Saturday, December 24, 2011

Hesiod and the Ages of Man

I’ve started reading some of the Greek poets and intend to note a few of them here in the coming weeks. At this point, my source is The Norton Book of Classical Literature, edited by Bernard Knox.

Hesiod and the Muse, by Gustave Moreau, 1826-1898

Approximately one century after Homer, Hesiod was active (ca. 700 BC) as a poet. Hesiod identified himself as a farmer in Boeotia, an area in Central Greece. Bernard Knox introduces selections from Hesiod’s The Works and Days by explaining:

The poem [full text online] is concerned, as no other extant Greek work of literature is, with the work that, until the coming of the Industrial Revolution in the West, has been the hard lot of the majority of humankind – the year-long, backbreaking incessant work of plowing, sowing, and reaping, of threshing, winnowing, and grinding.

Being a child of the rural South, I can relate to this. This "incessant work" of humanity was a way of life for my ancestors, ones that I knew personlly, who had been born in the nineteenth century, and themselves witnessed the arrival (more or less) of the Industrial Revolution upon the rolling hills of the Carolina piedmont.

The following “Pandora" passage of The Works and Days deals with the question: why must man labor so hard when it could have been different? We’re familiar with the treatment of this question in the Old Testament story of Adam and Eve. (The book of Genesis had been written about 700 years prior to Hesiod’s time.) The consequential transgression in this account (the "Fall," so to speak)came when the demigod Prometheus defied Zeus and gave the gift of fire to mankind. An enraged Zeus punished Prometheus and the human race through the instrument of Pandora, the woman who let loose upon the world the evils of work, sickness and old age.

From Richard Lattimore’s translation:

For the gods have hidden and keep hidden
what could be men's livelihood.
It could have been that easily
in one day you could work out
enough to keep you for a year,
with no more working.

Soon you could have hung up your steering oar
in the smoke of the fireplace,
and the work the oxen and patient mules
do would be abolished,
but Zeus in the anger of his heart hid it away
because the devious-minded Prometheus had cheated him;
and therefore Zeus thought up dismal sorrows
for mankind.

He hid fire; but Prometheus, the powerful son
of Iapetos,
stole it again from Zeus of the counsels,
to give to mortals.
He hid it out of the sight of Zeus
who delights in thunder
in the hollow fennel stalk. In anger
the cloud-gatherer spoke to him:
"Son of Iapetos, deviser of crafts beyond all others,
you are happy that you stole the fire,
and outwitted my thinking;
but it will be a great sorrow to you,
and to men who come after.
As the price of fire I will give them an evil,
and all men shall fondle
this, their evil, close to their hearts,
and take delight in it."
So spoke the father of gods and mortals;
and laughed out loud.

He told glorious Hephaistos to make haste, and plaster
earth with water, and to infuse it with a human voice
and vigor, and make the face
like the immortal goddesses,
the bewitching features of a young girl;
meanwhile Athene
was to teach her her skills, and how
to do the intricate weaving,
while Aphrodite was to mist her head
in golden endearment
and the cruelty of desire and longings
that wear out the body,
but to Hermes, the guide, the slayer of Argos,
he gave instructions
to put in her the mind of a hussy,
and a treacherous nature.

So Zeus spoke. And all obeyed Lord Zeus,
the son of Kronos.
The renowned strong smith modeled her figure of earth,
in the likeness
of a decorous young girl, as the son of Kronos
had wished it.
The goddess gray-eyed Athene dressed and arrayed her;
the Graces,
who are goddesses, and hallowed Persuasion
put necklaces
of gold upon her body, while the Seasons,
with glorious tresses,
put upon her head a coronal of spring flowers,
[and Pallas Athene put all decor upon her body].

But into her heart Hermes, the guide,
the slayer of Argos,
put lies, and wheedling words
of falsehood, and a treacherous nature,
made her as Zeus of the deep thunder wished,
and he, the gods' herald,
put a voice inside her, and gave her
the name of woman,
Pandora, because all the gods
who have their homes on Olympos
had given her each a gift, to be a sorrow to men
who eat bread. Now when he had done
with this sheer, impossible
deception, the Father sent the gods' fleet messenger,
to Epimetheus, bringing her, a gift,
nor did Epimetheus
remember to think how Prometheus had told him never
to accept a gift from Olympian Zeus,
but always to send it
back, for fear it might prove
to be an evil for mankind.
He took the evil, and only perceived it
when be possessed her.

Since before this time the races of men
had been living on earth
free from all evils, free from laborious work,
and free from
all wearing sicknesses that bring
their fates down on men
[for men grow old suddenly
in the midst of misfortune];
but the woman, with her hands lifting away the lid
from the great jar,
scattered its contents, and her design
was sad troubles for mankind.

