BMCR 2005.04.23

Hesiod’s Cosmos

, Hesiod's cosmos. 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.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 1 online resource (xii, 202 pages). ISBN 0511062141 $65.00.

[[The author apologizes for the delay of this review.]]

In 1902 Rzach published his major edition of Hesiod. Therein the text of Hesiod appears as a series of interpolations and disjointed verses. In 2003, Jenny Strauss Clay (hereafter “C.”) published this monograph, in which she asserts that Hesiod “offers the first systematic presentation of the nature of the divine and human cosmos, of Being and Becoming” (2) in the two major, separate yet complementary poems — the Theogony and the Works and Days. These two works can be seen as bookends to Hesiodic scholarship: on the one hand the philological questions of establishing the text, and on the other hermeneutic questions of significance and meaning. C. runs this gamut of questions in her explication of Hesiod’s holistic vision of ancient cosmology. More than a reading of Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days, Hesiod’s Cosmos studies the role these poems and the myths they narrate held in the ancient Greek imaginary. The book consists of an introduction, seven chapters, a conclusion, bibliography, subject index, and index locorum. This review will begin with comments on C.’s methodology, then examine each chapter in turn; I will examine chapter five in more detail, as an example of the analysis C. provides in this monograph.

Whereas Rzach perceived disorder in Hesiod, C. finds orderly meaning and argues for a unified vision of the cosmos which is present in the Theogony (from an Olympian perspective) and the Works and Days (from a terrestrial perspective). Throughout, C. pays careful attention to the order and structure of the narratives, as well as their contextual surroundings. As C. well knows, even myths can have a different meaning if narrated differently or in another context (as in her readings of the Prometheus myths, in Chapter Five). In terms of methodology, C. holds that texts and their composers intend to communicate something, and so she has borrowed from disparate critical traditions with the goal of taking “Hesiod seriously as a thinker and poet” (10). Her analysis incorporates (often new) stances on traditional problems in Hesiodic scholarship, including textual cruces. To give one example, her analysis of the Prometheus narrative in the Theogony includes a reading of the verb κερτομέω, used in v. 545; C. interprets this as “I provoke” (112-13). Of such details is her argument built; an index of Greek words at the end of the book would have made it easier to access such specific information. While C.’s main point in this book is summarized as at the beginning of this paragraph, the wealth of detail she marshals in support of her argument is one of the strengths of the work as a whole.

The first and second chapters are entitled “Orientations: the Theogony” and “Orientations: the Works and Days” respectively. In C.’s analysis, the Theogony bears the mark of Hesiod’s originality in presenting the ordering of the cosmos from chaos to stability under the reign of Zeus. The genealogical evolution it recounts implies an inevitable finality, but includes certain nodal points, moments where genealogy is anticipated or postponed. These nodal points mark Hesiod’s choices in organizing his material, and so are crucial indicators of Hesiod’s cosmogonic thought. It is, for instance, only after narrating the first tale of Gaia’s vengeance against Uranus that Hesiod returns to catalogue the offspring of Night and Eris, part of the primal line of Chaos; this nodal point of organization underscores the cycles of generation, violence, and deception which persist as destabilizing forces in the cosmos. Theology trumps chronology in the organization of material in the Theogony. Again in Chapter Two the design of the Works and Days is a key to C.’s reading; therein textual building blocks are ordered to present “the linear progress and inner dynamic of Hesiod’s argument” (33) to his brother Perses and to the kings. Although this protreptic poem takes the education of Perses as its nominal subject, this “dramatic monologue” addresses “us, his audience, both as recipients and witnesses” (34). The object here, as C. presents it with support from game theory (notably “the Prisoner’s Dilemma” summarized on 38), is to persuade Perses “that his interest lies in promoting justice among the kings” for his own benefit and that of the community as a whole (41). From the communal affair of justice, Hesiod turns to the theme of work and the focus narrows from community to oikos. The advice becomes more generalized; for C. the text has now shifted from advice for Perses to “Hesiod’s ideal addressee, ὁ πανάριστος, like Hesiod, ‘the man who can think for himself and sees how things will turn out in the end'” (47). The balance of the book returns to themes announced in these two opening chapters.

