An ancient poetry slam: Homer, immortal epicist, takes on Hesiod, famous for agricultural maxims and hymns — and loses. Or so says the "Certamen," a Greek fantasy from the age of the Roman Emperor Hadrian on which Friedrich Nietzsche, age 26, cut his philological teeth. The philosopher-to-be took its agonism to heart. Like King Ganyktor, umpire in the tale, he seems to have had a soft spot for the peaceful Hesiod, sympathizing later (in "The Genealogy of Morals") with the poetic dilemma of how an after-comer assimilates the beautiful horror of the "Iliad." Perhaps Nietzsche admired another soul out of synch.
Antiquity was clueless about exactly when Hesiod lived. (Modern scholars, only slightly less ignorant, place him and Homer somewhere between 800 and 600 before the common era). Lore called them second cousins, rivals, strangers centuries apart, Hesiod sometimes the earlier. Yet Homer (pace "Certamen") was the preferred maker of hexameters. Hesiod's name branded almost everything that was not heroic epic: moral advice, travelogues of Hades, poems on bird-signs, astronomy, and mythical metalworkers. If his choice of topics was less rousing, his style rougher, that was explained by provenance, the bare uplands around Mt. Helikon in Boeotia, far from Homer's cosmopolitan Ionia.
The extant poems — the "Theogony" and the "Works and Days" (Loeb Classical Library, 308 pages, $21.50) — are one-sixteenth the length of Homer's works, while a third, strikingly female-focused composition, the "Catalog of Women," survives mainly in scraps of papyrus, still emerging from Egypt. Hellenistic poets of the 3rd century BCE took Hesiod as an alternative stylistic model; later Latin authors mined him, imitating their Alexandrian idols. Nevertheless, in the canonical histories, Hesiod is always the alsoran. Only recent scholarly generations, informed by ethnopoetics, have understood the Hesiodic corpus as strangely different from Homeric poetry, yet more revealing of enduring Greek mentalities. For a wider audience, especially in this era of resurgent environmental verse, the day of the rural seer and sage may finally have arrived.
Glenn Most's splendid new bilingual volume is, therefore, timely. Technically not a new edition (he did not re-examine medieval manuscripts), it offers readers and scholars alike the most reliable prose translation and the richest supplementary materials available. (In a twin Loeb he translates the fragmentary works.) The generous introduction fairly summarizes current interpretations. We may no longer take at face value the self-presentation of Hesiod as resident of the hamlet of Ascra, "evil in winter, distressful in summer, not ever fine," but we still need to ask why this persona was thought good-to-sing-with over generations of oral poetic performances. He is "the first poet of the Western cultural tradition to supply us even with his name." But the name he gives himself is suspiciously generic: "He who sends forth the voice." If the poetry survived centuries before textualization, it meant something to the Greeks. What?
Here the classicist is pledged to resist modernity (game-point, Nietzsche). The allegedly historical Hesiod seemed to provide a recognizable voice, unlike the impersonal author of epics. And if he lived after Homer (as many scholars wish), that shows Progress toward the Discovery of that excellent invention, the Individual. According to Herodotus, however, in the 5th century BCE, Hesiod was, along with Homer, primarily a master of mass mythopoiesis. He was the first to give the Greeks a notion of the gods' origins, honors, occupations, and epithets, as well as their looks. Theogonie, Herodotus's term for divine births, recalls Hesiod's celebratory poem about the violent succession culminating in the eternal reign of Zeus, where the king-god ends up controlling the universe through a series of clever marriages, and the arts through his daughters, the Muses.
Hesiod once met the tricky Muses up the mountain, getting from them a staff and the gift of song to hymn all the gods. Perhaps becoming an apologist for Zeus's rule necessitated the backstory about humble origins, lest such verses drive off archaic audiences wisely wary of "divine" words. Advising his slacker brother Perses in the "Works and Days," the narrator employs practical rhetoric, from moral fables of Pandora and the Five Ages, to hygienic prescriptions ("do not urinate into rivers"), poetic to-do lists about farming, and fortune cookie one-liners ("few know that the 21st is the best of the month at daybreak — towards evening it is worse"). Hesiod's compelling cosmos thus unites the dawn of Chaos with the blazingly ordinary, still recognizably Greek, summer morn. His archaic virtuosity helps one face the day.