Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
3. Homer 5. Cosmogony

From Burnet's Introduction

IV. Hesiod
When we come to Hesiod, we seem to be in another world. We hear stories of the gods which are not only irrational but repulsive, and these are told quite seriously. Hesiod makes the Muses say: "We know how to tell many false things that are like the truth; but we know too, when we will, to utter what is true."9 This means that he was conscious of the difference between the Homeric spirit and his own. The old light-heartedness is gone, and it is important to tell the truth about the gods. Hesiod knows, too, that he belongs to a later and a sadder time than Homer. In describing the Ages of the World, he inserts a fifth age between those of Bronze and Iron. That is the Age of the Heroes, the age Homer sang of. It was better than the Bronze Age which came before it, and far better than that which followed it, the Age of Iron, in which Hesiod lives.10 He also feels that he is singing for another class. It is to shepherds and husbandmen of the older race he addresses himself, and the Achaian princes for whom Homer sang have become remote persons who give "crooked dooms." The romance and splendour of the Achaian Middle Ages meant nothing to the common people. The primitive view of the world had never really died out among them; so it was natural for their first spokesman to assume it in his poems. That is why we find in Hesiod these old savage tales, which Homer disdained.

Yet it would be wrong to see in the Theogony a mere revival of the old superstition. Hesiod could not help being affected by the new spirit, and he became a pioneer in spite of himself. The rudiments of what grew into Ionic science and history are to be found in his poems, and he really did more than any one to hasten that decay of the old ideas which he was seeking to arrest. The Theogony is an attempt to reduce all the stories about the gods into a single system, and system is fatal to so wayward a thing as mythology. Moreover, though the spirit in which Hesiod treats his theme is that of the older race, the gods of whom he sings are for the most part those of the Achaians. This introduces an element of contradiction into the system from first to last. Herodotos tells us that it was Homer and Hesiod who made a theogony for the Hellenes, who gave the gods their names, and distributed among them their offices and arts,11 and it is perfectly true. The Olympian pantheon took the place of the older gods in men's minds, and this was quite as much the doing of Hesiod as of Homer. The ordinary man would hardly recognise his gods in the humanised figures, detached from all local associations, which poetry had substituted for the older objects of worship. Such gods were incapable of satisfying the needs of the people, and that is the secret of the religious revival we shall have to consider later.

Burnet's Notes


9. Hes. Theog. 27 (the words are borrowed from Od. xix. 203). The Muses are the same as those who inspired Homer, which means that Hesiod wrote in hexameters and used the Epic dialect.

10. There is great historical insight here. It was Hesiod, not our modern historians, who first pointed out that the "Greek Middle Ages" were a break in the normal development.

11. Herod. ii. 53.

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