My summer reading list to prepare for the biblical studies M.A. spans everything from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Qur’an. To make some order out of the madness, I’m moving from one culture to the next. Somewhat arbitrarily I’ve started with the Greeks. Side benefit: this is also a great way to fill in the gaps in my classics reading; after all, I’m just about to graduate with a classics degree, so I should have read my Hesiod, Virgil, and Ovid!
I’ve already written about Hesiod’s Theogony. As I mentioned, Hesiod wrote during the Archaic age of Greek history, around 700 B.C.E. While the Theogony focuses on the gods and their interactions, the Works and Days takes its cue from the world of humans. The poem is addressed to Hesiod’s brother, Perses, who seems to have committed some kind of injustice against Hesiod. From this prosaic beginning, Hesiod moves into grand mythological speculation on the nature of humanity and justice, narrating the myths of Pandora and the four ages of mankind. He also includes many lines of proverbs praising justice and giving advice for tending a household. The poem ends with a farmer’s almanac of advice on planting crops and setting sail, what days of the month are best for various actions, etc.
As regards these days, fortunate and prosperous is he who knows all these things and does his work guiltless before the deathless ones, sorting out the birds and avoiding excesses. (135)
What did I get out of this book?
- Hesiod’s ages of man myth charts the move from gold to silver to bronze to heroic demigods to iron men, each one successively inferior to the one before it. Each race of men is a bit further from being gods. Two interesting things here: first, the parallels to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2:32-34; each dream narrates stages of human decline. Second, many allusions in Homer suggest that Achilles and Hector are living in the age of heroic demigods. Even Homer’s humanity is superior to ours! I find it interesting how many cultures have these myths of a primordial fall. Perhaps it functions as a theodicy to explain the gap between the noble characters of myth and the messy world the myth’s audience lives in.
- In lines 11-26, Hesiod details the two kinds of strife (eris): the good one that motivates men to war, and the bad one that motivates men to perform better to outdo their neighbor. Ancient Greek culture is known for being competitive. Even literature (epic and drama) was competitive, and the honors of victory were always limited to the best (aristoi). But here Hesiod seems to be aware that competition can only take place in a context of broader collaboration, i.e. civilization. Complete competition leads to warfare, which destroys society and makes men worse. We see this in our own lives, in everything from baseball to Dungeons and Dragons (yes, I have played!): competition only makes us better if we play by the rules.
- This edition of the Works and Days includes a commentary by David W. Tandy and Walter C. Neale, respectively a classical philologist and an economic historian. They read the Works and Days as “a response to the arrival of a new political and economic structure in the early archaic period (750-480 BCE)” (xiii). Far from Homer’s world of nobility, the narrator of Works and Days adopts the persona of a poor peasant. He frequently mentions the fact that kings (basilees) simply don’t care about their subjects, and bitterly complains about the debt that poor farmers and peasants like him are trapped into by their lack of economic security. In Tandy and Neale’s reading, Hesiod’s response to the new world of trade and prosperity in the archaic age is frustration that the peripheral peasants are not gaining any of this wealth. Just the opposite: as traditional economic patterns break down with the expansion of trade, peasants lose, as surplus crops go outside the community rather than back to the community (37).
I really like this edition of Hesiod. These two scholars really brought their areas of expertise together into an interesting interdisciplinary exploration. My only complaint with this edition is the translation. Tandy and Neale render Hesiod into prose. Hesiod, like Homer, is in dactylic hexameter, but that is totally lost here. I’m not a fan of prose translations of verse. Of course verse can never be adequately rendered, but prose translations just admit defeat at the start rather than trying. So I would use this edition for its valuable historic and economic information, but not for its translation.
Next up: the Homeric hymns!