HESIOD (Gr., Hēsiodos; fl. c. 730–700 bce) was one of the earliest recorded Greek poets. The earlier of his two surviving poems, Theogony, is of interest to students of Greek religion as an attempt to catalog the gods in the form of a genealogy, starting with the beginning of the world and describing the power struggles that led to Zeus's kingship among the gods. The cosmogony begins with Chaos ("yawning space"), Earth, and Eros (the principle of sexual love—a precondition of genealogical development). The first ruler of the world is Ouranos ("heaven"). His persistent intercourse with Earth hinders the birth of his children, the Titans, until Kronos, the youngest, castrates him. Kronos later tries to suppress his own children by swallowing them, but Zeus, the youngest, is saved and makes Kronos regurgitate the others. The younger gods defeat the Titans after a ten-year war and consign them to Tartaros, below the earth, so that they no longer play a part in the world's affairs.
This saga of successive rulers is evidently related to mythical accounts known from older Hittite and Babylonian sources. Hesiod's genealogy names some three hundred gods. Besides cosmic entities (Night, Sea, Rivers, etc.) and gods of myth and cult, it includes personified abstractions such as Strife, Deceit, Victory, and Death. Several alternative theogonies came into existence in the three centuries after Hesiod, but his remained the most widely read.
Hesiod's other poem, Works and Days, is a compendium of moral and practical advice. Here Zeus is prominent as the all-seeing god of righteousness who rewards honesty and industry and punishes injustice.
Also attributed to Hesiod was a poem that actually dated only from the sixth century bce, the Catalog of Women, which dealt with heroic genealogies issuing from unions between gods and mortal women. It enjoyed a status similar to that of the Theogony, but it survives only in fragments.
Hesiod's theological thinking is explored in a careful and sensitive way by Friedrich Solmsen in Hesiod and Aeschylus (Ithaca, N.Y., 1949). There is much fresh insight in the chapter on Hesiod in Hermann Fränkel's Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy (Oxford, 1975). The divine genealogies and the Oriental background to the "succession myth" are fully discussed in my book Hesiod: Theogony (Oxford, 1966). For a discussion of the other poems, see my Hesiod: Works and Days (Oxford, 1978) and The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women: Its Nature, Structure, and Origins (Oxford, 1985).
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M. L. West (1987)
The Greek poet Hesiod (active ca. 700 B.C.) was the first didactic poet in Europe and the first author of mainland Greece whose works are extant. His influence on later literature was basic and far-reaching.
The facts about Hesiod are shrouded in myth and the obscurity of time; what we can say with certainty about him comes from his own writing. His father, a merchant "fleeing wretched poverty, " migrated from Cyme in Asia Minor and became a farmer near the town of Ascra in Boeotia, where Hesiod lived most or all of his life. Hesiod undoubtedly spent his early years working his father's land. He says that the Muses appeared to him as he was tending sheep on the slopes of Mt. Helicon and commanded him to compose poetry, and it is likely that he combined the vocations of farmer and poet.
After his father's death Hesiod was involved in a bitter dispute with his brother, Perses, about the division of the property. Later legend relates that Hesiod moved from Ascra and that he was murdered in Oenoe in Locris for having seduced a maiden; their child is said to have been the lyric poet Stesichorus. The poet relates that the only time he traveled across the sea was to compete in a poetry contest at the funeral games of Amphidamas at Chalcis (in Euboea).
The dates of Hesiod's life are much disputed; some of the ancient chroniclers make him a contemporary of Homer; most modern critics date his activity not long after the Homeric epics but presumably before 700 B.C. The titles of a number of poems have come down to us under the name of Hesiod; two complete works survive, which are generally believed to be genuine.
The Theogony (Theogonia, or Genealogy of the Gods) is a long (over 1, 000 lines) narrative description of the origin of the universe and the gods. Beginning with the aboriginal Chaos (Emptiness) and Gaia (Earth), Hesiod describes the creation of the natural world and the generations of the gods. His account concentrates on the struggles between the generations of divine powers for dominion of the world. Uranus (Sky), the original force, is succeeded by his son, Kronos, who, at the instigation of his mother, Gaia, castrates Uranus. Kronos, in turn, is deposed after a fierce battle waged between the Olympian gods (the sons and daughters of Kronos and Rhea), led by Zeus, and the Titans (children of Uranus and Gaia), led by Kronos. In the course of the narrative the births of the gods, major and minor, the evolution of the natural world, and the emergence of personified abstractions like Death, Toil, and Strife are detailed.
Although many of the myths which Hesiod incorporates are extremely primitive and probably Eastern in origin, the Theogony is a successful attempt to give a rational and coherent explanation of the formation and government of the universe from its primal origins through the ultimate mastery of the cosmos by Zeus, "the father of men and gods." Of special interest in the Theogony are the vivid description of battle between the gods and the Titans and the story of Prometheus, the Titan, who defied Zeus by stealing fire for man and was doomed to be chained forever to a rock with a stake through his middle as punishment.
The Works and Days (Erga Kai Hemerai), another long poem (over 800 lines), is much more personal in tone. It is addressed to Hesiod's brother, Perses, who had taken the bigger portion of their inheritance by means of bribes to the local "kings" and then had squandered it. Around this theme of admonition to his brother, Hesiod composed a didactic poem consisting of practical advice to farmers and seafarers, maxims (again, mostly practical) on how to conduct oneself in everyday affairs with fellowmen, moral and ethical precepts, and warnings to the local "kings" to observe righteousness in their disposition of justice. A long section at the end is a list of primitive taboos followed by a catalog of lucky and unlucky days. The authenticity of these lines is doubted, but they are characteristic of the unsophisticated peasant outlook.
