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Books: Early Harvest

teaches classics at the University of Pennsylvania. Her new book, The Death of Socrates, will be published by Harvard University Press this fall.

Hesiod: Volume I: Theogony, works and days, testimonia Translated and edited by Glenn W. Most

(Harvard University Press, 308 pp.,


hesiod: Volume II: the shield, catalogue of women, other fragments Translated and edited by Glenn W. Most

(Harvard University Press, 434 pp.,


There is an ancient tradition that Hesiod and Homer once competed for a poetry prize. A surviving work on this subject called the Contest of Hesiod and Homer--composed in Hellenistic times, although the legend is much earlier-- tells us that the archaic poetry slam took place at the funeral games for the king of Euboea. It recounts that Homer responded nimbly to every line, riddle, and question posed by Hesiod, and quoted his own most stirring military passages from the Iliad: "Shield rang against shield, helm against helm, man against man, and on their shining helmets the crests tipped with horsehair touched as they lowered their heads, so closely they stood together." The cinematic physical detail is matched by the gripping psychological complexity: Homer finds human intimacy even when people are killing each other.

Hesiod was much less of a crowd-pleaser. His star turn, supposedly the best passage in all his work, began (in Glenn W. Most's translation) in this rather offputting fashion: "When the Atlas-born Pleiades rise, start the harvest--the plowing, when they set. They are concealed for forty nights and days, but when the year has revolved they appear once more, when the iron is being sharpened." Even if all the listeners had been farmers, and rather gullible ones at that, it is still hard to imagine that anyone could have been at the edge of his seat for this astronomical-agricultural lecture. Inevitably the people demand that Homer be given the crown. "But," we are told, "the king crowned Hesiod, declaring that the winner should be the man who recommended farming and peace, not the one whose subject was war and bloodshed."

The Contest is not, of course, a record of an actual competition. It should be read as an interesting piece of ancient literary criticism. It engages with an issue that we still debate today: the relationship between literature and moral values, between culture and politics. Should great works of literature be appreciated for their ethical teaching--so that, for example, we might read the Iliad as a text about the bad effects of anger, or about the importance of discipline in the army? Or should we draw a sharp distinction between literature that delights--as the Homeric poems undoubtedly do--and school textbooks that give us dull but useful information, or the Pollyanna school of literature that teaches us how to be good even if it bores us to tears?

And what should we do if the cultural products that we find most delightful are also those that corrupt us? Plato's Socrates expels Homer and the tragic poets from his ideal republic, because their work is damaging to the citizens' souls. According to Plato, the Iliad makes you feel things that you ought not to feel: rage, blood-lust, intense despair. Similar arguments have been often made in our own time about pornography and violent computer games. And the debate ranges to high culture as well as low: some have contended that we ought not to encourage vulnerable teenagers to read Sylvia Plath. Political and ethical considerations continually drive school curricula. It is not for aesthetic reasons that so many high school students are marched through Toni Morrison's Beloved.

Homer and Hesiod, the oldest surviving poets in the Greek literary tradition, stood at the heart of ancient Greek cultural heritage. Most Greeks would surely have hesitated to say, with Plato, that Homer was an immoral influence on the minds of the citizens. But anxiety about Homer's ethics--the violence, the passion, and especially the bad behavior of the gods--runs deep in the Greek tradition, going back at least to the time of Xenophanes in the sixth century B.C.E., and on into the attempts of later Greek critics to bowdlerize or allegorize Homer.

In the Contest, the Euboean king's decision is very carefully worded. He does not say that Homer recommends or glorifies war, only that he goes through it in detail (he uses the verb diexeimi, "to run through"). The author of the Contest includes one of the many moments in the Iliad in which the narrator calls our attention to the pain and the pathos of the battlefield, even in its moments of glory: "A person would have to be stony-hearted to rejoice when he saw their suffering, and not to feel grief." Homer hardly presents war as an unmitigated blessing, and he constantly reminds his listeners that they should remember to weep. But the king suggests that just describing war--even if you show that it is horrible, painful, cruel, and wasteful, as well as thrilling-- will act as a recommendation for violence. A similar argument was made fairly recently by the Gulf War veteran Anthony Swofford in his book Jarhead (and in the movie made from it). As Swofford notes, even books and films that are explicitly anti-war may serve as incitements to violence for certain viewers or readers.

