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Works and Days


Works and Days and other Hesiod works, trans. Lattimore1968 collection
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication
c.700 BCE

Literature form

Instructional, philosophical

Writing language

Author's country
United States

Approx. 1,000 lines

Notable lines
First line

Pierian Muses, bringers of fame: come
Tell of your father, Zeus, and sing his hymn,
Through whom each man is famous or unknown....

trans. Wender

Great lines

That man is best who reasons for himself
Considering the future. Also good
Is he who takes another's advice.
But he who neither thinks himself nor learns
From others, is a failure as a man.

Never reproach a man for poverty
Which eats out the heart and destroys, for it
Is given by the blessed, deathless gods.

trans. Wender

Last lines

He is truly blest
And rich who knows these things and does his work,
Guiltless before the gods, and scrupulous,
Observing omens and avoiding wrong.

Ancient farmer's almanac

Works and Days is so different from Theogony that many scholars think it couldn't have been composed by Hesiod. Or think it was composed by Hesiod but Theogony was by someone else.

Which sounds like welcome news for anyone who yawned through Theogony and now faces Works and Days.

But I said Works and Days is different, not necessarily better. In fact it's both better and worse in different ways.

It starts off similarly—with stories about the gods, more or less picking up where Theogony left off, with Zeus reigning as chief god and with various mischief afoot. Such as the famous story of Pandora's box which was a trick played among the gods and ended up loosing pain and evil into the world of men. Not exactly Homer-quality in storytelling but not bad little vignettes.

But after a few of these you realize the stories have a more direct purpose—to teach moral and practical lessons. I believe that all literature has to do with morality ultimately, so this is not a bad thing in itself. But Hesiod's stories in Works and Days are simplistic morality tales, and after a while he drops the story part altogether and just spits out the messages one after the other.

The conceit of Works and Days is that the narrator, a farmer it seems, is trying to school his indebted brother Perses on how to put his life right. The observations range from the semi-profound ("The gods desire to keep the stuff of life / Hidden from us. If they did not, you could / Work for a day and earn a year's supplies...") to the mundanely prudent ("avoid men's gossip which / Is wicked") to the superstitious ("Plants do not prosper on the midmonth sixth, / But it's a lucky birthday for a male / Unfavourable for girls, either for birth / Or marriage").

Sort of the Farmer's Almanac of its time.

— Eric