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Hesiod | Biography

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Although some scholars disagree, most believe Hesiod was an actual person who lived in Archaic Greece, sometime around the year 700 BCE. The exact dates of his birth and death are unknown. The fragmentary knowledge of his distinct personality and life story available to current day scholars is found in his writing.

Early Life

According to information that Hesiod shares about himself, his father came from a place called Cyme in Asia Minor (in what is now Turkey). There, he tried to make his life as a seafaring tradesman but was unsuccessful. So he came to mainland Greece, to the province of Boeotia. He settled near Mount Helicon in a village called Ascra and started a farm there. Hesiod later described it as "bad in winter, sultry in the summer, and good at no time." It is unclear if Hesiod and his brother were born before or after his parents moved to Ascra.

Eventually his father died, leaving the farm to Hesiod and his brother, Perses. Hesiod believed Perses cheated him out of his fair share of his inheritance with the help of corrupt judges. He addresses his frustration with his brother's cheating and laziness in his poem Works and Days.

Although he expresses little respect for the idle wealthy, he does not represent himself as poor—according to his own description, his household supports several slaves and a team of oxen. Although he may have been a peasant farmer or a yeoman farmer who was successful enough to be independent, he likely had to work hard for that independence.

Hesiod as a Poet

Hesiod was likely a rhapsode, or person who sings and recites (and, in this case, creates) epic poems. During his lifetime, rhapsodes traveled all over Greece—the mainland, the islands, the coast of Asia Minor, and its colonies—to sing and compete at festivals.

He writes in Works and Days that he won a poetic contest at the funeral games of a man named Amphidamas at Chalcis on the island of Euboea. Because these funeral games were a historic occasion, scholars believe they can draw an approximate range for Hesiod's life.

In the Theogony, Hesiod claims he received his poetic skills from the nine Greek Muses, or goddesses who preside over the arts and sciences. They appeared to him while he was taking care of a flock of sheep near Mount Helicon. He says they appeared to him, insulted him, but also gave him a sturdy shoot of laurel and told him to sing about past and future, the histories of the gods, and the Muses themselves. This idea—of Muses giving poets the creative power to write and recite poetry—is part of a poetic tradition that has continued to this day, and poets will frequently call upon a specific Muse to help them with a literary undertaking. Not only does Hesiod claim to have received the gift of poetry from the Muses, but he also was the first to name each of the nine Muses.

Scholars have long been intrigued by Hesiod's assertive way of talking about himself and inserting himself into his poetry. He is the first Greek poet to have done so. Some scholars think these details mean he created a literary persona and the Hesiod story is all fiction. But others believe he is sincerely describing his own life. In either case, this idea of writing from personal experience opened up new possibilities for writers who followed him.

Ancient people gave Hesiod credit for as many as 16 works, including The Astronomy, The Catalogue of Women, The Ornithomanteia (Divination by Birds), The Precepts of Chiron, and The Shield of Heracles. But today most experts believe only two works can be confidently attributed to him: Works and Days and Theogony. The works likely began as oral poems but were written down near the time they were created, whether by Hesiod or a scribe. There is general agreement that there may be sections added by later poets, however.

Both the Theogony and Works and Days were profoundly influential works, from the ancient world to today. The Theogony was the first text to pull together Greek myths from all over the Greek world into one coherent text. This helped unite the Greeks—a group of separate city-states with very different customs and versions of the same myths—as a people. Since he was the first writer to create and catalog a coherent origin story for the Greek gods, many later poets, playwrights, historians, or artists, from the ancient Greek painter Apelles to the American author Edith Hamilton, drew upon these tales for inspiration.
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