The Poems of Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, and the Shield of Herakles

The Poems of Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, and the Shield of Herakles

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In this new translation of Hesiod, Barry B. Powell gives an accessible, modern verse rendering of these vibrant texts, essential to an understanding of early Greek myth and society. With stunning color images that help bring to life the contents of the poems and notes that explicate complex passages, Powell’s fresh renditions provide an exciting introduction to the culture of the ancient Greeks.

This is the definitive translation and guide for students and readers looking to experience the poetry of Hesiod, who ranks alongside Homer as an influential poet of Greek antiquity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520292864
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/01/2017
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Barry B. Powell is Halls-Bascom Professor of Classics Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet; Classical Myth; Writing: Theory and History of the Technology of Civilization; and many other books.

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The Poems of Hesiod

Theogony, Works and Days, and The Shield of Herakles

By Barry B. Powell


Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-29286-4


General Introduction

Hesiod and His Poems

The Theogony is one of the most important mythical texts to survive from antiquity, and I devote the first section of this translation to it. It tells of the creation of the present world order under the rule of almighty Zeus. The Works and Days, in the second section, describes a bitter dispute between Hesiod and his brother over the disposition of their father's property, a theme that allows Hesiod to range widely over issues of right and wrong. The Shield of Herakles, whose centerpiece is a long description of a work of art, is not by Hesiod, at least most of it, but it was always attributed to him in antiquity. It is Hesiodic in style and has always formed part of the Hesiodic corpus. It makes up the third section of this book.

The influence of Homer's poems on Greek and later culture is inestimable, but Homer never tells us who he is; he stands behind his poems, invisible, all-knowing. His probable contemporary Hesiod, by contrast, is the first self-conscious author in Western literature. Hesiod tells us something about himself in his poetry. His name seems to mean "he who takes pleasure in a journey" (for what it is worth) but in the Works and Days he may play with the meaning of "he who sends forth song." As with all names — for example, Homer, meaning "hostage," or Herodotus, meaning "a warrior's gift" — the name of a poet may have nothing to do with his actual career.

Hesiod's father, so the poet tells us, once lived in ASIA MINOR, in Aiolian KYMê, then moved to ASKRA in mainland Greece, a small, forlorn village at the foot of MOUNT HELIKON near THEBES, where Hesiod lived. Like Homer, Hesiod became an aoidos, an oral "singer." While he was tending his flocks on Helikon, the Muses, inspirers of poetry, came to him in a vision, giving him a staff of laurel and the power of song. They commanded him to sing of the gods, which he does in the Theogony. For this reason "Helikon" is synonymous with poetic inspiration in the Western tradition. Later, in Works and Days, Hesiod tells of a dispute with his brother Persês about the division of their inheritance. His brother took more than his fair share, depending on gift-devouring elders for corrupt judgments rather than on his own hard work.

Hesiod also tells us that his father had sailed the seas in search of livelihood, but he himself had no experience of the sea, except for a journey from AULIS to CHALCIS on the island of EUBOEA (a distance of about 200 yards!). In Chalcis, in a poetry contest at the funeral games for one Amphidamas, he won a tripod, which he dedicated to the Muses in their shrine on Mount Helikon. Scholars have speculated that Hesiod's successful poem was some version of the Theogony. Because of the poet's close relationship with the Muses, he can speak with authority about past, present, and future. Hesiod is inspired with a mission divinely ordained.

Scholars have argued since antiquity about the meaning of these few details. There is no reason not to accept them at face value, however one wishes to interpret Hesiod's description of his meeting with the Muses. He must mean that his poetic gifts came to him without human teachers, but this is a poetic exaggeration. All singers have teachers. As Hesiod himself explains, the Muses can tell both truth and lies.

The Problem of the Alphabet and the Date of Hesiod

We cannot accurately date Hesiod's poetry, though he must belong to the eighth or ninth centuries B.C. Ancient traditions made him a contemporary of Homer. What, then, is the date of Homer? Good evidence places him at or near the time of the invention of the Greek alphabet, the first writing capable of recording his poetry, and the poetry of Hesiod, which no earlier system of writing could have done. No alphabet, no Homer — and no Hesiod. The problem of the invention of alphabetic writing is intimately associated with attempts to date Homer and Hesiod.

