Hesiod's Lands and Seasons

Works and Days

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 7: Hesiod’s Lands and Seasons. In the last three episodes, we were in Egypt. Now, we’re going to go north, out of the Nile Delta. The year is 744 BCE. As we pass by the future site of the Suez Canal, the north of Egypt has been suffering from generations of political turmoil. Skirting the Sinai Peninsula, we’re not far from the biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah, small nations beleaguered by larger neighbors. Beyond the mountains of Lebanon and western Syria are the massive armies of Neo-Assyria, a powerful Mesopotamian empire. Coming generations of Israelites and Judahites will see the influx of Assyrians and Babylonians, and the confluence of these cultures, along with the iron wills of a few generations of Judahites, will shape the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and beyond. But that’s a story for another episode.

Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix 037

Eugene Delacroix's illustration of Hesiod and a muse, in the library of the Palais Bourbon, just downriver from Notre-Dame.

We continue north, with Cypress to the west of us and Syria to the east, until we can see the mountains of southern Turkey rising up out of the Mediterranean, grand even in the far distance, sage green, showing trees and patches of bare rock. Then, finally, we turn west, and follow the setting sun. For two hundred, then four hundred, then five hundred miles we sail west, and the land changes. It’s never lush, but its shrub lands and scattered woods are a world apart from the ferocious heat of the Egyptian or Mesopotamian desert. After all these hundreds of miles, we reach our destination. Everywhere, islands rise out of the water, showing that under the ocean, the terrain is as uneven as it is above. Pale rocks and cliffs tower above the waves, and smooth passages over dark water are punctuated by narrower routes through archipelagos and between islands. Striking bright beaches rise up into steep headlands, and if you look closely, you can see pathways leading up to pasturelands and olive orchards. As we venture deeper into this ocean full of rocky islands, we begin to see men in longboats, splashing their oars through the cool water. They are not speaking Ancient Egyptian, nor Akkadian, nor Amorite, nor Hebrew. They are speaking Greek. And we’re in the Aegean Sea.

"Ancient Greece:" When, Where, and What

This is the first of dozens of episodes we’ll do on the literature of Ancient Greece. Our author in the next two episodes, Hesiod, was one of the earliest and most important writers of Greek literature, and he was known in antiquity as the “farmer poet.” Historians guess that he was born some time during the 700s BCE in a town called Kyme, in the far west of present day Turkey, on the eastern shore of the Aegean. Two of Hesiod’s long poems have been in circulation for 2,700 years. The first one is called Works and Days. Works and Days is a compendium of stories and advice to Hesiod’s brother Perses, who was evidently a lazy deadbeat who needed a thousand or so lines of wisdom and admonishment to straighten him out. Hesiod’s second major work is called the Theogony. The Theogony, which is about the same length as Works and Days, tells of the creation of the world, the doings of several generations of divine beings, and the rise of the Olympian pantheon – Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Athena, and company. In this show, we’ll talk about Works and Days. In the next one, we’ll talk about Theogony.

I want to start with Works and Days, because I think it’s a great window into what was happening in Greece in the 700s BCE. Just as the words “Ancient Egypt” conjure up images of pyramids and sarcophagi, the words “Ancient Greece” are likely to bring to mind black figure pottery, marble statues, Corinthian columns, and hoplite warriors. When most of us think of Ancient Greece, we think of its most famous time and place, and this was Athens, during the 400s BCE and just afterward. During this period, Athens produced many of the household names of Ancient Greece – Aeschylus, Pericles, Sophocles, Socrates, Protagoras, Euripides, Plato, and many others. During the 400s, Athens was front and center in two of the most famous wars in ancient history. The first, the Greco-Persian Wars, have been immortalized in Herodotus - wars in which the great Persian Empire found itself unexpectedly hindered by a comparatively tiny confederation of Greek allies during the 490s and 480s BCE on its far western frontier. The second, the Peloponnesian War, raged between 431-404 BCE, and saw two contingents of allies crossing swords with one another for a generation – one led by Athens, and the other Sparta. The Peloponnesian War’s fame derives not so much from its scope and global significance – after all it was one of Greece’s many small scale protracted civil wars in antiquity – as from all the records we have about it – records from the playwrights Sophocles and Aristophanes, and of course the historian Thucydides, possibly the most intelligent and modern historian whose works have come down to us from antiquity.

But fifth-century Athens is really only one small chapter in the history of Ancient Greece, which began not in 500 BCE on the mainland, nor commercial Corinth, nor warlike Sparta, but instead one thousand five hundred years earlier, far south of the mainland. Although I know this is an episode on Hesiod, because this is our podcast’s first episode on Ancient Greek literature, I’d like to offer a short introduction to Ancient Greek history up until about 700 BCE. Apologies if you tuned in just for Hesiod – I don’t mean to load episodes with a bunch of introductory fluff, it’s just that I think it’s important to know a bit of history and geography to understand Hesiod, his life, and his works.

Ancient Egyptian geography is pretty simple. There were cities situated along the Nile, and then – other – uh – cities situated along the Nile. And in Mesopotamia, there were cities located along the Tigris and Euphrates, and, also, cities located along the Tigris and Euphrates. I’m exaggerating, of course, but extremely arid lands with singular sources of fresh water tend to have pretty predictable population distributions. Greece is a different story entirely. And every single history of Ancient Greece – every attempt to explain what made the Greeks a unique society in the ancient world – begins with geography. [music]

Geology, Ecology, and the Ancient Greek World

It’s easy to understand how geography, climate, and natural resources determine the formation and shape of civilizations. You don’t find any ancient ruins in Antarctica. We’ve already met several civilizations centered on rivers and river valleys – the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, and Egyptians. As I said in the first episode, if you had some freeze dried humans and were trying to kick start a civilization, the best thing you could do would be to sprinkle some of us in warm, fertile river valleys. For the first phases of civilization, it’s hard to think of a better place.

