020

Getting to Know Hesiod

It’s often said that Homer and Hesiod were “the Bible” of the ancient Greeks. Between the two of them – mainly Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days – they taught the Greeks about the gods, the world, mankind, ethics, politics, and just about anything else you could name. And they did so with what amounts to a pagan version of “divine inspiration,” seen in their invocation of the Muses, the goddesses of the arts, to tell them what to write. This alone is a fascinating theme that needs development, but my purpose here is limited only to providing a quick survey of one of these works, which, as far as I can tell, does not have its proper pride of place amongst classical educators.

Hesiod’s Works and Days seems at first to be little more than a collection of agriculture-based proverbs, talking about how to live decently with respect to the land and one’s farming neighbors. Sometimes it’s humorous (don’t marry a woman who will embarass you in front of your neighbors), other times somewhat moralistic (don’t pay attention to the gossiping at the blacksmith’s shop, but just keep on walking and do your work).

But it also contains some profound early philosophy. Consider the discussion of the decline of historical ages (lines 108-198). It seems that the gods first made a Golden Age, with people whose hearts were “free from all sorrow” and who had no hard work, pain, or “miserable old age.” After they died, peacefully, the gods made a Silver Age characterized by children who remained children (“complete boobies,” as the translation has it) for a hundred years. When they grew up, they lived only a short time and had many troubles due to their foolishness. Then came an age of Bronze men, and these “were terrible and strong, and the ghastly action of Ares was theirs, and violence.” They had “an indomitable and adamantine spirit,” and “None could come near them.” This age perished at its own hands, through strife and warfare, and then came the Age of Heroes–a.k.a., the age of the Iliad and the Odyssey. After the heroes came an Iron Age, Hesiod’s own age, which he deeply wishes he was not a part of but had died before its onset. This is an age of “goods mixed with evils,” an age in which “Never by daytime will there be an end to hard work and pain, nor in the night to weariness, when the gods will send anxieties to trouble us.” The Iron age will, sadly, end in the departure of Decency and Respect from the world of men, and issue forth in an age of brute, inhuman Force.

So says Hesiod. Ovid has a similar tale in Book I of his Metamorphoses, but his equivalent to the Age of Force ends in a great flood that destroys all mankind except for one, Deucalion, and his wife. The imagery of cultural decline illustrated by a decline in metallic quality must have been familiar imagery in the Ancient world, because it’s also in the Bible, in Daniel’s account of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue representing world empires (Dan. 2). The theme survived into the Middle Ages, too, for one can find men living in the terrible turmoil of the 10th century describing their age as one of iron (ferreum saeculum).

There’s much more to be said about Hesiod’s Works and Days, but hopefully this is enough to whet your appetite to find it for yourself!