HESIOD’S THEOGONY, REVISITED
Stephen Scully, Hesiod’s Theogony: From Near Eastern Creation Myths to Paradise Lost, Oxford University Press, 2015, 268 pp. ($85.00). Review by Helaine L. Smith (helaine. firstname.lastname@example.org)
In “Hesiod’s Theogony: From NearEastern Creations Myths to Paradise Lost”Stephen Scully argues that Hesiod, ratherthan having created in the Theogony a catalogue of divine genealogies, now largelyirrelevant and dismissible, with perhapsthe exception of its glorious description ofthe Muses, has instead composed a Homeric Hymn, grand in scale and conception, and dedicated to Zeus. It is a startling,and ultimately convincing, thesis.
The Zeus of Hesiod’s hymn, ProfessorScully argues, is the Zeus who through hisown actions and gifts to mankind, imagines, models, and safeguards civilization inthe form of the orderly city, the polis. Scullyhas long been interested in the polis, ashis excellent 1990 study, Homer and theSacred City, demonstrated, and this newvolume about Hesiod’s Theogony is, in asense, an extension of that interest.
An equally exciting aspect of this comprehensive study is its clear and full discussion of Hesiod’s until-now overlookedliterary methods, in which personificationreflects psychological reality, or flows fromaction, and in which common nouns, intheir shifting meanings, follow the narrative arc of the poem.
Professor Scully also establishes beyond a doubt the Theogony’s influenceand profound effect upon great literaryworks of other cultures and subsequentcenturies. Scully has studied with greatcare everything from the Akkadian Enumaelish, “the story of Marduk’s victory overTiamat and his creation of a stable andharmonious political order,” to Pindar andPlato, Callimachus and the Alexandrianscholars, Ovid and Lucian, the Church fathers, Milton, and even Freud. His discussions of the Oresteia and of Paradise Lostare particularly splendid. He revitalizesthe Theogony for us in every way, makingboth the Theogony and his discussion ofit essential reading for every classicist andevery lover of literature.
The Theogony as a Homeric Hymn
What Homeric Hymns1 do is present,either through direct praise or narrative,the magnificent deeds and gifts of thegod to mankind. It is Scully’s contention,amply proven in this rich volume, thatthe Theogony of Hesiod conforms to thepattern of the greatest of those HomericHymns, that its subject is Zeus, and thatthrough primary and secondary narrativeit presents Zeus’ preeminent gift to mankind: the polity itself.
Hesiod begins the Theogony notwith Zeus himself, but with Zeus’s andMnemosyne’s nine daughters, theMuses Thaleia, Eratō, Melpomenē,Kleiō, Kalliopē, Polyhymnia, Ouraniē,Euterpē, and Terpsichorē [Θάλεια,Ἐρατώ,Μελπομένη, Κλειώ, Καλλιόπη, Πολύμνια,Οὐρανία, Εὐτέρπη, Τερψιχόρη]. This passage, coming at the beginning of the Theogony and therefore out of chronologicalorder—Zeus, who fathers the Muses, hasnot himself yet been created, since afterthis passage Hesiod tells of the beginnings of creation itself—is, Scully argues,deliberate rather than digressive, its proleptic placement by Hesiod indicating thatZeus’s kingship will bring harmony out ofchaos. The Muses sing of what was, whatis, and what will be, and they sing of thelaws and gracious customs of the gods,so that men, too, may learn of those lawsand customs. Law and custom are Zeus’sgifts to the world, then, as is the comfortand joy “sweet song” brings, as is sweetsong itself. The daughters teach Hesiod,a character in his own poem, that Zeusfairly apportioned honors among thegods, such apportionment itself being acivilized and civilizing act. And the daughters, Hesiod adds, inspire rulers of menwith wise words to settle disputes andquarrels. Thereby Zeus, from whom theMuses spring, gives to kings and princespolitical wisdom. And the daughters inhabit high Olympus, the realm Zeus creates for the gods, in which the gods nowlive secure, whereas, in the first and second generation of gods, the gods lived inchaos. Here the Muses sing and danceforever. And so, Zeus creates the first polis, a place of harmony and a model forthe cities of men.2
The poem’s narrative that follows thegorgeous proem about the Muses detailsthe strife between the first, second, andthird generation of gods, the murders andmaimings, the terrible monsters unleashedand then contained, and the story of theeventual victory of Zeus and the benefitof perpetual order his rule bestows. Thatthe Theogony ends with acts of marriageby Zeus, replicated by other gods, is not,Scully argues, a random detail. Instead,the marriage sequence is expressive ofthe movement from anarchic Eros to thecontainment of desire within the social order.3 And so Scully concludes that whenwe read the Theogony we are reading acomplex Hymn to Zeus.
