Hesiod Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek poet{$I[g]Greece;Hesiod} Hesiod organized and interpreted the Greek myths that form the basis for European civilization and examined with moral conscience the working life of Greek society at the dawn of modern history.

Early Life

In the centuries after his death, Hellenic historians and writers so embellished the life of Hesiod (HEE-see-uhd) that a moderately detailed portrait of him developed through commentary and speculation. The work of more recent classical scholars has demonstrated that most of this material cannot be substantiated through historical records. While it is not inconceivable that subsequent archaeological discoveries will provide additional information, it seems reasonable to assume that the autobiographical information provided by Hesiod himself in Erga kai Emerai (c. 700 b.c.e.; Works and Days, 1618) is the only basis for drawing an outline of his life. Like some of the work traditionally attributed to him, it is fragmentary and sketchy, but as one of Hesiod’s best translators, Apostolos Athanassakis, contends, it is “better than all fanciful conjecture.” Although some scholars maintain that even this work cannot be positively authenticated, without it, “there is no poet named Hesiod,” as P. Walcot argues.

In Works and Days, four assertions about Hesiod’s father are presented—that he made a living as a merchant sailor, that he came from the province of Cyme in Aeolis, that “grim poverty” drove him from Asia Minor, and that he settled in Ascra in the region known as Boeotia, an initially inhospitable but visually striking district near Mount Helicon. Considering the fact that others who followed this migration pattern moved on to establish Greek colonies in Italy when they were unable to make a living, it is reasonable to assume that Hesiod’s father was comparatively prosperous, an assumption corroborated by the story of the division of his estate between Hesiod and his brother Perses in Works and Days. Although Boeotia was thought to be something of a backwater by scholars possibly influenced by the prejudices of its neighbors, there is convincing evidence from artistic and poetic sources that it was actually more like a cultural center. Boeotian verse shared many of the traits of epic poetry associated with the Ionian region, and the area’s geographic location on the trade route to the Near East provided many opportunities for cultural advancement, including an earlier adoption of the alphabet than that in many other parts of the Hellenic world.

In both Works and Days and the Theogonia (c. 700 b.c.e.; Theogony, 1728), the crucial moment of transformation in Hesiod’s life is presented as a justification for his work. While tending sheep, probably in early manhood, Hesiod was visited by the Muses, who gave him the gift of song (that is, wisdom in poetic language) and charged him with the responsibility to instruct his fellow Boetians. Hesiod combines the perspective of the common person—the “country bumpkin,” the “swag-bellied yahoo,” whom the Muses address—with the poet’s power to create pleasure that counters the pains of human existence, and the orator’s eloquence, which reconciles citizens to the necessity for compromise in a social community. Thus, when Hesiod found himself in a dispute with Perses over the division of their father’s estate, he took the occasion to criticize the nobles (or “kings”) who presided as judges for accepting bribes and not rendering true justice. He developed Works and Days as a poem in which he counsels his brother and his fellow citizens about the kind of society in which, through the gods’ justice, they may all have an opportunity to live relatively comfortably.

There are hints in Works and Days and Theogony that Hesiod lived much of his life as a bachelor, although he briefly speaks as if he had a son, and there is an account of a visit to Chalcis in Euboea for funeral games, in which he won a handsome prize. M. L. West argues that the poem he performed was the Theogony. Beyond that, a number of inferences may be made from the sensibility that emerges through his work. As West observes in explaining the style of his translation, “If I have sometimes made Hesiod sound a little quaint and stilted, that is not unintentional: He is.” The obscurity that wreathes Hesiod’s life is an intriguing invitation to conjecture. As long as it is based on a careful reading of the work in its known historical context, it is a kind of modern equivalent of the mentally active participation of the audience in that earlier era of oral communication.

