COREMetadata, citation and similar papers at by Harvard University - DASHHesiod and the AncientBiographical TraditionsThe Harvard community has made thisarticle openly available. Please share howthis access benefits you. Your story mattersCitationNagy, Gregory. 2009. Hesiod and the Ancient Biographical Traditions.In The Brill Companion to Hesiod, ed. F. Montanari, 271–311. Leiden:Brill, 2009.Published Versiondoi:10.1163/9789047440758 012Citable 50088Terms of UseThis article was downloaded from Harvard University’s DASHrepository, and is made available under the terms and conditionsapplicable to Other Posted Material, as set forth at rrent.terms-ofuse#LAA

Hesiod and the Ancient Biographical TraditionsGregory Nagy[[This essay is an online version of an original printed version that appeared in The BrillCompanion to Hesiod, ed. F. Montanari, A. Rengakos, and Ch. Tsagalis (Leiden 2009) 271–311. Inthis online version, the original page-numbers of the printed version are indicated withinbraces (“{” and “}”). For example, “{271 272}” indicates where p. 271 of the printed versionends and p. 272 begins.]]IntroductionThis presentation examines what is said about the life and times of the poet Hesiod intwo sets of ancient sources. The first set is the actual poetry ascribed to Hesiod, primarily theTheogony and the Works and Days. As for the second set, it consists of ancient texts that wereexternal to that poetry.1On the basis of passages in Hesiodic poetry that refer to Hesiod (Theogony 22–34; Worksand Days 27–41, 646–662), the following “biography” has been reconstructed in an introductorywork intended for nonexperts:Out of these passages a skeletal biography of Hesiod can be constructed along the followinglines. The son of a poor emigrant from Asia Minor, born in Ascra, a small village of Boeotia,Hesiod was raised as a shepherd, but one day, without having had any training by humanteachers, he suddenly found himself able to produce poetry. He attributed the discovery ofthis unexpected capability to a mystical experience in which the Muses themselvesinitiated him into the craft of poetry. He went on to achieve success in poetic competitionsat least once, in Chalcis; unlike his father, he did not have to make his living on the highseas. He quarreled with his brother Perses about their inheritance, accusing him of lazinessand injustice.2In terms of such a reconstruction, this “biography” of Hesiod is distinct from the storiesabout Hesiod that we find in ancient texts external to Hesiodic poetry. Supposedly, thoseexternal stories “can easily be dismissed as legends, possessing little or no historical value.”3Such a distinction between “biography” and “legends” is untenable, however, as we cansee from testing the applications of these terms. {271 272}1Both sets of sources are analyzed in Nagy 1990b:36–82.Most 2006a:xii–xiii.3Most 2006a:xvi.21

“Biography” of HesiodFirst, let us test the term “biography” as applied to what is said about Hesiod inHesiodic poetry. This term suits the argument that we need not “disbelieve” Hesiod in his roleas the first-person narrator of episodes in the Theogony and the Works and Days. In terms ofsuch argumentation, these episodes are “biographical” in the sense that they are“autobiographical.”4 And, as “autobiographical” episodes, they are supposed to be at leastpotentially believable. Even in the case of episodes that seem unbelievable, they aresupposedly still believable on the grounds that they are “autobiographical.”A prime example of such “biography” is the episode in the Hesiodic Theogony (22–34)where the figure of Hesiod declares that the Muses, as goddesses of poetry, initiated him intotheir craft. Even in the case of this episode, it has been argued, we do not have to “disbelieve”Hesiod—so long as we believe him in the case of other episodes that are more believable.Supposedly, “Hesiod himself seems to regard all these episodes as being of the same order ofreality, and there is no more reason to disbelieve him in the one case than in the others.”5In terms of such argumentation, we may believe Hesiod because he himself believedthat he was inspired by the Muses: “Apparently, Hesiod believed that he had undergone anextraordinary experience, as a result of which he could suddenly produce poetry.”6 Among thefactors contributing to Hesiod’s belief, if we follow this line of reasoning, was “the awarenesswithin himself of a new ability to compose poetry about matters past and future (hence,presumably, about matters transcending the knowledge of the human here and now, in thedirection of the gods who live forever), which he interprets as a result of the Muses havingbreathed into him a divine voice.”7This line of reasoning is based on an assumption. The “reality” to be found in Hesiodicpoetry is assumed to be the experiential world of a person named Hesiod who lived at a givenpoint in history. It is as if such a reality could be reconstructed by taking literally whatever thefigure of Hesiod says about himself in Hesiodic poetry. {272 273}But the fact is, the primary “order of reality” to be found in Hesiodic poetry is notHesiod the person but the poetry itself. It was this poetry that brought to life the person that isHesiod.What, then, can we say about the reality that was Hesiodic poetry? Let us begin withtwo observations about two generally recognized historical facts about the making of Hesiodicpoetry:4Most 2006a:xviii, xix.Most 2006a:xiii.6Most 2006a:xiii.7Most 2006a:xiv.52

