The Individual and the Struggle of the Olympian Order: An Analysis of Hesiod’s Work

The Individual and the Struggle of the Olympian Order: An Analysis of Hesiod’s Work

“I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / and what I assume you shall assume, / for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”–Walt Whitman, Song of Myself.

1. The Call of Hesiod

Our knowledge of ancient Greek theology is, to a large extent, mediated by the mind of Hesiod, the eighth century Boeotian poet and philosopher. Indeed, the later historian Herodotus even credits Homer and Hesiod with jointly creating Greek theology. Contrasting the relative novelty of Greek religion with the antiquity of that of the Egyptians, Herodotus attests that:

“However, it was only yesterday or the day before, so to speak, that the Greeks came to know the provenance of each of the gods, and whether they have all existed for ever, and what they each look like. After all, I think that Hesiod and Homer lived no more than four hundred years before my time, and they were the ones who created the gods’ family trees for the Greek world, gave them their names, assigned them their honors and areas of expertise, and told us what they looked like” (Herodotus, Histories, trans. Waterfield, II.53).

In other words, according to Herodotus, Homer and Hesiod created Greek religion through their poetry. Their writings acquaint us with the uniquely Greek conception of the nature of the gods, their genealogies, names, honors, attributes, and appearance. And Hesiod’s importance appears to have only grown with time, his poems the Theogony and the Works and Days constituting some of our oldest and best remaining sources for understanding Greek mythology.

And, not only is our knowledge of Greek theology mediated by Hesiod’s poetry, but, crucially, it is also shaped by his personality. Hesiod is the first person in the Western literary tradition to have called attention to himself as an individual. Or, as the classicist Werner Jaeger put it, “Hesiod is the first Greek poet to speak to the men of his own time in his own person” (Jaeger, Paideia Vol 1., 75). In contrast to Homer and the authors of the Homeric hymns who were content to remain anonymous so as to focus exclusively on the content their poetry, Hesiod audaciously inserts himself into his songs. For example, at the outset of the Theogony, he names himself and recounts his own miraculous encounter with the Muses (22). And, in the Works and Days, he narrates the biographical details of his life—that his brother Perses is a scoundrel attempting to defraud him of his rightful inheritance (27-41), that his father was a sailor who, fleeing poverty, came to settle “in a wretched village, Ascra, evil in winter, distressful in summer, not ever fine “(Trans. Most, 633-640), and that he himself once sailed from Aulis to Chalcis where he took part in a poetic competition and won a tripod (650-652).

This upsurge of poetic individuality in Hesiod’s work appears to be the result of the confluence of two factors: Hesiod’s own wretched life, and his encounter with a numinous reality which revealed to him another mode of being. Hesiod lived the hard life of a Boeotian peasant and experienced all of the difficulties attendant upon it. His familiarity with suffering comes through in his account of the toil of agricultural life in a barren and inhospitable land and of the ever present threat of hunger and exposure to the elements. So, for example, he depicts the brutal winter seasons in Ascra as follows:

“The month of Lenaion, evil days, ox-flayers all of them—avoid it, and the frosts that are deadly upon the earth when Boreas blows, which stirs up the broad sea through horse-raising Thrace when it blows upon it, and the earth and the forest bellow. It falls upon many lofty leafed oaks and sturdy firs in the mountain’s dales and bends them down to the bounteous earth, and the whole immense forest groans aloud. The wild animals shiver and stick their tails under their genitals, even those whose skin is shadowed by fur; but, chilly as it is, it blows through them although their breasts are shaggy, and it goes through the hide of an ox, and this does not stop it, and it blows through the long-haired goat….And that is when the forest dwellers, horned and hornless alike, gnash their teeth miserably and flee through the wooded thickets, caring in their spirit only for searching for shelter and finding sturdy hiding-places down in the hollow of a stone; that is when they avoid the white snow and stalk about like a three-footed mortal whose back is broken and whose head looks down to the ground.” (Works and Days, 504-535).

One here gets the sense that Hesiod had first-hand knowledge of what it was like to live through such body breaking winters.

Hesiod’s life was one of struggle and hardship, fighting the elements to attain a meager subsistence from the recalcitrant soil. Yet, Hesiod’s life changed suddenly when he encountered the Muses upon Mount Helicon and was gifted with poetry. He describes this epiphany at the very outset of the Theogony:

“Let us begin to sing from the Heliconian Muses, who posses the great and holy mountain of Helicon and dance on their soft feet around the violet-dark fountain and the altar of Cronus’ mighty son. And after they have washed their tender skin in Permessus or Hippocrene or holy Olmeius, they perform choral dances on highest Helicon, beautiful, lovely ones, and move nimbly with their feet. Starting out from there, shrouded in thick invisibility, by night they walk, sending forth their very beautiful voice, singing of aegis-holding Zeus….

One time, they taught Hesiod beautiful song while he was pasturing lambs under holy Helicon. And this speech the goddesses spoke first of all to me, the Olympian Muses, the daughters of aegis-holding Zeus: ‘Field-dwelling shepherds, ignoble disgraces, mere bellies: we know how to say many false things similar to genuine ones, but we know, when we wish, how to proclaim true things.’ So spoke great Zeus’ ready-speaking daughters, and they plucked a staff, a branch of luxuriant laurel, a marvel, and gave it to me; and they breathed a divine voice into me, so that I might glorify what will be and what was before, and they commanded me to sing of the race of the blessed ones who always are, but always to sing of themselves first and last.” (Theogony, 1-34).

Here, Hesiod is confronted by a reality that shatters his previous identity and way of life. Called out of his life of “ignoble disgrace” where he lived as a “mere belly”, no different in kind from the sheep he tended, Hesiod is transposed into the presence of the the Muses and the higher reality in which they reside. And these Muses transmute him at the very core of his being, breathing into him their divine song and bestowing on him a laurel staff as an emblem of his newfound authority. They charge him to sing of them and their world, to recount the distant past, to prophesy the future, and to announce the gods who always are. No longer a mere belly, Hesiod is enculturated through his encounter with the numinous.

