Early Harvest

By

teaches classics at the University of Pennsylvania. Her new book,
The Death of Socrates, will be published by Harvard University
Press this fall.

Hesiod: Volume I: Theogony, works and days, testimonia Translated
and edited by Glenn W. Most

(Harvard University Press, 308 pp.,$24)

hesiod: Volume II: the shield, catalogue of women, other fragments
Translated and edited by Glenn W. Most

(Harvard University Press, 434 pp.,

$24)

There is an ancient tradition that Hesiod and Homer once competed
for a poetry prize. A surviving work on this subject called the
Contest of Hesiod and Homer--composed in Hellenistic times,
although the legend is much earlier-- tells us that the archaic
poetry slam took place at the funeral games for the king of Euboea.
It recounts that Homer responded nimbly to every line, riddle, and
question posed by Hesiod, and quoted his own most stirring military
passages from the Iliad: "Shield rang against shield, helm against
helm, man against man, and on their shining helmets the crests
tipped with horsehair touched as they lowered their heads, so
closely they stood together." The cinematic physical detail is
matched by the gripping psychological complexity: Homer finds human
intimacy even when people are killing each other.

Hesiod was much less of a crowd-pleaser. His star turn, supposedly
the best passage in all his work, began (in Glenn W. Most's
translation) in this rather offputting fashion: "When the
Atlas-born Pleiades rise, start the harvest--the plowing, when they
set. They are concealed for forty nights and days, but when the
year has revolved they appear once more, when the iron is being
sharpened." Even if all the listeners had been farmers, and rather
gullible ones at that, it is still hard to imagine that anyone
could have been at the edge of his seat for this
astronomical-agricultural lecture. Inevitably the people demand
that Homer be given the crown. "But," we are told, "the king
crowned Hesiod, declaring that the winner should be the man who
recommended farming and peace, not the one whose subject was war
and bloodshed."

The Contest is not, of course, a record of an actual competition. It
should be read as an interesting piece of ancient literary
criticism. It engages with an issue that we still debate today: the
relationship between literature and moral values, between culture
and politics. Should great works of literature be appreciated for
their ethical teaching--so that, for example, we might read the
Iliad as a text about the bad effects of anger, or about the
importance of discipline in the army? Or should we draw a sharp
distinction between literature that delights--as the Homeric poems
undoubtedly do--and school textbooks that give us dull but useful
information, or the Pollyanna school of literature that teaches us
how to be good even if it bores us to tears?

And what should we do if the cultural products that we find most
delightful are also those that corrupt us? Plato's Socrates expels
Homer and the tragic poets from his ideal republic, because their
work is damaging to the citizens' souls. According to Plato, the
Iliad makes you feel things that you ought not to feel: rage,
blood-lust, intense despair. Similar arguments have been often made
in our own time about pornography and violent computer games. And
the debate ranges to high culture as well as low: some have
contended that we ought not to encourage vulnerable teenagers to
read Sylvia Plath. Political and ethical considerations continually
drive school curricula. It is not for aesthetic reasons that so
many high school students are marched through Toni Morrison's
Beloved.

Homer and Hesiod, the oldest surviving poets in the Greek literary
tradition, stood at the heart of ancient Greek cultural heritage.
Most Greeks would surely have hesitated to say, with Plato, that
Homer was an immoral influence on the minds of the citizens. But
anxiety about Homer's ethics--the violence, the passion, and
especially the bad behavior of the gods--runs deep in the Greek
tradition, going back at least to the time of Xenophanes in the
sixth century B.C.E., and on into the attempts of later Greek
critics to bowdlerize or allegorize Homer.

In the Contest, the Euboean king's decision is very carefully
worded. He does not say that Homer recommends or glorifies war,
only that he goes through it in detail (he uses the verb diexeimi,
"to run through"). The author of the Contest includes one of the
many moments in the Iliad in which the narrator calls our attention
to the pain and the pathos of the battlefield, even in its moments
of glory: "A person would have to be stony-hearted to rejoice when
he saw their suffering, and not to feel grief." Homer hardly
presents war as an unmitigated blessing, and he constantly reminds
his listeners that they should remember to weep. But the king
suggests that just describing war--even if you show that it is
horrible, painful, cruel, and wasteful, as well as thrilling-- will
act as a recommendation for violence. A similar argument was made
fairly recently by the Gulf War veteran Anthony Swofford in his
book Jarhead (and in the movie made from it). As Swofford notes,
even books and films that are explicitly anti-war may serve as
incitements to violence for certain viewers or readers.

