The Boeotian School of Epic

views updated

The Boeotian School of Epic


It is customary to speak of Homer and Hesiod in the same breath, but, in fact, the two poets lived in different worlds and produced markedly different poetry. Both belonged to eighth century b.c.e., but Hesiod reflected a different style of life. He grew up in the poor village of Ascra in Boeotia, a district of central Greece bordering on Athenian territory. The Athenians considered the Boeotians rather stupid, and, compared to Athens, Boeotia was a cultural backwater. Despite this reputation, about the same time as bards in Ionia were singing heroic lays about the Trojan War, poets in Boeotia were composing poetry on more down-to-earth subjects. There must have been a fair number of poets, but all that survives of their works are three poems attributed to Hesiod: the Theogony, the Works and Days, and a rather poor piece titled The Shield of Heracles, which few think is really Hesiod's composition.

The Theogony.

The Theogony, or The Generations of the Gods, is the first effort by a Greek to write a systematic theology. Hesiod begins by invoking the nine Muses who taught him the art of poetry while he was shepherding his flock on Mt. Helicon. The Muses, the daughters of Zeus who knew how to speak the truth when they wanted to, inspired him to sing of "things to come and things that were before."

"Hail, daughters of Zeus! Give me sweet song
To celebrate the holy race of gods
Who live forever, sons of starry Heaven
And Earth, and gloomy night, and salty Sea."

Dorothea Wender, trans., Hesiod and Theognis (Penguin Classics): 26.

Hesiod began with Chaos, the formless matter which was the earliest state of the universe, out of which appeared Earth and Tartarus, Night and Erebos, which in the Theogony was a mythical being. Earth produced Ouranos (Heaven), and from the sexual union of Earth and Heaven arose the race of Titans. The Titan Kronos, with the connivance of Mother Earth, castrated Heaven and thrust him up into the sky. But Kronos feared that his children would overthrow him just as he overthrew his father, and he swallowed the infants as his wife Rhea bore them. Rhea tricked him, however, by giving him a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes to swallow instead of her last-born child. When that child, who was Zeus, reached manhood, he overthrew Cronus and forced him to vomit up the children he had swallowed. Thus the generation of Zeus took control.

The Eastern Connection.

It is difficult to discern whether Hesiod was repeating traditional wisdom about the gods in his Theogony or whether it sprang from his own fertile brain. Certainly, the Near East had creation stories before Hesiod wrote; one that Hesiod might have known at second-or third-hand was the Babylonian Creation epic, the Enuma elis of which over 900 verses survive. The story of how Cronus castrated Ouranos has a parallel among the myths of the Hittites whose empire dominated central Asia Minor until the raids and invasions which ended the Mycenaean civilization after 1200

b.c.e. destroyed it as well; the Hittites, in turn, borrowed it from a people called the Hurrians, pre-Semitic inhabitants of Syria. The Hittite tale told that Kumarbi, the equivalent of Cronus, bit off the genitals of the Sky-God Anu. Folktale motifs can travel from culture to culture with surprising ease, but they change as they travel, and by the time the Near Eastern creation myths reached Boeotia, they had taken on a different complexion. Yet the cultural influence of the Near East was felt even in Hesiod's isolated little community. In the Works and Days, he tells the Near Eastern myth of the Ages of Man, but with a change to make it fit Greek common wisdom: the Oriental version has four ages corresponding to the four metals, Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron, but Hesiod adds a fifth age before the Age of Iron—the heroic age—thus creating space in the history of mankind for the heroes who, as all Greeks knew, lived before the present age. It seems unlikely that Hesiod was the first Greek to use myths from the Near East, for Greek contacts with Syria go back to Mycenaean times. Yet much of the theology in the Theogony was Hesiod's own creation.

The Works and Days.

In Hesiod's second poem, we hear the genuine voice of a peasant farmer. Hesiod's father had left Aeolian Cyme, fleeing from poverty, and had come to the town of Askra near Mt. Helicon, which Hesiod characterized as "harsh in winter, comfortless in summer, not really good at any time of year." Hesiod's brother Perses had cheated Hesiod in the division of their father's estate, and then had squandered his portion. He then attempted to acquire more of his brother's share by dishonest means, bribing the corrupt aristocrats who dispensed justice in the city-states. The Works and Days is Hesiod's advice to Perses. It tells him how to farm, when to marry, what sort of slaves to have, which days are lucky and so on. The sixth day of the month, for instance, was not a lucky time for girls to be born, but it was a good day for castrating kids and lambs, and for the birth of boys, though boys born on that day will be given to lies and flattery. Other admonitions included one always to wash one's hands before pouring libations to the gods, and another to wash one's hands in a stream before crossing it. This "wisdom literature" is typical of ancient Egypt, but the advice Hesiod gives is rooted in the soil of Boeotia. He had a strong sense of justice, and he had a message for crooked judges:

You lords, take notice of this punishment
The deathless gods are never far way;
They mark the crooked judges who grind down
Their fellow-men and do not fear the gods,
Three times ten thousand watchers-over-men,
Immortal, roam the fertile earth for Zeus,
Clothed in a mist, they visit every land
And keep a watch on law-suits and on crimes,
One of them is the virgin, born of Zeus,
Justice, revered by all the Olympian gods.

Dorothea Wender, trans., Hesiod and Theognis (Penguin Classics): 66–67.

Hesiod's suggestion that Zeus is the enforcer of fair play differs from Homer's amoral version of the god.


Boeotia continued to produce poets after Hesiod, though none wrote in the epic tradition. Nearly two centuries after Hesiod, one of the greatest Greek lyric poets, Pindar, was born there, near the chief Boeotian city of Thebes. An older contemporary of Pindar, a poetess named Corinna, wrote lyrical narrative poems on Boeotian subjects for a circle of women friends. A papyrus fragment from Egypt preserves substantial remains of two of her poems. In one she describes a contest in song between Mt. Helicon, or more precisely, the god Helicon, and Mt. Cithaeron. Helicon was Hesiod's mountain where the Muses appeared to him and taught him to sing, and Mt. Cithaeron was closer to Corinna's polis of Tanagra. The gods judge whether Hesiod's Helicon or Corinna's Cithaeron has sung the better poem.

The Muses told the high gods then
each to deposit his ballot stone
secretly in the gold gleaming
urns. Together the gods rose up.
Cithaeron won more of the votes.
At once Hermes, with a great cry,
announced him, how he had gained success
he longed for, and the blessed gods
with garlands crowned him, so that his heart
was happy.

Richmond Lattimore, Greek Lyrics (University of Chicago Press): 52.

Mt. Helicon was a sore loser. The poem may have been Corinna's declaration of independence from the Hesiodic epic school of poetry.


J. P. Barron and P. E. Easterling, "Hesiod," in The Cambridge History of Classical Literature. Eds. P. E. Easterling and B. M. W. Knox (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1981): 92–105.

Robert Lamberton, Hesiod (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988).

Dorothea Wender, Hesiod and Theognis (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1973).