This divine encounter so changes him that he now has the courage and authority to stand up even to kings and rebuke them for their injustice, taking on a role not unlike that the Old Testament prophets, when he rebukes unjust rulers as “gift-eaters” and “fools” (Works and Days, 39-40). Whereas from a merely physical perspective, kings, through their henchmen, can do whatever they want to poets or prophets regardless of the beauty or power of their words, just as a hawk can carry off a nightingale despite the loveliness of its song (Works and Days, 202-212), from his newfound spiritual perspective, Hesiod can declare that, “this is the law that Cronus’ son has established for human beings: that fish and beasts and winged birds eat one another, since Justice is not among them; but to human beings he has given Justice, which is the best by far” (Works and Days, 276-280). By taking up a stance anchored firmly in the world of the Olympians, Hesiod can call even kings to account. Again, mirroring the tone of an Old Testament prophet, he declares:

“As for you kings, too, ponder this justice yourselves. For among human beings there are immortals nearby, who take notice of all those who grind one another down with crooked judgments and have no care for the gods’ retribution. Thrice ten thousand are Zeus’ immortal guardians of mortal human beings upon the bounteous earth, and they watch over judgments and cruel deeds, clad in invisibility walking everywhere upon the earth. There is a maiden, Justice, born of Zeus, celebrated and revered by the gods who dwell on Olympus, and whenever someone harms her by crookedly scorning her, she sits down at once beside her father Zeus, Cronus’ son, and proclaims the unjust mind of human beings, so that he will take vengeance upon the people for the wickedness of their kings, who think baneful thoughts and bend judgments to one side by pronouncing them crookedly. Bear this in mind, kings, and straighten your discourses, you gift-eaters, and put crooked judgments quite out of your minds” (Works and Days, 248-264).

Hesiod’s poetic individuality thus stands at the intersection of his own wretched biography and a higher non-ordinary reality, one which calls him to a better way of life and a loftier version of himself. And Hesiod’s testimony concerning his encounter with, and transformation by, this transcendent spiritual reality thus places him firmly in a line of continuity with other religious seers. For example, when Hesiod describes the sounds that attend the path by which the Muses ascend to Mount Olympus, one can see parallels to the ancient shaman’s claim that he rides his drum to the spirit world or to the modern experiencer’s claim that he hears a particular tone before being taken aboard an otherworldly craft. Hesiod describes the ascent of the Muses as follows:

“They went towards Olympus at that time, exulting in their beautiful voice, with a deathless song; and around them the black earth resounded as they sang, and from under their feet a lovely din rose up as they traveled to their father” (Theogony, 68-71).

And, similarly, we can see Hesiod’s transformation mirrored in the latter Christian concept of repentance. The word used for repentance in the New Testament is metanoia, derived from meta (after) and noeo (to think, apprehend, perceive), and so, in its primordial sense, it means to change one’s mind. When Hesiod thus calls on men to change their ways in light of the higher reality he has experienced, he makes a claim structurally similar to Jesus’ later call to “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17).

And, like other mystics who have encountered the numinous and used that experience to deliver a message to their age, Hesiod is caught in the paradox of having to use his own language, culture, and experience to articulate the new reality that has called him out of his old way of life. How does one express this new realm of the wholly other in the language and categories of one’s old worldview? How can one articulate the holy using the images and concepts derived from profane reality? This tension pervades Hesiod’s work. For, while he attempts to sketch an ideal Olympian order to rouse us out of our lethargy and work for a more just world, that ideal order nonetheless bears the imprint of Hesiod’s own unique suffering and the anxieties of ancient peasant life. As Werner Jaeger observes:

“Hesiod’s instinctive choice of myths reflects the peculiar outlook of the peasant. He obviously prefers those which express the peasant’s realistic and pessimistic view of life, or describe the cause of the social difficulties which oppress him. Such are the tale of Prometheus, in which he finds the solution to the problem of the trouble and toil of human life; the description of the five ages of the world, which explains the vast difference between the peasant’s existence and the brilliant life of the Homeric world, and reflects man’s perpetual nostalgia for a better world; and the myth of Pandora, which expresses the sour prosaic belief (unknown to the world of Homeric chivalry) that woman is the root of all evil” (Jaeger, Paideia Vol. 1, 60).

In short, not only does Hesiod’s encounter with the numinous call forth his new poetic individuality, but that individuality also shapes the mythology through which that higher reality will be subsequently communicated. And, in Hesiod’s case, this resulting mythology is tinged with his own unique world weary pessimism. Hesiod has been given the task of praising the Olympian order established by Zeus. And, because of his own personal experience of trying to eke out a subsistence from a grudging land, Hesiod conceives of this order as something that can be attained only through intense struggle. For Hesiod, order must be imposed, through careful planning and ceaseless effort, upon a primordial state of disorder. Order, for Hesiod, is not a natural state of Being, but can be attained only by a combination of tireless cunning and brute force. This pessimistic account of the Olympian order, and of order in general, can be seen both in the theological view articulated in the Theogony, and in the ethical view articulated in the Works and Days. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

2. The Olympian Order and the Struggle for Succession.

The title of the poem Theogony suggests that it concerns the begetting of the gods, or how the gods came to be. And this is, indeed, a central concern of the poem (104-115). Yet, this general theme is investigated to in order to make a more specific point: to uplift and justify the current Olympian order upheld by Zeus. Hesiod announces this explicitly at the outset of the poem when he declares that the Muses, through him, will “sing of Zeus, the father of gods and men, how much he is the best of the gods and the greatest in supremacy.” (47-49). They will tell of how Zeus achieved supremacy by defeating his father Cronus and distributing the honors among the gods (78-74). To attain such supremacy, Zeus must overcome a struggle for succession, a fundamental antagonism between fathers and sons that appears to be as old as the universe itself.

a. The Originary Quaternity

Hesiod’s account of the creation of the cosmos and its gods begins with four originary entities: Chaos, Gaia, Tartarus, and Eros. Hesiod describes the initial state of the universe as follows:

“In truth, first of all Chasm came to be, and then broad-breasted Earth, the ever immovable seat of all immortals who possess snowy Olympus’ peak and murky Tartarus in the depths of the broad-pathed earth, and Eros, who is the most beautiful among the immortal gods, the limb-melter—he overpowers the mind and the thoughtful counsel of all the gods and of all human beings in their breasts” (116-122).