Hope was the only spirit that stayed there
in the unbreakable
closure of the jar, under its rim,
and could not fly forth
abroad, for the lid of the great jar
closed down first and contained her;
this was by the will of cloud-gathering Zeus
of the aegis;
but there are other troubles by thousands
that hover about men,
for the earth is full of evil things,
and the sea is full of them;
there are sicknesses that come to men by day,
while in the night
moving of themselves they haunt us,
bringing sorrow to mortals,
and silently, for Zeus of the counsels
took the voice out of them.

So there is no way to avoid what Zeus has intended.


Later in the poem, Hesiod addresses another universal theme, expounding on the story of the five ages of humanity. Each successive age - from the gold to the silver, to the bronze, and the iron – is worse than the one before. A similar story appears in the Old Testament book of Daniel (likely written shortly after Hesiod’s day) where Nebuchadnessaz, the Babylonian conqueror of Jerusalem, dreams of a figure with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, stomach and thighs of brass, and feet of iron and clay. Daniel the prophet interprets it as a succession of kingdoms, each inferior to its predecessor.

Hesiod, however, inserts one more age just before the iron age, and that is the age of the divine race of heroes who fought at Thebes and Troy. This corresponds to the high point of Mycenean civilization and the events that Homer described in his epic poems, a time of greatness contrasting sharply with the miserable state of Hesiod’s contemporaries:

In the beginning, the immortals
who have their homes on Olympos
created the golden generation of mortal people.
These lived in Kronos' time, when he
was the king in heaven.
They lived as if they were gods,
their hearts free from all sorrow,
by themselves, and without hard work or pain;
no miserable
old age came their way; their hands, their feet,
did not alter.

They took their pleasure in festivals,
and lived without troubles.
When they died, it was as if they fell asleep.
All goods
were theirs. The fruitful grainland
yielded its harvest to them
of its own accord; this was great and abundant,
while they at their pleasure
quietly looked after their works,
in the midst of good things
[prosperous in flocks, on friendly terms
with the blessed immortals].

Now that the earth has gathered over this generation,
these are called pure and blessed spirits;
they live upon earth,
and are good, they watch over mortal men
and defend them from evil;
they keep watch over lawsuits and hard dealings;
they mantle
themselves in dark mist
and wander all over the country;
they bestow wealth; for this right
as of kings was given them.

Next after these the dwellers upon Olympos created
a second generation, of silver, far worse
than the other.
They were not like the golden ones either in shape
or spirit.
A child was a child for a hundred years,
looked after and playing
by his gracious mother, kept at home,
a complete booby.
But when it came time for them to grow up
and gain full measure,
they lived for only a poor short time;
by their own foolishness
they had troubles, for they were not able
to keep away from
reckless crime against each other,
nor would they worship
the gods, nor do sacrifice on the sacred altars
of the blessed ones,
which is the right thing among the customs of men,
and therefore
Zeus, son of Kronos, in anger engulfed them,
for they paid no due
honors to the blessed gods who live on Olympos.

But when the earth had gathered over this generation
also-and they too are called blessed spirits
by men, though under
the ground, and secondary, but still
they have their due worship-
then Zeus the father created the third generation
of mortals,
the age of bronze. They were not like
the generation of silver.

They came from ash spears. They were terrible
and strong, and the ghastly
action of Ares was theirs, and violence.
They ate no bread,
but maintained an indomitable and adamantine spirit.
None could come near them; their strength was big,
and from their shoulders
the arms grew irresistible on their ponderous bodies.

The weapons of these men were bronze,
of bronze their houses,
and they worked as bronzesmiths. There was not yet
any black iron.
Yet even these, destroyed beneath the hands
of each other,
went down into the moldering domain of cold Hades;
nameless; for all they were formidable black death
seized them, and they had to forsake
the shining sunlight.

Now when the earth had gathered over this generation
also, Zeus, son of Kronos, created yet another
fourth generation on the fertile earth,
and these were better and nobler,
the wonderful generation of hero-men, who are also
called half-gods, the generation before our own
on this vast earth.

But of these too, evil war and the terrible carnage
took some; some by seven-gated Thebes
in the land of Kadmos
as they fought together over the flocks of Oidipous;
war had taken in ships over the great gulf
of the sea,
where they also fought for the sake
of lovely-haired Helen.
There, for these, the end of death was misted
about them.

But on others Zeus, son of Kronos, settled a living
and a country
of their own, apart from human kind,
at the end of the world.
And there they have their dwelling place,
and hearts free of sorrow
in the islands of the blessed
by the deep-swirling stream of the ocean,
prospering heroes, on whom in every year
three times over
the fruitful grainland bestows its sweet yield.

These live
far from the immortals, and Kronos
is king among them.
For Zeus, father of gods and mortals,
set him free from his bondage,
although the position and the glory still belong
to the young gods.

After this, Zeus of the wide brows
established yet one more
generation of men, the fifth, to be
on the fertile earth.
And I wish that I were not any part
of the fifth generation
of men, but had died before it came,
or been born afterward.

