Hesiod, A Man For Our Days and Times

I saw a lot of disturbing news on TV last weekend:  political scandal, terrorism, trade tariffs, cries for impeachment, etc.  When it gets to be too much, I open the classic books of old, and find good advice and wisdom.  One of those books was written by an ancient Greek poet called Hesiod.


Hesiod lived in Greece around 700 B. C.  The book of which I am speaking is called “Works and Days”.  The book is basically a suggestion on how best to live life.  Hesiod lived during the Iron Age.  He starts by giving a history lesson on how the Earth went from good to bad:  starting with the Golden Age and ending with the Iron Age.  He breaks it down into 5 periods.

  • Golden Age
  • Silver Age
  • Bronze Age
  • Demigod Age – Hesiod does not call them this but the name seems to fit his narrative
  • Iron Age

A word of caution, reading a book like this is difficult.  There are many unfamiliar terms.  I will help out with a few.

  • Olympus – the mountain in Greece where the Gods lived
  • Cronos – God of Time, and father of Zeus
  • Cadmus – a king in ancient Greece
  • Ares – God of War
  • Aidos – Goddess of Shame
  • Nemesis – Goddess of Righteous Retribution
  • Demigod – Great man, like Hercules
  • Thebes – a city in Greece
  • Oedipus – King, who was abandoned at birth, and accidentally married his mother

What caught my eye about the chronology as described by Hesiod, is that a similar narrative was presented by Ovid in his book “Metamorphosis”.  Ovid lived in Rome around the time of Jesus.  The two books have the same message, more or less – the best life is one of hard work and no excitement, no taking risks nor making adventures.  Please read for yourself.

(ll. 106-108) Or if you will, I will sum you up another tale well and skilfully — and do you lay it up in your heart, — how the gods and mortal men sprang from one source.

(ll. 109-120) First of all the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.

(ll. 121-139) But after earth had covered this generation — they are called pure spirits
dwelling on the earth, and are kindly, delivering from harm, and guardians of mortal
men; for they roam everywhere over the earth, clothed in mist and keep watch on
judgements and cruel deeds, givers of wealth; for this royal right also they received; —
then they who dwell on Olympus made a second generation which was of silver and less
noble by far. It was like the golden race neither in body nor in spirit. A child was brought up at his good mother’s side an hundred years, an utter simpleton, playing childishly in his own home. But when they were full grown and were come to the full measure of their prime, they lived only a little time in sorrow because of their foolishness, for they could not keep from sinning and from wronging one another, nor would they serve the immortals, nor sacrifice on the holy altars of the blessed ones as it is right for men to do wherever they dwell. Then Zeus the son of Cronos was angry and put them away, because they would not give honour to the blessed gods who live on Olympus.

(ll. 140-155) But when earth had covered this generation also — they are called blessed
spirits of the underworld by men, and, though they are of second order, yet honour
attends them also — Zeus the Father made a third generation of mortal men, a brazen race, sprung from ash-trees (4); and it was in no way equal to the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence; they ate no bread, but were hard of heart like adamant, fearful men. Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs. Their armour was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron. These were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and left no name: terrible though they were, black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun.

(ll. 156-169b) But when earth had covered this generation also, Zeus the son of Cronos
made yet another, the fourth, upon the fruitful earth, which was nobler and more
righteous, a god-like race of hero-men who are called demi-gods, the race before our
own, throughout the boundless earth. Grim war and dread battle destroyed a part of them, some in the land of Cadmus at seven-gated Thebes when they fought for the flocks of Oedipus, and some, when it had brought them in ships over the great sea gulf to Troy for rich-haired Helen’s sake: there death’s end enshrouded a part of them. But to the others father Zeus the son of Cronos gave a living and an abode apart from men, and made them dwell at the ends of earth. And they live untouched by sorrow in the islands of the blessed along the shore of deep swirling Ocean, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Cronos rules over them (5); for the father of men and gods released him from his bonds. And these last equally have honour and glory.

(ll. 169c-169d) And again far-seeing Zeus made yet another generation, the fifth, of men who are upon the bounteous earth.

(ll. 170-201) Thereafter, would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils. And Zeus will destroy this race of mortal men also when they come to have grey hair on the temples at their birth (6). The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as aforetime. Men will dishonour their parents as they grow quickly old, and will carp at them, chiding them with bitter words, hard-hearted they, not knowing the fear of the gods. They will not repay their aged parents the cost their nurture, for might shall be their right: and one man will sack another’s city. There will be no favour for the man who keeps his oath or for the just or for the good; but rather men will praise the evil-doer and his violent dealing. Strength will be right and reverence will cease to be; and the wicked will hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him, and will swear an oath upon them. Envy, foul-mouthed, delighting in evil, with scowling face, will go along with wretched men one and all. And then Aidos and Nemesis (7), with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil.

This text comes from a translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914.


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