How to Live According to Hesiod

I finished reading Hesiod’s long poem The Works and Days. After the long retelling of the ages of the earth from the Golden Age to the present, after retelling about how Prometheus stole fire and how Pandora was created and evil let loose into the world, the poem turns out to be about how one should go about living. The assumption is that if you work hard, follow the precepts outlined in the poem, and make the proper sacrifices and prayers, Zeus will bless you and make you successful. Yeah, right. Anyone who has been paying attention will know that Zeus is fickle even if you have prayed and sacrificed. Sometimes Zeus will accept your prayers and then disregard them. He did it to Agamemnon in The Iliad, why wouldn’t he do it to the average Joe too?

Still, I suppose you don’t want to totally piss off the gods. They have tempers, hold grudges and have long memories. So Hesiod, writing to Perses, explains “the law as Zeus established it/ for human beings.” One should keep to the side of justice because “she in the end/ is proved the best thing” and Zeus might grant you prosperity. One should not steal because

If any man by force of hands wins him
a great fortune,
or steals it by the cleverness of his tongue,
as so often
happens among people when the intelligence
is blinded
by greed, a man’s shameless spirit tramples
his sense of honor;
lightly the gods wipe out that man, and diminish
the household
of such a one, and his wealth stays with him
for only a short time.

One should also be generous and not greedy. But most of all, a man should watch out for women:

Do not let sweet-talking women beguile
your good sense
with the fascinations of her shape. It’s your barn
she’s after.
Anyone who will trust a woman is trusting flatterers.

Ah yes, look out, what every woman wants is a big barn. She’ll even roll in the prickly hay with you to get it. Once she has it then, wham! You’re out on the street, staying at the Y and hanging around the communal baths.

At one point Hesiod really made me laugh. He tells Perses that it’s best not to go to sea, but if he has to, then there are certain times of the year that are better than others. But the thing is, Hesiod has never sailed anywhere:

I will show you the measures
of the much-thundering sea, I
who am not one who has much knowledge of ships
and sea voyages;
for I never did sail in a ship across the wide water

But yet he goes on to tell which way the wind blows and all kinds of other details. I’m not sure how he’s come by his information. Maybe a beguiling woman stole his barn and he’s been hanging out around the docks.

The Works and Days is an easy to read poem and makes for an interesting contrast to Homer. I’m glad I read it. I have another Hesiod poem to read now, Theogony. It’s a a couple hundred lines longer than Works and Days and I have no idea what it’s about–yet.

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