Saturday, June 30, 2018

Hesiod - Works and Days

At the end of the Theogony, the genealogies of heroes emerge and begin to cement themselves into the histories of men. Hesiod has moved beyond the tradition of a local cult into a larger myth, creating a new story for a Panhellenic people. The most powerful families of Greece will trace their lineage to the age of Heroes and legitimize their divine authority to rule.

Now in Works and Days Hesiod circles back to discuss the origin of humans. There have been five different ages, five attempts at human creation, all of which have failed for a variety of different reasons. At the end of each epoch, each failure is destroyed or subsumed and the gods plunge their hands once more into the primordial sludge to begin again.

The first race of men, the Golden Age, was an age of ‘articulate folks’ that lived like Gods, ‘nothing to do with hard work or grief.’ [134] This Golden Age of men lacked the ability to reproduce, and having not been given the gift of immortality they died and were covered by the Earth. Because of their near perfection they became holy spirits and now take their place as invisible wardens for the whole human race. 

They roam all over the land, shrouded in mist,
Tending to justice, repaying criminal acts. 
And dispensing wealth. This is their royal honor. 

The Olympians tried their hand at human generation again, this time with the Silver Age. They compensated for the singular flaw of the Golden Age by creating a race of men that could procreate, but this time the race is infantile and weak, being nursed by their mothers for a hundred years only to live a short and futile adulthood. The pacifism of the golden age has been replaced by fratricide:

They did not live very long, and pain at that,
Because of their lack of wits. They just 
could not stop hurting each other and could not bring themselves
To serve the Immortals, nor sacrifice at their altars
The way men ought to, wherever and whenever. 

Zeus, angered by their incompetence and their refusal/ inability to worship the gods, does away with the race, yet due to their simplicity they are not cast into Hades, but take their place as the Blessed underground mortals; second in status but still with a modicum of honor. 

Next, Zeus takes things into his own hands, too many Olympian cooks in the kitchen has had disastrous results. So Zeus single handedly creates the next race of ‘articulate folk’  in what will become the Bronze Age. This time instead of noble metals Zeus creates men from ash trees and his creation is even more disastrous than their predecessors. The Bronze age men look like monsters. In correcting for the weak and infantile men of the Silver Age Zeus has created a generation of cunning warriors with excessive physical strength, unable to restrain their penchant for violence or channel their gratuitous strength and power to meaningful ends, they are destined for anonymous deaths in the halls of Hades. 

They didn’t eat any food at all.
They had this kind of hard, untamable spirit. 
Shapeless hulks. Terrifically strong. Grapple hook hands
Grew out of their shoulders on thick stumps of arms, 
And they had bronze weapons, bronze houses, 
And their tools were bronze. No black iron back then. 
Finally they killed each other off with their own hands
And went down into the bone-chilling halls of Hades. 
And left no names behind. Astounding as they were, 
Black Death took them anyway, and they left the 
sun’s light. 

Another failure, another attempt. This time, the Age of Heroes, Zeus directs the lustful gaze of his compatriot gods (and himself) to the world of men. This is the race of heroes and demigods, a humanity mixed with both divine and mortal blood. The first cities (Thebes and Troy) are created and these men die in epic battles for the sake of honor and justice. 

And some, crossing the water in ships. 
Died at Troy, for the sake of beautiful Helen. 
And when Death’s veil had covered them over
Zeus granted them a life apart from other men, 
Settling them at the ends of the Earth. 
And there they live, free from care. 
In the Isles of the Blest, by Ocean’s deep stream. 
Blessed heroes for whom the life-giving Earth 
Bears sweet fruit reining three times a year. 

The flaw of the Age of Heroes is that it requires perpetual tending. When the gods withdraw from intercourse with mankind, what is left is a barren world, devoid of hope, and it is here that Hesiod and his brother Perses find themselves: The Iron age, where for those without power or legitimacy it is a struggle to survive. 

Then the fifth generation: Broad-browed Zeus 
Made still another race of articulate folk
To people the plentiful earth. 
I wish I had nothing to do with this fifth generation, 
Wish I had died before or been born after, 
Because this is the Iron Age. 
Not a day goes by 
A man doesn’t have some kind of trouble. 
Nights too, just wearing him down. 
I mean the gods send us terrible pain and vexation. 

Ultimately this age too will be destroyed. Men will start being born aged, with grey hair around their temples. They will be incapable of kindness and compassion but will spend their time bickering and fighting.  They will take justice into their own hands, forgetting the gods, forgetting their place in the cosmos. Mankind will destroy each other, goaded by envy and injustice, and ultimately only Shame and Suffering will be left and there will be no defense against evil. 

As Works and Days opens, Hesiod and his brother Perses find themselves living in Askra “bad in winter, godawful in summer nice never,” [709] in the midst of a feud. Perses has stolen his brother’s inheritance and then after presumably spending it all like a ‘damn fool’ he’s back…asking for more money. What Hesiod decides to do instead is give his brother a thousand line essay on how to live a better life, attempting to teach him a skill set (justice and hard work) so that he will no longer find himself begging for his survival.

Perses is a foil for this generation's tendency towards folly. What begins as sloth and laziness and a little dishonesty will sew the seed of their destruction. Perses has chosen injustice over justice, he has chosen sloth and laziness over hard work and perseverance, the simple option of stealing his brother's inheritance rather than labor for his food. Life is hard, and humans must toil, that is their lot. To struggle against the gods would only be foolish. 