But there are some drawbacks to flatland civilizations based around rivers. The histories of Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt are full of autocratic, semidivine monarchs, bloody conquests, and generations of citizens who were ground into meal by waves of successive conquests, or bled out by the taxes of an iron fisted central government. When everyone has to live by the river or die of thirst, the common citizen is easier to find and control. Mesopotamians and Egyptians were more subject to foreign invasion, and central authority, and civil strife, and even epidemics and food shortages. But throw in some mountain ranges, some oceans, some islands, some tricky isthmuses, and make the freshwater sources a bit harder to find – throw in all these things – and you have Ancient Greece.

Topographic map imagery courtesy of Google Maps.

Ancient Greece, which produced Hesiod and Homer some time around the 700s BCE, and would later go on to produce other literary and philosophical superstars we’re still reading today, was not a river civilization. The country’s geography, from the beginning, encouraged the formation of city states – city states seated in fertile mountain valleys, coastal plains, islands, beachheads, and trade key routes. Due to their disparate locations, these ancient city states produced diverse goods – pottery here, barley there, and wool, olive oil, wine, textiles, and silver all in distinct regional centers. City states had distinct identities, religious cults and practices, and logistical strengths and weaknesses, and generally speaking, collaboration for the greater good was the business model. When you have plenty of barley but no silver, and the folks in the next valley over have plenty of silver but no barley, it’s time to build some roads, and become friends. That marvelous, bustling Aegean that we started on, with its longboats, its shoreline trading hubs, and island communities, was a wickerwork of such interchanges, interchanges that made a few citizens rich through commerce, and many more citizens rich through cultural osmosis.

There was nothing utopian about any of it. City states fought and squabbled, and slaves were taken, and full participation in society was only allowed to a select few. Still, though, the mountains, the ridges, and the stretches of ocean between Ancient Greece’s city states all acted as a kind of damage control against totalitarianism, domestic or foreign, hindering generations of Sargons, Hammurabis, Thutmoses, and Tiglath-Pilesers. When we think of the famous battle of three hundred Spartans against the Persian forces at Thermopylae, we should remember that on either side of the tiny, supposedly superhuman Spartan force there were the boulders, cliffs and slopes that arose all over Greece’s mainland and islands – boulders, cliffs and slopes that have hindered all of its aspiring conquerors, two and a half thousand years ago and today. Hesiod, as we’ll soon see, was ambivalent about living in the foothills of a rural backwater in Greece. But it’s important to remember that those foothills, and that mountainous, hardscrabble country, are just the sort of geographical barriers that made Ancient Greece Ancient Greece. [music]

Ancient Greece: The Greater Aegean World

Now, you may know a lot about the geography of Ancient Greece, but I want to introduce something here up front. When classicists use the word “Ancient Greece,” they don’t really mean that modern day country sitting on the dangly lower part of the Balkans. It’s a bit more complicated than that. The cities on that part of the lower Balkans – Athens, Thebes, Sparta, Corinth, Megara, and others, were certainly power players during much of the first millennium BCE. But these cities were the hubs of an energetic seafaring culture, a culture that expanded to the west coast of modern day Turkey, and to the southern part of modern day Italy. Hesiod, and the earliest Greek philosophers Thales, Anaximines, and Anaximander were not from the Greek mainland, but from Asia Minor. Homer, if Homer were even a single individual, is often reported to have come from Chios, just off the coast of modern day Turkey. The philosopher Pythagoras and his less famous successor Parmenidies were from Magna Graecia, in modern day Italy. The great pastoral poet Theocritus hailed from Sicily. The epic poet Apollonius, along with several other influential Greek writers, spent much of his career in Alexandria, Egypt. Ancient Greece’s early lyric poets – Archilochus, Sappho, Bacchylides, Anacreon, Stesichorus, and others – these writers hailed from all over the Eastern Mediterranean.

When we say “Ancient Greece,” then, we are talking about an expansive geographical area – one that at various periods stretched west, to Italy, south, to Egypt, northwest, up into the Adriatic, and even northeast, as far as the north coast of the Black Sea. This is something tremendously important to keep in mind, and one of the most famous quotes in Ancient Greek history sums the whole thing up nicely. The Greek explorer, soldier and historian Xenophon, in the last years of the 400s BCE, was involved in a brief mercenary campaign on behalf of the Persian Empire. He and his force of 10,000 Greeks were returning home after a long and anticlimactic campaign in the distant east, having trekked through the strange and unfamiliar territories of the Caucasus mountains. When they came to the southeastern coast of the Black Sea, they saw the ocean opening up in front of them with great joy and gratitude, and they cried, “Thálatta! Thálatta!” or, “The sea! The sea!”1 This, to the Ancient Greeks – whether in modern day Greece, Turkey, Italy, or Egypt – this was home.

Almost every settlement of Classical Greece was situated less than forty miles from the ocean, the superhighway connecting Ancient Greece with Egyptians, Canaanites, Phoenecians, Hittites, Assyrians, and Babylonians, and so it’s no surprise that Greek goods have been found in the ruins behind the walls of all of these ancient civilizations. Geography shaped the political and commercial structures of Ancient Greece, encouraging a society built like a patchwork quilt, where information and goods travelled freely and productively between the patches. When historians talk about Greece as “the crucible of civilization,” usually referring to fifth-century BCE Athens, and not much else, they don’t acknowledge that Greece was never just one thing, nor that the many building blocks that made up the Eastern Mediterranean’s civilizations came from the older civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. What happened in the Eastern Mediterranean between, say, 1000 and 400 BCE wasn’t so much that an indigenous culture splashed up out of the ocean and invented civilization. What happened was that the many elements of Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations came together with migrant groups from the Balkans and western Mediterranean, and the fusions of these cultures, puddling together in the geographically unique waterways and mountain valleys of the Aegean world and beyond, allowed for social and commercial formations to take place that had not been feasible in the riverside flatlands of the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates.

An early emblem of eastern Mediterranean civilization arose on the island of Crete. The ruins discovered on Bronze Age Crete allow us to see what sort of shape an ancient civilization could take when it had advanced technologies and trading connections, and no monolithic neighbors to immediately threaten it. The Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh concludes with the hero standing on his city walls, a little melancholy, maybe, but at least glad to be home. If you were a Sumerian living within arrowshot of the mountains of Iran, or an Egyptian, living south of the Nile’s first cataract, where Nubian raiders could show up at any moment, you built walls. If you were an ancient Israelite, living in the crowded lands of Canaan, and you wanted to protect your sacred tabernacle and temple from the warlords of Egypt and Assyria, you built walls. If you lived in the ancient world in an area with permeable geographic boundaries and you had neighbors, you built walls. But what if this weren’t the case? What if it were 2,100 BCE, and you had a nice, big fat island in the south of the Aegean, and there were no aggressive neighbors around you? What would that be like?

