In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads Hesiod’s classical poem full of ancient wisdom
Two ancient Greek poets stand at the beginning of Western literature. One of them, Homer, is well-known, and his Iliad and Odyssey are both regarded as founding texts of the European literary tradition. The other, Hesiod, is much more obscure. Many people who have heard his name perhaps would struggle to name what he wrote, whereas ‘Homer’s Odyssey’ is a phrase that rolls off the tongue.
Yet Hesiod was writing at roughly the same time as Homer, and his legacy is, if not as great as Homer’s, then more sizeable than his (relative) neglect would suggest. For every one person who can name Hesiod’s two important poems, there are probably ten – maybe even twenty – who could name Homer’s. Our knowledge of many classical myths comes from Hesiod. He is even thought to have come up with the names for the Nine Muses.
Two of Hesiod’s poems have survived: Works and Days and Theogony. In this article, I’ll confine myself to the Works and Days (but will have to blog about the latter at some point in the future). In his informative introduction to his translation of Hesiod’s work, Theogony and Works and Days (Oxford World’s Classics), M. L. West points out that Works and Days is a somewhat misleading (not to mention odd) title. It refers to certain agricultural tasks and days in the calendar which are favourable or unfavourable for particular purposes. But in fact, such advice makes up less than half of the poem. A more accurate title, West suggests, would be ‘the wisdom of Hesiod’. Much of the wisdom and advice is directed at the poet’s brother, Perses, who appears to have had an allergy to work, and to have bankrupted himself thanks to his peculiar talent for spending money. Perses came to ask his brother for a share of his farm, and despite Perses’ penury being nobody’s fault but his own, the judges ruled in Perses’ favour. Hesiod’s poem is his response to this unjust decision, and a defence of the value of working for what you get in life. Works and Days may have ended up being for a general audience, but its origins could well have been a fraternal pep talk.
Works and Days is not a long poem, running to only 800 lines or so. Yet it’s a rich source of myth, even if its farming advice is now, as one might expect, a little out of date. Among other things, it’s in the Works and Days that we find the first animal fable in European literature, a century before Aesop is thought to have lived. Hesiod’s poem is also the origin of the phrase ‘golden age’, from Hesiod’s division of history into Five Ages: the Golden, Silver, Bronze, Heroic, and Iron. Every Golden Age that’s been talked about since has been so named because of Hesiod.
But it’s also in the Works and Days that we find the oldest account of the Pandora story. The myth of Pandora is a crucial one in the Works and Days. Hesiod lays out the meaning of the story with admirable clarity by pairing it with the story of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods to give to man so man was able to cook his meat with it. (Hesiod’s poem is also, by the way, our oldest source for the Prometheus story as well as the Pandora myth.) Because Prometheus had tried to trick the gods, Zeus devised a punishment for mankind that would let evil into the world. Thus we got Pandora, the first woman (yes, the story is the none-too-subtle misogynistic tale of how women were invented as a punishment for men being able to cook, which, ironically, would make a lot of latter-day misogynists’ heads explode). And Pandora opened her jar (not her box – I’ve debunked that misconception in another post), unleashing all ills upon the world, leaving us with only hope (or, in some interpretations, expectation) left.
Works and Days provides a mythic origin story for the need to work in life, then, which might be likened to the Judaeo-Christian story of Adam having to till the fields following his expulsion from the Garden of Eden (also the result of a woman’s curiosity landing mankind in trouble, lest we forget). But it’s more than just an almanac or instruction-manual. It’s a unique hodgepodge of these, myth, fable, creation story, and much else. And the language, although it shows the same inclination for formulae and epithets as we find in Homer (so Zeus appears as ‘Zeus the resourceful’, etc.), is also wonderfully descriptive, especially when it comes to animals: the octopus is ‘the boneless one’, the ant is ‘the knowing one’, while a snail is a ‘carryhouse’. These alone make it worth reading.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.