BMCR 1994.10.18

1994.10.18, Lombardo (trans.), Hesiod: Works and Days and Theogony

, , , Works and days ; and Theogony. Hesiod. Theogony.. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 1993. 128 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 9780872201798. $5.95 (paperback).

There have been a number of translations of Hesiod in recent years, most of which are still in print and are sufficiently inexpensive to be used as a text in mythology courses, where Hesiod is most likely to be read. 1 These translations take notably different approaches. Richard Caldwell views Hesiod much as Freud did, as the author of stories that depict primal human tensions without the disguises literature usually employs. One can also read Theogony as speculation on profound topics, where the rule of violence, associated with females, gives way to a “gradual increase of male authority” (Athanassakis, 10). This is a particularly delicate topic in a modern context, as Athanassakis reveals when he also admits “Hesiod’s obvious misogyny” (90).

There is another approach to Hesiod. In the introduction to his translation first published in 1959, Lattimore described Hesiod’s plain speaking: “Boiotia favors the catalogue and the genealogy: who is who and what is what, and how they came to be; and again, the moral: these things being so, why; and what to do” (3). This plain voice is a popular voice: “He spoke for the people, but was not of the poorest class” (5).

Lombardo’s Hesiod is much like that of Lattimore, a “plain, rural voice,” whose topic “really is practical,” including “lists, calendars, maxims, genealogies, fables, prayers, myths, diatribes, and personal reminiscences.” It becomes passionately eloquent when treating “the themes of the justice of Zeus, the hard lot of humans, and the redemptive value of poetry” (Translator’s Preface, 19-20). Hesiod is transmitting traditional knowledge. His contribution is his personal viewpoint, and his use of poetic language.

It is easy, too easy I would argue, to say that Lombardo’s translation is more lively but that those wanting a more exact version should look at the others. A comparison of the various translations shows that Lombardo’s text is often superior as poetry because it possesses what he calls “philological accuracy.” In particular, he does not smooth away Hesiod’s discordances or replace specific terms with general ones. However, all of these translations are interesting and intelligent, and comparing them sometimes produces unexpected insights.

My first passage is the opening lines of Works and Days :

Zeus the Thunderer
Whose house is most high.
Bend hither your mind,
Hand down just judgments,
O Thou!
And as for me,
Well, brother Perses,
I’d like to state a few facts.
(13-20L; 8-10) 2

The humor lies in Hesiod’s unmodulated shift from the profound to the specific, from Zeus to Perses, from song to speech. Wender smooths away the rough transition in her version by inserting the word “song”:

Hear, Zeus, and set our fallen laws upright
And may my song to Perses tell the truth.

West (1988) like Lombardo phrases the first section of this sentence in an archaic manner:

O hearken as thou seest and hearest, and make judgment straight with righteousness, Lord; while I should like to tell Perses words of truth.

West rejects the vocative form of Perses in his commentary, and the fact that it is discordant is part of his justification; Lombardo is following a common reading.

In Lombardo’s version, the description of Pandora takes on the tones of Hank Williams:

Pallas Athena put on the finishing touches,
And the quicksilver messenger put in her breast
Lies and wheedling words and a cheating heart…
(96-98L; 76-78)

Athanassakis has “a thievish nature,” which is closer to epiklopon ethos but also lacks the resonance of Lombardo’s phrase. Frazer’s “the treacherous ways of a thief” shares the virtue of referring to thievery, and hence to the reason that Hermes is involved here. Lombardo uses “quicksilver” to translate (or rather to replace) the impenetrable argeiphontes. Perhaps the notes should have explained that mercurius is first used to describe a metal in the Middle Ages ( O.E.D.). However, West (1988) should also have warned his readers about his translation, “dog-killer.”