Minoan Crete

It would be a bit like the island of Crete. And if you’ve listened to the first six episodes of this podcast, you’re quite equipped to understand how fantastic the civilization that arose on Crete was. Let’s start by giving it a name. Historians call Crete’s earliest inhabitants the Minoans. The name comes from a nineteenth-century archaeologist who decided that the ancient palace ruins on the island were extremely elaborate – almost like a maze, or labyrinth. Drawing from the story of King Minos, who built the legendary labyrinth which housed the monstrous half-bull half-man, early scholars of the civilization of ancient Crete called it “Minoan.” And the name stuck.

What did archaeologists find there? Did they dig deep, and find the remains of a minotaur, or a golden thread, or a valiant Greek hero who survived the deadly maze? No, no, and no. They found something much more interesting. They discovered the remains of an elaborate civilization which had arisen long before classical Athens, a civilization that wrote in an unfamiliar script that we call “Linear A.” Minoan civilization is usually described as “palace society,” because the elites of the community dwelt in sumptuous palace complexes, and other community members clustered tightly around them. These complexes really didn’t have much in the way of walls or fortifications. Satellite settlements and farms lay scattered beyond the immediate palaces. Defensibility was not, really, a primary concern, as far as we can tell. There were warriors, and men were buried with weapons, but nonetheless Minoan Crete wasn’t a martial society in the vein of contemporary Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations. Its regional isolation and prosperous trade relationships, together with the fact that the eastern Mediterranean was just far less crowded in 2,000 BCE than it would be fifteen hundred years later, encouraged a far different culture to arise on the island of Crete.

Ramesses II (Shelly's "Ozymandius") butchering an enemy in a wall relief at Abu Simbel. Photo credit: Aoineko.

A common image in Ancient Egyptian art – one found almost ubiquitously, is the Pharaoh standing triumphantly over bound enemies, often with his foot on their heads and a mace in his hand, as though preparing to crush their skulls. From the palette featuring the 3100 BCE ruler Narmer onward, this image was often associated with Egyptian and other Near Eastern kings. It is a sadistic, violent image, etched into ten thousand walls, seals, columns, and tombs. Although such kingly portraiture was likely a piece of political theater designed to terrify potential usurpers, it nonetheless shows that the glorification of brutal autocracy was the primary force propelling the creation of art and architecture.

To return to Minoan culture, art historians frequently contrast the friezes and mosaics on the walls of Cretan palaces with the stonework of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Minoans, it seemed, were as enamored with the beauties of humanity and the natural world as Egypt was with death and the afterlife. Minoan art shimmers with dolphins, birds, flowers and grass, curious fish, rushing water, and hillsides bursting with plants, people playing games and going about the operations of daily life, dancing youths and beautiful, bare breasted goddesses, goddesses so prevalent that many have theorized that Crete’s leadership was a co-ed, if not matriarchal affair.

La salle des dauphins ou salle de bains de la Reine à Knossos

The Dolphin Room or Queen's Room at the Palace at Knossos. Photo credit: By Chris 73 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Minoan economics were what we might loosely call “communist.” The palace was a central hub for the collection, storage and safeguarding of goods, which were redistributed to the citizenry by the state bureaucracy. The most famous palace on Crete, at Knossos, had enough storage jars to hold 240,000 gallons of fresh water, food, wine, and olive oil. Surely, again, it was no utopia. But alongside Mesopotamia in the 1700s, when Hammurabi’s Babylon was falling into violent pieces due to Hittite pressure from the west, or Egypt in the 1700s, when twelfth dynasty pharaohs were waging bloody campaigns against their Libyan and Nubian enemies, Minoan Crete looks pretty good. I think most of us would probably rather live in a peaceful island state with plentiful food storage, lots of fish and wine, and lovely wall decorations of sea creatures and sexy naked people.

Mycenaean Society and the Bronze Age Collapse

Minoan society, for mostly unknown reasons, did not prevail. By the time Hesiod lived during the 700s, Minoan Crete was already a distant memory. Earthquakes, climate change, and regional power shifts led to the rise of a new society. The next period of ancient Greek civilization is called Mycenaean civilization. Mycenaeans were headquartered on the mainland, two hundred miles northwest of the palaces of Crete. Their script came from Minoan Crete’s, suggesting a shared linguistic heritage.

Mycenaean society was less idiosyncratic within the ancient Mediterranean world than Crete's. The Mycenaeans were a warlike society, placing high emphasis on masculine martial valor. Evidence of their culture exists on the mainland from about 1600 forward, and around 1400, as the first Mycenaean palaces were built, out on the island of Crete, the great Palace at Knossos was destroyed. Mycenaean palace culture peaked in the 1200s, and by the end of this century, the entire Ancient Near East was rocked by an event historians call the Bronze Age Collapse, which we talked about in an earlier episode. The Bronze Age Collapse affected all of the main characters of ancient history in the Mediterranean world – Mesopotamia, Egypt, Phoenicia, Canaan, and, of course, Greece. Let’s quickly review what the Bronze Age Collapse was – this was a seminal event in world history that most of us outside the sandbox of the ancient world rarely think or talk about.

Modern research has shown that in the Eastern Mediterranean between 1200 and 1000 BCE, rainfall decreased by about 20 percent, and temperatures rose by somewhere between 2 and 3 degrees. This climate change took place in densely inhabited agricultural communities along arid steppe lands, rivers and tributaries. The result was massive famine, population shifts, and dramatic changes in regional power. Hatti, seat of the Hittite empire in present day Turkey, fell in about 1200. Ugarit, the Canaanite city that’s the probable source of the alphabet, and many of Israel’s religious traditions, collapsed. By the 1080s, the Assyrian king was reporting widespread cannibalism. And as Assyria reached its weakest point, Amorite speakers flooded into Mesopotamia, beginning the disintegration of the cuneiform lands that we explored in the first episode of this podcast. Simultaneously, with Canaan’s powers weakened by drought, the Israelites were able to establish the beginnings of a kingdom. Everyone, in fact, seemed to be travelling, and moving around, and setting things up, and taking old things down.


