Works and Days

by Hesiod

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Summary

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Introduction

Hesiod was an ancient Greek farmer and poet whose poems are usually dated to the years 750 and 700 BCE. Hesiod is characterized by his rustic vocabulary and earthy imagery; his farming background shines through the language in his poetry. Works and Days is an 800-line poem which is generally considered Hesiod's most famous work. Robert Lamberton described the poem as "a jumbled collection of myths, proverbs, and farming lore." Despite the eclectic nature of Works and Days, it can be broadly divided into four sections: "Prometheus," the "Five Ages of Man," "The Farmer's Year," and "Days."

Plot Summary

Works and Days opens with a frame narrative, showing Hesiod bickering with his brother Perses. In the poem, Hesiod portrays himself as a wise, hardworking farmer with a wealth of wisdom to pass down to younger generations. Perses is caricatured as idle, unwise, and unproductive. The entirety of the poem is framed as Hesiod's attempt to teach his lazy brother some wisdom using mythology and proverbs, including farmer's proverbs. This framing device means that Works and Days can be interpreted either as gentle brotherly advice or a cynical diatribe. Whatever the interpretation, the central message of Works and Days remains the same: life is difficult, and the only route to success is hard work.

Prometheus

Hesiod begins his moralizations by telling Perses a story that explains why life is so difficult for humanity. He regales his brother with the tale of Prometheus, a titan who rebelled against Zeus by stealing fire and gifting it to humanity. In the myth, Zeus, in a rage, promises to punish both Prometheus for his theft and humanity for accepting the forbidden gift:

But things will go hard for you and for humans after this.
I’m going to give them Evil in exchange for fire,
Their very own Evil to love and embrace.

Zeus's punishment came in the form of the actions of a woman: Pandora. Although she was beautiful and was presented to humanity as a "gift," Pandora was dishonest and had a "cheating heart." Soon after her arrival on earth, Pandora finds a jar. Despite dire warnings, she is unable to contain her curiosity and famously unleashes horrors on humanity:

But the woman took the lid off the big jar with her hands
And scattered all the miseries that spell sorrow for men.

Hesiod ends his story by briefly explaining that Prometheus and Pandora are to blame for humanity's hardship.

Five Ages of Man

The second section of Works and Days is also mythological and mirrors the tale of Prometheus. Hesiod tells Perses of the "Five Ages of Man" to explain how humanity descended from a carefree existence to a reality laden with sufferings. He explains that the Golden Age was a time of ease and prosperity for humanity, and during this period, humans was ageless. The inhabitants of the Golden Age "had everything good" and were unburdened by sickness or hard labor. In the Silver Age, however, humanity, rather than staying ageless, started progressing from infancy to maturity and thus suffered significantly more physical and mental hardship. Finally, Hesiod explains that the Bronze Age was a time of violence when humanity used lethal bronze weapons to exterminate itself. By the end of the Bronze age, humans had ceased to exist.

According to Hesiod, humanity was revived by the gods during the fourth age: the Age of Heroes—who earned glory in battle and were rewarded with immortality. The fifth and final age, inhabited by Hesiod and Perses, is the Iron Age. According to Hesiod, the Iron Age is miserable:

Not a day...

(This entire section contains 925 words.)

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goes by
A man doesn’t have some kind of trouble.
Nights too, just wearing him down. I mean
The gods send us terrible pain and vexation.

The tale of Prometheus and the "Five Ages of Man" communicate a similar message: the world was once a paradise for humanity, but that utopia was corrupted. For the average Greek, this entails a life of hardship and toil that will inevitably end in death.

The Farmer's Year

Hesiod breaks from his mythological narrative in the third section of the poem; instead, he switches to a lengthy hymn to the seasons, which is sometimes referred to as "The Farmer's Year." This section is a breathless ode to the changing seasons that is also interspersed with pithy advice from Hesiod to Perses about the kinds of work that should be completed around the farm during each time of year. "The Farmer's Year" imparts to Perses (and the audience) some of the most practical advice in the poem. These include admonitions to dress warmly in winter, instructions to pay attention to signs of blights in the crops, and suggestions for patience when waiting for the proper time to harvest.

Days

The final major section of Hesiod's poem is sometimes referred to simply as "Days." The last lines of the poem are filled with instructions on which day of the lunar calendar is best for performing specific tasks, though it is shown that these are largely based on superstitions. For example, Hesiod writes:

Avoid the 13th of the standing moon for sowing; but it is the best day for bedding vines.

While this sort of advice seems foreign to modern readers, it provides historians with a wealth of knowledge about the religious beliefs and agricultural superstitions of the ancient Greeks. Hesiod ends his poem abruptly in this final section with a final admonition to his brother Perses: he tells him to "work with knowledge of all this" and avoid upsetting the gods.

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