MYTH AND METAPHYSICS: Hesiod’s “Theogony” and “Works and Days”, in a new translation by C. S. Morrissey

Hesiod Theogony and Works and Days, translated by C. S. Morrissey (Talon Books, 2012)

by Calum Gardner

Our view of the ancient Greek religion is riddled with blind spots. We think we understand this world, presided over by Zeus and Hera, and with each deity ruling his or her assigned element of human life: war for Ares, love for Aphrodite, wisdom for Athene. For the cartoonish reduction of the pantheon and the storybook myths, we must often thank depictions of Roman temples and the adaptations of their authors, like Ovid in his Metamorphoses, but these hide a network of stories which are often far more strange and upsetting than even the ones we think we know. The beauty of Helen of Troy is proverbial, but (except maybe if we’ve read our Yeats closely) her conception, at the rape of Leda by Zeus in the form of a swan, is mentioned less frequently. These ignored myths, however, are often even more important and meaningful: the murder of Cronus by Zeus is the Oedipal story avant la lettre played out on a cosmic scale, and the whole constellation of primeval familicides surrounding it shows that the gods were born in blood. Even those living in a time before civilisation as we know it thought of this as “abominable,” and when placed into the context of world history outlined in the Works and Days, it is even more disquieting, as humans had already been created by Cronus in the first, “Golden” Age, when this is supposed to have transpired: abomination and taboo are part of our history as well. We cultivate notions both in the good old days and in civilisation’s power to better our lot, but this is not an innovation of the modern era. Rather, it is at the very root of a whole tradition of thought – or even traditions, as Hesiod likely derived some of his ideas about decay of the Golden Age to Bronze and Iron from Eastern authors, thus accounting for the aberration of the Heroic age, which Greek myth insists on. According to C. S. Morrissey and his scholarly models, Hesiod comes at the very point when one way of looking at the world was turning into another, when myth became metaphysics.

It is this text, full of the contradictions that precise, quasi-scientific genealogy of a still animistic polytheism must entail, which Morrissey has chosen to translate. He hopes it will be “engaging” and “pleasant” for the reader, and that in large part he has succeeded on both counts is a testament to his English style. It occurs to me to describe his style as “clear,” but that is not entirely true, nor is that entirely a flaw. In Morrissey’s translator’s note, he writes that at times “a translator simply must translate what he thinks the poet means and not what he says,” and in this case doing so leads to very productive ambiguities, as when talking about the influence of the goddess Hecate over livestock. The phrase is in line 447, ex oligon briaei kai ek pollōn meiona: from the few, strong ones, and from the many, lesser ones. Morrissey gives us “she magnifies the small. / But she could turn the great into so much less,” which M.L. West collapses into the po-faced “she makes great out of small, and less out of many” – although in fairness, this preserves the chiasmus of the original. Morrissey’s version, however, has a gnomic quality, and we do feel as if we are glimpsing the art of an ancient poet.

At the same time, the book does not discount the possibility of being used for academic purposes, as the line numbers of the corresponding lines in the original text, not the number of lines in the translation, are printed in the margins. As expressed in the translator’s note, the translation attempts to give a pleasurable experience to the general reader, and features no footnotes or academic clarifications. At times, Morrissey admits, he incorporates an explanation of something which would have been obvious to original Greek readers, as when Mount Othrys, home of the Titans, is described as their “headquarters.” Morrissey states in his “Note” that he wants to avoid a glossary, and West refers us to just such a note at that line, but even if we don’t refer to it we can glean it from the context and the note will tell us much more detail about the mountain’s location. Morrissey’s anachronistic expositions may risk taking us out of the experience, and while it may be important information, we are unlikely to be so completely unequipped to orient ourselves in the world of the Theogony.

The translation of Hesiod is far from a fallow field. The great translator Richmond Lattimore produced a version which, while not the equal of his translations of Homer, are certainly “engaging.” The philologist M. L. West translated Hesiod in 1966, and his prose translation, which is now that supplied by the Oxford World’s Classics series, verges on the dry at times but gives a reliable indication of the sense. Stanley Lombardo, also a translator of Homer, produced a Theogony in 1993 peppered with colloquialisms next to which Morrissey is a voice of moderation. When the Muses appear to Hesiod when he is tending his sheep, West renders their contemptuous appellation agrauloi (“rustics”) as a whole explanatory clause, “shepherds that camp in the wild,” while Stanley Lombardo gives us “hillbillies” and Morrissey selects “bumpkins.” Lombardo and Morrissey know that there will be no word in English that exactly overlaps with the connotations agraulos, but a realistic and tonally appropriate approximation makes for easier reading, and so in that sense Morrissey has achieved his ambition.

That ambition also motivates the most immediately noticeable quirk of this translation: Morrissey splits Hesiod’s long poems into individual, lyric-length pieces, and gives the original titles which often include an alternative subtitle, like “A Chaotic Night of Retribution; or, the Grandchildren of the Void”, or “Seeing the Light; or, the Force Multiplier Effect.” The latter describes an episode in the story of the escalation of the war between the Olympians and the Titans, its subtitle deriving from modern-day military doctrine. Sometime these titles can seem overly tongue-in-cheek, and while Morrissey does acknowledge and defend his flights of fancy in the “Translator’s Note,” they risk taking us too far from the experience. Also, a headline telling us we are about to read about “The Birth of Zeus” or “Six Monsters Descended from Echidna and Typhoeus” is useful, but it steers our attention towards a particular aspect of the episode. We might otherwise have paid more notice to the prophecy that accompanied Zeus’ birth and how that might have informed thought about the prophetic in Greek myth, or to the story of the rape of Echidna, and compared it to similar events elsewhere in the Theogony. Morrissey frequently uses these titles to move our focus and construct our view of the text in a certain way.