An illustration of migration patterns during the Bronze Age Collapse, courtesy of Lommes [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

What is now present day Greece saw increasing numbers of immigrants. The patchwork economic system of Mycenaean Greece was no exception to the Bronze Age Collapse. Palaces fell into ruin. Earthquakes ravaged attempts to rebuild or maintain old structures. Settlements decreased in size, and specialized trades became rarer, and the lands of the Aegean hunkered down for what we call the “Greek Dark Age” – the years roughly between 1000 and 750 BCE. During these years the complex economies, luxury goods, architectural projects, and trade systems of the Greek world faltered. Communities retreated into subsistence agriculture. They abandoned Mycenaean script, and produced far fewer written inscriptions. While the rest of the Ancient Near East recovered more quickly from the Bronze Age Collapse, Greece in the 900s was a shadow of what it had been during the zeniths of the Mycenaean and Minoan civilizations. Pockets of cultured urban life endured, but portions of Greece fell into nearly Neolithic squalor and stasis. This stasis, however, was not to last. [music]

Hesiod, the Alphabet, and the End of the Greek Dark Age

It’s now time we get to Hesiod and his poem, Works and Days. Hesiod’s poems are usually dated to the years between 750 and 700 BCE. By this time, the Greeks were really recovering. They had learned to smelt iron. Aristocracy had risen and given way to new hierarchical societies. The geography of Greece, as before, sifted populations into small to medium city states. And two other tremendously important things happened by the time that Hesiod lived and wrote.

Map of Archaic Greece (English)

Greece in the time of Hesiod and Homer. Kyme, Hesiod's hometown, was right about where the word "Mytilene" is on the map. Askra was in the hill country of western Boeotia on the mainland. Image credit: Megistias.

In 776 BCE, a consortium of city states held the first ever Olympic Games. These games reflected not only a growing stability and prosperity across the city states of Greece, but also something that we call panhellenism – “pan” meaning “over,” and “Hellenism” meaning linguistically unified inhabitants of Greece, who traced their lineage back to the heroic age of Helen of Troy, and the Trojan War. In the first ever panhellenic Games, men competed in running and wrestling in the nude. The Olympic Games were a synthesis of two seemingly conflicting interests – on one hand, a desire for individuals and specific city states to distinguish themselves amidst their peers, and on the other, a concurrent desire to all come together, share provisions, and forge valuable partnerships. A group of city states, without the adhesive force of collective rituals, could easily atomize and drift outward, integrating with other cultural and linguistic groups. Before Greece was Greece, its city states washed into one another and surrounding regions, as well. While this never entirely stopped happening, the Olympic Games, and the spirit of panhellenism, helped make Greece Greece, and not just a bunch of people who lived in foothills near oceans and occasionally traded with one another.

One other important thing had happened, leading up to Hesiod's life. The Greeks had adopted a Phoenecian alphabet. Hesiod knew this alphabet, and used it. Unlike Hebrew or some other Semitic written languages, the Greek alphabet included vowels, a Greek invention. Now just think. Imagine trying to pronounce Hesiod’s name if you couldn’t see the vowels. Hmm. The consonants are “HSD.” You might guess Hosed? Housed? Uh. “HSD.” Hoi-seed. Hasoud. You might read Plato – PLT – as “Pale Tie,” or Socrates as “Scar Toes,” or Euclid as “Clod,” or Aristotle, without vowels, as “Roast Tool.” The moral of the story is, vowels are important. Dear Ancient Greek friends, thank you for the Pythagorean Theorem and Aristotle’s Biology, but thank you most of all, by far, for vowels. Someone was definitely thinking outside of the box – or should I say "bx?"

So, Hesiod lived at the end of the Greek Dark Age, and at the beginning of the Greek Archaic Age – the years between 750 and 500 BCE, during which the panhellenic city states strengthened their allegiances and trade systems, and all got together to watch well-oiled – or maybe we should just say well Greeced – men wrestle in the nude. Our first eight episodes on Ancient Greece will be at just this juncture, say, the first panhellenic Olympian games in 776 BCE down to about 700. During Hesiod’s lifetime, the Greeks were already in the midst of a remarkable socioeconomic rebound, and they knew it.

So now that we have some historical background, let’s talk about the main idea of this show. The main idea I want to communicate in this episode is its title: Hesiod’s Lands and Seasons. In a word, the thousand lines of Works and Days set forth rules and observations crucial to all the lands of Greece, in all the seasons of the year. Critical to the operations of the consolidating lands, to Hesiod, is that all citizens work hard and act with common sense and honesty through winter, summer, spring and fall. When your neighbor is depending on you to till his crops, laziness and negligence just won’t due. Analogously, when the city state on the other side of the ridge is depending on your city state to bring them wine in exchange for bread, you bring them that wine, and you go home with that bread. Otherwise, half of us are hungry, and the other half are sober, and none of us are happy. The whole order of things, an order superintended by Zeus himself, depends on it. Written at a thrilling time when Greek city states were convening for the Olympics and communicating with the most advanced writing on Earth, Works and Days reminds us a great order governs all things, old and new. Now, let’s open up the pages of Works and Days, and hear what the Farmer Poet has to tell us. [music]

The Frame Narrative of Works and Days

Here’s the situation at the outset of Works and Days. Imagine two brothers. One is hardworking, articulate, a bit cynical, but nonetheless wise and perceptive. The other is a wastrel and a speculator, who has squandered a great deal of money on dubious ventures and seems to have no intention of stopping. The first brother is Hesiod. And the other brother is Perses. And the entirety of Works and Days is a protracted speech from wise, industrious Hesiod to his lazy, do-nothing brother. Hesiod criticizes Perses. Hesiod tells Perses that things are the way they are due to great cosmic forces. Hesiod recollects how he and Perses came to dwell in the backwater where they live. He offers an abundance of proverbs and instructive sayings. Hesiod describes what Perses must do in every season, in order to be a farmer. And finally, Hesiod provides a long list of days during which certain activities must take place – reaping, sowing, opening wine, working on ships, and so on. So here are some lines from the opening of Works and Days, from the terrific Stanley Lombardo translation, first published by Hackett Classics in 1993.

