Monday, October 17, 2011

Hesiod's 'Theogony' and 'Works and Days'

Book Review: Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days  translated by M. L. West
(Oxford World Classics 1988 – originally 700’s BC)

Homer and Hesiod are the two earliest Ancient Greek writers. Here are two works by Hesiod. The first is the Theogony which contains the genealogy of the Ancient Greek gods culminating in the triumph of Zeus and the Olympians. The alphabet of the Greeks came from the Phoenicians and the translator notes in the introduction that recent archaeology indicates that Ancient Greece was more influenced from the Near East than was previously assumed. As a poet Hesiod claimed that he received instruction from the Muses who told him to sing of the “family of the immortals.” The second book – Works and Days – is more a collection of advice about daily life and how best to do things. The translator points out several instances where Works and Days may have been influenced by Near Eastern (Sumerian, Babylonian, Hebrew-Canaanite, Persian, or Egyptian) literature styles and stories.

In the Theogony Hesiod praises the supremacy of Zeus and the Olympians. Zeus is often referred to as – resourceful Zeus or Zeus the aegis-bearer. Apparently the aegis is a buckle or breastplate made by Hephaestus that conveys the power and religious authority of the god. The kenning for Zeus as aegis-bearer is also used in Homer’s Iliad.

The author mentions that in Greek these works are written in hexameter poetry as are the works of Homer and with similar kennings and descriptive schemes. Homer is associated with the epic tales of heroes while Hesiod is concerned with genealogy and didactic poetry.

First Hesiod tells of the birth of the nine Muses from the union of Zeus and the goddess called Memory. The first names given them are Fame-Spreading, Entertaining, Festive, Singing, Dance-delight, Lovely, Rich in Themes, Celestial, and Beautiful Voice (Calliope). He praises their ability to bless humans with respite from sorrow.

He describes a creation scenario where Chaos (which in Greek means abyss, or chasm) is first and then Earth (Gaia) and then Eros, the handsome god of sexual love. Also out of the Abyss came Night and from night came Day. Earth bore the Sky or Heavens (Ouranos) to cover her all about. Ouranos and Gaia bore many children and as the well-known story goes – some were deformed and monstrous. Ouranos hid them imprisoned under the earth. Gaia sought revenge for this and was appeased when her son Kronos (Time) took the sickle and ended the possibility of further children by cutting off the genitals of Ouranos. From these genitals floating in the sea foam was born the youthful goddess beauty and love Aphrodite. Eros and Desire accompanied her to the family of the gods and are often depicted with her. The children of Ouranos were called Titans. Hesiod also describes lineages of various anthropomorphized human qualities, situations and afflictions:

“And baleful Night gave birth to Resentment also, an affliction for mortal men; and after her she bore Deceit and Intimacy, and accursed Old Age, and she bore hard-hearted Strife. Hateful Strife bore painful Toil, Neglect, Starvation, and tearful Pain, Battles, Combats, Bloodshed and Slaughter, Quarrels, Lies, Pretences, and Arguments, Disorder, Disaster – neighbors to each other – and Oath, who most harms men on earth, when someone knowingly swears false.”

The births and lineages of numerous gods, goddesses, nymphs, gorgons, magical creatures, and many other beings that make up the world of Greek mythology are recounted. There is not much detail in some of the stories here but many are well known in other accounts. He tells of the birth and status of Hecate as a favorite honored by Zeus and valuable to be venerated for increasing honor and prosperity. She is said to aid judgment, fame, battle, glory, competition and success. With Hermes she is said to aid herdsman. He talks quite a bit about Hecate which suggests to the translator that Hesiod may have had a family affinity for Hecate.

He then describes the children of Kronos and Rhea: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Zeus. Then being jealous of a future child usurping his power Kronos began swallowing his children and so Rhea devised a plan to deceive him and hide away the child Zeus on the island of Crete. He tells the story of clever Prometheus stealing the fire and of the fashioning of the first woman as Pandora, molded by Hephaestus and clothed by Athena. Many feminists have a problem with this story as it paints women as a bane created as a punishment to humans from the gods.

