Gods of Gold and Iron
By Gabriel Blanchard
Though little read today outside of specialist circles, Hesiod is perhaps one of the most significant figures in the history of culture.
The eighth and seventh centuries BC, later called the Archaic age, were a period of revival for Greek culture. The notorious twelfth-century collapse of the Late Bronze Age had plunged the peoples of the Ægean basin into a “dark age”: the art of writing was lost, dozens of palatial cities were abandoned (many of them destroyed by fire), and stories set in the period recount civilization-spanning wars and the fall of lofty dynasties—think of the Iliad, or of Æschylus’ Oresteia. But around four hundred years later, the Greeks were again seeing expansion and innovation, including the founding of a new literary tradition. The Linear B script, taken by their ancestors from the Minoans, remained lost, but a new one was created, this time based on the writing of the seafaring merchants of Phoenicia. This new alphabet (indeed the first alphabet properly so called) ultimately became the ancestor of our own; and it was in this ancient Greek script that a man named Hesiod wrote down his poems, which were to become second only to Homer himself in their influence and importance.
We have a few more scraps of information about the man himself than we do about Homer—which, clearly, is not saying much. He lived some time between the mid-eighth century BC and the mid-seventh; he migrated from Æolis, a Greek-colonized region a little south of ancient Troy, to Boeotia (more or less in the center of modern Greece, northwest of Athens); he wrote two important poems that survive, along with a much larger corpus of lost works; and he had, or claimed to have, a rocky relationship with a brother named Perses, who by turns sued Hesiod over property disputes and scrounged off him due to his own financial ruin. The existence of Perses is considered somewhat doubtful by scholars, not that brothers and bad relationships were any less common back then, but because he may have been intended as a source for object lessons on Hesiod’s part, and because his name literally means “the destroyer”!
Hesiod’s major extant works are the Works and Days and the Theogony. The former, perhaps to the surprise of a modern audience, consists largely in advice on how to get the most out of a farm. However, given the importance of sound agricultural practices in a world to which things like pesticides, harvesting machines, and refrigeration were as much “science fiction” as teleporters are to ours, it is natural enough that the subject would be of much greater interest and urgency to most audiences; moreover, unlike most modern textbooks, Hesiod and poets like him were not above adorning their subject with interesting digressions.
A digression shared by both the Works and Days and the Theogony is the famous myth of Pandora. According to the latter, Prometheus, one of the Titans (an ancient race akin to but different from the gods) circumvented Zeus’ decree that men would not be given fire, secreting it down to them hidden in the stalk of a fennel plant. It was as punishment for this that Prometheus was chained to a rock and tormented with an eagle that came every day to devour his liver, which, since Prometheus was an immortal, would simply grow back each night, allowing the torture to go on indefinitely.
For man, Zeus devised a different punishment: woman. (Hesiod’s misogyny is pronounced, even by ancient Greek standards, and is not his most attractive or mature quality.) Each of the gods and goddesses bestows a gift on the first woman—Aphrodite gives her physical loveliness, Athena gives her deftness to weave and beautiful clothing, and all concludes with Hermes, who gives her guileful speech, and also the name Pandora, “All-gifts.” She is sent to man bearing a jar, in which all the evils of life are contained: strife, rage, disease, stupidity, weariness, and so on. Entranced by her beauty, men foolishly embrace her, whereupon she opens the jar, and out fly all the evils—except one, named hope. Whether the poet meant that mankind was at least spared the false hope that things will get better, or that at least hope was kept safe in the jar, or that the hope which might have tempered evil was trapped inside the jar, is up to interpretation.
However, we may perhaps take a hint from one of the other recurring stories in Hesiod’s work, that of the succeeding generations—a motif among both mortals and immortals. Among the latter, dynasty follows dynasty, seemingly for the better: Gaia and Uranus (or Earth and Heaven*) beget Cronus and the other Titans, who in turn give birth to Zeus and the rest of the Olympian gods. It is from these genealogies, along with several others, that the Theogony takes its name, which roughly means “The Descent of the Gods.” Uranus and Cronus are both overthrown by their own sons, and the offspring of the gods are poised to do the same until Zeus, for the first time, successfully halts the cycle by identifying his would-be successor in the womb and absorbing the child’s mother; the result is the birth of Athena from Zeus’ forehead, and rather than becoming a rival and successor, she is devoted to him above all; henceforth, Olympus has a permanent king in Zeus.
The succession of human generations, on the other hand, is clearly downward. The first race of mortals was fashioned out of gold, and their lives were long, virtuous, happy, and wise. These were followed by a race of silver, who were more foolish and vicious, but still far better and more prosperous than anything we know today; after these came men of bronze, then the age of the heroes, and finally this, the wretched age of men made from iron. (Those familiar with the Biblical book of Daniel will no doubt spot the resemblance to the famous dream of Nebuchadnezzar, and Middle Eastern mythological sources have been suggested for much of Hesiod’s material.) If this program of decline is any indication, the trapping of hope in Pandora’s jar, whatever exactly Hesiod meant by it, was a pessimistic detail.
Hesiod’s influence is all but incalculable. He was second only to Homer in the ancients’ reverence; his conception of divine progress may have shaped the plays of Æschylus, whose trilogies appear (as in the Oresteia) to have followed a pattern of opposing forces receiving a divine resolution into harmony. Both in his own right and through this indirect influence on drama, Hesiod would therefore be one of the forefathers of all subsequent literature, a rare boast for any writer to be able to make. Moreover, the ancestral role he assigned to Chaos in the Theogony is thought by some scholars to have influenced the pre-Socratic philosophers in their speculations about the nature of the world. Something does feel vaguely appropriate about a farmer-poet standing—however vanishingly remote the distance may be—at the faint beginnings of what we now call science.
*It would be far too much of a liberty linguistically, but it is sorely tempting to translate Uranus’ name as “Our Father which art in heaven.”
An alumnus of the University of Maryland with a degree in Classics, Gabriel Blanchard is an uncle to seven nephews, a freelance writer, and the editor-at-large for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like these profiles of the philosopher Seneca the Younger, the historian Procopius, the human rights advocate Bartolomé de Las Casas, or the journalist Ida B. Wells.
Published on 12th September, 2022. Page image of The Fall of the Titans by Cornelis van Haarlem (1598).