Hesiod (Hesiodos, Ἡσίοδος) was an early Greek poet and rhapsode who lived around 700 B.C.E. Often cited alongside his close contemporary Homer, Hesiod is one of the oldest poets in the Western canon, and the primary poet of the pastoral tradition. He is also the first poet to write didactic, or instructional, verses. Hesiod's poetry, composed before the invention of literacy, served a very practical purpose in his own time, acting as primary sources for religious instruction and agricultural knowledge. This makes Hesiod's poetry appear down-to-earth and pragmatically minded, concerned with how to live and what to do, in contrast to the epic adventures of his contemporaries.
As with Homer, legendary traditions have accumulated around Hesiod. Unlike the case of Homer, however, some biographical details have survived: a few details of Hesiod's life come from three references in Works and Days; some further inferences derive from his Theogony. Hesiod lived in Boeotia. His father came from Kyme in Aeolis, which lay between Ionia and the Troad in Northwestern Anatolia, but crossed the sea to settle at Boeotian Ascra, "a cursed place, cruel in winter, hard in summer, never pleasant" (Works 640). Hesiod's patrimony there, a small piece of ground at the foot of Mount Helicon, occasioned a pair of lawsuits with his brother Perses, who won both times under the same judges (some scholars have seen Perses as a literary creation, a foil for the moralizing that Hesiod directed his way in Works and Days. No outside documentation of the dispute exists).
By tradition, the Muses lived on Helicon, and they gave Hesiod the gift of poetic inspiration one day while he tended sheep. In another biographical detail, Hesiod mentions a poetry contest at Chalcis in Euboea where the sons of Amiphidamas awarded him a tripod (ll.654-662). Plutarch first cited this passage as an interpolation into Hesiod's original work; he assumed this date much too late for a contemporary of Homer, but most Homeric scholars would now accept it. The account of this contest inspired the later tale of a competition between Hesiod and Homer, though whether the two rhapsodes ever met is unknown.
Two different traditions record the site of Hesiod's grave, and it is unclear which, if either, is correct. One, as early as Thucydides, states that the Delphic oracle warned Hesiod that he would die in Nemea, and so he fled to Locris, where he was killed at the local temple to Nemean Zeus, and buried there. This tradition follows a familiar ironic convention: the oracle that predicts accurately after all, despite taking measures against it.
The other tradition, first mentioned in an epigram of Chersios of Orchomenus and written in the 7th century B.C.E. (within a century or so of Hesiod's death), claims that Hesiod lies buried at Orchomenus, a town in Boeotia. According to Aristotle's Constitution of Orchomenus, when the Thespians ravaged Ascra, the villagers sought refuge at Orchomenus, where, following the advice of an oracle, they collected the ashes of Hesiod and placed them in a place of honor in their agora, beside the tomb of Minyas, their eponymous founder. In the end they came to regard Hesiod, too, as their “hearth-founder.”
Hesiod is most well known for the composition of two long poems, the Works and Days, which revolve around two general truths: labor is the universal lot of Man; and he who is willing to work will get by. Scholars have seen this work against a background of an agrarian crisis in mainland Greece, which inspired a wave of documented colonization in search of new land.
The second poem, composed earlier, and generally considered more important in contributing to our understanding of ancient Greek culture, is the Theogony. It is a poem which uses the same epic verse form as his Works and Days, as well as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. The Theogony, which in its surviving form has over one thousand verses, is one of the fullest insights we have into the nature of Greek mythology.
Classical authors also attributed to Hesiod later genealogical poems known as Catalogues of Women or as Eoiae (because sections began with the Greek words e oie 'or like her'). Only fragments of these have survived. They discuss the genealogies of kings and figures of the legendary heroic period. Scholars generally classify them as later examples of the poetic tradition to which Hesiod belonged, not as genuine poems of Hesiod himself.
A final poem traditionally attributed to Hesiod, “The Shield of Heracles” (Ἀσπὶς Ἡρακλέους / Aspis Hêrakleous), apparently forms a late expansion of one of these genealogical poems, taking its cue from Homer's description of the Shield of Achilles.
Hesiod's works survive in Alexandrian papyri, some dating from as early as the first-century B.C.E. Demetrius Chalcondyles issued the first printed edition (editio princeps) of Works and Days, possibly at Milan in 1493 C.E. In 1495, Aldus Manutius published the complete works at Venice.
The Theogony concerns the origins of the world (cosmogony) and of the gods (theogony), beginning with Gaia, Nyx and Eros, and shows a special interest in genealogy. Embedded in Greek myth there remain fragments of widely variant tales, hinting at the rich variety of myth that once existed, city by city; but Hesiod's retelling of the old stories became, according to the fifth-century C.E. historian Herodotos, the accepted version that linked all Hellenes.