Literary methods of the Theogony
That the Theogony is filled with namesof deities which are also abstract qualities is obvious to even the most casualreader. But what most of us miss, and115a cura di Pietro Deandrea, Gregory Dowling, Antonella Francini, Francesco Stella, Fabio ZinelliLIV 01/2016 Poesia classicawhat Professor Scully shows us, is thatthese names flow from prior actions described in the text. It is as if “being” givesrise to “identity.” That interplay is particularly lovely in the passage that precedesthe naming of the Muses and instead describes where they live and what they do.In rough translation, with the underlinedwords transliterated (Th. 62-71):
They dwell a little beneath the peak of
Just two lines later Hesiod namesthe nine daughters—Thaleia, Eratō,Melpomenē, Kleiō, Kalliopē (reversing the words opi and kalēi of line 68),Polyhymnia (adding a prefix to line 70),Ouraniē, and then two more, Euterpē(“Fine Delight”) and Terpsichorē (“Delight in the Chorus”). As song here flowsfrom their mouths, so, Scully reveals,these names “flow” from description,and action and identity become one, aliterary harmony as harmonious as song.Terpsichorē (“Delight in the Chorus”) andMelpomenē (“Dance and Sing”) refer directly to the choral song and movementin which dancers hold each other by thewrist as they move in unison, such unison itself an emblem of social harmony.Rather than being tedious, the repetitionof “lovely,” “beautiful,” and “song” in thenames of the Muses and the use of asingle collective noun to identify all nineare representations, Scully suggests, ofthe harmony these daughters of Zeusembody. In other words, the Theogony’srepetitions are deliberate.
In summarizing the way this andother passages work, Scully very beautifully says, “In the story’s movement fromnarrative to genealogical list we sensecommonplace words leaping into divinebeings,” just as all creation in this myth“leaps” suddenly into “being.”
Many of Hesiod’s deities are personified qualities, and their offspringare the consequences of those qualities. Discord (Eris [Ἔρις]) gives birthto Pain (Ponos [Πόνος]), as discord always does, and to Forgetfulness (Lēthē[Λήθη])—of, presumably, laws, oaths,and obligations, just as persons forget past kindnesses or promises whenthey fall out with others. Between cities, Discord’s consequences (“children”)include Battles and Slaughter; withincities, Quarrels, Lies, and Amphi-llogiai [Ἀμφιλλογίαις] “words with doublemeanings,” that is, falsely-framed orequivocal political discourse. In otherwords, Hesiod does not, Scully realizes, simply create genealogies that arerandom collations of good or evil qualities, but psychological realities, consequences “bred” by the action named.
Language itself, we are told, reflectsHesiod’s argument, for commonplacewords evolve in meaning from anarchicto societal as the Theogony proceeds.For example, mēdea [μήδεα] can meaneither “genitals” or “plans.” In the storyof the violent castration of Ouranos,it is used as a synonym for “genitals”(Th. 180). Later, reflective of social progress mēdea takes on its other meaningof “plans” (Th. 545). Philotēs [φιλότης]can mean either “sexual intercourse”or “social intercourse, alliance.” By Th.651 Hesiod uses it to describe the “alliance” between Zeus and the “HundredHanders” who fight with him againstthe Titans. Anarchic nouns are likewisesupplanted, as when Th. 902 echoesand replaces the name of the goddessLawlessness (Dus-nomia [Δυσνομια],child of Discord (Th. 226-232), with thename of the goddess Good Law (Eunomia [Εὐνομια]).
