Who was Hesiod - a poet from Archaic Greece

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Who was Hesiod?

When people in ancient Greece had just learned about the new alphabet way of writing, about 750 BC, right away they used writing to write down the stories and poems that they knew. Homer used the alphabet to write the Iliad and the Odyssey. About the same time, Hesiod used the alphabet to write two long poems (or at least, both poems have the same name attached to them; we can't know for sure who wrote them). One of these poems is the Theogony and the other is the Works and Days.

In the Theogony, Hesiod describes the beginning of the world and the birth of the gods. Hesiod combines West Asian stories, like the Babylonian creation story of the Enuma Elish, with Central Asian stories that the Indo-Europeans brought with them to Greece, related to the Hittite story of Kumarbi, and the Indo-European idea that civilization makes life harder instead of easier, and that in general things are getting worse as time goes on. Most of the gods Hesiod talks about have Indo-European names, like Zeus, Poseidon, and Demeter, but Athena may be a version of the West Asian goddess Inanna.

In the Works and Days, Hesiod describes the life of a farmer (a pretty wealthy farmer) in Greece during this time (the Archaic period). Again, Hesiod combines ideas about how men should act that come from West Asian stories with ideas from Central Asian Indo-European stories. From West Asia, Hesiod gets the idea that lending money for interest is bad, and that women are evil and untrustworthy, as in the story of Pandora. But Hesiod's ideas about Dike - Justice - seem to be related to Indo-European stories we see in India's Rig Veda.

Even though Hesiod wove many different stories from different places together to make his poems, once they were written people started to think of Hesiod's version as the real story, and so Hesiod's poems, along with Homer, were an important way for all Greek people to begin to think of themselves as one people, instead of separate Athenians, Corinthians, and Spartans.

Learn by doing: compare Hesiod's account of the Creation with the Jewish account and the Enuma Elish
More about Homer

Bibliography and further reading about Hesiod:

Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod, with a translation and introduction by M. L. West (reprinted 1999). A long introduction explains who Hesiod was and what he had to say. Also includes the whole text, translated into English.

Greek Myths and Mesopotamia: Parallels and Influence in the Homeric Hymns and Hesiod, by Charles Penglase (1997). More discussion of the influence of West Asian myths on Greek ones.

More about Homer
Ancient Greece
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Copyright 2012-2015 Karen Carr, Portland State University. This page last updated September 2015.

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