Hesiod, a beloved poet in ancient Greece, was a contemporary of Homer's. Although his reputation has not remained nearly as strong as his peer's, Hesiod's writings are our oldest primary sources for much of Greek mythology. His work includes Works and Days and Theogeny, which are usually published together in one slim volume. I'll talk about the first today and the second in an upcoming post. Since I enjoyed his translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey so much, I read Stanley Lombardo's 1993 translation of Hesiod and found it quite readable.
Addressing his ne'er-do-well brother Perses, Hesiod in Works and Days seeks to teach us that an honest life consists of working hard to the end of one's days.
In imitation of Hesiod's direct style, Lombardo uses some colloquial or contemporary language that some readers might resist, while others might find it charming. For example, when the translator is introducing Eris (the goddess of strife), he writes, "She's a mean cuss and nobody likes her, but everybody honors her, this ornery Eris. They have to: it's the gods' will."
Works and Days begins with an explanation of "why life is hard"--that is, why human beings now have to work for a living. Hesiod explains using a story: Zeus was irritated when a mortal man being stole fire and Zeuss decided to get even. "I'm going to give them Evil in exchange for fire," said Zeus, "their very own Evil to love and embrace."
And what is that evil? Woman.
He sets out to create Pandora, the world's first mortal woman, out of clay. The gods give Pandora a beautiful figure, a host of feminine talents, "a bitchy mind and a cheating heart." She is then sent to Epimetheus (a mortal) "where she was a real pain for human beings." In addition to Pandora, Zeus sends Epimethus a jar of gifts. Epimetheus, despite advice to the contrary, accepts the gifts. Out of great curiousity, Pandora opens the jar. Out pour sorrows and evils--enough to blanket the earth and fill the seas. Only Hope remains in the jar.
Why was hope in the jar of sorrows and evils? That question kept me awake for an hour last night. (I swear it started to make sense just as I fell asleep, but when I awoke I had forgotten how.)
The story of Pandora is astonishingly similar thematically to the story of Adam and Eve in the Hebrew Bible. Eve, like Pandora, is a seductress who seeks more knowledge than God apparently wants humans to have. Like Pandora's gods, Eve's god puts knowledge deliberately in her path. And both Pandora's and Eve's quests for knowledge lead to the beginning of human sorrow and pain. There is one difference: the Hebrew god supposedly creates Eve to be a companion for man, while the Greek gods create Pandora to be a punishment for man.
Hesiod suggests that the human fall from our paradisal state was gradual. At first, humans lived with Chronus in the Golden Age where they had no need for work. All was provided for them by the abundant earth. This race of humans were replaced by the people of the Silver Age--those who lived with Zeus and spent almost their entire lives as infants. This race was replaced by the people of the Bronze Age--strong war-like humans who eventually destroyed themselves.
The Age of Heroes follows--the time from which come the noble Achilles and Odysseus. And finally, we come to the Iron Age, where men must labor in misery and desperation. It is the age of deceit, disrespect, and unhappiness. The best course is to fight evil through hard work and steady routines.
Hesiod's generally snarky tone is beautifully summarized by what is perhaps his most famous quote. He states that his hometown is "bad in winter, godawful in summer, nice never."
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Hesiod's poetry does not have the same resonance today that Homer's epics do. Homer's exegesis of character is what makes his two epics so powerful. Hesiod's language is not as glorious, nor is his social analysis as relevant today.
On the other hand, there are certainly historical reasons to read Hesiod. One idea from Hesiod that has shaped the way we envision human history is the idea of a "golden age" from which we have quite literally "descended." Interestingly, we often pair the idea of a golden age with the idea that things were harder in the past. Our grandparents may have had to walk uphill both directions to school, in deep snow all year 'round--but their world was a better one. Perhaps we've combined Hesiod's proposal that hard work makes a better life with his idea of a golden age?
Hesiod does have pages of clever advice. Reading him I thought of Shakespeare's Polonius and his "neither a borrower nor a lender be" speech. A few examples:
"Be sure to invite the fellow who lives close by. If you've got some kind of emergency on your hands, neighbors will come lickety-split, but kinfolk take a while."
"Don't be tiresome at a potluck dinner:
It's good entertainment and cheap at that."
"Give's a good girl, but Gimmee's a goblin."
"Don't piss standing up while facing the sun."
And, in the spirit of Hesiod's misogyny:
"First, get yourself a house, a woman, and a plow-ox
(A slave woman, not for marrying, one who can plow.)"
"Don't wash in a woman's bathwater,
Which for a time has a bitter vengeance in it."
"Don't let a sashaying female pull the wool over your eyes."
Hm...wool...must go pull out my knitting so I can do some more effective sashaying...