Though to contemporary minds, Chaos suggests variety of elements confusedly jumbled together, in Hesiod’s day it likely meant emptiness. Chaos was a void or gap, and some translations, such as the one used here, even refer to it as “Chasm”. So, the first principle, then, is a principle of emptiness, the void prior to determinate existence. We could compare it to the primordial principle of Wuji in Taoist cosmology, or the later presocratic account of the apeiron (unlimited) articulated by Anaxemander. In contrast, Gaia, the second fundamental principle of Hesiod’s cosmology, which simply means “Earth”, is determinate. Described as something solid and nurturing, she is “broad breasted” and will come to constitute the “immovable seat” of the Olympian gods. The third principle, Tartaros, the Netherworld, is described as murky and hidden within the innermost parts of the earth. While still determinate like Gaia, the mode of its existence is harder to describe, since it is a world hidden from our view, a world that eventually to be populated by the ancestors and the elder gods. Thus, it appears that, for Hesiod, our physical reality has always had two aspects to it, the solid physical matter that we experience, and also a non-ordinary reality hidden within it that we can usually perceive only murkily. Hesiod’s fourth and final originary principle is Eros, or Love, whom Hesiod describes as the most beautiful of all the gods, but also as a dangerous and disordering force. He is described as melting the limbs and overcoming the powers of mind for both gods and humans alike. In this manner, Eros appears to be closely associated with what we in the contemporary world would think of as chaos, a force of disorder.1

These fundamental forces then begin to produce other entities. Chaos, by itself, gives birth to Erebos (the darkness of the underworld) and Night, and these two themselves mate, resulting in the of birth Aether and Day by Night. A second, alternative line of generation comes from Gaia. She gives birth parthogenically to Uranus, meaning Sky, “equal to herself, to cover her on every side, so the she would be the ever immovable set for the blessed gods” (126-129). Here the idea seems to be that for Gaia to actually differentiate herself into something that could be the abode of the later gods, she needs a counterpart equal to, yet distinct from, her. Earth can be a stable support below, only in contrast to something else of an equally determinate, yet different nature, in this case, the Sky above. And after giving birth to Uranus, she gives birth to the Mountains and Pontus, the Sea, in the same manner.

Gaia then mates with her son Uranus and gives birth to the deities later to be called the Titans: Ocean, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Tethys, and Cronus. And the union of Gaia and Uranus also results in the birth of the three Cyclopes, “who have very violent hearts”, Brontes (Thunder), Steropes (Lightning) and Arges (Bright). Hesiod asserts that “strength and force and contrivances were in their works” (146) and that they went on to later fashion Zeus’s primary weapon, the thunderbolt (139-141). And, finally, Gaia and Uranus beget even more offspring, three monstrous sons, the so called hundred handers, Cottus, Briareus and Gyges. Hesiod describes them as “great, strong, and unspeakable” (148), and maintains that “a hundred arms sprang from their shoulders, unapproachable, and upon their massive limbs grew fifty heads out of each one’s shoulders; and the mighty strength in their great forms was dreadful” (150-153).

Yet, though Uranus thus sires a large and formidable brood, he will not allow any of them to actually be born to have a determinate existence of their own in the light of day. Instead, he pushes each one of them back into the womb of the earth as they are about to emerge into the light. Hesiod describes the scene as follows:

“For all of these, who came forth from Earth and Sky as the most terrible of their children, were hated by their own father from the beginning. And as soon as any of them was born, Sky put them all away out of sight in a hiding place in Earth and did not let them come up into the light, and he rejoiced in his evil deed” (154-159).

So here, at the very earliest stages of creation, we have a fundamental hostility at play between the generations. The primal sky father hates his children from the outset, and his children respond in kind (138). At a metaphysical level, we might take Uranus’ strategy as illustrative of one approach to individual existence. Gaia’s strategy for maintaining determinate existence was essentially relational, she will be what she is through her nurturance and support of other beings. And, in order to do this, she needed to generate a different yet equally determinate being which was her equal. This suggests a fundamentally non-relational mode of determinacy, in short, individual existence. Uranus will thus be what he is, not through his relation to other individuals, but precisely in his negation of them. He will stand out in his individual existence by making sure that nothing else can emerge on the scene. On this view, in order to be an individual, one must negate all other individuals, just as Uranus does by pushing his children back into the womb of the earth, causing them to be unborn. Similarly, at a psychological level, we can see Uranus’ approach operative in parents who bully and berate their children, seeking to beat their sense of self back down into the netherworld in the hopes that it will never see the light of day.

Gaia is understandably aggrieved at this situation and undertakes a scheme to avenge herself on Uranus and allow her children to be born. Hesiod describes her plan as follows:

“But huge Earth groaned within, for she was constricted, and she devised a tricky, evil stratagem. At once she created an offspring, of gray adamant, and she fashioned a big sickle and showed it to her dear sons.

And she spoke, encouraging them while she grieved in her dear heart: ‘Sons of mine and of a wicked father, obey me, if you wish: we would avenge your father’s evil outrage. For he was the first to devise unseemly deeds.’

So she spoke, but dread seized them all, and none of them uttered a sound. But great crooked-counseled Cronus took courage and at once addressed his cherished mother in turn with these words: ‘Mother, I would promise and perform this deed, since I do not care at all about our evil-named father. For he was the first to devise unseemly deeds.’