The king is careful in his characterization of Hesiod's poetry, too. We are not told that he actually gives good information about farming. Instead, the king recommends Hesiod for his moral values and his vision of the world: he praises farming and peace, not war and bloodshed. In the stimulating introduction to his new Loeb Classics two-volume edition of Hesiod, Glenn Most makes the case that we, too, should admire Hesiod for his powerful and unified worldview. Most assures us that we can find in the Theogony an original and idiomatic "comprehensive account of the origin and organization of the divinities responsible for the religious, moral, and physical structure of the world." Works and Days, too, has a "profound conceptual unity": it is a proto- philosophical meditation on the relationship between the gods and humanity, and between divine justice and the human obligation to work.

Most is surely right that much of the interest of the Hesiodic corpus lies in its style of thought. Various attempts have been made to read the Homeric poems for their proto-philosophical vision of human life and death, notably Simone Weil's famous essay on the Iliad as a "poem of force." But in Homer, the emotions and the experiences of the characters are far more important than any abstract ideas. In Hesiod, it is the other way around. The vast questions that are addressed in these poems--the origins of the gods, the way the world works, the reasons why things are as they are--can be seen as the first rumblings of natural science, physics, philosophy, theology, medicine, autobiography, agriculture, law, even history and textual criticism. Hesiod's poems are intensely concerned with classification (that primary scientific or academic endeavor), and also with analysis. Where Homer simply describes and evokes a world, showing us a status quo, Hesiod asks why things are as they are, and where they came from.

It is surprisingly difficult to say where the Hesiodic poems themselves came from. Hesiod was not a lonely genius who invented the Olympian gods all by himself in a moment of inspiration. Some may doubt whether the corpus is quite as unified as Most suggests. In Works and Days, advice about agriculture jostles with animal fables. We get moralizing tidbits that promote a strong work ethic ("work is not a disgrace, but not working is a disgrace"; "the work- postponing man is always wrestling with calamities"), followed by a long list of various lucky and unlucky days of the month and their suitability for different activities--advice that is mostly singularly useless. ("Nor is the sixth day fitting for a maiden to be born, but it is a kind day for castrating kids and rams.") And Hesiod has a disarming tendency to undermine his own recommendations. After listing the omens for various days at greater length than one might wish, he ends by suggesting that perhaps nobody knows which days will really be lucky after all. "One man praises one kind of day, another another; but few are the ones who know. One time one of these days is a mother- in-law, another time a mother." It appears that mother-in-law jokes go back a long way.

The obvious question to ask about all this proverbial "wisdom" is how much it can be ascribed to a single person--to "Hesiod" himself. The Hesiodic poems invite us to think about their author in a way that the Homeric poems do not, because they include far more personal detail. Homer never names himself in the Iliad or the Odyssey. The only moment of apparent autobiography in the Homeric corpus comes in the "Hymn to Delian Apollo," when the poet imagines what the god's handmaidens would say if a stranger came to ask who this singer is. He tells them to answer, "all of you, with a single voice: 'He is a blind man and dwells in rocky Chios; his songs are always the best forever.'" It is from those two lines that the myth of Homer as the blind bard developed.

With Hesiod, there is far more material for biographical speculation. We learn that Hesiod's father emigrated from Aeolia because of poverty, and that he sailed to Boetia by ship. Hesiod himself never set to sea, although he can teach you all there is to know about seafaring (a nasty business). Hesiod grew up in a horrid little Boetian village called Ascra ("evil in winter, distressful in winter, not ever fine"). He had a brother named Perses, the addressee of Works and Days, with whom he had some kind of falling out. We may or may not believe that any of this bears much relation to biographical reality.

