Epic Structures in Hesiod’s Primal Narrative, Theogony 104-232
(Read at the annual meeting of the Classical Association of Atlantic States, Princeton, NJ, October 10, 2008)
photo: M. Marsilio
An old tradition thought of the author or authors of the Hesiodic poems, in contrast to the Homeric, as putting his, her, or their thoughts into dactylic hexameter purely for artificial reasons, for example, that only that mode of composition was available. Few would go to this extreme today, and at the opposite end Charles Beye, for one, calls for rejecting any view that Hesiod had “ideas” apart from his poetry. (Incidentally, references are listed at the end of your handout.) Nonetheless, the form in which Hesiod’s alleged thought is cast is still considered irrelevant more often than not. Especially, whether one thinks his relation to the Presocratic philosophers was close, as people like Michael Stokes held a few decades ago, or distant, as in Daniel Graham’s new book on the Presocratics, no one seems to think that the metrical setting might affect this relation.
Yet I believe that epic form is integral to the Hesiodic works. Of course they feature so-called epic formulae prominently, not just epic meter, as you can read in the most recent catalogue of such short expressions by Carlo Pavese and Paolo Venti. And beyond that, G. P. Edwards showed as early as 1971 that, among other things, the Hesiodic poems utilize inessential enjambement substantially as does Homer. That is, for about 25% of the verses in the Iliad or Odyssey something like an adjective modifying a noun is delayed so as to begin the next verse. One finds somewhat higher percentages for Theogony and Works and Days, but in a manner explicable by their content. There are other types of parallel, and at bottom I think that it is for such reasons that in 2004 Kathryn Stoddard could apply the theory of narratology to Theogony after others had applied it to Homer, or that just last year Adrian Kelly could hold that the Homeric and Hesiodic poems alike end in a manner he calls “decreasing doublets.” Thus I have argued for the epic character of Works and Days in particular in the introduction to my 2003 commentary on that poem, and in my 2004 journal article on one section of it.
But as to Theogony more work is needed, even though scattered citations of significant epic parallels have appeared, for example, in Martin West’s standard commentary. Today I want to take note of the parallels more systematically, specifically for the primal narrative of the theogony proper starting at what I will hold is verse 104 and ending somewhat arbitrarily at 232. Writers from John Bussanich to Jenny Strauss Clay treat the entities that enter the world in this section as intellectualized, if perhaps mythical, cosmic principles, and ignore their metrical setting. Typically, the temporal order of appearance is simply thought to indicate decreasing levels of what is basic; for example, Night giving birth to Day means that Night is prior to Day in some metaphysical or logical sense.
But let us see. Handout
entry #1 gives the text, translation and epic parallels for what is usually
taken to be the beginning of the primal narrative, vv. 116-122, where Chaos,
meaning Chasm, Earth, and Love appear in that order. Some of the comparisons
are well known in Hesiod scholarship; e.g., at the
end of 117 Earth is said to be hedos asphales aiei, “always the
firm seat” of the gods, but that is said rather of Mt. Olympus itself in some
of the introductory material to the wonderful Odyssey Book 6 that was
cited in the previous paper.
Still, there are less obvious parallels. Edwards speaks of a phenomenon he
calls the “parallel of sound,” or others the “analogical formula,” which means
two metrically similar phrases with a differing word or two. A possible case is
the second hemistich of 119 beginning with muchôi,
“in the inmost part of,” and ending with a word with prefix eu-
that means “of broad courses,” whereas Achilles twice slept in the inmost part
of his “eu-built” shelter. In any
event, the sequence men prôtista, autar epeita, and de
(of which our ęde is simply a metrically
lengthened form) occurs three times in Homer. In particular, early in the Iliad
Agamemnon invited the Achaean elders to a sacrifice to finally get the ships
The poem’s next segment (handout #2) begins the second and third generations. First Chaos gave birth to Erebus, Darkness, and Nyx, Night, by parthenogenesis, and then the latter two had sex to produce Ether and Hemere, Day. Here the handout omits well known parallels, and only points to one not previously noted that shows Hesiod using a relatively complex formation. Ether and Hemere were born after the birth of their parents, and the pattern of two particles and the verb exegenonto is also followed in Homer’s case of the three sons of the Trojan patriarch Tros being born after his own birth. And as the handout notes, the latter’s mention of the number three also yields a strong parallel with the three hundred-armed sons born to Earth and the sky god in the later verses 147-148.
