Sunday, November 30, 2014

TFBT: Clay's Five Ages of Man

Recently I was on the road for six weeks.  I took this as a great opportunity to re-read Strauss-Clay’s great book; "Hesiod's Cosmos".  She provides a close reading of each of Hesiod’s works individually and then compares and contrasts them as we see Hesiod’s concept of the cosmological process unfold.  What I didn’t remember from my last reading was Clay’s proposal that “Works and Days” is written from a mortal perspective while, “The Theogony” is for a divine audience.

For those unfamiliar with Hesiod, his five ages are; Golden, a time in which the gods shared their sacrifices with men at the same table and the living was easy.  Then the Silver, the Bronze, the Heroic and finally the Iron. 

Clay says, not me, “the men of the Race of Gold (and they appear indeed to have been males, since otherwise they could not have lived is such a state of bliss!) did not have the ability to reproduce themselves and without this ability they quickly became extinct. “They were ruled by Cronus (Pausanias, Description of Greece 5. 7. 6 :)   Likewise he came to rule a similar paradise called the Isle of the Blest; an age yet to come for some of us.  (Hesiod, Works and Days 156)

The next age was the Silver Age, where men lived for a hundred years as teenagers in the care of their mother.  Being disrespectful of the gods and too lazy to offer sacrifice, they too passed away.  Clay’s foot note suggests that “Zeus come to power only in the course of the silver age.” and she states “Neither the race of gold nor that of silver find a place in the Theogony.  This absence provocatively suggests that from the Olympian perspective… no golden age of mankind ever existed. “ 

Clay quotes Hesiod’s Theogony 143-5,Father Zeus made another race of men, the third brazen, in no way resembling the silver one, from ash-tree nymphs” and then several pages later she says that “Hesiod describes how the drops of blood from Uranus’ several member fell upon Earth, who from them conceived the Giant and the Nymphs called Meliai.  From these the scholiast asserts, spring the ancestors of the human race.”   Meliai are ash nymphs and the Giants birth subsequent to the ascension of Zeus (Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 1. 34 - 38 fits nicely with the timeline Clay establishes for the five ages. “Hesiod remarks, they do not eat bread… One might well wonder what these bronze men ate.  They most resemble…the Spartoi, who sprang from eh earth fully armed and quickly set about killing each other off.” In answer to the question as to what the Bronze men ate, her footnote reads, “The Scholia suggest cannibalism or hinging wild beasts.” 

The Bronze men were fond of war and ruthless.  They got caught up in a contest of wits between wise Zeus and his sly cousin Prometheus.   …“the Bronze men.  They had fire, which they used for warfare and armor that made them a threat to the gods.  Prometheus' attempt to usurp Zeus’ power through an alliance with these powerful men prompted Zeus to deprive them of fire…”  When, “Prometheus restores fire to men, their status is likewise restored for all time to its precarious intermediate position between god and beast.”  Zeus arranges for Prometheus’ brother to accept the gift of Pandora “Her arrival inaugurates the human institution of marriage…unlike the promiscuous beast who practice incest and the similarly promiscuous gods, human beings uniquely regulate sexuality and reproduction through marriage…men eternally reenact the folly of Epimetheus.   Within the jar that accompanied Pandora’s dowry were all the ills born of Nyx, which spilled out into the mortal world. 

Next came the heroic age.  An age of demi-gods born to clear the world of monsters and in the case of the greatest of the demi-god Heracles to defeat the giants.  The notion that the creation of Heracles was a conscious effort on the part of the gods comes from [Apollodorus, Library 2.4.8] where “Zeus came by night and prolonging the one night threefold …and bedded with (Heracles’ mother) Alcmena” In other words Zeus put some effort into siring the greatest of the heroes.  Clay comments additionally, “According to Hesiod, the city comes into being only with the race of heroes.”

Lastly comes our age; the Iron Age.   “the mythloogical tradition relates that from a certain moment on, the gods distanced themselves from intimate contact with human beings and refused to continue to bring forth such children of mixed parentage.”  “Even in Homeric epics, Zeus intervenes in the activities of the heroes only indirectly through messengers, omens and sings.”  Nor does he ever appear on stage in Athens. 

