Works and Days Summary

Hesiod

Works and Days

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Works and Days Summary

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Works and Days by Hesiod is a poem about Perses, his brother. Hesiod accuses his brother of taking the larger share of the inheritance they were meant to split, and warns him against letting mischievous Strife keep him from work. He writes that there are two types of Strife—a cruel Strife that spurs on war, and the daughter of Night. The latter, Hesiod writes, is wholesome. Hesiod then discusses Zeus, who doesnot want men to have fire, and how Prometheus steals it for them. In retribution, Prometheus is punished, and Zeus sends Pandora to unleash all of the world’s plagues and evils.

According to Hesiod, men and gods come from the same source. He writes of several generations of men, from golden to iron. The iron generation is a mix of good and evil. He then writes of a fable of a hawk and a nightingale. The lesson of the fable is that those who are good will prosper, and those who are evil will be punished by Zeus. Zeus gives mortals the ability to judge right from wrong, and Hesiod observes that goodness is more difficult to obtain than wickedness.

Hesiod tells his brother not to be idle or envious. The gods and mortals alike are made angry by idleness as it is a disgrace. Working, he writes, provides food and is not disgraceful. He tells Perses that he must be charitable to those in need, and not take goods from anyone. He also warns him that he should not have more than one woman in his family, for his wealth will go to them. If Perses wants to be wealthy, he must work, and work hard. He must not procrastinate. He provides farming advice, such as how old oxen should be and when to plow the earth. He tells Perses that success also demands prayers to both Zeus and Demeter.

Zeus, the king of the gods, rules on Mount Olympus. He is the god of thunder and looked to for fertilization of the earth. Demeter is the goddess of the harvest, and mother of Persephone, Hades’s wife and Zeus’s sister-in-law. Demeter becomes sad in the winter when Persephone goes to live in the Underworld with her husband, thus crops die. In the spring, when Persephone returns, Demeter is overjoyed, and so crops flourish.

He then advises Perses about the weather. He tells him not to be outside in the winter if he is not properly dressed; there are sixty days of winter before the solstice. He tells him when to prune vines and when to harvest. He guides him about the arrival of summer, and when to offer libations—liquid sacrifices, such as wine—to the gods. Should Perses choose to go to sea, Hesiod has advice for that as well. He warns him about bad weather, and suggests Perses use a large ship instead of a small boat, so he can hold more cargo. He tells him that fifty days after the solstice is when he should embark on the sea, and to store his goods at home, in case he loses the ship.

When Perses is thirty years old, Hesiod advises he marry. He tells him to guard and protect his reputation, and not to speak ill of others. Should Perses offer libations of sparkling wine after dawn without washing his hands, Hesiod warns that the gods will ignore his pleas and prayers. Following a funeral is the wrong time to have children, and a man should not have two sons. If Perses must cross a river, he should wash his hands and pray first to ensure his successful passage. He talks about luck, and how certain days of each month are good luck or bad luck. Finally, he warns Perses against offending the gods. He tells him he must commit transgressions, and must follow bird omens.

At the beginning of the poem, Hesiod seems angry with his brother, and states the reason being that he has taken the larger portion of the inheritance left by their father. He then warns his brother against falling into the trap of not making his own money. He tells Perses how he may be a good person and avoid displeasing the gods. As this permeates the entirety of the poem, it is clear that the opinions of the gods are among Hesiod’s chief concerns. He tells his brother not to have more than one son—because then Perses can avoid spawning the situation in which they now find themselves, with one brother having more inheritance than the other. Hesiod’s tone is much changed by the end of the poem as he tells his brother how to have good luck.

From anger, to chiding, to advice, to well-wishing, Hesiod provides a broad spectrum of human emotion that highlights sibling and father-son relationships in the eighth century BCE. As a poet of Ancient Greece, readers should not be surprised to see mention of the gods.