The king is careful in his characterization of Hesiod's poetry, too.
We are not told that he actually gives good information about
farming. Instead, the king recommends Hesiod for his moral values
and his vision of the world: he praises farming and peace, not war
and bloodshed. In the stimulating introduction to his new Loeb
Classics two-volume edition of Hesiod, Glenn Most makes the case
that we, too, should admire Hesiod for his powerful and unified
worldview. Most assures us that we can find in the Theogony an
original and idiomatic "comprehensive account of the origin and
organization of the divinities responsible for the religious,
moral, and physical structure of the world." Works and Days, too,
has a "profound conceptual unity": it is a proto- philosophical
meditation on the relationship between the gods and humanity, and
between divine justice and the human obligation to work.

Most is surely right that much of the interest of the Hesiodic
corpus lies in its style of thought. Various attempts have been
made to read the Homeric poems for their proto-philosophical vision
of human life and death, notably Simone Weil's famous essay on the
Iliad as a "poem of force." But in Homer, the emotions and the
experiences of the characters are far more important than any
abstract ideas. In Hesiod, it is the other way around. The vast
questions that are addressed in these poems--the origins of the
gods, the way the world works, the reasons why things are as they
are--can be seen as the first rumblings of natural science,
physics, philosophy, theology, medicine, autobiography,
agriculture, law, even history and textual criticism. Hesiod's poems
are intensely concerned with classification (that primary
scientific or academic endeavor), and also with analysis. Where
Homer simply describes and evokes a world, showing us a status quo,
Hesiod asks why things are as they are, and where they came from.

It is surprisingly difficult to say where the Hesiodic poems
themselves came from. Hesiod was not a lonely genius who invented
the Olympian gods all by himself in a moment of inspiration. Some
may doubt whether the corpus is quite as unified as Most suggests.
In Works and Days, advice about agriculture jostles with animal
fables. We get moralizing tidbits that promote a strong work ethic
("work is not a disgrace, but not working is a disgrace"; "the
work- postponing man is always wrestling with calamities"),
followed by a long list of various lucky and unlucky days of the
month and their suitability for different activities--advice that
is mostly singularly useless. ("Nor is the sixth day fitting for a
maiden to be born, but it is a kind day for castrating kids and
rams.") And Hesiod has a disarming tendency to undermine his own
recommendations. After listing the omens for various days at greater
length than one might wish, he ends by suggesting that perhaps
nobody knows which days will really be lucky after all. "One man
praises one kind of day, another another; but few are the ones who
know. One time one of these days is a mother- in-law, another time
a mother." It appears that mother-in-law jokes go back a long way.

The obvious question to ask about all this proverbial "wisdom" is
how much it can be ascribed to a single person--to "Hesiod"
himself. The Hesiodic poems invite us to think about their author
in a way that the Homeric poems do not, because they include far
more personal detail. Homer never names himself in the Iliad or the
Odyssey. The only moment of apparent autobiography in the Homeric
corpus comes in the "Hymn to Delian Apollo," when the poet imagines
what the god's handmaidens would say if a stranger came to ask who
this singer is. He tells them to answer, "all of you, with a single
voice: 'He is a blind man and dwells in rocky Chios; his songs are
always the best forever.'" It is from those two lines that the myth
of Homer as the blind bard developed.

With Hesiod, there is far more material for biographical
speculation. We learn that Hesiod's father emigrated from Aeolia
because of poverty, and that he sailed to Boetia by ship. Hesiod
himself never set to sea, although he can teach you all there is to
know about seafaring (a nasty business). Hesiod grew up in a horrid
little Boetian village called Ascra ("evil in winter, distressful
in winter, not ever fine"). He had a brother named Perses, the
addressee of Works and Days, with whom he had some kind of falling
out. We may or may not believe that any of this bears much relation
to biographical reality.

Both the major poems of the Hesiodic corpus, Works and Days and the
Theogony, begin with invocations to the Muses, which establish the
personal authority of the teacher who will sing the rest of the
song. In the Theogony, a dense list of the Muses' divine subject
matter--Zeus, Aphrodite, Athena, and company--is followed by a
striking and hugely influential account of the poet's own
inspiration:

One time they taught Hesiod beautiful song while he was pasturing
lambs under holy Helicon. And this speech the goddesses spoke first
of all to me: "Field-dwelling shepherds, ignoble disgraces, mere
bellies: we know how to say many false things similar to genuine
ones, but we know, when we wish, how to proclaim true things." So
spoke great Zeus' ready-speaking daughters, and they plucked a
staff, a branch of luxuriant laurel, a marvel, and gave it to me,
so that I might glorify what will be and what was before, and they
commanded me to sing of the race of the blessed ones who always
are, but always to sing of themselves first and last.