Hesiod's version of these myths was largely successful because it combined a large variety of previously unconnected stories in a single, coherent narrative that tells how the gods came to be and how they established permanent control over the cosmos. In many cultures, narratives about the cosmos and the gods that shaped it are a way for society to reaffirm its native cultural traditions. Specifically, theogonies tend to affirm kingship as the natural embodiment of society. What makes the Theogony of Hesiod unique is that it affirms no historical royal line. Such a gesture would have vainly supposed that the Theogony could be tied to the political dynasty of just one time and one place. Rather, the Theogony affirms the kingship of the god Zeus himself over all the other gods and over the whole cosmos.
Further, Hesiod appropriates to himself the authority usually reserved to sacred kingship. The poet declares that it is he, rather than a king, upon whom the Muses have bestowed the two gifts of a scepter and an authoritative voice (Hesiod, Theogony 30-3), which are the visible signs of kingship. It is not that this gesture is meant to make Hesiod a king. Rather, the point is that the authority of kingship now belongs to the poetic voice, the voice that is declaiming the Theogony, and the other great poems of the ancient Greek tradition.
Although the Theogony is often used as a sourcebook for Greek mythology, it is both more and less than that. In formal terms, it is a hymn invoking Zeus and the Muses: parallel passages between it and the much shorter Homeric Hymn to the Muses make it clear that the Theogony developed out of a tradition of hymnic preludes with which ancient Greek rhapsodes would begin their performance at poetic competitions. It is necessary to see the Theogony not as the definitive source of Greek mythology, but rather as a snapshot of a dynamic tradition that happened to crystallize when Hesiod set the myths he knew down to writing—and to remember that the traditions continued to evolve. On the other hand, Hesiod's is one of the few of these hymns to have survived into the present day and, in terms of poetic technique, it is certainly one of the most beautiful. While the Theogony is only a fragment of a much larger and sadly lost oral poetic tradition, it is still one of the cornerstones of the poetic canon.
It is believed that Hesiod may have been influenced by other Near Eastern theogonies, the two most frequently cited examples are the Akkadian-Babylonian creation epic, the "Enuma Elish," and the Hurrian-Hittite "Kingship in Heaven."
Hesiod's other epic poem, the Works and Days, has a more personal character. It is addressed to his brother Perses, who by trickery has managed to secure a large share of their inheritance for himself and is plotting to take even more by similar means. The narrator attempts to dissuade him by recounting, in the poem's first segment, two myths illustrating how important it is for person to work honestly and hard. One is the infamous story of Pandora, who out of idle curiosity opens a jar, setting a free an entire host of evil beings onto the earth. The other myth traces the decline of civilization since the Golden Age. After relating these depressing tales of misfortune and grief, Hesiod surprisingly asserts his faith in the ultimate redemption of justice. For the narrator of the poem, Justice is a deity—a daughter of Zeus—and the well being of all people depends upon their devotion to Justice.
This first part of the poem seems to be directed toward the community leaders and officials of Hesiod's time, who had been assisting Perses. Hesiod also speaks directly to Perses, urging him to abandon his scheming and redeem himself through hard work and honesty. For Hesiod, hard work is the only way to happiness and prosperity. The morals and vision of life that Hesiod conveys in the Works and Days are in direct opposition to the epically heroic (and, in some sense, unattainable) virtues expounded by Homer.
In the second half of the poem, Hesiod describes in practical detail the kind of work appropriate to each part of the calendar, explaining in a very plain and helpful manner how each task of the agricultural year should be done. Much of the farming advice found in the Works and Days is actually sound.
The poem creates a vivid sense of the rhythm and harmony of agrarian life in the context of a natural world and the passing of the year. This attention to the harmony of nature has made the poem a touchstone for, among many others, the Transcendentalist writers of 19th Century America, and the Romantic poets of industrial England. It is a surprisingly modern and refreshing work, coming as it does, from the voice of a poet nearly three millennia removed from the present day.
1J. A. Symonds, Studies of the Greek Poets, p. 166
2J. A. Symonds, p. 167
3Hesiod, Works and Days, Canto III, : "Verily upon the earth are thrice ten thousand immortals of the host of Zeus, guardians of mortal man. They watch both justice and injustice, robed in mist, roaming abroad upon the earth." (cf. also, J. A. Symonds, p. 179)
4Hesiod, Works and Days, : "Both gods and men are angry with a man who lives idle, for in nature he is like the stingless drones who waste the labor of the bees, eating without working"
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