Chronology and Identity: Hesiod’s Myth of the Races

 

Of the two canonical Hesiodic poems, the Theogony most clearly positions itself as a creation narrative. The Works & Days, on the other hand, seems to have multiple narrative purposes, but is most often read as a didactic poem with lessons both for the immediate addressee – the poet’s brother Perses – and the wider audience of archaic Greece.[1] However, this poem also presents its own perspective on the formation of the world; as Jenny Strauss Clay has shown, the Works & Days takes a human viewpoint to complement the divine emphasis of the Theogony.[2] One passage presents us with the most programmatic of all Hesiodic accounts of the history and development of mankind: the myth of the five races (W&D 106-201). In this paper I will examine how the poet uses chronology as a structuring device in this myth, distinguishing it from the preceding story of Prometheus and Pandora; and how the successive races which are created and destroyed can each reveal to us something of our own identity as part of the race of iron. While it is possible to read the myth as showing a gradual and inevitable deterioration, with ourselves at the very nadir of the process, I will show how the unfolding of the five races is more complex than this, and that the distinct processes of change through time follow different trajectories. This means that the chronological structure of the narrative teaches us both about the exceptionalism of the race of the heroes, and also about the hope which lies within our own identity, and which the poet encourages us to cling to in a world which might seem doomed to destruction.

[1] See most recently Canevaro, L. (2015),  Hesiod’s Works and Days: How to teach self-sufficiency, Oxford.

[2] Clay, J. S. (2003), Hesiod’s Cosmos, Cambridge.