1. Like Homeric poetry, Hesiodic poetry was basically oral poetry. I quote this succinctformulation: “Both Homeric poetry and Hesiod’s seem to presuppose a tradition of fullyoral poetic composition, performance, reception, and transmission.”82. Like Homeric poetry, Hesiodic poetry was “widely disseminated” in the ancient Greekspeaking world (as is most evident in the case of the Theogony).9The second of these two observations needs further clarification. The dissemination ofHomeric and Hesiodic poetry, it has been claimed, was a result of textualization.10 In terms ofthis claim, the new technology of alphabetic writing had been used to write down bothHomeric and Hesiodic poetry, as early as the eighth century BCE.11 There is simply no evidence,however, for the use of writing to record Homeric and Hesiodic poetry as integralcompositions in such an early period.12 So, the claim that Homeric and Hesiodic compositionswere widely disseminated as texts in the eighth century BCE is untenable.The same can be said more generally about the archaic era extending from the eighththrough the sixth century BCE: in this era, there is no evidence for any widespreaddissemination of any texts of poetry.13There is an alternative way, however, to explain the dissemination of Homeric andHesiodic poetry during this archaic period. In terms of this alternative explanation, the twoobservations about (1) Homeric and Hesiodic poetry as oral poetry and (2) the dissemination ofHomeric {273 274} and Hesiodic poetry can be integrated into a unified formulation. To put itmost simply, Homeric and Hesiodic poetry were disseminated as oral poetry.This unified formulation is based on (1) general observations about the factor ofdissemination in oral poetry and (2) specific observations about the dissemination of Homericand Hesiodic poetry as oral poetry:141. In oral poetry, composition and performance are aspects of the same process. So, when acomposition is performed at different times and in different places, it can be recomposedin the process of composition-in-performance. And the ongoing recomposition-in-8Most 2006a:xix–xx. Regrettably, Most’s discussion makes no reference to the foundationalwork of Lord 1960/2000 on oral poetics.9Most 2006a:xxxiv.10Most 2006a:xxxiv–xxxvi.11Most 2006a:xx–xxii.12On the poetics of epigrams, which are attested already in the eighth century BCE, see Nagy1996b:14, 35–36: as it is argued there, the poetry of epigrams shows a clear separation betweenthe processes of composing and inscribing.13Nagy 1996b:34–37.14What follows is a summary of the argumentation in Nagy 1990b:38–47, relying on thefundamental work of Parry (collected writings first published in 1971) and Lord (1960/2000).3

performance needs to be viewed diachronically as well as synchronically.15 From asynchronic point of view, the poet who performs a poem can claim to own it as his owncomposition in the process of recomposing it in performance. From a diachronic point ofview, however, the ownership can readily be transferred from poem to poem, from poet topoet. And such transference can promote the dissemination of both the poetry and thename of the poet.2. In the archaic period of Hellenic civilization extending roughly from the eighth throughthe sixth century BCE, there already existed forms of oral poetry that corresponded towhat was later known as Homeric and Hesiodic poetry. With the passage of time, thedissemination of these forms of poetry became more and more widespread throughout thecommunities of the Hellenic world. This process of ever widening dissemination, in thecontext of ongoing recomposition-in-performance, can be described as pan-Hellenization.Correspondingly, the poets who were identified with these forms of poetry, Homer andHesiod, became more and more pan-Hellenic.The term pan-Hellenic is derived from the ancient Greek compound noun pan-Hellēnes ‘allGreeks’, which is attested in the Hesiodic Works and Days (528 πανελλήνεσσι) in the sense ofreferring to ‘all Greeks under the sun’ (526–528 ἠέλιος . πανελλήνεσσι φαείνει).16 This{274 275} archaic use of the compound noun pan-Hellēnes in the absolutizing sense of ‘allGreeks’ helps explain the later use of the non-compound noun Hellēnes ‘Hellenes’ to mean‘Greeks’; earlier, that noun Hellēnes had been used to designate a sub-set of Greeks dwellingin Thessaly rather than any full complement of Greeks. As the linguistic evidence shows,the accentuation of the non-compound noun Hellēnes should be non-recessive (*Ελλῆνες),not recessive ( Ελληνες), and the fact that Hellēnes acquired an innovative recessiveaccentuation proves that its innovative meaning of ‘Greeks’ was predicated on theaccentuation of the compound noun pan-Hellēnes in the absolutized sense of ‘all Greeks’.17In other words, the linguistic evidence shows that the non-compound noun Hellēnesacquired the meaning of ‘Greeks’ from the built-in politics of the compound nounpan-Hellēnes, the basic meaning of which can be paraphrased this way: Hellenes (as a subsetof Greeks) and all other Greeks (as a notionally complete set of Greeks).18When I said earlier that Homer and Hesiod “became more and more pan-Hellenic,” Iwas using the term pan-Hellenic in a relativized sense, despite its inherently absolutizedmeaning as ‘common to all Greeks’. To relativize pan-Hellenic is to recognize that the panHellenization of Homer and Hesiod, just like other aspects of pan-Hellenism, cannot bedescribed in absolute terms of universalization. Despite the totalizing ideology implicit in theterm pan-Hellenic, the pan-Hellenization of Homer and Hesiod was not an absolute: it wasmerely a tendency toward a notional absolute.19 And, just as the concept of pan-Hellenism wasin fact relative, so also the concept of a pan-Hellenic Homer or a pan-Hellenic Hesiod was15On the distinction between synchronic and diachronic approaches to the analysis of a givenstructure in the study of oral poetics: Nagy 2003:1.16Nagy 1990b:37.17Chantraine DELG s.v. Ελληνες.18Nagy 1996b:39n40.19Nagy 1996b:38–40.4

