Hesiod and the Poetics of Pan-Hellenism

Alexander the Great Confronts Darius III at the Battle of Issos (or possibly Battle of Gaugamela), floor mosaic, House of the Faun at Pompeii, Italy. 1st century CE Roman copy of a Greek wall painting of c. 310 BCE, perhaps by Philoxenos or Eretria or Helen of Egypt. Entire panel 8’10” x 17′ (2.7 x 5.2 m). National Archaeological Museum, Naples

By Dr. Gregory Nagy
Francis Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature
Professor of Comparative Literature
Director, Center for Hellenic Studies
Harvard University

The Hesiodic Question

Ancient bronze bust, the so-called Pseudo-Seneca, now conjectured to be an imaginative portrait of Hesiod. / Photo by Massimo Finizio, National Archaeological Museum of Naples via Wikimedia Commons

From the vantage point of the ancient Greeks themselves, no accounting of Homer is possible without an accounting of Hesiod as well. In the fifth century B.C., Herodotus was moved to observe (2.53.2) that the Greeks owed the systematization of their gods—we may say, of their universe—to two poets, Homer and Hesiod. The current fashion is to argue, from the internal evidence of their poetry, that both lived sometime in the latter half of the eighth century, roughly three hundred years before Herodotus composed his Histories—although there is considerable controversy about which of the two was earlier. For Herodotus, as for all Greeks of the Classical period, however, the importance of Homer and Hesiod was based not on any known historical facts about these poets and their times. Whatever Homer and Hesiod may have meant to the eighth century, the only surviving historical fact about them centers on what their poems did indeed mean to the succeeding centuries extending into the historical period. From Herodotus and others, we know that the poems of Homer and Hesiod were the primary artistic means of encoding a value system common to all Greeks. [1]

In this connection it is worthwhile to correct a common misconception: Homer is not simply an exponent of narrative any more than Hesiod is an exponent of purely didactic poetry. [2] The explicitly narrative {36|37} structure of epic, as is the case with myth making in general, frames a value system that sustains and in fact educates a given society. [3] Conversely, as we shall see, the teachings of Hesiod frame an implicit narrative about the poet and his life.

The question is, why were these two poets universally accepted by the Greeks of Classical times? Such acceptance is especially remarkable in view of the striking diversity that characterizes Greece throughout this period. Each polis or ‘city’ was a state unto itself, with its own traditions in government, law, religion. Moreover, the diversity that prevailed among the many city-states of Greece had already taken shape by the eighth century, the very era that scholars agree in assigning to Homer and Hesiod. How, then, could the diversification of the Greeks coincide with the consolidation of their poetic heritage? The evidence of archaeology helps provide a partial answer. In the eighth century the emergence of distinct city-states with distinct localized traditions was simultaneous with a trend of intercommunication among the elite of these city-states—the trend of pan-Hellenism. [4] The patterns of intercommunication were confined to a few specific social phenomena, all datable starting with the eighth century: the organization of the Olympic Games; the establishment of Apollo’s sanctuary and oracle at Delphi; organized colonizations (the Greek word for which is ktísis); the proliferation of the alphabet. [5]

Another phenomenon that may be included is Homeric and Hesiodic poetry, featuring overall traditions that synthesize the diverse local traditions of each major city-state into a unified pan-Hellenic model that suits most city-states but corresponds exactly to none. [6] Erwin Rohde cites in particular the Homeric and Hesiodic concept of the Olympian gods, which transcends the individual concepts of these same gods as they are worshiped on the level of cult in the localized traditions of the city-states. [7] We have in this example what amounts to internal evidence corroborating the external evidence summed up in Herodotus’ statement: Homeric and Hesiodic poetry systematized the city-states’ diverse ideologies about the gods into a set of attributes and functions that all Hellenes could accept. (The earliest unambiguous attestation of the word panéllēnes in the sense of “pan-Hellenes” or “all Greeks” is in Hesiod Works and Days 528.) {37|38}

The notion that the Homeric and Hesiodic poems were a pan-Hellenic phenomenon going back to the eighth century leads to the tempting scenario of connecting a likewise pan-Hellenic phenomenon, alphabetic writing: the formative stage of the Greek alphabet, after all, is dated to the eighth century. According to this scenario, the Homeric and Hesiodic poems were enshrined for the Greeks because they were written down, thus becoming fixed texts that proliferated throughout the Hellenic world. The problem is, how exactly are we to imagine this proliferation? It is clear that literacy was a tenuous phenomenon at best throughout the archaic period of Greece, and the pan-Hellenic spread of the Homeric and Hesiodic poems during this period stretching from the eighth to the fifth century could hardly be attributed to some hypothetical circulation of manuscripts. To put it bluntly: it seems difficult to imagine an incipient eighth-century reading public—let alone one that could have stimulated such widespread circulation of the Homeric and Hesiodic poems.

The notion that the Homeric and Hesiodic poems were a pan-Hellenic phenomenon going back to the eighth century leads to the tempting scenario of connecting a likewise pan-Hellenic phenomenon, alphabetic writing: the formative stage of the Greek alphabet, after all, is dated to the eighth century. According to this scenario, the Homeric and Hesiodic poems were enshrined for the Greeks because they were written down, thus becoming fixed texts that proliferated throughout the Hellenic world. The problem is, how exactly are we to imagine this proliferation? It is clear that literacy was a tenuous phenomenon at best throughout the archaic period of Greece, and the pan-Hellenic spread of the Homeric and Hesiodic poems during this period stretching from the eighth to the fifth century could hardly be attributed to some hypothetical circulation of manuscripts. To put it bluntly: it seems difficult to imagine an incipient eighth-century reading public—let alone one that could have stimulated such widespread circulation of the Homeric and Hesiodic poems.

The argument for an archaic reading public is actually rendered pointless by the historical fact that the medium of transmitting the Homeric and Hesiodic poems was consistently that of performance, not reading. One important traditional context of poetic performance was the institution of pan-Hellenic festivals, though there may well have been other appropriate public events as well. [8] The competing performers at such public events were called rhapsōidoí ‘rhapsodes’ (as in Herodotus 5.67.1), one of whom has been immortalized in Plato’s Ion. We learn that the rhapsode Ion has come from his home in Ephesus to compete with other rhapsodes by reciting Homer at the Feast of the Panathenaia at Athens, after having already won at another festival, the Feast of Asclepius in Epidauros (Ion 530ab). In the dialogue as dramatized by Plato, Socrates ascertains that Ion is a specialist in Homer, to the exclusion of Hesiod and Archilochus (Ion 531a and 532a)—the implication being that there are other rhapsodes who specialize in these other poets. [9] Socrates and Ion then go on to discuss the different repertoires required for the rhapsodes’ recitation of Homer and Hesiod (see especially Ion 531a-d). In fact, Plato elsewhere presents Homer and Hesiod themselves as itinerant rhapsodes (Republic 600d). The examples could be multiplied, but the point is already clear; the proliferation of the Homeric and Hesiodic poems throughout Greece in the archaic period (and beyond) did not depend on the factor of writing. {38|39}


Milman Parry (left, 1902-1935) and Albert Lord (right, 1912-1991)

Even if Homer and Hesiod were meant to be heard in performance, not read, there are those who insist that writing was an essential factor at least in the composition and transmission of their poetry. Here we must turn to the study of oral poetry, as perfected by Milman Parry and Albert Lord. [10] The fieldwork of these scholars was based on the living poetic traditions of the South Slavic peoples, and the theories that were developed from their fieldwork were then tested on Homeric—and later on Hesiodic—poetry. [11] The findings of Parry and Lord have on occasion been viewed with suspicion by prominent Hellenists, who fear that the analogy between the typical South Slavic guslar and a Homer demeans the latter and overly exalts the former. This is to misunderstand the intellectual basis of fieldwork—and of anthropological research in general. The mechanics of living traditions, however lowly they may seem to Hellenists, can provide indispensable information for extensive typological comparison with those of other traditions, living or dead.

We learn from the experience of fieldwork that composition in oral poetry becomes reality only in performance, and that the poet’s interaction with his audience can directly affect the form and content of composition as well as of performance. Moreover, the actual workings of formulaic diction are to be ascertained directly in the dimension of performance—a dimension that is of course now extinct in the case of the Homeric and Hesiodic texts. In studying this factor of performance as reflected by the living South Slavic traditions, Parry and Lord worked out criteria of formulaic behavior that, when applied to the Homeric text, establish it, too, as oral poetry. For example, one reliable indication of oral poetry is the principle of economy as it operates on the level of each individual performance; each position in the verse tends to allow one way, rather than many ways, of saying any one thing. [12] As it turns out, this principle is at work in Homeric poetry as well, which suggests that the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey is also a matter of performance. [13] The principle of economy, as G. P. Edwards has demonstrated, [14]is also at work in Hesiodic poetry; moreover, both Homeric and Hesiodic poetry reveal parallel patterns of general adherence to and occasional deviation from this principle. [15]

If, then, the Homeric and Hesiodic poems are reflexes of oral poetry, we can in theory eliminate writing as a factor in the composition of these {39|40} poems, much as we have eliminated it as a factor in their performance. The absence of writing would suit, at least superficially, the findings of Parry and Lord: in the South Slavic traditions, oral poetry and literacy are incompatible. But now we have to reckon with a new problem, one raised by the study of oral poetry itself. The findings of Parry and Lord also suggest that composition and performance are aspects of the same process in oral poetry, and that no poet’s composition is ever identical even to his previous composition of the “same” poem at a previous performance, in that each performance entails a recomposition of the poet’s inherited material.

The problem, then, is this: how could the Homeric and Hesiodic poems survive unchanged into the historical period without the aid of writing? One solution is to posit that the poems were dictated by their illiterate composers. But we have already noted that the hypothetical existence of fixed texts in, say, the eighth century cannot by itself account for the proliferation of Homeric and Hesiodic poetry throughout the city-states. That process, as we have also noted, must be attributed long-range to the recurrent competitive performances of the poems over the years by rhapsodes at such events as pan-Hellenic festivals. Thus we must resort to positing the existence of early fixed texts only if the competing rhapsodes really needed to memorize written versions in order to perform, and for this there is no evidence.

On the contrary, there is evidence that the rhapsodes preserved in their performances certain aspects of poetic diction that would not have been written down in any early phase of the textual transmission. In the postclassical era of the Alexandrian scholars, when accentual notation was for the first time becoming canonical, it was observed that rhapsodes maintained in their recitations certain idiosyncratic accent patterns that did not match current pronunciation. [16] We now know from cognate accentual patterns in Indo-European languages other than Greek that these aspects of rhapsodic pronunciation are deeply archaic—surely the heritage of Homeric and Hesiodic diction. [17] To repeat, there seems no way for these patterns to be preserved textually from the archaic period, and we are left with the conclusion that the rhapsodes were much more than mere memorizers of texts.

True, the rhapsodes were not oral poets in the sense that this concept is defined by Parry and Lord on the basis of their fieldwork on South Slavic traditions; by the time of Plato rhapsodes seem to have been performers only, whereas the oral poet technically performs while he {40|41} composes, composes while he performs. Looking beyond Yugoslavia, however, we find oral poetic traditions in other cultures where the factor of performance has become separated from that of composition—as revealed, for example, in the Old Provençal contrast of trabador (composer) and joglar (performer). There are also oral traditions, like those of the Somali, where composition may precede performance without any aid of writing. These and other examples are discussed in Ruth Finnegan’s Oral Poetry, [18] which is useful for its adjustments on the Parry-Lord theories, though it sometimes confuses oral poetry with the kind of free-associative improvisations that mark certain types of modern poetry in the West.

“Improvise” is a particularly pernicious word when applied to traditional oral poetry—including that of Homer and Hesiod. An oral poet in a traditional society does not “make things up,” since his function is to re-create the inherited values of those for whom he composes/performs. As perhaps the most striking available example, I cite the Vedas of the Indic peoples—a vast body of sacred poems displaying the strictest imaginable regulation in form as well as content—and formalizing the ideology of the priestly class without perceptible change for well over two millennia. It should be added that, despite the availability of writing, the authority of the Vedas to this day abides in the spoken word, not in any written text. Moreover, the Vedas have been transmitted unchanged, as a fixed “text,” for all these years by way of mnemonic techniques that had been part of the oral tradition. [19] Given the authority of the Homeric and Hesiodic poems by the time they surface in the historical period of Greece, it is not unreasonable to suppose that their rhapsodic transmission entailed comparable mnemonic efforts—which need not have required writing at all. In theory, though, written texts of the Homeric and Hesiodic poems could have been generated at any time—in fact, many times—during the lengthy phase of rhapsodic transmission.

The Vedas are ancient Sanskrit texts of Hinduism. Above: Image of Codex Cashmiriensis folio 187a from Atharva-Veda Saṁhitā second half, by William Dwight Whitney and Charles Rockwell Lanman. / Wikimedia Commons

In the case of Homeric and Hesiodic poetry, composition and proliferation need not have been separate factors. It is not as if a composition had to evolve into perfection before it was disseminated throughout the city-states. Rather, in view of the pan-Hellenic status ultimately achieved by the Homeric and Hesiodic poems, it is more likely that their composition and proliferation were combined factors. These poems, it appears, represent the culmination of compositional trends that were reaching their ultimate form, from the eighth century onward, in the context of competitive performances at pan-Hellenic festivals and other {41|42} such events. By way of countless such performances for over two centuries, each recomposition at each successive performance could become less and less variable. Such gradual crystallization into what became set poems would have been a direct response to the exigencies of a pan-Hellenic audience. [20]

Recalling the testimony of Herodotus and others to the effect that Homer and Hesiod provide a systematization of values common to all Greeks, we may go so far as to say that “Homer” and “Hesiod” are themselves the cumulative embodiment of this systematization—the ultimate poetic response to pan-Hellenic audiences from the eighth century onward. An inevitable consequence of such evolution from compositional trends to set poems is that the original oral poet, who composes while he performs and performs while he composes, evolves with the passage of time into a mere performer. We must not be too quick to dismiss the importance of the rhapsode, however: he must have been a master of mnemonic techniques inherited directly from oral poets. Even in such minute details as accentual patterns, as we have seen, he preserved the heritage of a genuine oral poet. The etymology of rhapsōidós ‘stitcher of songs’ reveals a traditional conceit of the oral poet as overtly expressed by the poet himself in cognate Indo-European poetic traditions. [21] There is, then, no demotion implicit in the formal distinction between rhapsōidós and aoidós ‘singer’—which is the word used by the Homeric and Hesiodic poems to designate the genuinely oral poet. [22] It is simplistic and even misleading to contrast, as many have done, the “creative” aoidós with the “reduplicating” rhapsōidós. We must keep in mind that even the traditional oral poet does not really “create” in the modern sense of authorship; rather, he re-creates for his listeners the inherited values that serve as foundations for their society. Even the narrative of epic, as we have noted, is a vehicle for re-creating traditional values, with a set program that will not deviate in the direction of personal invention, away from the traditional plots known and expected by the audience. [23] If, then, the aoidósis an upholder of such set poetic ways, he is not so far removed from the rhapsōidós as from the modern concept of “poet.”

