Works And Days, Theogony, And The Shield Of Hercules (Prose), by Hesiod, translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White
As part of my personal project to read what is available of Greek classics in translation, at least to better understand the classical inheritance in contemporary culture and understanding, I got two versions of the same work by Hesiod. This particular one was translated into prose and serves as a very short and to-the-point discussion of Greek mythology that makes for one of the most important sources about Greek heathen religion available to us. Hesiod is less well-known than Homer, his rough contemporary, but these three works are the ultimate source of a great deal of what is known about the Greek gods and goddesses by contemporaries who know anything about such matters. I myself made use, somewhat indirectly, of these works as early as my freshman year of high school when I wrote a short play where the Greek heathen deities were ineffective characters in a play I wrote for world history class. So, while this book is not one that many people would automatically look for, the subject material in this book is something that is well known through those that popularize the author’s writings in different form.
This book is about seventy pages long and is divided into three parts. The first part is, at least to me, the most interesting, “Works And Days,” which posits a theory as to how mankind and God became estranged, looks at four descending ages of man from gold to iron (using the same metals and order as the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2), and gives an idea of a conservative and pious Greek seeking how to live well–work hard, marry and acquire some wealth, be devout and avoid gossip and greed, and it also has a lot of superstitions I feel less positively about, even if it has considerable value. After this comes the Theogony, which is a catalog of various gods and titans and their origins, all of which bears a very strong relationship to the immoral behavior of the polytheistic deities of Babylon and Egypt that likely helped inspire the work and the worldview behind it. The third story is the shield of Heracles, which reads a lot like the bloody tales in the Aneid and also includes a certain aspect of cataloging items (namely the eponymous shield) and its importance to some bloody fight with a warlike being.
In reading this books I was deeply struck by the contexts in which these books can be found as well as the way in which they resonate with other writings. It would have been nice if, growing up, I had been more familiar with the raw material of the myths that were written about and passed on by more contemporary popular writers who did not always give credit to the sources of their myths. These myths are rather prosaic and mostly familiar, and it is interesting to note the connection between these stories, which are thought to spring from Thebes and its surrounding area, and the other myths that we are familiar with from the ancient world, as well as the historical account of the Hebrew scriptures. In life we are presented with a series of mysteries, and it is unsurprising if people should imagine the gods to have been people like themselves and to have wondered why it is that the being who had created us was now estranged from us–there must have been some fault involved. Figuring out what to do that is a task no less important in our own times than it was in Hesiod’s time.