Thursday, May 26, 2011

Hesiod's Works and Days

Works and Days and TheogonyHesiod, 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."

*  *  *

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...


  1. Slow Plot-Driven ReaderMay 26, 2011

    I remember reading, and can't remember where, that Hope is the most evil of all of the god's gifts. Hope can cause us to ignore or deny reality, leading us to make poor choices. The author argued that Hope was indeed intended to be the last gift in Pandora's jar.

  2. Hesiod's poetry does not have the same resonance today that Homer's epics do.

    I don't know. I mean, yes, I do know, you're right. But I don't want everything I read to be an epic. I can make room for poems about farming, too. Aphorisms, sly fables, small stuff.

    I could put split most writers into one tradition or the other. Curious that the division goes back to the beginning of Western literature.

  3. Slow Plot: I came of age right when Jesse Jackson was saying, "Keep hope alive!" I was a staunch Obamaite when hope was his buzzword. But I've never been much of a hope gal. Perhaps this is only due to my inherant depressive personality--but I think you've nailed it when you say hope can allow us to erase the truth rather than confront what needs changing. Is there some reason we humans need hope, though? Does it allow us to believe we can change the things that need to be changed, even when that belief might be a little misleading?

    AR: Oh my! I do agree that I don't want everything to be an epic. Right at the moment, I am so undone by Homer's epics and the history of literary homages to Homer's epics that I don't want ANYTHING to be an epic. Fables? Poems? DRAMAS? That is what I want. I totally get your point.

    But while I am very happy to live with a part-time front-yard farmer (Slow Plot, commenting above), I must say I didn't much like reading Hesiod's irritating mysoginistic text. Having now read Theogony, I'm grateful I've been exposed to the tales about the origins of Greek gods. But I am less sure about why _Work and Days_ is of lasting value. Currently playing around with a post thinking about that question...

  4. For a thousand years, you will run into as many branches of Works and Days as of Homer. Maybe longer, actually. I guess the pastoral poem became the main Hesiodic line.

    Virgil, being the writer he was, decided the proper role of the poet was to do both, to work his way to Homer (Aeneid) through Hesiod (Georgics).

    But with most poets, there is an implicit argument about what is really important. War and history and the once in a lifetime events, or farming and routine and everyday stuff.

  5. I wonder how much parity the two artistic traditions - the heroic and the pastoral - really have. When it comes down to it, I think hmost humans are hardwired to prefere the war story - if nothing else, it has a plot, and we LOVE a good story. Wars have beginings, middles, and ends in our minds (when they dont, like in Afghanistan, now, we get very upset and irritated with them). Farming does not.

    As for the misogyny - it's awful, but really no worse than in Homer. Just more explicit. Homer obviously didn't think a whole lot of women at all (or at least, thought they needed to shut up and stay in their place). To an extent, Hesiod saying what he thought aloud is at least a step to having an open discussion?

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