relative, since it depended on the various appropriations of these poetic figures by the variousGreek communities that claimed them as their own.The episode about Hesiod’s initiation by the Muses in the Theogony dramatizes the panHellenization of Hesiodic oral poetry. In the Theogony (54) these Muses are pictured as thedaughters of the goddess Mnēmosunē ‘Memory’, who is the absolutized concept of poeticmemory. By extension, the Muses are absolutized as the sources of this memory for the poet ofthe Theogony. And, by further extension, the poet’s memory is itself absolutized and therebypan-Hellenized, since the Muses {275 276} are said to give him an absolute authority expressedin terms of an absolute truth value.20The word for this truth value is alēthea, which can be translated as ‘true things’. In theHesiodic Theogony (28), the Muses are quoted as saying to Hesiod that they know how to speakalēthea ‘true things’. But this word alēthea means far more than ‘true things’. The root lēth- ofalēthea means ‘forget’, which is the opposite of the root mnē- meaning ‘remember’—as in theword mnēmosunē ‘memory’, which is also the name of the goddess who is mother of the Muses.Basically, the negativized adjective alēthes- means ‘unforgettable’, so that alēthea means,literally, ‘unforgettable things’.21 Semantically, what is unforgettable is not just memorable,which would be a relative thing. More than that, what is unforgettable is an absolute thing. Itis something that is absolutely memorable. It is therefore the absolute truth. The ‘true things’that Hesiod learns from the Muses are absolutely memorable because they are absolutelyunforgettable.22 Here are the relevant words of the Muses themselves, as quoted by the figureto whom they are said to be speaking, Hesiod:ποιμένες ἄγραυλοι, κάκ’ ἐλέγχεα, γαστέρες οἶον,ἴδμεν ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγειν ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα,ἴδμεν δ’, εὖτ’ ἐθέλωμεν, ἀληθέα γηρύσασθαιShepherds living in the fields, base objects of reproach, mere bellies!We know how to say many falsehoods [pseudea] that look like genuine things,but we can also, whenever we are willing, proclaim true things [alēthea].Hesiod Theogony 26–28There are comparable passages in the Homeric Odyssey that help us understand thepoetic agenda of what the Muses are quoted as saying to Hesiod. One such passage (xiv 124–125) tells of wanderers who can tell stories as told by oral poets and who ‘are unwilling’ (oud’20Nagy 1992, 1996c.Detienne 1994:5–31/1996:15–33, with a critique of Heidegger’s interpretation ofalēthea/alētheia and with updated polemics.22Nagy 1996b:124–128.215

