Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.05.25 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.05.25

Stephen Scully, Hesiod's 'Theogony', From Near Eastern Creation Myths to 'Paradise Lost'.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2015.  Pp. x, 268.  ISBN 9780190253967.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Robert Lamberton, Washington University in St. Louis (


Hesiodic reception is fast becoming a richly populated field. Aside from Stephen Scully's wide-ranging book, we have such enlightening recent contributions as George Boys-Stones and Johannes Haubold's 2010 volume Plato and Hesiod (Oxford) and Ioannis Ziogas' Ovid and Hesiod: The Metamorphosis of the Catalogue of Women (Cambridge, 2013)—both in Scully's excellent, up-to-date bibliography. And we have Zoe Stamatopoulou's book Hesiod and Classical Greek Poetry: Reception and Transformation in the Fifth Century BCE (Cambridge, forthcoming) to look forward to soon. In a sense, it all started with Friedrich Solmsen's Hesiod and Aeschylus (Cornell, 1949), which today seems to have been ahead of its time, anticipating a half-century of studies of intertextuality and reception. There was, then, scholarly concern for Hesiod's ancient readers even before the explosion of work on Homeric reception, which we might date from Félix Buffière's Les mythes d'Homère et la pensée grecque (Les Belles Lettres, 1956).

The two fields clearly have a great deal in common, but there is an important difference as well. We have a well-defined Homeric corpus—the Iliad and Odyssey—that seems at least from the fifth century BCE to have been the common property of every literate Greek, and because of Homer's ubiquity in Greek education, his "influence" can be found in virtually every text written in the language. The "Hellenistic vulgate" normalized the text early in its history. By contrast, the corpus of Hesiod has been a matter of unresolved dispute from the beginning, at all levels, from which titles and works are to be attributed to him down to the line, the phrase, the word. The herculean labors of the twentieth-century editors, from Aloisius Rzach to Solmsen and Martin West moved us far closer to a credible overview of the corpus, but a glance at Solmsen's apparatus and the density of square brackets in his text reveals the seriousness of the problems that remain. With so many unresolved questions about what is and is not Hesiodic, how can we pretend to define Hesiod's influence, his reception? If the content of Hesiod's poetry—and especially of the Theogony—is the shared theology of the Greeks, then is Hesiod's reception limited to the reception of what we can agree to be his idiosyncratic distortions of that tradition? And yet the evidence of the influence and of the reception of the Hesiodic corpus is both evident and important.

The nature of Scully's project allows him to ignore most, but not all of these problems. His book is about the Theogony, and he has no need to conern himself with the Works and Days, Catalogue of Women, and the other "Hesiodic" works (though in fact they do inevitably surface often). The Introduction (where the reader will find a great deal about Freud, whose subsequent disappearance from the book will please some readers and leave others unsatisfied) and the opening two chapters ("Points of comparison: Hesiod and Homer; the Theogony and Genesis" and "The Theogony") address issues relating to archaic poetry in and for itself and not to its influence. But here already, in the context of a book that identifies itself as concerned with Hesiod's readers, we see Scully defining the Theogony whose influence he will trace, and Scully's reading is in some ways quite idiosyncratic. He prepares his reader for a history of the influence of a Theogony that is "an intensely political poem" (47, and passim). This reading harkens back to Scully's earlier book Homer and the Sacred City (Cornell, 1991) and there is a striking coherence in his reading of early epic around the theme of the polis. A strong contrary tradition of reading, however, is based on the notion that the Hesiodic tradition bundles human concerns—justice, along with human behavior and relationships generally—in the Works and Days, while the Theogony, where explicit references to human concerns are scarce at best, is first and foremost a compendium of traditional Greek theology (while incorporating a few apparent idiosyncrasies of "Hesiod's" own). It is one of the peculiarities of Scully's book that it constitutes on the one hand an original interpretation of the Theogony—one that would certainly justify book-length development in itself—coupled, sometimes a bit awkwardly, with a history of the poem's readers and influence over a period of some 2,000 years.

In Chapter 3, "The Theogony and Eastern Parallels: City-State Succession Myths?" Scully (like most of us) seems hampered by dependence on translations and secondary scholarship. This inconclusive venture into the territory mapped out half a century ago by Peter Walcot and West1 certainly has its place here but is unable, finally, to deliver a clear answer to the question it poses or to throw much light on the relationship of this literature to the Theogony. We are given paraphrases (and paraphrases of paraphrases) of the Enûma Elish and other Babylonian texts, some Hittite material, and Philo of Byblos. And of course the similarities are tangible, tantalizing, and—in the absence of any compelling account of how this older material might have found its way to the Valley of the Muses on Helicon—inevitably frustrating.

