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Hesiod (// or //; Greek: Ἡσίοδος, IPA /ɛʰsioðos/ Ēsíodos) was a Greek poet generally thought by scholars to have been active between 750 and 650 BC, around the same time as Homer. His is the first European poetry in which the poet regards himself as a topic, an individual with a distinctive role to play. Ancient authors credited him and Homer with establishing Greek religious customs. Modern scholars refer to him as a major source on Greek mythology, farming techniques, early economic thought (he is sometimes identified as the first economist), archaic Greek astronomy and ancient time-keeping.
The dating of his life is a contested issue in scholarly circles and it is covered below in Dating.
Hesiod was the poet who told the story of Pandora's Jar in approximately 650 BC. Epic narrative allowed poets like Homer no opportunity for personal revelations but Hesiod's extant work comprises didactic poems and here he went out of his way to let his audience in on a few details of his life, including three explicit references in Works and Days, as well as some passages in his Theogony that support inferences. We learn in the former poem that his father came from Cyme in Aeolis (on the coast of Asia Minor, a little south of the island Lesbos), and crossed the sea to settle at a hamlet, near Thespiae in Boeotia, named Ascra, "a cursed place, cruel in winter, hard in summer, never pleasant" (Works, l. 640). Hesiod's patrimony there, a small piece of ground at the foot of Mount Helicon, occasioned lawsuits with his brother Perses, who seems at first to have cheated him of his rightful share thanks to corrupt authorities or "kings" but later became impoverished and ended up scrounging on the thrifty poet (Works l. 35, 396). Unlike their father, Hesiod was averse to sea travel but he once crossed the narrow strait between the Greek mainland and Euboea to participate in funeral celebrations for one Athamas of Chalcis, where he won a tripod in a singing competition. He also describes a meeting between himself and the Muses on Mount Helicon, where he had been pasturing sheep when the goddesses presented him with a laurel staff, a symbol of poetic authority (Theogony, ll. 22–35) Fanciful though it might seem, the account has led ancient and modern scholars to infer that he did not play the lyre, or that he was not professionally trained, otherwise he would have been presented with a lyre instead.[nb 1]
Some scholars have seen Perses as a literary creation, a foil for the moralizing that Hesiod develops in Works and Days, but there are also arguments against this theory. For example, it is quite common for works of moral instruction to have an imaginative setting, as a means of getting the audience's attention,[nb 2] but it is difficult to see how Hesiod could have travelled the countryside entertaining people with a narrative about himself if the account was known to be fictitious. Gregory Nagy, on the other hand, sees both Persēs ("the destroyer": πέρθω / perthō) and Hēsiodos ("he who emits the voice:" ἵημι / hiēmi + αὐδή / audē) as fictitious names for poetical personae.
It might seem unusual that Hesiod's father migrated from Asia Minor westwards to mainland Greece, the opposite direction to most colonial movements at the time, and Hesiod himself gives no explanation for it. However around 750 BC, or a little later, there was a migration of seagoing merchants from his original home in Cyme in Asia Minor to Cumae in Campania (a colony they shared with Euboeans), and possibly his move west had something to do with that, since Euboea is not far from Boetia, where he eventually established himself and his family. The family association with Cyme might explain his familiarity with eastern myths, evident in his poems, though the Greek world might have already developed its own versions of them.
In spite of Hesiod's complaints about poverty, life on his father's farm could not have been too uncomfortable if Works and Days is anything to judge by, since he describes the routines of prosperous yeomanry rather than peasants. His farmer employs a friend (l. 370) as well as servants (ll. 502, 573, 597, 608, 766), an energetic and responsible ploughman of mature years (ll. 469–71), a slave boy to cover the seed (ll. 441–6), a female servant to keep house (ll. 405, 602) and working teams of oxen and mules (ll. 405, 607f.). One modern scholar surmises that Hesiod may have learned about world geography, especially the catalogue of rivers in Theogony (ll. 337–45), listening to his father's accounts of his own sea voyages as a merchant The father probably spoke in the Aeolian dialect of Cyme but Hesiod probably grew up speaking the local Boeotian dialect. However, while his poetry features some Aeolisms there are no words that are certainly Boeotian—he composed in the main literary dialect of the time (Homer's dialect): Ionian.
