Hesiod was a famous Greek poet—the ancients often mention him in the same sentence with Homer—who wrote the epic hexameter poems Theogony and Works and Days. He is thought to have lived sometime between 800 and 600 BCE.
The Evolution of Myths
Unlike most of the ancient Greeks, I don’t believe that Zeus, Athena, or their other gods existed. But if none of these gods existed, where did the myths come from?
Some of Hesiod’s myths are similar to Babylonian and Hittite myths. This continuity is not surprising because new religious ideas usually evolve from older religious ideas. But how did this evolution occur? And where did the earlier myths come from? We don’t have enough evidence to answer either question with certainty, but Hesiod’s poetry provides some small insight into each of them.
Hesiod’s Theogony organizes and synthesizes older Greek myths while also adding details. Thus, the big question about the evolution of religion can be considered at a smaller scale within Hesiod himself: How did he evolve the Greek Myths?
Hesiod appears to believe that the Muses—the nine daughters of Zeus and Memory—inspired his poetry, and perhaps this explains how he felt justified taking creative license with his source material, while also believing in his own stories:
And they taught Hesiod the art of singing verse,
While he pastured his lambs on holy Helikon’s slopes.
And this was the very first thing they told me,
The Olympian Muses, daughters of Zeus Aegisholder:
“Hillbillies and bellies, poor excuses for shepherds:
We know how to tell many believable lies,
But also, when we want to, how to speak the plain truth.”
So spoke the daughters of great Zeus, mincing their words.
And they gave me a staff, a branch of good sappy laurel,
Plucking it off, spectacular. And they breathed into me
A voice divine, so I might celebrate past and future.
And they told me to hymn the generations of the eternal gods,
But always to sing of themselves, the Muses, first and last …
Farewell Zeus’s daughters, and bestow song that beguiles.
Make known the eerie brood of the eternal Immortals
Who were born of Earth and starry Sky,
And of dusky Night, and whom the salt Sea bore.
Tell how first the gods and earth came into being
And the rivers and the sea, endless and surging,
And the stars shining and the wide sky above;
How they divided wealth and allotted honors,
And first possessed deep-ridged Olympus.
Tell me these things, Olympian Muses,
From the beginning, and tell which of them came first.— Theogony, 23–35, 103–125
Hesiod does not presume that the Muses tell him the truth, but he does presume that they might have told him the truth. In other words, creative stories come from the Muses and may reveal divine truths.
We get another glimpse into Hesiod’s views of the Muses and truth in Works and Days, when he is giving advice to his brother. Hesiod distinguishes between his experience and what the Muses have taught him:
So if you [my lazy brother] ever turn your addled wits to trade
To rid yourself of debt and gnawing hunger,
I can teach you the rhythms of the churning sea,
Though sailing’s not my line. As far as ships go,
I’ve never sailed in one on the open sea
Except to Euboia once from Aulis, …
That’s the sum of my experience with pegged & dowelled ships.
Still, I can teach you the mind of Zeus the Storm King,
Since the Muses have taught me ineffable song.
Fifty days after the solstice, toward the end
Of summer, the seasons of scorching heat,
Comes the sailing seasons. You won’t wreck
Your ship then, nor the sea drown your men,
Unless Poseidon Earthshaker has a mind otherwise,
Or the Lord of Immortals wants to destroy them.— Works and Days, 717–739
It is difficult for me to understand how someone could create a story while also believing that it is true; it is even more surprising that someone could make up advice on a technical subject and believe it. But it appears this is what Hesiod is doing! It would seem that Hesiod believes that the Muses are inserting ideas into his mind, and thus may contain truth. When pressed, I imagine Hesiod arguing “surely my ideas come from somewhere! Where else, besides the immortal gods, could they come from?”
Perhaps the myths evolved when story-tellers, believing they were inspired, re-told and inserted new details into older religions? In this theory, each re-telling would have to be mostly faithful, since large changes in the foundational myths would have rejected by the listeners.
As with biological evolution, one wonders how the big jumps were made. How would Zeus replace Ouranos at the head of the Pantheon? One may conjecture, but perhaps the battles of the generations of the gods represent the battles of peoples and cultures in the ancient world?
