Hesiod: Theogony

October 3, 2022

Theogony
Works and Days
Hesiod
Translated from the Greek by C.S. Morrissey
(Talon, 2012) [c.700 BC]
xvii + 125 p.

Let us begin,
singing of the Muses of Helicon.
The great sacred mountain, Helicon,
belongs to them.
Around its deep-blue spring,
with gentle feet
they shall dance, worshipping
at the altar of Zeus, the mighty son of Cronus.
First they bathe their soft skin
in the stream Parnassus, or in the Hippocrene
(the Spring of the Horse) sprung by Pegasus’ hoof,
or in the sacred river Olmeius.
Then up on the peak of Helicon,
they put their feet into the dance.
They are beautiful.
With passion and grace, they move nimbly.

So begins Hesiod’s Theogony, a poem that stands close to the fountainhead of the Western literary tradition, serving as a relatively lightweight companion to Homer’s epics. The poem is a genealogy of the gods, setting forth an account of how the Greek pantheon came into being in the form that it did. More specifically, we might be able to argue that the poem’s central story concerns how Zeus came to power, and how he defended that power against challenges from other gods.

Zeus himself doesn’t stand at the fountainhead. He’s a third generation god. One of the intriguing, and perplexing, aspects of the poem is the way in which, from relatively simple beginnings — just earth (Gaia) and sky (Uranus) — the universe is quickly overrun with a bewildering welter of gods and monsters. It is Zeus who, by his cunning and power — and by his thunderbolts — imposes some semblance of order atop Mount Olympus, though of course this order is only relative, for even Zeus is a famous meddler whose actions sow disorder in realms both divine and human.

For me, the poem raised a host of questions to which I don’t have particularly solid answers. What does this story, or series of stories, tell us about Greek religion? Did they believe these stories to be true? In what sense? Was Hesiod creating or only curating these stories? Was this an attempt at abstract philosophical theology, or a quasi-political attempt to unite disparate peoples by weaving together regional religious traditions?

This edition of the poem includes, as afterward, an excerpt from the writings of Eric Voegelin in which he argues that Theogony is an early attempt to inject speculative reason into the realm of mythology, to discern order in the loose tradition of stories about divinity that circulated in Hesiod’s culture. That may be.

Reading these stories as a Christian, certain features stand out. We have our own story of the origin of all things, and it is, in comparison to what we find in Hesiod, breathtakingly simple. Both Jews and Christians have, over the centuries, pored over the text, often finding significance in the details. We might be tempted to draw general conclusions about Greek theology from the fact that, for instance, the gods act unjustly, but it is hard to know what significance could be ascribed to a particular pair of divinities having, say, 6000 children. A poem like Theogony would resist that kind of close attention, it seems to me. And although the Greeks honoured Hesiod and his poem, it never occupied a position in Greek culture analogous to that of the Pentateuch in Judeo-Christian cultures.

In the end, I mostly enjoyed reading Theogony, or at least was able to enjoy the idea of reading it, even if I did not find it particularly engrossing.

***

Works and Days is a less ambitious, more various poem — so various, in fact, that some argue that it ought to be Works and Days, two separate poems, perhaps by two separate poets. However that may be, it does fall into two parts. The first, Works, continues, or reiterates, some of the theological and mythological content of the Theogony, though in a more casual register. The famous story of Pandora appears in a more elaborated form than in the Theogony, being offered as an account of why mankind must live with evils. Hesiod also gives us a brief chronology of the world in Five Ages, beginning with a Golden Age and declining by degrees to his own time. The world was better in the past.

Alongside the mythological material is down-to-earth advice about the importance of hard work and good character to a man’s success in life, and practical guidance about the tasks that need doing on a farm at different times of the year, the hazards of sailing, and how best to honour the gods in one’s everyday life.

This practical streak continues in Days. The poet offers counsel about which days of the week, or the month, or the year, are good for various activities.

Few people know that
the twenty-seventh day of the month is the best
for opening up a wine jar. It’s also the best
for putting the yoke on the necks of
oxen and mules
and swift-footed horses.
It is also the best for launching
a swift and many-oared ship
into the wine-dark sea.
Indeed, few people name things truly.

Naturally, it is hard to remember all of the specifics, but it is a comfort to know that when I should be in need of guidance about when to plant or plow, or deliver a child, or geld a boar, or cut timbers, I will be able to look up the best practices.

***

I have read the poems in a relatively recent translation by C.S. Morrissey. I can’t remember why I chose this edition; perhaps it was because the introduction, all too brief, was written by Roger Scruton. I’m glad I chose a verse translation, though had I thought to shop around beforehand I might have preferred the one by Richmond Lattimore, a renowned translator of the Greek classics whose versions of Homer I will be reading next. In any case, Morrissey’s translation read well, even if I sometimes wished he’d salted it with fewer carriage returns, so as to preserve more clearly the shape of the hexametric line.

Considered simply in themselves, I appreciated these poems, maybe chiefly on account of their antiquity and the influential place they have in our literary tradition. Considered as a launching event in my reading project in Greek history and literature, I might have wished for something more glorious and enthralling. However, they are what they are, and nothing can dissuade us from proceeding to Homer.

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