Widely considered the first poet in the Western tradition to address the matter of his own experience, Hesiod occupies a seminal position in literary history. His Theogony brings together and formalizes many of the narratives of Greek myth, detailing the genealogy of its gods and their violent struggles for power. The Works and Days seems on its face to be a compendium of advice about managing a farm, but it ranges far beyond this scope to meditate on morality, justice, the virtues of a good life, and the place of humans in the universe. These poems are concerned with orderliness and organization, and they proclaim those ideals from small-scale to vast, from a handful of seeds to the story of the cosmos. Presented here in a bilingual edition, Johnson’s translation takes care to preserve the structure of Hesiod’s lines and sentences, achieving a sonic and rhythmic balance that enables us to hear his music across the millennia.
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About the Author
HESIOD is believed to have lived in the eighth century B.C.E. The Works and Days and the Theogony are ascribed to him, though it is not certain that the same poet wrote both. He is the first poet in Western literature to have written about himself, in this respect distinct from Homer. KIMBERLY JOHNSON is a professor in the English department at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
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Theogony and Works and Days
By Hesiod, Kimberly Johnson
Northwestern University PressCopyright © 2017 Northwestern University Press
All rights reserved.
For Renae Taylor —
In what is likely the earlier of Hesiod's two great works, the poet turns his mind to no small matter. The story he tells is a theogony, combining the Greek words theo- (god) and gonia (birth) — in other words, the descent of the gods from their mythic origins, a genealogy of divinities. This task before Hesiod goes beyond summarizing godly begats. Because so many of the ancient divinities Hesiod treats are not merely supernatural figures but elemental forces constitutive of the phenomenal world, his Theogony is of necessity a wide-ranging account of the ancient cosmos, a survey of all that was known and how it came to be. Here are Earth and Heaven. Here are Night and Day. Here are Love and Strife. And interacting with these sublime fundamentals are the more recognizably human personalities of Zeus, Hera, Demeter, and the rest of the pantheon of Olympic gods. In telling their stories, elaborating the legends of their couplings and offspring, their rivalries and revenges, Hesiod seeks nothing less than to explain the universe itself.
Hesiod's project of tracing divine lines of descent resists devolving into a kind of pedigree chart with line breaks. Along the way, his headlong recounting of universal birth digresses into a variety of genres: hymns, aetiologies, tales of treachery and scheming, battle scenes reminiscent of the ancient epics of war, and passages where the music of poetry supersedes the communication of informational content. Most central to his genealogical project are the various episodes of the divine succession myth, a narrative thread to which the poem returns repeatedly. We are told of the Titans, that formidable race born to Gaia (Earth) and her son and mate Ouranos (Heaven): Okeanos, the great ocean stream that circles the earth; Mnemosyne, the personified manifestation of memory; and "warped, wily Kronos, / Most terrible of sons, who loathed his lusty father" (137–38). For his part, it seems, Ouranos had no great love for the children he sired, stashing each one away until Kronos, encouraged by his lamenting mother, took violent action against his father's wickedness. This pattern of opposition between father and son recurs when Kronos's offspring, Zeus — aided by his mother Rheia and by his elemental grandmother Gaia herself — visits vengeance upon Kronos for his own unfatherly violence. Zeus's overthrow of his father's vicious supremacy is but one chapter in his larger conflict with the older generation of divinities, a long dispute that concludes in the Theogony with the episode most resembling a heroic battle-epic. Known as the Titanomachy, this climactic scene details the cataclysmic war between the gods of Olympos and the elder Titan gods, in part to justify human veneration of the Olympian gods.
