Hesiod (c. 700 bce) was a probable contemporary of Homer, and the writings of both represent one of the earliest phases of Greek literature. Although a variety of writings are attributed to him (his only known complete works are Theogony and Works and Days), Hesiod stands out not only as an important source of Greek mythology but also as one of the first Western philosophers to conceive of and elaborate a cyclical view of time. He is said to have been a simple shepherd who was rewarded with deep insight by the Muses, who came to him in a mist. His views reflect a more practical understanding of life than do those of many of the ancient Greek philosophers who were from an elite class.
Theogony, which likely includes a compilation of oral traditions and myths, tells of the origins and chronology of the gods as well as the creation of the heavens and the earth. Like nearly all creation myths, it sets up a view of time and a relationship between humans and the world of the gods. However, it is in his Works and Days that Hesiod elaborates his views on the topic of time.
Hesiod divides existence into five stages, or “Ages of Man.” The first, the Golden Age, is ruled by Cronus, the god of time. Under his control, it is an era of truth, justice, and peace. People are filled with wisdom, are of a contented nature, and, though considered mortal, are ageless. Zeus, the son of Cronus, takes over at the dawn of the Silver Age. It is one in which differences and discord begin, and morality declines. Human existence is shortened and the necessity to work is born. During the Bronze Age, strife and violence continue to increase, as do human passion and frailty. The fourth stage is the Heroic Age and is connected with the Trojan War. While human attributes seem to improve somewhat, violence dominates. The last is the Iron Age and is associated with the present. In many ways, it is similar to the present age of degradation as conceptualized in Hindu (Kali Yuga) and Buddhist mythology. Human life is at its shortest, while truth, justice, and peace are suppressed by crime, greed, deceit, and violence. The gods forsake humanity and evil rules.
Ultimately, however, Hesiod uses Works and Days to provide a vindication for morality and the righteous. In an eschatological vision, goodness and justice (dike) prevail and triumph, while injustice (hubris) loses out. A subsequent section of the text is devoted to teachings on morality and ritual propriety.
Hesiod’s influence can been seen in the Pythagorian concept of a cyclical reality and possibly in the works of Homer as well. His elaboration of a golden age, his views on the necessity and value of physical work, and his prescriptions on morality have all had a continuing impact on Western thinking.
See also Herodotus; Homer; Mythology; Presocratic Age;
Hesiod. (1991). The works and days; Theogony: The
shield of Herakles (R. Lattimore, Trans.). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Hesiod. (1999). Theogony, works and days (M. L. West,
Trans.). New York: Oxford University Press.