ca. 700 B.C.
Greek epic poet
Hesiod is one of the earliest known Greek poets. While Homer, the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, sang about the lives and deaths of Greek heroes*, Hesiod provided interesting information about the origins of the gods and goddesses and useful advice for living a virtuous life. The ancient Greeks derived much of their value system from the combined works of Homer and Hesiod.
Scholars have learned much about Hesiod’s life from his poems. His father was an unsuccessful trader who settled in Boeotia, a region of east central Greece, where he worked as a small farmer. After his father’s death, Hesiod believed that Perses, his brother, stole his share of their inheritance. While tending sheep one day, Hesiod was visited by the Muses, the goddesses of poetry, who gave him the art of song. He used this gift to compose poetry on many subjects, once winning a prize in a funeral song contest. Hesiod’s most famous poems are Works and Days and the Theogony. The ancient Greeks thought that Hesiod also composed the poems Catalogue of Women, which is a continuation of the Theogony, and the Shield of Heracles. Some modern scholars, however, believe that these were probably written by someone else many years after Hesiod lived.
Hesiod addressed Works and Days to his brother. In the poem, Hesiod described the everyday details of peasant farming, mixing these observations with proverbs, fables, and advice about how to live. A rather conservative and thoughtful man, he deplored dishonesty and idleness. Hesiod often used examples from myths to make his point. For example, to illustrate what he believed to be the evils of women, he related the myth of Pandora, who unwittingly released all the evils of the world from a magic box. Hesiod distinguished between good strife and bad strife. Good strife, such as the athletic competition in the Olympic Games, he said was constructive, while bad strife, such as war, was destructive and harmed society. In addition to giving moral advice about living honestly, Hesiod provided basic information about growing crops and maintaining a household. Because Works and Days provides such a vivid picture of life in early Greece, it continues to be Hesiod’s most widely read poem.
In the Theogony Hesiod related the origins and family histories of the Greek gods and goddesses. He began by praising the Muses for providing him with the gift of song. Hesiod then tells about the beginning of the earth, ocean, and sky and how the gods and goddesses came into existence. Hesiod described how the god Zeus and his brothers and sisters overthrew Cronos, who was their father, to become the rulers of the world. In the Theogony Hesiod listed about 300 gods and goddesses who were descendants of the first gods. The poem ends with the marriages of Zeus and the other gods and goddesses. Hesiod also related the myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mortals*.
The Greeks learned about the work of Hesiod through various means. As was the case with Homer’s work, public readings of Hesiod’s poetry were held at events, such as the Olympic Games, that were attended by people from throughout the Greek world. The founding of colonies, the spread of the Greek alphabet, and the establishment of religious sanctuaries* also helped spread the poetry of Hesiod. (See also Divinities; Epic, Greek; Myths, Greek.)
* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god
* mortal human being; one who eventually will die
* sanctuary place for worship