Both the major poems of the Hesiodic corpus, Works and Days and the Theogony, begin with invocations to the Muses, which establish the personal authority of the teacher who will sing the rest of the song. In the Theogony, a dense list of the Muses' divine subject matter--Zeus, Aphrodite, Athena, and company--is followed by a striking and hugely influential account of the poet's own inspiration:

One time they taught Hesiod beautiful song while he was pasturing lambs under holy Helicon. And this speech the goddesses spoke first of all to me: "Field-dwelling shepherds, ignoble disgraces, mere bellies: we know how to say many false things similar to genuine ones, but we know, when we wish, how to proclaim true things." So spoke great Zeus' ready-speaking daughters, and they plucked a staff, a branch of luxuriant laurel, a marvel, and gave it to me, so that I might glorify what will be and what was before, and they commanded me to sing of the race of the blessed ones who always are, but always to sing of themselves first and last.

Most's reading of this important passage is refreshingly simple. He thinks that it really happened. A shepherd called Hesiod, an inhabitant of the village of Ascra, really did have a divine hallucination on Mount Helican. Most offers an observant close reading of the passage, in which he points out, among other things, that it is a mistake to characterize this experience simply as a "vision": Hesiod hears divine voices before he sees the laurel staff, and he finally feels within himself a new power to produce poetry. Most notes that "literal-minded readers" may doubt some details of the experience, such as the idea that the laurel staff was put there by some miracle: perhaps "he simply stumbled upon a carved staff someone else had made earlier and discarded there, or even upon a branch of a peculiar natural shape." In antiquity, the literal- minded had rather more cynical explanations. It was often suggested that Hesiod had eaten the laurel, and that he saw the Muses because he was tripping on this psychotropic drug.

It is tempting to think that complex accounts are always smarter than simple ones. But Most is no fool. In his discussion of Hesiod's addressee, the poet's brother Perses, Most suggests that we can set aside the question of whether the brothers really had a fight over some kind of court case. The real arena for moral judgment, in Works and Days, is not a lawsuit in the real world, but the didactic process of the poem itself. Most is not unaware of the enormous strides that have been made in the study of Greek archaic poetry over the past hundred years or so, but he insists that it is futile to be too skeptical about Hesiod's autobiographical statements. We ought not ask whether the story is true, he suggests, but "instead ask why he might have thought it a good idea to include it." His answer is a strong one: Hesiod's insistence on himself "as an author serves to authorize him." By telling the story of his initiation by the Muses, the poet shows that he gets his information about the gods straight from the divine horses' mouths. Most adds the important caveat that the fact that Hesiod has a motive for telling the story does not in the least preclude the possibility that the divine initiation really happened.

Most's style of argument is vigorous, and his notion of Hesiod as a real person, whose life and experiences are still accessible to us through his poetry, is appealing. But I did not find myself convinced. Most's formulation of the issue--"why he might have thought it a good idea to include it"--begs one of the most crucial questions about all archaic Greek hexameter poetry: who is "he"? To what extent should we think of "Hesiod" as a single person? Most assumes that the person who decided what to include in Works and Days was always a man called Hesiod, who should be considered the "author" of the poem, in something like the sense that Charlotte Bronte should be considered the author of Jane Eyre.

But there are some compelling reasons for doubt. The Homeric and Hesiodic poems are certainly based on a very long oral tradition. They were probably first written down in something like their current form fairly soon after the new technology of writing came to Greece--in the late eighth or early seventh century B.C.E. There is no strong reason to think that Hesiod is significantly later than Homer. Perhaps a skilled bard, or a group of bards, collaborated with a scribe, or several scribes, to put together the best possible versions of the story of Achilles and the stories about the gods. Or perhaps a few oral poets finally learned to write. Or perhaps, as some scholars still believe, there were two geniuses at the end of the eighth century, Hesiod and Homer, the best poets archaic Greece had ever known, who somehow transferred their own best work to paper. But even in that case, what was written down included the words, phrases, and stories developed by many generations of illiterate bards.

In the early twentieth century, our understanding of archaic Greek poetry was enormously enriched by Milman Parry's comparative work on contemporary oral poets in what was then Yugoslavia. Parry showed that a purely oral and illiterate poet, without any use of writing, could produce a long and complicated poem, based on traditional material and using traditional formulae. The relationship between the Theogony as we have it and the oral tradition-- which is inevitably lost--is almost impossible to reconstruct. But such scholars as Martin West and Gregory Nagy (the latter oddly not mentioned in Most's bibliography) have shown that much of Hesiod's material is indeed traditional, and can be paralleled by much earlier Near Eastern legends and proverbs (including the tradition that produced the biblical book of Proverbs). The material may well have taken on a new and individual stamp in its Hellenic form.