The more significant difference between aoidós and rhapsōidós lies in the nature of their respective audiences. The rhapsōidós, as we have seen, recites the Homeric or Hesiodic poems to Hellenes at large—to listeners from various city-states who congregate at events like pan-Hellenic {42|43} festivals—and what he recites remains unchanged as he travels from city to city. On the other hand, the typical aoidós as portrayed in, say, the Odyssey (ix 3-11) sings to a strictly local community. As the studies of Wilhelm Radloff concerning the oral poetry of the Kirghiz peoples have made clear, the oral poet in a local situation will of course adjust his composition/performance to the nature of his audience. For example, the presence of rich and distinguished members of society will prompt the Kirghiz akyn ‘poet’ to introduce episodes reflecting traditions that glorify their families. [24] Now, the local audiences of Greece in the eighth century must have challenged the poet with a veritable kaleidoscope of repertoires; each city would have had its own poetic traditions, often radically different from those of other cities. We have a reference to the regional variety of poetic repertoires in the Iliad (XX 249). [25] Moreover, even the traditions of any given city could change radically with successive changes in population or government; the genre of ktísis ‘foundation’ poetry seems particularly vulnerable. [26]

The obvious dilemma of the oral poet is that each of the various local traditions in his repertoire will have validity only when it is performed in the appropriate locale. With the surge of intercommunication among the cities from the eighth century onward, the horizons for the poet’s travels would continually expand, and thus the regional differences between one audience and the next would become increasingly pronounced. The greater the regional differences, the greater the gap between what one community and another would hold to be true. What was held to be true by the inhabitants of one place may well have been false to those of another. What is true and false will keep shifting as the poet travels from place to place, and he may even resort to using alternative traditions as a foil for the one that he is re-creating for his audience. This device is still reflected in Homeric Hymn 1, where the poet declares in his prayer to Dionysus that the god was not born in Drakanos or in Ikaria or in Naxos or by the banks of the Alpheios or even in Thebes (verses 1-5), and that those who claim any of these proveniences are pseudómenoi ‘lying’ (6); he goes on to say that the god was really born at the mountain Nyse (6-9; compare Hymn 26.5). The localization of this Nyse is a separate problem, and the point now is simply that various legitimate local traditions are here being discounted as false in order to legitimize the one tradition that is acceptable to the poet’s audience. {43|44}

2nd-century Roman statue of Dionysus, after a Hellenistic model (ex-coll. Cardinal Richelieu, Louvre, Paris) / Wikimedia Commons

There is a parallel poetic device that inaugurates the Theogony of Hesiod, at verses 22-34, which we will understand only by first examining the testimony of Homeric poetry about poetry itself. In the Odyssey Odysseus himself tells stories like an oral poet who has to keep adjusting his composition/performance to the exigencies of his diverse audiences, [27] and in such contexts the resourceful hero is explicitly likened to a poet (xi 368, xviii 518). It is in the manner of a poet that he tells his “Cretan lies” (compare xvii 514, 518-521). As he finishes telling one such Cretan tale to Penelope, Odysseus is described in these words:

ἴσκε ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγων ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα

Odyssey xix 203

He spoke, assimilating many falsehoods [pseúdea] to make them look like genuine things.

Earlier, Eumaios had described other wanderers who, just as the disguised wanderer Odysseus is doing now, would come to Penelope with stories about Odysseus that are calculated to raise her hopes:

ἀλλ’ ἄλλως κομιδῆς κεχρημένοι ἄνδρες ἀλῆται
ψεύδοντ’, οὐδ’ ἐθέλουσιν ἀληθέα μυθήσασθαι

Odyssey 124-125

It’s no use! Wanderers in need of food
are liars [pseúdontai], and they are unwilling to tell true things [alēthéa mūthḗsasthai].

Odysseus himself fits this description: before telling his major tale of the Odyssey in the court of Alkinoos, he asks the king to let him eat first, since his gastḗr ‘belly’ is making him forget his tales of woe until it is filled with food (vii 215-221). Such a gambit would be typical of an oral poet who is making sure that he gets an appropriate preliminary reward for entertaining his audience.[28]

The root for ‘forget’ in this last passage is lēth– (lēthánei vii 221), the functional opposite of mnē– ‘remember, have in mind’, a root that can also mean ‘have the mnemonic powers of a poet’ in the diction of archaic poetry. Mnēmosúnē ‘Memory’, mother of the Muses (Theogony 54, 135, 915), is the very incarnation of such powers. The conventional {44|45} designation of poetic powers by mnē– has been documented by Marcel Détienne, who also shows that the word alēthḗs ‘true’ is thus originally a double-negative expression of truth by way of poetry. [29] The wanderers who are described in the passage above as being unwilling to tell the truth, alēthéa mūthḗsasthai, are cast in the mold of an oral poet who compromises poetic truth for the sake of his own survival. Similarly in the court of Alkinoos, Odysseus as poet is implicitly threatening to withhold the truth of poetry by explicitly blaming his gastḗr ‘belly’. [30]

With these passages in mind, we come finally to Theogony 22-34, retelling Hesiod’s encounter with the Muses. These goddesses, as daughters of Mnēmosúnē ‘Memory’, not only confer the mnemonic powers of poetry on the poet of the Theogonybut also offer to endow his poetry with truth, as they themselves announce to him:

ποιμένες ἄγραυλοι, κάκ’ ἐλέγχεα, γαστέρες οἶον,
ἴδμεν ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγειν ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα,
ἴδμεν δ’, εὖτ’ ἐθέλωμεν, ἀληθέα γηρύσασθαι

Theogony 26-28

Shepherds living in the fields, base objects of reproach, mere bellies [gastéres]!
We know how to say many falsehoods [pseúdea] that look like genuine things,
but we can also, whenever we are willing, proclaiming things [alēthéa mūthḗsasthai].

“Truth,” which itinerant would-be oral poets are “unwilling” to tell because of their need for survival (oud’ ethélousin at Odysseyxiv 124-125), may be “willingly” conferred by the Muses (ethélōmen). We see here what can be taken as a manifesto of pan-Hellenic poetry, in that the poet Hesiod is to be freed from being a mere “belly”—one who owes his survival to his local audience with its local traditions; all such local traditions are pseúdea ‘falsehoods’ in face of the alēthéa ‘true things’ that the Muses impart specially to Hesiod. The conceit inherent in the pan-Hellenic poetry of Hesiod is that this overarching tradition is capable of achieving something that is beyond the reach of individual local traditions. As in the Homeric Hymn 1 to Dionysus, the mutually incompatible traditions of various locales are rejected as falsehoods, in favor of one single tradition that can be acceptable to all. In the case of Hymn 1 this {45|46} goal seems to be achieved by assigning the remotest imaginable traditional place of birth to the god (Nyse is pictured as “near the streams of Aigyptos,” verse 9). In the case of the Theogony we see this sort of process in a global dimension: the many local theogonies of the various city-states are to be superseded by one grand Olympian scheme.

As we have noted already, the Olympus of Hesiodic and Homeric poetry is a pan-Hellenic construct that elevates the gods beyond their localized attributes. It is a historical fact about Greece in the archaic period that whatever can be classified as religious practice or ideology was confined to the local level, and a survey of the attested evidence, as gleaned from sources like Tansanias or epichoric inscriptions, reveals clearly that each city had a very distinct pattern of cults. A given god as worshiped in one city could be radically different from a god bearing the same name as he was worshiped in another city.

Mount Olympus / Photo by stefg74, Wikimedia Commons

Under these circumstances, the evolution of most major gods from most major cities into the integrated family at Olympus amounts to a synthesis that is not just artistic but also political, comparable with the evolution of the pan-Hellenic games known as the Olympics, another crucial phenomenon originating in the eighth century. As in any political process, the evolution of the pan-Hellenic poems would afford some victories and many concessions on the part of each region; some one salient local feature of a god may become accepted by all audiences, while countless other features that happen to contradict the traditions of other cities will remain unspoken. For example, Cythera and Cyprus may well be recognized as places that the newborn Aphrodite first visited (the narrative specifies that she did so in that order, see Theogony 192-193), but very little else about their local lore will ever come to the surface in Hesiodic and Homeric poetry.

The oral poet as represented by the poetry itself is one who can sing both epics and theogonies, as we learn in this description of the poetic repertory of Phemios:

ἔργ’ ἀνδρῶν τε θεῶν τε, τά τε κλείουσιν ἀοιδοί

Odyssey i 338

the deeds of men and gods, upon which the singers confer glory [kléos]

So also in this description of a generic poet:

αὐτὰρ ἀοιδὸς
Μουσάων θεράπων κλεῖα προτέρων ανθρώπων {46|47}
ὑμνήσει μάκαράς τε θεοὺς οἳ Ὄλυμπον ἔχουσιν

Theogony 99-101

But when a poet,
attendant [therápōnof the Muse sings the glories [kléos plural] of earlier men
and the blessed gods who hold Olympus.

In view of the diversity that existed among the cities, an oral poet would have needed for his repertoire a staggering variety of traditions for composing epics and theogonies, which could in the end be rejected as pseúdea ‘falsehoods’ by the poets of the ultimate epic and ultimate theogony, Homer and Hesiod. Pan-Hellenic poetry can still tell us how an actual epic was being composed by Phemios in the Odyssey (i 326-327), or how Hermes composed a theogony for Apollo in the Hymn to Hermes(425-433). Yet such pan-Hellenic poetry, ascribed to the ultimate poets, is itself no longer oral poetry in the strict sense: it is being performed by rhapsodes. In the case of the Homeric poems, the compositions have even become too long for any single performance. [31] Moreover, oral poetry, at least in the form represented by the medium itself, has not survived. The emergence of a monumental marvel like the uniquely “truthful” and pan-Hellenic Theogony of Hesiod from among countless “deceitful” and local theogonies of oral poets entails not only the crystallation of the one but also the extinction of the many.

Hesiod, Poet of the Theogony

Fourteenth-century Greek manuscript of Hesiod’s Theogony with scholia written in the margins / Biblioteca Marciana, Gr. 464, fol. 158v

It would be simplistic to assume that the “truth” of the Muses about the genesis of all the gods the Greeks have in common would ever be conferred upon just any poet. Hesiod’s Theogony in fact presents its composer as the ultimate poet. The very name Hēsíodos at Theogony 22 means something like ‘he who emits the Voice’. The root *i̯eh1– of Hēsi– recurs in the expression óssan hieîsai ’emitting a [beautiful/immortal/lovely] voice’, describing the Muses themselves at Theogony10/43/65/67, while the root *h2uod- of –odos recurs as *h2ud- in audḗ ‘voice’, designating the power of poetry conferred by the Muses upon the poet at Theogony 31. [32] {47|48} In this way Hēsíodos embodies the poetic function of the very Muses who give him his powers. [33]

Also, the generic poet’s epithet, “therápōn [attendant] of the Muses” (Theogony 100), literally identifies Hesiod with these divinities and implicitly entails not only his ritual death but also his subsequent worship as cult hero. [34] The poetic word therápōn, conventionally translated as ‘attendant’, is apparently borrowed from an Anatolian word, attested as Hittite tarpan-alli– ‘ritual substitute’. [35] We may compare the generic warrior’s epithet, “therápōn [attendant] of Ares” (Iliad II 110, VI 67, for instance), which identifies the hero with the god of war at the moment of his death. [36] Although the Homeric poems offer little direct testimony about the cults of dead warriors, they reveal extensive indirect references to the ideology of hero cults. The actual evidence for the existence of hero cults in the eighth century and thereafter comes from archaeology, [37] and there is reason to believe that the historically attested cults of the Homeric heroes are no mere reflex of Homeric poetry; rather, both the cults and the poetry represent interacting aspects of a broader phenomenon. [38] By the same token, it appears that an ideology reflecting the cult of the poet Hesiod is built into the poetry of Hesiod. [39]

This statement would of course be an absurdity were it not for the fact that the very identity of Hesiod within his poetry is consistently determined by the traditions that are the foundation of this poetry. As we are about to see time and again, the persona of Hesiod as reflected by his poetry is purely generic, not historical. This is not to say that Hesiod is a fiction: his personality, as it functions within his poetry, is just as traditional as the poetry itself, and he is no more a fiction than any other aspect of Hesiodic poetry. [40] A word more suitable than “fiction” is “myth”—provided we understand genuine mythmaking to be a traditional expression of a given social group’s concept of truth. [41] {48|49}

Of course, Hesiodic poetry refers to itself not as the gradual evolution of poetic traditions into compositions on a pan-Hellenic scale but, rather, as the one-time creation of one ultimate poet whose self-identification with the Muses, for him both a bane and a blessing, makes him a cult hero. Besides the poet’s name and the epithet “therápōn of the Muses,” the most striking sign of Hesiod’s stance as hero is dramatized in the scene describing his first encounter with the Muses. The goddesses are antagonistic to the poet’s local origins but aid him anyway by transforming his repertoire from localized “falsehoods” into the “truth” that all Hellenes can accept; they give Hesiod a skêptron ‘staff, scepter’ as an emblem of his transformation from shepherd to poet (Theogony 30).

