‘Rereading: Works and Days by Hesiod’

‘Rereading: Works and Days by Hesiod’, by Tariq Ali for the Guardian, October 7 2011

I was in my mid-teens when someone gave me a copy of Pears Encyclopaedia of Myth and Legends as a birthday present. It sat on my shelves for many months before I looked at it. When I did, I couldn’t stop reading it. I became an obsessive. It was much more interesting than the boring old monotheistic religions with the single deity in the sky and his enforcers below. The Greek gods and goddesses, and their Egyptian and Indian equivalents (of which I knew very little at the time), were exciting characters, full of foibles and emotions far more closely associated with humans: love, sex, anger, jealousy. The main difference was that the gods were immortal. And yet even in ancient times there were sceptics who denied the existence of the gods, or gods who rebelled and were punished, such as Prometheus, chained to a rock for eternity because he broke the Mount Olympus monopoly and provided humans with the secret of fire. Because of this, he was for ever Marx’s favourite Greek god. “I detest all gods,” said the enchained Prometheus, and the 19th-century philosopher used the image to proclaim his own philosophy: “What was inward illumination becomes a consuming flame that turns outward.”

Later, Prometheus sent Hermes, the messenger of the gods, packing with a memorable verbal kick up his backside: “Be sure of this, I would not change my evil plight for your servility. It is better to be slave to the rock than to serve Father Zeus as his faithful messenger.” A sentence, I think, that could never be understood by contemporary European politicians, permanently in thrall to a system that worships commodities more than human beings, and under the military command of the Father in the White House.

It was reading and rereading the old myths that sent me off happily to Homer, both his tragedy (The Iliad) and his comic and happy-endingOdyssey. The goddess Athena became an instant favourite. Still is.Hesiod came later, much later, but encountering him was a delight that took me back to the encyclopedia, only to transcend it. Hesiod’s cosmic poetry, recounting the history – Theogony – of the pagan gods, has no equal in the literature that followed. Killing the father, something Freud picked up, plays a central part in the evolution that leads to the victory of Zeus and stability on Mount Olympus.

What of that other mound that bears the name of Venus? Where did that originate? Our poet’s version is as follows. Cronus kills his father Uranus, uses a flint to saw off his testicles and hurls them into the sea (some claim the ancient Greek sport of throwing the discus has its origins here). From this blood and gore there emerges the goddess of love and beauty. A playful dialectic is obviously at work. What can compete with Hesiod’s description of the birth of Venus? Certainly not the undialectical Florentine Sandro Botticelli: “The genitalia themselves, fresh cut with flint, were thrown / Clear of the mainland into the restless, white-capped sea, / Where they floated a long time. A white foam from the god-flesh / Collected around them, and in that foam a maiden developed / And grew. Her first approach to land was near holy Kythera, / And from there she floated on to the island of Cyprus. / There she came ashore, an awesome, beautiful divinity. / Tender grass sprouted up under her slender feet.”

There is no real agreement among scholars as to whether Homer and Hesiod were contemporaries or whether Homer came a hundred or so years later or earlier. How could there be, given that both poets recited and sang in an oral culture. The writing came later. Some zealots invented (based on a few lines from Hesiod’s Works and Days) an ancient poetry competition between the two poets and claimed that Hesiod won the prize. Pure fantasy.read more

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