Hesiod Composes and Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Hesiod’s composition of Theogony and Works and Days signaled a departure from oral epic poetry toward set compositions by a single author.

Summary of Event

Two of Hesiod’s epic poems have survived: Theogony (English translation, 1728), which narrates the creation of the earth, sky, and ocean and the origin of the gods, and the later Erga kai Emerai (Works and Days, 1618), a collection of technical advice, moral instruction, and maxims about the virtues of hard work. Homer and Hesiod are often considered together as the progenitors of two divergent forms of epic poetry. Yet unlike Homer, who is believed to have lived two generations earlier and reveals nothing about himself in his poems, Hesiod does tell the reader some details about his life. His father was an unsuccessful shipping merchant from Cyme in Aeolia, on the coast of Asia Minor. Settling in Ascra, Boeotia, he fathered two sons, Hesiod and Perses. Hesiod characterizes his brother as a wastrel and a spendthrift, and accuses him of stealing the greater share of their patrimony and bribing the judges who found in his favor. Hesiod

Hesiod himself was a shepherd, pasturing his sheep on nearby Mount Helicon. There, he says, he had a vision of the Muses, who appeared before him and gave him the knowledge and inspiration to compose Theogony. On another occasion he won first prize for a song in a singing contest in nearby Chalcis. He dedicated the prize, a tripod, to the Muses on Mount Helicon. Other stories told about Hesiod in the centuries after his death, such as winning a poetic contest against Homer, or that he seduced a young woman and was murdered by her brothers, are fiction.

Theogony, a 1022-line epic, differs from the Homeric epics in several important ways. Whereas the compositions of Homer reflect the culmination of several generations of a strong underlying oral tradition, Hesiod’s work is clearly that of a single poet composing at a specific point in time. Even their subject matter differed, since Homer relates the legendary action of mortal heroes in which the gods play an important but peripheral role, whereas Hesiod deals with the creation of the gods and their relationships.

Hesiod was not the only Greek to compose a theogony (the word literally refers to the birth of the gods), but his is the only one to have survived intact. Enough fragments and citations from other theogonies remain to show that they at times differed radically, but it was Hesiod’s version that became standard.

Earlier civilizations had their own theogonic stories. Some of these show definite similarities to Theogony, in particular the Hittite Song of Kumarbi and the Babylonian Enuma Elish. Though they precede the composition of Theogony by several centuries, the eighth and seventh centuries b.c.e. were a time of close contact between Greece and its neighbors in Mesopotamia and Western Asia. Even though the evidence suggests that Hesiod did not travel widely from his rural village, he did have access to stories from other lands told by visiting traders or immigrants.

Despite the parallels with other theogonic poetry, Hesiod’s poem is a unified whole. It begins with the creation of Earth, Sky, and Ocean, all gods or goddesses from whom all other gods derive. They are represented as members of a family, marrying and bearing children over a series of generations. Family trees and genealogies are recounted showing their relationships with one another. Divinity extends to positive and negative forces of nature, such as Love, Victory, Strife, Sleep, and Death. More extended narration of certain myths, such as the succession myth of the gods, the creation of Pandora, or the story of Prometheus, are also featured. Hesiod’s aim is to describe how his world, and humankind’s lot in it, came into being.

Some years later Hesiod composed Works and Days, a poem of 828 lines. It, too, deals with humankind’s lot in the world, but in the form of practical advice on the value of hard, honest work. Ostensibly addressing himself to his profligate brother, Hesiod exhorts Perses to change his ways and follow his advice. The poet uses myth, proverbs, and examples of divine retribution to make his point. Though scholars in the past argued that Perses was not a real person but a poetic fiction, the consensus today is that Perses was the brother of Hesiod.

Works and Days is written from the point of view of the peasant farmer, and just over one-quarter of the poem outlines the agricultural year. Hesiod advises when specific plants should be sown, and when harvested, and what jobs and repairs are best performed at different times of the year. Even in winter there is repair work to be done around the farm, which is preferable to spending the day socializing with one’s friends.

Reminding Perses of their father, Hesiod suggests avoiding the seafaring life because it is financially risky and physically dangerous. Despite his distrust of the sea, he gives the seafarer sound advice, such as the best times of the year to sail, and suggests that the trader put only some of his goods on board any one ship. Hesiod continues the poem with various, disjointed recommendations about civic, social, domestic, and religious matters and concludes with a discussion of the favorable and unfavorable days of the month.

Works and Days is a valuable source for the social history of Archaic Greece. In addition, unlike most literature from ancient Greece, which reflects the views of the elite, Works and Days illustrates the feelings and opinions of an articulate man somewhat lower on the social scale. The realities of village life are mirrored in Hesiod’s comments on the value of good neighbors and the importance of treating them fairly. Advice on the age of marriage of men and women, the necessity of choosing one’s wife wisely, the ideal number of sons to raise, all illuminate the social and economic world of Archaic Greek village life.

Hesiod’s personal outlook on life comes through in both poems, but particularly in Works and Days. He appears to have been a dour man, aware of the gods’ control over human fate, disappointed by his father’s lack of accomplishment, and disgusted by Perses’ behavior. Nor was he proud of his polis, as an Athenian or Spartan would be proud of his. He refers to Ascra as a wretched, pitiable village, miserable in winter, hard in summer, and never good during any season. Life itself held few rewards, and it took constant, hard work to make it bearable.

In his attitude toward women Hesiod, like most Greek men, was a misogynist. Both Theogony and Works and Days relate the myth of Pandora, the first woman and the bearer of evil to humankind. Yet marriage is preferable to lonely old age and, after death, an estate divided among kinsmen. Care should be taken in choosing a wife: She should be a virgin and live nearby so that her reputation, or lack of one, will be well known. A good wife is the best thing a man can have, but a bad wife the worst.

Significance

The impact of Theogony on Greek literature was enormous, as poets and philosophers for centuries after would express their view of the development of the world in theogonic terms. Hesiod’s version of the myths of the gods became the starting point from which poets, dramatists, and mythographers would narrate their versions. Works and Days similarly started a trend in Greek and Latin literature, and there is a direct line of influence between the agricultural section of the poem and the Roman poet Vergil’s Georgics (c. 37-29 b.c.e.; English translation, 1589). It was a literary form emulated by seventeenth and eighteenth century gentlemen farmers.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamilton, Richard. The Architecture of Hesiod’s Poetry. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. Hamilton shows how the digressions in Hesiod’s poetry illuminate the entire poem.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hesiod. “Theogony” and “Works and Days.” Edited and translated by Martin L. West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. West provides an introduction, Greek text, and a full and thorough commentary on the poems.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lefkowitz, Mary. “Hesiod.” In The Lives of the Greek Poets. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981. Classicist Lefkowitz analyzes the biographical evidence for the life of Hesiod.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nelson, S. God and Land: The Metaphysics of Farming in Hesiod and Virgil. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Nelson argues that Works and Days is a unified, coherent composition rather than a collection of aphorisms and sayings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Penglase, Charles. Greek Myths and Mesopotamia: Parallels and Influence in the Homeric Hymns and Hesiod. New York: Routledge, 1994. Penglase examines the influence of Sumerian and Akkadian myth on Hesiod.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">West, Martin L. The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. Classicist West documents the parallels between Mesopotamian, Anatolian, and Jewish literature and early Greek, and identifies the avenues of transmission.
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