Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomy: Hesiod

Born: c. 730?, Askra?
Died: ?, Askra?

Hesiod, one of the oldest known Greek poets, composed epic and didactic verse, pehaps drawing from oral traditions, around 700 BCE and was, along with Homer, very much revered by subsequent generations. What little can be accurately determined about his life is revealed in his surviving works, although such information may owe more to a traditional persona adopted by the poet than to actual autobiographical facts. Nevertheless, Hesiod says that his father had given up an unsuccessful seafaring mercantile livelihood in Kyme on the western coast of Anatolia and moved to Askra in Boiotia on the Greek mainland. The poet portrays himself as tending sheep there on the slopes of Mt. Helicon, where he says he was inspired by the Muses to compose verse. He also claims to have won a prize for poetry in a competition at Khalkis on the island of Euboia, indicating that Hesiod was influenced by an active tradition of bardic recitation in the region. Such was his repute that an ancient tradition records a famous contest between him and Homer, an event, however, that most certainly is a literary fiction. According to ancient authorities Hesiod's literary output was large, addressing a wide variety subject matter, and he greatly influenced later Greek thought and literature by establishing a cosmological foundation for the mythic past, by associating astronomical observation with a calendrical system, and by establishing a precedent for the use of astronomical references in later Greek literature.

Despite Hesiod's enormous influence in the ancient world, however, only two surviving works can be ascribed to him with certainty. The earlier of the two, the Theogony, is an account of the origins of the universe, the descent of the gods, and the eventual establishment of the present order. It runs to over a thousand lines in its present form and shows strong influence from eastern cultures, among them the Hittites, the Hurrians, the Phoenicians, and the Babylonians, especially in its incorporation of the Succession Myth and divine genealogy. Cosmogonic aspects appear early in the work. After an invocation to the Muses for inspiration (1-115) the poet describes the beginnings of things, and it is here that he relates the origins of the material universe and identifies several primal forces only partially personified: first Khaos, the gaping Void, comes into being, followed by Gaia, the earth and primordial maternal source of generation, Tartaros, the dark and lowest part of the earth, and Eros, the creative principle of Attraction that causes all things to coalesce. In this schema of creation Eros and Gaia produce all else. One offspring of Gaia is Ouranos, the sky, parthenogenetically produced of equal size to cover the earth itself and to be the home of the gods (126-7). The concrete Hesiodic concept of an earth-covering heaven becomes even more evident some lines later (176-7) as Ouranos spreads himself over Gaia to mate, bringing with him the nocturnal darkness. Indeed, his epithet (asteroeis "starry") associates him with the arching dome of the dark night sky itself, even though at this point in the narrative neither the stars nor any celestial bodies have yet been brought into existence. Hesiod later (375-83) completes the genealogy of the objects visible in the sky and describes the later descendants of Ouranos: the Sun (Helios), Moon (Selene) and Dawn (Eos), offspring of the Titans Theia and Hyperion, and the stars themselves, fathered with Eos by the aptly named Astraios. According to the poet the shining stars crown the sky and have as their sibling the planet Venus (Eosphoros, "bringer of dawn"), the only planet mentioned in Greek literature before the Classical Age.

Works and Days, the other work whose Hesiodic authorship is undisputed, offers much more in the way of actual astronomically related material. The poem itself may be classed as an example of "wisdom literature," a work of exhortation and advice, and runs to over eight hundred hexameter lines. Much of it consists of moral advice directed primarily at the poet's brother Perses, supposed by some authorities to be a literary fiction. The work is essentially in two sections: the first and longer part includes practical instruction on agriculture, sailing, and a wide range of social and religious actvities, all of which comprise the "Works"; the last and much shorter part (the "Days") is an almanac of favorable and unfavorable days for performing a variety of activities. There are several specific passages within the "Works" section in which astronomical information plays a significant role, and these passages reveal a familiarity with specific stars and constellations (most of them the same as those known to Homer), with their regular rising and settings (phases) throughout the year, with the concept of the solstices, and with the significance of celestial objects for human society. This information appears in a variety of passages during Hesiod's lengthy instructional overview of farming activity (381-617) and of sailing (618-94). The Pleiades are treated (383 ff.; 571 ff., 614 ff.) as indicators of specific farm tasks based on their dawn (heliacal) rising in May (reaping) and their setting in October (plowing), while Hesiod also includes the setting of the Hyades as a seasonal marker in the latter passage. The heliacal rising (June) and setting (November) of Orion are indicators of threshing and plowing, respectively (597 ff.; 614 ff.). The setting of these star groups also presage the storminess of the winter, and the poet advises against sefaring then (619 ff.). Arcturus marks seasonal tasks as well: at its sunset (acronycal) rising in February, the vines must be pruned (564 ff.); at its heliacal rising (September), the time is right for the vintage, when both Orion and Sirius are at the sky's midpoint at sunrise (609 ff.) as well. Sirius itself is described as a significant factor in human activity: when it shines through much of the night (September), the rainy season begins and woodcutting should begin (419 ff.). Furthermore, the star's heliacal rising in late July increases lust in women while sapping men of their virility (582 ff.), presumably because of the increase in heat when it rises with the Sun and remains above the horizon all day. This aspect of Hesiodic familiarity with the sky indicates a tendency, perhaps rooted in folk traditions, to see an astral influence upon the affairs of humans beyond a simply that of marking of time and seasonal activity.