Because the matter of the Theogony but not its form has seeped into our culture, where the focus lies is more up for debate than if we were to find it done to the Odyssey, which is arguably as great a source of Hellenicana – Circe, the cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis – as are Hesiod’s catalogues of the pantheon, but whose frame of the hero trying to return home is also widely engaged with throughout our culture. The important part of Hesiod’s framing device, of the muses visiting the poet-shepherd on his mountainside, Morrissey retains. By being treated in several dedicated section-poems – “Hesiod’s Inspiration,” “The Story of the Muses” – is raised to the status of the myths themselves, which is proper because the muses (whose now-famous names, like Calliope and Erato, Hesiod most likely invented) are as much a part of our understanding of Greek mythology as Zeus’ triumph over Cronus. This can risk erasing the aspects of the text Morrissey chooses not to highlight, but there is something to be gained from a reading experience that does make bold choices, as against the often dry prose renderings, such as West’s.

In discussions of these translations, which historically have very often put the Theogony and Works and Days together, the latter work is often abandoned. That would be unfortunate here, since it is if anything stronger than the translation of the Theogony. There the poem-titles are largely dispensed with, except in Chapter 3, The Ages, where each age – Golden, Silver, Bronze, Heroic, Iron – is given its own title. The concept of a “Golden Age” survives to this day, and Morrissey treats us to a readable translation of the prelapsarian time the phrase was originally used to describe. As everywhere in this translation, there are a few educative oddities: we are told of the original humans who lived in the time of Cronus, “Their arms and legs stayed the same always.” This makes more sense when we consider that the Works and Days is a calendar and that an ageing shepherd plagued by joint pain though the changing seasons would indeed have seen ever-constant (homoioi) limbs as miraculous, but also when we see that in the Greek it is not followed by a full stop but by a raised dot (the Greek equivalent of a semicolon) and connected to what in Morrissey is the next, single-sentence line: “All they did was take pleasure in festivities.” The phrase is far from naturalistic, and the use of “festivities” without an article or qualifier seems almost ungrammatical. With that unusual one sentence, however, we are reminded again that there is a Greek text behind this one with its own alien grammar; the awkwardness does that work of reminding us of our distance. Throughout the Works it seems to be more distant from us that the Theogony, as it offers so many proverbs and so much quite specific life advice, but the impulse behind it complements well the Theogony’s more cosmological bent.

The epigraph to this volume is from Jenny Strauss Clay’s Hesiod’s Cosmos and reminds us that the two works can be seen as two halves of a whole: “one side illuminates the other.” This is often pointed up by Morrissey’s translation. One of the great metaphysical attributes of gods is their omnipotence or at least their larger awareness. Clay points out the contrast between the human limitations Hesiod stresses in the Theogony when he says that “It is hard for a mortal man / to recount” the names of all the rivers in the world, but then later in the Works when he speaks of sailing, of which he has very little experience (he admits he has only ever taken one sea-voyage), he claims to be perfectly informed because of his divine inspiration. “Yet that same one is all the proof you need / to trust my song,” he claims in Morrissey’s translation, and in fact the one voyage he did take was to a poetry competition which he won and dedicated to the Muses, winning their favour. West seems almost to miss the point of this line; his Hesiod says he has only taken one voyage but is divinely inspired “even so.” Morrissey’s version, here and throughout, plays the limitations of mortal understanding against the higher plane on which the gods live in a complex way: it is not that he understands the world of the gods only despite his mortal nature. In the passage about the rivers, when he says it is hard for a mortal to list all the names, he says that “If any one of them dwells in your neighborhood, you already know the name” (Morrissey), for which West gives “each of those people knows them that lives near them.” West is closer to the Greek, as Morrissey’s second-person pronoun is an innovation replacing hekastoi (plural of hekastos, “each”), but what it accomplishes is to put the reader in the position of being able to acquire more knowledge, even if the total amount is limited, which can be considered to be a difference between relating mythic tales and the start of a philosophical investigation of the world.

This impulse in Hesiod is spelled out in the text that serves as an Afterword, reprinted from the political philosopher Eric Voegelin’s great treatise Order and History. It is here that the case is made for the Theogony and Works and Days representing part of the Greek transition “from myth to metaphyics” – that is to say, the foundation of Western philosophy. It’s a grand claim, but Voegelin is certainly right that the Theogony forces us, in a manner that anticipates the arguments of Plato’s Republic, the relationship between art and truth. Hesiod must claim to have been inspired by the Muses to give it legitimacy; more than that, he feels compelled to rubbish Homer obliquely, saying that sometimes the Muses inspire (entertaining) lies. For Homer, and for all transmitters of the semi-improvisational oral poetry from which the epics grew, the truth of myths was malleable, subject (at least within a certain range) to the rhythms of their verbal art, but for Hesiod, there is something which must be enumerated, described – even, in the Works and Days, legislated. There is a textual authority imparted to holy matters which is biblical; indeed, Morrissey refers to the Olympians as the “Holy Family,” drawing an implicit parallel with Christianity. These elements’ being drawn out is a strong feature of this version, a certain set of opinions being drawn out through the translation, but the presence of the Voegelin helps make it transparent. In fact, on subsequent readings, once we have absorbed the “Afterword,” it can weigh oppressively on our minds.

It is thus not possible to say that this is a definitive English Hesiod. What can be said is that this translation works effectively as a source for the myths which is uncommonly mindful of historical circumstances surrounding its composition, which we are at times in danger of forgetting. Just as with Homer, it is so difficult to imagine Hesiod’s context, at the very outer bound of Western writing; however, Morrissey’s diligent style and innovative framing devices provide a new and helpful context to read and re-read some of the great founding narratives of classical literature.