Hesiod's 'Works and Days' & Mythology's Impact on History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How can we understand the past? To the ancient Greeks, the history of humanity was part of an ancient system. In this lesson, we'll examine Hesiod's categorization of human history and see how it impacted modern scholarship.

Hesiod, History, and Mythology

When the ancient Greek authors wrote out the tales of the primordial beings who created the physical world, the Titans who gave it substance, and the gods who governed it, were they writing works of mythology or history? Why not both?

In ancient Greece, mythology was a way to understand not only the world, nature, and morality, but also a way to record the events of the past. Through metaphor and poetry, the foundations of Greek culture were encoded in mythology and passed from generation to generation. One of the most influential authors to do this was Hesiod, who lived between the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. Hesiod's poems were works of mythology, to be sure. But this doesn't mean they weren't also works of history.

Hesiod was an ancient Greek poet
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Works and Days

There are two major poems definitively attributed to Hesiod, Theogony and Works and Days. Works and Days in particular has been very influential in both how we understand Greek history, and how the Greeks understood their own past. The main moral of the poem is that labor is inevitable, but that the person who accepts their own work is more moral and will be better off. To establish this, Hesiod examines the history of humanity.

The result is something often called the Ages of Man, a division of human history into various stages. Hesiod envisioned five stages, each defined by a different race of humans or human-like beings.

Hesiod's Five Ages of Man

So, where does the story of humanity begin, according to Hesiod? In Works and Days, Hesiod claims that the first race was created all the way back in the era of the Titans. These people were the Golden Race, and thus this era is called the Golden Age.

The Gold Age as imagined in the 16th century
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The people of the Golden Race were beloved by the gods and lived in a pure utopia. They did not have to work or toil, since the world provided for them naturally. They did not age, but lived very long lives and died peacefully in their sleep. They had no war, no pain, no sorrow, and no worries of any kind. When they died, their spirits roamed the earth and later became guardians of humankind.

The Golden Age eventually ended, and a new people were created under the reign of the gods. This was the Silver Race, and their era the Silver Age. The Silver Race was not as moral and noble as the Golden Race. They spent 100 years as children, living at their mothers' sides, then had short adulthoods full of labor, war, and wronging. They refused to sacrifice to the gods, so Zeus ''put them away'', which is a chilling way to say he destroyed them and made them benevolent guardian spirits of the underworld.

Next came the Bronze Age, as Zeus created a new race of people from an ash tree. The people of the Bronze Age loved warfare and worshipped Ares, spending all their time fighting. Significantly, Hesiod notes that these people did not have iron tools. All their weapons, armor, and tools were made of bronze, hence the name of the age. Eventually, they killed each other in their endless battles.

Hesiod identified people of the Bronze Age with their use of bronze weapons and tools
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Up through this point, Hesiod saw each race as inferior to the last. However, the warring people of the Bronze Age were replaced by a new race. Their era is known as the Heroic Age. The people of the Heroic Age were noble, righteous, and good. This is the era, in Hesiod's history, in which the divine social customs and contracts that bind Greek society were cemented. This is also the age of the heroes who fought at Troy, and were recorded in the Iliad and Odyssey. After their age ended, the heroes were taken to live as immortals in a paradise at the ends of the world

Finally, we get to the age in which Hesiod lived, the Iron Age. The Iron Age was an era when people had iron tools and weapons, but it was also defined by immorality. Humans forsook the divine customs and rituals that maintained order and peace, disrespected their parents, and fought against each other. As a result, humans of the Iron Age were doomed to endless toil and labor, and the gods would not protect them from evil.

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