It is probable that Hesiod wrote his poems down, or dictated them, rather than passed them on orally, as rhapsodes did—otherwise the pronounced personality that now emerges from the poems would surely have been diluted through oral transmission from one rhapsode to another. Pausanias asserted that Boeotians showed him an old tablet made of lead on which the Works were engraved. If he did write or dictate, it was perhaps as an aid to memory or because he lacked confidence in his ability to produce poems extempore, as trained rhapsodes could do. It certainly wasn't in a quest for immortal fame since poets in his era had no such notions. However, some scholars suspect the presence of large-scale changes in the text and attribute this to oral transmission. Possibly he composed his verses during idle times on the farm, in the spring before the May harvest or the dead of winter.
The personality behind the poems is unsuited to the kind of "aristocratic withdrawal" typical of a rhapsode but is instead "argumentative, suspicious, ironically humorous, frugal, fond of proverbs, wary of women." He was in fact a misogynist of the same calibre as the later poet, Semonides. He resembles Solon in his preoccupation with issues of good versus evil and "how a just and all-powerful god can allow the unjust to flourish in this life". He resembles Aristophanes in his rejection of the idealised hero of epic literature in favour of an idealised view of the farmer. Yet the fact that he could eulogise kings in Theogony (ll. 80ff, 430, 434) and denounce them as corrupt in Works and Days suggests that he could resemble whichever audience he composed for.
Various legends accumulated about Hesiod and they are recorded in several sources:
Two different—yet early—traditions record the site of Hesiod's grave. One, as early as Thucydides, reported in Plutarch, the Suda and John Tzetzes, 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. The other tradition, first mentioned in an epigram by Chersias of Orchomenus written in the 7th century BC (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 set them in a place of honour in their agora, next to the tomb of Minyas, their eponymous founder. Eventually they came to regard Hesiod too as their "hearth-founder" (οἰκιστής / oikistēs). Later writers attempted to harmonize these two accounts.
Greeks in the late fifth and early 4th centuries BC considered their oldest poets to be Orpheus, Musaeus, Hesiod and Homer—in that order. Thereafter Greek writers began to consider Homer earlier than Hesiod. Devotees of Orpheus and Musaeus were probably responsible for precedence being given to their two cult heroes and maybe the Homeridae were responsible in later antiquity for promoting Homer at Hesiod's expense.
The first known writers to locate Homer earlier than Hesiod were Xenophanes and Heraclides Ponticus, though Aristarchus of Samothrace was the first actually to argue the case. Ephorus made Homer a younger cousin of Hesiod, the 5th century BC historian Herodotus (Histories, 2.53) evidently considered them near-contemporaries, and the 4th century BC sophist Alcidamas in his work Mouseion even brought them together for an imagined poetic agon, which survives today as the Contest of Homer and Hesiod. Most scholars today agree with Homer's priority but there are good arguments on either side.
Hesiod certainly predates the lyric and elegiac poets whose work has come down to the modern era. Imitations of his work have been observed in Alcaeus, Epimenides, Mimnermus, Semonides, Tyrtaeus and Archilochus, from which it has been inferred that the latest possible date for him is about 650 BC.
An upper limit of 750 BC is indicated by a number of considerations, such as the probability that his work was written down, the fact that he mentions a sanctuary at Delphi that was of little national significance before c. 750 BC (Theogony l. 499), and he lists rivers that flow into the Euxine, a region explored and developed by Greek colonists beginning in the 8th century BC. (Theogony 337–45).
