Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Hesiod (c 850 BCE)

Sierra Club


The man who does evil to another does evil to himself, and the evil counsel is most evil for him who counsels it.


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Lecture: Myth
COPAC UK: Hesiod
Library of Canada: Hesiod
Library of Congress: Hesiod
Other Library Catalogs: Hesiod


The father of Greek didactic poetry, probably flourished during the 8th century B.C. His father had migrated from the Aeolic Cyme in Asia Minor to Boeotia; and Hesiod and his brother Perses were born at Ascra, near mount Helicon (Works and Days, 635). Here, as he fed his father's flocks, he received his commission from the Muses to be their prophet and poet - a commission which he recognized by dedicating to them a tripod won by him in a contest of song (see below) at some funeral games at Chalcis in Euboea, still in existence at Heicon in the age of Pausanias (Theogony, 20-34, W. and D., 656; Pausanias ix. 38. 3). After the death of his father Hesiod is said to have left his native land in disgust at the result of a law-suit with his brother and to have migrated to Naupactus. There was a tradition that he was murdered by the sons of his host in the sacred enclosure of the Nemean Zeus at Oeneon In Locris (Thucydides lii. 96; Pausanias ix. 31); his remains were removed for burial by command of the Deiphic oracle to Orchomenus in Boeotia, where the Ascraeans settled after the destruction of their town by the Thespians, and where, according to Pausanias, his grave was to be seen.

Hesiod's earliest poem, the famous Works and Days, and according to Boeotian testimony the only genuine one, embodies the experiences of his daily life and work, and, interwoven with episodes of fable, allegory, and personal history, forms a sort of Boeotian shepherd's calendar. The first portion is an ethical enforcement of honest labour and dissuasive of strife and idleness (1-383); the second consists of hints and rules as to husbandry (384-764); and the third is a religious calendar of the months, with remarks on the days most lucky or the contrary for rural or nautical employments. The connecting link of the whole poem is the author's advice to his brother, who appears to have bribed the corrupt judges to deprive Hesiod of his already scantier inheritance, and to whom, as he wasted his substance lounging in the agora, the poet more than once returned good for evil, though he tells him there will be a limit to this unmerited kindness. In the Works and Days the episodes which rise above an even didactic level are the "Creation and Equipment of Pandora," the " Five Ages of the World" and the muchadmired "Description of Winter" (by some critics judged post-Hesiodic). The poem also contains the earliest known fable in Greek literature, that of "The Hawk and the Nightingale." It is in the Works and Days especially that' we glean indications of Hesiod's rank and condition in life, that of a stay-at-home farmer of the lower class; whose sole experience of the sea was a single voyage of 40 yds. across the Euripus, and an old-fashioned bachelor whose misogynic views and prejudice against matrimony have been conjecturally traced to his brother Perses having a wife as extravagant as himself.

The other poem attributed to Hesiod or his school which has come down in great part to modern times is The Theogony, a work of grander scope, inspired alike by older traditions and abundant local associations. It is an attempt to work into a system, as none had essayed to do before, the floating legends of the gods and goddesses and their offspring. This task Herodotus (ii. 53) attributes to Hesiod, and he is quoted by Plato in the Symposium (178 B) as the author of the Theogony. The first to question his claim to this distinction was Pausanias the geographer (A.D. 200). The Alexandrian grammarians hac no doubt on the subject; and indications of the hand that wrote the Works and Days may be found in the severe strictures on women, in the high esteem for the wealth-giver Plutus and in coincidences of verbal expression. Although, no doubt of Hesiodic origin, in its present form it is composed of differeni recensions and numerous later additions and interpolations. The Theogony consists of three divisions - (1) a cosmogony or creation; (2) a theogony proper, recounting the history of the dynasties of Zeus and Cronus; and (3) a brief and abruptly terminated herogony.

The only other poem which has come down to us under Hesiod's name is the Shield of Heracles. A strong characteristic of Hesiod's style is his sententious and proverbial philosophy. There is naturally less of this in the Theogony than Works and Days. [Adapted from Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)]

Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
[Logos Exclusive]

Oxford defines myth as a traditional narrative usually (but not always) involving supernatural persons and embodying popular ideas on natural or social phenomena. Myths have played an important role in the development of human civilization. That's probably the main reason we study them now. The residues of mythic influence are deeply imbedded in the stories we tell, the institutions we've created, the novels we read, the values we adhere to, the lives we live, the art and music we value. In other words just about everything we do in our lives, social and private, sits on mythic foundation -- whether we are consciously aware of that or no.