But this narrative of the succession of godly authority is not the Theogony's only story. The poem also includes a long recounting of a feast between gods and men when the trickster god Prometheus, son of the Titan Iapetos, first deceived Zeus, an audacious act that provoked Zeus's thunderous wrath toward Prometheus and brought retributive curses upon humankind. The episode serves as a font of aetiological explanations, identifying as it unfolds the logic underlying ritual sacrifices to the gods and the reason for the vexing existence of women among mortals. We learn too of the source of destructive winds, which are linked to the overthrow of the monstrous Typhoeus, whose fiery battle with Zeus is related toward the poem's end. And framing these stories is Hesiod's report of his own calling by the Muses to be a poet, a narrative that reveals an interdependence between the vast and clamorous forces of the cosmos and the modest noise of one human voice.
For all its seeming investment in telling the story of divine descent, the center of the Theogony is dominated by a long hymn to a goddess otherwise peripheral to the overarching narrative of the poem. Commonly called the "Hymn to Hekate," this passage devotes an extraordinary number of lines to this relatively minor goddess. Some scholars have interpreted this apparent departure from the poem's main concerns as an interpolation, while others have posited that Hekate was a deity of local significance to Hesiod and that his hymn is thus a personal expression of devotion to the preeminent cultic object of his own experience. I would argue rather that Hekate is integral to the poem's concerns, central not only to its structure but also to its arguments. For Hekate is the last god born of the Titan generation, yet she is not cast out with the Titanomachy but rather remains "Honored above all" by Zeus (412). She retains, the text insists repeatedly, her original dominions:
Among all that were born to Gaia and Ouranos With assigned rights and titles, she yet has a share. Never did the son of Kronos abuse her or despoil Any of her portion among the Titan gods of old, But as it was in the beginning sorted out So she retains her ancient privilege over land and sky and sea. (421–26)
Hekate stands thus as a single figure who bridges the elder gods and the Olympian generation, providing continuity across the usurpations and overthrowings of the major divinities. Moreover, maintaining her rights over a share of "land and sky and sea," her single figure spans the phenomenal spheres addressed in the Theogony, participating with Gaia, Ouranos, and Pontos and Okeanos, respectively. In short, the figure of Hekate uniquely intersects with the entirety of the cosmology articulated in the Theogony, that which has been related before the hymn and that which will follow. Her hymn is, finally, a celebration of unity — a gesture perhaps unexpected in a poem that so gleefully narrates conflict.
Indeed, as a symbol of divergent principles uniting in one entity, Hekate might well be seen as a figure for the poem itself. The Theogony is, in both content and form, a text deeply interested in the coming together of opposites. Narratively, this interest is expressed in the war between Titans and Olympians, in the conflicting interests of mortals and gods, in the sometimes violent intercourse between divinities. These tales of conflict are amplified by a wider thematic awareness of ideas that seem not to rest comfortably alongside one another. (We see an example of such thematic tensions even in the titular concern of the poem, which introduces the notion that infinite divinities nevertheless seem to have a finite moment of beginning.) And of course, the long myth of messy wrangling over the succession of godly kingship ultimately promotes the development of order. "In the beginning rose Chaos" (116), we are told, but the tale ends far from that yawning abyss, in the fine discriminations of the Greek pantheon's powers.
Generically, too, the Theogony delights in conflict. Even beyond the abrupt appearance of Hekate's hymn in its middle and its digressions into anecdotes and legends not apparently related either to the gods' births or to the succession myth, Hesiod's poem offers a number of passages that would seem not to resolve easily into a central narrative. What, especially, to do with the catalogues of names — the Muses, whose individual names Hesiod seems to have been the first to enumerate (77–80); the Titans, children of Gaia and Ouranos (133–38); the offspring of Night (211–25) and Strife (226–32), each one bearing some thematic resemblance to his or her mother; and perhaps most famously, the Okeanids, fifty daughters of Okeanos (243–62), and the Rivers (337–61), sons and daughters born to Tethys and Okeanos. Each of these lists unfurls in mesmerizing hexameters, mostly four names per line but occasionally three names of which one is given an epithet. Readers have long found the Theogony's catalogues frustratingly opaque, particularly since few of the names are recognizable to us as significant mythic figures; especially in the catalogues of Rivers and Okeanids, the names may have been invented by Hesiod purely for their etymological associations. But it is in these passages, I would suggest, that Hesiod's pleasure in the pure musicality of poetry is best on display. It is in the catalogue passages that Hesiod's lines are most alliterative and his meter is at its most seductively regular. Without the obligation to propel a story forward, these catalogues constitute an ancient lyric dilation, in which the chronological time of narrative is replaced for a few lines by the metrical time of poetry, a temporality determined by structure rather than event. Th ough not technically lyric in the manner of the hymn to Hekate, these catalogues announce their proximity to song, to the lyre that gives lyric its name, and to the sonic and formal priorities that distinguish a poem from other literary modes.
