BMCR 2007.01.34

Mousaôn archômetha: O Hsiodos kai h archaikê epikê poiesê

, , Mousaōn archōmetha : ho Hēsiodos kai hē archaikē epikē poiēsē. Theōrētikes epistēmes. Klasikē philologia. Athens: Ekdoseis Patakē, 2006. 591 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 960161897X €35.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

As suggested by the quotation from the Theogony “Mousaon archometha” used as a title, this book deals with Hesiod’s poetry and poetics within the tradition of archaic epic. Although the subject is not new (it dates back to the legendary contest between Homer and Hesiod), the contributors of the volume approach the vital question of what does ‘Hesiod’ represent against the background of the Near Eastern literature and archaic Greek epic and philosophy in a manner that is both learned and innovative. At the outset the editors declare that their main purpose is to provide the Greek-speaking audience (with emphasis on the academic readers) with a specialized introduction to Hesiod, focusing their attention on the Theogony and the Works and Days; the third poem of the Hesiodic corpus, the Catalogue of Women, is intentionally ignored, due to the vexed questions associated with its preservation in fragments. Taking into account the recent trends in Hesiodic scholarship, the four studies of this collective volume cover the following areas: the relation of Hesiod to Near Eastern literature, the poetics of Hesiod’s major poems, the question of coherence in the Works and Days and, finally, the philosophical background of Hesiodic poetry.

The volume is prefaced by Glenn W. Most (pp. 15-20), who offers a brief but substantial overview of the four extensive studies (comprising an average of 130 pages each!) within the context of current Hesiodic scholarhip. Most’s concluding remark is that the book belongs to first-rate scholarship not only by Greek but also by international standards (he, therefore, suggests that it should be translated into English in order to be accessed by scholars around the world).

Nikos Bezantakos deals with the Eastern models of Hesiodic poetry. Apart from an introduction dedicated to the ‘Stand der Forschung’ (mainly Burkert and West) regarding the general relation between Greece and the East, his analysis falls into three parts. In the first part (“The East”, pp. 27-55) he sets the spatial and temporal limits of the term ‘East’, and then provides a general outline of Eastern theogonic and didactic literature; this section is underpinned by reference to historical and textual evidence, a bibliographical guide on the subject and detailed summaries of Eastern poems with theogonic content or of didactic purpose. The core of the second part (“Hesiod: Theogony”, pp. 55-82) deals with theogonic literature, both Greek (mainly Orphic) and Eastern. In order to shed light on Hesiod’s relation with other theogonic/cosmogonic texts, Bezantakos uses the conventional but fruitful method of comparison. By setting side by side the primary sources, he traces the key themes of any theogonic narrative, namely the line of succession, the motif of the castration, the motif of the swallowing of the rock, the theomachy, the confrontation with the monster, both in Hesiod and in the textual tradition of the Phoenicians, the Hittites, the Babylonians, the Hebrews and, on the Greek side, of the Orphics. The most extensive third part (“Hesiod: Works and Days”, pp. 32-134) is dedicated to the Eastern tradition of didactic poetry. Adopting the same method as with theogonic poetry, Bezantakos discusses Hesiod against the Eastern background of three main subjects of the Works and Days —moral and practical instruction, the description of the days and the aitiological myths that frame the instruction; as expected, emphasis is placed on the much discussed myths of Prometheus and Pandora and the myth of the five ages of man. In his brief conclusions (pp. 134-138) Bezantakos views Hesiodic poetry as a result of the long-standing intercultural relations between Greece and the East. In effect, what Bezantakos achieves with his close reading of the texts is to put on display for the reader not only the numerous affinities of Hesiod with his Eastern prototypes but also the differences that divide the Greek poet from them —in minute detail.

The poetry and poetics of Hesiod’s two major epics are explored by Christos Tsagalis in the second chapter. Though the undertaking seems rather ambitious, Tsagalis manages to approach his subject with efficiency and originality, by building up a step-by-step argument and by keeping the balance between his own ideas and the ones expressed by other scholars. The Introduction (pp. 139-153) provides a starting point for the subsequent discussion within the principles set by the studies of Nagy and Lamberton. Tsagalis draws a clear distinction between those who accept the historicity of Hesiod and the ones who view ‘Hesiod’ as a literary persona, emblematic of an anti-Homeric poetic tradition (which formed the so-called Hesiodic corpus) —and explicitly sides with the latter. The first part of the analysis is dedicated to the narrative strategies used in the Theogony (“Narrative and Narrators in Hesiod’s Theogony”, pp. 154-187). In referring to conventional devices, such as the invocation to the Muse, and to the narratological concepts of ‘focalization’, ‘digression’ and ‘commentary’, Tsagalis attempts to reconstruct the Hesiodic persona, which he calls ‘deutero-Hesiodos’,1 as reflected in the Theogony. This textual reflection reveals the poet’s intention to communicate the theogonic tradition to a panhellenic audience by programmatically declaring his independence from it -in defense of his own individuality. The next section is titled “The riddle of the Works and Days: the coherence of the work and the metaphorical interpretation of the poem” (pp. 187-255). Coherence is sought between the following parts of the WD: proem, mythical section (Prometheus and Pandora, the five ages of man, the hawk/nightingale fable), and the chapters dedicated to ‘agriculture’, ‘winter’ and ‘seafaring’. Based on the numerous theoretical approaches to the poem (I single out the thorough discussion of the various interpretations of the five ages myth), Tsagalis suggests that the basic themes underlying the WD might be read as poetological metaphors and self-reflexive comments on Hesiod and his poetry.