For here now is the age of iron. Never by daytime
will there be an end to hard work and pain,
nor in the night
to weariness, when the gods will send anxieties
to trouble us.
Yet here also there shall be some good things
mixed with the evils.

But Zeus will destroy this generation of mortals
in the time when children, as they are born,
grow gray on the temples,
when the father no longer agrees with the children,
nor children with their father,
when guest is no longer at one with host,
nor companion to companion,
when your brother is no longer your friend,
as he was in the old days.

Men will deprive their parents of all rights,
as they grow old,
and people will mock them
too, babbling bitter words against them,
harshly, and without shame in the sight of the gods;
not even
to their aging parents will they give back
what once was given.
Strong of hand, one man shall seek
the city of another.

There will be no favor for the man
who keeps his oath, for the righteous
and the good man, rather men shall give their praise
to violence
and the doer of evil. Right will be in the arm.
Shame will
not be. The vile man will crowd his better out,
and attack him
with twisted accusations and swear an oath
to his story.

The spirit of Envy, with grim face
and screaming voice, who delights
in evil, will be the constant companion
of wretched humanity,
and at last Nemesis and Aidos, Decency and Respect,
their bright forms in pale mantles, shall go
from the wide-wayed
earth back on their way to Olympos,
forsaking the whole race
of mortal men, and all that will be left by them
to mankind
will be wretched pain. And there shall be no defense
against evil.

Of note are these paragraphs from the Wikipedia entry on the ages of man describing the uncanny parallels to Hesiod's five ages which have appeared at various times and places:

These mythological ages are sometimes associated with historical timelines. In the chronology of Saint Jerome the Golden Age lasts ca. 1710 to 1674 BC, the Silver Age 1674 to 1628 BC, the Bronze Age 1628 to 1472 BC, the Heroic Age 1460 to 1103 BC, while Hesiod's Iron Age was considered as still ongoing by Saint Jerome in the 4th century AD.

These mythological ages are sometimes associated with historical timelines. In the chronology of Saint Jerome the Golden Age lasts ca. 1710 to 1674 BC, the Silver Age 1674 to 1628 BC, the Bronze Age 1628 to 1472 BC, the Heroic Age 1460 to 1103 BC, while Hesiod's Iron Age was considered as still ongoing by Saint Jerome in the 4th century AD.

The Hindu and Vedic writings also make reference to four ages (Yuga) termed: Satya (Golden), Treta (Silver), Dwapara (Bronze) and Kali (Iron). According to the Laws of Manu these four ages total 4.32 million years. Kali-Yuga lasts for 432,000 years, Dvapara Yuga lasts for 864,000 years, Treta Yuga lasts for 1,296,000 years, and Satya Yuga lasts for 1,728,000 years. These four yugas make up a Maha Yuga, a Catur Yuga, or a Divya Yuga. 1000 Maha Yugas taken together equals one day of Brahma or 4.32 billion years. Brahma’s night is of an equal length which is also 4.32 billion years. Taken together Brahma’s day and night are 8.64 billion years in total. Brahma lives for 36,000 "Brahma days" so his lifespan is equivalent to 311 trillion, 40 billion years. After his death there is an equivalent period of 311 trillion, 40 billion years when the Universe is unmanifest. Then a new Brahma is born and the cycle starts all over again. Taken together the life and the death of Brahma equals 622 trillion, 80 billion years. This equals one cycle out of innumerable cycles in the Vedic Universe.

According to the Brahma Kumaris and Prajapita Brahma Kumaris, there are also five ages or yugas in a single cycle of 5000 years in which the Golden Age, or Satya yuga, is first and lasts for 1250 years. Three of the remaining four; Thretha Yuga (Silver Age), Dwarpar Yuga (Copper Age) and Kali Yuga (Iron Age), also last for 1250 years each. A fifth age of only 100 years exists from Brahma Kumari souls called the Sangum Yuga (Confluence Age or meeting with God) during which time the Iron Age is destroyed and the Golden Age created. Every 5,000 Year cycle repeats identically the same.

[More on the Brahma cycle of time]

For a change of mood and scale, here is one more passage from The Works and Days - on summer (translated by Apostolos Atharassakis):

When the thistle blooms and the chirping cicada
sits on trees and pours down shrill song
from frenziedly quivering wings in the toilsome summer
then goats are fatter than ever and wine is at its best
women’s lust knows no bounds and men are all dried up,
because the dog star parches their heads and knees
and the heat sears their skin. Then, ah then,
I wish you a shady ledge and your choice wine,
bread baked in the dusk and mid-August goat milk
and meat from a free-roving heifer that has never calved—
and from firstling kids. Drink sparkling wine,
sitting in the shade with your appetite sated,
and face Zephyr’s breeze as it blows from mountain peaks.
Pour three measures of water fetched from a clear spring,
One that flows unchecked, and a fourth of wine.

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