This should bring us to the end of our discussion on the ages of men, except for a lament made by Hesiod.  He wished that rather than being born into this age when men are mix of the four previous ages that he’d been born in the previous age (Heroic) or the one to come, presumably Golden.  The irony of Hesiod wish is that not everyone born in the Heroic age was an all-powerful demi-god; he had just as much chase of being a poor shepherd then and there as he was in his here and now.  As to being born into the next age, that is most like to come about after his death, if the Hero Hesiod can attain the Isle of the Blest  (Homer, Odyssey 4. 56o)  where;

“indeed men live unlaborious days. Snow and tempest and thunderstorms never enter there, but for men's refreshment Oceanus sends out continually the high-singing breezes of the West”





  1. The story of the Ages as told by Hesiod doesn't cease to give me headache.

    What was the function of the Golden Age men? They do little work and it is nowhere mentioned that they ever made sacrifices. So, if they shared the same table with the gods (for which there is a strong tradition, though I do not find it in the original Hesiod's text - on the contrary, I read in one translation that they "dwelt... upon their [own] lands"), the gods must have fed them. Did Cronus create them as pets?

    Then come the Silver Age humans, born of unidentified heroic mothers able and willing to provide childcare for 100 years. These humans are killed off because of failure to sacrifice, though it is not said that they have ever been instructed to do so. We don't know the gender structure of this population. If extermination was necessary, they must have been of both sexes and reproducing. Yet how could they stably exist if childhood lasts 100 years while adult life is short and non-productive? Unless we hypothesize that they must have had good-for-nothing males and perfect females, the best guess is that Zeus just lacked the patience to wait them go extinct on their own (as he lacked the patience to wait for the natural death of Achilles) and finishes them off, blaming the victims for the incompetence of their divine Creator(s).

    About the Bronze Age men - I agree with those who think they obtained fire only when Prometheus stole it, and that fire was never meant for human use. Nothing in the description of the Golden and Silver Age suggests use of fire. Moreover, the fact that Zeus is angry with humans having fire but doesn't take it away (after binding Prometheus) strongly suggests that he has no way to take away technology once acquired by humans. (Muellner: "Zeus was "not giving" fire to mortal men (563), as against taking it away, because the myth cannot remove aspects of reality that are already present and because it is a gesture to counter Prometheus's nongift to Zeus (the fat that contains only bones). The logic of the myth is cumulative, not reversible."
    So I guess that the bronze armors must have been either a late technological achievement (after the theft of fire) or given to humans ready-made. Also, this generation's alleged self-extermination by warfare makes little sense when read together with Zeus' bragging that he will destroy them, followed by the delivery of bioweapons in Pandora's jar.

    Did the Bronze Age men have women before Pandora? In the Theogony, she is the first mortal woman and, hence, Founding Mother of all future humans. Hesiod laments that since she came, men have to choose between two evils - to endure a wife or to remain childless. I wonder, then, why does he bash Epimetheus for accepting Pandora? The presence of women at least allows a choice; otherwise, men would have quickly become extinct without a choice, like those of the Golden Age. Hesiod seems to imply that the arrival of the first woman somehow sealed the mechanism of reproduction and removed some undescribed option to happily exist and reproduce without females.

    N. Forsyth ("The old enemy") thinks that Hesiod's misogyny is the whole reason why he decided to tell the story of Prometheus: "Hesiod already found difficulty with the story, intent as he was upon the glorification of Zeus; indeed, it is a good question why Hesiod chose to tell the story at all... For one thing, it is a necessary preliminary to the Pandora tale (not named as such in the Theogony), and that story Hesiod clearly wanted to tale very badly. It explains the origin of women and therefore, to Hesiod's misogynyst mind, the ills that flesh is heir to."

  2. Maya M,

    “What was the function of the Golden Age men?” No there is a question. My immediate response is the rabbinical answer that God created the universe in response to the prayer of the unmanifest. Only I don’t think Zeus was that caring or cosmically sensitive. How about Cronus and Zeus made “men” in response to the autochthones; earth-born versions that sprouted like weeds across the archaic landscape?

    Muellner: "The logic of the myth is cumulative, not reversible."; Maya, I love that quote. Here did you get it?

    “followed by the delivery of bioweapons in Pandora's jar.” That’s another great line!

    I don’t know about “Hesiod's misogynist mind,” , but clearly the guy is a whining loser who no right-minded woman or response father would look at as a possible groom. So, maybe that’s why he paints Pandora with so much venom.