Most's reading of this important passage is refreshingly simple. He
thinks that it really happened. A shepherd called Hesiod, an
inhabitant of the village of Ascra, really did have a divine
hallucination on Mount Helican. Most offers an observant close
reading of the passage, in which he points out, among other things,
that it is a mistake to characterize this experience simply as a
"vision": Hesiod hears divine voices before he sees the laurel
staff, and he finally feels within himself a new power to produce
poetry. Most notes that "literal-minded readers" may doubt some
details of the experience, such as the idea that the laurel staff
was put there by some miracle: perhaps "he simply stumbled upon a
carved staff someone else had made earlier and discarded there, or
even upon a branch of a peculiar natural shape." In antiquity, the
literal- minded had rather more cynical explanations. It was often
suggested that Hesiod had eaten the laurel, and that he saw the
Muses because he was tripping on this psychotropic drug.

It is tempting to think that complex accounts are always smarter
than simple ones. But Most is no fool. In his discussion of
Hesiod's addressee, the poet's brother Perses, Most suggests that
we can set aside the question of whether the brothers really had a
fight over some kind of court case. The real arena for moral
judgment, in Works and Days, is not a lawsuit in the real world, but
the didactic process of the poem itself. Most is not unaware of the
enormous strides that have been made in the study of Greek archaic
poetry over the past hundred years or so, but he insists that it is
futile to be too skeptical about Hesiod's autobiographical
statements. We ought not ask whether the story is true, he
suggests, but "instead ask why he might have thought it a good idea
to include it." His answer is a strong one: Hesiod's insistence on
himself "as an author serves to authorize him." By telling the
story of his initiation by the Muses, the poet shows that he gets
his information about the gods straight from the divine horses'
mouths. Most adds the important caveat that the fact that Hesiod
has a motive for telling the story does not in the least preclude
the possibility that the divine initiation really happened.

Most's style of argument is vigorous, and his notion of Hesiod as a
real person, whose life and experiences are still accessible to us
through his poetry, is appealing. But I did not find myself
convinced. Most's formulation of the issue--"why he might have
thought it a good idea to include it"--begs one of the most crucial
questions about all archaic Greek hexameter poetry: who is "he"? To
what extent should we think of "Hesiod" as a single person? Most
assumes that the person who decided what to include in Works and
Days was always a man called Hesiod, who should be considered the
"author" of the poem, in something like the sense that Charlotte
Bronte should be considered the author of Jane Eyre.

But there are some compelling reasons for doubt. The Homeric and
Hesiodic poems are certainly based on a very long oral tradition.
They were probably first written down in something like their
current form fairly soon after the new technology of writing came
to Greece--in the late eighth or early seventh century B.C.E. There
is no strong reason to think that Hesiod is significantly later
than Homer. Perhaps a skilled bard, or a group of bards,
collaborated with a scribe, or several scribes, to put together the
best possible versions of the story of Achilles and the stories
about the gods. Or perhaps a few oral poets finally learned to
write. Or perhaps, as some scholars still believe, there were two
geniuses at the end of the eighth century, Hesiod and Homer, the
best poets archaic Greece had ever known, who somehow transferred
their own best work to paper. But even in that case, what was
written down included the words, phrases, and stories developed by
many generations of illiterate bards.

In the early twentieth century, our understanding of archaic Greek
poetry was enormously enriched by Milman Parry's comparative work
on contemporary oral poets in what was then Yugoslavia. Parry
showed that a purely oral and illiterate poet, without any use of
writing, could produce a long and complicated poem, based on
traditional material and using traditional formulae. The
relationship between the Theogony as we have it and the oral
tradition-- which is inevitably lost--is almost impossible to
reconstruct. But such scholars as Martin West and Gregory Nagy (the
latter oddly not mentioned in Most's bibliography) have shown that
much of Hesiod's material is indeed traditional, and can be
paralleled by much earlier Near Eastern legends and proverbs
(including the tradition that produced the biblical book of
Proverbs). The material may well have taken on a new and individual
stamp in its Hellenic form.

