The Greek Epic Poet Hesiod

Stone bust of Hesiod against red background.
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Hesiod and Homer both composed important, famous epic poems. The two are also called the first great writers of Greek literature, having written during Greece's Archaic Age. Beyond the act of writing, they are central to the history of ancient Greece because the "father of history," Herodotus, (Book II) credits them with giving the Greeks their gods:

"For Hesiod and Homer I suppose were four hundred years before my time and not more, and these are they who made a theogony for the Hellenes and gave the titles to the gods and distributed to them honours and arts, and set forth their forms: but the poets who are said to have been before these men were really in my opinion after them. Of these things the first are said by the priestesses of Dodona, and the latter things, those namely which have regard to Hesiod and Homer, by myself."

We also credit Hesiod with giving us didactic (instructive and moralizing) poetry.

Hesiod likely lived around 700 B.C., shortly after Homer, in a Boeotian village called Ascra. This is one of the few details of his life that Hesiod reveals in his writing.

Career and Works

Hesiod worked as a shepherd in the mountains, as a youth, and then, as a small peasant on a hard land when his father died. While tending his flock on Mt. Helicon, the Muses appeared to Hesiod in a mist. This mystical experience impelled Hesiod to write epic poetry.

Hesiod's major works are Theogony and Works and Days. Shield of Herakles, a variation on the Shield of Achilles theme from the Iliad, is attributed to Hesiod but was probably not actually written by him.

Hesiod's "Theogony" on the Greek Gods

The Theogony is particularly important as an (often confusing) account of the evolution of the Greek gods. Hesiod tells us that in the beginning was Chaos, a yawning chasm. Later Eros developed on its own. These figures were powers rather than anthropomorphic deities like Zeus (who wins and becomes king of the gods in the 3rd generation struggle against his father).

Hesiod's "Works and Days"

The occasion of Hesiod's writing of the Works and Days is a dispute between Hesiod and his brother Perses over the distribution of his father's land:

"Perses, lay up these things in your heart, and do not let that Strife who delights in mischief hold your heart back from work, while you peep and peer and listen to the wrangles of the court-house. Little concern has he with quarrels and courts who has not a year's victuals laid up betimes, even that which the earth bears, Demeter's grain. When you have got plenty of that, you can raise disputes and strive to get another's goods. But you shall have no second chance to deal so again: nay, let us settle our dispute here with true judgement divided our inheritance, but you seized the greater share and carried it off, greatly swelling the glory of our bribe-swallowing lords who love to judge such a cause as this. Fools! They know not how much more the half is than the whole, nor what great advantage there is in mallow and asphodel."

Works and Days is filled with moral precepts, myths, and fables (making it a didactic poem) for which reason, rather than its literary merit, it was highly valued by the ancients. It is a source for the Ages of Man.

Hesiod's Death

After Hesiod lost a lawsuit to his brother Perses, he left his homeland and moved to Naupactus. According to the legend about his death, he was murdered by the sons of his host in Oeneon. At the command of the Delphic Oracle Hesiod's bones were brought to Orchomenus where a monument to Hesiod was erected in the marketplace.

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Gill, N.S. "The Greek Epic Poet Hesiod." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). The Greek Epic Poet Hesiod. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Greek Epic Poet Hesiod." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).