Hesiod mentions a poetry contest at Chalcis in Euboea where the sons of one Amphidamas awarded him a tripod (Works and Days ll.654–662). Plutarch identified this Amphidamas with the hero of the Lelantine War between Chalcis and Eretria and he concluded that the passage must be an interpolation into Hesiod's original work, assuming that the Lelantine War was too late for Hesiod. Modern scholars have accepted his identification of Amphidamas but disagreed with his conclusion. The date of the war is not known precisely but estimates placing it around 730–705 BC, fit the estimated chronology for Hesiod. In that case, the tripod that Hesiod won might have been awarded for his rendition of Theogony, a poem that seems to presuppose the kind of aristocratic audience he would have met at Chalcis.
Three works attributed to Hesiod by ancient commentators have survived: Works and Days, Theogony and Shield of Heracles. Other works attributed to him are only found now in fragments. The surviving works and fragments were all written in the conventional metre and language of epic. However the Shield of Heracles is now known to be spurious and probably was written in the sixth century BC. Many ancient critics also rejected Theogony (e.g. Pausanias 9.31.3) but that seems rather perverse since Hesiod mentions himself by name in that poem (line 22). While they may be very different in subject matter, Theogony and Works and Days share a distinctive language, metre and prosody that subtly distinguish them from Homer's work and from the Shield of Heracles (see Hesiod's Greek below). Moreover, they both refer to the same version of the Prometheus myth. Yet even these authentic poems may include interpolations. For example, the first ten verses of the Works and Days may have been borrowed from an Orphic hymn to Zeus (they were recognised as not the work of Hesiod by critics as ancient as Pausanias).
Some scholars have detected a proto-historical perspective in Hesiod, a view rejected by Paul Cartledge, for example, on the grounds that Hesiod advocates a not-forgetting without any attempt at verification. Hesiod has also been considered the father of gnomic verse. He had "a passion for systematizing and explaining things". Ancient Greek poetry in general had strong philosophical tendencies and Hesiod, like Homer, demonstrates a deep interest in a wide range of 'philosophical' issues, from the nature of divine justice to the beginnings of human society. Aristotle (Metaphysics 983b–987a) believed that the question of first causes may even have started with Hesiod (Theogony 116–53) and Homer (Iliad 14.201, 246).
He viewed the world from outside the charmed circle of aristocratic rulers, protesting against their injustices in a tone of voice that has been described as having a "grumpy quality redeemed by a gaunt dignity" but, as stated in the biography section, he could also change to suit the audience. This ambivalence appears to underlie his presentation of human history in Works and Days, where he depicts a golden period when life was easy and good, followed by a steady decline in behaviour and happiness through the silver, bronze and Iron Ages – except he inserts a heroic age between the last two, though representing its warlike men as better than their bronze predecessors. He seems in this case to be catering to two different world-views, one epic and aristocratic, the other unsympathetic to the heroic traditions of the aristocracy.
The Theogony is commonly considered Hesiod's earliest work. Despite the different subject matter between this poem and the Works and Days, most scholars, with some notable exceptions, believe that the two works were written by the same man. As M.L. West writes, "Both bear the marks of a distinct personality: a surly, conservative countryman, given to reflection, no lover of women or life, who felt the gods' presence heavy about him."
The Theogony concerns the origins of the world (cosmogony) and of the gods (theogony), beginning with Chaos, Gaia, Tartarus and Eros, and shows a special interest in genealogy. Embedded in Greek myth, there remain fragments of quite 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 Herodotus, the accepted version that linked all Hellenes.
The creation myth in Hesiod has long been held to have Eastern influences, such as the Hittite Song of Kumarbi and the Babylonian Enuma Elis. This cultural crossover would have occurred in the eighth and ninth century Greek trading colonies such as Al Mina in North Syria. (For more discussion, read Robin Lane Fox's Travelling Heroes and Walcot's Hesiod and the Near East.)