The Greek alphabet was invented on the basis of the preexisting West Semitic (so-called Phoenician) writing, an odd sort of phonetic syllabary with a small number of signs (around twenty-two) representing consonantal qualities with an implied vowel to be provided by the reader. The original Greek alphabet, by contrast, consists of two sorts of signs, the so-called consonants, which cannot be pronounced by themselves, and five vowel signs, which can be. Four of the vowel signs were adapted from West Semitic consonantal syllabograms and the fifth, upsilon, was created by splitting a West Semitic sign into a consonant (digamma, our "F") and a vowel added to the end of the series after "T," where it still resides today. Only a single person working alone could have made this arbitrary alteration to its model. Three additional consonantal signs were also added to the signary. To this division of the signary into two kinds of signs was added the spelling rule that a pronounceable vowel sign must always accompany an unpronounceable consonantal sign. It is virtually the same system of writing in use today in the Western world and by others who use an alphabet, the writing on this page.

The Greek alphabet is one of the most important developments in the history of culture: It is the basis of modern civilization, including Eastern civilizations that have adopted it in order to function in the modern world. For the first time it became possible to record in writing an approximation of what somebody said, a technology of universal application. Earlier systems of writing, which were only partly phonetic, did not allow such freedom.

The earliest epigraphic finds of Greek alphabetic writing are dated to around 775–750 B.C. They come from ERETRIA in Euboea near the EURIPOS CHANNEL, over which Hesiod traveled to the funeral games of Amphidamas, not far from Mount Helikon on whose slopes Hesiod lived. Other early finds have turned up in a site in nearby BOEOTIA; from an Eretrian colony in Italy; and, recently discovered, from an Eretrian colony in northern Greece. PHRYGIA, an early adopter of the system, has also produced early finds. The Greek alphabet seems to have been invented somewhat before our earliest epigraphical finds, say ca. 850 B.C., no doubt in Euboea or near there. The inventor, whom we may call "the Adapter," was probably a Semitic speaker, a Phoenician familiar with the very old West Semitic (that is, Phoenician) writing, which goes back to about 1500 B.C.

West Semitic writing was used to make rough phonetic notations of Semitic speech, and sometimes Semitic poetry, providing only the consonantal qualities, with the result that it can be pronounced only by a native speaker. The Adapter of this Semitic system of writing to make the Greek alphabet must have been bilingual, perhaps the product of intermarriage. Semitic speakers were certainly living in Euboea at this time, and the Phoenician Kadmos, whose Semitic name means "man of the East," founded the city of Thebes in Boeotia, according to legend. The Adapter's name may have been Palamedês, who in legend made changes to the alphabet and whose father was Nauplius, a legendary king on the island of Euboea.

Evidently the Adapter attempted to apply the West Semitic syllabary to the recording of Greek oral verse, as the system had been used to record roughly Semitic speech; but because of the very different phonologies of the two languages, he was able to make little headway. At this moment he discovered the division of the list of signs into two kinds and the spelling rule that a pronounceable sign, a vowel sign, must always accompany a now-unpronounceable sign, a consonantal sign. The new system of writing would make it possible to recover an approximation of the sound of the Greek hexameter, which depends on vowel sounds for its complex meter. In fact, the earliest epigraphic finds in the Greek alphabet are hexametric.

The likely inspiration for this invention is Homer himself, who was certainly famous in his lifetime and who attracted the Adapter's attention. The Odyssey celebrates the earliest exploration of the far West, a journey actually made by Euboean settlers, and Euboeans would have been a natural audience for the poem. The earliest Greek settlement in the West was on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, where Euboeans established a trading colony. Very early examples of Greek alphabetic writing have been found on Ischia, including two perfect hexameters that seem to refer to the text of the Iliad. Hesiod, if a contemporary with Homer as reported, would have been well known to the Adapter too; or he may have been recorded somewhat later. Tellingly, neither Homer nor Hesiod ever mentions writing, although they otherwise describe many features of daily life. They must have lived in an illiterate age. Homer composed in a West Ionic dialect, the speech of Euboea, the same dialect as Hesiod — all singers shared a common dialect for oral composition — though Hesiod must have spoken Aeolic as his native dialect.