No single person made up all the Hesiodic stories and proverbs, and
they may not even have been put together at a single time. The use
of Hesiod's first- person story at the start of the Theogony may be
read less as giving authority to the author than as a sign of the
authenticity of the poem itself. There were probably many different
versions of the Hesiodic corpus in antiquity, including works that
are now lost to us. Similarly, the work of the sixth-century lyric
poet Theognis--a miscellaneous collection that probably includes
sections of poetry from many different composers and time
periods--includes at the beginning a "seal" or guarantee that the
whole thing really is by Theognis: "This is the work of
Theognis,/The man from Megara, famous throughout all people." The
"seal," too, is controversial. But arguably, the declaration of the
author's name, in the case of both Hesiod and Theognis, is not the
mark of an author who wishes to claim his own work, but of a later
editor who wants to assert that his collection is more genuine than
any other.

A compelling case can be made that the whole account of Hesiod's
initiation by the Muses on Mount Helicon was added to the poem in
Hellenistic times, so as to coincide with the new
institutionalization of a cult of the Muses in Boetia (as argued by
Robert Lamberton in Hesiod, his fine introduction to Hesiod's
poetry). We can thus give a plausible motive for the presence of
Hesiod's encounter with the Muses in the poem that has nothing to
do with the facts of his life, whatever they may have been. In
fact, one might argue that identifying that shepherd "Hesiod" as
the author of the poem is almost as much of a category mistake as
identifying the editor of Pale Fire, Charles Kinbote, with Nabokov.
Internal narrators are not the same as authors.

All this may seem like a rather arcane scholarly debate. But the
debate matters, even for non-classicists, because it touches on our
assumptions about how great literature gets made. Critics and
scholars such as Most assume that an admirable and unified piece of
poetry cannot be produced by a nameless tradition, or by a
committee: it must be the work of an individual genius. Yet the
evidence suggests that archaic Greek poetry, which emerges from a
collective oral tradition, does not follow this rule. It is possible
to admire and to enjoy the Hesiodic poems enormously without
believing that they are necessarily the work of one man, or that
anything special ever happened on Mount Helicon.

Hesiod is our oldest source for many of the best-known and
best-loved stories of Greek mythology. The Iliad, by comparison, is
extraordinarily narrow in its subject matter. It excludes a great
many even of the legends associated with Troy (such as the Trojan
horse) in order to concentrate on a single episode in the life of
Achilles. By contrast, the Theogony and Works and Days include
enormous numbers of divine characters, and diverse myths. In Hesiod
we first encounter the story of the Ages of Man, from the idyllic
Golden Age through the Age of Heroes to the fallen Age of Iron in
which we live. From him we get two of the most influential Western
stories about the origin of evil and suffering: the tale of how a
woman was the cause of all man's pain, when Pandora opened the
secret box and unleashed sorrow in the world; and the intertwined
story of Prometheus, who stole fire from Zeus, and whose punishment
was to have his liver pecked out by eagles every day. Hesiod tells
us about the time before gods, when Sky and Earth gave birth to
Titans. He sings of how Cronos devoured his own children, and was
stopped only when Zeus, the last child, castrated his own father.
He tells of the birth of Athena from her father's head. Hesiod
preserves or constructs some of the most important Greek myths
about the interactions between gods and man.

With all this wonderful material, Hesiod ought to be a joy to read.
But this is not always the case. I remember my own disappointment
when I first tried to read him as a teenager. I loved the Iliad and
the Odyssey, but could find nothing in Hesiod to rival the
sublimity of the Homeric poems. Works and Days struck me as a
mishmash of folklore, with little coherence or artistic merit. The
Theogony was even more disappointing. Here were the great tales of
the clash of the Titans with the Olympian gods, the formation of
Chaos, Earth, and Sky--but all lacking the sense of the numinous
that I had glimpsed in Milton and Blake or, for that matter, in
Tolkien's Silmarillion and Roger Lancelot Green's Old Greek Fairy
Tales, the beloved books of my childhood. Hesiod was the first to
tell these great stories, but he told them in a way that strikes
many first-time readers as clumsy or naive.

