Works and Days
is a classic text written by ancient Greek
in the early seventh century B.C.E.
It takes the form of a lesson imparted to Hesiod's brother Perses
, written in dactylic hexameter
, instructing him in the importance of just behavior, respect and understanding of the will of the Gods
, and the necessity of hard work to earn a living in difficult times. It goes into detail in describing the proper way to earn a living through agriculture
, and for this reason it is often classed among other didactic
works of the ancient Greeks
, though critic M.L. West
makes a compelling argument that it belongs more to the tradition of wisdom literature
, which spans many cultures and ages, from the Sumerian
and ancient Egyptian
, to the Vedic literature
, through Hebrew
and Middle English
, and Irish
Together with Hesiod's earlier poem Theogony, Works and Days is held as an important text that gives insight into the lives and beliefs of prehistoric Greeks. It was written shortly after the end of the Greek Dark Age that spanned from before the tenth century B.C.E. at least until some time in the eighth century.
Among other things, Works and Days describes the degeneration of man, through the five races created by the Gods, each new race of man living in greater strife, culminating in the generation of Iron men of Hesiod's time, who labored the hardest, with the greatest likelihood of poverty and starvation, and who held the least favor with the Gods. However, this is but one of many pieces of folklore/wisdom and parables that are offered in support of Hesiod's exhortation that Perses must learn to work hard and avoid "crooked dike," or injustice.
Hesiod also extends his lessons to apply to the more powerful men of his time the "basilees," or chiefs/barons who were responsible for passing judgment in disputes. The poem was written at a time when Hesiod was caught up in a legal wrangling with his brother over land holdings, and Hesiod feared the consequences of a crooked dike being passed, if the local basileus was not wise enough to heed the will of Zeus, or if Perses was deceptive enough to win an unjust decision.
The title Works and Days was most likely assigned to this poem in a later age, and was probably derived from the section that resembles a farmer's almanac, which breaks down in detail which days of the month are best for which activities. This section differs from earlier parts of the text, in that the rest of the poem seems to rely more on practical learning, whereas this part depends more on folklore and magical beliefs. However it appears that, in any case, practical considerations can not be separated from magical beliefs in Hesiod's text, because there was no perceived difference between acting properly and acting according to the will of the gods.
Therefore, the exhortation to plow in November "whenever you hear the voice of the crane screeching out her yearly cries," which seems very practical and sound to a modern reader, can not be separated from the exhortation not to urinate while standing upright and facing the sun, or the information that the tenth day of the month is a good day for a male to be born, while the fourteenth is good for a girl.
Whether this poem, as it exists today, is complete, is uncertain. Some critics have maintained that a further section on divining based on the omens of birds may have existed, but it was destroyed in a later age. Whether or not the text is complete, that part which remains continues to inform and enlighten those who are interested in early poetry, wisdom literature, didactic literature, agricultural practices, and the beliefs and customs of early Greeks.