|Hesiod and the Muses|
by Gustave Moreau (1860).
Works and Days (Ἔργα καὶ Ἡμέραι) is a poem by Hesiod (just over 800 lines) written in the 8th Century B.C. It was written as an informative piece - there is advice on work, daily life, and a shepherd's calendar, but also it's interwoven with myths and fables, most notably of Pandora and Prometheus (both of whom were mentioned in his Theogony).
It begins with an invocation -
Pierian Muses, bringers of fame: come
Tell of your father, Zeus, and sing his hymn,
Through whom each man is famous or unknown,
Talked-of or left obscure, through his great will.
With ease he strengthens any man; with ease
He makes the strong man humble and with ease
He levels mountains and exalts the plain,
Withers the proud and makes the crooked straight
With ease, the Thunderer whose home is high.
Hear, Zeus, and set our falled laws upright
And may my song to Perses tell the truth.
Perses - I must note - was a Titan god, but in this case Hesiod was referring to his brother Perses to whom the entire poem is addressed.
Hesiod goes on to describe the "Two Strifes": one who is hated; cruel, and who "Makes battles thrive", and second, "an aid to men", "She urges even lazy men to work". Hesiod again mentions Perses , begging him not to be persuaded by "Wicked Strife", and then he reveals the purpose of his poem to Perses which suggests that Perses has taken him to court to fight for more than half of their inheritance:
We split our property in half, but you
Grabbled at the larger part and praised to heaven
The lords who love to try a case like that,
Eater of bribes. The fools! They do not know
That half may be worth more by far than whole
Nor how much profit lies in poor man's bread.
|Pandoraby John William Waterhouse (1896).|
Hesiod urges Perses to work hard, a fact that the gods attempt to conceal from us - suggesting that this is because of Zeus' anger with Prometheus who gave fire to mankind (as I mentioned Hesiod touches on Prometheus in his Theogony, but so far the most detailed version of the Prometheus myth I've read is Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound). Zeus, Hesiod writes, gave mankind Pandora, the curse of men, "Sly manners, and the morals of a bitch". She was given to Epimetheus, the brother of Prometheus (Epimetheus means "hindsight", Prometheus "foresight") who had forgotten his brother's warning not to accept gifts from Zeus and remembered too late. Hesiod writes,
Before this time men lived upon the earth
Apart from sorrow and from painful work,
Free from disease, which brings the Death-gods in.
But now the woman opened up the cask
And scattered pains and evils among men.
Inside the cask's hard walls remained one thing
Hope, only, which did not fly through the door.
The lid stopped her, but all the others flew,
Thousands of troubles, wandering the earth.
The earth is full of evils, and the sea.
Diseases come to visit men by day
And, uninvited, come again at night
Bringing their pains in silence, for they were
Deprived of speech by Zeus the Wise. And so
There is no way to flee the mind of Zeus.
|The Silver Age by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1530).|
He then moves forward, promising another tale on the 'Myth of the Five Ages' (Ovid also wrote about the 'Ages of Man' in the first book of Metamorphoses but omits Hesiod's "race of heroes").
- The Titans made "a golden race of mortal men", who lived during the reign of Kronos, in which "all good things / Were theirs".
- Then the Olympians made a "silver race of men", who "could not control themselves" and "left / The holy altars bare". Zeus "his this race away / For they dishonoured the Olympian gods".
- Zeus then made "a race of bronze", lovers of war.
- When they died, a fourth race was made by Zeus - "demi-gods", "more just and good", but some ruined by battles such as that of Troy. "The race of heroes", Hesiod concludes, "well deserve their fame".
- The fifth and final race is "the race of iron", and Hesiod adds, "I wish I were not of this race". They work hard, suffer "harsh burdens", and die. Zeus, Hesiod believes, "will destroy this race of mortal men", and the spirits "Righteousness and Shame" will abandon the race to their troubles.
After a brief fable of a hawk and a nightingale Hesiod then urges Perses to control his pride, which he says is "evil in a common man", that Justice will always prevail, "And Pride will lose", and Zeus will punish those "who till the fields of pride / And work at evil deeds". He goes on,
That man is best who reasons for himself,
Considering the future. Also good
Is he who takes another's good advice.
But he who neither thinks himself nor learns
From others, is a failure as a man.
For fear of the gods, then, he urges Perses to keep his words in mind and offers him a variety of advice on the virtues and profits of working hard, being a good man and a good neighbour, on lending, borrowing, the different work involved in each season, and on honouring the gods. He concludes,
These days are blessings to the men on earth;
The rest are fickle, bland, and bring no luck.
Everyone has his favourite days, but few
Have knowledge that is sure. Sometimes a day
Will be a stepmother, and then she'll change
And be a mother. He is truly blest
And rich who knows these things and does his work,
Guiltless before the gods, and scrupulous,
Observing omens and avoiding wrong.
I must say, though very tough at times I do enjoy Hesiod's work. Works and Days may not seem like the most fascinating of subjects with much of it on advice on agrarian life. Yet it is beautiful, even inspiring, and has a great charm to it, though at times it is a little rough around the edges. It's also nice to compare with Ovid, and - I'm told - Virgil's Georgics (29 B.C.), which I really need to re-read properly very soon.