Although perhaps less familiar to modern readers, in antiquity, Hesiod’s Works and Days were his more popular work, over the Theogony. They inspired the entire genre of didactic poetry, including Aratus’ astronomical Phaenomena and Vergil’s agricultural Georgics, both of which surpassed even him in their influence on Greco-Roman culture. There was also a rich tradition of commentaries, which we have significant remains of.
The Works and Days contain not only instructions for agricultural ‘works’ and the astronomical ‘days’ of the solar year and lunar month, but also rich ethical teachings, expressed through argumentation and invective, myth, fable and maxims. This unique combination of elements into one coherent work makes the Works and Days a fascinating and incomparable read to this day.
Here, I give only one section from the poem itself, in which Hesiod gives moral guidelines connected to his ideas of piety and impiety, together with some excerpts of the ancient scholia (explanatory notes). These prominently include comments by the Neoplatonist Proclus, head of the Platonic Academy at Athens for much of the 5th century CE; his positions often differ from those found in the other scholia. In any case, these remains of ancient exegesis have never been made available in English, although there are translations of some or all of the material into German and Italian, respectively. The Works and Days, of course, can easily be found online and in print in multiple English translations.
In the Hesiodic text, superscript numbers mark passages addressed by the scholiasts, while * † ‡ (in Hesiod and the scholiasts) refer to my own notes immediately after the text.
2 From Proclus’ preface to his commentary on the Works and Days
It seems to me that the excellent Hesiod* laid down the principles of the entire providence of the gods concerning the gods (in the Theogony), as ancient fame among the Hellenes described them, because he wanted to hand these down to those after him, and so he produced that whole work from the myths repeated at the sacred rites. But the book Works and Days concern householding and private life, exhorting people towards the common and simple life. He did not look to the pleasure of the audience, but treated it as incidental, and made assistance towards good behavior the primary purpose, in order for us to set our own life in order in such a manner that we also can achieve knowledge about divine matters. For this reason, it is better to begin with this work, because it is entirely impossible for those who are disordered in their behavior to know the cosmos. The purpose (skopos) of the book, then, is educatory. The poetic meter is like a kind of sweetening added to this purpose of the expression, beguiling souls and leading them to a love of it. This is also the reason for the old-fashioned form of the poetry in it, and he made it largely free of embellishments, the ornaments of epithets, and metaphors, because the simple and natural is appropriate to ethical speech; and this is self-evident.
* Excellent (gennaios) is an honorary epithet in Proclus, but it ranks distinctly below ‘divine’ (theios), which Proclus applies to Homer. For comparison’s sake, Proclus also uses ‘excellent’ for the philosopher Heraclitus and the Neoplatonist Amelius, ‘daemonic’ for Aristotle and ‘divine’ for Plato, Iamblichus and Plotinus.
3 Hesiod on Piety and Impiety (Works and Days 320–341)
Wealth should not be gotten by robbery! God-given possessions* are much better.
For if someone† seizes great riches by violence with their hands,
Or steals them with their tongue,¹ as often
Happens when profit captivates the mind
Of humanity, and shamelessness obtrudes on a sense of shame,
Then the gods can easily cast them down, and exhaust the house
Of that person, and their riches attend them only for a time.
Likewise, when someone mistreats a suppliant or a stranger;²
When they climb into the bed of their sibling,
To secretly sleep with the other’s partner,‡ acting without modesty;
When they insensibly act against orphaned children;
Or they fight with their aged parent, at the stage of senility,
By assaulting them with harsh words—
Then Zeus himself is outraged, and at last
He inflicts a harsh retribution for their unjust deeds.
But do you keep your fickle heart from all these things,
And, according to your ability, make offerings³ to the immortal gods
In holy and pure manner, and burn splendid meats,
At other times, propitiate them with libations and incenses,⁴
Both when you go to bed and when the holy light has come,
So that they may have a heart and feeling propitious to you,
So that you may purchase other people’s land, and not someone else yours.
* ‘God-given’ meaning ‘lawfully acquired’.
† Hesiod, a notorious misogynist, writes for an assumed male (and slave-holding) audience. Throughout this passage, I have replaced masculine forms with gender neutral language, as the ethical rules still hold if we reject Hesiod’s sexism.
‡ ‚Partner‘ does not necessarily mean spouse, but ’sexual partner‘ more broadly.
