Works and Days Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 25-page guide for “Works and Days” by Hesiod includes detailed summary and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 15 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Interconnection of Gods, Humans, and the Natural World and Value of Work in Human Societies.
“Works and Days” is a didactic poem by Hesiod dating to approximately the 8th century BCE. This guide refers to the Oxford World’s Classics edition translated by M. L. West.
The poem begins with an invocation to the Muses, asking them to bestow glory through their song and to sing a hymn to Zeus, who controls outcomes. Hesiod asks to be heard as he addresses his brother Perses about truth and justice. Hesiod explains that there are two types of strife, one commendable, the other reprehensible. The latter “promotes ugly fighting and conflict” (37). The second, bestowed by Zeus for men’s benefit, encourages achievement by making men competitive with each other. Hesiod urges Perses to “lay this down in your heart” so that “Strife who exults in misfortune” (37) does not distract him from work by encouraging him to become involved in disputes. Complaining that Perses bribed elders to give him more than his fair share of their family estate, Hesiod encourages him to “settle dispute with straight judgments” (38) from Zeus.
To explain why work is just and necessary, Hesiod narrates the Prometheus myth. He explains that the gods “keep men’s food concealed” (38). Zeus punished men in this way because he was angry that Prometheus tricked him. As further punishment, Zeus hid fire from them, but Prometheus stole it back against Zeus’s will. In retaliation, Zeus plots for men’s misery that will present as delight, causing them to “embrace their own misfortune” (38). He orders Hephaestus to craft a beautiful woman by mixing “earth with water,” Athena “to teach her crafts,” Aphrodite to make her so charming that she inspires “painful yearning and consuming obsession,” and Hermes to instill her with “a knavish nature” (38-39). Hermes names her Pandora. Zeus sends Hermes to present her as a gift for Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother. Prometheus had warned his brother not to accept any gifts from the gods “lest some affliction befall mortals” (39), but Epimetheus did not remember this advice and accepted Pandora. Only after doing so did he realize what he had done. While men had previously lived free of suffering, toil, and sickness, Pandora “unstopped the jar” (39) in which these various ills were contained, unleashing them upon men. “Only hope remained there” (39) because, by the grace of Zeus, Pandora recovered the jar before it could escape.
Hesiod offers to tell “another tale” to explain “how gods and mortal men have come from the same starting point” (40). The Titans created the first tribe of men, a gold tribe that lived without worries, work, or aging. They died peacefully as if falling asleep. When this tribe ended, Zeus honored them by making them “divine spirits” who watch over and bestow wealth upon “mortal men” (40). The next tribe, silver, was “much inferior” (40), lingering in childhood, being mired in violence, and suffering due to their own foolishness. Zeus eventually destroyed them because they did not honor the gods with sacrifices. Nevertheless, when they died out, he gave them a place of honor second to the gold tribe. Zeus created a third tribe unlike the previous two. The bronze tribe was violent and preoccupied with war, as evidenced by their eating only meat and not engaging in agriculture. Destroyed “by their own hands” (41), they descended into Hades.
Zeus created a noble fourth tribe, “the godly race of the heroes who are called demigods” (41). Their penchant for “ugly war and fearful fighting destroyed them” (41). Hesiod refers to the wars at Thebes and Troy and notes that Zeus honored some of these heroes by sending them to “the Isles of the Blessed Ones” (42). The current tribe, the fifth, does not “cease from toil and misery by day or night,” and Hesiod laments that he…