The two major themes that Hesiod sounds again and again are the necessity for all men to be just and fair, since justice comes from Zeus, who will punish the wrongdoer, and the formula that success depends on unceasing hard work. If you desire wealth, he says, then "work with work upon work." The world which Hesiod describes in the Works and Days is not the heroic arena of the Trojan War but the difficult life of the small peasant farmer. Hesiod's view is essentially pessimistic; Ascra, his home, is "bad in winter, harsh in summer, good at no time"; and, in one famous passage, he details the five "Ages of Man." From the Golden Age of the reign of Kronos through the Silver, Bronze, and Brass ages of heroes, mankind has degenerated; Hesiod finds himself in the Age of Iron, where there is nothing but trouble and sorrow, labor and strife. Also included in the Works and Days is the story of Pandora, the first woman. The myth states that she was created at Zeus's command as a punishment for men.
A number of other poems, attributed to Hesiod in antiquity and now generally ascribed to the "Boeotian, " or "Hesiodic, " school, are known by title or from fragmentary remains. The most important of these "minor works, " possibly by Hesiod himself, was the Catalog of Women, which seems to have described the loves of the gods and their offspring. A number of fragmentary excerpts survive. A longer fragment, called the Shield of Herakles, most likely not by Hesiod, narrates the battle between Herakles and the robber Kyknos. A large portion of this substantial (480 lines) fragment is devoted to a description of Herakles's shield— an inferior imitation of the famous description in the Iliad of the shield of Achilles.
Like Homer, Hesiod wrote in the Ionian dialect and employed the dactylic hexameter, the meter of the epic poets; but the soaring elegance of the Homeric poems is replaced by a simpler, more earthy style. Portions of the Hesiodic poems are mere "catalogs" of names and events, but often his words ring with an eloquence and conviction that reveal true literary genius. Hesiod was the first European poet to speak in a personal vein and to stress social and moral ethics. The Theogony won immediate acceptance as the authentic account of Greek cosmogony, and it stands today as one of the important basic documents for the study of Greek mythology. Hesiod's professed intent was to instruct and inform, not to amuse; thus he stands at the head of a long line of teacher-poets in the Western world.
Excellent critical analyses of Hesiod's writings are in Werner Wilhelm Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, vol. 1 (trans. 1939; 2d ed. 1945), and Friedrich Solmsen, Hesiod and Aeschylus (1949). Useful for general historical background and cultural interpretation of the poems is Andrew Robert Burn, The World of Hesiod (1936; 2d ed. 1967). See also Alfred Eckhard Zimmern, The Greek Commonwealth: Politics and Economics in Fifth-century Athens (1911; 5th rev. ed. 1931), and Chester G. Starr, The Origins of Greek Civilization (1961). □
Flourished Circa Eighth Century b.c.e .
Significance. Along with Homer, Hesiod is the oldest extant Greek poet. Scholars have no clear evidence about his date, nor did the ancients: a much-debated topic was his chronological relationship with Homer, with many believing in Hesiod’s priority. Yet, unlike Homer, Hesiod reveals something of his life and family in his poetry, and his is the first distinctively individual voice in European literature. Hesiod’s father came from Cyme on the coast of Asia Minor and moved to the village of Ascra by Mt. Helicon in Boeotia. It was on the slopes of Helicon while he was shepherding that Hesiod claims the Muses appeared to him, gave him a laurel branch, and instructed him to sing. Of course he followed their command, and elsewhere tells us that he won a tripod in a singing competition held at a funeral at Chalcis. This story was later elaborated with the imaginative detail that his opponent on this occasion was Homer, and led to the composition, probably early in the fourth century b.c.e., of an account of the contest between the two great early poets of Greece. Hesiod had a brother called Perses, against whom he was engaged in some sort of litigation, perhaps on a matter of inheritance, and his pointed advice to his brother helps us see his social position as a poor peasant at the mercy of corrupt judges.
Truth. When the Muses told Hesiod that they could tell the truth as well as “lies like the truth”—a phase apparently lifted from Homer’s description of Odysseus’ words to his wife—they made it clear that there were different sorts of poetry, and that his job was to produce the true sort. The poems confidently ascribed to Hesiod—the Theogony and the Works and Days—differ radically from the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey (circa eighth-seventh centuries b.c.e.) in subject matter and in general outlook. The Theogony is an account of the creation of the world and the rise to power of the current generation of gods. Considerable similarity has been noted with Near Eastern “succession myths,” some of which contain parallel motifs in the struggles between generations of gods and between the established gods and a monster. Works and Days is a didactic poem on farming, but contains much other material, not least on the nature of justice and the gods’ concern for it. In this poem especially one gets a different viewpoint from the essentially aristocratic perspective of Homer: readers sense an ungallant misogyny, and learn about hard work, the weak position of the ordinary man in the face of corrupt power, and about a wavering faith in the divine justice that will set all this right.
Richard Hamilton, The Architecture of Hesiodic Poetry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).
Robert Lamberton, Hesiod (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).
Mary R. Lefkowitz, The Lives of the Greek Poets (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).