BMCR 2005.01.13

The Narrative Voice in the Theogony of Hesiod. Mnemosyne Suppl. 255

, The narrative voice in the Theogony of Hesiod. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden: Brill, 2004. 1 online resource (xv, 206 pages).. ISBN 9789047413851. €85.00.

This is a excellent book. Its methodology is sound and productive; its observations, insights, and conclusions, are based on the text and significant; and its implied author is a steady and sure guide through both narratology and Hesiod’s Theogony. Kathryn Stoddard separates her project from the subjective, ultimately vain effort to read Hesiod’s work as autobiography. She adopts the narratology developed by Mieke Bal and configured by Irene de Jong for analyzing the Homeric epics.1 Her methodology aims at showing how the text tells its tale, that is, how the narrator presents himself in the poem to his audience and constructs his story to attain his purposes. For the Hesiodic narrator, Stoddard contends, that purpose is to teach humans about the gods and the deep division that divides them from the gods and how that gulf came about. Narratologists have been criticized for becoming bogged down in their own jargon and for omniscience. Stoddard has borrowed well from de Jong, exquisitely streamlining narratology to what is needed, and conjuring Hesiod as a refutable creature of the text.

Stoddard’s methodology requires explicit understanding of who Hesiod is and what is the nature of his narrative. The answer to the second question follows from that of the first. Scholars who believe that Hesiod is a real person recounting events of his life read the inspiration by the Muses and quarrel with Perses in Works and Days as autobiography. Stoddard’s summary of their opinions in her first chapter shows conclusively that their efforts run aground on subjectivity and the lack of any conclusive evidence for Hesiod’s life outside of the poems. She accepts the view of J. S. Clay, M. Griffith, G. Nagy, and others that the poet of the Theogony and Works and Days presents Hesiod as a fictive personality, a poetic construct, and that his purposes in doing so may be understood from the text.2 This view of the author opens up the narrative from the confines of unknowable but richly imagined (by moderns, at any rate) life of a peasant tyro poet to the subtleties of the poetic personality embodied in the text that lies before the reader for interpretation.

From Hesiod’s purpose for the Theogony flows the “implied author” that he presents to the audience. A literary device introduced by Wayne Booth, the implied author denotes that view of the author that the narrator offers the audience and wants the audience to accept as the source of the story.3 The magnitude of revelation brought by Hesiod’s work demands, Stoddard explains, a narrator who reveals his presence as teller of the tale, controls the information, and manipulates the audience, because he possesses knowledge that is a profound and miraculous. The Hesiodic narrator’s implied author has a personality; he is a factor of the story which operates on the level of narrative, of discourse. He is fully aware that he is channeling the tale in ways that steer the audience to a favorable reception and that the audience depends on him for knowledge of the gods and the cosmos. After the proem, for instance, he begins anew with etoi men . . . autar ( Th. 116-117), a combination that indicates to the audience a complete break from what has preceded as well as his insistence on the chronological framework that he has laid out. In line 336, with the deictic pronoun touto, he declares, “Look here, these are daughters of Okeanos and Tethys. I compiled this list, and you are hearing it from me.” He uses the Homeric kaleouisi ( Th. 234) without an expressed subject to imply superior knowledge and the subjectless phasi ( Th. 306) to admit his fallibility and lack of clear knowledge. His hint of mortal weakness highlights how much he does know, so that he can bring to his audience understanding of the cosmos in the form of a miracle that is the Theogony.

In Chapter Three, Stoddard retraces how Hesiod establishes his narrative voice in the proem. Hesiod, that is, the primary external narrator/focalizer, distinguishes himself from the Homeric aoidos by rejecting the kind of cosmogonic poetry the Muses sing ( Th. 11-21, 36-52, 66-67) and by relying upon himself and not the Muses for creating the Theogony. Unlike the aoidos (e.g., Hom. Il. 12.175-178), he cannot call upon the Muses for aid. Hence, he has to admit that naming three thousand rivers is beyond his abilities ( Th. 367-370). Hesiod goes about establishing his voice, Stoddard points out, by having the primary narrator Hesiod make himself an internal narrator Hesiod in the story ( Th. 22-25). This internal narrator, in turn, embeds — puts in the text — a speech by the Muses that expresses sua voce their point of view from their own lips. Their speech reveals the contempt that the gods harbor for mortals, lowly creatures bound to their stomachs and needing to eat like the animals they tend. Stoddard maintains that the Muses’ speech takes the form of a riddle. In the post-Promethean cosmos, gods talk to mortals only through riddles which must be interpreted. This form of communication is both the result and expression of the gulf separating the parties. The answer to the riddle depends upon the contrast not of truth and lies but of truth and truth. The Muses say that they speak both the eternal truths ( alethea) of the gods and the truths of physical realities ( etyma) that, being transient, are similar to lies. As a mortal, Hesiod already possesses the ability to narrate etyma. The Muses confer upon him alethea. Their act, marking a moment when the gulf separating immortals and mortals is bridged, endows Hesiod’s voice with the authority of divine truth. That he remains nonetheless within the limits of his mortality, far from detracting from that authority, celebrates the glory of the Muses’ gift to him as a mere mortal. Stoddard’s Hesiod not only brings to the listener the alethea, the unforgettable and eternal truths of the gods, but he offers the modern reader a glimpse into the numen) that his gods, gods left behind by religious imagination, held for him and his listeners. Dare I say it? This chapter is a fun read. The Hesiodic narrator is aware of his control over the text and of his manipulation of the audience’s reception. He also didactic, creating a Theogony meant to teach the audience about the cosmos and the deep divide between gods and humans. In Chapter Four, Stoddard considers three narrative devices that forward Hesiod’s goal. Character speeches, used extensively by the Homeric bard, occur four times, each at a point of separation leading to the gulf. Attributive discourse, descriptive words in lines that frame the speeches, promotes the implied author’s perspective on what is said in the speeches. Stoddard notes that the dialogue form of the interchange between Zeus and Prometheus suits the back and forth of their agon by enlivening their words. Her reading of their acrimony enriches our understanding of this exchange between the gods with insights into Prometheus’ cleverness and the consequences of Zeus’s anger that flows over Prometheus to humankind and accounts for the Muses’ low estimation of mortals.