This narrative is typical of traditional Greek myths that motivate the cult of a poet as hero. In the Life of Archilochus tradition, for example, the diffusion of which can be historically connected with the actual cult of Archilochus as hero on his native island of Paros from the archaic period onward, [42] we find another story about the poet and the Muses. The paraphrase that follows is from the Mnesiepes Inscription (Archilochus T 4 Tarditi). On a moonlit night young Archilochus is driving a cow toward the city from a countryside region of Paros known as the Leimȏnes ‘Meadows’ when he comes upon some seemingly rustic women, whom he proceeds to antagonize with mockery. [43] The disguised Muses respond playfully to his taunts and ask him to trade away his cow. Agreeing to do so if the price is right, Archilochus straightaway falls into a swoon. When he awakens, the rustic women are gone, and so, too, is the cow; but in its place Archilochus finds a lyre that he takes home as an emblem of his transformation from cowherd to poet.

The similarities between Archilochus and Hesiod extend further. As a clue, we note that the epithet “therápōn of the Muses” is applied to Archilochus precisely in the context of the story retelling the poet’s death (Delphic Oracle 4 PW). Then again, just as Archilochus was worshiped as cult hero in his native Paros, so was Hesiod in Askra—until his homeland was obliterated by the neighboring city of Thespiai, and the reputed remains of the poet were transferred by the refugees from Askra to a new cult precinct at Orkhomenos, a rival of Thespiai (Aristotle Constitution of the Orkhomenians F 565 Rose; Plutarch by way of Proclus commentary). According to another tradition, contradicting the one emanating from Orkhomenos (Plutarch Banquet of the Seven Sages 162c), Hesiod was {49|50} buried and venerated as hero in the cult precinct of Zeus Nemeìos at Oineon in Ozolian Lokris (Contest of Homer and Hesiod p. 234 Allen; cf. Thucydides 3.96). [44] In the myth that serves to validate this tradition, the murdered poet’s corpse is said to have been originally cast into the sea, only to be carried ashore on the third day by dolphins (Contest of Homer and Hesiod p. 234.229-236 Allen)—a narrative scheme that is particularly appropriate to a cult hero in whose honor a festival is founded, as in the case of Melikertes and the Isthmian Games. [45]

In short, the lore about Hesiod fits a general pattern that is characteristic of a local cult hero. [46] The parallelism of Hesiod and Archilochus in this regard becomes even more noteworthy. The local cult of Archilochus at Paros, as we have seen, is the actual source of the myth about the poet’s transformation from cowherd into poet. In the case of Hesiod’s transformation from shepherd into poet, however, the myth is built into the Theogony itself. Since the hero cult of Hesiod is just as much a historical fact as the cult of Archilochus, and since both these cults are deeply archaic in nature, it is possible that the Hesiodic cult is ultimately a locus of diffusion for the Hesiodic poems, just as the Archilochean cult seems to be for the Archilochean vita.

Moreover, the Archilochean vita tradition may well have been the actual context for the preservation of Archilochean poetry itself, with a narrative superstructure about the poet’s life serving as a frame for “quoting” the poet’s poems; there is a comparable pattern of “quoting” Aesop’s fables in the Life of Aesop tradition. [47] This arrangement is in fact suggested by the format of the Mnesiepes Inscription (Archilochus T 4 Tarditi), the Parian document that proclaims the hero cult of Archilochus and then proceeds to tell the story of his life (starting with the incident of the cow and the lyre). Granted, this document is late (third century B.C.) and may reflect literary mannerisms characteristic of the Hellenistic era. It is also true that the genre of any archaic poet’s vita in general tends to degenerate—from traditional narratives that are parallel to the poems into what can only be called fictions that are arbitrarily derived from the poems. [48] Still, the program of the Mnesiepes Inscription is to document and motivate cult practices in a sacred precinct that {50|51} is actually named after Archilochus (the Arkhilókheion), and in such an ancestral religious context invention seems out of the question.

A small papyrus scrap first published in 1908 which is derived from the same ancient manuscript of Archilochus that yielded the most recent discovery (P.Oxy. VI 854, 2nd century CE). / B.P. Grenfell & A.S. Hunt, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri: Part VI (London: The Egypt Exploration Fund, 1908)

The relevance of this information about Archilochus to Hesiod becomes clear when we consider the name of the man to whom Apollo is said to have given the command to institute the hero cult of Archilochus: Mnēsi-épēs, meaning ‘he who remembers the word(s) [épos]’. It seems as if the foundation of the poet’s cult goes hand in hand with remembering the poet’s words. [49] Given the historical fact that the poems of Archilochus, like those of Homer and Hesiod, were recited at public competitions by rhapsodes (Athenaeus 620c, Clearchus F 92 Wehrli, Plato Ion 531a and 532a), we may envision a pattern of evolution parallel to that of the Homeric and Hesiodic poems. In other words, the oral poetic traditions of Paros could eventually have become crystallized into a fixed collection of poems retrojected as creations of the ultimate poet Archilochus and disseminated by way of rhapsodic transmission in the context of the poet’s hero cult. We may directly compare the Homērídai ‘sons of Homer’ (Strabo 14.1.33-35 C 645; Pindar Nemean 2.1, with scholia; Plato Phaedrus 252b; Contest of Homer and Hesiod p. 226.13-15 Allen)[50] and the Kreōphuleîoi ‘sons of Kreophulos’ (Strabo 14.1.18 C638; cf. Callimachus Epigram 6 Pfeiffer), [51] organizations of reciters whose very names imply that their “founding fathers” were cult heroes. [52]

In this connection a brief word is in order about a pan-Hellenic tendency inherent in all archaic Greek poetry—not just the Homeric and Hesiodic. It is a historical fact that each major poetic genre in the archaic period tends to appropriate the surface structure of a single dialect to the exclusion of all others. For example, the elegiac poetic of even the Doric areas is characterized by Ionic diction, as we see in the poems of Theognis of Megara and Tyrtaeus of Sparta; conversely, the diction of choral lyric will be a synthetic form of Doric even for Ionic poets like Simonides and Bacchylides.

Before we consider any further the evolution of the local Boeotian poetic traditions of Hesiod into the Ionic hexameters of the pan-Hellenic Theogony, it is instructive to ask this related question: why should the local Doric traditions of a city like Megara evolve into the Ionic elegiacs of a Theognis? The answer is given by the poetry itself: {51|52} the goal of this poetry, the poet says, is to be heard by all Hellenes everywhere (Theognis 22-23, 237-254). It seems as if such a goal can be reached only with the evolution of the local poetry into a form that is performable at pan-Hellenic events. In the case of the elegiac, that form would be Ionic. And such evolution entails, again, the eventual crystallization of oral poetic traditions into the kind of fixed poems that are the repertoire of rhapsodes. Who, then, is the poet? As we shall observe in the next section, Theognis too—like Archilochus and other masters of lyric—may be considered an idealized creation of the poetry in which he has an integral function—and which he is credited with creating.

There is an important difference, however, between the poems of a Hesiod, on the one hand, and of a Theognis or an Archilochus, on the other. The difference is one of degree: these three figures, among others, seemingly have in common an intent to address all Hellenes, but Hesiod has far more authority than all the other poets. A Theognis or an Archilochus speaks from the perspective of his own city, though the localized aspects of the city are shaded over and the pan-Hellenic aspects are highlighted. In the case of Hesiod, however, the perspective is meant to be that of all cities. This transcendence is of course facilitated by the historical fact that the figure of Hesiod has no native city to claim him, since Askra was destroyed by Thespiai. Because Askra is no more, its traditions need not infringe on those of other cides. By allowing Hesiod to speak as a native of Askra, the pan-Hellenic tradition is in effect making him a native of all Greek cities, as we shall see in our survey of the Works and Days. The Theogony, too, expresses this transcendence, in two interrelated ways: the form in which the Muses are invoked and the nature of the gift that they confer on Hesiod.

We begin with the second. Whereas the mark of Archilochus’ transformation from cowherd to poet in his nighttime encounter with the Muses is a lyre, Hesiod’s transformation from shepherd to poet in his likewise nighttime encounter (Theogony 10) is marked by their gift of a skêptron ‘staff, scepter’ (verse 30). There has been much fruitless debate over such questions as whether this gift implies that Hesiod had not learned how to play the lyre, and not enough attention has been paid to the implications of the word skêptron as it is actually used in archaic poetry. The skêptron is a staff held by kings (Iliad I 279, II 86), by Chryses as priest of Apollo (I 15, 28), by Teiresias as prophet (Odyssey xi 90), by kḗrūkes ‘heralds’ (Iliad VII 277), or generally by one who stands up to speak in the agorā́ ‘assembly’ (Iliad 218, XXIII 568). [53] {52|53}

Perhaps the most revealing example of such an agorā́ is in the Iliad (XVIII 497), where it is presented as the context of an archetypal neîkos ‘quarrel’ (497) visualized on that timeless microcosm of a frozen motion picture, the Shield of Achilles. [54] While the two nameless litigants are seen formally quarreling with one another, partisans of each side shout their preferences (Iliad XVIII 502), and each of the seated gérontes ‘elders’ at the assembly waits for his turn to stand up with skêptron in hand and speak in favor of one side or the other (XVIII 505-506). As each elder speaks, taking the staff from the attending heralds, he is described as rendering díkē ‘judgment/justice’ (XVIII 506); moreover, a prize awaits the one who ‘speaks díkē in he most straight manner’ (XVIII 508).

Such an elder is the equivalent of the generic basileús ‘king’ as described in the Theogony (80-93). Moreover, the king’s function of speaking díkē at the agorā́ ‘assembly’ is in fact a gift of the Muses, as the Theogony itself tells us. The just king is imbued, from childhood on, by the Muses (Theogony 81-84), and he decides what is thémis ‘divine law’ (85) byway of ‘straight díkē (plural)’ (86)—in the context of the agorā́ ‘assembly’ (ἀγορεύων 86, ἀγορῆφι 89, ἀγρομένοισιν 92).

The Dance of the Muses at Mount Helicon by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1807). Hesiod cites inspiration from the Muses while on Mount Helicon. / Alte Nationalgalerie via Wikimedia Commons

In sum, the skêptron given to Hesiod by the Muses indicates that the poet will speak with the authority of a king—an authority that emanates from Zeus himself (Theogony 96; Iliad I 238-239, IX 97-99). The point is, just as Zeus has authority over all other gods, so also the poet who formalizes this authority by telling how it all happened thereby implicitly has authority over all other poets.

Next we turn to the invocation of the Muses in the Theogony. Our first impression may be that Hesiod might not fit the image of a poet whose authority transcends that of all other poets. He is situated in Askra (Works and Days 640), a remote Boeotian settlement at the foot of Mount Helikon, which in turn is described as the local cult place of the Muses (Theogony 1-7). Such a localization, as well as the poet’s self-identification as Hesiod, has conventionally been interpreted as a primitive assertion of individualism in contrast with Homer’s elevated anonymity.

This is to misunderstand the inherited conventions of the Theogony. As we can see from the theogony performed by Hermes himself to the accompaniment of his lyre in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes 425-433, the traditional format of such a composition is that of a prelude (the Classical Greek word for which is prooímion). There is considerable internal {53|54} evidence for this format in the actual words used by poetry in referring to it. [55] A prominent example is the expression amboládēn ‘playing a prelude’ in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes 426. It is crucial to note that the Homeric Hymns, including the Hymn to Hermes, are also preludes (thus Thucydides at 3.104.4 refers to the Homeric Hymn to Apollo as a prooímion). The conventional closure of the Hymnsmetabḗsomai állon es húmnon (as at Hymn to Aphrodite 293), literally means ‘I will move on to the rest of my song’ (not ‘to another hymn’, as most translators render it). [56] The rest of a performance introduced by a prelude may be technically any poetic/musical form, but the one form that is specified by the Homeric Hymns themselves is the érga/érgmata ‘deeds’ of heroes (Hymn 31.19, 32.19)—which would be some form of epic (cf. kléa phōtôn … | hēmithéōn ‘glories [kléos plural] of men who were demigods’ at Hymn 32.18-19) or catalogue poetry (cf. génos andrôn | hēmithéōn ‘genesis of men who were demigods’ at Hymn 31.18-19).

Still, the fact is that the Iliad and the Odyssey have survived without any fixed preludes, although the availability of such preludes is documented by Crates of Pergamon (Vita Homeri Romana p. 32 Wilamowitz). The prelude is the prime context—practically the only context—for the archaic poet to identify himself, speak in his own persona, and describe the circumstances of his performance (cf. Theognis 22; Alcman PMG 39); even in choral lyric it is the prelude in which the first person is more appropriate to the poet than to the chorus. Thus the notorious distinction, claimed by generations of scholars, between Hesiodic self-identification and Homeric anonymity is invalid—if indeed the self-identification of Hesiod is happening within a prelude. Moreover, the self-identification of Homer is attested in another genuine prelude, the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (166-176). [57]

The proposition that the Theogony can be classified, from a purely formal point of view, as a complex prelude that invokes all the gods can be tested by adducing the larger Homeric Hymns as simplex preludes, each of which invokes one god. Admittedly these Hymns are unwieldy as functional preludes precisely because of their sheer size, and there may well be an element of ars gratia artis in their evolution. Since preludes traditionally appear in a variety of metrical forms, [58] the fact that the Homeric {54|55} Hymns were composed in hexameter suggests that they were closely affected by the specific form of the epic poetry that they preceded; moreover, if the epic compositions were to evolve into monumental size, then so could the preludes that introduced the epic performances. Despite the monumental size of the larger Hymns, however, the point remains that they maintain the traditional program of a functional prelude, one that is worthy of pan-Hellenic performance. This program can be divided into five stages:

  1. The invocation proper; naming of the god.
  2. Application of the god’s epithets, conveying either explicitly or implicitly his/her efficacy on the local level of cult.
  3. A description of the god’s ascent to Olympus, whereby he/she achieved pan-Hellenic recognition.
  4. A prayer to the god that he/she be pleased with the recognition that has been accorded him/her so far in the performance.
  5. Transition to the rest of the performance.

These fives stages may or may not be explicit in any given Hymn. For instance, in the shorter Hymn to Hermes (18.5-9) the admission of Hermes as an Olympian god (stage 3) is suggested by way of mentioning the delay of his admission during the confinement of Maia in her cave; in the longer Hymn to Hermes (4.5-9), by contrast, the closely corresponding mention of this delay is followed by a lengthy narrative that elaborates on the god’s subsequent admission. This narrative in the longer Hymntakes us all the way to verse 578, where we finally reach stage 4; by contrast, stage 4 in the shorter Hymn To Hermes is reached by verse 10.