Lombardo’s liveliest and most free translating occurs in the Golden Age, a bit of carnival spirit in this bleak atmosphere which at one point strikes a jazzy note. For “they delighted in feasts, distant from cares” ( Works and Days, 115) Lombardo gives us “And the good times rolled” (136L). However, the Iron Age passage, while rural in tone, is very close to the sense:

Wish I had died before or been born after,
Because this is the Iron Age.
Not a day goes by
A man doesn’t have some kind of trouble.
Nights too, just wearing him down. I mean
The gods send us terrible pain and vexation.
Still, there’ll be some good mixed in with the evil,
And then Zeus will destroy this generation too,
Soon as they start being born grey around the temples.
Then fathers won’t get along with their kids anymore,
Nor guests with hosts, nor partner with partner,
And brothers won’t be friends, the way they used to be.
Nobody’ll honor their parents when they get old
But they’ll curse them and give them a hard time,
Godless rascals, and never think about paying them back
For all the trouble it was to raise them.
(202-218L; 176-89)

There is added language here, but for the most part they are words of emphasis and tone. “Just” as an intensifier with a participle is regional, and the asyndeton before “nights” and the interjection “I mean” give the passage the color of simple diction. “Get along with” and “kids” are certainly informal, as well as “used to be.” The phrase “cursing their parents” (for “finding fault with”) catches the weakened colloquial meaning of “curse” and “give them a hard time” is colloquial, translating “with harsh words.” “Godless rascals” for schetlioi seems slightly misapplied—there is an undertone of affection in the colloquial use of “rascals.” Wender uses translation jargon: “wretched.” West’s note on Theogony 488 points out that in the parallel passages using nepios, the adjective refers to “fatal ignorance.” Perhaps our rural American would call them “idiots.” Lombardo uses “godless” to translate a phrase which Athanassakis more accurately renders “not knowing about divine retribution.”

This rural voice is strongest in the passages about justice and the hardness of life; another voice appears in the nature poetry, a voice of great beauty, as this famous passage illustrates:

But when the thistle’s in bloom, and the cicada
Chirps from its perch on a branch, pouring down
Shrill song from its wings in the withering heat,
Then goats are plumpest, wine at its best, women
Most lustful, but men at their feeblest, since Sirius
Scorches head and knees, and skin shrivels up.
TIme then for Biblian wine under a shady rock,
A milk cake from goats that are drying up,
Flesh of a wood-bred heifer that hasn’t yet calved.
And of firstling kids.
(645-655L; 582-592)

The species of choice here is “artichoke,” favored by T.A. Sinclair, Evelyn-White, Lattimore, etc., but West (1978) explains that Hesiod intends a yellow thistle, and more importantly perhaps a late-blooming thistle. “Chirp” (also used by Evelyn-White and Athanassakis) describes a cicada’s song accurately; Lattimore’s “clamorous cricket” is a different beast and sound. “Withering” is not exactly kamatodeos but it is a regular epithet of heat and fits with the repeated referrences to drying. There are several omissions in 647, “song” for “much song” and “in the withering heat” for “in the season of withering heat,” but the result is a series of regular anapests which bring the subordinate clause to a conclusion, and prepare us for the list of “then” clauses. In these clauses, Lombardo is very close to Evelyn-White’s prose:

then goats are plumpest and wine sweetest; women
are more wanton, but men are feeblest, because Sirius
parches head and knees through heat.

Lombardo’s “wine at its best” is more accurate, while this phrasing makes the four clauses describing goats, wine, women, and men of equivalent length. One’s attention is drawn to Evelyn-White’s replacement of a superlative with a comparative in “more wanton.” Lombardo’s “shriveled” is idiomatic and precise here, and the phrase “and skin shrivels up” brings the sentence to a strong close.

It is not completely clear what kind of cake ( maza, 590) Hesiod recommends, but his reference to goats that are ceasing to give milk is precise, and Lombardo has given a detailed account of this line; compare Wender’s vagueness: “a cake of cheese and goat’s milk.” Frazer (“milk-leavened bread”) seems to suggest a culinary impossibility. I suspect that our midwestern voice would prefer “maverick” to “wood-bred heifer” (see West 1978 ad loc. and Athanassakis’ “free-roving heifer”).

