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Who is Hesiod? - Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Greek mythology was largely oral, so how do we know about it? In this lesson, we are going to learn about Hesiod and see what role he played in preserving and passing on Greek mythology.

Hesiod

The ancient Greeks were a very religious people, constantly trying to please the gods and invoke their wisdom, guidance, and protection. They had to; in Greek religion the gods get pretty upset if you weren't actively worshiping them. But here's what's interesting: if they were such a religious society, what was their holy book?

The Greek religion differs from many religions in its lack of a standardized religious text. Instead, Greek myths and religious rituals were passed down orally. This is likely because the Greek religion developed before the Greek alphabet, so it was a pre-literate tradition. Eventually, however, a few Greek poets started compiling the numerous stories into collections of epic poems. One of the first was Hesiod.

This bust may represent Hesiod.
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Life of Hesiod

Hesiod was one of the most influential of the Greek poets, but to be frank, we know extremely little about Hesiod. He seems to have been active around 700 BCE, so was still living in a world where the Greek written language was not widespread (our oldest examples of the Greek alphabet date to roughly 750 BCE). This would make Hesiod a rough contemporary of Homer, the other foundational figure in Greek poetry and mythology.

Hesiod lived in Boeotia, a region in southern Greece where Thebes is located. It was said that his father came from Aeolis (on the coast of Anatolia) but sailed west to Greece. It seems pretty evident that Hesiod and his family were pastoralists, and in fact Hesiod described himself as a shepherd. It was through this occupation that Hesiod would become one of Western civilization's first great poets.

Hesiod lived near the base of Mount Helicon, where the Muses (goddesses of inspiration) were said to reside. Then one day, Hesiod became inspired. As Hesiod described in his poem Theogony,

And one day they taught Hesiod glorious song while he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon, and this word the goddesses said to me -- the Muses of Olympus, Daughters of Zeus who hold the aegis:

`Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things.'

So said the ready-voiced daughters of great Zeus, and they plucked and gave me a rod, a shoot of sturdy laurel, a marvelous thing, and breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things there were aforetime; and they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternally, but ever to sing of themselves both first and last.

Hesiod claimed to have been inspired by the Muses of Mount Helicon
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So, that's how it happened. It's important to remember that in Greek society, inspiration was seen as a semi-divine phenomenon. Hesiod likely would have believed that the goddesses were speaking through him. His fellow citizens of ancient Greece would have seen his sudden outpouring of poetic genius in the same way.

Style and Themes

So how do we begin to understand Hesiod's works? His poems are considered to be epic, not because of their length, but because they are based in oral tradition and set to a specific meter. They deal largely with mythology, recording the stories of the Greek gods and goddesses, but also with other matters. Hesiod wrote on economics, agriculture, and social norms, providing advice. In this sense, his poems are the oldest instructional (or didactic) texts in Greek literature. For this reason, some historians see Hesiod as the first economist and agricultural scientist.

Hesiod's style is clearly based in the oral and pastoralist traditions of ancient Greece, and as a result his writings are down-to-earth, pragmatic, and accessible. It's very likely they were originally composed in a way that would make them easy to memorize and sing or recite. Remember, this is a society where literacy was very new, so people would have heard or sung Hesiod's poems rather than read them. So, it's more accurate to understand Hesiod's poems as hymns than written works.

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