Such an example of extreme length and brevity in two Homeric Hymns to the same god, achieved by expansion and compression, respectively (the mechanics of both phenomena are a clear indication of oral poetics), [59] can be compared with the length of the Theogony and the brevity of Homeric Hymn 25. Technically, both Hymn 25 and the Theogony are hymns to the Muses, and the first six hexameters of the seven-hexameter prelude have direct formal analogues in the longer:

  • Hymn 25.1          Theogony 1
  • Hymn 25.2-5       Theogony 94-97
  • Hymn 25.6          Theogony 963 {55|56}

Whereas the short hymn is a simplex prelude that motivates the genesis of the Muses, the long hymn is a complex prelude that first motivates the genesis of the Muses, who are then invoked to motivate the genesis of all the gods, which is the theogony proper. But from verse 964 onward, the Theogony is no longer formally a theogony, in that the subject matter shifts from the theôn génos ‘genesis of gods’ (as at Theogony 44, 105; cf. 115) to the genesis of demigods born of gods who mated with mortals (cf. Theogony 965-968); the latter theme, which amounts to catalogue poetry about heroes and heroines, is actually expressed as génos andrôn | hēmithéōn ‘genesis of men who were demigods’ at Homeric Hymn 31.18-19—a theme to which Hymn 31 announces itself as a formal prelude.

The nine muses on a Roman sarcophagus (second century AD) / Photo by Jastrow, Louvre, Paris, Wikimedia Commons

To repeat, verses 1-963 of the Theogony are from the standpoint of form a hymn to the Muses, serving as a prelude to the catalogue of heroes and heroines that survives at verses 965-1020 of the Theogony—and that interconnects with Hesiod fragment 1 MW. [60] The significant modification in this hymn to the Muses is that it becomes primarily a monumental hymn to Zeus and all the Olympian gods; thus at stage 4, where the poet may be expected to pray that the Muses be pleased with what has been composed so far, he in fact prays to win the pleasure of all the Olympians generated in his Theogony.

Thus verses 1-963 of the Theogony are not a single, but rather a composite, hymn in comparison with most Homeric Hymns. The hymn proper is at verses 36-103, culminating at 104 in a separate stage 4 in which the poet prays exclusively to the Muses; then, starting at verse 105, the expected stage 5 of transition (to whatever composition might follow the prelude) is implicitly postponed and replaced by a reapplied hymn to the Muses running all the way to verse 962, followed at last by a reapplied but cumulative stage 4 at verse 963. We may compare Hymn to Apollo 165-166, a stage 4 appropriate to Apollo as he is worshiped in the pan-Ionian context of his birthplace Delos: the poet first prays to Apollo and then greets the Deliades, a chorus of female singers/dancers [61] who seem to be a local manifestation of the Muses, with a formula that elsewhere conveys a stage 4 prayer. Then, at verses 177-178, the expected stage 5 of transition is explicitly postponed and followed at verses 179-544 by a reapplied hymn to Apollo as he is worshiped in the pan-Hellenic context of his abode at Delphi; there is a reapplied stage 4 at verse 545, where the poet again prays to Apollo, followed at last by the stage 5 of transition at verse 546. {56|57}

In the case of the Theogony, verses 105-962 amount to an expanded variant of the compressed hymn at verses 36-103, just as verses 179-544 in the Hymn to Apollo amount to an expanded variant of the compressed hymn at verses 1-165. There is an important formal difference, however, between the compressed version at verses 36-103 of the Theogony and the expanded version of verses 105-962: whereas both are simultaneously a prelude and a theogony—just like the composition performed by Hermes in Hymn to Hermes 425-433—the compressed version is more of a prelude and the expanded version is more of a theogony.

The expanded version is the Theogony proper, told by Hesiod in his own persona and “retelling” what the Muses had told him. The compressed version, on the other hand, is told only indirectly: in this case the theogony related by the Muses to Hesiod is merely paraphrased, as it were, in the context of describing what the goddesses sang as they went tip to Mount Olympus.

Verses 1-21 of the Theogony present yet another indirect version (thus there are altogether three versions of theogony in the Theogony). Here, too, the theogony related by the Muses is paraphrased, this first time in the context of describing what the goddesses sang as they came down from Mount Helikon. In this version the Muses are invoked as Helikonian (Theogony 1-2), not Olympian as everywhere else in the Theogony. Moreover, the thematic order of the Muses’ theogony, which they sing and dance (Theogony 3-4) as they come down from the summit of Mount Helikon, is the inverse of what they sing and dance (Theogony 70) as they go up to the summit of Mount Olympus (which is stage 3 in the program of a pan-Hellenic hymn).

In the first theogony, at Theogony 11-20, the Muses are described as starting their narrative with Olympian Zeus (11) and moving their way “down” from the other Olympian gods—Hera, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Poseidon (11-15)—all the way to the previous divine generations (16-19) and then to the primordial forces, Earth, Okeanos, Night (20). These same Muses, after they encounter Hesiod at the fool of Mount Helikon, are described in the second theogony (Theogony 36-52) as starting their narrative with Earth/Sky (45) and moving their way “up” to the Olympian gods, culminating with Zeus himself (47; the word deúteron ‘next’ here denotes merely the order of this theogony and therefore does not slight the importance of Zeus). It is important that this narrative direction of the Muses’ second theogony, which determines the direction of Hesiod’s third and definitive theogony at verses 105-962, corresponds to stage 3 in the program of a pan-Hellenic hymn, the ascent to Olympus of the divinity who is being praised.

We see here a transformation of the Muses from local goddesses on Mount Helikon into pan-Hellenic goddesses on Mount Olympus. As {57|58} they start their way down the slopes of Helikon, they are described as énthen apornúmenai ‘starting from there’ at Theogony 9—corresponding to énthen apornúmenos (same meaning) at Hymn to Apollo 29, where the verse goes on to proclaim the transformation of Apollo from lord of his native Delos into lord of all mankind. In their local setting the singing and dancing Helikonian Muses resemble the Deliades of the Hymn to Apollo. Like the Muses (for example, Hymn to Apollo 189-190), the Deliades are Apollo’s attendants (157), and the poet seems to be praying to them and Apollo together at stage 4 of his hymn (177-178). Further, the Deliades, too, seem to sing and dance (cf. khorós at Thucydides 3.104.5; cf. also Euripides Herakles 687-690); it is as if the performances of the Helikonian Muses and the Deliades were envisioned as lyric rather than hexameter poetry.

Moreover, the relationship of Hesiod to the Helikonian Muses parallels the relationship of Homer to the Deliades (the Hymn to Apollo unmistakably claims Homer as its composer). [62] The self-dramatized encounter of Homer with the Deliades leads to the poet’s promise that he will spread their kléos ‘glory’ by mentioning them in his poetry as he travels throughout the cities of mankind (Hymn to Apollo 174-175; compare verse 156, where this kléos is already presented as a fait accompli); in other words, the Deliades will have a place in pan-Hellenic poetry. [63] Similarly, the encounter of Hesiod with the Helikonian Muses leads to the poet’s glorifying them with the Theogony, which is technically a pan-Hellenic hymn to the Muses; in this way the local goddesses of Helikon are assimilated into the pan-Hellenic goddesses of Olympus.

Ascent on Mountain Helikon / Photo by Constantinos GOFAS, Wikimedia Commons

We may also compare Hermes’ miniature theogony as paraphrased in the Hymn to Hermes 425-433; this theogony is technically a hymn to the mother of the Muses, Mnēmosúnē (429), who is described as the deity presiding over and defined by the characteristics of Hermes (for the diction, cf. Callimachus Hymn to Apollo 43). In the same way the Helikonian Muses preside over and are defined by the characteristics of Hesiod—characteristics that they themselves had conferred upon him.

And here we finally see why it is essential for the Theogony that Hesiod should have his local origins at the foot of Mount Helikon. As an expression of the Helikonian Muses, he possesses characteristics that are beyond the immediate sphere of the Olympian Muses. As we have noticed, the goddesses confer upon him a staff (Theogony 30), an emblem of authority that is the province of kings and that emanates from Zeus himself. Also, as his very name Hēsíodos proclaims, the Muses {58|59} of Helikon endow the poet with audḗ (Theogony 31), a special voice that enables him not only to sing a theogony (33-34) but also to tell the future as well as the past (32). Whereas the generic protégé of the Olympian Muses and Apollo is an aoidós ‘poet’ who composes the equivalent of Homeric epos and hymns (cf. Homeric Hymn 25.2-3 and Theogony 94-103), Hesiod as protégé of the Helikonian Muses has the powers not only of a poet but also of what the Greeks would call a kêrux ‘herald’ and a mántis ‘seer’.

The Indo-European heritage of Greek poetry goes back to a phase where the functions of poet/herald/seer are as yet undifferentiated. Traces of such a phase survive not only in the characterization of Hesiod as protégé of the Helikonian Muses but also in the paradigm of Hermes as protégé of Mnēmosúnē. By virtue of singing a theogony, Hermes is said to be kraínōn‘authorizing’ the gods (Hymn to Hermes 427). The verb kraínō denotes sovereign authority as exercised by kings and as emanating from Zeus himself. [64] It conveys the notion that kings authorize the accomplishment of something and confirm that it will be accomplished (as at Odyssey viii 390). A cross-cultural survey of ritual theogonic traditions throughout the world reveals that a basic function of a theogony is to confirm the authority that regulates any given social group. [65] By singing a theogony and thus “authorizing” the gods, Hermes is in effect confirming their authority.

Hermes later enters into an agreement with Apollo whereby the two gods divide their functions between themselves, and in the process Hermes gives Apollo his lyre along with the powers that go with it (Hymn to Hermes 434-512), while Apollo gives Hermes a rhábdos ‘staff’ described as epi-kraínousa ‘authorizing’ the themoí ‘ordinances’ [66] that Apollo has learned from Zeus himself (531-532). While granting this much authorization to Hermes, Apollo specifically excludes the sphere of divination that is appropriate to the oracle at Delphi (533-549); but Apollo does include the sphere of divination that is appropriate to the Bee Maidens of Mount Parnassos (550-566). These Bee Maidens also kraínousin ‘authorize’ (559): when they are fed honey, they are in ecstasy and tell alētheíē ‘truth’ (560-561), but they pseúdontai ‘lie’ when deprived of this food (562-563). Such ecstatic divination is achieved with fermented honey—a pattern typical of an earlier phase when aoidós ‘poet’ and mántis ‘seer’ were as yet not differentiated. [67] When the Bee Maidens are in {59|60} ecstasy, they kraínousin ‘authorize’ by telling of future things that will really come to pass.

The division of attributes between Apollo and Hermes dramatizes the evolutionary separation of poetic functions that are pictured as still integral at the time when Hermes sang the theogony. But then Hermes cedes the lyre to Apollo and confines himself to the primitive shepherd’s pipe (Hymn to Hermes 511-512) so that Apollo can take over the sphere of the aoidós ‘poet’. Apollo also takes over the sphere of the mántis ‘seer’ on a highly evolved pan-Hellenic level (his oracle at Delphi), leaving to Hermes the more primitive sphere of the mántis ‘seer’ as a local exponent of the sort of alētheíē ‘truth’ that is induced by fermented honey. But the “newer” god’s dramatized affinity with the more primitive aspects of poetry and his actual inauguration of Apollo’s poetic art by way of singing a theogony indicate that Hermes—not Apollo—is in fact the older god, and that his “authorizing” staff and his “authorizing” Bee Maidens are vestiges of an older and broader poetic realm. From a historical point of view, Apollo and his Olympian Muses are the newer gods: they represent a streamlining of this older realm into the newer and narrower one of pan-Hellenic poetry.

Similarly, Hesiod’s relationship with the Helikonian Muses represents an older and broader poetic realm that the poet then streamlines into the newer and narrower one of a pan-Hellenic theogony by way of synthesizing the Helikonian with the Olympian Muses. The skêptron ‘staff’ and the prophetic voice that Hesiod receives from the Helikonian Muses, speakers of both falsehoods and truth, are analogous to the Hermetic rhábdos ‘staff’ and Bee Maidens, likewise speakers of both falsehoods and truth. It seems as if the Muses of Olympus inherit the genre of theogony from the Muses of Helikon, just as Apollo gets the lyre from Hermes, composer of the first theogony. For a pan-Hellenic theogony to happen, the Muses have to come down from Helikon and go up to Olympus, through the intermediacy of Hesiod.

Just as Hermes is the archetypal kêrux ‘herald’ and mántis ‘seer’, so Hesiod embodies these two functions along with that of the aoidós ‘poet’ by way of the Helikonian Muses. (These local Muses, as Pausanias 9.29.2-3 reports, are Meletḗ ‘practice’, Mnḗmē‘memory’, and Aoidḗ ‘song’; these names correspond to the processes involved in the composition and performance of oral poetry.) [68] The figure of Hesiod requires these local Muses in order to compose a theogony, but he also requires the Olympian Muses in order to compose pan-Hellenic poetry. His own implicit reward for assimilating the Helikonian Muses into the Olympian {60|61} is that his local gifts, a staff and a voice that are both appropriate to a local theogony, become in a pan-Hellenic context the emblems that establish his ultimate authority as poet, emanating from the ultimate authority of Zeus as king.

The Language of Hesiod

18th century map of ancient Boeotia, from J. J. Barthélemy, 1795 / Wikimedia Commons

The figure of Hesiod can proudly announce his local origins and still speak in a language that has evolved to match the language of pan-Hellenic hymns, which in turn have evolved to match the language of the epics that they inaugurate. The poet of the Theogony can even equate the artistry of composing a pan-Hellenic theogony with that of composing an epic (100-101)—and the ritual context that a local theogony would surely entail is for us all but forgotten.