Chapter Three, “Overtures,” concentrates on the beginnings of both Theogony and Works and Days. Hesiod is presented as a self-conscious poet, describing the beginnings of the cosmos and also meditating upon his own beginnings as a theogonic poet. Between the poem’s beginning and the scene of initiation (v. 24 ff.), we have a brief catalogue of gods which is neither complete nor obviously ordered. For C., Hesiod begins with the here and now of the localized, epichoric Heliconian Muses, before preceding to the panhellenic, Olympian Muses. Similarly Hesiod dwells upon the present of his own performance; as C. reads vv. 27-28, Hesiod self-consciously acknowledges the limits of his knowledge while also emphasizing that the “knowledge of eternal things” (67) is transmitted to him from the Muses. This conclusion is based on a nuanced reading of v. 32 in light of similarly worded passages drawn from the corpus of Greek literature (64-67); Hesiod commingles his voice with that of the Muses and joins them in mollifying quarrels and soothing cares. Hesiod occupies a position closer to Olympian divinities than are the mortals to whom he addresses his poem. Hesiod’s double initiation in the opening of the Theogony also prefigures his role in the Works and Days, namely to instruct Perses in ἐτήτυμα, “things as they are” in C.’s reading, while the Muses praise Zeus and Zeus oversees Hesiod’s attempt to fill the political vacuum created by gift-devouring kings and instruct Perses in the ways of the human world.

Chapter Four, “The origins and nature of mankind,” studies the myth of the five races in the Works and Days. C. emphasizes the logic ordering this narrative; by our own iron age, the divine plan has worked out a sense of distance and hierarchy between mortals and immortals. From the myth of the five races we learn the value of work and piety, while also learning our place in the universe. In the Theogony, Night’s offspring (Nemesis, Old Age, Hunger, Toil) “exclusively influence human life,” so humans must pre-date these entities; this divergent anthropogony portrays humankind as coeval with the first evil, Uranus’ abuse of Gaia. C. argues that mankind’s progenitors are the Giants and Melian Nymphs, marking “the origin of the human race as the casual by-product of a violent cosmic drama that is simultaneously the first act of the myth of divine succession” (97-8). The terrestrial point of view in the Works and Days posits a mythic golden age before the rise of Zeus to Olympian power; the Olympian perspective in the Theogony expresses anxiety about potential threat mortals represent to immortals.

Chapter Five, “The two Prometheuses,” continues the analysis begun in the previous chapter, focusing on the human condition while building on the earlier work of Vernant and Rudhardt. In this chapter, C. examines the two poems’ Prometheus episodes, reading each narrative as heterogeneous (125). The Theogony’s narrative focuses on “the rivalry between Prometheus and Zeus,” while the version in the Works and Days “omits all mention of Prometheus’ fate, and focuses on the human lot” (105). Combining the position of the tale of Prometheus in the Theogony (after the tales of the Cyclopes and the Hundred-Handers, tales which emphasize reciprocity and political alliances) and Prometheus’ distribution of the ox at the feast at Mekone, C. reads Prometheus as a pretender to Zeus’ throne; Prometheus’ gift of the edible parts of the ox to mankind “presupposes a reciprocal counter-gift on the part of men, presumably their support of Prometheus in the contest between the Titan and Zeus” (107). In light of this reading, C. proposes to emend Works and Days 563 by reading μελίνοισι for μελίῃσι (the text printed in West’s 1966 commentary and in Solmsen’s 1970 OCT); the meaning would be “something like ‘sprung from the ash-tree nymphs’ as the Scholiast claims” (109), and so refer to the progenitors of mankind, discussed in the preceding chapter. C. refutes West, arguing that Zeus, cognizant of Prometheus’ ruse, used Prometheus to effect the separation of mortals and immortals. Consequently, the Prometheus myth is indicative of human history: in the Works and Days human history includes an earlier and happier phase, then the grim present reality; the Theogony, which recounts Prometheus’ punishment and liberation, includes the hero Heracles (liberator of Prometheus), who ultimately serves as a sign of renewed ties between mortals and immortals. In the Theogony the Prometheus story fits into the larger narrative of the “domestication of mankind” (117). A reading of the Prometheus myth in the Works and Days must account for the creation of Pandora; the complementary “account of the fabrication of the Woman/Wife in the Theogony” (120) underscores the message here. As C. summarizes, “The sending of Pandora and her jar would then constitute part of Zeus’s final dispensation, simultaneously ridding Olympus of noxious forces and foisting them off on mankind” (125). What’s good for the Olympians is not good for the mortals.

