HISTORY’S FIRST GRUMPY OLD MAN

 

Traditional representation of Hesiod as a blind bard
He was history’s first grumpy old man. He complains, boasts, offers gratuitous advice and is a complete misogynist. His name was Hesiod and he lived over two and half thousand years ago in Ancient Greece.

Probably. No one really knows if he existed. Like Homer, a close contemporary, Hesiod might not be a real human being at all, just a convenient pen name for a poet, mythologist, farmer and irritating smart arse.
Whether there was a real Hesiod or not, his words speak directly to us from the deep past in surprisingly modern modes. He tells us very clearly what he likes (not a lot) and what he doesn’t like (a lot more). Women are a big problem for him:

Do not let a flaunting woman coax and cozen and deceive you: she is after your barn. The man who trusts womankind trust deceivers.

He gives us a few selected slices of his life and lineage to make points about others and much better ones about himself.

Then I crossed over to Chalcis, to the games of wise Amphidamas where the sons of the great-hearted hero proclaimed and appointed prizes. And there I boast that I gained the victory with a song and carried off an handled tripod which I dedicated to the Muses of Helicon, in the place where they first set me in the way of clear song . . .  for the Muses have taught me to sing in marvellous song.

In some senses, Hesiod’s Works and Days is the first self-help book. He is certainly keen to point out to his brother Perses the many errors of his ways and to provide other advice to all and sundry about how to live their lives. Here he is on the wayward Perses who, among other sins, Hesiod accuses of stealing a part of their father’s inheritance:

Perses, lay up these things in your heart, and do not let that Strife who delights in mischief hold your heart back from work, while you peep and peer and listen to the wrangles of the court-house. Little concern has he with quarrels and courts who has not a year’s victuals laid up betimes, even that which the earth bears, Demeter’s grain. When you have got plenty of that, you can raise disputes and strive to get another’s goods. But you shall have no second chance to deal so again: nay, let us settle our dispute here with true judgement which is of Zeus and is perfect. For we had already divided our inheritance, but you seized the greater share and carried it off, greatly swelling the glory of our bribe-swallowing lords who love to judge such a cause as this. Fools! They know not how much more the half is than the whole, nor what great advantage there is in mallow and asphodel.

While the feckless Perses is the focus of much of Hesiod’s ire, he is not shy of telling everyone else what to do, or not. He hands out surely unneeded advice about where to go to the toilet:

Never make water in the mouths of rivers which flow to the sea, nor yet in springs; but be careful to avoid this. And do not ease yourself in them: it is not well to do this.

Hesiod also had his own take on the gods and heroes of Greek mythology. So did everyone else, of course. Mythology is full of variants of variants of the same stories. What distinguishes Hesiod though is that he links his myths with a theory of historical evolution. It’s a pretty bleak philosophy, but that’s in character for the gloomy poet.
According to Hesiod there have been five ages or generations of human history. The first is the age of ‘a golden race of mortal men’ crated by the gods of Olympus.

… they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.

But the next generation was of silver and much less noble:’

It was like the golden race neither in body nor in spirit. A child was brought up at his good mother’s side an hundred years, an utter simpleton, playing childishly in his own home. But when they were full grown and were come to the full measure of their prime, they lived only a little time in sorrow because of their foolishness, for they could not keep from sinning and from wronging one another, nor would they serve the immortals, nor sacrifice on the holy altars of the blessed ones as it is right for men to do wherever they dwell. Then Zeus the son of Cronos was angry and put them away, because they would not give honour to the blessed gods who live on Olympus.

The third generation were:

… a brazen race, sprung from ash-trees and it was in no way equal to the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence; they ate no bread, but were hard of heart like adamant, fearful men. Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs. Their armour was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron. These were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and left no name: terrible though they were, black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun.

After the passing of this generation Cronos, son of Zeus, made another

… which was nobler and more righteous, a god-like race of hero-men who are called demi-gods, the race before our own, throughout the boundless earth. Grim war and dread battle destroyed a part of them, some in the land of Cadmus at seven- gated Thebe when they fought for the flocks of Oedipus, and some, when it had brought them in ships over the great sea gulf to Troy for rich-haired Helen’s sake: there death’s end enshrouded a part of them. But to the others father Zeus the son of Cronos gave a living and an abode apart from men, and made them dwell at the ends of earth. And they live untouched by sorrow in the islands of the blessed along the shore of deep swirling Ocean, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Cronos rules over them; for the father of men and gods released him from his bonds. And these last equally have honour and glory.

After the passing of the fourth generation, Zeus made a fifth, ‘of men who are upon the bounteous earth.’ Hesiod is not happy to be among this generation and waxes apocalyptic:

… would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils. And Zeus will destroy this race of mortal men also when they come to have grey hair on the temples at their birth. The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as aforetime. Men will dishonour their parents as they grow quickly old, and will carp at them, chiding them with bitter words, hard-hearted they, not knowing the fear of the gods. They will not repay their aged parents the cost their nurture, for might shall be their right: and one man will sack another’s city. There will be no favour for the man who keeps his oath or for the just or for the good; but rather men will praise the evil-doer and his violent dealing. Strength will be right and reverence will cease to be; and the wicked will hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him, and will swear an oath upon them. Envy, foul-mouthed, delighting in evil, with scowling face, will go along with wretched men one and all. And then Aidos and Nemesis, with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil.

Hesiod doesn’t say if he thinks there are any more ages to come. But going by his progression from gold, silver, bronze, the heroes of Troy and down to his own era of iron and misery, if there are they won’t be a whole lot of fun.
Despite his dismal view of almost everything, Hesiod seems to know how to enjoy himself. When the seasons turn warm again and the grasshopper sings:

… then goats are plumpest and wine sweetest; women are most wanton, but men are feeblest, because Sirius parches head and knees and the skin is dry through heat. But at that time let me have a shady rock and wine of Biblis, a clot of curds and milk of drained goats with the flesh of an heifer fed in the woods, that has never calved, and of firstling kids; then also let me drink bright wine, sitting in the shade, when my heart is satisfied with food, and so, turning my head to face the fresh Zephyr, from the everflowing spring which pours down unfouled thrice pour an offering of water, but make a fourth libation of wine.

In the end, the most important thing about Hesiod is his humanity. We clearly see his foibles and flaws, his prejudices, his blind spots and his intelligence. He is just like all of us – past, present and, hopefully, future.
 

The Muses
Translations by Hugh G. Evelyn-White (1914) at  Sacred Texts

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s