It’s what the hawk said high in the clouds
As he carried off a speckled-throated nightingale
Skewered on his talons. She complained something pitiful,
And he made this high and mighty speech to her: 

No sense in your crying. You’re in the grip of real strength now
And you’ll go where I take you, songbird or not.
I’ll make a meal of you if I want, or I might let you go. 

Only a fool struggles against his superiors. 
He not only gets beat, but humiliated as well. 

Thus spoke the hawk, the windlord, his long wings beating. 
[W&D 235-245]

Hesiod again tells the Prometheus story. In retribution for Prometheus giving fire back to humans, Zeus hides how to make a living from humans[60], forcing them to eke out their survival day in and day out. Part two of the curse was creating women, not as a helpmeet but as a ‘real pain for human beings.’[103] Hesiod will later caution his brother not to let a ‘sashaying female pull the wool over his eyes,’ they might look good on the outside but really they’re just fishing for your barn. “Trust a woman as you would a thief.”[419-421] As soon as this woman, Pandora, shows up, she immediately opens her jar and dumps petulance, misery, disease and famine all over the land. The only thing left clinging to the lip of the jar is hope. [117] 

The only way to survive, especially if you are poor, is to cultivate justice, yet only divine Justice can beat out Violence. Men have a propensity for injustice, where Lady Justice is dragged through the streets by corrupt judges, who swallow bribes and pervert their verdicts. Justice in the hands of humans tends toward corruption and chaos. Even after his soliloquy on the benefits of justice, to choose to live uprightly in a world of evil seems foolish. 

The eye of Zeus sees all and knows all, 
And if he wants, he’s looking here right now, 
And the kind of justice this city harbors 
Doesn’t fool him one bit. As for me, I’d as soon 
Not be a just man, not myself or my son. 
It’s no good at all for a man to be just
When the unjust man gets more than what’s just. 
But I don’t look for Zeus in his wisdom
To bring things to that pass for a long time. 

Rather than seek conquests and easy wealth, (like stealing his brother's inheritance), Hesiod urges his brother to return to a quiet life of farming; to quietly and with humility tend his crops; to work with his hands, or rather to work in any capacity so long as he does it diligently. Work is the antidote for hunger. The wealth of hard earned crops is the antidote for poverty which leads to crime and vice. 

Hunger is the lazy mans constant companion. 
Gods hate him, and men do too, the loafer 
Who lives like the stingless drones, wasting 
The hives honey without working themselves, 
Eating free. 
You’ve got to schedule your work 
So that your sheds will stay full of each season’s harvest.
It’s work that makes men rich in flocks and goods. 
When you work you're a lot dearer to the Gods
And to people too. Everybody hates a lie about. 

After his discussion on justice, we have come to the end of the homily portion of the poem. What follows is an agricultural treatise that is sometimes referred to as the 'Farmers Almanac' 1 The poem has moved from anthropology to didactic poetry with advice such as: 

“plant naked, plow naked, reap naked” 


Doing things right is the best thing in the world 
Just like doing ‘em wrong is the absolute worst. 

If you ever get the urge for hard seafaring 
When the Pleiades chased by gigantic Orion 
Fall into the misty sea, well forget it: 
All sorts of winds are whipping around then. 

It is here, that we begin to notice the mutability of Zeus. His mind is hard to predict, variable, changeable. Throughout the poem the other gods have slowly been relegated to the sidelines, and without the mediating role of Hekate [Theogony 415-450] Zeus alone controls the fate of mankind. "Little by little, the earlier guarantees and promises give way to growing uncertainty. And the gods, especially Zeus, contribute to it. Tellingly, in the later sections of the poem, Zeus, who had been previously said to grant prosperity [281, 379] is now named as the source of poverty. [637-38]"2 What began as a song of praise in the opening of the poem, now sounds a bit sinister.

Come sing Zeus’ praises, hymn your great Father
Through whom mortals are either
Renowned or unknown, famous or unnamed
As goes the will of great Zeus. 
Easy for Him to build up the strong
And tear the strong down. 
Easy for Him to diminish the mighty
And magnify the obscure.
Easy for Him to straighten the crooked
And wither the proud.

All throughout the Famers Almanac there are systems of order, the best days for planting and harvesting etc. But what if you do everything right? What if you remember to ‘never piss standing up while facing the sun’[806] or ‘never beget children after coming home from a burial’[815] and you always make sure to ‘never let boys of twelve sit on gravestones.’? Even if you do everything right, the gods owe you nothing. Humans have created order to ensure predictability, but the gods will never be caged in by predictions. It is man’s lot to get his work done as best he can and hope he doesn’t offend the gods.  

No matter what your situation, it is better to work. 

*All quotes from Works and Days are from: 
Lombardo, Stanley. Hesiod: Works and Days and Theogony. Cambridge, Hackett Publishing, 1993.

1. Strauss, Jenny. Hesiod's Cosmos. Cambridge, University Press, 2003.
2. Strauss, Jenny. Chapter 6: "Perspectives on Gods and Men"

Other Material: 
Hesiod- The Other Poet: Ancient Reception of Cultural Icon 
Introduction to Hesiod 

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