So he spoke, and huge Earth rejoiced greatly in her breast. She placed him in an ambush, concealing him from sight, and put into his hands the jagged-toothed sickle, and she explained the whole trick to him. And great Sky came, bringing night with him; and spreading himself out around earth in his desire for love he lay outstretched in all directions. Then his son reached out from his ambush with his left hand, and with his right hand he grasped the monstrous sickle, long and jagged-toothed, and eagerly he reaped the genitals from his dear father and threw them behind him to be borne away” (159-182).

And the blood from his father’s severed genitals falls back into the Earth who then produces the Erinyes (the Furies), the Giants, and the Nymphs. Likewise, when the discharge from Uranus’s testicles falls into the ocean, it produces Aphrodite, the goddess of love, whom Eros, the primordial god, now attends (188-206).

In this manner, Cronus begins his reign and rules among the gods by castrating his father. Uranus, understandably outraged, curses his children, calling them Titans, or strainers, and prophecies that he will have his vengeance in due time (207-210).

b. The Birth of Zeus and the Fall of Cronus

After freeing his siblings from their confinement in the earth, Cronus mates with his sister Rhea who gives birth to the Olympian gods: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon. But Cronus has been warned in a prophecy from his parents Gaia and Uranus that “mighty though he was, he was destined to be overpowered by a child of his” (459-465). In order to avert such a destiny, Cronus eats each of his children as soon as it is born.

Note here the different strategies employed by Cronus and Uranus in attempting to maintain their own individual existence. Whereas Uranus attempts to establish his individuality by actively negating other individuals, shoving them back into the womb of the earth, Cronus seeks to negate his children passively, swallowing them and thereby incorporating them into himself. Cronus does not need to externally eliminate all other individuals in order to establish his own individuality, he just needs to completely assimilate them within himself. And, psychologically, whereas Uranus represents the bullying parent who seeks to annihilate the spirit of his children, Cronus could be seen as a helicopter parent. Such a parent may want his child to be “successful” in the world, but only as an extension of him or herself.

Rhea, then conceives another son, Zeus, and is, understandably, beset by grief at the thought that yet another of her children will be eaten by their father. She thus beseeches her parents, Gaia and Uranus, for assistance, and they help her “to contrive some scheme so that she could bear her dear son without being noticed, and take retribution for the avenging deities of her father and of her children, whom great crooked-counseled Cronus had swallowed down” (466-473). They council her to travel to Lyctus in Crete, where Gaia will receive Rhea’s son in secret and nurture him in the earth. After Rhea does this, she gives a stone to Cronus instead of the baby Zeus, and Cronus, duped by the ruse, swallows the stone, unaware that his son and successor is now growing in safety inside the earth. Hesiod describes the scene as follows:

“There she came first to Lyctus, carrying him through the swift black night; taking him in her hands she concealed him in a deep cave, under the hidden places of the holy earth, in the Aegean mountain, abounding with forests. And she wrapped a great stone in swaddling clothes and put it into the hand of Sky’s son, the great ruler, the king of the earlier gods. He seized this with his hands and put it down into his belly—the cruel one, nor did he know in his spirit that in place of the stone his son remained hereafter unconquered and untroubled, who would overpower him with force and his own hands, and would soon drive him out from his honor and be king among the immortals” (481-491).

Then, after growing in secret for a year, Zeus finally emerges, and, using a ruse of Gaia which Hesiod fails to specify, tricks Cronus into vomiting up his siblings. Hesiod recounts:

“Swiftly then the king’s strength and his splendid limbs grew; and when a year had revolved, great crooked counselled Cronus, deceived by Earth’s very clever suggestions, brought his offspring up again, overcome by his son’s devices and force. First he vomitted up the stone, since he had swallowed it down last of all; Zeus set it fast in the broad-pathed earth in sacred Pytho, down in the valleys of Parnassus, to be a sign thereafter, a marvel for mortal human beings” (492-500).

Cronus spits up his children in the reverse order to that in which he swallowed them, so that the first eaten was the last to be disgorged. This second birth into the word thus reverses the chronological order of conception. Zeus, the youngest born, is now, on this reckoning, the eldest born of the Olympian deities. Hesiod fails to provide us with the details, but it seems to be that Cronus is defeated by this unspecified ruse and that Zeus thereby begins to solidify his power. His next move, after freeing his Olympian siblings, is to free the Cyclopes who were still confined within the earth from when Uranus was king. And, in payment for his assistance, the they bestow upon him thunder and lightning, his primary weapons and the foundation of his rule. Hesiod explains:

“And he freed from their deadly bonds his father’s brothers, Sky’s sons, whom their father had bound in his folly. And they repaid him in gratitude for his kind deed, giving him the thunder and the blazing thunderbolt and the lightning, which huge Earth had concealed before. Relying on these, he rules over mortals and immortals” (501-506).

c. Maintaining the Olympian Rule

After gaining power, Zeus, unlike his predecessors, maintains it through a combination of brute force and political acumen. Zeus and the Olympians first wage war with the Titans, the siblings of Cronus, for ten years, yet neither side can win a decisive victory. Eventually, Gaia tells Zeus that he could vanquish his opponents, if he were to release the hundred-handers still buried in the earth from the time of Uranus’s rule (617-628). Zeus follows her advice, frees the hundred-handers, and offers them nectar and ambrosia. He then petitions them for their assistance in his war with the Titans:

“Listen to me, splendid children of Earth and Sky, so that I can say what the spirit in my breast bids me. We have already been fighting every day for a very long time, facing one another for the sake of victory and supremacy, the Titan gods and all of us who were born from Cronus. So manifest your great strength and your untouchable hands, facing the Titans in baleful conflict, mindful of our kind friendship, how after so many sufferings you have come up to the light once again out from under a deadly bond, by our plans, out from under the murky gloom” (644-653).