The remaining chapters, "The Theogony in the Archaic and Classical Periods," "Echoes of the Theogony in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods," and "Theogonic Shadows: Byzantine, Medieval, and Renaissance, Milton's Paradise Lost," or nearly two-thirds of the volume, constitute a capsule history of tangible and not-so-tangible echoes of the Theogony in European literature. Scully deals credibly with the problem raised above of the limits of Hesiodic reception by putting the emphasis on those instances where either Hesiod is cited by name or his language or style is demonstrably echoed. The most difficult part of this history to reconstruct, predictably, is its beginning. Early hexameter and lyric poetry are areas where the notion of individual authorship appears to be a late arrival, post-dating at least some of the preserved poetry itself. The manuscript traditions of Homer and Hesiod contain duplications where it is impossible to say with certainty whether a given line "originated" in the Homeric poem or the Hesiodic one.2 Scully negotiates this morass carefully and conservatively, and the chapter on Archaic and Classical Greece constitutes a survey of high points where a consciousness of and reaction to Hesiod's poetry appear tangible in later poets and thinkers. Often, it is a matter of revisiting a familiar point of intersection, like that of Hesiod and Aeschylus. Sometimes, as in the section on the Homeric Hymns, the emphasis is on comparative mythology and the agreement or disagreement of Hesiodic versions of stories with those found in that disparate collection. In the last part of the chapter, where Hesiod's presence in Plato, Aristotle, and a range of other writers of prose is examined, Scully's argument strikes me as simply spread too thin. Some of these instances of reception are obscure at best and the texts in question too difficult to be made accessible by a rushed paraphrase. Even here, however, Scully's theme of two fundamentally different conceptions of justice, the one associated with the Presocratics and emerging from nature, contrasted with the Hesiodic view that justice (the justice of Zeus in the Theogony, but more obviously in the Works and Days) "set[s] humankind apart from nature" (121) goes far to unify his argument.

Chapter 5 is concerned with the Hellenistic and Roman periods and with a Hesiod who is clearly and unambiguously defined, if only by a few salient traits, the episode of the poetic initiation by the Heliconian Muses preeminent among them. This is also the period in which the Catalogue of Women (143) was the single Hesiodic work that probably exerted the greatest influence, though that influence is extraordinarily difficult to define clearly. As the chapter progresses, Scully treats Hesiod increasingly as the bearer of polytheist myth and so the target (often explicitly so) of Christian critics. His subchapter on the Library of Apollodorus as a "sanitizing" of the Theogony is among the best (148-50), and this theme provides the link to the final chapter, "Theogonic Shadows," where Hesiod's influence is traced through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The culmination of this exercise in literary and cultural history is the extended subchapter on Milton's vivid but underappreciated use of the Theogony (171-83). Appropriately, in a broad survey of this nature, the discussion of Paradise Lost at the end balances that of the Theogony itself in the opening pages of the book, and provides a striking and convincing demonstration of Hesiod's important place in the European epic tradition.

Scully's book is both readable and accessible. I tried it out on a graduate seminar on Hesiod this semester, and it generated considerable discussion and undoubtedly contributed to a broadening of the perspective of all participants (myself included). I can certainly recommend it not only for this use but for anyone concerned with the Hesiodic corpus and its history.3


1.   P. Walcot, Hesiod and the Near East Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1966; M. L .West, Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient Oxford: Oxford Univesity Press, 1971; cf. his The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
2.   Notably, in the Homeric shield of Achilles and the Hesiodic shield of Heracles). See Solmsen in Hermes 93 (1965), 1-6.
3.   Oxford Press, New York, has done the author no favors. The book is riddled with typos, some hardly excusable (as on pp. 173-4, with n. 29, where George Gordon appears as "Lord Bryon" not just once but three times—four, if you count the entry in the Index). I also noticed a few lapses in the excellent bibliography, which is inexplicably divided in two, the last four pages of which (259-62) are separated from the rest in a new alphabetic sequence under the rubric "Bibliography for Modern Texts." Nothing prepares the reader for the existence of such a subsection and I, as reviewer, had compiled a considerable list of works that I thought had been omitted from the bibliography before I stumbled on this annex. This is to say that for the demands of a typical reader it is useless.

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