Friday, January 27, 2012
I just learned that Hesiod's works are some of the earliest Greek poetry we have, which I had not realized at all. He and Homer were contemporaries and lived somewhere around 750 BC or so. Scholars think that Hesiod composed his Theogony (the story of the origin of the gods, and in this case the world too) for a contest at a funeral on the island of Euboia and won the prize--a tripod* that he dedicated to the Muses.
Hesiod was a Boeotian farmer, probably a fairly well-off one. He happened to compose his poem at just about the time that alphabetic writing was coming into use, and someone wrote it down. Because of that, the Theogony became the most popular standard version of the story of the gods; if there were other stories earlier on, they got lost. This is where we get much of the material we teach to our kids in books like D'Aulaires Greek Myths (which is a favorite of mine). My book says that it's "our best and earliest evidence for what the ancient Greeks believed about the beginning of the world and its divine governance" and that it is "possibly the oldest surviving example of Greek written literature."
The Theogony is about a thousand lines long and tells the genealogy of the gods and monsters from the beginning. Since genealogy is pretty boring stuff even when people are marrying their sisters and producing hideous creatures or beautiful nymphs, Hesiod livens it up with digressions on the natures of certain goddesses or the underworld and so on. The main story he tells is the generational conflict of the gods, as each father in turn tries to keep his sons from gaining power--and each mother helps her children win the battle.
Because the poem is so dense with names and it's not always easy to understand what Hesiod is talking about, it's a good idea to have a nicely annotated edition. Mine is a little old, since it's the one I used in college; it's by Richard S. Caldwell and has a straightforward translation with notes and a couple of explanatory essays that I found helpful. It's still in print, with a prettier cover.
Though it's pretty short, I found it difficult to concentrate on the text for long periods of time. Maybe because it was so dense and I had to keep stopping to read the footnotes--even if I already knew what was in them, because of course we can't just ignore footnotes!--or maybe because I read most of it while I was still pretty sick. It's a good poem to read, though, and I had a good time with it. I'm going to read Hesiod's Works and Days next and I have the Lattimore translation ready to go, fresh from where it's been mouldering on the college library shelves for the past 15 years or so.
*Haven't you always wondered what the heck those tripods were that people were always winning? I have. I went and looked it up, and here's a picture for you. A tripod was a bowl mounted on three legs, and you'd use it for religious sacrifices. The oracle at Delphi sat in one, which couldn't have been comfortable.