Life’s Work

Most of the poems that were originally attributed to Hesiod in the centuries after he lived have been designated the work of other writers by modern scholarship. From an original oeuvre consisting of eleven fragments and two titles, only the Ehoiai (c. 580-520 b.c.e.; The Catalogue of Women, 1983), describing heroic genealogies and appended to Theogony, and Ornithomanteia (divination by birds), which was appended to Works and Days, may have been based on something Hesiod wrote. Athanassakis mentions that both works, which were thematically connected and impressive imitations by anonymous writers, were often amalgamated into the work of a commanding literary figure, as is the case with Homer and Hippocrates. Athanassakis observes that the Aspis Herakleous (Shield of Herakles, 1928) is included in most standard editions of Hesiod, “thus paying homage to ancient tradition,” but he makes a plausible case that it is a visionary poem of apocalyptic power that stands comparison with Hesiod’s finest writing.

In any event, Theogony stands as the beginning of Hesiod’s work. It carries out the Muses’ injunction to “sing of the race of the blessed gods” and “tell of things to come and things past,” in return for their fabulous gift. This gift, however, like most divine bounty, carries the burden of its own mystery, and Theogony is not only a form of thanks and worship but also an attempt to understand the import and consequence of the action of the gods in the affairs of humans.

To do this, Hesiod reaches back to the creation of time and space from an immeasurable, primordial flux to chart the origins of cosmic history. As he describes the beginning of the known universe, the elemental aspects of the cosmos, Earth (Gaia), Sky (Ouranos), and Sea (Pontos), are not only physical components of firmament and terrain but also are gods, with all the attributes of divinity (and humanity) common to the Hellenic vision of deity. This merging compels him, in composing a poem on the birth and genealogy of the gods, to create also cosmogony, or an account of the development of the shape and form of the universe through time. As a correlative, without actually identifying the precise moment of the emergence of the human race, Theogony also presents an early history of humanity set amid, and sometimes parallel to, the genealogy of the Olympian deities.

Because the eighth century b.c.e. was a time of rapid economic expansion and increasing mobility for Greece, with contacts with the Orient already in process for more than a hundred years, it is not surprising that elements of creation myths from the thirteenth century b.c.e. Hittite castration motif (known as Song of Ullikummi, 1952), the Babylonian...

(The entire section is 3104 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Other Literary Forms

Hesiod is remembered only for his poetic works. A number of poems are erroneously attributed to Hesiod, among them Shield (c. 700 b.c.e.) and Catalogue of Women (c. 700 b.c.e.).


Hesiod was respected, next to Homer, as a leading poet-teacher of the early Greeks, and his reputation stood all but unchallenged throughout Greco-Roman antiquity. For lack of a better term, he is sometimes described as a didactic poet, although neither of his poems follows the strict definition of a genre that took shape more than four centuries later in the Hellenistic age. Hesiod adapted the formulaic style, meter, and vocabulary of the Homeric epic to...

(The entire section is 4363 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

One of the chief sources about the mythology of the early Greeks is the poem Theogony, ascribed to a man about whom very little is known for certain. One of the earliest known Greek poets, Hesiod (HEE-see-uhd) personified the Boeotian school of poetry. Works and Days, while marking a high point in Greek didactic poetry, with its precepts, fables, and allegories, provides a portrait of its author as a placid but hard-working Boeotian farmer whose merchant father came from the Aeolic Cyme in Asia Minor at a time when the writer was very young, or shortly before his birth.

Most scholars agree that Hesiod lived just before or after 700 b.c.e. According to what Hesiod tells of...

(The entire section is 440 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Further Reading:

Brown, Norman O. Introduction to Theogony, by Hesiod. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1953. A detailed, interpretive introduction that contains perceptive commentary on the poem’s meaning accompanies a reliable translation.

Burn, Andrew Robert. The World of Hesiod: A Study of the Greek Middle Ages. 2d ed. New York: B. Blom, 1966. An early study that examines the poet in his historical context. Includes much basic background information.

Clay, Jenny Strauss. Hesiod’s Cosmos. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. A scholarly study of Hesiod’s works and their...

(The entire section is 566 words.)