The scheme is successful and the hundred-handers are persuaded to join Zeus’s cause, and, with their help, the Olympians then gain a decisive victory over the Titans. Hesiod explains:

“And the battle inclined to one side. For earlier, advancing against one another they had battled incessantly in mighty combats. But then among them foremost Cottus and Briareus and Gyges, insatiable of war, roused up bitter battle; and they hurled three hundred boulders from their massive hands one after another and overshadowed the Titans with their missiles. They sent them down under the broad-pathed earth and bound them in distressful bonds after they had gained victory over them with their hands, high-spirited though they were, as far down beneath the earth as the sky is above the earth” (711-720).

It is thus through his political cunning that Zeus ultimately defeats the Titans. Zeus’s shrewdness can also be seen in the fact that, after the hundred-handers have vanquished his enemies, Zeus finds a way to send them back to Tartarus (presumably of their own accord), by appointing them as guards to ensure that the Titans do not escape. Hesiod describes the situation as follows, Tartarus “that is where the Titan gods are hidden under murky gloom by the plans of-cloud gatherer Zeus, in a dank place, at the farthest part of the huge earth. They cannot get out, for Poseidon has set bronze gates upon it, and a wall is extended on both sides. That is where Gyges, Cottus, and great spirited Obriareus dwell, the trusted guards of aegis-holding Zeus” (729-735). Zeus was thereby able to use these monsters to his advantage without actually having to allow them to live in the open air where they could pose a threat to his rule.

And, in a similar act of political cunning, Zeus was able to bring Styx and her daughters Rivalry, Victory, Supremacy, and Force into his Olympian alliance. Hesiod recounts:

“Styx, Ocean’s daughter, mingling with Pallas, bore Zelus (Rivalry) and beautiful-ankled Nike (Victory) in her house, and she gave birth to Cratos (Supremacy) and Bia (Force), eminent children. These have no house apart from Zeus nor any seat, nor any path except that in which the god leads them, but they are always seated next to deep-thundering Zeus. For this is what Styx, Ocean’s eternal daughter, planned on the day when the Olympian lightener summoned all the immortal gods to high Olympus and said that, whoever of the gods would fight together with him against the Titans, him he would not strip of his privileges, but that every one would have the honor he had before among the immortal gods; and that whoever had been without honor and without privilege because of Cronus, him he would raise to honor and privileges, as his established right. So eternal Styx came first of all to Olympus with her own children, through the plans of her dear father; and Zeus honored her and gave her exceptional gifts. For he set her to be the great oath of the gods, and her sons to dwell with him for all their days. Just as he promised, so too he fulfilled for all, through and through; and he himself rules mightily and reigns” (383-403).

Just as with the Cyclopes, Styx and her children prove essential to Zeus’s reign, a reign established through Victory, Supremacy, and Force. And, again, these powers are brought to Olympus through Zeus’s cunning. He promises all the gods that whoever will join him against the Titans will not lose any of their honors if they should win. So, they would have nothing to lose if Zeus were to prevail. And, at the same time, to those who were unsatisfied with their lot, Zeus promises that he will grant them the honors and privileges that were denied them by Cronus. Thus, for these disaffected gods, Zeus promises them they that would have much to gain by joining him.

And, finally, it is again through his craftiness that Zeus ultimately overcomes the problem of succession, and, unlike his father Cronus, defeats destiny. For the struggle for succession soon arises once more, when, after taking the goddess Metis for his wife, Gaia and and Uranus prophecy that Zeus through Metis, will give birth to a son who will overthrow him. Hesiod explains:

“Zeus, king of the gods, took as his first wife Metis (Wisdom), she who of the gods and mortal human beings knows the most. But when she was about to give birth to the goddess, bright-eyed Athena, he deceived her mind by craft and guileful words and put her into his belly, by the prophecies of Earth and starry Sky: for this was how they had prophesied to him, lest some other one of the eternally living gods hold the kingly honor instead of Zeus. For it was destined that exceedingly wise children would come from her: first she would give birth to a maiden, bright-eyed Tritogeneia, possessing strength equal to her father’s and wise counsel, then to a son, a king of gods and of men, possessing a very violent heart. But before that could happen Zeus put her into his belly, so that the godess would advise him about good and evil” (886-900).

In response to the threat of succession, Zeus undertakes a different strategy than that of either his father Cronus or grandfather Uranus. Instead of attempting to annihilate his children, as Uranus did, or assimilating them, as Cronus did, Zeus solves the problem by eating his wife and preventing the birth of his successor before he can even be conceived. Zeus does this through trickery, by deceiving his wife “by craft and guileful words”, and then swallowing her when she is lulled into a false sense of security. In this manner, Zeus metaphorically ingests and incorporates the cunning that Hesiod seems to associate with female nature. In so doing, he prevents the conception of a successor and, in possibly a unique instance in Greek mythology, defeats destiny.

While Uranus attempted to maintain his individuality by actively negating all other individuals, pushing them back down into the earth, and Cronus attempted to maintain his through passive negation, eliminating all other individuals by assimilating them into himself, Zeus synthesizes both approaches. Zeus appears to recognize, unlike those who had gone before him, that his individuality must, in some sense, co-exist with that of others, but he nonetheless adopts a twofold strategy in order to ensure that he maintains a dominant position in that relation. On the one hand, he uses the passive negation of his father Cronus, when he assimilates his wife Metis into himself. And, armed with such cunning and guileful speech, he is able, to some extent, to passively negate the other individuals he encounters. Consider what happens when you can, through rhetoric and other influence tactics, persuade others to do what you want. In this scenario, you still must reckon with others as individuals with aims and interests different from your own, but, through rhetorical force, you can convince them to do what you want of their own accord, to that extent assimilating them into your own agenda. On the other hand, Zeus also upholds his reign with the same kind of brute force that Uranus did. For example, when he is challenged by the monster Typhoes, youngest child of Gaia and Tartarus, he responds directly and with force, burning him with lightning and even melting Gaia as if in retribution. Hesiod recounts:

“And when he had overpowered him, scourging him with blows, he fell down lamed, and the huge earth groaned; a flame shot forth from that thunderbolted lord in the mountain’s dark, rugged dales, as he was struck, and the huge earth was much burned by the prodigious blast, and it melted like tin when it was heated with skill by young men in well-perforated melting-pots, or as iron, although it is the strongest thing, melts in the divine earth by the skilled hands of Hephaestus when it is overpowered in a mountain’s dales by burning fire. In the same way, the earth melted in the blaze of the burning fire. And he hurled Typhoes into broad Tartarus, grieving him in his spirit” (855-868).