As for me,
Well, brother Perses,
I’d like to state a few facts.2
When a person’s lazing about and sees his neighbor
Getting rich, because he hurries to plow and plant
And put his homestead in order, [the lazy person] tends to compete
With that neighbor in a race to get rich.
Strife like this does people good. . .
Now, Perses, you lay these things up in your heart
And don’t [be]. . .Spending all your time in the market eyeballing quarrels
And listening to lawsuits. A person hasn’t any business
Wasting time at the market. (24)
So that’s some of the beginning – in which Hesiod calls his brother a ne’er do well, says he’s going to give Perses a piece of his mind to settle things, and then begins his long, long speech. Hesiod’s Works and Days is one of the most prominent works of ancient literature, but structurally speaking, it’s very unusual. Classicist Robert Lamberton aptly describes Works and Days as “a jumbled collection of myths, proverbs, and farming lore, with a self-sufficient and apparently otherwise irrelevant treatise thrown in at the end, concerned with the problem of choosing the right day of the month for each activity.”3 That’s the work in a nutshell. It’s a rambling, grouchy diatribe, which deprecates Perses again and again while simultaneously trying to communicate some core messages – like life is difficult, we must all work hard, and the same overarching gods and seasons rule over all of our lives.

Prometheus and Pandora


Prometheus, Mercury and Pandora, by Josef Abel (1764-1818).

Early in Works and Days, Hesiod interrupts his castigations of his brother in order to tell a story. The title of this story is “Why Life is Hard,” and its main characters are Prometheus and Pandora. You might be wondering what in the world a Greek myth is doing in the middle of some ancient farmer’s harangue against his brother. It’s a good question, and I’ll answer it upfront. Hesiod includes the story of Prometheus and Pandora in order to explain to his brother why human existence is difficult and taxing. It’s taxing because some early humans botched things up for the rest of us, forever after.

I think the translator, again Stanley Lombardo, is really able to convey what makes Hesiod’s Works and Days special. Lombardo is able to convey one of the central facets of Hesiod – and that is this. Even when Hesiod tells timeless stories of gods and heroes, he retains the same poetic personality. He’s rustic, improvised, and casual. You feel like you’re listening to a neighbor over the fence spinning a yarn more than a religious narrative. Hesiod doesn’t change his diction, or tone, just because he’s dealing with lofty things – he’s always, adamantly, Hesiod. So, again, here’s Hesiod, telling a tale called “Why Life is Hard” to his good-for-nothing brother – a tale about Prometheus and Pandora.

You know, the gods never have let on
How humans might make a living. Else,
You might get enough done in one day
To keep you fixed. . .a year without working.
You might just hang your plowshare up in the smoke,
And all the fieldwork done by your oxen
And hard-working mules would soon run to ruin.
But Zeus got his spleen up, and went and hid
How to make a living, all because shifty Prometheus
Tricked him. That’s why Zeus made life hard for humans.
He hid fire. But that fine [Prometheus] stole it
Right back out from under Zeus’ nose, hiding
The flame in a fennel stalk. And thundering Zeus
Who rides. . .on the clouds got angry and said:
“[Prometheus], if you’re not the smartest of them all!
I bet you’re glad you stole fire and outfoxed me.
But things will go hard for you and for humans after this.
I’m going to give them Evil in exchange for fire,
Their very own Evil to love and embrace. (24-5)
You can almost imagine an ancient farmer chewing a barley stalk, disclosing these lines from a front stoop or with one leg up on a stump. Reading the mythological portions of Works and Days serves as a vivid reminder that the great myths and stories that have been solidified and canonized in book form had their roots in a billion folktales, passed back and forth between speakers and listeners to explain this or that situation, or to support this or that argument. Anyway, I interrupted the story. What is this evil that befalls the wayward Prometheus? Is it a plague? A violent storm that pulverizes his house? Is he struck dead by an Olympian thunderbolt? No, no, and no. His punishment is far worse. His punishment is. . .a. . .beautiful woman.

So Zeus summoned Hephaestus, the great smith and engineer of the gods, and Hephaestus made a woman out of earth and water. She had a beautiful face, like a goddess, and the kind of figure that can make knees tremble. She knew all of the arts of women, and grace flowed around her as she walked. Her name was Pandora. And Zeus made sure that she had “in her breast / Lies and wheedling words and a cheating heart” (25). Pandora was, after all, supposed to be a punishment.

Pandora arrived amidst mankind as a present from Zeus, and it wasn’t long before she found a jar with which she would forever after be associated. Pandora’s box isn’t actually a box in Works and Days, but instead a jar. So Pandora found the jar. And Hesiod writes that,

[B]efore that the human race
Had lived off the land without any trouble, no hard work
No sickness or pain that the Fates give to men. . .
But the woman took the lid off the big jar with her hands
And scattered all the miseries that spell sorrow for men.
Only Hope was left there in the unbreakable container,
Stuck under the lip of the jar, and couldn’t fly out. (26)
So that's Hesiod’s story of how the human condition came to be. We lived an easeful existence, with little labor to weigh us down. But one of us overreached, taking something that belonged to the gods. For Prometheus’ theft of fire, we were all punished, and made to live lives of tribulation and labor. That, Hesiod says, is “Why Life is Hard.”

The Ages of Man

I’m willing to bet that the structure of the Prometheus and Pandora story sounds familiar. First, things were spiffy. Then mankind overreached, angering the gods. Then, as a punishment, our condition became much worse, and we were condemned live with the labors and privations that we currently do. It’s basically the same story as the one that begins the Book of Genesis – an explanatory tale that illustrates why life isn’t always peachy. The parallels between the stories of Eve and Pandora are pretty obvious, but not so obvious, maybe, is the fact that Biblical scholars believe that Genesis was being worked on around the time in which Hesiod lived, and perhaps a bit later. Looking at these two narratives side by side, you can see that the three part tale of a joyous utopian past, an overweening quest for knowledge, and a subsequent divine punishment, wherever it originally came from, was not unique to Ancient Israel during the Iron Age.