No single person made up all the Hesiodic stories and proverbs, and they may not even have been put together at a single time. The use of Hesiod's first- person story at the start of the Theogony may be read less as giving authority to the author than as a sign of the authenticity of the poem itself. There were probably many different versions of the Hesiodic corpus in antiquity, including works that are now lost to us. Similarly, the work of the sixth-century lyric poet Theognis--a miscellaneous collection that probably includes sections of poetry from many different composers and time periods--includes at the beginning a "seal" or guarantee that the whole thing really is by Theognis: "This is the work of Theognis,/The man from Megara, famous throughout all people." The "seal," too, is controversial. But arguably, the declaration of the author's name, in the case of both Hesiod and Theognis, is not the mark of an author who wishes to claim his own work, but of a later editor who wants to assert that his collection is more genuine than any other.

A compelling case can be made that the whole account of Hesiod's initiation by the Muses on Mount Helicon was added to the poem in Hellenistic times, so as to coincide with the new institutionalization of a cult of the Muses in Boetia (as argued by Robert Lamberton in Hesiod, his fine introduction to Hesiod's poetry). We can thus give a plausible motive for the presence of Hesiod's encounter with the Muses in the poem that has nothing to do with the facts of his life, whatever they may have been. In fact, one might argue that identifying that shepherd "Hesiod" as the author of the poem is almost as much of a category mistake as identifying the editor of Pale Fire, Charles Kinbote, with Nabokov. Internal narrators are not the same as authors.

All this may seem like a rather arcane scholarly debate. But the debate matters, even for non-classicists, because it touches on our assumptions about how great literature gets made. Critics and scholars such as Most assume that an admirable and unified piece of poetry cannot be produced by a nameless tradition, or by a committee: it must be the work of an individual genius. Yet the evidence suggests that archaic Greek poetry, which emerges from a collective oral tradition, does not follow this rule. It is possible to admire and to enjoy the Hesiodic poems enormously without believing that they are necessarily the work of one man, or that anything special ever happened on Mount Helicon.

Hesiod is our oldest source for many of the best-known and best-loved stories of Greek mythology. The Iliad, by comparison, is extraordinarily narrow in its subject matter. It excludes a great many even of the legends associated with Troy (such as the Trojan horse) in order to concentrate on a single episode in the life of Achilles. By contrast, the Theogony and Works and Days include enormous numbers of divine characters, and diverse myths. In Hesiod we first encounter the story of the Ages of Man, from the idyllic Golden Age through the Age of Heroes to the fallen Age of Iron in which we live. From him we get two of the most influential Western stories about the origin of evil and suffering: the tale of how a woman was the cause of all man's pain, when Pandora opened the secret box and unleashed sorrow in the world; and the intertwined story of Prometheus, who stole fire from Zeus, and whose punishment was to have his liver pecked out by eagles every day. Hesiod tells us about the time before gods, when Sky and Earth gave birth to Titans. He sings of how Cronos devoured his own children, and was stopped only when Zeus, the last child, castrated his own father. He tells of the birth of Athena from her father's head. Hesiod preserves or constructs some of the most important Greek myths about the interactions between gods and man.

With all this wonderful material, Hesiod ought to be a joy to read. But this is not always the case. I remember my own disappointment when I first tried to read him as a teenager. I loved the Iliad and the Odyssey, but could find nothing in Hesiod to rival the sublimity of the Homeric poems. Works and Days struck me as a mishmash of folklore, with little coherence or artistic merit. The Theogony was even more disappointing. Here were the great tales of the clash of the Titans with the Olympian gods, the formation of Chaos, Earth, and Sky--but all lacking the sense of the numinous that I had glimpsed in Milton and Blake or, for that matter, in Tolkien's Silmarillion and Roger Lancelot Green's Old Greek Fairy Tales, the beloved books of my childhood. Hesiod was the first to tell these great stories, but he told them in a way that strikes many first-time readers as clumsy or naive.