The implications of the third device, embedded focalization, however, touch Hesiod’s characterization of himself as narrator. The narrator uses embedded focalization, in this case emotional words, to put a focus on events that passes as his own. Whereas Homer uses emotional language in a character speeches to escape the audience’s notice, Hesiod brings such language into the narrative with the purpose of casting himself as a character, a mortal man singing about the doings of the gods, in particular, the mortal poet of a hymn. Indeed, emotional language of the sort employed by Hesiod abounds in the Homeric Hymns. Hesiod may receive the ability to tell of divine things as a shepherd but his voice, Stoddard suggests, is that of a hymnist. “No poet could be more aware of the division between gods and men than the poet of a hymn” (124).

Hesiod demands that the Muses relate events “from the beginning” with “the first of [the gods]” to be born ( Th. 114-115). His request alerts the audience to the importance of chronological order and, consequently, to its disruption. Flashbacks and flash-forwards evince the narrator’s imposition of his perspective upon the narrative and attempt to influence its reception. Stoddard examines Hesiod’s manipulation of time in Chapter Five, concluding that it serves Hesiod’s overall purpose of marking the separation of gods from men.

In her final chapter, Stoddard examines Hesiod’s use of “commentary,” that is, statements spoken to the audience in the implied author’s voice. With commentary, the Hesiodic narrator asserts his control over his discourse, thus breaking the illusion of the narrative flowing before the audience. He aims at influencing the audience by direct statements about his narrative techniques or by revelations of information, not otherwise available, that foreground his role as narrator. Hesiod’s admission of his inability to name all the rivers ( Th. 369-370) is an example of the first kind of commentary, while the etymologies of the names of the Cyclopes (144-145) and Aphrodite (195-200) illustrate the second. Stoddard makes a sense of the (in)famous “about an oak and rock” comment (35): it ends the complication of the narrative voice introduced when Hesiod made himself an internal narrator (i.e., a character) and returns the narrative to Hesiod as primary focalizer. Her remarks on the Muses’ gifts of aude thespis (31-32) and skeptron (30), however, show the value of the notion of commentary. Hesiod explicitly emphasizes that the Muses gave him a “god-like voice” inspired with the knowledge of the gods and the persuasive power to present that knowledge in a way pleasing to the audience. With Stoddard’s assertion that basileus means “judge” rather than “king,” the skeptron comes to denote a judge’s gavel that signifies Hesiod’s ability to compose “authoritative poetry,” poetry that instructs as well as pleases its audience.

In her conclusion, Stoddard draws together what she has done with this study and announces a new one on the narrative voice of Works and Days. She proposes that its implied author Hesiod is not a reliable author but one who challenges the members of his audience to mark his mistakes and think for themselves. My use of the Index Nominum ac Rerum, and Index Locorum upholds their accuracy.

The study began as a dissertation. It is presented, revised, as a whole, but the blurb from the press is correct in dividing it into two parts. The final three chapters, a survey of select narrative techniques, have a choppy effect and make for a sense of letdown. The text is marred with errors that a competent proof reader should have eliminated, for example, “surroundingthepoet’s” on the first page, “exclusivelyemotionalsignifications” (186), hyphenated words in the middle of sentences (“per-spective,” “stress-sing” [85]), stray words (3, n. 7), omitted words (69), and back-to-back versions of the same sentence (68, 181). Most are benign, some short the reading process, and all detract from the high production standard of the book itself.

Stoddard’s work deprives us of Hesiod the historical person, and such phantasies as, for example, that we have Hesiod singing the Theogony before the sons of Amphidamas.4 In place of speculations and fabrications, she returns us to the way Hesiod the narrator, the Sender of the Way,5 would surely want to be understood — through his words.


1. M. Bal, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, transl. by Christine van Boheemen from the 2nd revised edition (1980) of De theorie van vertellen en verhalen. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985. I. J. F. de Jong, Narrators and Focalizers: The Presentation of the Story in the Iliad. Amsterdam: B. R. Gruner, 1987.

2. M. Griffith, “Personality in Hesiod,” Classical Antiquity 2 (1983): 37-65. G. Nagy, “Hesiod” in Ancient Greek Authors I, ed. T. J. Luce. New York, 46-67. J. S. Clay, “The Hecate of the Theogony,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 25 (1984): 27-38.

3. References to Wayne C. Booth’s work are to his The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961, which is omitted from the bibliography.

4. M. L. West, Hesiod: Theogony. Edited with Prolegomena and Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966.

5. West (above, note 4) 161.