The prologue to the Theogony is about the Muses, and hence about excitement, charm. Here is Lombardo’s description of their progress to Olympus:

Then they process to Olympus, a glory of pure
Sound and dance, and the black earth shrieks with delight
As they sing, and the drum of their footfalls rises like love
As they go to their father. He is king in the sky,
He holds the vajra thunder and flashing lightning.
He defeated his father Kronos by force, and He ordained
Laws for the gods and assigned them their rights.
(69-75L; 68-74)

There has been some rearranging here, perhaps because of the heightened excitement of the passage. The Muses are not “a glory,” but rather are “glorying in their voice.” The phrase “pure song and dance” is a compression of two phrases, “lovely voice” and “immortal song and dance.” To say that the sound of their feet “rises like love” is vague where the Greek (“lovely drumming”) is clear. “The black earth shrieks with delight” is memorable, but the essential point is lost, that the singing is echoing in the mountains.

Lombardo inserts “vajra” beside thunder, for which Lamberton’s note states that there is an “Indo-European tradition” which is “parallel” to “early Greek poetry.” I suspect this odd phrasing is deliberate, that Lamberton rejects a causal link between the Indo-European and Greek traditions, and that he follows West’s commentary (1966, n. on line 140) which says that thunder as a weapon of the Sky-god is “widespread.”

Lattimore’s version of this passage is effective, yet injects a degree of vagueness, much as Lombardo has done:

At that time, glorying in their power
of song, they went to Olympos
in immortal music, and all the black earth
re-echoed to them
as they sang, and the lovely beat
of their footsteps sprang beneath them
as they hastened to their father, to him
who is King in the heaven,
who holds in his own hands the thunder
and the flamy lightning,
who overpowered and put down
his father Kronos, and ordained
to the immortals all rights that are theirs,
and defined their stations.

“Glorying in their power of song” is closer to agallomenai opi kalei than is Lombardo’s phrase. The phrase “in immortal music” is no longer in apposition to “song,” as it is in the Greek, and hence has an uncertain reference to the sentence. “The lovely beat … sprang beneath them” is nonsense. “Flamy lightning” is a remarkable phrase. “And defined their stations” is an effective gloss of an important phrase.

Here is Lombardo’s version of the dilemma of marriage:

… But if he marries the abusive kind,
He lives with pain in his heart all down the line,
Pain in spirit and mind, incurable evil.
(614-616L; 610-612)

Lombardo translates ataretoio genethles as “the abusive kind” (i.e., of wife), thus agreeing with West concerning the meaning of genethles, and differing from Evelyn-White (“mischievous children”) and Lattimore (“cantankerous children”). Lombardo’s “abusive” seems to be more specific than the Greek, and to imply one aspect of the “sex war” (as Tony Harrison puts it) which does not occur in Hesiod. The opposite of this kind of wife is one “fitted to one’s mind,” or “well-fitted in mind” (608). West (1966) implies the latter is correct by citing a similar passage in Odyssey 10.553 (of Elpenor, who lacked it), and this meaning is given by West (1988), Frazer and Athanassakis, as opposed to Evelyn-White, Lombardo, Wender, and Lattimore. If “fitted to one’s mind” is correct, “incompatible” would be the best reading for ataretoio; however, if “well fitted in mind” is correct, a better translation would be “irrational.” I prefer West’s “the awful kind” (almost as good are Frazer’s “thoroughly bad” and Wender’s “the deadly sort”), all of which fudge the issue, as Hesiod seems to have done.

Considering the large role meaning plays in this interpretation and the general interest in this topic, 3 I am surprised that there is the merest reference in notes and introduction to Hesiod’s description of the function of poetry in Theogony, lines 98-103. In the notes these lines are dismissed as “self-advertisement of the tradition of song.” Caldwell refers to West’s suggestion that this refers to poetry as part of funeral rites. Athanassakis makes an interesting comparison of the poet and the folk healer. In Lombardo’s “translator’s preface,” we hear of “the redemptive power of poetry” (20). “Redemptive power” seems inadequate in this context—there is nothing that can redeem the human world Hesiod describes in Theogony; all we can do it is to forget about it from time to time. And it may be that some other view of poetry is operative in Works and Days.