The scientific revolution threw a wrench into all of that. The discoveries of Galileo, Newton, Darwin,Freud, and Einstein, have shown that the literal values of those traditional narratives could not be true. In Hesiod's Theogony Void comes into being first, then Earth and Eros. From Void comes darkness and Night, and from Night comes Light and Day. There is no supreme being in the Void. The Earth seems to emerge from the Void by a kind of Metamorphosis. The coupling of the various creatures of this metamorphosis produces a variety of other creatures. There is no order -- until Zeus is invited to take charge of the Cosmos and to order it. Quaint?

The other quaint myth we are reading, the story told in Genesis tells of a different sort of supernatural force. The God of Genesis, Yahweh, unlike the Zeus of Hesiod, is brought onto the scene to bring order to nature; He is the will who creates from nothing all that is. Yahweh is not in nature but detached - and acts, in history. Creation is purposeful. Man has purpose. The purpose will be revealed. There is a beginning; there will be an end.

Of course we are not asked to choose between these two myths nor to believe in either. I suppose as a scientist -- and if I was forced to choose -- I might find the Hesiod story marginally more palatable, slightly more scientific. After all it does contain elements of ideas that have an evolutionary ring. And the powers in Hesiod -- like the real powers of nature around us are also indifferent to me. I might choose to interpret the Hesiod deities as primitive personifications of natural law. However, the romantic in me, as much as Genesis sucks in scientific terms, the idea that life might have some sort of god dam purpose, direction meaning and destiny I find equally appealing. I might just decide to swallow the bad science in Genesis, attribute that as allegory, and search for some deeper meaning.

Unfortunately, we really really aren't offered a personal choice here. The Western tradition we inherit has chosen: we are a unique product of both Greek and Hebrew influences. Our social traditions, like marriage; our institutions, like the courts; our amusements, like sports and the arts; our economic systems, like commerce, taxation, and work; our political organizations, like democracy; our spirit of inquiry, like science and so on, are products of the intermingling of the two great currents of Greek and Hebrew traditions -- both of which rest on the foundations of discredited mythic systems.

Yet, if this is true, we're in trouble! You don't need rocket science to appreciate this. Either we repair the foundations, or re-create the culture. Perhaps that's what we are doing. The myths have served us well enough until now, but the patriarchal man over nature motifs in Genesis myth in particular, seem unsuitable in a world overburdened by people, pollution and patriarchy. Although to be fair to Genesis, I think a case can be made that the demise of nature we've witnessed over the past few centuries might have more to do with the decline of myth and the concomitant rise of science and especially the influence of a fellow named Rene Descartes who we'll read more about next year.

So down with the old myths and up with the new. Let there be myth yes -- but let the new myths rest on the solid footing of modern science, new age sensitivity, and ecological interdependence. Ra, ra, cis boom ba!

Trouble is -- I just not that sure that the old myths are all that rotten to the core. What the hell are those myths trying to say? Are they really as false as our science -- or what we think our science claims? Just what makes them false? The fact that they are unscientific? Really?

What makes us so sure? Steven Hawking wrote a wonderful little book a few years ago. A Brief History of Time. Non scientists have marveled at Steven Hawking's lucid explanations and clever analogies. But there is one stumbling point in the book. It's the bit where Steven Hawking tries to explain what he calls the no boundary condition. The no boundary condition emerges neatly from Steven Hawking's own mathematical treatment of the conditions in the early stages of the universe. Steven Hawking's statement in his book reads something like this: Time becomes another dimension of space in the quantum gravitational environment provided in the first moments of the Big Bang. Whoa! Steven Hawking then goes on to say -- nothing. We expect him to say that this claim that time becomes another dimension of space is analogous to something with which we are familiar. But he doesn't. He doesn't, because it's an idea with no analogy. It is simply an outcome of his mathematics. The statement makes us nervous -- it isn't amenable to simplification -- or -- cheap analogy. It can't be simplified. Einstein once said that things should be made as simple as possible -- but no simpler. This is a classic example of that.

What am I saying? While the truths of science are hinted at in the mathematical outcomes of scientific theories, the facts they reveal are as puzzling and incomprehensible and mysterious as the mythological descriptions of the ancients. A few examples. We think we know what quarks are. They emerge as mathematical consequences of elementary particle theories. But the only reason we think we know quarks is because someone has offered us a cheap analogy. Quarks are like marbles in a bag! We think we know what superstrings are. They like huge elastic bands. Black holes are like the name: Black holes. Gravitational attractions in Einstein's general relativity behave like bowling balls on a water bed. As comforting as these mechanical explanations of non-mechanical phenomena are, they are really quite useless. None of these things are remotely like the analogy makers purport them to be like. The universe is no less mysterious today than it was 2,3,4 or 6,000 years ago. If anything it is more of a mystery.