In fact, the diction of Hesiodic poetry is so akin to the Homeric that its self-proclaimed Boeotian provenience would be nearly impossible to detect on the basis of language alone. What is more, the Ionic phase of evolution and eventual crystallization is actually even stronger in the Hesiodic tradition than in the Homeric. [69]

Granted, there have been attempts to establish linguistic differences between Homer and Hesiod, the most interesting of which is the finding that the first- and second-declension accusative plural endings -ās and -ous occur in preconsonantal position far more often in Hesiodic than in Homeric diction; also, that in prevocalic position they occur less often. [70] This phenomenon has been interpreted to mean that we are somehow dealing with the native speaker(s) of a dialect in which these accusative plurals, have been shortened to -ăs and -ŏs; this way the beginning of the next word with a consonant would not matter because the resulting –ăs C and – ŏs C [71] do not produce overlength, whereas -ās C- and -ous C- do. Now, it is true that Homeric diction tends to avoid overlength (V̄C C- as distinct from V̆C C- or –V C-), but it does not follow that Hesiodic diction should neatly match this tendency; rather, in line with the fact that the formulaic behavior of Hesiod generally reveals fewer constraints, and hence less archaism, than that of Homer, it could be that the higher proportion of preconsonantal -ās and -ous in Hesiod reveals simply a greater tolerance for this type of overlength than in Homer. {61|62}

As it happens, accusative plurals ending in -ăs and -ŏs are decidedly not a feature of the Boeotian dialect. As for the sporadic occurrences of first-declension –ăs before vowels, it is not true that this phenomenon is limited to Hesiodic diction, as is generally claimed. There are sporadic occurrences in Homeric diction as well, including the Hymns (for instance, at Iliad V 269, VIII 378; Odyssey xvii 232; Hymn to Hermes 106). It is difficult, granted, simply to rule out the possibility that this phenomenon is a reflex of Doric dialects, where first- and second-declension – ăs V- and -ŏs V- are indeed attested. Still, it seems preferable to account for the entire problem in terms of the Ionic dialects, which represent the final and definitive phase in the evolution of both Homeric and Hesiodic poetry. The formulaic evidence could go back to a pre-Ionic stage common to all Greek dialects, with accusative plurals ending in

  • ăns V-      –ăns C-
  • ŏns V-      –ŏns C-

Then we may posit an intermediate stage common to all dialects (and still attested in some) with

  • ăns V-      –ăs C-
  • ăns V-      –ŏs C-

In the final Ionic stage, prevocalic – ăns/-ŏns became -ās/-ous, which were extended to preconsonantal position as well:

  • ās V-       –ās C-
  • ous V-     –ous C-

But the intermediate stage, by way of formulaic repositionings of words from prevocalic to preconsonantal contexts and vice versa, could have left sporadic traces of “contaminations”:

  • ăs V-      –ās C-
  • ŏs V-      –ous C-

There would be more such traces in Hesiodic than in Homeric poetry simply because the Hesiodic reflects a longer span of evolution in the Ionic hexameter tradition. The point remains: not only does Hesiodic poetry implicitly claim to be like Homeric poetry (as at Theogony 100-101) but it also shares extensively in its formal heritage.

Roman bust of Homer from the second century AD, portrayed with traditional iconography, based on a Greek original dating to the Hellenistic Period / British Museum via Wikimedia Commons

Even within Homeric poetry, the Odyssey is perceptibly different from {62|63} the Iliad in featuring more instances of preconsonantal -ās -ous and fewer instances of prevocalic -ās -ous, although this gap between the Odyssey and the Iliad is not nearly as great as the one between the Hesiodic poems, on the one hand, and the Homeric, on the other. [72] Still, these data correspond to an overall pattern, as established on the basis of several other linguistic criteria: the Odyssey had a longer span of evolution in the Ionic hexameter tradition than the Iliad, while the Hesiodic poems combined had an even longer span than the Odyssey. [73]

The pervasive Ionic heritage of Hesiodic poetry extends from form to content. The one month name overtly mentioned in the Works and DaysLēnaiṓn (504), happens to occur in many Ionian calendars (though not in the Athenian), and even the morphology (ending in -ṓn) is distinctly Ionic. Now, each city-state had its own idiosyncratic calendar, and there were significant variations in the naming of months even among states that were closely related; it comes as no surprise, then, that the overt mentioning of month names was generally shunned in archaic Greek poetry, with its pan-Hellenic orientation. Thus it is all the more striking that an exclusively Ionic name should surface in the poetry of Boeotian Hesiod. At best, we can justify the name Lēnaiṓn as tending toward a pan-Hellenic audience in that it is native to most Ionian cities at least; moreover, the meaning of the name is transparent, in that it is derived from lênai ‘devotees of Dionysus’. Even so, the name and its form are more pan-Ionian than pan-Hellenic. Moreover, the description of the wind Boreas as it blows over the sea from Thrace in the verses immediately following the mention of Lēnaiṓn reflects a geographically Ionian orientation parallel to what we find in the Iliad. [74]

In sum, not only does Hesiodic poetry implicitly claim to be like Homeric poetry, but it also shares its predominantly Ionic formal heritage.

Hesiod, Poet of the Works and Days

A manuscript of Works and Days / Creative Commons

Hesiod’s ultimate authority as poet, emanating from the ultimate authority of Zeus as king, is put to the test in the Works and Days. In the prelude to the poem (1-10), which is formally the equivalent of a hymn to Zeus, the supreme god is implored to “straighten the divine laws [thémis plural] with your judgment [díkē]” (9) while the poet proceeds to {63|64} say etḗtuma ‘genuine things’ to his brother Perses (10). Thus the actions of Zeus and the words of Hesiod are drawn into an explicitly parallel relationship.

The actions of Zeus are a model for the ideal king as visualized in the Theogony: imbued by the Muses (80-84), he “sorts out the divine laws [thémis plural] with straight judgments [díkē {plural}].” (85-86). Thanks to his straight judgments, the king is also able to bring to an end even a great neîkos ‘quarrel’ (87). We are reminded of the neîkos pictured on the Shield of Achilles (IliadXVIII 497), adjudicated by elders who pronounce díkē ‘judgment’ with skêptron in hand (505-508). [75] Curiously, the idealized king in the Theogony is not represented as holding a skêptron; instead, this symbol of the authority that emanates from Zeus is conferred by the Muses upon Hesiod (Theogony 30). It is as if the Muse-imbued king were cast in a mold that could fit the poet.

This is not to say that Hesiod is a king; rather, as we shall see, the Works and Days elaborates an authority that replaces and transcends that of kings. The impetus for the entire poem is in fact a neîkos ‘quarrel’ between Hesiod and Perses (35), but this quarrel will not be stopped by any ideal king; the poet wishes that he and his brother would settle it themselves (35), “with straight judgments [díkē plural], which are the best, being from Zeus” (36). The original cause of the quarrel between the two brothers is this: after they had divided up their inheritance from their father (37), Perses forcibly took some of Hesiod’s fair share (38), thereby enhancing the prestige of greedy kings “who wish to pronounce this judgment [díkē]” (38-39). These kings, characterized by Hesiod as dōrophágoi ‘gift-devouring’ (39, 221, 264), are anything but ideal, and the poet threatens that they will be punished for their “crooked judgments [díkē plural]” (250, 264).

As we shall see, what ultimately settles the quarrel of Hesiod and Perses is not any king, but the Works and Days itself, elaborating on the concept of díkē in the sense of ‘justice’. So far, the translation offered for díkē has been ‘judgment’, which is how we must interpret the word in the immediate contexts of Works and Days 39, 249, and 269. In each of these instances, an accompanying demonstrative (tḗnde, see also táde ‘these things’ at 268) forces a translation such as ‘this judgment’, referring short-range to the unjust pronouncement that the greedy kings wish to make. Such contexts even help us understand the etymology of díkē: the ideal king ‘sorts out’ (verb diakrī́nō, at Theogony 85) what is thémis ‘divine law’ and what is not (85) by way of díkē (86), which is an indication (as in Latin indic-āre, where –dic– is cognate with Greek díkē), hence {64|65} ‘judgment’. Long-range, however, any ad hoc ‘judgment’ can be turned into ‘justice’ by Zeus, who is the authority behind all human judgments. Thus, when Hesiod implores Zeus to “straighten the divine laws laws [thémis plural] with díkē” (Works and Days 9), the supreme god’s ‘judgment’ is the same as ‘justice’. This action of Zeus, to repeat, is coefficient with the words of Hesiod to Perses (10), in the context of a neîkos ‘quarrel’ that the two of them must ‘sort out’ for themselves (verb diakrī́nō again, this time in the middle voice; verse 35).

The figure of Hesiod resorts to words in reacting to the violent seizure of his property by Perses. First he tells Perses the story of Prometheus and Pandora (Works and Days 42-105), motivating the prime theme of man’s inherent need to work the land for a living. Then he tells Perses the myth of the five generations of mankind (106-201), which shows in detail how mankind becomes elevated by díkē ‘justice’ and debased by its opposite, húbris ‘outrage’. [76] The fifth and present generation, which is the Age of Iron, is a time when díkē and húbris are engaged in an ongoing struggle. As happens elsewhere in myths about the ages of mankind, the present encompassed by the final age merges with the future and becomes a prophecy: [77] in a deeply pessimistic tone Hesiod predicts that díkē will finally lose to húbris (Works and Days 190-194). Next, Hesiod tells the fable of the hawk and the nightingale (202-212), addressing it to kings whom he diplomatically presupposes to be phronéontes ‘aware’ (202). Again the tone is pessimistic, at least in the immediate context: the hawk seizes the nightingale, described as an aoidós‘singer’, that is, ‘poet’ (208), simply because he is more powerful (206, 207, 210), and he boasts of having the ultimate power of either releasing or devouring his victim (209).

SlidePlayer / Creative Commons

At this point Hesiod turns to Perses and, applying all that he has just told him, concludes by urging his brother to espouse díkēand reject húbris (Works and Days 213). He warns that the fulfillment of díkē is an eventual process, and that díkē will in the end triumph over húbris (217-218). Personified as a goddess, Díkē will punish greedy men who “sort out divine laws [verb krīno; noun thémis] with crooked judgments [díkē plural]” (220-223), and “who drive her out, making her not straight” (224; cf. Iliad XVI 387-388). Then follows the paradigm of the two cities: the polis of díkē becomes fertile and rich (225-237; cf. Odyssey xix 109-114), while the polis of húbris becomes sterile and poor (238-247). {65|66}

Having defined justice as an eventual process (Works and Days 217-218), Hesiod invites the greedy kings to reconsider “this judgment [díkē]” (269) that they had wanted to pronounce in response to the forcible taking of Hesiod’s property by Perses (39). We now see that kings who make “this judgment [díkē]” (269) are thereby making the goddess Díkē “not straight” (224), and that the goddess will eventually punish such men through the power of her father, Zeus (220-224, 256-269). The eventuality of Díkē is also clearly defined in the poetry of Solon: men who forcibly take the property of others (F 4.13 W) are thereby guilty of húbris (4.8) in violating the foundations of Díkē (4.14), who will come to exact just punishment “with the passage of time” (4.16).

The Works and Days dramatizes the actual passage of time required for the workings of Díkē. At the beginning of the poem we find the goddess implicitly violated through the forcible taking of Hesiod’s property by Perses and through the crooked judgment pronounced in the unjust brother’s favor by the greedy kings. At verse 39 “this judgment [díkē]” is still implicitly crooked as the poet begins to teach about Díkē, and the initial teachings are still pessimistic about the outcome of the struggle between húbrisand díkē, as also about the power of the hawk/king over the nightingale/poet. By the time we reach verses 249 and 269, however, “this judgment [díkē] is seen in the light of the vengeance that Díkē herself will take on those who violated her. Perses is now urged to espouse díkē in the sense of ‘justice’ (275), since those without it will devour each other like wild beasts (275-278).

The “moral” of the fable about the hawk and the nightingale hereby becomes explicit: the hawk/king who threatens to devour the nightingale/poet as proof of his power is utterly disqualified as an exponent of díkē ‘justice’. Moreover, since only those kings who are phronéontes ‘aware’ will understand the fable (202; cf. the idealized kings at Theogony 88, who are ekhéphrones‘aware’), the greedy kings are implicitly disqualified even from understanding the “moral,” in view of their general ignorance (see Works and Days 40-41). [78] And if the kings cannot be exponents of díkē, they are utterly without authority and their raison d’être is annihilated. In fact, after verse 263, the kings are never heard of again in the Works and Days.

As for Perses, he is being taught that, in the end, it is the man of díkē who gets rich (Works and Days 280-281), while the man who forcibly takes the property of others (320-324) will have wealth “only for a short while” (325-326). By the time we reach verse 396 of the Works and Days, {66|67} Perses has been reduced to utter penury and “now” comes to beg from Hesiod. But the poet refuses to give him anything, teaching him instead to work the land for a living (396-397). While the authority of díkē as emanating from Zeus and as represented by Hesiod is eventually taking hold, even the sense of indignation originally felt by the poet against his brother begins to recede; already by verse 286 he is expressing his good intentions toward Perses. Toward the latter half of the poem, the figure of Perses recedes in favor of a generalized second-person singular: it is as if Perses were now tacitly ready to accept the teachings of his righteous brother.

In the end, then, díkē ‘justice’ is totally vindicated in the Works and Days, and its eventual triumph is dramatized in the time that elapses in the course of the poem. Moreover, the function of the basileús ‘king’ as the authority who tells what is and what is not thémis ‘divine law’ by way of his díkē ‘judgment’ is taken over by the poem itself. The vantage point is pan-Hellenic, in that all the cities of the Hellenes arc reduced to two extreme types, the polis of díkē (225-237) and the polis of húbris (238-247). Even the consistently plural use of basileîs ‘kings’ in the Works and Days suggests a pan-Hellenic perspective: from the Homeric tradition we see that each city is ruled by a single king.

With the elimination of kings, the Works and Days can address itself to any polis of, say, the eighth century or thereafter—whether its government is an oligarchy, a democracy, or even a tyranny. And what the poem in effect communicates is the universal foundation of the law codes native to each Greek city-state.

Hermes, Themis, Zeus and Athena, Athenian red-figure pelike C.4th B.C., State Hermitage Museum

Even in a democracy like Athens, the laws of Solon, as his own poetry proclaims, are founded on the authority of Zeus as king (F 31 W). Just as Zeus is the one who “straightens what is crooked and withers the overweening” (Works and Days 7), as he is implored by Hesiod to “straighten the divine laws [thémis plural] with díkē” (9), so also Solon’s Eunomíā ‘good government by way of good laws’ is a goddess who “shackles those without díkē” (F 4.33 W), “blackens húbris” (4.34), “withers the sprouting outgrowths of derangement” (4.35), and “straightens crooked judgments [díkē plural]” (4.36). In the Theogony we find that Zeus himself fathered Eunomíā, as well as Díkē (902); moreover, their mother is Thémis, the incarnation of divine law and order (901), and it is significant that Zeus married her after defeating Typhoeus and swallowing Metis, the last two remaining threats to cosmic order.

