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Hesiod

HesiodBorn: fl. 700 BC
Birthplace: Boeotia, Greece
Died: fl. 700 BC
Location of death: Boeotia, Greece
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Poet

Nationality: Ancient Greece
Executive summary: Works and Days

Hesiod, the father of Greek didactic poetry, probably flourished during the 8th century BC. His father had migrated from the Aeolic Cyme in Asia Minor to Boeotia; and Hesiod and his brother Perses were born at Ascra, near Mount Helicon. Here, as he fed his father's flocks, he received his commission from the Muses to be their prophet and poet -- a commission which he recognized by dedicating to them a tripod won by him in a contest of song at some funeral games at Chalcis in Euboea, still in existence at Helicon in the age of Pausanias. After the death of his father Hesiod is said to have left his native land in disgust at the result of a lawsuit with his brother and to have migrated to Naupactus. There was a tradition that he was murdered by the sons of his host in the sacred enclosure of the Nemean Zeus at Oeneon in Locris; his remains were removed for burial by command of the Delphic oracle to Orchomenus in Boeotia, where the Ascraeans settled after the destruction of their town by the Thespians, and where, according to Pausanias, his grave was to be seen.

Hesiod's earliest poem, the famous Works and Days, and according to Boeotian testimony the only genuine one, embodies the experiences of his daily life and work, and, interwoven with episodes of fable, allegory, and personal history, forms a sort of Boeotian shepherd's calendar. The first portion is an ethical enforcement of honest labor and dissuasive of strife and idleness (1-383); the second consists of hints and rules as to husbandry (384-764); and the third is a religious calendar of the months, with remarks on the days most lucky or the contrary for rural or nautical employments. The connecting link of the whole poem is the author's advice to his brother, who appears to have bribed the corrupt judges to deprive Hesiod of his already scantier inheritance, and to whom, as he wasted his substance lounging in the agora, the poet more than once returned good for evil, though he tells him there will be a limit to this unmerited kindness. In the Works and Days the episodes which rise above an even didactic level are the "Creation and Equipment of Pandora", the "Five Ages of the World" and the much admired "Description of Winter" (by some critics judged post-Hesiodic). The poem also contains the earliest known fable in Greek literature, that of "The Hawk and the Nightingale." It is in the Works and Days especially that we glean indications of Hesiod's rank and condition in life, that of a stay-at-home farmer of the lower class; whose sole experience of the sea was a single voyage of 40 yards across the Euripus, and an old-fashioned bachelor whose misogynic views and prejudice against matrimony have been conjecturally traced to his brother Perses having a wife as extravagant as himself.

The other poem attributed to Hesiod or his school which has come down in great part to modern times is The Theogony, a work of grander scope, inspired alike by older traditions and abundant local associations. It is an attempt to work into system, as none had essayed to do before, the floating legends of the gods and goddesses and their offspring. This task Herodotus attributes to Hesiod, and he is quoted by Plato in the Symposium as the author of the Theogony. The first to question his claim to this distinction was Pausanias the geographer (AD 200). The Alexandrian grammarians had no doubt on the subject; and indications of the hand that wrote the Works and Days may be found in the severe strictures on women, in the high esteem for the wealth-giver Plutus and in coincidences of verbal expression. Although, no doubt of Hesiodic origin, in its present form it is composed of differeni recensions and numerous later additions and interpolations. The Theogony consists of three divisions: (1) a cosmogony or creation; (2) a theogony proper, recounting the history of the dynasties of Zeus and Cronus; and (3) a brief and abruptly terminated hero÷gony, the starting-point not improbably of the supplementary poem, Lists of Women who wedded immortals, of which all but a few fragments are lost. The proem (1-116) addressed to the Heliconian and Pierian muses, is considered to have been variously enlarged, altered and arranged by successive rhapsodists. The poet has interwoven several episodes of rare merit, such as the contest of Zeus and the Olympian gods with the Titans, and the description of the prison house in which the vanquished Titans are confined, with the Giants for keepers and Day and Night for janitors (735 seq.).

The only other poem which has come down to us under Hesiod's name is the Shield of Heracles, the opening verses of which are attributed by a nameless grammarian to the fourth book of Eoiai. The theme of the piece is the expedition of Heracles and Iolaus against the robber Cycnus; but its main object apparently is to describe the shield of Heracles (141-317). It is clearly an imitation of the Homeric account of the shield of Achilles (Iliad, XVIII, 479) and is now generally considered spurious. Titles and fragments of other lost poems of Hesiod have come down to us: didactic, as the Maxims of Cheiron; genealogical, as the Aegimius, describing the contest of that mythical ancestor of the Dorians with the Lapithae; and mythical, as the Marriage of Ceyx and the Descent of Theseus to Hades.

Recent editions of Hesiod include a contest of song between Homer and Hesiod at the funeral games held in honor of King Amphidamas at Chalcis. This little tract belongs to the time of Hadrian, who is actually mentioned as having been present during its recitation, but is founded on an earlier account by the sophist Alcidamas. Quotations (old and new) are made from the works of both poets, and, in spite of the sympathies of the audience, the judge decides in favor of Hesiod. Certain biographical details of Homer and Hesiod are also given.

A strong characteristic of Hesiod's style is his sententious and proverbial philosophy (as in Works and Days, 24-25, 40, 218, 345, 371). There is naturally less of this in the Theogony, yet there too not a few sentiments take the form of the saw or adage. He has undying fame as the first of didactic poets, the accredited systematizer of Greek mythology and the rough but not unpoetical sketcher of the lines on which Virgil wrought out his exquisitely finished Georgics.

Brother: Perses

Author of books:
Theogony (poetry)
Works and Days (poetry)



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