Hesiod's Five Ages of Man

The Golden Age, the Age of Heroes, and the Decadence of Today

Statue Of Zeus
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The Greek Five Ages of Man came from an 8th century BCE poem written by a shepherd named Hesiod, who along with Homer became one of the earliest of Greek epic poets. He likely based his work on an unidentified older legend, possibly from Mesopotamia or Egypt.

An Epic Inspiration

Hesiod was a farmer from the Boeotian region of Greece who was out tending his sheep one day when he met the Nine Greek Muses.

The Nine Muses were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (Memory), divine beings who inspired creators of all kinds, including poets, speakers, and artists. By convention, the Muses were always invoked at the beginning of an epic poem.

On this day, the Muses inspired Hesiod to write the 800-line epic poem called Works and Days. In it, Hesiod tells a Greek creation story that traces the lineage of mankind through five successive "ages" or "races" including the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, the Heroic Age, and the present (to Hesiod) Iron Age.

The Golden Age

The Golden Age was the mythical first period of man. The people of the Golden Age were formed by or for the Titan Cronus, whom the Romans called Saturn. Mortals lived like gods, never knowing sorrow or toil; when they died, it as if they were falling asleep. No one worked or grew unhappy. Spring never ended. It is even described as a period in which people aged backward.

When they died, they became daimones (a Greek word only later converted to "demons") who roamed the earth. When Zeus overcame the Titans, the Golden Age ended.

According to Pindar, to the Greek mind gold has an allegorical significance, meaning the radiance of light, good fortune, blessedness, and all the fairest and the best.

In Babylonia, gold was the metal of the sun.

Silver and Bronze Ages

During Hesiod's Silver Age, the Olympian god Zeus was in charge. Zeus caused this generation of man to be created inferior in appearance and wisdom to the last. He divided the year into four seasons. Man had to plant grain and seek shelter, but still, a child could play for 100 years before growing up. The people wouldn't honor the gods, so Zeus caused them to be destroyed. When they died, they became "blessed spirits of the underworld." In Mesopotamia, silver was the metal of the moon. Silver is softer with a dimmer luster than gold.

Hesiod's Third Age was of bronze. Zeus created men from ash trees—a hard wood used in spears. The men of the Bronze Age (which probably includes copper) were terrible and strong and warlike. Their armor and houses were made of bronze; they did not eat bread, living mainly on meat. In Greek and older myths, bronze was connected to weapons, war, and warfare, and their armor and houses were made of bronze. It was this generation of men that was destroyed by the flood in the days of Prometheus' son Deucalion and Pyrrha. When the bronze men died, they went to the Underworld. Copper (chalkos) is the metal of Ishtar in Babylon.

The Age of Heroes and the Iron Age

For the fourth age, Hesiod dropped the metallurgical metaphor and instead called it the Age of Heroes. The Age of Heroes was a historical period to Hesiod, referring to the Mycenaean age and the stories told by Hesiod's fellow poet Homer. The Age of Heroes was a better and more just time when the men called Henitheoi were demigods, strong, brave, and heroic. many were destroyed by the great wars of Greek legend. After death, some went to the Underworld; others to the Islands of the Blessed ones.

The fifth age was the Iron Age, Hesiod's name for his own time, and in it, all modern men were created by Zeus as evil and selfish, burdened with weariness and sorrow. All manner of evils came into being during this age. Piety and other virtues disappeared and most of the gods who were left on Earth abandoned it.

Hesiod predicted that Zeus would destroy this race some day. Iron is the hardest metal and the most troublesome to work.

Hesiod's Message

The Five Ages of Man is a long passage of continuous degeneration, tracing the lives of men as descending from a state of primitive innocence to evil, with a single exception for the Age of Heroes. Some scholars have noted that Hesiod wove the mythic and the realistic together, creating a blended story based on an ancient tale that could be referenced and learned from.

Sources:

  • Ganz T. 1996. Early Greek Myth. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore.
  • Griffiths JG. 1956. Archaeology and Hesiod's Five Ages. Journal of the History of Ideas 17(1):109-119.
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Gill, N.S. "Hesiod's Five Ages of Man." ThoughtCo, Sep. 18, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-five-ages-of-man-111776. Gill, N.S. (2017, September 18). Hesiod's Five Ages of Man. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-five-ages-of-man-111776 Gill, N.S. "Hesiod's Five Ages of Man." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-five-ages-of-man-111776 (accessed November 21, 2017).