Hesiod

Hesiod was a famous poet of Ancient Greece who wrote around the same time as Homer in the late 8th and early 7th centuries BC. His poems are a part of Greek mythology, and are considered to be “pre-philosophical” in that they serve as a transition from the traditional mythological understanding of the world to what will soon be a new “philosophical” and “scientific” way of understanding things.

Hesiod’s most famous works are the Theogony (which means “birth of the gods”) and Works and Practices. In the Theogony, Hesiod presents to us a picture of how the world was created that is similar to the Babylonian creation story Enuma Elish (which was written 1000 years earlier). In this poem, the traditional Olympic Greek gods are born, have children, and grandchildren which make up the features of the world: Gaia (Earth), Tartaros (the Underworld), and Ouranos (Heaven).

What is unique about the Theogony, in contrast to Homer’s poems, is that more than just retelling Greek mythological stories, Hesiod combines mythological elements to create a new understanding of the world. Traditionally, the world and human beings are seen as ruled over by the Olympic Gods. The Gods are powerful, immortal beings that do whatever they want. This understanding of the Gods allowed the ancient Greeks to understand the events going on around them (for example: if your house burnt down, it was the will of the Gods).

While maintaining this traditional notion of the Olympic Gods, Hesiod also makes the Gods into the geographic features of the universe (Oceans, Hills, Darkness) and explains how they came into being. The Gods are still immortal, powerful beings doing whatever they want, but now they are in an ordered relationship to one another with Zeus at the top. Since the world is made up of all these Gods, and the Gods in an ordered relationship, this means that the world is structured. This idea of the world as being ordered and structured in a way that we can understand is known in Greek as a cosmos. This idea of the world as a cosmos is going to lead to the development of Greek philosophy and science, who will break with tradition, replacing the Olympic Gods with underlying principles in order to understand the ways in which the cosmos is ordered.

In Works and Days, Hesiod gives practical advice as to how the Greeks can be successful through hard work. However, he acknowledges that sometimes there is injustice when a hard working person suffers hardship, or a lazy person becomes successful. This is similar to in the Book of Job, where the question is posed “Why do good things happen to bad people?” Because Hesiod’s thinking is still “pre-philosophical” and mythological, he will answer that ultimately “Not hard work but Demeter fills one’s bar with food.” The Milesian philosophers Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes will try to find more compelling, philosophical, and scientific answers to such moral and physical questions.