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Hesiod

Updated on January 8, 2011

Hesiod (8th-7th centuries B.C.) was a Greek poet, one of the first to write didactic verse. He is generally dated about a generation later than Horner. Homer's works represent the culmination of the techniques of oral composition, in which illiterate singers, masters of a great memorized repertoire of poetic lines, improvised long poems on heroic subjects to the accompaniment of the harp. Hesiod's poems belong to the time when such singers were being replaced by rhapsodes, mere reciters of what had already been composed, and when oral composition was declining because of the introduction of writing. Hesiod's works are inferior to Homer's. However, Hesiod's attitudes and subjects were quite different from Homer's and he regarded himself as an innovator.

About all that is known of Hesiod's' life is in his two major works, the Theogony (Origin of the Gods) and Works and Days. Large parts of both are almost universally ascribed to him although they contain undoubted interpolations.

Hesiod and the Muse
Hesiod and the Muse | Source

Theogony

The Theogony consists of about 1,000 lines in dactylic hexameter. In it, Hesiod describes how, as a shepherd on Mount Helicon, in his native Boeotia, he was visited by the Muses, who told him that they could speak both the truth and falsehoods resembling the truth.

The implication is that it was Hesiod's task to introduce the poetry of information, in effect, didactic poetry, as opposed to the Homeric type, the 'poetry of imaginative fiction. Thus the Theogony tries to syncretize the many conflicting Greek cults and myths of the time- local and imported... recently acquired, or inherited long before from the Mycenaean, Anatolian, and Mesopotamian past.

The conclusion celebrates the triumph of the Olympian gods, headed by Zeus, the supreme god of justice. Zeus triumphs both by superseding Uranus and Cronus, his unjust predecessors, and by repelling the Titans and Typhon, who menaced his universal order. The theme of human suffering under divine justice appears in the Prometheus-Pandora myth.

Works and Days

The same theme and myth are developed in the some 800 lines of dactylic hexameter of Works and Days. It is addressed to Hesiod's brother, Perses, who had dishonestly acquired the lion's share of their inheritance, and who was now trying to gain Hesiod's share. Hesiod reminds Perses of the hard but bracing regime imposed by Zeus on mankind as a result of human trickery, exemplified by Prometheus, and of the loosing of calamities into the world when Pandora rashly opened her Jar of Evils.

From that time on, mankind has degenerated through four successive races (Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Heroic) until the Iron Race inhabits the earth and injustice flourishes. The only solution is honest competition and unremitting labor, and Hesiod gives much agricultural instruction and other advice of a general nature. This work, like the Theogony, is the product of an age of transition, when the Mycenaean-Minoan feudal society and stock-raising economy had almost come to an end.

Works of Questioned Authenticity

The fragmentary Catalogue of Heroines was probably also by Hesiod. However, many other works labeled Hesiodic in antiquity, such as the extant Shield of Heracles, were doubtless only rhapsodes' developments of episodes from the Catalogue.

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