Zeus wins the battle with brute force and seems to even compel Gaia to now endorse his reign, since, it is only after this victory that she tells the other Olympians to rally around him. Hesiod explains:

“When the blessed gods had completed their toil, and by force had reached a settlement with the Titans regarding honors, then by the prophecies of Earth they urged far-seeing Zeus to become king and to rule over the immortals; and he divided their honors well for them” (881-885).

The Olympian order which Hesiod ostensibly lauds in the Theogony is thus infused with his own personal pessimism. Unlike the later Pythagorean, Platonic, and Christian views that order is an essential feature of fundamental reality, Hesiod presents order as something that is, in a sense, unnatural. It is imposed on nature by culture and must be won through struggle by the joint application of Machiavellian guile and overwhelming force. In this respect, Hesiod’s view is not far removed from that of the current recrudescence of a pop Jungian spirituality which depicts the task of individuation as a hero’s journey wherein one descends into the chaos and darkness of the great mother, the unconscious, in order to subdue it and gain its treasure. According to both views, fundamental reality is disordered, and, if order is to exist, it must be imposed by us through great struggle.

3. Pessimism in the Human Sphere.

Not only does Hesiod’s personal pessimism inform his theology and cosmology, but it also permeates his account of human life. This is, perhaps, most clearly seen in his dismal portrayal of gender relations and of the family, the primordial unit of human society. Hesiod presents such a bleak view in his account the creation of the first woman. According to Hesiod, the first woman, Pandora, the all gift, was created as a blight to humanity, to punish mankind for the transgressions of Prometheus. Prometheus had attempted to trick Zeus into accepting the worse parts of the sacrifice (the bones rather than the meat and fat), when the sacrificial rites between men and the gods were first being established at Mecone. For this offense, Zeus stole fire from man. But Prometheus then stole it back, hiding it in a fennel stock, and returned it to man. Zeus was outraged and not only punished Prometheus but also set out to design an evil for mankind—woman. He commands Hephaistos to create “the semblance of a reverend maiden”, and, once the frame is complete, each of the gods bestows a gift upon this kalos kakos, this beautiful evil. In the Works and Days, Hesiod declares that Athena teaches Pandora craftsmanship, Aphrodite gives her grace and desirability, and Hermes gives her a dog’s mind and a thievish character (Works and Days, 59-68). Once this evil gift is accepted by mankind, she opens the jar full of evils Zeus had given to her, and they fly out into the mortal world to ruin man’s erstwhile idyllic existence (Works and Days, 90-105). Hesiod draws out the moral of this tale in the Theogony as follows:

“For from her comes the race of female women: for of her is the deadly race and tribe of women, a great woe to mortals, dwelling with men, no companions of baneful poverty but only of luxury. As when bees in vaulted beehives nourish the drones, partners in evil works—all day long until the sun goes down, every day, the bees hasten and set up the white honey combs, while the drones remain inside among the vaulted beehives and gather into their own stomachs the labor of others—in just the same way high-thundering Zeus set up women as an evil for mortal men, as partners in distressful works. And he bestowed another evil thing in exchange for that good one: whoever flees marriage and the dire works of women and chooses not to marry arrives at deadly old age deprived of assistance; while he lives he does not lack the means of sustenance, but when he has died his distant relatives divide up his substance. On the other hand, that man to whom the portion of marriage falls as a share, and who acquires a cherished wife, well-fitted in her thoughts, for him evil is balanced continually with good during his whole life. But he who obtains the baneful species lives with incessant woe in his breast, in his spirit and heart, and his evil is incurable” (Theogony, 590-612).

Here we see Hesiod’s thoroughly pessimistic view of family life, describing wives as drones who live off the sweat of their husbands’ brows. He describes marriage and family as, at best, necessary evils, since if one attempts to avoid them one will be forced to face old age without the assistance of children and, after death, all one’s property will be left to distant relatives rather than one’s own sons. He claims that the best one can hope for is to find a woman well-fitted in her thoughts, but, even then, in this ideal scenario, one will, lead a life only equally balanced between good and evil.

And Hesiod’s pessimistic view of human life also informs the kinds of virtues that he extols. Given the host of ills that Zeus through Pandora has unleashed upon man, the primary virtues of human life concern work and struggle. Indeed, much of the Works and Days seems to be a long panegyric for work. For example, in a passage reminiscent of a later saying by Jesus, Hesiod exhorts his brother:

“To you, Perses, you great fool, I will speak my fine thoughts: Misery is there to be grabbed in abundance, easily, for smooth is the road, and she lives very nearby, but in front of Excellence the immortal gods have set sweat, and the path to her is long and steep, and rough at first—yet when one arrives at the top, then it becomes easy, difficult though it still is” (Works and Days, 286-292).

Hesiod claims that it is easy to attain misery if one wants it, one needs only to take the smooth and pleasant road. But if one wants to achieve Excellence (Arete/ Virtue), one must sweat through a long, rough, and steep path.

