Hesiod, an 8th-century BCE Greek contemporary of Homer, left for posterity several tidbits of personal information about his own life, which he wove into his timeless poetic works. Therefore, we know that Hesiod’s father originally came from the Aeolian city of Cyme, but that he sailed across the Aegean to settle in the town of Ascra, just to the east of Mount Helicon in Boeotia, Greece. Ascra was likely where Hesiod was born, and he grew up on a farm that his father built there. Hesiod spent much of his early life tending to his family’s farm, which was seemingly devoted to raising sheep on the mountainside. Therefore, Hesiod spent his youthful years shepherding his father’s livestock. The future poet had a brother named Perses, who ideally could have shared the duties of the day, but Hesiod described this sibling as a foolish and troublesome individual with a poor work ethic. All in all, life in Ascra was apparently a bittersweet experience for Hesiod. On a positive note, he found ample beauty and inspiration on the slopes of Mount Helicon. Yet, in his poem, Works and Days, he vented about his “miserable village, Ascra,” which he unflatteringly described as “bad in weather, foul in summer, good at no time” (line 640).
Despite Hesiod’s struggle to appreciate his hometown of Ascra, he had no lack of admiration towards Mount Helicon. While spending time on the mountainside with his lambs, Hesiod could feel close to the gods, particularly to Zeus, to whom an altar was built on the mountain, and to the Muses, who apparently saw Mount Helicon as an alternative home when they needed a break from the other gods on Mount Olympus. The Muses, claimed Hesiod, could often be found there bathing in the mountain’s streams, or singing and dancing on the slopes. With both devout Hesiod and the generous Muses sharing the same mountain space, it was inevitable that a divine encounter would occur, one that would greatly influence Greek religion and literature.
As Hesiod tells it, he was nothing but a simple shepherd, with no talent in oratory, poetry or writing until he had a fateful encounter on Mount Helicon. One day, claimed Hesiod, nine Muses named Clio, Euterpe, Thaleia, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Erato, Polyhymnia, Urania and Calliope appeared before him and offered Hesiod the gift of poetry. On this alleged encounter, Hesiod wrote, “they breathed into me wondrous voice, so that I should celebrate things of the future and things that were aforetime. And they told me to sing of the family of blessed ones who are for ever, and first and last always to sing of themselves” (Theogony, line 31). In addition to giving the poet honeyed words, a silver tongue, and a penchant for verse, the Muses also taught Hesiod about the gods—starting, of course, with themselves—and as a graduation present for his successful crash course on everything divine, they also gave the fledgling poet a staff, which he wielded proudly.
Such was the way Hesiod claimed to have become a poet. Of course, readers interpret it in different ways. Skeptics might say he learned indirectly from the muses, studying from poets who passed through Boeotia, and then reflected on and improved upon these lyrical innovations while shepherding on the slopes of the inspiring Mount Helicon. Those who are religiously inclined, however, may infer that Hesiod truly had some sort of spiritual epiphany while he was out in the wilderness and that it inspired his poetry. Whatever the case, it makes a good and entertaining story, which, in the end, was one of Hesiod’s goals.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Hesiod and the Muse painted by Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod, translated by M. L. West. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, 1999, 2008.