One obvious problem with the Hesiodic poems, from the perspective of many modern readers, is that these works have no central character and no unified plot. What we learn about Hesiod's own supposed biography is fragmentary and inconsistent, and the advice that he offers is also inconsistent. The novel- reader's interest in characterization may be satisfied by Homer, but it is entirely frustrated by Hesiod. If there is a hero in the Theogony and Works and Days, it is poetry itself: the preserved heritage of Greek and Indo-European wisdom, which ranges through the whole of Mediterranean life, from goddesses to goats. The hero is the wisdom of the tribe.

It can be vexing for a modern reader to be told that your instructor has no personal experience of the subject matter that he is teaching--as when Hesiod declares that "I shall show you the measures of the much-roaring sea, I who have no expertise at all in either seafaring or boats." But this brazen admission is a reminder that Hesiod, unlike Homer, will tell, not show; and that we are being invited to value the wisdom of tradition over anything that we may experience for ourselves. The sense that Hesiod offers something like a poetic or religious initiation into inherited lore--the world of the Muses--is increased by his language, which includes a number of wonderful riddling expressions. "The boneless one" refers to the octopus. We are advised that when attending a religious ceremony, one should not "cut the dry from the living from the five-brancher with the gleaming iron" (and you have to guess what that means).

Part of the charm of reading Hesiod is that he evokes the ordinary details of life in archaic Greece, even down to urination and defecation--subjects that Homer is almost always too dignified to discuss. "Do not urinate while you are walking, on the road or off the road: it is crouching that the godfearing man, who knows wisdom, does it, or after he has approached towards the wall of a well-fenced courtyard. And inside the house do not reveal your genitals besmirched with intercourse near the hearth, but avoid this." Works and Days even tells you what to eat for breakfast before ploughing: "a four-piece, eight- part loaf" will apparently be enough to sustain a strong forty-year-old man though a hard day behind the oxen. From the same poem you can learn what to wear for the various seasons: when winter comes, "Bind around your feet well- fitting boots from the slaughtered ox, padded inside with felt.... Wear a well- made felt cap upon your head, so that you do not get your ears wet." We are not told how to make the cap, presumably because cap-making is women's work.

Hesiod's "wisdom" is not, of course, limited to the minutiae of plowing, urinating, and getting dressed. Most is quite right to suggest that these poems promote a whole worldview, in which the gods, justice, and human work are all intertwined. But that worldview is not purely or obviously "moral," if morality implies something more than selfjustification. The king of the Contest is actually quite misleading when he presents Hesiod only as a poet of peace. The scenes of rape, the battles between gods and Titans, the castration of sons by fathers, and the devouring of children in the Theogony are in many ways more shocking than anything in Homer. Hesiod's teaching includes a strong lesson that the world can be a brutal and terrifying place.

Most does not comment at all on the striking misogyny of the Theogony--in which, for example, we are told that Pandora was a "beautiful evil" who brought to humanity "the deadly race and tribe of women, a great woe for mortals, dwelling with men, no companions of baneful poverty but only of luxury." The Hesiodic poems teach their male listeners and readers to think of themselves as entirely different beings from their wives and daughters. Many of the great myths, too, can be read as justifications for patriarchy or expressions of a wish to get rid of women altogether. Aphrodite, that male ideal, is born without female aid, from the semen of the sea. The disturbing moral complexity of the Hesiodic poems is all the more reason why we should continue to read and study them.

If you have never read any Hesiod, Most's version is not the best place to start. Martin West, the most eminent Hesiod scholar in the English-speaking world, has a fine prose translation of the Theogony and Works and Days in the Oxford World's Classics series, which appeared in 1999. If you want to try to get more sense of the poetry as poetry, but do not have time to learn Greek, then your best bet is probably Richard Lattimore's old and still impressive verse translation of the Theogony, Works and Days, and the Shield, which includes a useful summary of Works and Days facing the main text, as well as genealogical tables of gods. Lattimore's Hesiod is the closest thing to a D'Aulaire's Greek Myths for grown-ups. Other good verse translations include the fine poetic rendering by Apostoulos Athanakassis (1993) and two recent attempts to echo Hesiod's long hexameter line in English, one by Daryl Hine and another by Catherine M. Schlegel and Henry Weinfield. If you want to dip into Hesiod for the first time, you should begin with one of these.