Or again, Hesiod’s veneration of work and struggle can be seen in the various commands and maxims he delivers to his brother. For example, he exhorts:

“So, Perses, you of divine stock, keep working and always bear in mind our behest, so that Famine will hate you and well-garlanded reverend Demeter will love you and fill your granary with the means of life. For Famine is ever the companion of a man who does not work; and gods and men feel resentment against that man, whoever lives without working, in his temper like stingless drones that consume the labor of the bees, eating it without working. But as for you, be glad to organize your work properly, so that your granaries will be filled with the means of life in good season. It is from working that men have many sheep and are wealthy, and if you work you are dearer by far to immortals and to mortals: for they very much hate men who do not work. Work is not a disgrace at all, but not working is a disgrace. And if you work, the man who does not envy you when you are rich; excellence and fame attend upon riches. Whatever sort you are by fortune, working is better, if you turn your foolish spirit away from other men’s possessions towards work, taking care for the means of life, as I bid you. Shame is not good at providing for a needy man—shame, which goes along with poverty, and self-confidence goes along with wealth” (298-319).

This heavy moral emphasis that Hesiod places upon work comes from his own personal background and is by no means self-evident. Compare Hesiod’s view, for example, with the Taoist concept of wuwei or nonaction.

“Use directness to govern a country/ and use deception to fight a war/ but use nonaction to rule the world/ how do we know this works/ the greater the prohibitions/ the poorer the people/ the sharper their tools/ the more chaotic the realm/ the cleverer their schemes/ the more common the bizarre/ the better their possessions/ the more numerous the thieves/ thus does the sage declare/ I make no effort/ and people transform themselves/ I stay still/ and the people correct themselves/ I do no work/ and the people enrich themselves/ I want nothing/ and the people simplify themselves” (Tao Te Ching, trans. Red Pine, 57)

In contrast, Hesiod goes so far as to make Strife a beneficent goddess for humanity. He explains:

“So there was not just one birth of Strifes after all, but upon earth there are two Strifes. One of these a man would praise once he got to know it, but the other is blameworthy; and they have thoroughly opposed spirits. For the one fosters evil war and conflict—cruel one, no mortal loves that one, but it is by necessity that they honor the oppressive Strife, by the plans of the immortals. But the other one gloomy Night bore first; and Cronus’ high throned son, who dwells in the aether, set it in the roots of the earth, and it is much better for men. It rouses even the helpless man to work. For a man who is not working but who looks at some other man, a rich one who is hastening to plow and plant and set his house in order, he envies him, one neighbor envying his neighbor who is hastening towards wealth: and this Strife is good for mortals. And potter is angry with potter, and builder with builder, and beggar begrudges beggar, and poet poet” (Works and Days,11-26).

Here envy, strife, and competition are said to be beneficial forces in human life and society. By envying their neighbors, humans will work ever harder and improve their performance at whatever task they undertake. It will inspire farmers to get better at farming, potters at pottery, builders at building, poets at poetry, and even beggars at begging. So, again, we see the virtue of work and struggle as paramount for Hesiod, and this ethical outlook appears to be informed by his own personal background.

4. Ambiguities of the Olympian Order.

And Hesiod’s pessimism may even permeate his own attitude towards the revelations he delivers, since he presents some fundamental ambiguities regarding the Olympian order he ostensibly praises. Hesiod may intend for us to pick up on these ambiguities given that he identifies his ideal reader with someone who can think for himself.

“The man who thinks of everything by himself, considering what will be better, later in the end—this man is the best of all. That man is fine too, the one who is persuaded by someone who speaks well. But whoever neither thinks by himself nor pays heed to what someone else says and lays it to his heart—that man is good for nothing” (Works and Days, 286-292).

Hesiod thus distinguishes three tiers of men. The best are those who can think for themselves and carefully weigh the evidence for and against a given position. Less admirable, but still good, are those who listen to those who are wiser than themselves and do what they are told. And finally, the worst kind of man is one who neither thinks for himself nor listens to others, but simply does whatever he wants without forethought. Given that the ideal man is thus one who will evaluate the evidence for himself, it is not implausible to think that Hesiod may intend for us to call into question the goodness of the Olympian order he extols.

The first ambiguity about the supremacy of the Olympian order concerns Hesiod’s account of the golden age of man. According to Hesiod, there were five ages of man, the golden, silver, bronze, heroic, and iron ages, which, in general, present a picture of decline. The series begins with the golden age, when human life was at its best, and, will end with our own current iron age that is fated to grow worse and worse until Zeus eventually destroys it. Yet, in Hesiod’s ideal golden age, Zeus did not rule. Cronus did. He explains:

“Golden was the race of speech-endowed human beings which the immortals, who have their mansions on Olympus, made first of all. They lived at the time of Cronus, when he was king in the sky; just like gods they spent their lives, with a spirit free from care, entirely apart from toil and distress. Worthless old age did not oppress them, but they were always the same in their feet and hands, and delighted in festivities, lacking in all evils; and they died as if overpowered by sleep. They had all good things: the grain-giving field bore crops of its own accord, much and unstinting, and they themselves, willing, mild mannered, shared out the fruits of their labors together with many good things, wealthy in sheep, dear to the blessed gods” (Works and Days, 109-120).

It was thus under the reign of Cronus, not Zeus, that mankind experienced its golden age. Given that this is the case, one might call into question Hesiod’s previous assertions about the crookedness of Cronus and his rule and the supposed justice of the Olympian order established by Zeus. Indeed, not only did Cronus preside over the golden age, but Hesiod admits in the story of Pandora that Zeus is responsible for designing all the ills of human life and for hiding the means of sustenance from man. “For the gods keep the means of life concealed from human beings. Otherwise you would easily be able to work in just one day so as to have enough for a whole year even without working, and quickly you would store the rudder above the smoke, and the work of the cattle and of the hard-working mules would be ended” (Works and Days, 42-46).