The name catalogues manifest overtly the structural conflict that animates the whole of the Theogony, its tension between the climactic demands of narrative storytelling and the anticlimactic methods of poetry. Its narrative wishes to sweep us away in a tale of epic proportions, in the blockbuster episodes of battle and vengeance, in the deceptions and loves of the gods. But its poetry demands that we attend to the experience of language for its own sake and not solely as means to a narrative end. It invites our alertness to the sounds that repeat and to the pulsing heartbeat of meter upon which words arrange themselves. Poetry isn't transparent, but rather offers itself as a phenomenon to be appreciated with the eye and ear as well as the mind. In Hesiod's early work, so invested in accounting for the phenomenal world, the fact of the poem itself is asserted not just as a commentary on experience but as part of experience, part of the interplay of order and chaos that the Theogony offers. Across the millennia, this ancient poem displays its sensitivity to pressures and contradictions that feel very modern indeed, raising questions about what poetry does even as it offers a surprising variety of possible answers to that question. It is a poem that unifies, but does not resolve, contradictions. And it suggests that engaging imaginatively with such contradictions is not merely human; it is also divine.
Let's strike up our song with the Helikon Muses, Haunting Helikon's mountain, hallowed and towering, Who dancing ring with tender tread the gentian spring And the altar of him, the almighty son of Kronos. They bathe their soft bodies in the waters of Permessos Or the spring of the horse or in sacred Olmeios. Then they weave their cavort over Helikon's top, Breathtaking, bewitching, footing it nimbly. Then they rouse themselves up, veiled in thick mist, And walk the night through, voices spilling in song, 10 Hymning Zeus Aegis-Bearer and Hera his queen, The lady of Argos who walks in sandals of gold, And bright-eyed Athena, the daughter of Zeus Aegis-Bearer, And Phoibos Apollo and arrow-proud Artemis And earthshaking Poseidon, the world in his grasp, Stately Themis and Aphrodite batting her eyes, And Hebe with her golden crown and fair Dione, Leto and Iapetos, Kronos the cunning — serpent-sly he — Eos, great Helios, luminous Selene, Gaia and vast Okeanos and black Night 20 And the whole blessed race of forever immortals.
It was they who taught Hesiod glorious song, Once while he shepherded lambs below holy Helikon. Then first spoke these goddesses' voices to me, The Olympian Muses, daughters of Zeus Aegis-Bearer:
Clodhopping hayseeds, shabby bag-o'-guts yokels, We know how to gloze up our lies like they're truths — But we know to speak the truth too, when we wish ...
So spoke the wordspinning daughters of almighty Zeus And they plucked from the evergreen laurel a branch 30 And gave it to me as a staff — a wonder! — and they breathed into me An oracle voice to trumpet the future and past. They called me to sing the race of the blessed forever immortals — But ever are they first and last in my song.
But enough of this palaver about rocks and trees!
Come, soul: Let's begin with the Muses, who gladden with song The mighty mind of their father Zeus high on Olympos, Singing things that are, things that were, and things that shall be Harmoniously. Unwearying purls the sweet sound From their lips; cheerful the halls of their father 40 Thunderclap Zeus as the goddesses' lily-soft, lily-sweet song Swells, and the snowy peak of Olympos rings, And the mansions of the immortals. Their deathless voices Lift first to praise the reverend race of gods From their beginnings, gods born to Earth and broad Heaven And their offspring gods, bestowers of blessings. Next they sing Zeus, father of gods and of men (They begin and end their song praising him): How valiant in power, supremest of gods. And then the Muses, Olympian daughters of Zeus 50 Sing the races of men and of mighty giants And gladden the mind of Zeus on Olympos.