The Works and Days is a poem of over 800 lines which revolves around two general truths: labour is the universal lot of Man, but he who is willing to work will get by. Scholars have interpreted this work against a background of agrarian crisis in mainland Greece, which inspired a wave of documented colonisations in search of new land. This poem is one of the earliest known musings on economic thought.
This work lays out the five Ages of Man, as well as containing advice and wisdom, prescribing a life of honest labour and attacking idleness and unjust judges (like those who decided in favour of Perses) as well as the practice of usury. It describes immortals who roam the earth watching over justice and injustice. The poem regards labor as the source of all good, in that both gods and men hate the idle, who resemble drones in a hive.
In addition to the Theogony and Works and Days, numerous other poems were ascribed to Hesiod during antiquity. Modern scholarship has doubted their authenticity, and these works are generally referred to as forming part of the "Hesiodic Corpus" whether or not their authorship is accepted. The situation is summed up in this formulation by Glenn Most:
"Hesiod" is the name of a person; "Hesiodic" is a designation for a kind of poetry, including but not limited to the poems of which the authorship may reasonably be assigned to Hesiod himself.
Of these works forming the extended Hesiodic corpus, only the Shield of Heracles (Ἀσπὶς Ἡρακλέους, Aspis Hērakleous) is transmitted intact via a medieval manuscript tradition.
Classical authors also attributed to Hesiod a lengthy genealogical poem known as Catalogue of Women or Ehoiai (because sections began with the Greek words ē hoiē, "Or like the one who ..."). It was a mythological catalogue of the mortal women who had mated with gods, and of the offspring and descendants of these unions.
Several additional hexameter poems were ascribed to Hesiod:
In addition to these works, the Suda lists an otherwise unknown "dirge for Batrachus, [Hesiod's] beloved".
The Roman bronze bust, the so-called Pseudo-Seneca, of the late first century BC found at Herculaneum is now thought not to be of Seneca the Younger. It has been identified by Gisela Richter as an imagined portrait of Hesiod. In fact, it has been recognized since 1813 that the bust was not of Seneca, when an inscribed herma portrait of Seneca with quite different features was discovered. Most scholars now follow Richter's identification.[nb 4]
Hesiod employed the conventional dialect of epic verse, which was Ionian. Comparisons with Homer, a native Ionian, can be unflattering. Hesiod's handling of the dactylic hexameter was not as masterful or fluent as Homer's and one modern scholar refers to his "hobnailed hexameters". His use of language and meter in Works and Days and Theogony distinguishes him also from the author of the Shield of Heracles. All three poets, for example, employed digamma inconsistently, sometimes allowing it to affect syllable length and meter, sometimes not. The ratio of observance/neglect of digamma varies between them. The extent of variation depends on how the evidence is collected and interpreted but there is a clear trend, revealed for example in the following set of statistics.
Hesiod does not observe digamma as often as the others do. That result is a bit counter-intuitive since digamma was still a feature of the Boeotian dialect that Hesiod probably spoke, whereas it had already vanished from the Ionic vernacular of Homer. This anomaly can be explained by the fact that Hesiod made a conscious effort to compose like an Ionian epic poet at a time when digamma was not heard in Ionian speech, while Homer tried to compose like an older generation of Ionian bards, when it was heard in Ionian speech. There is also a significant difference in the results for Theogony and Works and Days, but that is merely due to the fact that the former includes a catalog of divinities and therefore it makes frequent use of the definite article associated with digamma, oἱ.
Though typical of epic, his vocabulary features some significant differences from Homer's. One scholar has counted 278 un-Homeric words in Works and Days, 151 in Theogony and 95 in Shield of Heracles. The disproportionate number of un-Homeric words in W & D is due to its un-Homeric subject matter.[nb 6] Hesiod's vocabulary also includes quite a lot of formulaic phrases that are not found in Homer, which indicates that he may have been writing within a different tradition.
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