The Influence of Theogony in Later Literature
Among the most exciting comparisons of literary works in this book is thatbetween the Theogony (700 B.C.) andthe Oresteia of Aeschylus, composedalmost 250 years later, in 458 B.C. Arguing that “Aeschylus recasts the myth [ofAgamemnon and Orestes] as a trilogy,”and citing as evidence earlier texts suchas the Odyssey and vases of the period4 ,none of which presents the Eumenides asa part of the Agamemnon story, Scully argues that, like Hesiod, Aeschylus reconfigures “a familial and dynastic story intoan idealized polis-myth, modeled in broadoutline according to the polis-centeredideology of the Theogony.” ”The Oresteia is a political play in the sense that itsees the polis as the only setting wherehumankind can break free from . . . a [familial] cycle of violence . . . by the creationof civic law.”
Scully locates smaller Theogonic echoesin the Oresteia as well—the splatteringof Ouranos’s blood upon Gaia and thesplattering of Agamemnon’s blood uponClytemnestra, like “a dark shower of crimson dew” on fertile earth as her axe falls.Unable to persuade the Erinyes to be merciful, Athena enlists the aid of the Hesiodicgoddess Persuasion (Peithō [Πειθώ]) (Th.349) who not only figures in the Theogonybut, like the Muses who “’pour sweet dewon the tongue’ of Zeus-nurtured kings”that those rulers may settle great quarrels, gives to Athena’s “tongue” “soothingand charming power” to persuade theEumenides. The Oresteia’s final word ismolpais [μολπαῖς], its root identical to theroot of Melpomenē, an echo of the Musesand their “like-minded song and dance”and the heritage of civic harmony of theTheogony. The Oresteia ends in the justice that “comes from a well-run polity”and “This,” the author suggests, “is theTheogony’s most lasting contribution tofifth-and fourth-century thinkers and writers about polity and justice.”
Scully also discovers borrowings fromthe Theogony in Paradise Lost. Milton’sinvocation, “Sing, Heav’nly Muse,” hisinitial reference, in content and sequencelike Hesiod’s, to a “Shepherd” on a mountain, his own ambition as poet to “soarabove th’ Aonian Mount,” the hurlingfrom Heaven of “he [Satan] and his horridcrew,” who fall “Nine times the Space thatmeasures Day and Night,” distance in“time” being measured as Hesiod measures it and using the same number ofdays5 —all these bespeak Paradise Lost’sdebt to the Theogony. “Sin” describesherself to her father Satan as a latter-dayand malignant Athena: “a Goddess arm’d/ Out of thy head I sprung” (ii.757-758),and, like Hesiod’s monstrous Echidna(Th. 298-299), is “womanly and fair to thewaist, but ending foully in scaly folds andserpent tail” (PL, ii.650-653).
What is perhaps even more splendidthan the echoes and arguments of influence we find in Scully’s text is his insightinto Milton’s dual purpose in which Miltonmakes use of powerful images and motifsfrom Hesiod and at the same time usesthose images and motifs to indicate howfar the power of the Father and Son exceeds that of the ancient gods. Both Eveand Persephone, Scully muses, onceinhabited paradise—Eve Eden, Persephone “the fair fields of Enna.” Both, andhere he quotes C. S. Lewis, are “ravishedby a dark power risen up from the Underworld” that brings Death into the world,and both are restored, Persephone immediately by Demeter, Eve, “by God’sGrace at the end of time.”
Yet, Scully writes, “[I]t is Hesiod’s personified abstractions, sometimes coupledwith genealogies, that I feel most captured Milton’s poetic imagination.” Pointing to the passage in PL, Book ix in which“Discord” overwhelms Adam and Eve,
They sat them down to weep, nor
Scully continues, “Discord is personifiedafter the Fall, but the prefix dis- has beenpresent from the beginning: ‘Of Man’sFirst Disobedience, and the Fruit / Of thatForbidden Tree . . .’” and this, Scully says,is “another feature of learnt Hesiodic poetics, namely, the endless play betweenpersonified abstractions and lowercasenouns, adjectives, and verbs.”
To hear again the magnificent Miltoniclines Scully selects, in which thematicweight is placed on prefixes, as here,
Venial [“lovely’] discourse unblam’d: I
or here, as Adam speaks of Eve as“defac’t, deflow’r’d, and now to Deathdevote,” is to revel in the beauty of Milton’s lines and at the same time to recallthe brilliance of Scully’s analysis of Hesiod’s.
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