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Legendary Greece:







THE Hesiodic theogony gives no account of anything like a creation of man, nor does it seem that such an idea was much entertained in the legendary vein of Grecian imagination; which commonly carried back the present men by successive generations to some primitive ancestor, himself sprung from the soil, or from a neighboring river, or mountain, or from a god, a nymph, &c. But the poet of the Hesiodic “Works and Days” has given us a narrative conceived in a very different spirit respecting the origin of the human race, more in harmony with the sober and melancholy ethical tone which reigns through that poem.

First (he tells us) the Olympic gods made the golden race,—good, perfect, and happy men, who lived from the spontaneous abundance of the earth, in ease and tranquility, like the gods themselves: they suffered neither disease nor old-age, and their death was like a gentle sleep. After death they became, by the award of Zeus, guardian terrestrial demons, who watch unseen over the proceedings of mankind—with the regal privilege of dispensing to them wealth, and taking account of good and bad deeds.

Next, the gods made the silver race,—unlike and greatly inferior, both in mind and body, to the golden. The men of this race were reckless and mischievous towards each other, and disdainful to the immortal gods, to whom they refused to offer either worship or sacrifice. Zeus in his wrath buried them in the earth; but there they still enjoy a secondary honor, as the Blest of the underworld.

Thirdly, Zeus made the brazen race, quite different from the silver. They were made of hard ash-wood, pugnacious and terrible: they were of immense strength and adamantine soul, neither raising nor touching bread. Their arms, their houses, and their implements were all of brass: there was then no iron. This race, eternally fighting, perished by each other's hands, died out, and descended without name or privilege to Hades.

Next, Zeus made a fourth race, far juster and better than the last preceding. These were the Heroes or demigods, who fought at the sieges of Troy and Thebes. But this splendid stock also became extinct: some perished in war, others were removed by Zeus to a happier state in the islands of the Blest. There they dwell in peace and comfort, under the government of Kronos, reaping thrice in the year the spontaneous produce of the earth.

The fifth race, which succeeds to the Heroes, is of iron: it is the race to which the poet himself belongs, and bitterly does he regret it. He finds his contemporaries mischievous, dishonest, unjust, ungrateful, given to perjury, careless both of the ties of consanguinity and of the behests of the gods: Nemesis and Edo’s (Ethical Self-reproach) have left earth and gone back to Olympus. How keenly does he wish that his lot had been cast either earlier or later! This iron race is doomed to continual guilt, care, and suffering, with a small infusion of good; but the time will come when Zeus will put an end to it. The poet does not venture to predict what sort of race will succeed.

Such is the aeries of distinct races of men, which Hesiod, or the author of the “Works and Days”, enumerates as having existed down to his own time. I give it as it stands, without placing much confidence in the various explanations which critics have offered. It stands out in more than one respect from the general tone and sentiment of Grecian legend: moreover, the sequence of races is neither natural nor homogeneous,—the heroic race not having any metallic denomination, and not occupying any legitimate place in immediate succession to the brazen. Nor is the conception of the daemons in harmony either with Homer or with the Hesiodic theogony. In Homer, there is scarcely any distinction between gods and daemons: farther, the gods are stated to go about and visit the cities of men in various disguises for the purpose of inspecting good and evil proceedings. But in the poem now before us, the distinction between gods and demons is generic. The latter are invisible tenants of earth, remnants of the once happy golden race whom the Olympic gods first made: the remnants of the second or silver race are not daemons, nor are they tenants of earth, but they still enjoy an honorable posthumous existence as the Blest of the underworld. Nevertheless the Hesiodic daemons are in no way authors or abettors of evil: on the contrary, they form the unseen police of the gods, for the purpose of repressing wicked behavior in the world.

We may trace, I think, in this quintuple succession of earthly races, set forth by the author of the “Works and Days”, the confluence of two veins of sentiment, not consistent one with the other, yet both co-existing in the author’s mind. The drift of his poem is thoroughly didactic and ethical. Though deeply penetrated with the injustice and suffering which darken the face of human life, he nevertheless strives to maintain both in himself and in others, a conviction that on the whole the just and laborious man will come off well, and he enforces in considerable detail the lessons of practical prudence and virtue. This ethical sentiment, which dictates his appreciation of the present, also guides his imagination as to the past. It is pleasing to him to bridge over the chasm between the gods and degenerate man, by the supposition of previous races,—the first altogether pure, the second worse than the first, and the third still worse than the second; and to show further how the first race passed by gentle death-sleep into glorious immortality; how the second race was sufficiently wicked to drive Zeus to bury them in the underworld, yet still leaving them a certain measure of honor; while the third was so desperately violent as to perish by its own animosities, without either name or honor of any kind. The conception of the golden race passing after death into good guardian daemons, which some supposed to have been derived from a comparison with oriental angels, presents itself to the poet partly as approximating this race to the gods, partly as a means of constituting a triple gradation of post-obituary existence, proportioned to the character of each race whilst alive. The denominations of gold and silver, given to the two first races, justify themselves, like those given by Simonides of Amorgos and by Phokylides to the different characters of women, derived from the dog, the bee, the mare, the ass, and other animals; and the epithet of brazen is specially explained by reference to the material which the pugnacious third race so plentifully employed for their arms and other implements.