Assuming the stance of a lawgiver, Solon says in his poetry that he “wrote down” his thesmoí ‘laws’ after having adjusted “a díkē that is straight” for the noble and the base alike (F 36.18-20 W). But besides this written law code, we must also keep in mind the poetic traditions attributed to Solon; and in these traditions the figure of Solon functions {67|68} not only as a lawgiver, as we see here, but also as a personal exponent of díkē by virtue of his life as dramatized through his poetry. In one poem, for example, Solon prays to the Muses that they give him wealth and fame (F 13.1-4 W), and that they should allow him to help his friends and hurt his enemies (13.5-6). He yearns to own khrḗmata ‘possessions’ but renounces any thought of forcibly taking any from others, which would be “without díkē” (13.7-8); sooner or later díkē would have revenge (13.8). More specifically, deeds of húbris will surely be punished by Zeus, who appears like a violent wind (13.16-25; cf. again Iliad XVI 384-392).

In the poetic traditions of the city-state of Megara, as represented by the figure of Theognis, we find a remarkable parallel: here, too, the poet prays to Zeus that he may help his friends and hurt his enemies (Theognis 337-338). If Theognis could only exact retribution, by the time he dies, from those who had wronged him, then he would have the fame of a god among men (339-340).[79] We may note the similarity between this aspiration and what happens to Lycurgus of Sparta: this lawgiver is declared to be like a god by Apollo’s oracle at Delphi (Herodotus 1.65.3) and is made a cult hero after death (1.66.1). [80] Theognis goes on to say how he has been personally wronged: his possessions were forcibly taken from him (Theognis 346-347). So, too, with Hesiod: Perses had forcibly taken some of his possessions (Works and Days 37, in conjunction with 320).

Like Hesiod, moreover, Theognis initially admits pessimism about any success at retribution (Theognis 345), and in his apparent helplessness he expresses the ghastly urge to drink the blood of those who had wronged him (349). The cryptic mention here of a daímōn ‘spirit’ who would supervise such a vengeance (349-350) reminds us of the countless invisible phúlakes ‘guardians’ of Díkē who stand ready to punish wrongdoers in Works and Days 249-255 and who are identical to the daímōnes or stylized cult heroes at verses 122-126. [81] The guardians of díkē ‘justice’ are described as coefficients of the personified goddess Díkē, who is likewise pictured as standing ready to punish wrongdoers (Works and Days 256-262); similarly in the poetry of Solon, it is Díkē who in due time punishes wrongdoers (F 4.14-16 W). Theognis, however, has conjured up the starker alternative of a bloodthirsty revenant, who may even turn out to be the poet’s own self after death. [82] {68|69}

Although the particulars may vary, Theognis, like Hesiod and Solon, is presented through his poetry as a personal exponent of díkē by virtue of his life as dramatized through his poetry. But, unlike Solon’s poetry, which can refer to the díkē of a written law code as well (F 36.18-20), the poetry of Theognis can refer only to the díkē that emerges from his teachings, addressed to his young hetaîros ‘comrade’ Kyrnos and to various minor characters. Still, this díkē has the force of a law code handed down by a lawgiver, as Theognis himself proclaims: [83]

χρή με παρὰ στάθμην καὶ γνώμονα τήνδε δικάσσαι
Κύρνε δίκην, ἶσόν τ’ ἀμφοτέροισι δόμεν,
μάντεσί τ’ οἰωνοῖς τε καὶ αἰθομένοις ἱεροῖσιν,
ὄφρα μὴ ἀμπλακίης αἰσχρὸν ὄνειδος ἔχω

Theognis 543-546

I must pronounce this díkē, Kyrnos, along [the straight, line of] a carpenter’s rule and square,
and I must give to both sides their equitable share,
with the help of seers [mántis plural], portents, and burning sacrifice,
so that I may not incur shameful reproach for veering.

A kylix from Tanagra, Boeotia, 5th century B.C. A symposiast sings Ω παίδον κάλλιστε, the beginning of a verse by Theognis / Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Athenische Abteilung (1884)

Like Solon, who protects “both sides” and allows “neither side” to win (ἀμφοτέροισι/οὐδετέρους at F 5.5/6), Theognis presents himself as giving an equal share to “both sides” (ἀμφοτέροισι at 544 above), elsewhere advising Kyrnos to walk “the middle road” (219-220, 331-332) and to give to “neither side” that which belongs to the other (μηδετέροισι 332). The fact that Theognis pronounces “this díkē” (verse 544) in a setting of sacrifice and ritual correctness (545) is significant in view of Hesiod’s instructions in the latter part of the Works and Days, where moral and ritual correctness are consistently made parallel. At verses 333-335 Hesiod’s concluding moral injunction to shun “deeds without díkē” is followed up by further advice, this time a ritual injunction:

κὰδ δύναμιν δ’ ἔρδειν ἱέρ’ ἀθανάτοισι θεοῖσιν
ἁγνῶς καὶ καθαρῶς, ἐπὶ δ’ ἀγλαὰ μηρία καίειν·
ἄλλοτε δὲ σπονδῇσι θύεσσί τε ἱλάσκεσθαι,
ἠμὲν ὅτ’ εὐνάζῃ καὶ ὅτ’ ἂν φάος ἱερὸν ἔλθῃ,
ὥς κέ τοι ἵλαον κραδίην καὶ θυμὸν ἔχωσιν, {69|70}
ὄφρ’ ἄλλων ὠνῇ κλῆρον, μὴ τὸν τεὸν ἄλλος

Hesiod Works and Days 336-341

To the best of your ability, sacrifice to the immortal gods
in a holy and pure manner, burning sumptuous thigh-portions;
and at other times propitiate them with libations and burnt offerings,
both when you go to bed and when the holy light comes back,
so that they may have a gracious heart and disposition,
and so you may buy another man’s holding, rather than have him buy yours.

As the Works and Days proceeds, the advice becomes more and more meticulous: for example, one must not cut one’s nails at a “feast of the gods” (742-743). Or again, a man must not urinate while standing up and facing the sun (727), or in a road (729), or into rivers or springs (757-758). We may compare the parallel advice in the Indic Law Code of Manu 4.45-48: “Let him not void urine on a road…nor while he walks or stands, nor on reaching the bank of a river…Let him never void faeces or urine, facing the wind, or a fire, or looking towards a Brahman, the sun, water, or cows.” [84]

The legal traditions of the Indic peoples are clearly cognate with those of the Greeks, and in this connection it is especially interesting to observe the uses of memnēménos ‘being mindful’ at Works and Days 728, in the specific context of the injunctions now being considered, as well as elsewhere (Works and Days 298, 422, 616, 623, 641, 711). The root *men-/*mneh2– of memnēménos recurs in the Indic name Mánu-, meaning ‘the mindful one’: this ancestor of the human race gets his name (which is cognate with English man) by virtue of being ‘mindful’ at a sacrifice. Manu is the prototypical sacrificer, whose sheer virtuosity in what Sylvain Lévi has called “the delicate art of sacrifice” confers upon him an incontestable authority in matters of ritual. [85] Since ritual correctness is the foundation of Indic law, the entire Indic corpus of juridical/moral aphorisms is named after him.

There is a parallel thematic pattern in the Precepts of Cheiron, a poem attributed to Hesiod (scholia to Pindar Pythian 6.22) in which Cheiron the Centaur instructs the boy Achilles. The one fragment that we have (Hesiod F 283 MW) contains the initial words spoken by the centaur, in which he tells Achilles that the very first thing the young hero must do when he arrives home is to sacrifice to the gods. In a fragment from the {70|71} Epic Cycle (Titanomachy F 6 p. 111 Allen), Cheiron is described as the one who “led the race of mortals to justice [dikaiosúnē] by showing them oaths, festive sacrifices, and the configurations [skhḗmata] of Olympus.” There are also parallel formal patterns shared by the Precepts and by the Works and Days (336-337, 687-688), as well as by Theognis (99-100, 1145 in conjunction with 1147-1148).

The interaction between Cheiron and Achilles in the Precepts of Cheiron is so strikingly similar to the one between Hesiod and Perses and the one between Theognis and Kyrnos that F. G. Welcker was led to propose, in the preface to his 1826 edition of Theognis, that Perses and Kyrnos are generic figures whose dramatized familiarity with Hesiod and Theognis makes it possible for these poets to offer well-intended advice to their audiences, who really consist of strangers. [86] Such Near Eastern typological parallels as Ahiqar and Nadan and the Proverbs of Solomon add to the probability that these figures are indeed generic. [87] Nevertheless, at least in the case of Perses, scholars resist accepting this probability, primarily because the historicity of even Hesiod is thereby endangered, “and no one supposes Hesiod himself to be an assumed character.” [88]

Throughout this presentation it has been generally argued that the persona of the poet in any given archaic Greek poem is but a function of the traditions inherited by that poem; accordingly, the assumption of Hesiod’s historicity, as in the statement just quoted, requires no ad hoc rebuttal here. Suffice it for now to observe that there are analogues to the complementary characterizations of Hesiod and Perses even in Homeric poetry. One example is the challenge issued by Odysseus to the suitor Eurymakhos at Odyssey xviii З66-375: [89] the resourceful king, disguised as beggar-poet, [90] is challenging the idle usurper of his possessions to a hypothetical contest (the word for which is éris ‘strife’ at xviii 366; cf. Works and Days 11-26, especially 26) in the activity of ‘working the land’ (the word for which is érgon, again at xviii 366, and also at xviii 369; cf. Works and Days 20).

A papyrus fragment covering lines 917–33, part of a poem addressed to Democles (identity unknown) and considered on textual grounds to be a late addition to the Theognidean corpus, probably fifth century.  Coincidentally, Nietzsche’s first published article, On the History of the Collection of the Theognidean Anthology (1867), concerned the textual transmission of the poems. / P.Berol.21220, Wikimedia Commons

Or again, there are analogues to the complementary characterizations of Theognis and Kyrnos in the Works and Days. For example, Hesiod pointedly teaches that one should not make one’s hetaîros ‘comrade’ equal to one’s own brother (707). This negative injunction then becomes an excuse for displaying the poetic traditions available for teaching a hetaîros instead of a brother, since Hesiod goes on to say in {71|72} the next verse: “but if you should do so [make your hetaîros equal to your own brother], then . . .” (708). What follows in the next several verses is a veritable siring of aphorisms that deal precisely with the topic of behavior toward one’s hetaîros (708-722), and there are numerous striking analogues to the aphorisms explicitly or implicitly offered by Theognis to his hetaîros Kyrnos (for instance, Works and Days 710-711, 717-718, 720 and Theognis 155-158, 945, 1089-1090, respectively). Conversely, Theognis pointedly defines a true phílos ‘friend’ as a man who puts up with a difficult hetaîros as if he were his brother (97-100 = 1164a-d). By implication, one simply has to put up with a difficult brother. Theognis is uncertain whether his being a phílos ‘friend’ to Kyrnos is actually reciprocated: he challenges the fickle youth either to be a genuine phílos (89 = 1082e) or to declare that he is an ekhthrós ‘enemy’, overtly stalling a neîkos ‘quarrel’ between the two of them (89-90). We may compare the neîkos between Hesiod and Perses, which is indeed overt (Works and Days 35) but at least is settled in the course of the poem. By contrast, no overt neîkos ever develops between Theognis and Kyrnos, and neither is Theognis ever assured that Kyrnos is a genuine phílos.

In reckoning with different samples of archaic Greek poetry, we must of course avoid the assumption that parallel passages are a matter of text referring to text; rather, it is simply that any given composition may refer to traditions other than the ones that primarily shaped it, and such different traditions may be attested elsewhere. Still, it is almost as if Theognis here were alluding to Perses, or as if Hesiod were actually giving advice on how to treat a fickle Kyrnos.

Hesiod and Perses are not the only key characters in the Works and Days. Their father’s very essence retells some of the key themes that shape the composition. He came from Kyme in Asia Minor (636), sailing the seas in an effort to maintain his meager subsistence (633-634), until he settled on the mainland at Askra, a place that is harsh in the winter, unpleasant in the summer—in short, never agreeable (639-640).

This description of Hesiod’s Askra, generally accepted as empirical truth by scholars from Strabo onward, seems exaggerated at best: the region is in fact fertile, relatively protected from winds, replete with beautiful scenery, and actually mild in the winter as well as the summer. [91] Why, then, does Hesiod present a deliberately negative picture of his native Askra? The answer emerges when we reconsider the city of Kyme, which, in sharp contrast with Askra, is the place that Hesiod’s father left, “fleeing from poverty [peníā] not from wealth” (Works and {72|73} Days 637-638). We see here a pointed contrast with a theme characteristic of ktísis (‘foundation’) poetry, a genre that concerned itself with the great colonizations launched toward distant lands from cities of the mainland and its periphery. [92]

One of the thematic conventions of foundation poetry is that the great new cities that sprang up in Asia Minor and elsewhere in the era of colonizations were founded by intrepid adventurers fleeing from the poverty that overwhelmed them in the old cities. A worthy example is Kolophon, one of whose founders was ‘the man in rags’, Rhákios, who got his name “because of his poverty and shabby clothes” (scholia to Apollonius of Rhodes 1.308). [93] So also in the poetic traditions of Megara, which celebrated the city’s role as starting point for the foundation of many great cities, including Byzantium, in the era of colonizations. [94] Theognis of Megara urges that one must travel over land and sea in search of relief from baneful peniā‘poverty’ (Theognis 179-180). Ιn sum, when Hesiod’s father traveled all the way to Askra from Kynie, thereby fleeing peníā‘poverty’ (Works and Days 638), he was in effect reversing the conventional pattern of colonization as narrated in ktísis poetry.

