Works and Days

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A fragment of a copy of Works and Days, c. 300-200 BCE.

Works and Days is an ancient Greek poem written around 700 BCE and attributed Hesiod. The text uses dactylic hexameter and is framed as a letter written by the author to his younger brother Perses in which the author accuses him of bribing corrupt judges into awarding him their father's estate. Expecting his prodigal brother to squander the estate, the author writes this letter of all the wisdom he has learned throughout his life in hopes his brother will learn from it.

Personal

I read this book on 2020-09-16 in order to better familiarize myself with the earlier works in the wisdom literature genre. There were a couple interesting parts, but I found most of it dull and difficult to read.

Status

The work is in the public domain. I do not own a printed copy, but have read an English translation.

Authorship and Dating

Hesiod is attributed to Works and Days by later Greek authors, but, like most ancient works, there isn't any concrete evidence that he actually wrote the poem. The writing style is similar to the Theogony, a work which bear's Hesiod's name, but the author of Works and Days doesn't name himself. Also, another work which was attributed to Hesiod by ancient authors, Shield of Heracles, is no longer considered to be his work.

As for the text itself, it seems whoever wrote it was an editor not an author. Long listings of wisdom and proverbs usually don't spring from a single writer, but are typically compiled from multiple sources. Also, even ancient commenters recognized that the invocation to the Muses at the onset of the poem is very similar to an older hymn.

I haven't been able to find any information about how the text was dated to 700 BCE, however, since many other ancient authors quote from the work, we know that it is very old.

The oldest surviving fragment is a papyrus dated to the 3rd century BCE. There are various later and more extant manuscripts, with various minor differences in the text.

Content

The letter begins with an invocation to the Muses, then gives a brief synopsis of the stories of Prometheus and Pandora from the Theogony. Then it describes the five ages of man and a parable about a hawk and nightingale. After that, the bulk of the work is a farmer's almanac with instructions on when to sow and reap crops. The poem ends with various proverbs and superstitious beliefs.

Review

Good

  • The generations of men built by the gods of gold, silver, and so forth, is an interesting fanciful story.
  • The description of the road to evil being smooth and short, while the road to goodness being steep and long (286-292) is a nice allusion.
  • I found it interesting how all the measurements of time are based on the position of stars, equinoxes and solstices, and the appearance of animals and plants. It's eye-opening to think of what the world was like before a useful calendar system was devised.

Bad

  • The fable about the nightingale and the hawk has a terrible moral suggesting that weaker people shouldn't even attempt to fight against the atrocities of the strong (202-211).
  • One of the pieces of "wisdom" given is that good people will only have good things happen to them, while bad people will not only be punished, but Zeus will punish everyone living near them (225-247). This not only implies that anyone who has anything bad happen to them must deserve it, and applauds guilt by association, it also completely ignores the problem of evil. Although, since the Greeks didn't really see Zeus as all that good, I guess they didn't need to address it.
  • Much of the text is instructions for how to keep a farm and when sailing is safe. While this is certainly necessary information, it doesn't make for exciting reading.
  • There are a lot of strangely specific superstitions listed. For example:
    • You should not give an offering to Zeus of sparkling wine, after dawn, with unwashed hands.
    • Don't pee while facing the sun.
    • Don't have sex after returning from a burial.
    • Don't cross rivers on foot unless you first wash your hands in them.
    • Never put the ladle on top of a mixing bowl at a wine party.

Ugly

  • The work is very anti-humanist:
    • By teaching people that the gods made them faulty, it takes away much of the responsibility people have to become better.
    • Likewise, the teaching that the gods will punish those who do evil makes people less likely to setup and enforce their own system of justice.
    • There are all sorts of passages about buying and keeping slaves, but none saying it's wrong to own other human beings.
  • The work is extremely sexist:
    • Pandora is made into a perfect woman by the gods because she is given lies, crafty words, and a deceitful nature (69-82).
    • One of the proverbs reads, "The man who trusts women trust deceivers" (373-375).
    • The author advises men in their 30s to marry a much younger wife so they can train them properly (695-705).
    • Men are told not to wash in any water that a woman has already washed in because the women will have contaminated it with their mischief (750-759).

Links

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