One obvious problem with the Hesiodic poems, from the perspective of
many modern readers, is that these works have no central character
and no unified plot. What we learn about Hesiod's own supposed
biography is fragmentary and inconsistent, and the advice that he
offers is also inconsistent. The novel- reader's interest in
characterization may be satisfied by Homer, but it is entirely
frustrated by Hesiod. If there is a hero in the Theogony and Works
and Days, it is poetry itself: the preserved heritage of Greek and
Indo-European wisdom, which ranges through the whole of
Mediterranean life, from goddesses to goats. The hero is the wisdom
of the tribe.

It can be vexing for a modern reader to be told that your instructor
has no personal experience of the subject matter that he is
teaching--as when Hesiod declares that "I shall show you the
measures of the much-roaring sea, I who have no expertise at all in
either seafaring or boats." But this brazen admission is a reminder
that Hesiod, unlike Homer, will tell, not show; and that we are
being invited to value the wisdom of tradition over anything that
we may experience for ourselves. The sense that Hesiod offers
something like a poetic or religious initiation into inherited
lore--the world of the Muses--is increased by his language, which
includes a number of wonderful riddling expressions. "The boneless
one" refers to the octopus. We are advised that when attending a
religious ceremony, one should not "cut the dry from the living
from the five-brancher with the gleaming iron" (and you have to
guess what that means).

Part of the charm of reading Hesiod is that he evokes the ordinary
details of life in archaic Greece, even down to urination and
defecation--subjects that Homer is almost always too dignified to
discuss. "Do not urinate while you are walking, on the road or off
the road: it is crouching that the godfearing man, who knows
wisdom, does it, or after he has approached towards the wall of a
well-fenced courtyard. And inside the house do not reveal your
genitals besmirched with intercourse near the hearth, but avoid
this." Works and Days even tells you what to eat for breakfast
before ploughing: "a four-piece, eight- part loaf" will apparently
be enough to sustain a strong forty-year-old man though a hard day
behind the oxen. From the same poem you can learn what to wear for
the various seasons: when winter comes, "Bind around your feet
well- fitting boots from the slaughtered ox, padded inside with
felt.... Wear a well- made felt cap upon your head, so that you do
not get your ears wet." We are not told how to make the cap,
presumably because cap-making is women's work.

Hesiod's "wisdom" is not, of course, limited to the minutiae of
plowing, urinating, and getting dressed. Most is quite right to
suggest that these poems promote a whole worldview, in which the
gods, justice, and human work are all intertwined. But that
worldview is not purely or obviously "moral," if morality implies
something more than selfjustification. The king of the Contest is
actually quite misleading when he presents Hesiod only as a poet of
peace. The scenes of rape, the battles between gods and Titans, the
castration of sons by fathers, and the devouring of children in the
Theogony are in many ways more shocking than anything in Homer.
Hesiod's teaching includes a strong lesson that the world can be a
brutal and terrifying place.

Most does not comment at all on the striking misogyny of the
Theogony--in which, for example, we are told that Pandora was a
"beautiful evil" who brought to humanity "the deadly race and tribe
of women, a great woe for mortals, dwelling with men, no companions
of baneful poverty but only of luxury." The Hesiodic poems teach
their male listeners and readers to think of themselves as entirely
different beings from their wives and daughters. Many of the great
myths, too, can be read as justifications for patriarchy or
expressions of a wish to get rid of women altogether. Aphrodite,
that male ideal, is born without female aid, from the semen of the
sea. The disturbing moral complexity of the Hesiodic poems is all
the more reason why we should continue to read and study them.

If you have never read any Hesiod, Most's version is not the best
place to start. Martin West, the most eminent Hesiod scholar in the
English-speaking world, has a fine prose translation of the
Theogony and Works and Days in the Oxford World's Classics series,
which appeared in 1999. If you want to try to get more sense of the
poetry as poetry, but do not have time to learn Greek, then your
best bet is probably Richard Lattimore's old and still impressive
verse translation of the Theogony, Works and Days, and the Shield,
which includes a useful summary of Works and Days facing the main
text, as well as genealogical tables of gods. Lattimore's Hesiod is
the closest thing to a D'Aulaire's Greek Myths for grown-ups. Other
good verse translations include the fine poetic rendering by
Apostoulos Athanakassis (1993) and two recent attempts to echo
Hesiod's long hexameter line in English, one by Daryl Hine and
another by Catherine M. Schlegel and Henry Weinfield. If you want to
dip into Hesiod for the first time, you should begin with one of
these.