This medieval manuscript shows the Dream of Nebuchandezzar from the Book of Daniel - a dream in which the Mesopotamian king sees multiple ages of man in multiple metals. The dream is interpreted by Christians as about the coming of Jesus and a heavenly kingdom, but the multipart phases of man story dates back to at least Hesiod (8th century BCE) whereas Daniel was written some time after the fall of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV (a common date mentioned being the 160s BCE).

In fact, you can hear the backbone of the Eve or Pandora story in the very next part of Hesiod’s Works and Days. Hesiod’s next illustrative tale is called “The Five Ages,” and in it, we hear of a descent from a golden, carefree period into our modern epoch of labor and strife. The first of the five ages, Hesiod says, was the time of a golden race. “They had everything good,” he says. “The land bore them fruit / All on its own, and plenty of it too. Cheerful folk / They did their work peaceably and in prosperity, / With plenty of flocks, and they were dear to the gods” (27). This paradisal first age, regrettably, did not last. A second age began, an age of silver. During this age people were infants for the first hundred years of their lives. Humankind was dense, violent, and imperceptive. Worse, they were impious, never sacrificing to the Olympians, and so Zeus killed them all – and the second age – again the age of silver – passed. Then Zeus made a third generation, and this was the bronze age. Zeus “made them out of ash trees, / Kind of monstrous and heavy, and all they cared about / Was fighting and war. . .Shapeless hulks. Terrifically strong. Grapplehook hands / Grew out of their shoulders on thick stumps of arms, / And they had bronze weapons, bronze houses, / And their tools were bronze” (28). So this violent race perished in bloodshed and civil wars, and not a single name survived from it.

Three ages of man had passed, gold, silver, and bronze, and Zeus made another race – this one called “The divine race of Heroes” (28). These men and women, larger-than-life warriors and demigods, all perished in valorous acts during great wars – wars at Thebes, wars at Troy, and so on. When they breathed their last breaths on battlefields, Zeus sent their spirits to the far corners of the earth, and sacred fruit blooms for them three times each year. The Age of heroes, the fourth age, had passed. Then came the fifth age – the age of iron. Hesiod’s age. Hesiod doesn’t have anything good to say about it. Hesiod tells his brother,

I wish I had nothing to do with this fifth generation,
Wish I had died before or been born after,
Because this is the Iron Age
Not a day goes by
A man doesn’t have some kind of trouble.
Nights too, just wearing him down. I mean
The gods send us terrible pain and vexation. (28)
Hesiod’s list of problems that plague Iron Age humanity goes on and on. Families don’t get along. Hosts and guests don’t get along. Parents don’t honor children. Those who break oaths and do evil are revered. People are violent, envious, slanderous, and there’s nothing we can do about it, and no happy ending other than the eventual justice of Zeus.

That’s the second story in Hesiod’s Works and Days – the story of the five ages of Gold, Silver, Bronze, Heroes, and Iron, a story like that of Eve and Pandora, that tells of humankind’s descent from blissful prosperity to woe and suffering. And just as the Pandora story parallels the first chapters of Genesis, the Five Ages story parallels a large portion of the Book of Daniel, in which Daniel tells the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar that Nebuchadnezzar's dreams of a statue made of many different types of metal signify that the king’s age of gold will be followed by an age of silver, and then one of bronze, and then one of iron, and finally one of clay. The Ages of Man story, as it’s often called, shows up widely in classical literature, appearing not only in Hesiod and the Book of Daniel, but also the Roman poets Catullus, Horace, Virgil, and long afterward, Dante.

So, the first two hundred and fifty or so lines of Hesiod’s Works and Days, and the stories embedded within them, communicate a glowering, pessimistic worldview. Hesiod is furious with his brother, and uses the first section of his long poem to illustrate that his brother is symptomatic of the fallen times in which they live. Like Genesis, the Book of Daniel, and many other ancient writers, Hesiod depicts mankind’s current condition as the unfortunate result of blasphemies and descents. But fortunately for us, Works and Days isn’t just a depressing rant against humanity. Hesiod has hope for the world, and hope for his brother. This hope begins to shine in the next section of the poem, entitled “Justice.” [music]

Hesiod's Notion of Divine Justice

Hesiod’s ethics are simple. His Zeus, like the Christian God, or the impersonal force of karma, makes sure that when people are good and honest, good things happen to them. I want to read you a long section of Works and Days that has to do with justice. And this is the Kimberly Johnson Translation this time, published by Northwestern University Press in 2017 Hesiod says, on the subject of justice,

Justice outraces pride
In the end, as the fool learns the hard way.
For the oath-god hounds skewed verdicts.
Justice howls when she’s dragged and hauled
By bribe-fat men dispensing decrees with judgment aslant.
[Justice] stalks the city and the civic routines,
Wailing, calling calamity down on mankind
Who would rive her out, handling her into twists.
But those who deliver straight judgments to fellows
And strangers alike, transgressing no righteousness,
Their city thrives and its people blossom.
Peace like a nursemaid broods over the land, and never
Against them does far-seeing Zeus set cruel war.
Neither famine nor blight dog men of justice,
But feasting they savor the fruits of their labors.
The field yields them plenty, and up on the mountain
The oak hoists acorns on its spire, hides bees in its hollows.
Their wooly sheep are heavy with fleece,
The women bear children who look like their fathers.
Flush ever with blessings, they need never sea-traffic,
For the crop-lavish tilth teems with grain. . .
O Perses, ponder all this in your mind.
Attend to justice and ever shun havoc. (217-37)4
What a remarkably different passage than the dark visions of Pandora’s jar, and the blighted age of iron that we saw a minute ago! Wow! Here we can see the resilient optimism at the core of Hesiod’s philosophy. Yes, life is brutal, labor is hard, and the world is filled with cheaters and turncoats. But however imperfect, life can still be orderly, rewarding, and even wonderful.

