The Greek poet Hesiod (active ca. 700 B.C.) was the first didactic poet in Europe and the first author of mainland Greece whose works are extant. His influence on later literature was basic and far-reaching.
The facts about Hesiod are shrouded in myth and the obscurity of time; what we can say with certainty about him comes from his own writing. His father, a merchant "fleeing wretched poverty, " migrated from Cyme in Asia Minor and became a farmer near the town of Ascra in Boeotia, where Hesiod lived most or all of his life. Hesiod undoubtedly spent his early years working his father's land. He says that the Muses appeared to him as he was tending sheep on the slopes of Mt. Helicon and commanded him to compose poetry, and it is likely that he combined the vocations of farmer and poet.
After his father's death Hesiod was involved in a bitter dispute with his brother, Perses, about the division of the property. Later legend relates that Hesiod moved from Ascra and that he was murdered in Oenoe in Locris for having seduced a maiden; their child is said to have been the lyric poet Stesichorus. The poet relates that the only time he traveled across the sea was to compete in a poetry contest at the funeral games of Amphidamas at Chalcis (in Euboea).
The dates of Hesiod's life are much disputed; some of the ancient chroniclers make him a contemporary of Homer; most modern critics date his activity not long after the Homeric epics but presumably before 700 B.C. The titles of a number of poems have come down to us under the name of Hesiod; two complete works survive, which are generally believed to be genuine.
The Theogony (Theogonia, or Genealogy of the Gods) is a long (over 1, 000 lines) narrative description of the origin of the universe and the gods. Beginning with the aboriginal Chaos (Emptiness) and Gaia (Earth), Hesiod describes the creation of the natural world and the generations of the gods. His account concentrates on the struggles between the generations of divine powers for dominion of the world. Uranus (Sky), the original force, is succeeded by his son, Kronos, who, at the instigation of his mother, Gaia, castrates Uranus. Kronos, in turn, is deposed after a fierce battle waged between the Olympian gods (the sons and daughters of Kronos and Rhea), led by Zeus, and the Titans (children of Uranus and Gaia), led by Kronos. In the course of the narrative the births of the gods, major and minor, the evolution of the natural world, and the emergence of personified abstractions like Death, Toil, and Strife are detailed.
Although many of the myths which Hesiod incorporates are extremely primitive and probably Eastern in origin, the Theogony is a successful attempt to give a rational and coherent explanation of the formation and government of the universe from its primal origins through the ultimate mastery of the cosmos by Zeus, "the father of men and gods." Of special interest in the Theogony are the vivid description of battle between the gods and the Titans and the story of Prometheus, the Titan, who defied Zeus by stealing fire for man and was doomed to be chained forever to a rock with a stake through his middle as punishment.
The Works and Days (Erga Kai Hemerai), another long poem (over 800 lines), is much more personal in tone. It is addressed to Hesiod's brother, Perses, who had taken the bigger portion of their inheritance by means of bribes to the local "kings" and then had squandered it. Around this theme of admonition to his brother, Hesiod composed a didactic poem consisting of practical advice to farmers and seafarers, maxims (again, mostly practical) on how to conduct oneself in everyday affairs with fellowmen, moral and ethical precepts, and warnings to the local "kings" to observe righteousness in their disposition of justice. A long section at the end is a list of primitive taboos followed by a catalog of lucky and unlucky days. The authenticity of these lines is doubted, but they are characteristic of the unsophisticated peasant outlook.
The two major themes that Hesiod sounds again and again are the necessity for all men to be just and fair, since justice comes from Zeus, who will punish the wrongdoer, and the formula that success depends on unceasing hard work. If you desire wealth, he says, then "work with work upon work." The world which Hesiod describes in the Works and Days is not the heroic arena of the Trojan War but the difficult life of the small peasant farmer. Hesiod's view is essentially pessimistic; Ascra, his home, is "bad in winter, harsh in summer, good at no time"; and, in one famous passage, he details the five "Ages of Man." From the Golden Age of the reign of Kronos through the Silver, Bronze, and Brass ages of heroes, mankind has degenerated; Hesiod finds himself in the Age of Iron, where there is nothing but trouble and sorrow, labor and strife. Also included in the Works and Days is the story of Pandora, the first woman. The myth states that she was created at Zeus's command as a punishment for men.
A number of other poems, attributed to Hesiod in antiquity and now generally ascribed to the "Boeotian, " or "Hesiodic, " school, are known by title or from fragmentary remains. The most important of these "minor works, " possibly by Hesiod himself, was the Catalog of Women, which seems to have described the loves of the gods and their offspring. A number of fragmentary excerpts survive. A longer fragment, called the Shield of Herakles, most likely not by Hesiod, narrates the battle between Herakles and the robber Kyknos. A large portion of this substantial (480 lines) fragment is devoted to a description of Herakles's shield— an inferior imitation of the famous description in the Iliad of the shield of Achilles.
Like Homer, Hesiod wrote in the Ionian dialect and employed the dactylic hexameter, the meter of the epic poets; but the soaring elegance of the Homeric poems is replaced by a simpler, more earthy style. Portions of the Hesiodic poems are mere "catalogs" of names and events, but often his words ring with an eloquence and conviction that reveal true literary genius. Hesiod was the first European poet to speak in a personal vein and to stress social and moral ethics. The Theogony won immediate acceptance as the authentic account of Greek cosmogony, and it stands today as one of the important basic documents for the study of Greek mythology. Hesiod's professed intent was to instruct and inform, not to amuse; thus he stands at the head of a long line of teacher-poets in the Western world.
Further Reading on Hesiod
Excellent critical analyses of Hesiod's writings are in Werner Wilhelm Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, vol. 1 (trans. 1939; 2d ed. 1945), and Friedrich Solmsen, Hesiod and Aeschylus (1949). Useful for general historical background and cultural interpretation of the poems is Andrew Robert Burn, The World of Hesiod (1936; 2d ed. 1967). See also Alfred Eckhard Zimmern, The Greek Commonwealth: Politics and Economics in Fifth-century Athens (1911; 5th rev. ed. 1931), and Chester G. Starr, The Origins of Greek Civilization (1961).