Flora Manakidou also addresses the question of coherence in the WD. Unlike Tsagalis who discusses the coherence of the poem from a poetological point of view, Manakidou broadens her perspective and investigates it within the wider issue of Hesiod’s worldview. The introductory chapter (pp. 257-279) provides a thorough account of analytical and unitarian readings of the WD and poses (for a second time in the book) the crucial question of whether a historical ‘Hesiod’ really existed. Manakidou explicitly accepts the historicity of Hesiod, since, in her opinion, the WD is only intelligible, if seen in the light of the experiences of an actual person living in the real world. Methodologically she diverges from those who tend to divide the poem into smaller units, themes or ideas, suggesting instead a unified reading based on the princilel of the polarity between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’, a principle that runs through the entire poem (pp. 279-287). Manakidou then proceeds with the analysis of the poem progressing linearly from one section to the other (“The Poem”, pp. 288-389). Hesiod, in introducing the myth of the double Eris, first of the bad and then of the good one, points to the duality of (his) world: the dialectic of good and bad determines each and every issue in the micro- and macro-cosmos, and by extension the manner of their presentation in the WD. This juxtaposition is present in every section of the poem —the myths of Pandora and of the five ages of man, the discussion of justice and work and the description of the ‘days’. Within this ideological frame, and with his paraenetic purpose in mind, Hesiod aspires to transmit an accurate picture of reality to his audience (personal experience as e.g. his conflict with Perses is of primary importance here), and through it the necessary knowledge to face this reality. Although the body of Manakidou’s contribution, in being continuous and not structured into smaller chapters, might seem at times confusing, the conclusive recapitulation (pp. 389-394) significantly helps the reader to summarize the basic points made during her in-depth reading of the WD.

Spyridon Rangos tackles the question of the relation of Hesiod with philosophy in order to demonstrate the affinities of the Hesiodic ‘mythopoetic’ concept of the world with the abstract model of thought as expressed in philosophy. To achieve this daunting task, Rangos carefully structures his treatment into three main sections, each one of which corresponds to a different approach to the central problem: the philosophical background of Hesiod’s poetry, the impact of his thought on the development of Greek philosophy and finally the allegorical and philosophical reading of Hesiodic poetry by post-archaic thinkers. The first section (“The ‘Philosophy’ of Hesiod”, pp. 399-470) begins with a brief overview of Homeric and Near Eastern theogonic thought and soon proceeds to the focal issue, namely the ‘philosophical’ reading of the Theogony. In the proem Hesiod declares his preoccupation with truth; according to Rangos, this ‘thematization of the issue of truth’ is a prelude to the epistemological questions to be raised later by philosophers. One of those questions, namely what are the origins of the universe, lies at the core of the Theogony. Each entity in the Hesiodic universe reveals itself both as a divine force and as a natural power, as a mythical character with its own biography and as a phenomenon of nature. Within this frame, Rangos critically examines the three primary entities of the universe, namely Chaos, Gaia (-Tartara) and Eros, as mythical, philosophical and scientific conceptions. In the second section (“Hesiod and Archaic Thinking”, pp. 470-503), the ancient juxtaposition of Mythos and Logos for Hesiod is rejected; it was Plato who first made a clear distinction between poetry and philosophy/science, whereas before him mythical and metaphorical thought was considered as an alternative mode of philosophical thinking. The main part of this section is dedicated to a detailed comparison between Hesiod and Presocratic philosophers (Thales, Anaximander, Pherecydes, Heraclitus, Parmenides and Empedocles). The reception of Hesiodic thought by various philosophical schools is treated in the final section (“Ancient philosophical readings of Hesiod”, pp. 503-524). Beginning with Aristotle’s perception of Hesiodic cosmogony, Rangos focuses on the interpretation of the Hesiodean Chaos by Peripatetic, Stoic and Neoplatonic philosophers. Two appendices (pp. 525-540), on theogony and cosmogony in Archaic Greece and on the truthfulness of the Hesiodic Muses, close this stimulating discussion of Hesiodic thought.

The value of this collective volume on Hesiod lies in the combination of painstaking attention to detail, critical sensitivity and originality of ideas. Those features make the book particularly appealing to specialists looking for a penetrating insight into Hesiodic poetics and thinking, but also to students, embarking on a serious study of Hesiod.


Nikos P. Bezantakos, “Hesiod and the East”, pp. 21-138

Christos C. Tsagalis, “Poetry and Poetics in the Theogony and in the Works and Days“, pp. 139-255

Flora Manakidou, “Tracing the Works and Days : The Dialectics of the Hesiodic Cosmos and the Question of the Structure of the Poem”, pp. 257-394

Spyridon I. Rangos, “Hesiod and Philosophy: The Mythopoetic Origins of the Truth of Reason in Archaic Greece”, pp. 395-540.


1. The term is borrowed from A. Ballabriga, “Le deutero-Hesiode et la consecration de l’ hesiodisme”, in F. Blaise, P. Judet de la Combe & Ph. Rousseau (edd.), Le Metier du mythe: lectures d’Hesiode, Lille 1996, pp. 71-82.