What drove Hesiod’s peculiar combination of pessimism and hope? How is it that he sees brightness in such a debased epoch of human history? When we know something about an author, we can conjecture a bit about how his or her life experiences influenced the work at hand. This is tricky the further back you go. We don’t really know who wrote The Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Iliad, or the Book of Job. We can’t say “Jane Doe, the author of the Book of Job, had just been fired from her job at the post office when she sat down to pen the story of poor Job, and so it’s no wonder that the story is filled with a sense of frustration and injustice.” Hesiod, however, is a slightly different case. He presents himself as a single figure, not a monolithic third person omniscient narrator. We don’t know much about him – only what he tells us in his poems, which I’ll relate to you now.

Hesiod’s birthplace was probably a settlement called Kyme, on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean in present day Turkey. Kyme was just thirty miles northwest of Smyrna, one of the cities that claimed to be the hometown of the most influential poet of ancient Greece, Homer. It was a populous, multiethnic region of the eastern Mediterranean. In fact, in Hesiod’s day, the far west of present day Turkey, with broad biodiversity, warm, consistent temperatures, expansive beaches, and gorgeous mountains, was a natural place for civilization to rise and produce advances in technology, and science, and the arts. Unfortunately for Hesiod, he had to leave beautiful Kyme when he was young, due to his father’s poverty. Hesiod and his family travelled west across the Aegean, past countless settlements on hilly islands, past the burgeoning city of Athens, past the prosperous trade hub of Corinth, and up into the remote, steep sloped country around Mount Helicon, home of – uh – wind? And sheep? And flies? Early in Works and Days, Hesiod famously recounts the moment that he “settled by Helikon, in this woebegone town, Askra, / bad in winter, / godawful in summer, nice never” (43).

Maybe this youthful transition from a fair weather ocean side settlement to a dwelling in the remote highlands was what drew Hesiod toward stories about golden, irrecoverable pasts and lackluster presents. We’ll never know. But while he never evidently cared for Askra, Hesiod still found something there. What he found was a rhythm – a cadence of seasonal labors and rituals that served as some compensation for the things he missed.

And this rhythm is what drives what I think is the most remarkable section of Works and Days, a section called “The Farmer’s Year.” “The Farmer’s Year” is far different than Hesiod’s somewhat canned stories about Prometheus and the Five Ages of Man. It gushes with energy and tangents. It is a hymn to the seasons. Hesiod tells his brother about a cadence of tasks that must be completed with the changing seasons. His advice, as is often the case, initially sounds gruff and pitiless, as it does here in the Lombardo translation.

Well, I’m not going to give you another drop.
Work, you fool Perses. Work
The work the gods laid out for men,
Or you’ll eat your heart out. . .(35)

Don’t put things off tomorrow and the next day.
A man who [slacks] off work doesn’t fill his barn,
Nor does a procrastinator. Keeping at it gets the job done.
The procrastinator is always wrestling with ruin. (36)
These verses are typical of the moral counsel of Works and Days. They might have come from Ben Franklin, or the Egyptian “Instructions of Amenemope,” or the Book of Proverbs. Certainly in part a piece of wisdom literature, Works and Days includes all the greatest hits of the genre – be prudent in your speech, cautious in your economic endeavors, honor your friends, stay at home for the most part, and, of course “Trust a woman as well as you’d trust a thief” (34). Ancient wisdom literature is, almost inevitably, misogynistic.

But anyway, after his initial admonishments and canned proverbs, Hesiod opens up. He launches into some really moving passages about working during the different seasons of the year. Let’s hear some of them. The first is about summer, and this is the Kimberly Johnson translation.

When the thistle flowers and the buzzing cicada
Sits in the tree spilling its shrillest song
From swiftbeating wings through the heat-weary summer,
Then are goats at their fattest and wine at its finest,
Women are most wanton and men most spent
When Sirius scorches foreheads and knees
And skin parches in the heat. Then, O then
Let there be some rock-shadowed cool, some Bibline wine,
A milk-soaked cake and the goats’ last thick milk,
The meat of a forest-grazed heifer who has never calved
. . .O drink the bright wine
And relax in the shade with a heart’s fill of food,
Face tilted into the refreshing westerlies.
From the ever-welling spring that runs crystal along,
Pour three water offerings, and a fourth of wine. (582-96)5
These warm, peaceful days, to Hesiod, shape human behavior. It’s neither planting nor reaping time, but time for light cutting work, an easeful era that every farmer earns by means of his more vigorous labor during the springtime and autumn.

The seasons come when they come, as inevitable and permeating as the gods. The next passage we’ll hear is about wintertime. Hesiod writes, in one more quote from the Kimberly Johnson translation, that the winter months are

. . .foul days, ox-flayers all:
Beware them, and the killing frosts that form
When the northwind howls across the land.
It huffs up across the horse stables of Thrace, and on
To churn the open sea; the earth and forest groan;
In alpine canyons it falls upon high-leafed oaks
And stout pines and crashes them to the mulchy ground
While all the vast forest rethunders.
The beasts bristle and tuck tails between legs
Even in pelts thick with fur. . .
At dawn, down from the star-strewn vault
A mist settles across the wheatfields like a blessing;
Drawn from the endless-running rivers
It gusts high above the earth upon the gale
And sometimes rains down at eventide, and sometimes squalls
When Thracian blasts thrash the huddled clouds.
Finish your work and beat the weather home,
Lest the dark cloud drop from heaven to swallow you,
Drenching your clothes to your dripping skin. (504-13,548-56)6
Pieter Bruegel the Elder- The Corn Harvest (August)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Harvesters (1565).