But no other modern English translation includes the fragmentary
works or the ancient testimonia. If you already have some
familiarity with Hesiod's two best-known works and you want to know
more about the rest of the Hesiodic corpus and about the ancient
reception of this canonical figure, then Most's new Loeb books will
be essential. Most makes various important corrections and
improvements in his translation. He rightly remarks, for example,
that "chaos" is a misleading way to translate Hesiod's chaos, which
in fact means something more like "chasm" (Most's rendering): it
does not connote randomness or disorder. But generally Most's
translation feels comfortingly familiar. He does not move very far
away from the traditions of the old Loeb series, which favored
conservative scholarship and Edwardian archaisms.

Yet to my ear, the previous Hesiod Loeb--Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns,
and Homerica, edited by Hugh Evelyn-White--is sometimes preferable.
Take the moment when Cronos castrates his father Ouranos, or Sky.
In Evelyn-White, we are told, "Then the son from his ambush
stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long
sickle with jagged teeth and swiftly lopped off his own father's
members and cast them away to fall behind him." The prose
constantly slips into anapests or dactyls (da-da-DUM, da-da-DUM),
and zips along at a pace reminiscent of Longfellow's Hiawatha, if
not quite Hesiod's hexameter. In Most, however, the rhythms are
much flatter: "He grasped the monstrous sickle, long and
jagged-toothed, and eagerly he reaped the genitals from his dear
father, and threw them behind him to be borne away." Most's use of
the word "dear" to describe the castrated father makes the lines
sound more paradoxical than they necessarily are. Philos in Greek
may suggest a loved person, but it may simply suggest kinship; the
epithet expresses shock that Cronos castrated his father even
though he was his own kin (love does not come into it). This is
captured more accurately by Evelyn-White, who emphasizes that
Cronos is cutting off the "members" from his "own father."

In the old Loeb, Hesiod was combined with the Hymns and various
interesting later works from the tradition, such as the mock-heroic
Battle of the Mice and Frogs and the Contest of Homer and Hesiod.
It was nice to have all these things available in one volume. And
the combination made one aware of an important truth: that the
Homeric and Hesiodic traditions were not really as separate as we
like to think. Works such as the Contest invite us to consider Homer
and Hesiod as the representatives, the origins, of two entirely
different kinds of literature-- literature that delights and
literature that instructs, respectively. But it is striking how
often Homer and Hesiod are actually linked in Greek literary
reception. Their names are less often contrasted than paired.

We can see very clearly, if we read all the extant Hesiodic and
Homeric poems, that there are many moments where "Hesiod" is hard
to distinguish from "Homer." The Homeric Hymns often adopt the
gods'-eye perspective that seems so characteristic of the Theogony.
The Theogony includes amazing descriptions of physical violence on
the divine battlefield that parallel the battles of the Iliad. The
fascinating Hesiodic Catalogue of Women (which survives only in
fragmentary form, included in Most's second volume) seems to have
paralleled the list of famous heroic dead women in Book Eleven of
the Odyssey. The Shield of Heracles is clearly within the same
tradition as the great account of Achilles's shield in Book
Eighteen of the Iliad. Homer and Hesiod were both the teachers of
the Greeks--until the prose writers of an increasingly literate age
began to treat poetry as mere entertainment or worse. Plato's
Socrates pairs the names of Homer and Hesiod. Both these archaic
teachers turn out to be false moral guides, compared to the truth
of philosophy.

Plato was--as Andrea Nightingale has persuasively argued--the
inventor of philosophy as a discipline, distinct from literature,
theology, mythology and natural science. The idea that there is
always a sharp distinction between philosophy and literature has
been one of the most influential and--in my opinion-- damaging of
Plato's many dangerous ideas. Reading Hesiod, even more than
reading Homer, reminds us of a time before modern notions of truth,
falsehood, and fiction existed, and before it was possible to
distinguish between pleasure and education. It would be impossible,
in our information age, to recover the experience of listening to
oral poetry in archaic, pre-literate Greece. We endorse ever more
rigid distinctions between works of supposedly high culture (such
as the Theogony itself), which are read only "for class" or to pass
an exam, and the culture that we seek out for pleasure: television,
blogs, movies, the Internet, magazines, popular music. But we may
look back to Hesiod's poetry as representative of a cultural Golden
Age when it was possible for a single work of literature to
encompass the whole of traditional "wisdom": high and low, ancient
and modern, philosophical and poetic, practical and metaphysical.
Perhaps even our Age of Iron could learn from him.

By Emily Wilson

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