Early Greek alphabetic writing appears to have been used primarily for the recording by dictation of oral poetry, never for such mundane usages as keeping business accounts, though those who understood the system used it to scribble their names on pots and stones. It was not easy to read. Reading an early alphabetic text was completely different from the experience of a modern reader, because apprehension took place through the ear. The sound was puzzled out from the graphic mark; then the meaning of the text was understood. An early text of the first lines of Hesiod's Works and Days might have looked something like this:


The writing was probably continuous. The text begins from right to left, then curls around at the end to read left-to-right, then again right-to-left. (Such writing is called boustrophedon, "in the manner of an ox turning" in a furrow.) There was no separation between words, a convention of modern literacy: Linguists cannot even define "word," except as an item that occurs in a dictionary. There were no diacritical marks — commas, periods, colons, capitals, or paragraph divisions. An ou is written as o; no distinction is made between long e (later eta) and short e (later epsilon) or between long o (later omega) and short o (later omicron); elided vowels are written out; and doubled consonants are not ordinarily written.

Such early Greek texts as Hesiod's poetry were visible representations of a continuous stream of sound. By contrast, we read from sight, from the appearance of the writing on the page, where the text is richly supported by diacritical devices of all kinds. In general we do not sound out the words but understand them from their visual representation. Much misunderstanding of ancient Greek literature depends on modern scholars' thinking that the ancient Greeks read texts as we do, but they did not.

The Social Environment of Early Greek Poetry

In the eighth and ninth centuries B.C., the days of Homer and Hesiod, texts circulated in small numbers among a restricted and refined upper class of wealthy amateurs — seafarers, warriors, aristocrats. There was no scribal class in ancient Greece, unlike in all earlier civilizations, where literacy was confined to one percent or less of the general population. In Mesopotamia and Egypt, where immensely complex systems of writing, only partly phonetic, were in use, and even in the Persian imperial bureaucracy, where the syllabic West Semitic system was in use, scribes were scarcely distinguished from the ruling class. In Palestine, writing was more widely used, but to be literate was always equivalent to being a possessor of power, and Eastern scribes guarded their power smugly and with arrogance.

In Greece there was no book trade in early times and no general readership. Greek aristocrats socialized in the all-male symposium, the drinking party. If women were present, they were prostitutes. A small number of these men had learned the secrets of alphabetic literacy from one another, passed down from the Adapter's hand. Possessing this secret, they were able painstakingly to puzzle out a small number of poetic texts that circulated in the symposium.

Greek aristocrats read not for pleasure but in order that they might memorize poetry that had once been oral and represent it at the symposium to the accompaniment of the lyre. These texts, the schoolbooks of the literati, originated in the songs of aoidoi, oral poets, who had dictated their verse to someone who understood alphabetic writing. Such aoidoi — Homer and Hesiod — could not themselves read or write. This is how Greek, and Western, literacy began.

Later, specialists gave up the lyre and accompanied their delivery to the beat of a staff. They were called rhapsodes, "staff singers," and could speak in a learned way about the meaning of their texts. Plato (ca. 428–ca. 348 B.C.) makes fun of these pretenders to wisdom in his dialogue Ion. Rhapsodes were not oral poets, but they understood the secrets of alphabetic writing and bathed in the glory that came from reciting and commenting on memorized versions of great oral poets.

It is common to speak of rhapsodic interpolations in examining ancient texts, but they were probably uncommon. A rhapsode may make up verses to suit his pleasure, but unless they are written down in the tradition that becomes canonical — that is, copied and recopied — they do not survive. Therefore the texts of Homer and Hesiod that we possess must be substantially the texts that these poets composed, recorded by dictation at the dawn of alphabetic literacy. Of course such texts are liable to the usual distortions that come from copying and recopying, but these distortions are always minor and do not affect the main narrative, in spite of an inordinate amount of scholarly speculation about interpolated, nongenuine, portions of the Homeric and Hesiodic poems.

