Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Book 171, Greece: "Theogony" and "Works and Days" by Hesiod

It's so weird that you can spend your entire childhood and adult life surrounded by references to Greek mythology—from Roger Lancelyn Green's Puffin Classics to Disney's Hercules to references in Plato's Republic in college to hate-watching Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief—and never actually end up reading the source texts those myths are from.

This is one of those source texts. Hesiod's been dated to around 750 and 650 BCE, the same time as Homer; an era before the Parthenon and Socrates and Aristotle and Euripides and Alexander; just around the time folks began figuring out how to write things down. It's Archaic Greece, before even the Ancient Greece we all know, the Classical Age. There's a wonderful little intro to this edition by ML West that explains that the closest parallels to these poems we've got are from Sumer and Babylon and Egypt and Israel and India: testimony to the fact that Greece of that time was absorbing influence from the East.

Which was something I noticed when I was wandering around the museums of Greece in 2014: though Westerners may use Greek civilisation as evidence for European superiority, actual archaeologists in Greece have no problem admitting that many features of their culture were borrowed from beyond the bounds of Europe. Hell, the very alphabet they were using was based on Phoenician.


Anyway, the poems themselves—I was rather surprised to see that they weren't longer, given their legendary status. Yes, this is a prose translation, with only occasional breaks in the verse, but it comes up to just 61 pages without footnotes. Nothing like the Iliad or the Odyssey or even the collected Homeric Hymns.

Also strange is the fact that they're quite personal. While all we know about Homer is that he was a blind man (and that's from legend; we can't even be sure if the same guy wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey), here Hesiod inserts biographical information. In "Theogony", he describes how the Muses "taught him fine singing" as he tended lambs on Mount Helicon; in Works and Days he spends an inordinate amount of time scolding his brother Perses for having claimed a disproportionate amount of the family lands and then having promptly squandered it away through laziness and also consorting with corrupt officials (though wouldn't this have increased the family fortune?). He also happens to mention that he's taken a boat to Crete before. Turns out petty first-person voices found their way into even ancient literature—which we should be grateful for, since it gives us a tiny bit of insight into how folks of that era lived and thought.

"Theogony" itself is the tale of the origins of the Greek gods—a Greek Kojiki, if you will—and it's got the classic tale of how Kronos was born out from Uranus and Gaia (who're called simply "Chasm" and "Earth" here) and how Kronos castrated his dad and swallowed his ten children, except for Zeus, who was rescued by his mother Rhea and replaced with a rock, and how Zeus eventually overthrew the old gods and banished them as Titans. Here also is the tale of how Prometheus stole the fire from the gods and was damned to have an eagle eat his regenerating liver; also how the gods cursed mankind by giving Epimetheus the first woman, Pandora. (The story of the box is in "Works and Days", though. Surprisingly, the translator says it was probably a jug—an amphora.)

Reading the tales in their original form, it's shocking to realise how mediated my experience of it has been—influenced by the genre of the naturalistic novel and short story and TV and film and theatre, so that every moment of the drama is played out with its full horror and consequence. But this is parataxis, not hypotaxis—the events are reeled off quite matter-of-factly, without psychological insight. And why should there be humanity? We're speaking of gods and Titans, after all, not humans.

Most of the poem is a series of begats describing which god or Titan or nymph or monster or winged beast came from where, though. Biblical begats. And Cerberus is described as having fifty heads and a voice of bronze. Why didn't that become canonical?

"Works and Days" is weirder still: it's mostly a list about farming and household chores according to the seasons. Superstitions, too—we're told to "never place the jug about the mixing-bowl when men are drinking; a dire fate is attached to that". Also, "Do not from the fivebranched, at the prosperous feast shared with the gods, cut the sere from the green with gleaming iron," which basically means don't trim your nails. Reminds you of Leviticus, no?

Interestingly, we've got the myth of the ages of Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron here—an echo of the Jain story of how human generations have degenerated—and our translator suggests that the men of the Age of Silver were regarded with reverence because they were seen as the creators of ancient tombs. Every generation reveres its own ancients, no? And we of the Age of Information honour these self-hating men of the Age of Iron.

But I don't revere Hesiod completely, because damn, this guy is misogynistic. It's not just the bits about Pandora—it's also the way he talks about wives and chattel women. Women are mere tools here, not to loved or respected as human beings. Not to be the audiences of this poem, apparently.

Ah well. I suppose I could close with something elevated and divine from the "Theogony", but there's such weird stuff in "Works and Days" that I've gotta quote that instead. Let us not hold our forebears in too high regard. Let us be better than them.

(From My Maps!)

Representative quote: Do not urinate standing towards the sun; and after sunset and until sunrise, bear in mind, do not urinate either on the road or off the road walking, nor uncovered: the nights belong to the blessed ones. The godly man of sound sense does it squatting, or going to the wall of the courtyard enclosure. And when your private parts are stained with semen indoors, do not let them be seen as you go near the hearth-fire, but avoid it.

Next book: Ismail Kadare's The General of the Dead Army, from Albania.

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