Well, it might be little more than stuffy advice from a 2,700 year old hillbilly, but I think there’s something poignant about Hesiod’s cautions to dress warm, and the way that he imagines even animals shivering and tucking their tails in to avoid the press of winter. The seasons, to the Farmer Poet, are the great equalizer, drawing humanity into a pattern of annual rituals and shared experiences. He tells his brother, “Mind now, when you hear the call of the crane / Coming from the clouds, as it does year by year: / That’s the sign for plowing, and the onset of winter / And the rainy season” (37). To Hesiod, we can’t disregard these natural signs and still prosper. Folkways and traditions are the fabric that protects us from harsh winters and hot summers. Hesiod’s Works and Days could be the script for the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the sixteenth-century Dutch landscape painter and chronicler of peasant culture, if you happen to know his work. In Bruegel’s paintings, as in Hesiod’s Works and Days, small human figures bustle together in vast pasturelands, underneath tall snowy hillsides, and bright trees, and they’re all dwarfed by the immensity of the natural cycles that surround them. There is little room in Hesiod’s agricultural philosophy for any notion of a heroic individual, able to stride forth from his rows of barley and change the course of history or match blades with the gods. In Works and Days, wisdom means knowing that everyone is equal underneath the gods and seasons, and that though these irresistible forces bring suffering and discomfort, they also bring joy and prosperity. [music]

Hesiod's Sense of Humankind's Place in the Universe

There’s just one more section of Works and Days to talk about. That’s the section called “Days.” The Ancient Greeks had an intricate system of superstitions regarding which days of the lunar month were best for which things. Need to sheer your sheep? Hesiod recommends the eleventh and twelfth, noting that the twelfth is better. Need to give birth to a baby girl? Try not to do it on the sixteenth. That’s unlucky. Now, I’m sure that many of you are hung up on which is the best day of the month to castrate a hog. Thank goodness, I’ve read Works and Days and can tell you that on the eighth day of the month, it’s time to sharpen those knives, and neuter away. If you are trying to decide the best date on which to have that baby girl, the fourteenth is a good choice, although that’s also the day that you’re supposed to tame mules and aggressive dogs, so things might get a little bit busy. Now, what about scheduling the birth of your baby boy? You should take care of that on the tenth of the month – only don’t forget, because the ninth of the month is the best day for opening a wine jar. You wouldn’t want to have too much to drink on the ninth and then on the tenth not be able to get to the hospital delivery room – or uh, midwife’s – or um – manger – or whatever.

Well, it’s all a bit anachronistic. While we still have our Friday the 13ths and other hodgepodge superstitions, our own days and related superstitions are not so codified as Hesiod’s. Still, though, you can see how the final section of the poem, again entitled “Days,” serves as a coda that underscores everything else in the poem. A cosmic order exists, and we will all do well to act in harmony with it. Hesiod explains that there are reasons why things are tough for us – and those reasons are Prometheus, Pandora, and the Five Ages of Man. Then he says that in spite of our reduced circumstances, if we work hard and stay in synch with spring, summer, fall, and winter, we can still be very prosperous – more prosperous still if we pay careful attention to the days of the month. [Short instrumental of the Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn"]7

Because ultimately, as it says in the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to uproot.” And hundreds of years before the Persian Period Book of Ecclesiastes, in Homer’s Odyssey, once Odysseus makes it home to his wife Penelope, he coaxes her to sleep by telling her, “[W]e cannot always be sleepless, / For everything there is a season, and a time / For all we do on the life-giving earth.”8 And I think if you had to come up with a theme song for Works and Days, and for this general sense in the ancient world that a time exists for all things, it would definitely have to be “Turn Turn Turn,” by the Byrds.

Now you know Hesiod’s Works and Days. I love the poem, as you can probably tell, and maybe because it’s such a unique work in ancient literature. It uses a distinctive first person narrator, and its rugged and rustic optimism far outweighs what feels like a cluster of stock proverbs and canned myths at its outset. Works and Days acknowledges the tribulations experienced by all of us, but does not succumb to the temptation of saying that all earthly existence is a vale of tears, or an immoral cesspool. Instead, Hesiod pictures earthly happiness as achievable by anyone, provided that he or she exercises a bit of patience and self control. Alongside all the ethical instruction provided in ancient literature, Hesiod’s Works and Days feels comparatively more balanced and more modern. [music]

Moving on to the Theogony

But Works and Days is only one of Hesiod’s two major poems. Hesiod’s second major work, the Theogony, is a very, very different piece of writing. It is an epic story, spectacular in its violence, and remarkable in the energy of its narration. Just as the Enuma Elish tells of the ascendancy of the Babylonian god Marduk after an earlier generation of deities is squelched, Hesiod’s Theogony relates the rise of Zeus – the thunder god whose intelligence, and ferocity, and – uh – sexual – stamina – led him to take the lead role in the Greek pantheon. Epics – like the Theogony, and upcoming Illiad and Odyssey, tend to be the blockbusters of literature and cinema. I mean, they have explosions, and fistfights, and fog machines, sex? What’s not to like? Anyway, epics tend to be king, and in terms of influence, next episode you’ll see that Hesiod’s Theogony, which has all of these things, is the rule, and Works and Days the exception. But the fact that it’s such an exception is exactly what makes Works and Days such a special book. Try a quiz on this program to test your memory of Hesiod’s history and his works at literatureandhistory.com. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and if you want to hear a bluegrass hoedown I wrote about Hesiod, it’s coming right up. If not, see you next time. Still here? So I got to thinking, what if I were transported back in time, suddenly, to an open mike session with Hesiod? It could easily happen, I think. Those kinds of things happen all the time. What if Hesiod and I decided we needed to sing a song about his life at this not-at-all-impossible 2,700 year old open mike session? We’ll, he’d be on lead vocals, of course, and guitar. And I’d sing backup, and handle banjo or mandolin. And this is the song Hesiod would sing about his life and times. Hope it’s fun, and see you soon.


1.^ Anabasis 4.7.24.

2.^ Hesiod. Works and Days and Theogony. Translated by Stanley Lombardo. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1993, p. 23. Further references noted parenthetically.

3.^ Lamberton, Robert. “Introduction.” Printed in Hesiod. Works and Days and the Theogony. Hackett Publishing Company, 1993, p.8.

4.^ Hesiod. Theogony and Works and Days: A New Translation. Translated by Kimberly Johnson. Northwestern University Press, 2017, p. 95.

5.^ Johnson (2017), p. 117.

6.^ Johnson (2017), pp. 112-13, 115.

7.^ The Byrds. "Turn! Turn! Turn!" By Pete Seeger, et. al. Single Columbia Records, 1965.

8.^ Odyssey 19.650-2. Quoted in Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Stanley Lombardo. Hackett Publishing Company, 2000, p. 308.