Hesiod (Hesiodos, Ἡσίοδος), the early Greek poet and rhapsode, presumably lived around 700 BCE. Historians have debated the priority of Hesiod or of Homer, and some authors have even brought them together in an imagined poetic contest. Modern scholars disagree as to which was earlier; their lives very likely overlapped.
Hesiod serves as a major source for knowledge of Greek mythology, farming techniques, archaic Greek astronomy and ancient time-keeping.
J. A. Symonds writes that "Hesiod is also the immediate parent of gnomic verse, and the ancestor of those deep thinkers who speculated in the Attic Age upon the mysteries of human life".1
Some scholars doubt whether Hesiod alone conceived and wrote Works and Days. J. A. Symonds writes that "the first ten verses of the Works and Days are spurious - borrowed probably from some Orphic hymn to Zeus and recognised as not the work of Hesiod by critics as ancient as Pausanias".2
As with Homer, legendary traditions have accumulated around Hesiod. Unlike the case of Homer, however, some biographical details have survived: a few details of Hesiod's life come from three references in Works and Days; some further inferences derive from his Theogony. Hesiod lived in Boeotia. His father came from Kyme in Aeolis, which lay between Ionia and the Troad in Northwestern Anatolia, but crossed the sea to settle at Boeotian Ascra, "a cursed place, cruel in winter, hard in summer, never pleasant" (Works, 640). Hesiod's patrimony there, a small piece of ground at the foot of Mount Helicon, occasioned a pair of lawsuits with his brother Perses, who won both under the same judges (some scholars have seen Perses as a literary creation, a foil for the moralizing that Hesiod directed to him in Works and Days).
The Muses traditionally lived on Helicon, and they gave Hesiod the gift of poetic inspiration one day while he tended sheep (compare the legend of Cśdmon). In another biographical detail, Hesiod mentions a poetry contest at Chalcis in Euboea where the sons of one Amiphidamas awarded him a tripod (ll.654-662). Plutarch first cited this passage as an interpolation into Hesiod's original work, based on his identification of Amiphidamas with the hero of the Lelantine War between Chalcis and Eretria, which occurred around 705 BCE. Plutarch assumed this date much too late for a contemporary of Homer, but most Homeric scholars would now accept it. The account of this contest inspired the later tale of a competition between Hesiod and Homer.
Two different -- yet early -- traditions record the site of Hesiod's grave. One, as early as Thucydides, reported in Plutarch, the Suda and John Tzetzes, states that the Delphic oracle warned Hesiod that he would die in Nemea, and so he fled to Locris, where he was killed at the local temple to Nemean Zeus, and buried there. This tradition follows a familiar ironic convention: the oracle that predicts accurately after all.
The other tradition, first mentioned in an epigram of Chersios of Orchomenus written in the 7th century BC (within a century or so of Hesiod's death) claims that Hesiod lies buried at Orchomenus, a town in Boeotia. According to Aristotle's Constitution of Orchomenus, when the Thespians ravaged Ascra, the villagers sought refuge at Orchomenus, where, following the advice of an oracle, they collected the ashes of Hesiod and placed them in a place of honour in their agora, beside the tomb of Minyas, their eponymous founder, and in the end came to regard Hesiod too as their "hearth-founder" (οἰκιστής / oikistÍs).
Later writers attempted to harmonize these two accounts.
Legends that accumulated about Hesiod came from several sources: a treatise "The poetic contest (Ἀγών / AgŰn) of Homer and Hesiod"; a vita of Hesiod by the Byzantine grammarian John Tzetzes; the entry for Hesiod in the Suda; two passages and some scattered remarks in Pausanias (IX, 31.3–6 and 38.3–4); a passage in Plutarch Moralia (162b).
Hesiod wrote a poem of some 800 verses, the Works and Days, which revolves around two general truths: labour is the universal lot of Man, but he who is willing to work will get by. Scholars have seen this work against a background of agrarian crisis in mainland Greece, which inspired a wave of documented colonisations in search of new land.
This work lays out the five Ages of Man, as well as containing advice and wisdom, prescribing a life of honest labour and attacking idleness and unjust judges (like those who decided in favour of Perses) as well as the practice of usury. It describes immortals who roam the earth watching over justice and injustice.3 The poem regards labor as the source of all good, in that both gods and men hate the idle, who resemble drones in a hive.4
Tradition also attributes the Theogony, a poem which uses the same epic verse-form as the Works and Days (and as Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey") to Hesiod. The Theogony, which in its surviving form has over 1000 verses, resembles Works and Days very closely in style and substance considering the different subject-matter.
The Theogony concerns the origins of the world (cosmogony) and of the gods (theogony), beginning with Gaia, Nyx and Eros, and shows a special interest in genealogy. Embedded in Greek myth there remain fragments of quite variant tales, hinting at the rich variety of myth that once existed, city by city; but Hesiod's retelling of the old stories became, according to the 5th-century historian Herodotos, the accepted version that linked all Hellenes.
Scholars generally classify all these as later examples of the poetic tradition to which Hesiod belonged, not as the work of Hesiod himself. The Shield, in particular, appears to be an expansion of one of the genealogical poems, taking its cue from Homer's description of the Shield of Achilles.
Hesiod's works survive in Alexandrian papyri, some dating from as early as the 1st century BCE. Demetrius Chalcondyles issued the first printed edition (editio princeps) of Works and Days, possibly at Milan, probably in 1493. In 1495 Aldus Manutius published the complete works at Venice.