By the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., those literate in the alphabet realized that they could compose fresh verse in writing, a revolutionary development. This is the age of the lyric poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho, and many others. It is the beginning of modern alphabetic literacy. Still heavily influenced by their education in recorded epic, such poets often echo epic poetry in their language and themes, but their poetry was created in writing, not orally composed. These literate poets are much given to the creation of new words that, thanks to the genius of alphabetic writing, could be pronounced by absent readers. Such poetry was, however, still meant to be memorized and recited in public, and never read for pleasure as we read modern poetry. The greatest flower of this development was Greek tragedy, wherein several copies of a written, previously unknown text could be distributed to a company of actors, who could all be expected to pronounce and memorize it. Nothing like this had ever happened before in the history of culture, and some of these texts, from the fifth century B.C., have survived to this day.

Hesiod's Debt to the Near East

Hesiod, and Homer, share in a community of Near Eastern literary themes and styles, and we cannot doubt a direct connection, although the details of transmission remain obscure. The relationships of humans to gods are similar in East and West, as are such specifically poetic themes as the origin of the cosmos, the loss of a golden age, women's introduction of evil into the world, and the necessity of labor in order to survive in a fallen world distant from the paradise in which humans once lived. In Eastern literature and Western, human suffering comes from the gods' anger, as do human blessings and divine favor granted to certain people. Kingship comes from heaven in both traditions. The division of the universe into heaven, earth, sea, and underworld is Eastern, as is the picture of a world bounded by water and a land of no return ruled by a king or queen, a place of gloom and filth, where reside the bloodless dead and the enemies of the gods.

Narrative strategies are similar too: for example, the initiation of an action by describing an unsatisfactory situation, followed by a complaint to the gods, the gods' deliberation, then measures taken. Messengers drive the action. Stereotyped formulas introduce direct speech. There are scenes of feasting, wherein singers entertain and visitors arrive, and scenes of arming and journeys by chariot. In descriptions of war, single combat is waged, as between Zeus and Typhon, and similes, long or short, enhance vividness. Resemblances between actual verbal formulations can be surprisingly close.


Excerpted from The Poems of Hesiod by Barry B. Powell. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations
Spelling, the Pronunciation of Ancient Names, and Map References

General Introduction: Hesiod and His Poems
Introduction to the Theogony
Introduction to the Works and Days
Works and Days
Introducton to The Shield of Herakles
The Shield of Herakles

Glossary / Index



1. The Mediterranean
2. The Aegean Sea
3. Central Greece


1. Drunken symposiast and lyre
2. Anatolian storm god
3. Zeus throwing lightning at Typhon
4. A Muse playing the lyre
5. The birth of Aphrodite
6. Amphitritê stands before Poseidon
7. The head of Medusa
8. The Chimaira
9. The punishment of Atlas and Prometheus
10. Hades and Persephone
11. Zeus fights Typhon
12. Dawn pursues the Trojan prince Tithonos
13. Egyptian relief of Maat
14. Pandora born from the Earth
15. The Cretan princess Ariadnê and Retribution
16. A naked plowman
17. A winged North Wind (Boreas) rapes Oreithyia 
18. A satyr presents a tripod with handles to Dionysos
19. The theater and reconstructed columns of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi
20. The Lapith Kaineus being destroyed by a centaur
21. A centaur tries to carry off Hippodameia
22. The Gorgons pursue Perseus
23. Zeus parts Athena and Ares

Genealogical Charts
1. The primordial gods
2. The children of Earth and Sky
3. The off spring of Earth and the blood of Sky and the birth of Aphroditê
4. The descendants of Night (Nyx) and Strife (Eris)
5. The descendants Earth and Sea
6. The descendants of Phorkys and Keto
7. Other descendants of Phorkys and Keto
8. The children of Okeanos and Tethys
9. The descendants of Th eia and Hyperion and Kreios and Eurybia
10. The children of Pallas and Styx
11. The descendants of Koios and Phoibê
12. The children of Kronos and Rhea
13. The descendants of Iapetos and Klymenê
14. The off spring of Zeus and his many wives
15. The descendants of Ares and Aphrodite
16. The descendants of Helios and Perseïs
17. Other children of Kadmos and Harmonia
18. The children of Dawn (Eos)
19. The descendants of Kalypso, Circe, and Aiëtes
20. The descendants of Perseus and Andromeda

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