So far we trace intelligibly enough the moralizing vein: we find the revolutions of the past so arranged as to serve partly as an ethical lesson, partly as a suitable preface to the present. But fourth in the list comes “the divine race of Heroes” and here a new vein of thought is opened by the poet. The symmetry of his ethical past is broken up, in order to make way for these cherished beings of the national faith. For though the author of the “Works and Days” was himself of a didactic cast of thought, like Phokylides, or Solon, or Theognis, yet he had present to his feelings, in common with his country­men, the picture of Grecian foretime, as it was set forth in the current myths, and still more in Homer and those other epical productions which were then the only existing literature and history. It was impossible for him to exclude, from his sketch of the past, either the great persons or the glorious exploits which these poems ennobled; and even if he himself could have consented to such an exclusion, the sketch would have become repulsive to his bearers. But the chiefs who figured before Thebes and Troy could not be well identified either with the golden, the silver, or the brazen race: moreover, it was essential that they should be placed in immediate contiguity with the present race, because their descendants, real or supposed, were the most prominent and conspicuous of existing men. Hence the poet is obliged to assign to them the fourth place in the series, and to interrupt the descending ethical movement in order to interpolate them between the brazen and the iron race, with neither of which they present any analogy. The iron race, to which the poet himself unhappily belongs, is the legitimate successor, not of the heroic, but of the brazen. Instead of the fierce and self-annihilating pugnacity which characterizes the latter, the iron race manifests an aggregate of smaller and meaner vices and mischiefs, It will not perish by suicidal extinction—but it is growing worse and worse, and is gradually losing its vigor, so that Zeus will not vouchsafe to preserve much longer such a race upon the earth.




The Works and Days, earliest didactic poem.

I conceive that the series of races imagined by the poet of the “Works and Days” is the product of two distinct and incongruous veins of imagination,—the didactic or ethical blending with the primitive mythical or epical. His poem is remarkable as the most ancient didactic production of the Greeks, and as one of the first symptoms of a new tone of sentiment finding its way into their literature, never afterwards to become extinct. The tendency of the “Works and Days” is antiheroic: far from seeking to inspire admiration for adventurous enterprise, the author inculcates the strictest justice, the most unremitting labor and frugality, and a sober, not to say anxious, estimate of all the minute specialties of the future. Prudence and probity are his means,—practical comfort and happiness his end. But he deeply feels, and keenly exposes, the manifold wickedness and shortcomings of his contemporaries, in reference to this capital standard. He turns with displeasure from the present men, not because they are too feeble to hurl either the spear of Achilles or some vast boundary-stone, but because they are rapacious, knavish, and unprincipled.

The daemons first introduced into the religious atmosphere of the Grecian world by the author of the “Works and Days”—as generically different from the gods, but essentially good, and forming the intermediate agents and police between gods and men,—are deserving of attention. They are the seed of a doctrine which afterwards underwent many changes, and became of great importance, first as one of the constituent elements of pagan faith, then as one of the helps to its subversion. It will be recollected that the buried remnants of the half-wicked silver race, though they are not recognized as demons, are still considered as having a substantive existence, a name, and dignity, in the underworld.

The step was easy, to treat them as demons also, but as demons of a defective and malignant character: this step was made by Empedocles and Xenocrates, and to a certain extent countenanced by Plato. There came thus to be admitted among the pagan philosophizers daemons both good and bad, in every degree: and these daemons were found available as a means of explaining many phenomena for which it was not convenient to admit the agency of the gods. They served to relieve the gods from the odium of physical and moral evils, as well as from the necessity of constantly meddling in small affairs. The objectionable ceremonies of the pagan religion were defended upon the ground that in no other way could the exigencies of such malignant beings be appeased. The demons were most frequently noticed as causes of evil, and thus the name came insensibly to convey with it a bad sense,—the idea of an evil being as contrasted with the goodness of a god. So it was found by the Christian writers when they commenced their controversy with paganism. One branch of their argument led them to identify the pagan gods with demons in the evil sense, and the insensible change in the received meaning of the word lent them a specious assistance.