Mnemosyne, mistress of the hills of Eleutherae, Lay in Pieria with the father, son of Kronos, and bore them To be a forgetting of hardship and respite from grief. For nine nights, far off from the other immortals, came Zeus of all wisdom climbing into her holy bed. When the seasons rolled by and the months wore away And the days thronged to fullness and her time was due, She bore nine daughters harmonious in soul, whose hearts 60 Are fixed on song, whose spirits free from care, Near the snowpacked summit of Olympos peak. There their glittering dancefloors and glorious halls. With them Desire and the Graces dwell, festal In cheer. Through their lips murmuring ravishing words They sing praises of all the immortals, their laws And blessed ways, ravishing with their murmuring words.
Then winged they Olympos-ward, glorying in their glorious voice, Their ambrosial song; and the dark world rang out With their hymning — an enchanting hum stirred underfoot 70 As they went to their father, king of the sky
Who brandishes thunder and the sizzling bolt Having routed his own father Kronos and muscled him out. Fairly their duties he dealt the immortals and ordained their honors ...
So sang the Muses who dwell on Olympos, Nine daughters born to almighty Zeus: Kleio and Euterpe, Thaleia, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Erato, Polymnia, Ourania, And Kalliope — she most exalted of all, Attendant of venerable monarchs. 80
Whenever the daughters of almighty Zeus gaze their honor Upon a heaven-nurtured prince at his birth, They sprinkle sweetest dews upon his tongue And from his lips his words flow honeyed. All his subjects Look to him as he weighs his verdicts With swerveless justice. Expertly in steady decrees He speedy puts an end to fiercest broils. This is why kings are wise: whenever the people Fumble in council, the king handily sets matters right With soft words and gentle persuasion. 90
When he passes through them thronging, they hail him as a god With gracious cheers. He stands out from the crowd. Such is the sacred gift the Muses bestow upon men.
Through the Muses and Apollo Far-Shooter, There are singers and lyre-players here on the earth. Kings come from Zeus, but blessed is the man beloved Of the Muses, and sweet flows the speech from his mouth. Though a man carry grief raw in his soul, His heart parched with sorrow, yet if a singer, Handmaid of the Muses, should anthem the glories 100 Of heroes of old and the blessed gods high on Olympos, Straightway he casts off his careworn, forgetting his woes As the gifts of the goddesses shift them away.
Hail, daughters of Zeus! Endow me with song, enchanting To praise the holy race of the endless immortals, The ones born to Gaia and spangled Ouranos, To gloomiest Night, and the ones nurtured up by the briny Sea.
Tell first of the birth of the gods and the earth, And rivers and the boundless sea surging, enraged, The radiant stars and heaven's vast height 110 And the gods born to them, bestowers of blessing — How they shared out their substance and divided dominions, How they first seized Olympos, valleyed with folds. Speak to me, Muses who dwell in the halls of Olympos. Speak all from the start: what came first into being —
In the beginning rose Chaos. Next Gaia The broad-bosomed Earth, ever firm the foundation for all The deathless who dwell upon snow-peaked Olympos, And Tartaros, dusked into a cleft in the wide-pathed ground, And Eros, fairest of the undying divines, 120 Unstringing the limbs and enslaving the heart, Whelming reason and will of both mortals and gods.
Chaos whelped Erebos and blackest Night. Out of Night were born Aither and Day, Conceived in clasping love with Eerebos.
[Greek Text Not Reproducible in ASCII].
Excerpted from Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod, Kimberly Johnson. Copyright © 2017 Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgements Translator’s Note Suggestions for Further Reading IntroductionTheogony: IntroductionWorks and Days: IntroductionTheogony NotesWorks and Days Notes