Hesiod - Greek Poet

Hesiod statue

Hesiod was a poet whose works are some of the oldest and most celebrated in Greek literature. If the Greeks revered Homer as an inspired storyteller and collector of the heroic tales, then Hesiod must rank as his counterpart in narrating the background epic myths and filling in missing details.

Most now agree that Hesiod wrote after the circulation of the Homeric epics, many centuries after the elusive Homer lived, perhaps around 800 b.c.e. He was an immigrant to the Greek world, having moved from Asia Minor to Boeotia. His father had moved either to find refuge or farmland on the Greek mainland.

Thus, it is not surprising that the lessons and lore of Hesiod often can be found in Akkadian, Hittite, Mesopotamian, and Hebrew literature, because these are the older cultures of his ancestral past.

Hesiod was a peasant, scraping out a living as a farmer, sweating under the hot summer sun and shivering in his hut when the winter rains fell. Though he and Homer vied for the following of the Greek-reading public, they could not have been less alike in their values and social milieu.

Homer probably was a bard in the service of the rich and aristocratic, while Hesiod was something like a prophet in the cause of justice. Hesiod’s life and excellence were not a reflection of Homer’s battlefield and martial prowess, but of the cornfield and sweat equity.

Yet this humble and hard worker claims to have had a mystical experience one day while shepherding his flocks. The nine divine Muses (sometimes called the Graces) visit and inspire him to write his first work, Theogony, a poem about the origins and genealogies of the divinities of Greek mythology.

They reveal the background of the Olympian gods: It turns out that the deities are sprung from dysfunctional and violent family roots, where one generation plots the downfall of the earlier one.

Hesiod is not content merely to divulge divine names and ancestry; he also reveals an ethical and philosophical element in the poem that helps his audience learn the lessons of mythology for their own lives.

His next poem is also an ethical exercise, entitled Work and Days. Here he ties his material together into something like a sermon on how to live a good life. He narrates three myths: Promotheus and Pandora; the Five Cosmic Ages of Humanity; and the Hawk and Nightingale allegory. All three point out to the reader the advantages of honesty and hard work.

He criticizes his brother Perses, who unjustly and corruptly is trying to steal land and wealth without working for it. Hesiod represents the rising class of peasants and townsfolk centuries after Homer’s aristocratic vision loses touch with Greek reality.

Hesiod sets himself up as something like a biblical prophet. He finds his identity in the lower classes and gives voice to their suffering. He makes no claim to royal birth, public office, or military victory, but he is not afraid to speak in the first person singular and is confident that his advice is divinely inspired. Modern readers might find his contempt for women, his surliness, and his self-righteousness less palatable.