Although I have done some study of Greek mythology in my Classics major, I don’t think I have ever read Hesiod for fun on my own. Hesiod seemed like a good place to start on Greek sources for my summer reading project. After two quarters of Homer, I’m pretty familiar with Odysseus and Achilles, but a little less so with Kronos and Rhea!
Hesiod wrote during the 8th century BCE, in the Archaic period of Greek history. His is the time of Homer, before the Classical Age of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes. We know nothing solid about him, though his own poetry claims that he was a shepherd who received verses from the Muses. We have two works left from him: the Theogony, which provides a creation myth and family tree of the Greek gods, and the Works and Days, an agricultural almanac and advice collection.
The Theogony opens with a paean to the Muses, Hesiod’s inspirations, then moves quickly into the story of creation from Chaos, Gaia, Tartaros, and Eros; the succession of divine kingship from Okeanos to Kronos to Zeus; the battle of the Titans; Zeus’ children with his three wives; and various other stories of gods and goddesses.
What did I get out of the Theogony?
- Hesiod’s work has several Near Eastern parallels. I have already mentioned connections with Canaanite myths of divine kingship and its usurpation. In his introduction, Caldwell relates this aspect of Hesiod to the Babylonian Enuma Elish (also on my summer reading list!). Caldwell suspects that the Greek theogonic tradition, based in turn on an Indo-European tradition, received infuence from Near Eastern peoples during the Bronze Age, Dark Age, and Archaic Age (21). So there is more connection between Greece and its neighbors than a simple reading of Hesiod alone would suggest.
- Anxiety about kingship and succession in Greece — in order for one god to have power, another must be put down. Zeus must defeat his father, Kronos, to become king of the gods. Unlike modern America where we think (as good capitalists) that wealth can be generated to make everyone wealthy, ancient Greeks tended to see wealth, honor, and other goods as limited, so that one man’s success is intimately tied with another’s loss. We see this in the Iliad, where mighty warriors on the same army battle one another for the spoils of war.
- The role of eros or love — Hesiod places Eros at the beginning of creation as one of the fundamental generative forces of the cosmos. Fittingly so, given that Eros in humans leads to babies. But he also places Love with Deceit, and includes the myth of Pandora, who unleashes great evils into the world. The Greeks did not have a romantic or idealized view of love, but a fatalistic one, seeing Eros as a destructive force as well as a powerful generative force. I wonder how much Paul’s suspicion of marriage in 1 Corinthians, for example, echoes this kind of suspicion of Eros in general.
Caldwell’s commentary is very useful, though I didn’t read his idiosyncratic psychoanalytic essay on the Greek gods. I’m still working through some Egyptian literature, and hope to tackle Works and Days after this.