A second ambiguity in Hesiod’s account of the Olympian order his contradictory depictions of Zeus in the Works and Days. For Hesiod both maintains that Zeus is the upholder of justice who will invariably reward the righteous and punish the wicked, and that Zeus’s actions are inscrutable, ruining good and bad alike.2 For example, Hesiod promises that we can trust in Zeus to reward justice and punish injustice when he maintains that:

“But those who give straight judgments to foreigners and fellow-citizens and do not turn aside from justice at all, their city blooms and the people in it flower. For them, Peace, the nurse of the young, is on the earth, and far-seeing Zeus never marks out painful war; nor does famine attend straight-judging men, nor calamity, but they share out in festivities the fruits of the labors they care for. For these the earth bears the means of life in abundance, and on the mountains the oak tree bears acorns on its surface, and bees in its center; their wooly sheep are weighed down by their fleeces; and their wives give birth to children who resemble their parents. They bloom with good things continuously. And they do not go onto ships, for the grain giving field bears them crops.

But to those who care only for evil outrageousness and cruel deeds, far-seeing Zeus, Cronus’ son, marks out justice. Often even a whole city suffers because of an evil man who sins and devises wicked deeds. Upon them, Cronus’ son brings forth woe from the sky, famine together with pestilence, and the people die away; the women do not give birth, and the households are diminished by the plans of Olympian Zeus. And at another time Cronus’s son destroys their broad army or their wall, or he takes vengeance upon their ships on the sea” (Works and Days, 225-247).

Yet, at other times, Hesiod portrays Zeus as essentially inscrutable, destroying good and evil alike. For example, speaking of the unpredictability of the weather, Hesiod declares, “the mind of aegis holding Zeus is different at different times, and it is difficult for mortal men to know it.” (Works and Days, 483-484). And, when discussing ideal times to go sailing, he admits that Zeus and Poseidon bring good and ill alike, seemingly for arbitrary reasons:

“Sailing is in good season for mortals for fifty days after the solstice, when the summer goes to its end, during the toilsome season. You will not wreck your boat then nor will the sea drown your men—so long as Poseidon, the earth-shaker, or Zeus, king of the immortals, does not wish to destroy them: for in these gods is the fulfillment, both of good and evil alike” (Works and Days, 663-669).

And, finally, Hesiod highlights the ambiguity of his message at the very outset of the Theogony when he describes his encounter with the Muses. The reliability of Hesiod’s message will depend on the veracity of these Muses, since it concerns a world beyond normal human experience. Yet, Hesiod’s description of the Muses might lead us to suspect the veracity of their tale.3 First, Hesiod observes that they are Zeus’s daughters. Given this fact, it is not likely that we will be receiving an objective history of the divine order, but rather a perspective slanted in favor of the Olympians. Thus, when they sing of “Zeus, father of gods and men, [and of] how much he is the best of the gods and the greatest in supremacy” (Theogony, 47-49) we might be tempted to take these assertions with a grain of salt. Second, Hesiod claims that, for men, the Muses bring the gift of forgetfulness (even though they themselves are the daughters of memory, Mnemosyne). Hesiod proclaims:

“Such is the holy gift of the Muses to human beings. For it is from the Muses and far-shooting Apollo that men are poets upon the earth and lyre-players, but it is from Zeus that they are kings; and that man is blessed, whomever the Muses love, for the speech flows sweet from his mouth. Even if someone who has unhappiness in his newly anguished spirit is parched in his heart with grieving, yet when a poet, servant of the Muses, sings of the glorious deeds of people of old and the blessed gods who possess Olympus, he forgets his sorrows at once and does not remember his anguish at all; for quickly the gifts of the goddesses have turned it aside” (Theogony 93-103).

Poetry, then, does not seem to primarily concern itself with delivering truth, but with helping men to forget their misery. And, if this is so, we might begin to doubt the veracity of the tales recounted by Hesiod. And, lastly, Hesiod has the Muses explicitly announce their untrustworthiness at the very outset of the Theogony. In their first address to Hesiod they proclaim: “Field-dwelling shepherds, ignoble disgraces, mere bellies: we know how to say many false things similar to genuine ones, but we know, when we wish, how to proclaim true things.” (Theogony, 26-28). Here the Muses declare that they are capable of proclaiming falsehoods (pseudea) that are indistinguishable from the truth. They may also declare the truth, should they so choose, but we humans are not in a position to distinguish between the two. Again, as a result, the reader may be tempted to take up a skeptical stance towards Hesiod’s material. In this way, Hesiod’s personal pessimism comes to color even the content of his prophecy.


Our investigation of Hesiod and his poetry might lead us to wonder whether all philosophy is an interplay between our own personal suffering and something numinous that lifts us out of it. The resulting encounter, then, would constitute a conversion, a change in one’s fundamental mode of being and orientation towards the world. It would involve a change of mind, a metanoia, or repentance from one way of life to another. Yet, in Hesiod we also see a paradox at play, since it appears that the conceptual scheme and vocabulary we have to articulate this new mode of being revealed to us by our encounter with the numinous is the very vocabulary our previous life. We have to use images and allegories borrowed from our old worldviews in order to describe our new perspective. But, in so doing, our own personal idiosyncrasies will color the vision we are trying to convey, and our old sufferings may come to shape the mythology we fashion and pass on to the generations to come.

Questions to Consider:

  • Do you agree or disagree with Hesiod’s pessimistic account of reality? Why or why not?
  • Is order something that must be imposed on the world through human ingenuity and struggle, or is it a fundamental feature of reality? Is it reality or our hearts which are disordered?
  • Is love a force of disorder or of order?

[The image used in the thumbnail of this essay is a relief of the Olympian gods and is in the public domain. It can be found here: ]

1 This stands in contrast to the later Christian view that Love is a force of order, whereas disorder, or cupidity, comes through the disordering of genuine love by a choice of the will.

2 For a detailed analysis of this paradox see Jenny Clay’s Hesiod’s Cosmos.

3 For an analysis of Hesiod’s religious epistemology see Shaul Tor’s Mortal and Divine in Early Greek Epistemology.

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