ethelousin) to tell alēthea ‘true things’; instead, they pseudontai ‘tell falsehoods’ to theiraudiences because they need to eat in order to survive:ἀλλ’ ἄλλως κομιδῆς κεχρημένοι ἄνδρες ἀλῆταιψεύδοντ’· οὐδ’ ἐθέλουσιν ἀληθέα μυθήσασθαι{276 277}It’s no use! Wanderers in need of foodtell falsehoods, and they are unwilling to tell true things [alēthea].Odyssey xiv 124–125So also in the case of the wandering Odysseus himself, he too behaves like such a wanderingoral poet while being hosted as an unidentified guest at the court of Alkinoos the king of thePhaeacians. Before Odysseus as the unknown wanderer tells his audience of Phaeacians theentertaining tales of his woeful adventures, he asks his hosts to let him eat first (Odyssey vii215–221), since his gastēr ‘belly’ (216) is making him ‘forget’ those tales of his, lēth-anei (221),until it is filled with food. In his role as the oral poet of his own adventures, Odysseus is likewandering oral poets who ‘are unwilling’ (oud’ ethelousin) to tell alēthea ‘true things’ becausethey need to feed their bellies in order to survive and must therefore tell things that theiraudiences want to hear, which are falsehoods (again, Odyssey xiv 124–125).By contrast, the Muses of Hesiod will ‘willingly’ (ethelōmen) tell him alēthea ‘true things’(again, Theogony 28). We see here what amounts to a manifesto of pan-Hellenic poetry, in thatthe poet Hesiod is now to be freed from being a mere ‘belly’, which is what the Muses call himderisively when they first address him (Theogony 26). Hesiod is now to be freed from having totell the kinds of things he would tell in order to feed his belly for survival. Those kinds ofthings are pseudea polla ‘many false things’ (Theogony 27). And a sign of the falseness of thosethings is that they are many, multiple. Those many false things merely look like etuma ‘genuinethings’, to be contrasted with the unique things that are genuinely alēthea ‘true’. Once Hesiod isinitiated by the Muses, he is to be freed from having to say things that would please only hislocal audiences who are rooted in their local poetic traditions: those multiple local poetictraditions are pseudea ‘false things’ in face of the unique alēthea ‘true things’ that the Musesimpart specially to Hesiod. This uniqueness is a sign of the pan-Hellenism claimed by Hesiodicpoetry, which is capable of achieving something that goes beyond the reach of multiple localpoetic traditions.23And who are these Muses who initiate Hesiod, thereby transforming him from ahumble shepherd into a poet of pan-Hellenic stature? Like Hesiod, whose local origins arerooted in the region of Mount Helicon in Boeotia, these goddesses are local to the same region.At the beginning {277 278} of the Hesiodic Theogony (1–8), the Muses are pictured as singingand dancing in the heights of Mount Helicon. But they too, like Hesiod, are transformed. In the23Nagy 1990b:45.6

process of initiating Hesiod, they are relocated from Mount Helicon in Boeotia to MountOlympus in Macedonia. And, in the process of being relocated, the Heliconian Muses aretransformed into the Olympian Muses.After the episode about Hesiod’s initiation in the foothills of Mount Helicon iscompleted (Theogony 22–35), we find that the Muses can now be relocated to Mount Olympus(37, 42), and, in fact, they are already described as Olympian Muses at the commencement ofthe episode about the poet’s initiation (25). In the process of initiating Hesiod as a pan-Hellenicpoet, these goddesses can begin their transformation from Heliconian into Olympian Muses.Just as we saw them descending from Helicon (9), we now see them ascending to Olympus (68).And, as Olympian Muses, they achieve pan-Hellenic status, just as Hesiod achieves panHellenic status as a poet. The comparative evidence from the Homeric Hymns is decisive in thisregard: in these Hymns, the ascent of gods and goddesses to the heights of Olympus istantamount to achieving pan-Hellenic status.24As we see, then, from the internal evidence of Hesiodic poetry, the episode about theinitiation of Hesiod by the Heliconian Muses is far more than a story about a poet’s personalexperience. It is a story that universalizes the figure of Hesiod as poet, making him a genericrepresentative of a pan-Hellenic form of poetry.In this light, the episode about Hesiod’s initiation by the Muses seems moreprogrammatic than “biographical.”“Legends” of HesiodHaving tested the term “biography” as applied to what we find in Hesiodic poetry aboutHesiod, we turn next to the term “legends” as applied to what we find in texts that areexternal to Hesiodic poetry. By contrast with the “biography” of Hesiod that is internal toHesiodic poetry, whatever stories we find in the external texts are supposedly “legends.”These stories about the life and times of Hesiod, which are “full of a wealth of circumstantialdetail concerning his family, birth, poetic career, character, {278 279} death, and othermatters,” are supposedly the result of “a well-attested practice of extrapolating from theextant poetic texts”; as such, these stories “probably reflect very little about the real personHesiod.”25According to this point of view, then, the “legends” represented by these externalstories provide no evidence about the “biography” of Hesiod. They provide evidence onlyabout the “reception” of Hesiodic poetry.26 As we will see, however, there is evidence for such“reception” even in the internal stories, that is, in the so-called “biography” of Hesiod that is24Nagy 1990b:56–57.Most 2006a:xvi.26Most 2006a:xvi–xvii.257

internal to Hesiodic poetry. And, as we will also see in general, there is no justification formaking a distinction between a “biograph