To repeat, we have here a pointed negative reference as well: Hesiod’s father fled from peníā ‘poverty’ (Works and Days) and did not flee from wealth (637). The theme of wealth conjures up a distinctive feature of foundation poetry, where the colonizers advance from rags to riches, eventually making their new cities fabulously wealthy. [95] Again a worthy example is the city of Kolophon, which in time grew excessively rich (Athenaeus 526a, quoting Xenophanes of Kolophon F 3 W). From Theognis 1103-1104 we learn that the mark of this excess was húbris ‘outrage’, which led to Kolophon’s utter destruction. This fate, as the poet warns, is now looming over Megara as well. Further, we see that the húbris afflicting Megara is manifested specifically as greed for the possessions of others, and that it brings about the ultimate debasement of the city’s nobility (Theognis 833-836).

Such warnings about debasement and even destruction by húbris recall the Hesiodic scheme of the two cities: while the city of díkē becomes fertile and rich (Works and Days 225-235), so that no one needs to sail the seas for a living (236-237), the city of húbris becomes sterile and poor (238-247), and its people are afflicted either by wars (246) or by the storms that Zeus sends against them as they sail the seas {73|74} (247). From the standpoint of ktísis poetry, as we have seen in the instance of Kolophon, the same city can begin at one extreme and end at the other. As he leaves Kyme, Hesiod’s father flees the poverty of a city implicitly ruined by húbris (Works and Days 637-638), and he is in effect fleeing from the debris of what had been the golden age of colonization (for a Homeric reference to foundation poetry, specifically to narrative conventions that picture colonization in a golden age setting, see Odyssey ix 116-141). [96]

View of the archaeological site in Megara / Photo by O.Mustafin, Wikimedia Commons

Settling down in Askra, Hesiod’s father has found a setting marked by a stylized harshness that conjures up the iron age. [97] Whereas díkē and húbris characterize the golden and the silver ages, respectively (Works and Days 124, 134), both characterize the iron age simultaneously. So, too, with Askra: it is neither a city of díkē nor a city of hubrìs. Still, the place is full of characteristics that pull in one direction or the other. For example, the name Askrā itself means ‘sterile oak’ (Hesychius, s.v. Ἄσκρη· δρῦς ἄκαρπος). While barrenness marks the city of húbris (Works and Days 242-244), a fertile acorn-bearing oak is a prime image in the city of díkē (232-233: note here the phonetic similarity of drûs ákrē ‘top of the oak’ with Askrē). The local lore as reported by Pausanias (9.29.1) has it that Askra was founded by Oioklos (‘he who is famous for his sheep’: cf. Works and Days 234 and Theogony 26), son of a personified Askra who mated with Poseidon; and that it was also founded by Otos and Ephialtes, who were the “first” to sacrifice on Helikon to the Muses. These two brothers, however, are elsewhere clearly exponents of húbris (Odyssey xi 305-320, especially 317 in conjunction with Works and Days 132, preliminary to the destruction of the Silver Generation because of their húbris, verse 134).

As we have seen earlier, the struggle of díkē against húbris in the iron age of mankind appears at first to be a lost cause, but the corresponding struggle, in Askra, of Hesiod as exponent of díkē against Perses, as exponent of húbris turns into a universalized triumph for justice and for the authority of Zeus. In this light we may consider the meaning of the name Pérsēs. Since this character, unlike Hesiod, is confined to the Works and Days, the meaning may have something to do with the central themes inherited by this composition. Now, the form Pérsēs is a residual variant, through a split in declensional patterns, of Perseús, and we may compare such other formal pairs as Kíssēs (Iliad XI 223) and Classical Kisseús. [98] Moreover, the form Perseús is related to the compound formant {74|75} persi– of the verb pérthō ‘destroy’, [99] and it is not without interest that the direct objects of pérthō are confined in Homeric tradition to pólis ‘city’, its synonyms ptolíethron and ástu, or the name of a polis. Since Perses is primarily an exponent of húbris in the Works and Days, we may recall the traditional theme expressed in the poetry of Theognis: hubrìs destroys the city (1103-1104, for example).

Of course húbris destroys cities only figuratively: more precisely, it is Zeus who destroys cities because of their húbris—which is actually what he does to the archetypical city of húbris at Works and Days 238-247 (especially 239, 242). In this sense the name Pérsēs formalizes the negative side of what Zeus does to those mortals who are marked by húbris. Thus it may be significant that Perses is addressed as dîon génos ‘descendant of Zeus’ by his brother Hesiod at Works and Days 299—and that this title is elsewhere applied only to the children of Zeus (for instance, Artemis at Iliad IX 538). Moreover, from the fifth century onward, the name of the father of Hesiod and Perses is attested as Dîos (see, for example, Ephorus of Kyme FGH 70 F 1). Thus the split between Hesiod and Perses as exponents of díkē and húbris, corresponding to the split between the city of díkē and the city of húbris, is genetically reconciled in a figure whose name carries the essence of Zeus, much as Hesiod and Perses become reconciled in the course of the Works and Days through the utter defeat of húbris by the díkē of Zeus.

Hesiod’s pervasive affinities with Zeus, as with Apollo and his Olympian Muses, are paralleled by his affinities with the goddess Hekate as she is celebrated in Theogony 404-452. Like Zeus, this goddess is an ideal paradigm for the pan-Hellenic nature of Hesiodic poetry. Thanks to the sanctions of the supreme god (Theogony 411-415, 423-425), Hekate has title to a share in the divine functions of all the gods (421-422). Accordingly, the invocation of Hekate at a sacrifice is tantamount to a blanket invocation of all the other gods as well (416-420). Because of her relatively recent, maybe even foreign, origins, [100] this synthetic goddess Hekate is an ideal pan-Hellenic figure (we may compare the choice of “foreign” Nyse as the genuine birthplace of Dionysus in the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus 1.8-9): she can manifest even her ritual dimensions in Hesiodic poetry, unlike the historically older gods who are each worshiped in different ways by each city-state—and whose ritual dimensions are therefore consistently screened out by the pan-Hellenic poems of Hesiod as well as Homer. {75|76}

The parallelism of Hekate with Apollo and his Muses also has a bearing on the pan-Hellenic authority of Hesiod. We start with the fact that Apollo and Hekate are actually cousins: their mothers, Leto and Asteríā, are sisters (Theogony 405-410), and the latter name is identical to the “god-given” name of Delos, Apollo’s birthplace (Pindar Paean 5.42 in conjunction with Callimachus Hymn 4.36; also Pindar F 33с.6 SM). The shared grandparents of Apollo and Hekate are Phoíbē and Koîos; the first name is the feminine equivalent of Apollo’s primary epithet Phoîbos (as at Theogony 14), while the second is cognate with the Indic kaví– ‘poet/seer’ [101] (we may compare the discussion, above, of Apollo’s relationship to the generic aoidós‘singer/poet’ and mántis ‘seer’). The name Hekátē is the feminine equivalent of Apollo’s epithet Hékatos (as at Hymn to Apollo1). Most important, the name of Hekate’s father, Pérsēs (Theogony 409), is identical to that of Hesiod’s brother.

The Hecate Chiaramonti, a Roman sculpture of triple Hecate, after a Hellenistic original / Museo Chiaramonti, Vatican Museums via Wikimedia Commons

Hekate is the only legitimate child of Perses the god, and as such she is mounogenḗs ‘only-born’ (Theogony 426, 448). By contrast, Perses the man is distinctly not the only child of Dîos, being the brother of Hesiod, who in turn implicitly wishes he were an only child: he advises that the ideal household should indeed have a mounogenḗs ‘only-born’ to inherit the possessions of the father (Works and Days 376-377). What would happen if Hekate were not mounogenḗs is suggested by the story about the birth of Eris ‘Strife’ in Works and Days 11-26, presented as a traditional alternative to the story reflected in Theogony 225. The Works and Days affirms that there is not just a moûnongénos ‘single birth’ of Eris (11), the version that we see in the Theogony (225), but that there are in fact two Erides (Works and Days 11-12). The younger and secondary one of these Erides is negative in her stance toward mankind, but the older and primary one is positive: she instills the spirit of competition that motivates even the idler to work the land for a living (Works and Days 12-24). In that Eris is parent of Neîkos ‘quarreling’ (Theogony 229), the neîkos between Hesiod and Perses (Works and Days 35) is motivated by Eris. At first it seems as if it had been the maleficent and secondary Eris that had done so, but, as the neîkos eventually reaches a resolution with the triumph of Hesiod’s díkē over Perses’ húbris in the Works and Days, we realize that it must have been the beneficent and primary Eris all along. [102] The point is, just as an undivided negative Eris can split into a primary positive and secondary negative pair, so also an undivided positive Hekate could by implication split into a primary negative and a {76|77} secondary positive pair. Thus it is beneficial for mankind that Hekate should remain an only child: the primary child in a hypothetical split of the mounogenḗsHekate figure would presumably take after the father Pérsēs, whose name conveys the negative response of gods to the húbrisof mankind. [103] Similarly, Hesiod and Perses themselves are a primary positive and secondary negative pair, while the secondary child Pérsēs has a name that conveys, again, the negative response of Zeus to the húbris of mankind. As for the father of Hesiod and Perses, his name, Dîos—to repeat—carries the essence of Zeus.

The special thematic relationship of Hesiod with the figure of Hekate raises questions about a revealing detail in the Works and Days. Despite all the advice given by Hesiod to Perses about sailing, the poet pointedly says that he himself has never sailed on a ship except for the one time when he traveled from Aulis to the island of Euboea (650-651). There follows a pointed reference to the tradition claiming that the Achaean expedition to Troy was launched from Aulis (651-653). The Iliadacknowledges Aulis as the starting point of the Trojan expedition (II 303-304), and according to most versions it was there that Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigeneia to Artemis (for instance, Cypria Proclus summary p. 104.12-20 Allen). In the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women (F 23a.15-26 MW), we read that the sacrificed Iphigeneia (here called Iphimede, verses 15, 17) was thereupon made immortal by Artemis, and that, as a goddess, Iphigeneia became Artemis-of-the-Crossroads, otherwise known as Hekate (Hesiod F 23b = Pausanias 1.43.1).

Hekate, as the Theogony (435-438) tells us, aids those who compete in contests, and the poet cites athletic contests in particular. When Hesiod crosses over from Aulis to Euboea, he is traveling to an occasion of contests, the Funeral Games of Amphidamas at Chalkis (Works and Days 654-656). Moreover, Hesiod competes in a poetic contest at the games—and wins (656-657). He goes home with a tripod as prize and dedicates it to his native Helikonian Muses (657-658). Finishing his narrative about the prize that he won in the poetic contest, Hesiod pointedly says again that this episode marks the only time that he ever made a sea voyage (660).

water. [104] There is a built-in antithesis here with the long sea voyage undertaken by {77|78} the Achaeans when they sailed to Troy. Perhaps the antithesis was meant to extend further: Aulis is an original setting for the Catalogue of Ships tradition, transferred to a Trojan setting in the Iliad only because this particular epic starts the action in the final year of the war. But even the Iliad acknowledges Aulis as the starting point of the Achaean flotilla. Moreover, the strong Homeric emphasis on navigation as a key to the Achaeans’ survival (for example, Iliad XVI 80-82) [105] is in sharp contrast with the strong Hesiodic emphasis on the poet’s personal inexperience in navigation—especially in view of Hesiod’s additional emphasis on Aulis as the starting point for not only his short sea voyage but also for the long one undertaken by the Achaeans. Perhaps, then, this passage reveals an intended differentiation of Hesiodic from Homeric poetry.

In this light it is not out of place to consider a variant verse reported by the scholia at Works and Days 657. In this variant we find Hesiod declaring that his adversary in the poetic contest that he won was none other than Homer himself:

ὕμνῳ νικήσαντ’ ἐν Χαλκίδι θεῖον Ὅμηρον

variant at Works and Days 657

defeating god-like Homer in song, at Chalkis

instead of

ὕμνῳ νικήσαντα φέρειν τρίποδ’ ὠτώεντα

Hesiod Works and Days 657

winning in song, [I say that I] carried away [as a prize] a tripod with handles on it

There is no proof for the conventional explanation that this variant verse is a mere interpolation (with the supposedly interpolated verse matching a verse found in an epigram ascribed to Hesiod in Contest of Homer and Hesiod p. 233.213-214 Allen). Also, to argue that this verse may be part of a genuine variant passage is not to say that the surviving version about the tripod is therefore not genuine. In archaic Greek poetry, reported variants may at any time reflect not some false textual alteration but, rather, a genuine traditional alternative that has been gradually ousted in the course of the poem’s crystallization into a fixed text. [106]

Furthermore, there is an attested traditional story that tells of the contest of Homer and Hesiod (Contest pp. 225-238 Allen), juxtaposing the {78|79} Life of Homer and the Life of Hesiod traditions. In its present form it is a late and accretive reworking that has generated much controversy about its authorship, a problem that cannot be addressed here. [107] One thing is sure, however: the basic premise of the story—that Homer and Hesiod competed in a poetic contest—exhibits the characteristics of a traditional theme. This theme, moreover, corresponds to a basic truth about archaic Greek society: the performance of poetry, from the days of the oral poets all the way to the era of the rhapsodes, was by its nature a matter of competition. [108]


To treat Hesiod simply as an author will only accentuate our inability to appreciate fully his poems, in that he represents a culmination of what must have been countless successive generations of singers interacting with their audiences throughout the Greek-speaking world. Whatever poetic devices we admire in the poems have been tested many thousands of times, we may be sure, on the most discerning audiences. Even the unmistakable signs of a Hesiodic poem’s structural unity are surely the result of streamlining by the tradition itself, achieved in the continuous process of a poem’s being recomposed in each new performance. Instead of referring to a poem in such a context, moreover, it would be better to speak in terms of a tradition of performing a certain kind of poem.

With the important added factor of pan-Hellenic diffusion, the successive recompositions of Hesiodic poetry could in time become ever less varied, more and more crystallized, as the requirements of composition became increasingly universalized. Of course the rate of such crystallization, and even the date, could have been different in each poem or even in different parts of the same poem. From this point of view, we can in principle include as Hesiodic even a composition like the Shield of Herakles, though it may contain references to the visual arts datable to the early sixth century. Scholars are too quick to dismiss this poem as not a genuine work on the basis of the dating alone, and it then becomes all the easier for them to underrate its artistic qualities on the grounds that it is merely an imitation of Hesiod. {79|80}

Critics also have noticed that the conclusion of the Theogony at verses 901-1020 is formally and even stylistically distinct from the previous part of the poem. [109] But this part is also functionally distinct from the rest, and we may note in general that different themes in oral poetry tend to exhibit different trends in formal—even linguistic—development. To put it another way: different contexts are characterized by different language. An explanation along these lines is surely preferable to a favorite scenario of many experts, in which the Theogony was somehow composed by a combination of one Hesiod and a plethora of pseudo-Hesiods. Worse still, some will even attribute the constitution of the poem to a dreary succession of redactors. Whatever the arguments for multiple authorship may be, there is predictably little agreement about how much or how little can be attributed to the real Hesiod. In sum, it seems preferable to treat all Hesiodic poems, including the fragments, as variable manifestations of a far more extensive phenomenon, which is Hesiodic poetry.