Hesiod’s poetry may also provide some insight into the origination of Myths. Hesiod’s creativity is not arbitrary. Hesiod deduces the existence of a second god, Strife, from the multiple uses of the word “strife”:
It looks like there’s not just one kind of Strife—
That’s Eris—after all, but two on the Earth.
You’d praise one of them once you got to know her,
But the other’s plain blameworthy. They’ve just got
Completely opposite temperaments.
One of them favors war and fighting. She’s a mean cuss
And nobody likes her, but everybody honors her,
This ornery Eris. They have to: it’s the gods’ will.
The other was born first though. Ebony Night
Bore her, and Cronos’s son who sits high in thin air
Set her in Earth’s roots, and she’s a lot better for humans.
Even shiftless folks she gets stirred up to work.
When a person’s lazing about and sees his neighbor
Getting rich, because he hurries to plow and plant
And put his homestead in order, he tends to compete
With that neighbor in a race to get rich.
Strife like this does people good.— Works and Days, 21–37
Later in Works and Days, towards the end of a list of suggestions for avoiding the god’s anger, Hesiod remarks that “Talk” must be a god too, because it never dies:
That’s the way to behave. And try to avoid being
The object of talk. A bad reputation is easy to get,
Difficult to endure, and hard to get rid of.
Talk never really dies, not when so many folks
Are busy with her. Talk too is some kind of a god.— Works and Days, 840–844
In these two examples, Hesiod deduces the existence of Strife and Talk using etymology and metaphysical reasoning (anything that doesn’t die must be a lie). Perhaps the Greek myths, as well as the earlier myths that inspired them, were based on observations of reality. These rational underpinnings would prop up the beliefs, since adherents could see them in the world around them.
Imagine a young Greek girl. All of the adults in her life tell her that Zeus and the gods rule the world and he wields thunderbolts and causes snow storms. Occasionally, at special times of the year, you participate in solemn sacrifices to Zeus, and other gods, involving the bloody ritual slaying of animals. Poets occasionally come through your town, and tell stories of the gods—some you have heard, others are new, but they all include Zeus. If you asked this girl how they knew Zeus was real, she would probably say she knew Zeus was real because she could see the thunderbolts and snow storms!
We are not certain whether Hesiod (or Homer) existed, but this irrelevant to this discussions—what matters is that the Greek tradition included, and to some degree accepted, the idea of Muses providing divine inspiration via creative human story-telling. This is one mechanism by-which the details of religions beliefs could evolve and develop, despite not being true.
Herodotus’ appears to view Hesiod similarly:
But the origin of each of the gods, or whether they always existed, and what they look like: all of this was unknown until just recently—only yesterday, so to speak. For I believe that Hesiod and Homer were contemporaries who lived no more than 400 years before my time. These were the poets who composed for the Hellenes the theogony, assigned to the gods their epithets, defined their particular honors and skills, and described what they look like.— The Histories, 2.53
Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue Ion, says:
For of course poets tell us that they gather songs at honey-flowing springs, from glades and gardens of the Muses, and that they bear songs to us as bees carry honey, flying like bees. And what they say is true. For a poet is an airy thing, winged and holy, and he is not able to make poetry until he becomes inspired and goes out of his mind and his intellect is no longer with him. As long as a human being has his intellect in his possession he will always lack the power to make poetry or sing prophecy. Therefore because it’s not by mastery that they make poems or say many lovely things about their subjects—but because it’s a divine gift—each poet is able to compose beautifully only that for which the Muse has aroused him.— Ion, 534b
Plato provides an example to justify his belief:
The best evidence for this account is Tynnichus from Chalcis, who never made a poem anyone would think worth mentioning, except for this praise-song everyone sings, almost the most beautiful lyric-poem there is, and simply, as he says himself, “an invention of the Muses.” In this more than anything, then, I think, the go is showing us, so that we should be in no doubt about it, that these beautiful poems are not human, not even from human beings, but are divine and from gods; that poets are nothing but representatives of the gods, possessed by whoever possesses them. To show that, the god deliberately sang the most beautiful lyric poem through the most worthless poet.— Ion, 534e
For a long time I couldn’t believe that a poet could believe their own made up stories. Sometime later, I noticed myself righteous mind making up reasons to believe what I thought or wanted to think. This awareness has made me accept that poets could believe their own stories.
