The greatest thing about Hesiod's Theogony is that it's short. It was of great importance to the ancient world for other reasons as well, but this does not translate into.... more
Works and Days
Works and Days is so different from Theogony that many scholars think they couldn't both have been composed by Hesiod. Which sounds like welcome news for anyone who yawned through.... more
If you're thrilled by Homer, then you'll find Hesiod sort of somewhat a little interesting maybe.
The two of them are the golden twins of really ancient Greek poetry—that is, ancient to the same Greeks whom we call ancient today. They wrote about three or four hundred years before the "classical" Greeks of Socrates, Plato, Pericles, Sophocles and company. Unlike Homer who likely originated in a Greek colony, Hesiod is thought to have come from the Greek mainland near Ascra in Boetia, where he was born a poor farmer—or so the story goes.
As with Homer, scholarly controversy has raged as to who Hesiod was, whether someone named Hesiod composed all the works attributed to him, and whether the poems were written down or passed on orally.
Regardless, in literary terms Hesiod is strictly Homer-lite. The works most often associated with his name are hardly wonderful literature by his rival's standards, and certainly not by our modern standards. But they were very important to the early Greeks and, because the early Greeks are very important to us, Hesiod's works carry a great deal of historical importance. Later writers, from Plato and Virgil to Spenser and Milton, adapted elements of his work.
However, Hesiod's worldview and philosophy, as presented in the works that bear his name, were quite different from those of the famous Greek writers who followed him. For Hesiod the world was composed of gods. There was a god for everything: the earth, the heavens, the hills, famine, work—you name it. And these gods ran everything. They made the world run as it does and they could hurt or help us mortal. Far from being the gods of some later monotheistic traditions, they were very human in their behaviour—jealous, vain, quarrelling, fickle. We had to placate them with praise and offerings to prevent risking their wrath—and even then they could turn on us to suit their own ends.
Later Greek thinkers turned away from this outlook to find natural or rational explanations of how the world worked and to figure out our place in it. Nonetheless, most of them continued to follow the traditions set down by Hesiod and to honour the gods as he proposed, even if they considered it myth (but useful myth)—just as many modern scientists today live and work in the Judaic-Christian tradition regardless of the non-theistic nature of their scientific activity.
Partly this is because Hesiod's writing provided much more than a few fairy tales about the Olympian gods. It also provided advice for living that made sense to the ancients quite apart from the existence of deities. Again you could draw a parallel to modern life: you can get quite a few tips for living a moral life (some of them sensible and some of quite whacky) by selecting passages from the Bible, whether or not you buy the whole religious mythology. Killing and lying are bad, do onto others, etc.
The best known of Hesiod's compositions are Theogony and Works and Days, two very different works. Theogony, as the name indicates, tells the story of the origins of the Greek gods and the world. Thunderously great stuff bled dry of any drama by dull poetry. Works and Days on the other hand is a simple farmer's advice to his spendthrift brother. Mundane material, conservative views, but delivered with some life.
Hesiod is also thought by some to be the author of The Shiel of Heracles, which is modelled on Homer's Shield of Achilles. But this work is considered by others to be too bad for even Hesiod to have written.