Backing up to the parthenogenesis, after citing Night the narrative continues with entities born that way from Earth herself. I’ll skim over the example of vv. 126-128 (handout #3), where a subtlety is that an unusual use of two parallel clauses of purpose, introduced by hina and ophra, occurs both in our text and at Il. 15.31-33, as Richard Janko has noted. But then (handout #4) we have an important type of the inessential enjambement I mentioned earlier, namely, enjambement where the runover word is followed by a relative pronoun referring to that word or its referent, so as to begin a new clause. An example is the familiar first two lines of the Iliad, męnin aeide thea, etc., which are as if the runover word oulomenęn itself were a quasi-subject for the new clause about the trouble for the Achaeans, hę muri’ Achaiois alge’ ethęke – as if it was the banefulness of the męnis of Achilles that caused the trouble. Similarly, the goddesses that Earth bore in our v. 129 were nymphs who dwell in the mountains in 130.
Of course, after all the parthenogenesis Earth committed incest with her son Sky, to produce what the poem will later call Titans. In vv. 156-158 in particular (handout #5) we find an interesting structure – technically a hyperbaton – used to describe what Sky did with these children. To translate in a way that roughly matches the word-order, “whenever any of them was first born he would hide him or her entirely – and not allow him or her to come to light – in a hollow of Earth.” West notes that this embedding of an independent clause within a sentence occurs in a number of places in epic. For example, at one point in Iliad Book 2 Odysseus gave the Achaeans a pep talk prior to the embarkation to Troy, and we hear “so he said, and the Argives cried out – and the ships rang all around in echo of the Achaeans’ shouting – approval of the words of god-like Odysseus,” that is, approval by the Argives, with the ships agreeing. Here Homer surrounds the echo with what was being echoed, surely an effective design, and Hesiod is also effective in surrounding the children being out of the light with the cause of the fact that they were.
We don’t have time to go over some other key segments, covered in handout #s 6-9, although I’ve included considerable detail there in case you want to look at them later. But an absolutely crucial point is that the part of the poem from v. 116 to its end is the answer to a question asked of the Muses. #10 gives the text of the full question along with 116. There has been a lot of discussion of whether we are to interpret this call to the Muses as a true placing of the succeeding theogony proper in their hands, or as the most recent discussion by Stoddard implies, essentially as a device to legitimize the poet. But as to its compositional character, and while we can ignore use of localized epic phrases for present purposes, West and Janko observe that the last two lines of the question tauta moi espete, etc., followed by its answer, are organized like a one to three line question to the Muses followed by its answer at several places in the Iliad, e.g., to preface a list of the men killed by a given warrior. I want to add that Hesiod seems to have combined this procedure with a pattern of responding to a previous speaker found in the Odyssey: If the response is fairly complex the second speaker names the first with a vocative, follows with ętoi as in our 116 – and then cites the preparatory particle men and eventually another particle answering it. Ętoi has traditionally been thought an emphatic particle, but to follow the lead of some people who have recently studied the Greek particles via what can be called a more integral approach, I am inclined to think that it functions at a contextual level at least when it is followed by men. In our case, 116 begins a complex answer to the question the poet demands of the Muses through 115, asking for the births of the gods and of their strife in proper order. Meanwhile, for example, at the end of Odyssey Book 8 Odysseus is asked to explain himself, and Book 9 begins his response, starting with a vocative taking up a full verse, perhaps to indicate the previous speaker’s importance, and then uses ętoi men to begin his response. Our text does lack the vocative – although the poet is surely important – but then it would be awkward to preface the Muses’ account with a vocative phrase including Hęsiode, representing himself as the one who asked the question, since he also relates the account. This consideration gains weight if we accept Stoddard’s view that the sequel really belongs to the poet, not to the Muses. In any case, we might translate ętoi men in either passage in the way we would answer a question calling for a long story, with our particle “well.” Thus we follow “Tell me Muses, what first came to be,” with “well, first came Chasm and then Earth,” etc.
Now little of this suggests our text actually alluding to any verses in the attested Homer or to their precursors (a possible exception appears in handout #8 in bold type). But we’ve seen here that it is not just a matter of using phrases now and then that are also found in epic, and I find it difficult to believe that a non-epic composer would go to the lengths we’ve seen just to sound like an epic one; and so I conclude that the primal narrative is in the epic tradition. You can only think of this poet as first coming up with ideas and then casting them into the epic medium if you think of Homer in the same way. That is to say, interpreting Hesiod’s Chasm, Earth and Love as fixed principles underlying the world has about the same literary-theoretical status as allegorical interpretations of the Iliad, for example, that Achilles means culture and Hector nature. Or to put the point in mundane terms, it is easiest to assume that Hesiod composed a narrative of how he believed the world had been born naturally, in accordance with his experience as an epic bard, thinking of Chaos et al. as arising at some time in his distant past, just as Homer saw the wrath of Achilles as aggravating the difficulties of the Trojan War.
 Paul Properzio, “Rig Veda X and Odyssey VI: Liberality in Hindu and Greek Poetry,” which compared Vedic material and Nausicaa’s welcome of Odysseus at 6.190-216.