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The figure of Hesiod, in the poetry attributed to him, proclaims his birthplace as Ascra in Boeotia. There is no tangible evidence for a historical Hesiod, outside the poetry that presents him in the first person. Hesiod, along with Homer, typifies the earliest attested phases of Greek literature, although the poetry attributed to him can be explained as the culmination of a lengthy earlier period of evolution in oral traditions.

The poet is credited with the authorship of the Theogony and the Works and Days, as also of other poems like the Shield of Herakles. In content, the Theogony and the Works and Days complement each other. These two monumental poems were reaching their definitive shapes towards the end of the 8th century B.C. and the beginning of the 7th, while the formation of other works, including the Shield, is likely to be later, though it is difficult to establish how much later. The historical circumstances that led to the status of all three of these works as written texts are difficult to reconstruct.

The Theogony is a large-scale synthesis of a vast variety of local traditions concerning gods, organized along the lines of a narrative that tells how they came to be and how they established permanent control over the cosmos. In many cultures, narratives about the cosmos and about the gods that shaped it constitute a way for society to affirm itself. Specifically, theogonies tend to affirm kingship as an embodiment of society, to the extent that a king is viewed as the body politic. What makes the Hesiodic Theogony unique is that it affirms no historical king. Such a gesture would have situated the Theogony in one time and one place. Rather, the Theogony affirms the kingship of the god Zeus himself over all the other gods and over the whole cosmos.

Further, Hesiod appropriates to himself the authority of kingship. The poet declares that it was he, where we might have expected some king instead, upon whom the Muses bestowed the two gifts of a scepter and an authoritative voice (Hes. Th. 30-3), which are the visible signs of kingship. It is not that this gesture is meant to make Hesiod a king. Rather, the point is that the authority of kingship now belongs to the poetic voice, the voice of the Theogony.

While the Theogony affirms no historical king, the Works and Days ultimately eliminates the very need for kings. In the Theogony, there had been a portrait of an ideal king, generalized beyond any one time and place, whose powers of speech could resolve even the greatest neikos ‘dispute’ (Hes. Th. 87). In the Works and Days, by contrast, there is a neikos (Hes. WD 35) between two brothers, Hesiod and Perses, the former of whom is portrayed as just and the later, as unjust. This time, an unspecified group of kings is called upon to adjudicate this dispute, and they find in favor of the unjust brother. This initial finding, which is represented as a violation of dike or ‘justice’, provokes the righteous words that amount to the Works and Days, words that will ultimately vindicate the righteous Hesiod and make kings obsolete.

In response to the injustice of Perses and the kings, Hesiod in the Works and Days tells

    the story of Prometheus and Pandora (Hes. WD 42-105), showing that work as agriculture is a sacred activity
    the myth of the five generations of humankind (Hes. WD 106-201). The sequence of the generations-Gold Silver Bronze blank Iron-symbolizes the process of moral degeneration, as the metals decrease in value. The presence of a blank metal at Generation 4 in the sequence is crucial in making possible the simultaneous symbolism of better and worse, worse and better, in the juxtapositions of Generations 1 and 2, 3 and 4. Generation 4 could not be “better” than Generation 3, which it is, if there were an explicit metal placed in slot 4, which would have to be worse, not better, than Bronze, which is in slot 3. As for Generation 5, it is a dangerous composite of all the oppositions in Generations 1 2 3 4: it is the present.
    the ainos or ‘fable’ of the Hawk and the Nightingale (Hes. WD 202-212); the “moral” of the fable becomes clear in Hes. WD 275-278, where we learn that humanity is distinct from beasts because beasts as subhumans devour each other, while humans do not; since the hawk, representing the king, threatens to devour the nightingale, representing the righteous poet, the moral position of kingship itself is undermined by the fable.
    definition of dike as justice, culminating in an eschatological vision of two absolutes, the city of dike (Hes. WD 225-237) and the city of its opposite, hubris (Hes. WD 238-247).
In the fullness of time, the man of dike gets rich (Hes. WD 280-281), while the man of hubris loses everything (Hes. WD 325-326). Meanwhile, Perses loses all (Hes. WD 396), which means that the Works and Days, in its own narrative logic, dramatizes the fullness of time. In the process, the very subject of kings and kingship recedes from view.

The Works and Days concludes with a set of generalized instructions on ritual correctness, corresponding to the lesson on moral correctness embodied in the overall address to the unrighteous brother Perses.

The Shield of Herakles is an epic-style narrative of a mortal combat between the ultimate hero Herakles and a formidable adversary, Kyknos. The high point is an elaborate ecphrasis of the images represented on the hero's shield, comparable to the ecphrasis of the Shield of Achilles in Iliad 18.

    Detienne, M. Les Maitres de verite dans la Grece archaique, 2nd ed. (Paris 1973). Interprets the role of the poet in archaic Greek society, with instructive references to Hesiod. Griffith, M. “Personality in Hesiod,” Classical Antiquity 2 (1983) 37-65. Explores the patterns of self-reference in Hesiodic poetry. On his formulation of “poets within a tradition” (p. 58), see also Nagy, Greek Mythology and Poetics (below) 48. Hamilton, R. The Architecture of Hesiodic Poetry (Baltimore 1989). Attempts to explain the organizing principles of Hesiodic poetry. Janko, R. Homer, Hesiod and the Homeric Hymns: Diachronic Development in Epic Diction (Cambridge 1982). Offers a relative chronology for Hesiodic composition, the textual fixation of which is dated a few decades later than that of Homeric composition. Lamberton, R. Hesiod (New Haven 1988). A particularly useful synthesis. Martin, R. P. “Hesiod, Odysseus, and the Instruction of Princes,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 114 (1984) 29-48. Situates Hesiodic poetry within the traditions of “wisdom literature.” Minton, W. W. “The Proem-Hymn of Hesiod's Theogony.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 101 (1970) 357-377. An abidingly useful study of Hesiodic conventions in poetic organization. Nagy, G. “Hesiod,” in Ancient Writers, edited by T. J. Luce, 43-72. (New York 1982) 43-72. Rewritten as Ch.3 in Nagy, Greek Mythology and Poetics (Ithaca 1990) 36-82. Pucci, P. Hesiod and the Language of Poetry (Baltimore 1977). An intuitive exploration of the poet's authority. Rosen, R. “Poetry and Sailing in Hesiod's Works and Days,” Classical Antiquity 9 (1990) 99-113. A compelling case-study of convergences in ethics and poetics. Solmsen, F., Merkelbach, R., and West, M. L., ed. Hesiodi Theogonia, Opera et Dies, Scutum (Oxford 1970). This Oxford Classical Text edition is the most accessible collection of Hesiodic poetry. Solmsen edited the Theogony, the Works and Days, and the Shield; Merkelbach and West, the fragments. The editors assume that they are working with a purely textual rather than oral tradition, and their editorial judgments pervasively reflect this assumption. Thalmann, W. G. Conventions of Form and Thought in Early Greek Epic Poetry (Baltimore 1984). A thoroughgoing study comparing Hesiodic and Homeric traditions. Vernant, J.-P. 1985. Mythe et pensee chez les Grecs. 2nd ed., recast and repaginated. Paris. Illustrates the internal logic of mythmaking, with Hesiodic poetry as a prime example. West, M. L., ed. with commentary, Hesiod: Theogony (Oxford 1966). -, ed. with commentary, Hesiod: Works and Days (Oxford 1978).
Gregory Nagy
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