Hesiod's marking of the risings and settings of a relatively few stars and star patterns nearby to one another also provided for an annual indication, lasting over a period of weeks, of the desirable periods for specific human activity. The Works and Days also reveals a knowledge of the solstices ("turnings of the sun"), and the poet mentions them three times: when the rising of Arcturus is said to occur sixty days after the winter same time of year (479-80); and when the sailing season is said to begin fifty days after the summer solstice (663-5). Hesiod, however, makes no specific mention of the equinoxes even though Pliny (Natural History 18.213) suggests that the poet related the morning setting of the Pleiades to the autumn equinox. Nevertheless, there is an established and recognizable Hesiodic system of specific points throughout the year, although his calendrical year is by no means astronomical; including other indicators from the natural world, it is primarily agricultural and designed for practical concerns.

Despite the essentially prescientific nature of Hesiod's calendar, however, his subsequent influence was considerable, with later developments in Greek calendars drawing on his early steps. According to ancient authors he was also the author of a lost work, Astronomia, several fragments of which survive; the contents were presumably about constellations and their stories. That attribution has been questioned, however. In literature, too, Hesiod was influential. The lyric poet Alkaios incorporates the account of Sirius's effects on humans into his own work (F 346 L-P) as does the author of the Pseudo-Hesiodic Shield of Heracles (393-98). Echoes of and allusions to Hesiod are found in Kallimachos and Aratos, and Vergil rightly calls his own Georgics "an Ascraean poem."

Recent English translations of Hesiod include M. L. West's prose versions of both the Theogony and Works and Days (Oxford: 1988) with brief explantory endnotes. R. S. Caldwell's verse translation of the Theogony (Cambridge, MA: 1987) features an extensive commentary and an interpretive essay. For the Works and Days D. W. Tandy and W. C. Neal's translation (Berkeley: 1996) offers an introductory essay and notes designed for readers in the social sciences, while David Grene's elegant verse rendition is included as part of S. A Nelson's God and the Land: The Metaphysics of Farming in Hesiod and Vergil (Oxford: 1998), which itself offers current insights into the biography of the poet and the composition of the poem (especially 31-58).

R. Lamberton's Hesiod (New Haven: 1988) is useful for background information on the poet and his works, especially on Hesiod's influence on later writers, including Aratos (151). For general treatments of Hesiodic astronomy see D. R. Dicks, Early Greek Astronomy to Aristotle. (Ithaca: 1970): 34-8 and now O. Wenskus, Astronomische Zeitangaben von Homer bis Theophrast. (Stuttgart: 1990): 41-53. M. L. West's editions of the Greek texts with comprehensive introductory material and exhaustive commentaries remain definitive: Theogony (1966), Works and Days (1978); the latter contains a valuable excursus on time reckoning (376-81) and a schematic outline of Hesiod's calendar (253). The ancient testimony for and surviving fragments of Hesiod's Astronomia are collected by M. L. West and R. Merkelbach in Fragmenta Hesiodea (Oxford: 1967): 148-50. A careful examination of Hesiodic calendrical use of stars and star groups is found in H. A. T. Reiche, "Fail-Safe Stellar Dating: Forgotten Phases" in Transactions of the American Philological Association 119 (1989): 37-53. The role of Sirius in ancient Classical literature is the subject of R. C. Ceraglioli. Fervidus Ille Canis: The Lore and Poetry the Dog Star in Antiquity. Diss. Harvard U: 1992.