Hesiod (c. 700 BCE) in conjunction with Homer, is one of those almost legendary early Greek Epic poets. His works are not of comparable length to Homer's. Hesiod's poems are not epic because of their length, but because of their language.
Hesiod composed two complete works that have come down to us, the Theogony, and the Works and Days, both composed in the oral tradition. Various other works are attributed to him, either correctly or incorrectly, these include the Shield of Hercules, the Catalogue of Women, the Precepts of Chiron, the Melampodia and an Astronomy, all of which are quite fragmentary. Unfortunately, the tale of Hesiod which involves him in a poetry contest with Homer is more than certainly false.
The Theogony is composed of around one thousand hexameter lines and is a unique account of the deities of Greece and their lineage. Hesiod claims, like many other epic poets, to have been inspired by the Muses and tells his audience that this happened “while he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon” (Theo. 22).
The Theogony covers these main areas:
- The beginning of the world with Chaos, followed by Gaia, Tartarus, and Eros (this passage is mentioned near the beginning of Plato’s Symposium)
- Gaia’s creation of Uranus, and their parenting of the Titans, Cyclopes and other giants
- The tale of Cronus’ castration of Uranus
- The parenting of Cronus and Rhea of the Olympian gods, and how Cronus ate the gods as soon as they were born, with only Zeus surviving, who later forced Cronus to throw-up the other Olympians
- The story of Prometheus (another Titan) and how he was punished by Zeus for giving fire to humans
- The Titanomcahy, a battle between the Titans and Olympians which Zeus won, casting the Titans and Typhoeus into Tartarus
- A passage devoted to Zeus and his many wives, the last of whom was Hera
- The birth of Hercules
- The offspring of goddesses and mortal men, which later had two lines added so that it would lead into the Catalogue of Women
The Works and Days
The Works and Days is composed of 828 hexameters. The ‘Works’ refer to the happenings of the farming year, and the ‘Days’ (with are recorded from around line 765) deals with recording the days of the month on which it is either lucky or unlucky to do certain things. Again, the poem begins with an appeal to the Muses, but then goes on to address Hesiod’s brother, Perses, urging him to put aside their dispute: “Perses, lay these things in your heart, and do not let that Strife who delights in mischief hold your heart back from work…” (W.D. 28).
The Works and Days can be split up into these main areas:
- A justification of man’s hard work and his necessity to act justly, explained by way of myths and morals, such as those of Prometheus, Pandora, and the fable of the hawk and the nightingale
- Instructions to Perses on how to be a good farmer (the ‘works’)
- Advice on sea trade
- Proverbs on religious and social expectations
- Lucky and unlucky days (the ‘days’)
Not much is known about the actual life of Hesiod. He says that his father left his home at Aetolian Cyme because his life of sea-trading was unprofitable; “he settled near Helicon in a miserable hamlet, Ascra, which is bad in winter, sultry in the summer, and good at no time.” (W.D. c. 640 ) and there are various other passages within his poems which refer to his actual life. The place of his death is also disputed; either Locris, or Orchomenus in Boeotia, where there was a tomb for him.