This week we shall conclude our study of creation stories and their formative function in how different cultures understand the “task” of humans in relationship to both Creator(s) and Creation by reading Hesiod’s Works and Days. Notice that I have used the very neutral terms “story” and “task” rather than “myth” or “scripture” for the first and either “work” “job” “labor” for the second. We will return to all these terms on Tuesday.
The reading is very short this week, but rather dense. I strongly encourage you to read it twice. On Monday we shall focus on pp. 19-21 and 37-43; leaving 43-61to Thursday. Please note that the text I ordered has useful endnotes that explain unusual vocabulary and references at the very end of the book, do refer to them, although they are not marked on the page.
A little background is in order. Hesiod is believed to have been contemporary of Homer, and like him, he was a singing poet and composer. Hesiod is credited with a creation epic-narrative, the Theogony or birth of gods. We shall read *only pp. 19-21* from that story which details the creation of Pandora. The text that shall concern us in greater detail is instead the strange (for us) but lovely Works and Days. If Theogony resonates as a creation myth, told to reassure a people of its beginnings and of the ways of the world (as Armstrong says of Genesis), Works and Days is a cross between an almanac (a how-to guide for surviving and prospering in the last third of the 8th century BCE) and a series of stories meant as examples to teach the listeners about the proper way of behaving in the world. Works and Days does not have a plot, but it does have central themes. In the prologue (pp 37-first half of 38) Hesiod addresses his main concern: his misguided brother Perses. The poem we read (in the original Greek it was in verse) will be an attempt to guide him towards a path of righteous profit rather than deceitful earnings and waste.
As you read, I invite you to focus your attention on the way Hesiod chooses to begin his work: Where does he get his authority from? Does this surprise you? What is the link between the invocation (paragraph 1) and the second paragraph where we are told that there are two forms of “Strife”? (Look up the word in a good dictionary to see whether the two meanings have remained in English). How does framing the tales we are about to read under the guidance of Strife help us make sense of the first story we read: Prometheus taking fire from Zeus and “the cloud gatherer’s” subsequent response? Pay close attention to this, the earliest articulation of the story of Pandora, and identify any surprises for you in relation to other versions of the myth you may have read. Immediately afterwards, we get yet another story of creation, well, actually, of multiple creations each less illustrious than the previous. How does the account of the five races of men associated with metals compare with Hygynius’ fable of Cura or with the Popol Vuh? Why do myths of origin often include stories of failure, defects, or a fall?
Finally, I am very curious to see what you make of the little fable of the hawk and the nightingale. This has puzzled me every time since I first encountered the story well before you were born!
The book is Hesiod. The title is Theogony and Works and Days by M.L. West. Oxford World’s Classics
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