Another obstacle to our understanding of Hesiodic poetry, perhaps even harder to overcome, is the commonplace visualization of Hesiod as a primitive landlubber of a peasant who is struggling to express himself in a cumbersome and idiosyncratic poetic medium clumsily forged out of an epic medium that he has not fully mastered. Hesiod’s self-dramatization as one who works the land for a living is thus assumed to be simply a historical fact, which can then serve as a basis for condescending speculations about an eighth-century Boeotian peasant’s lowly level of thinking. It is as if the poetry of Hesiod, and of Homer, for that matter, were primitive raw material that somehow became arbitrarily universalized by the Greeks as a point of reference for their poetry and rhetoric in particular, and as the foundation of their civilization in general. Of course, if critics go on to treat such poetry as a producer rather than a product of the Greek poetic heritage, it is easy to find fault whenever we fail to understand. Over the years Hesiod especially has been condemned for many offenses against the sensibilities of modern literary critics. Perhaps the most shortsighted of the many charges leveled against him is that he is, on occasion, capable of forgetting his starting point.

There are, to be sure, those who have articulately conveyed the cohesiveness and precision of Hesiodic poetry. I single out the work of Jean-Pierre Vernant, whose findings about such key Hesiodic themes as Prometheus and the ascendancy of Zeus are so definitive that no attempt need be made here to offer a summary. [110] There is also the work of {80|81} Peter Walcot, whose repertoire of Near Eastern parallels to aspects of the Theogony and the Works and Days serves to illuminate the inner workings of Hesiodic composition. [111] The value of these analogues is not to be underrated, and the absence of any mention of them up to this point can be remedied by citing Martin West’s commentaries, which contain an illustrative collection of references.[112] It is worth noting, however, that such Near Eastern parallelisms may in any given instance be a matter of typology rather than of direct borrowing. Given the pervasiveness of cross-cultural parallelisms in patterns of mythmaking, even the most striking convergences in detail may turn out to be nothing more than a typological analogue: I cite for example the Inca parallels to the Pandora myth, [113] which seem closer to the Hesiodic version than do some of the Near Eastern parallels generally cited as Hesiod’s “sources.”

One of the most neglected areas in the general study of Hesiod, as also in this specific presentation, is the artistry of the poems. With our fragmentary understanding of the Hesiodic tradition, some special effects that would have delighted the intended audience will be forever lost to us, while others will emerge only in their barest outlines. It seems appropriate to bring this survey to a close with one such dimly perceived set of special effects, illustrating simultaneously the richness of the poetry and our own poverty of understanding.

In Works and Days 504-563, a portrait of winter and its harshness, the North Wind is described as it descends upon trees along the side of a mountain, penetrating the skin of all living things in its path with its cold blast (507-518). The imagery here is pointedly sexual, as a study of parallel imagery in other Indo-European tradition clearly shows. [114] Then follows (519-525) the contrasting image of a sensuous young girl taking a bath in her warm and comfortable boudoir, safely sheltered from the piercing wind and “not yet knowing the ways of golden Aphrodite” (521); meanwhile, the anósteos ‘boneless one’ is gnawing at his own foot in his cold and wretched haunts (524-525). Now, the Greek word anósteos has an Indic cognate anasthá– ‘boneless one’, a kenning for “penis,” [115] while the Greek word for ‘gnaw’, téndō (525), is related to the Irish teinm (laído), ‘gnawing [of marrow]’, a magical process leading to knowledge by divination. [116] Thus the ‘boneless one’, by gnawing his foot, {81|82} is one who “knows,” in contrast with the inexperienced young girl, who does not “know” (εἰδυῖα 521).

But the allusiveness extends even further. The ‘boneless one’ is also to be understood as an octopus (compare the syntax of Works and Days 524, containing anósteos, with that of Hesiod F 204.129 MW, containing átrikhos ‘hairless one’ = snake), an animal that is conventionally pictured in Greek lore as eating its own feet when it is hungry. [117] The hungry octopus gnawing at its foot is described as living in cold and wretched haunts (Works and Days 525), and this image of poverty takes us back to an earlier image of a poor man in winter, holding his swollen foot in his emaciated hand (496-497); the Proclus commentary here cites an Ephesian law to the effect that a child could not be exposed until his father’s feet were swollen with famine. [118] Our thoughts turn to Oidípous ‘he whose feet are swollen’, and the story of his exposure.

In this connection we come to yet another occurrence of the word poús ‘foot’ in this passage about winter: at Works and Days533-535, the winter storm is described as making everyone hunch over like a trípous ‘three-footed’ man (533; compare 518). This kenning, which designates a man leaning on a walking stick, corresponds to the aínigma ‘riddle’ of the Sphinx as solved by Oidípous (Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannus 393, 1525). [119] Like the ‘boneless one’ who ‘gnaws’ his foot (Works and Days 524) and thereby knows by way of divination, Oedipus knows by virtue of solving the riddle of the Sphinx. The oracular tone of this passage is sustained later (at Works and Days 571) with another kenning, pheréoikos ‘he who carries his house’ (= snail), which is introduced by the expression all’ hopót’ an ‘but whenever…’ (571), a frequent introductory phrase in oracles. [120]

This much said, we are still typically far from understanding all the implications of this passage, just as we are far from understanding all that can be understood about Hesiod and his world.

A definitive assessment of Hesiod’s poems is elusive, since we still know so little about their background. The best hope is that there will be further progress in rigorous internal analysis and in systematic comparison with other attested Greek poetic traditions, so that tomorrow’s reader may better appreciate the mechanics and esthetics of Hesiodic poetry. Even so, we shall always fall far short, unable ever to recover all that this poetry presupposes of its own audience at large. {82|83}


1. Cf also Xenophanes B 10 DK on Homer, Heraclitus B 57 DK on Hesiod.
2. On Hesiodic poetry as a type of “Mirror of Princes,” see Martin 1984a; cf. also Watkins 1979.
3. See pp. 8ff.
4. See pp. 9ff.
5. Cf. Snodgrass 1971.421, 435.
6. Cf. N 1979a.7.
7. Rohde 1898 1:125-127. Cf. pp. 10ff.
8. Cf. N 1979a.8 § 15n1.
9. For more on the rhapsodic recitation of the poetry of Archilochus, see e.g. Clearchus F 92 Wehrli.
10. Parry 1971 and Lord 1960.
11. See pp. 18ff.
12. See pp. 21ff.
13. See pp. 21ff.
14. Edwards 1971.
15. See pp. 23ff.
16. Wackernagel 1951.1103.
17. Wackernagel p. 1103.
18. Finnegan 1977.71-87.
19. Kiparsky 1976.99-102.
20. Further discussion in N 1979a.5-9.
21. Durante 1976.177-179.
22. For internal evidence, see e.g. N 1979a.15-20.
23. Cf. N pp. 265-267.
24. Radloff 1885.xviii-xix. See also Martin 1989.6-7.
25. See pp. 27-28.
26. N 1979a.140-141, 273.
 27. N 1979a.233-237.
28. Cf. Svenbro 1976.50-59. See also pp. 274-275 below.
29. Detienne 1973.
30. Svenbro 1976.54; for other passages concerning the poetic gastḗr ‘belly’, see N 1979a.229-233, 261 § 11n4.
31. N 1979a. 18-20.
32. N 1979a.296-297, following DELG 137-138, 417. On possible explanations for the fact that there is no trace of laryngeal *h2 in such forms as Hēsíodos, see Peters 1980.14 and Vine 1982.144-145. Another possible factor: laryngeals (*h1, *h2, *h3) are frequently lost without trace in the second half of compounds (see Beekes 1969.242-243 for a list of examples; also Mayrhofer 1986.125, 129, 140).
33. For similar implications as built into the name Hómēros, see N pp. 297-300
34. N p. 297.
35. Van Brock 1959. Further details at pp. 129-130 below.
36. N pp. 292-295. Cf. p. 135n58 below.
37. Snodgrass 1971.191-193, 398-399.
38. See pp. 9-11 above; see also N 1979a.115 § 28n4.
39. N pp. 296-297.
40. I do not deny the notion of “poets within a tradition,” as advocated by Griffith 1983.58n82. I am not arguing generally, as Griffith claims, that tradition creates the poet, but I am arguing specifically that the pan-Hellenic tradition of oral poetry appropriates the poet, potentially transforming even historical figures into generic ones who merely represent the traditional functions of their poetry. To put it another way: the poet, by virtue of being a transmitter of tradition, can become absorbed by the tradition (detailed examples in N 1985a).
41. See pp. 8ff.
42. N 1979a.303-308.
43. Cf. Herodotus 5.83 for a reference to the ritual insulting of local women by choral groups.
44. Commentary in Pfister 1909 1:231n861.
45. On which see Pfister pp. 214-215n788. For more on the myths concerning the death and revival of Hesiod: Scodel 1980, especially with reference to the epigram in Life of Hesiod p. 51.9-10 Wilamowitz (1916), comparable with Plato Comicus F 68 Kock, a passage concerning the death and revival of Aesop. More on the Life of Aesop tradition in N 1979a.279-316.
46. Brelich 1958.322.
47. N 1979a.279-288.
48. N p. 306.
49. N p. 304§4n3.
50. For other references to the Homeridai of Chios, see Acusilaus FGH 2 F 2, Hellanicus FGH 4 F 20 (both by way of Harpocration s.v.); Isocrates Helen 65; Plato Republic 599d, Ion 530c.
51. The basic testimonia are conveniently available in Allen 1924.228-229 and Burkert 1972.76n10. Cf. N 1979a.165-166.
52. Brelich 1958.320-321; cf. N pp. 8-9.
53. For an Indic parallel to the skêptron ‘staff, scepter’: Minkowski 1986.49-78.
54. On the connection of this neîkos ‘quarrel’ with the one between Achilles an Agamemnon in Iliad I: N 1979a.109, following Muellner 1976.105-106.
55. Cf. Koller 1956.
56. Detailed discussion in Koller pp. 174-182. Koller p. 177 stresses that húmnos is the totality of performance; cf. ἀοιδῆς ὕμνον ‘húmnos of the song’ at Odyssey viii 429. Of course, the “rest of the song” that supposedly follows each of the Homeric Hymns may be a stylized formal convention rather than an actual sequel.
57. N 1979a.5-6, 8-9.
58. Koller 1956.170-171.
59. On the potential for expansion and compression in oral poetics, see Lord 1960.99-123.
60. On the interconnection: N 1979a.213-214 § 3n1, n3.
61. Cf. Thucydides 3.104.5.
62. N 1979a.5-6, 8-9.
63. N pp. 8-9.
64. Benveniste 1969 2:35-42.
65. Cf. West 1966.1-16.
66. Cf. Hesychius s.v. θεμούς· διαθέσεις, παραινέσεις.
67. Scheinberg 1979.16-28.
68. Cf. Detienne 1973.12.
69. Janko 1982.85, 197.
70. Edwards 1971.141-165.
71. In what follows, C = “consonant,” V = “vowel.”
72. Data in Janko 1982.
73. Ibid.
74. West 1978.27.
75. See p. 53.
76. N 1979a.151-165, following Vernant 1960, 1966. See also the updated observations of Vernant 1985.101, 104, 106.
77. West 1978.176.
78. On the importance of ornithomanteíā ‘divination by birds’ in the whole poem, cf. Works and Days 828 in the context of the comments by West 1978.364-365.
79. Commentary in N 1985a.68-74.
80. N p. 69.
81. N pp. 72-73. Cf. also Vernant 1985.101, 104, 106.
82. N p. 73.
83. Commentary in N pp. 37-38.
84. Cf. West 1978.334-335; cf. Watkins 1979.
85. Lévi 1966 [1898].121. Cf. N 1985a.38-41. See also pp. 110-111 below.
86. West 1978.33-34.
87. West p. 34.
88. West p. 34.
89. On which see Svenbro 1976.57-58.
90. Cf. N 1979a.228-242.
91. Wallace 1974.8
92. For a collection of fragments and commentary, see Schmid 1947.
93. Schmid pp. 28-29.
94. See Hanell 1934.95-97.
95. N 1985a.51-60.
96. Cf. N 1979a.180-181.
97. Cf. West 1978.197.
98. For these and other examples, see Perpillou 1973.239-240.
99. Perpillou p. 231.
100. West 1966.278.
101. DELG 553 (cf. also Greek koéō ‘perceive’, Latin caueō ‘beware, take precautions, provide guarantees’).
102. N 1979a.313-314.
103. On the maleficent aspects of Hekate, as represented in archaic Greek iconography: Vermeule 1979.109.
104. West 1978.320.
105. Commentary in N 1979a.333-347.
106. Cf. Lamberton 1988.45-48.
107. See janko 1982.259-260n80; cf. also Dunkel 1979.252-253. For a useful perspective on the problem: Lamberton pp. 5-10.
108. Detailed discussion in Durante 1976.197-198. Cf. also Dunkel 1979 and N 1979a.311 § 2n6. For an example of a myth about such a competition, I cite the story of a contest between Arctinus of Miletus and Lesches of Mytilene, two of the poets of the Epic Cycle (Phaenias F 33 Wehrli, in Clement Stromateis 1.131.6).
109. West 1966.398.
110. Vernant 1974.103-120, 177-194.
111. Walcot 1966.
112. West 1966, 1978.
113. Sinclair 1932.13.
114. Watkins 1978a.231.
115. References in Watkins p. 233.
116. Watkins p. 232.
117. References in West 1978.290.
118. West p. 284.
119. Cf. Asclepiades FGH 12 F 71 and the comments of West 1978.293.
120. West p. 302.

Originally published by The Center for Hellenic Studies under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. From “Greek Mythology and Poetics”, by Gregory Nagy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992).