4 The Scholiasts on Hesiod
1. Anonymus scholia
“For if someone … with their hands” (321): There are two general kinds of evils, violence (bia) and falsehood (pseudos), and violence is through hands and actions, while falsehood is through words. Violence is subdivided into tyranny, robbery and theft; falsehood into sycophancy and oath-breaking.
“when someone … a suppliant” (328): In these and the following eight lines, he adds further transgressions by actions that occur because of an impious way of life to the already mentioned transgressions which he claimed to be attended by the justice of the gods. They are: disregarding a suppliant (‘someone who begs for help’), mistreating stangers (or ‘guests’), violating the marriage of a sibling, transgressing in affairs concerning orphans, and mistreating aged parents. For he says that Zeus is outraged by everything of this kind, that is, he disapproves and exacts punishment.
And people understand Zeus in many ways, because they refer all bynames of that kind to this god. They call him Hikesios as overseer of suppliants (hiketai), Xenios as the patron of strangers (xenoi), and Homognios as the protector of relatives in particular and of the duties relative to kindred (homognioi). Likewise, they have called him a guardian of those who live in orphanhood, because they believe him to be the father of all, even those who do not have human parents, and a helper of parents who are mistreated by their children. For parents (lit. ‘fathers’) are statues of Zeus, the father of all, and those who are impious against the statues of the gods carry their impiety forward to the gods to whom the statues belong.
So, it is appropriate for him to say that Zeus is wrathful at these and at all of the lawless acts which he has enumerated, and therefore exacts a harsh punishment; for this ‚retribution‘ is a kind of punishment that follows on injustice.
3a. Anonymus scholia
“According to your ability, make offerings” (336): Make offerings to the gods according to your ability, with pure intention and according to your own means, even if you do not have sacrificial victims and cannot do anything further (than pray?). Do not pray only once, but on every occasion.
4a. Anonymus scholia
“At other times, libations and incenses” (338): This means: offer sacrificial victims when you have them, prayers when you do not.
“According to your ability, make offerings (erdein hiera)” (336): The ancients used to call thyein (‘offering, sacrificing’), as people more recently have come to say, by the terms erdein and rhezein. They express making offerings from what you have by thyein, and they call the offerings thyēlai: “Throw the offerings (thyēlaí) in the fire,” says Homer (Iliad 1.220).
Now, Hesiod instructs us to give both richly and according to our ability, to make offerings (hiera rhezein) from what we have in abundance, in holy and pure manner, and to propitiate the gods with incenses and libations when the day begins—for this is what “when the holy light has come” means—and when night comes and we turn to sleep.
Now, “to offer according to your ability” prevents the introduction of all extravagant opulence under the pretence of piety. It was well-spoken by the Laconian man when he was asked how people could sacrifice richly, and he answered, if they would sacrifice often. In the same manner, Numa commanded the Romans—like Lycurgus the Lacedaemonians—to make offerings from the cheapest things. For not to be excessively opulent in the worship of the gods is the most appropriate maxim for those who only look to what is pious; and those who wish to undertake sacrificial operations (hierourgein) must principally pursue pure rectitude, both in their way of life and also in all sacred instruments, the places in which offerings are to be made, and the ornaments on our bodies.* The former must be contrary to all licentiousness, all injustice, all passion; and we may say that we must purify our way of life first, and only then observe the offering of foods and drinks according to ancestral custom; seeing that for different people, there are different customs by which someone who takes part in traditional sacrifices is restricted. For it is ridiculous if people who use the purest things in their offerings make use of anything impure, whether they do this only in their defiled houses or offer a portion gotten from some polluted activity in their sacrifice, or whether they wear unclean clothes, just as we are told that we should not use use fire from an unpurified house as the fire for purifying everything else.
Next, we are told “to propitiate” (338) the gods with regular (or ‘full’) libations, along with incenses, at the beginning of the day and the night, for example with barley cakes (psaista) or other any other things of that sort.† And that we have to offer such common offerings at these regular times is because they continually preserve their favor towards us: for the propitiation does not provide them with anything they did not have, but it will make us more suited to participate unhindered in them, who eternally remain as they are. And the word ‘favorable’ (eumenes) shows this, that the good (eu) from the gods remains (menein) eternally, just as they persist (diamenousin) and are eternally the same.‡
* I.e., our life must be pure, and the instruments, places and bodily ornaments (not just jewelry but also clothes and personal grooming) likewise.
† Such a cake would be burned in sacrifice.
‡ The ordinary meaning is not “always good” but “well-disposed”, which is a changeable attitude. But this does not chime with Proclus and his Neoplatonic theology.