In the Theogony he goes on to detail the battle of the Titans and the Olympians where the Olympians prevail. He also details the dreaded river goddess Styx whose waters long punish an immortal who veers from truth according to the commandments of Zeus. He tells also of the various children of Zeus and their mothers. These include Athena who rose from his head, Persephone from union with Demeter, the Fates, Graces, Muses, and many others, and from union with Hera were born Hebe, Ares, and Eileithyia. There are alternative origin myths for some of these deities that are likely older as many speculate that the war between the Olympians and the Titans represents one of the invasions of Greece from the north where the deities – many with well-known Cretan and Anatolian origins were more or less co-opted by the Olympians who are thought by some to be more Indo-European in focus – co-opting the Aegean gods and goddesses. Also these lineages come not too long after the introduction of better iron weapons to add to the bronze (maybe 350 years earlier) and so perhaps the veneration of the sky god Zeus and his lightning bolts is well-timed there as well.

The Theogony is a short work that lists quite a bit of names but with few details in most cases. I am thinking it may have been something encouraged to commit to memory due to it being metrical poetry and a list of names and genealogy – as tribal genealogy was often said to be kept by the bards in Indo-European societies.

In Works and Days after initially praising the qualities of Zeus he mentions that there are two kinds of Strife, one that causes great pain and turmoil and the other more beneficial kind that compels men to work. Then he tells again in more detail the fashioning of the goddess Pandora as ‘woman’ – as a vengeance unto humans in revenge for Prometheus stealing the fire in the tube of fennel and giving it to them. This was by the design of Zeus.

Next he tells of the four races of men created by Zeus. First is a race made of gold who were god-like and became watchers over men and bestowers of wealth. Next was a race made from silver. They were a lower level of gods but were prone to crimes and bickering and refused to sacrifice to the gods. For this they were less honored but still had some honor. Third was a bronze race fashioned from Ash trees. They were fierce and violent and after killing each other settled in the realm of Hades. Next there was made the race of heroes, called demi-gods, from unions of gods with mortal women. They too were said to have much killed off one another through warring, with the Trojan heroes being some of the last and some heading off to be with the gods. The last race given is that of humans – the race of iron. He notes that we are a mixture of good and ill and that the gods will destroy us as well in the end.

He speaks of the virtues of Justice and that violence should only happen for an honorable cause. In some of this book Hesiod speaks rather directly to his own brother Perses who he fears is too lazy and lacks ambition. He speaks of the virtues of work, the value of friendship with neighbors, and the dangers of deception. He goes on to detail the best ways to farm and prepare for the seasons and what to focus on at different times. Time is often reckoned by the appearance of stars – the Pleiedes, Sirius, Orion, Arcturus, etc. Indeed much of – Works and Days – amounts to practical advice for that time and place and culture that Hesiod imparts to Perses. He gives much advice, some quite curious – such as not facing the sun while urinating – and some about auspiciousness, omens, and superstition. He advises trying to avoid being the subject of rumour:

“Rumour is a dangerous thing, light and easy to pick up, but hard to support and difficult to get rid of. No rumour ever dies that many folk rumour. She too is somehow a goddess.”

There is some moral advice given that is generally applicable to all times:

“Be a friend to him who is your friend, and give your company to him that seeks it. Give whoso gives, and give not to whoso gives not : .... For if a man gives voluntarily, even a big gift, he is glad at the giving and rejoices in his heart; but if a man takes of his own accord, trusting in shamelessness, even something little, that puts a frost on the heart.”

“Do not be known as a man of many guests or of none, as a comrade of the unworthy or a reviler of the worthy. And never venture to insult a man for accursed soul-destroying poverty, which is the dispensation of the blessed ones who are forever. The tongue’s best treasure among men is when it is sparing, and its greatest charm is when it goes in measure. If you speak ill, you may well hear greater yourself. And be not of bad grace at the feast thronged with guests: when all share, the pleasure is greatest and the expense least.”

Besides the Theogony being a very old hymn of the gods and their various lineages these works do seem to offer a rare glimpse into the time, place, and culture of a rural early Ancient Greece. The description of the four races of gold, silver, bronze, and iron bear a marked resemblance to the similarly described ages of the Vedas. One can conjecture that maybe the possibly Indo-European Achaeans invaded bringing in the Mycenaean culture and the ideals of the Olympians.

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