But no other modern English translation includes the fragmentary works or the ancient testimonia. If you already have some familiarity with Hesiod's two best-known works and you want to know more about the rest of the Hesiodic corpus and about the ancient reception of this canonical figure, then Most's new Loeb books will be essential. Most makes various important corrections and improvements in his translation. He rightly remarks, for example, that "chaos" is a misleading way to translate Hesiod's chaos, which in fact means something more like "chasm" (Most's rendering): it does not connote randomness or disorder. But generally Most's translation feels comfortingly familiar. He does not move very far away from the traditions of the old Loeb series, which favored conservative scholarship and Edwardian archaisms.

Yet to my ear, the previous Hesiod Loeb--Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and Homerica, edited by Hugh Evelyn-White--is sometimes preferable. Take the moment when Cronos castrates his father Ouranos, or Sky. In Evelyn-White, we are told, "Then the son from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth and swiftly lopped off his own father's members and cast them away to fall behind him." The prose constantly slips into anapests or dactyls (da-da-DUM, da-da-DUM), and zips along at a pace reminiscent of Longfellow's Hiawatha, if not quite Hesiod's hexameter. In Most, however, the rhythms are much flatter: "He grasped the monstrous sickle, long and jagged-toothed, and eagerly he reaped the genitals from his dear father, and threw them behind him to be borne away." Most's use of the word "dear" to describe the castrated father makes the lines sound more paradoxical than they necessarily are. Philos in Greek may suggest a loved person, but it may simply suggest kinship; the epithet expresses shock that Cronos castrated his father even though he was his own kin (love does not come into it). This is captured more accurately by Evelyn-White, who emphasizes that Cronos is cutting off the "members" from his "own father."

In the old Loeb, Hesiod was combined with the Hymns and various interesting later works from the tradition, such as the mock-heroic Battle of the Mice and Frogs and the Contest of Homer and Hesiod. It was nice to have all these things available in one volume. And the combination made one aware of an important truth: that the Homeric and Hesiodic traditions were not really as separate as we like to think. Works such as the Contest invite us to consider Homer and Hesiod as the representatives, the origins, of two entirely different kinds of literature-- literature that delights and literature that instructs, respectively. But it is striking how often Homer and Hesiod are actually linked in Greek literary reception. Their names are less often contrasted than paired.

We can see very clearly, if we read all the extant Hesiodic and Homeric poems, that there are many moments where "Hesiod" is hard to distinguish from "Homer." The Homeric Hymns often adopt the gods'-eye perspective that seems so characteristic of the Theogony. The Theogony includes amazing descriptions of physical violence on the divine battlefield that parallel the battles of the Iliad. The fascinating Hesiodic Catalogue of Women (which survives only in fragmentary form, included in Most's second volume) seems to have paralleled the list of famous heroic dead women in Book Eleven of the Odyssey. The Shield of Heracles is clearly within the same tradition as the great account of Achilles's shield in Book Eighteen of the Iliad. Homer and Hesiod were both the teachers of the Greeks--until the prose writers of an increasingly literate age began to treat poetry as mere entertainment or worse. Plato's Socrates pairs the names of Homer and Hesiod. Both these archaic teachers turn out to be false moral guides, compared to the truth of philosophy.

Plato was--as Andrea Nightingale has persuasively argued--the inventor of philosophy as a discipline, distinct from literature, theology, mythology and natural science. The idea that there is always a sharp distinction between philosophy and literature has been one of the most influential and--in my opinion-- damaging of Plato's many dangerous ideas. Reading Hesiod, even more than reading Homer, reminds us of a time before modern notions of truth, falsehood, and fiction existed, and before it was possible to distinguish between pleasure and education. It would be impossible, in our information age, to recover the experience of listening to oral poetry in archaic, pre-literate Greece. We endorse ever more rigid distinctions between works of supposedly high culture (such as the Theogony itself), which are read only "for class" or to pass an exam, and the culture that we seek out for pleasure: television, blogs, movies, the Internet, magazines, popular music. But we may look back to Hesiod's poetry as representative of a cultural Golden Age when it was possible for a single work of literature to encompass the whole of traditional "wisdom": high and low, ancient and modern, philosophical and poetic, practical and metaphysical. Perhaps even our Age of Iron could learn from him.

By Emily Wilson