Genealogies and Creation
Hesiod uses genealogy as an organizational and explanatory scheme for the gods.
Tell how first the gods and earth came into being
And the rivers and the sea, endless and surging,
And the starts shining and the wide sky above;
How they divided wealth and allotted honors,
And first possessed deep-ridged Olympus …
In the beginning there was only Chaos, the Abyss,
But then Gaia, the Earth, came into being,
Her broad bosom the ever-firm foundation of all,
And Tartaros, dim in the underground depths,
And Eros, loveliest of all the Immortals, who
Makes their bodies (and men’s bodies) go limp,
Mastering their minds and subduing their wills.
From the Abyss were born Erebos and dark Night.
And Night, pregnant after sweet intercourse
With Erebos, gave birth to Aether and Day.
Earth’s first child was Ouranos, starry Heaven,
Just her size, a perfect fit on all sides.— Theogony, 104–127
An apparently similar use of genealogies is found in Genesis, and especially the “Table of Nations” in Genesis 10:
These are the families of Noah’s sons, according to their genealogies, in their nations; and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.— Genesis 10.32, NRSV
After the first few generations, Hesiod depicts creation as a sexual act, similar to the Enuma Elish. Other traditions conceptualize creation through speech. For example, Genesis 1.3 states “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.” Still others conceptualize creation through material acts. For example, Genesis 2.7 states “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”
Sex, speech, and craftsmanship are all creative acts in human life, so it is natural that humans would project them backward to the creation of the world (and the gods).
Hesiod presents three types of gods:
- Personified gods that were worshiped (e.g., Zeus and Athena)
- Personified gods that were not worshiped (e.g., Atlas)
- Gods which represent abstractions (e.g., Dawn, Strife, and Talk)
It seemed natural to the Greeks to represent abstract concepts as gods, since they are invisible and immortal.
Hesiod was misogynistic:
From her [Pandora] is the race of female women,
The deadly race and population of women,
A great infestation among mortal men,
At home with Wealth but not with Poverty.
It’s the same as with bees in their overhung hives
Feeding the drones, evil conspirators.
The bees work every day until the sun goes down,
Busy all day long making pale honeycombs,
While the drones stay inside, in the hollow hives,
Stuffing their stomachs with the work of others.— Theogony, 594–603
A man couldn’t steal anything better than a good wife,
Just as nothing is more horrible than a bad one,
Some freeloader who roasts her man without a fire
And serves him up to a raw old age.— Works and Days, 777–780
Don’t wash in a woman’s bath-water
Which for a time has a bitter vengeance in it.— Works and Days, 833–834
The Babylonians and Sumerians thought men were created to feed the gods with sacrifices of wheat, animals, and beer. The Greeks also sacrificed to the gods, but they did not seem to believe they were created for this purpose:
Before [Pandora opened the box] the human race
Had lived off the land without any trouble, no hard work,
No sickness or pain that the Fates give to men.— Works and Days, 110–112
Both Marduk and Zeus were young sky gods who lead a fight over an older generation of gods to become the leading god. Zeus’s division of duties and realms upon defeating Cronos is similar to Marduk’s division after defeating Tiamhat in the Enuma Elish, and the Sumerian concept of me is also similar (and even older).
So the blessed gods had done a hard piece of work,
Settled by force the question of rights with the Titans.
Then at Gaia’s suggestion they pressed broad-browed Zeus,
The Olympian, to be their king and rule the Immortals.
And so Zeus dealt out their privileges and rights.— Theogony, 886–890
Hesiod was pessimistic and believes men have gotten weaker over time.
Greek religious beliefs varied geographically and temporally—there was no canonical set of myths. Homer and Hesiod disagreed with each other sometimes. For example, in Hesiod Aphrodite is born from Ouranos’s castrated members floating in the foam off the coast of Cyprus. In Homer, Aphrodite is the daughter of Zeus and Dione.
Hesiod spends a long time discussing the relatively unimportant goddess Hekate; perhaps Hesiod was involved with a Hekate cult that was popular in his region?
Quotations are from the Stanley Lombardo translation, as are the line numbers which are different from the line numbers in the Greek.