Chapter Six, “Perspectives on gods and men,” examines the roles of human beings in the Theogony (especially in the Hymn to Hecate) and gods in Works and Days, respectively. Hecate is presented not as the “willing goddess” of many previous scholars but as the mediating, “willful goddess,” the middle term of Hesiodic theodicy. Thus the placement of the Hecate episode before the birth of Zeus and the tale of Prometheus is a “bold hysteron proteron” which “explains how the mediation inaugurated by Prometheus’ deception operates in the post-Promethean age” (138). Hecate becomes the bottleneck through which human prayers and sacrifices must pass to reach the Olympians; conversely Zeus figures prominently in the Works and Days and the other gods become conspicuous through their absence. According to C. Zeus’s presence underlines “the distance between human beings and the gods in Hesiod’s age of iron” (143). The theological picture in the Works and Days, seen from the human perspective, is bleaker than that in the Theogony; here Zeus replaces Hecate, but his presence recedes as the poem progresses. The Days section teaches us that much of human life is unknown and “the human condition is viewed as naked and vulnerable” (149). This chapter then presents a refined vision of the cosmos as depicted in the two major Hesiodic poems.

Chapter Seven, “Hybrids,” studies monsters and heroes. Both classes of beings are anomalous, and so inherently oppose the principle of increasing organization and classification which governs the Hesiodic texts. C. dwells upon the monsters Chrysaor (whom C. describes as “a shadowy presence” [154]), the Hydra (the first eruption of the monstrous in the heart of the inhabited world and not at its outer reaches), and the Chimaera (about whom little is known). To explain the difference between monsters and heroes, C. points to the birth of the monsters before, the birth of heroes after, Zeus’s rise to power. In her reading, the cultural logic underlying Hesiod’s poems is this: miscegenation is monstrous when Zeus is still creating and enforcing distinctions between gods and men, but once Zeus has established his preeminence, then the heroes who come afterwards will never pose a serious challenge to Zeus or the Olympian pantheon he has installed. The heroes span the Theogony (where they appear at the end and are linked with the slaying of monsters) and the Works and Days (where they are previous race and linked with epic wars). After Prometheus and the separation of gods and men, the demigods mark a temporary reconciliation of the two spheres of being; similarly, the catalogue of marriages at the end of the Theogony (930-61) marks the reconciliation of Zeus and Hera, “through the harmonious unions of their offspring”, with the heroes manifesting the “cosmic antagonism between male and female” while also constituting “the means to its resolution” (163). The Catalogue of Women continues the Theogony and, as C. tentatively sketches at the end of this chapter, offers us the heroic perspective on the workings of the cosmos.

The Conclusion, “Hesiod and Calchis at Aulis” summarizes Hesiod’s poetic project and glances at the Certamen. For C. Hesiod narrates larger, more cosmic truths — in the Theogony ” that which is eternal and divine,” in the Works and Days “the contingent nature of human life, its subjection to time and mortality, and the rules imposed by the eternal gods that regulate it” (175). With the help of the Muses and his own status as πανάριστος Hesiod possesses knowledge rivaling that of the famous seer, Calchas. In this respect, C. closes her monograph with remarks on the Certamen and the fragmentary Melampodia; in such poetic contests (between poets in the first case, seers in the second), Hesiodic poetry is victorious because it embraces more universal themes.

Those readers familiar with C.’s previous work will recognize certain recurring themes, such as the emphasis on divine versus mortal time (54-69) or on the use of deictic elements in the ancient Greek language. C. refers to other works of ancient Greek literature in interpreting the Hesiodic corpus; this breadth is one of the book’s main strengths. For example, writing about Hope in Pandora’s jar, C. draws upon the Prometheus Bound and the character of Achilles (who “constitutes the exception that proves the rule,” 103n9) to argue that the hope arising from ignorance of the hour of one’s own death is a defining mark of the human condition. Conversely, C. also focuses on the specific versions of myths in the Theogony and Works and Days; this tension between the particular Hesiodic texts and the more universal role of the myths in question runs throughout the book and has methodological consequences. Similarity of diction can point up the connections between Night’s offspring and Uranus’ abuses of Gaia (96), but similar, gnomic utterances at the end of the Prometheus myths (Works and Days 105 and Theogony 613) can “obscure the important difference in their referents” (105), the former referring to human beings, the latter aimed at Prometheus. Context is of paramount importance, but this method of analysis is open to claims of special pleading, or of reading the text through the lens of a preconceived master-narrative. Finally, a structural view of the cosmos underlies C.’s work, with the binary opposition between mortals and immortals the crucial distinction; transgressors — such as Prometheus, monsters, or heroes — reinforce this opposition. I was surprised that C. did not extend her argument to the astronomical poems which are attributed to Hesiod but no longer extant; her analysis of Hesiod’s cosmos would seem to offer ready account for poems on the meanings of heavenly bodies. In conclusion, one may disagree with some of the specifics of Clay’s argument, but in the final analysis this remains a thoughtful book which repays careful study and will become a cornerstone of future Hesiodic scholarship.