April 05, 2010


For my lit project, I read the Works and Days, Theogony, and The Shield of Heracles by Hesiod.

Like Homer, Hesiod is an early bard continuing what seems to be a much older oral tradition. The Homeric tradition and the Hesiodic tradition are usually considered as separate traditions (perhaps with some intermingling), and so the two together give us two perspectives on Ancient poetry. Homer's epics are narrative poems which take place in the mythological past. The Hesiodic tradition is more varied, and if it is artistically less satisfying, it is historically more fascinating.

The Hesiodic tradition begins with Works and Days which, unlike Homer, is of the present. After a hymn for Zeus (considered spurious by some scholars) and a description of the Five Ages -- which ends in the modern age which, surprise, is the hardest on Man and which requires constant toil (the subject to come in this poem) -- the poem describes various farming techniques (when to sow, when to reap, when to furrow, when to sleep, &c.), stressing the importance of Work, and ends with a description of Days (which days are good for what). There are a few curious myths thrown in between all this stuff about work and days; what caught my eye was the myth of Pandora, which I had not yet stumbled upon in all of my Classical readings (apparently Hesiod is the only Ancient to relate this myth). The Pandora myth itself has been reworked by many modern authors and has been turned into a stunningly poetic allegory; I was shocked to discover how unpoetic the original is. Really, it is just a myth which blames all of the Evils in the world on Woman. It is because of Her that we must toil, because of Her that we must suffer, because of Her that we have no hope. There is not much to the myth, and I am impressed modern interpreters have been able to discover so many nuances.

Theogony is a genealogy of the gods. There are a lot of them. Most of them are personifications (of, say, Hardship, or Zeal, or whatever). Most of them are not mentioned much (at all) outside Theogony. This is my second time through the Theogony, and it is a fascinating, bizarre, and ultimately tiresome read.

The Shield of Heracles is a mini-epic (or else fragment of an epic) of an episode in which Heracles fights Cycnus, the son of Ares. This is the closest the Hesiodic tradition gets to the Homeric tradition. A good deal of this poem is dedicated to describing the bronze shield Hephaestus made for Heracles. It is difficult to imagine any shield could be as elaborate as this description. It is even more difficult to imagine how the Ancients found any pleasure in an elaborate description such as this. (Such a description is not unique in Ancient lit, as anybody who has read Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes can attest.)

Hesiod is usually the loser when he is compared to Homer. (That probably does not need to be said.) Poor Hesiod. His work has survived two-and-a-half thousand years so that I might admire how bizarre it is. He probably deserves better.

1 comment:

DG said...

hahaha yes probably