Like Beyonce or Cher, Hesiod needs only one name; Papa H, and I couldn’t not write a quick post about our favourite ancient bonkers-brain could I? Although I refer to Ovid, Virgil, Herodotus, Homer, Plutarch and Orpheus in these scribblings, much of the information is taken from Hesiod’s books ‘Theogony’ and ‘Works and Days’.
Works and Days is more of a comment on social philosophy, focusing on economic practises and the central truth that toil is the burden of man, but is also man’s redemption and salvation. It is, however, interspersed with descriptions of the five Ages of Man and accounts of the gods involving themselves in matters of justice.
Theogony on the other hand deals directly with the myths of creation and the lives of the gods, and is packed full of the kind of crazy stories I can’t help but love him for.
Several other writings have been attributed to him, though their authenticity is not conclusive. Of these the most likely to be his are ‘Catalogue of Women’ and ‘The Shield of Heracles’. The former is a mythical work dealing with the mortal women who had spent a dirty weekend with a god, and the demi-gods and their descendants such pairings produced, and the latter describes the dust-up Heracles had with Cycnus while holidaying near Itonus. This book is generally credited to Hesiod, so I’ll be referring to it in other posts.
It is not entirely clear when Hesiod lived. From the style and originality of Works and Days it seems likely this text was written first. Indeed, Works and Days is referred to in Theogony as an already well renowned poem. For this to be the case there could well be a century between the two books.
He appears also to have been a big fan of Homer. His books follow the same diction, dialect and style of his idol so they must have been written well after the Iliad and Odyssey. The Cyclic poets are traditionally dated from 775 B.C. onwards, but Hesiod and Homer, in their writing style appear to be even older. Indeed, Herodotus places both poets 400 years before his own time, at about 830 to 820 B.C.
Whatever the case, and I’m sure by now you couldn’t care less, he is a very old geezer. Not much is known about his life, and what is known is derived from snippets and allusions in the works credited to him (pinches of salt all round).
However, the story of his death has been fairly well documented and, in keeping with the general air of confusing ambiguity associated with the Greek myths, it is packed full of miraculous elements and everybody who tells it disagrees on numerous points of detail.
In short, Hesiod was told by the Oracle at Delphi that the ‘issue of death should overtake him in the fair grove of Nemean Zeus.’ Understanding this to refer to Nemea on the Isthmus of Corinth, Hesiod gave it a wide berth and retired to Oenoe in Locris. There he was invited to a party being thrown by Amphiphanes and Ganyetor, the sons of Phegeus.
This place, unbeknownst to the poet, turned out to be sacred to Nemean Zeus (D’oh!). The party hosts suspected Hesiod of shagging their sister and murdered him by the hot tub.
His corpse was chucked into the sea, but was carried back by dolphins, then buried at Oenoe (Plutarch, always having to be different, says he was buried at Ascra). His bones were later dug up and reburied at Orchomenus (without the help of the dolphins this time).
Hesiod is unique in the poets of Europe at that time for placing himself at the centre of his stories. One such yarn has him meeting with the Muses on the slopes of Mount Helicon where he lived. The gaggle of goddesses were so impressed with his unquestionable genius they gifted him a laurel staff to symbolise his poetic might. They also taught him a ‘glorious song’, which was no doubt the story he relates in Work and Days.
This is a very clever get-out-of-jail-free card for the author, because it allows him to depict the gods in all their capricious glory without fear of divine comeback or surprise beatings from crazy zealots, for it was, after all, the daughters of Zeus who gave the stories to him.
So off he went, roaming the countryside entertaining the locals with super stories of the goings on of the gods, and thanks to his need to write them down – something many other poets didn’t do as they favoured just reciting them at whim – we have a fairly intact log of his musings.
For all I may joke about Hesiod’s nuttiness, he is just relating the myths of the time, rather than inventing them, and really it’s the stories themselves that are completely crazy, but what a fantastic in nature and rich in detail selection of fables they are, and you can’t help but be utterly fascinated by them.
Love and Monkey Nuts x