For they could easily show, that not only in Homer, but in the general language of early pagans, all the gods generally were spoken of as demons—and therefore, verbally speaking, Clemens and Tatian seemed to affirm nothing more against Zeus or Apollo than was involved in the language of paganism itself. Yet the audience of Homer or Sophocles would have strenuously repudiated the proposition, if it had been put to them in the sense which the word demon bore in the ago and among the circle of these Christian writers.

In the imagination of the author of the “Works and Days”, the demons occupy an important place, and are regarded as being of serious practical efficiency. When he is remonstrating with the rulers around him upon their gross injustice and corruption, he reminds them of the vast number of these immortal servants of Zeus who are perpetually on guard amidst mankind, and through whom the visitations of the gods will descend even upon the most potent evil-doers. His supposition that the demons were not gods, but departed men of the golden race, allowed him to multiply their number indefinitely, without too much cheapening the divine dignity.

As this poet, enslaved by the current legends, has introduced the heroic race into a series to which they do not legitimately belong—so he has under the same influence inserted in another part of his poem the myth of Pandora and Prometheus, as a means of explaining the primary diffusion, and actual abundance, of evil among mankind. Yet this myth can in no way consist, with his quintuple scale of distinct races, and is in fact a totally distinct theory to explain the same problem,—the transition of mankind from a supposed state of antecedent happiness to one of present toil and suffering. Such an inconsistency is not a sufficient reason for questioning the genuineness of either passage; for the two stories, though one contradicts the other, both harmonies with that central purpose which governs the author’s mind,—a querulous and didactic appreciation of the present. That such was his purpose appears not only from the whole tenor of his poem, but also from the remarkable fact that his own personality, his own adventures and kindred, and his own sufferings figure in it conspicuously. And this introduction of self-imparts to it a peculiar interest. The father of Hesiod came over from the Eolic Kyme, with the view of bettering his condition, and settled at Askra in Boeotia, at the foot of Mount Helicon. After his death his two sons divided the family inheritance: but Hesiod bitterly complains that his brother Perses cheated and went to law with him, and obtained through corrupt judges an unjust decision. He farther reproaches his brother with a preference for the suits and unprofitable bustle of the agora, at a time when he ought to be laboring for his subsistence in the field. Askra indeed was a miserable place, repulsive both in summer and winter. Hesiod had never crossed the sea, except once from Aulis to Euboea, whither he went to attend the funeral-games of Amphidamas, the chief of Chalcis: he sung a hymn, and gained as prize a tripod, which he consecrated to the muses in Helicon.

Probable age of the poem.

These particulars, scanty as they are, possess a peculiar value, as the earliest authentic memorandum respecting the doing or suffering of any actual Greek person. There is no external testimony at all worthy of trust respecting the age of the “Works and Days” Herodotus treats Hesiod and Homer as belonging to the same age, four hundred years before his own time; and there are other statements besides, some placing Hesiod at an earlier date than Homer, some at a later. Looking at the internal evidences, we may observe that the pervading sentiment, tone, and purpose of the poem is widely different from that of the Iliad and Odyssey, and analogous to what we read respecting the compositions of Archilochus and the Amorgian Simonides. The author of the “Works and Days” is indeed a preacher and not a satirist: but with this distinction, we find in him the same predominance of the present and the positive, the same disposition to turn the muse into an exponent of his own personal wrongs, the same employment of Aesopic fable by way of illustration, and the same unfavorable estimate of the female sex, all of which may be traced in the two poets above-mentioned, placing both of them in contrast with the Homeric epic. Such an internal analogy, in the absence of good testimony, is the best guide which we can follow in determining the date of the “Works and Days”, which we should accordingly place shortly after the year 700 BC. The style of the poem might indeed afford a proof that the ancient and uniform hexameter, though well adapted to continuous legendary narrative or to solemn hymns, was somewhat monotonous when called upon either to serve a polemical purpose or to impress a striking moral lesson. When poets, then the only existing composers, first began to apply their thoughts to the cut and thrust of actual life, aggressive or didactic, the verse would be seen to require a new, livelier, and smarter metre; and out of this want grew the elegiac and the iambic verse, both seemingly contemporaneous, and both intended to supplant the primitive hexameter for the short effusions then coming into vogue.