That we have developed new tools and new language (mathematics) with which to probe the cosmos does not lessen the wonder. In some ways the ancients were perhaps more fluent than we are. Their analogies and allegories and symbolisms seem more effective in the apprehension of this wonder. They were certainly more imaginative than those who would describe a quark as like a marble in a bag.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not an apologist for Genesis, nor Hesiod. Nor do I claim that the myths of our past aren't outdated. Many of them may be. But I do think that we owe it to our past to pay closer attention to our myths. Our ancestors were not stupid. They knew what they up to. They recognized that myths provide clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life. They knew that myths induce reverence and awe. They knew that myths provided support for social order. They knew that myths could teach us how to life -- gave meaning to life -- that they orient us to the cosmos.

Creation myths come in all sizes shapes colors. I'll very briefly touch on three categories. Emergence myths -- like Hesiod's Theogony -- see creation as an involuntary act -- a kind of metamorphosis in which chaos (evil) is brought under control (good) by the god or gods.

World Parent myths -- many first nations myths fall into this category -- see creation as the product of sexual union between mother-earth and father sky. The separation that follows that union brings forth knowledge, light, and order. I'll read you a famous letter on how those myths work at the end of this.

Creation from Nothing myths, as followed by not only the Hebrew tradition (Genesis) but also by the Egyptian and Polynesian traditions work through the aegis of an all powerful deity distinct from and operating outside of nature. The downside of creation from nothing myths is the potential disregard for nature. They may not be environemtally friendly -- the dominion over nature bits -- although -- as I said a few moments ago -- that motif I think might be a bit overplayed by moderns. The upside of the creation from nothing myths is the psychic comfort they offer. These myths -- Genesis included -- tell us that life is not only meaningful but that transcendent and all-knowing powers are working in our interest. The Judaic and Christian traditions have made hay from this theme. Life may be brutal and short, but the suffering that is life opens a door to spiritual bliss.

I want to conclude with two other creation from nothing myths from other cultures. The first is Polynesian:

He existed, Taaroa was his name.
In the immensity (space)
There was no earth, there was no sky.
There was no sea, there was no man.
Above, Taaroa calls.
Existing alone, he became the universe.
Taaroa is the origen, the rocks
Taaroa is the sands,

It is thus that he is named.
Taaroa is the light;
Taaroa is within;
Taaroa is the germ.
Taaroa is beneath;
Taaroa is firm;
Taaroa is wise.
He created the land of Hawaii,
Hawaii the great and sacred,
As a body or shell for Taaroa

Here is one more: This is a Maori Cosmogony

Io dwelt within breathing-space of immensity.
The Universe was in darkness, with water everywhere.
There was no glimmer of dawn, no clearness, no light.
And he began by saying these words,-
That He might cease remaining inactive:
Darkness, become a light-possessing darkness.
And at once light appeared.
He then repeated those self-same words in this manner,-
That He might cease remaining inactive;
Light, become a darkness-possessing light.
And again an intense darkness supervened.

Then a third time he spake saying:
Let there be one darkness above,
Let there be one darkness below.
(He does the same with light)

. . . Io then looked to the waters which compassed him about, and spake a fourth time, saying:
Ye waters of Tai-Kama, be ye separate.
Heaven, be formed.
Then the sky became suspended.

Bring forth thou Tupua-horo-nuku.
And at once the moving earth lay stretched abroad.

I will conclude with a letter written in 1852 by Chief Seattle in response to an overture from the United States Government who were negotiating to buy tribal lands. This letter reveals the sorts of tensions that can emerge when cultures informed by differing mythic systems come into contact. Chief Seattle:

The president of Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.

We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man, all belong to the same family.

The shining water that moves in the streams and the rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each ghostly reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of our people. The water's murmur is the voice of my father's father.

The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give to the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.

If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers.

Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth?

This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

One thing we know: our god is also your god. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.

Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted by talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.

When the last red man has vanished with his wilderness and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prarie, will these shores and forest still be here? Will there be any of the spirit of my people left?

We love this earth as a newborn loves its mother's heartbeat. So, if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it as we have cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the as it is when you receive it. Preserve the land for all children and love it, as God loves us all.

As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you. One thing we know: there is only one God. No man, be he red man or white man, can be apart. We are brothers after all.

Books from Alibris: Hesiod

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