The notes are particularly helpful concerning the structure of the poem, but are otherwise somewhat thin. I have given several examples above, and here I have listed a few more. It is not made clear that Pandora’s “box” is not only late but from the Renaissance. The problems of the thistle and the bread and the “wood-bred heifer” in Works and Days 645ff. have not been approached. The reference to Hesiod’s pessimism in the note on Works and Days 769-80 is belated and minimal. The note on Theogony 117-20 concerning Eros’ “unexpected primacy” does not refer to Aristophanes or Plato. The untranslated names of the children of Themis should have been explained in more detail. The note on Theogony 875 should explain the odd etymology of “Typhoon.” The reference to Aineias and Odysseus in an Italian context is confusingly brief. Aineias’ story in the Homeric Hymn and in the Iliad deserves a mention. Even where the needed information is given, the telegraphic style is ill-suited to a general audience.

The Glossary is useful, but it has several problems. It is not true of Heracles that “many of his labors are recounted in capsule form in the Theogony” (p. 115). Geryon, the Hydra, the Nemean Lion, and Prometheus’ eagle are the only ones mentioned. The line references for “Nemesis” have been replaced with those for “Nereus.” There are frequent references to “the twelve principal gods,” although Hesiod never lists twelve gods (West, Theogony, 36, n.2).

Subtitles have been added to the text which are in general helpful: e.g., the first three in Theogony are “Invocation to the Muses”; “The First Gods”; and “The Castration of Ouranos.” However, it seems that two additional subtitles are needed in Theogony : something like “Other Early Gods” before line 211 and “Tartarus” before line 734. Both structural breaks are mentioned in the notes.

Lombardo’s finding of a “voice” for Hesiod was a brilliant jest, even more impressive because he exercises such restraint, and he produces a vivid text, which will be comprehensible and entertaining for undergraduates. However, I think that this version is of interest to the Greek-reading student as well. When one reads the Greek text along with Lombardo, one gets to sit in on a play of wits which is a rare delight. The “Helikonian School of Practical Poetics” has regained its license. Let the good times roll.

  • [1] I have looked at the following translations: Hesiod, Theogony; Works and Days; Shield, translated by A. Athanassakis, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins U.P., 1983; Hesiod’s Theogony, translated by Richard S. Caldwell, Cambridge, MA: Focus, 1987; Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns and Homerica, translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, (Loeb Library) London: Heinemann; New York: Macmillan, 1914. The Poems of Hesiod, translated by R.M. Frazer, Norman: U. of Oklahoma Press, 1983; Hesiod, translated by R. Lattimore, U. of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1959; Hesiod and Theognis, translated by Dorothea Wender, Penguin Books, 1973; Hesiod, Theogony and Works and Days, translated by M.L. West, Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1988. I have also referred frequently to Hesiod, Works and Days, edited by T.A. Sinclair, Hildesheim, Georg Olms, 1966; (London: Macmillan, 1932); Hesiod, Theogony, edited by M.L. West; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966; Hesiod, Works and Days, edited by M.L. West, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978. The three books by M.L. West will be referred to as West 1966, West 1978, and West 1988. These are the available versions of Hesiod, according to the current Books in Print : 1.The Loeb, $16.95; 2.Athanassakis, $9.95; 3.R.M. Frazer, U. of Oklahoma, 1988, $7.50; 4.M.L. West, O.U.P., $7.95; 5.R. Caldwell, Focus, 1987, $6.95; 6.Lattimore, U. of Michigan, $12.95. [2] Lombardo’s line numbers differ from those of the Greek text, particularly in Works and Days, so I will list both his line numbers and those of the Loeb Greek texts. [3] See P. Pucci, Hesiod and the Language of Poetry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1977, 8-44.