  3. The Muellner's quote is from Anger of Achilles: Menis in Greek Epic, p. 87.

    To me, the Golden Age is a concept of mythographers and philosophers who are obsessed with the idea of gradual deterioration of the world and will not let any facts stand in the way of this idea. Greeks associate the Golden Age with Cronus. At one time, scholars thought that Cronus and the other Titans were old gods displaced by Zeus & Co. However, it is now thought that Cronus was introduced after Zeus. The Greeks imported the Eastern god Kumarbi under the name of Cronus to supply Zeus with a father, much like a parvenu will buy portraits of fake ancestors from the flea market. So the past associated with Cronus is not only idealized, it is invented, even within the mythological realm. You once wrote that children, unhappy with their mother, may downgrade her to stepmother and invent a perfect real mother who is deceased and maybe incarnated into a fairy godmother. I think that the Greeks, unhappy with the "justice" of Zeus, idealized his father and claimed that life was better under Cronus, knowing all along that this was not true. So it is small wonder that the Golden Age is irrational on many levels.

    The autochtones also give me a headache. Time and again, in one or another myth, you bump into an autochthone or a whole tribe of them. At the same time, Greeks seem to realize that spontaneous generation of humans from the Earth is impossible, because autochthones are never there when someone needs them. Deucalion knew very well that, unless Zeus relented and ordered creation of new humans, there would be none. The same with Aeacus. Cadmus needed dragon teeth to produce men (Theban women presumably were immigrants).

  4. Maya M, I am reading Bernard Knox more on that in a blog. He got me thinking about the under representation of women, the under classes and indigenous people in world literature. Dr Joyce Meyers was preaching on women in the New Testament and she quoted a scripture where Jesus and his disciples are out in the middle of nowhere walking and stop at the side of the road to eat dinner. That's eat it Make. Dr. Meyers says "you know none of those bachelors could cook. There were women in the crowd accompanying than. ". Many times in myth the hero travels to a new land, founds a new city and becomes king King of whom? Later we find he was traveling with a cast of thousands or surrounded by indigenous people who adored him. Alexander Dumas traveled across Europe with a passport that said "Alexander Dumas and Servant" As if servants are of so little concern you didn't need to track them. No commendation of writers, we all write what we know. Just an observation.


  5. I have translated my rendition of the first 3 ages and have uploaded it on my personal site:

  6. You once mentioned that in the Golden Age, men and god feasted together. I replied that I've often read this but don't know the original source. You were in fact quite right; this is a fragment attributed to Hesiod:

    "And now of the race of women sing, sweet-speaking
    Olympian Muses, daughters of aegis-bearing Zeus,
    the women who were once the best
    and who loosened their waistbands
    as they had sexual intercourse with gods
    For at that time feasts were in common, and common were seats
    for both the immortal gods and mortal men."
    Hesiod fr. 1.1–7 M-W

    I wonder, which age is this? The close distance between gods and men implies the Golden Age, but widespread interbreeding between gods and mortals is characteristic only for the Heroic Age (and of course, if mortal women are present in the Golden Age, this blows apart the first woman story as described in the Theogony.)

    The author of the page goes on to say: "At some unspecified point in the past, mankind shared common meals with the gods, and the gods took mortal women as sexual consorts... Commensality implies equality, as is suggested by the ‘common seats’ for men and gods." Frankly, I wonder how people, and working at Harvard at that, manage to pack so many errors in so few words. The fact that male gods took as sexual consorts female humans but not vice versa is a sure indicator that humans were in an inferior position. So the feasts where gods sit next to humans and then take their daughters to bed start to look more than grooming. It is even worse; because a grooming human male at least offers the food and drink, while the gods always invite themselves to feast with humans (humans are never invited to Olympus) and it is never said that the gods, going to visit the Aethiopians or the Phaeacians, take along some meat and drink to contribute to the party :-). Apparently, humans are required to supply the food, to cook it and to clean up afterwards. So this commensality is not equality but material and sexual exploitation.

    Gregory Nagy cites part of the same fragment here:
    Again, I find the analysis problematic. E.g. Nagy claims that "the setting here (i.e. at Mecone) is a feast" while Hesiod clearly calls it a "settlement" (some even translate "a dispute"). I don't know when the idea of men-equal-to-gods emerged, but I think it is modern, and contrary to the thinking of ancient Greeks.

    1. Maya,

      First, I am sorrow but I don’t understand the word “grooming”.

      As to feasting between men and gods…I am sure that happen a lot in the mythical golden age, but I’m pretty sure those two-footed oxen you refered to earlier neither composed songs nor wrote dactyl hexameter verse, so we have no record as to those feasts.

      (I can relate to the mortals who “supply the food, to cook it and to clean up afterwards.” I’m on the fellowship committee at church! )

      I can point to a few exceptions to the notion that the gods never brought food to the potluck or returned the dinner invitation. Most famously the weddings of Peleus & Thetis and Cadmus &Harmonia where the gods shared their marriage feasts, and seated upon golden thrones beside them and received from them their wedding-gifts: (Pindar, Pythian Ode 3. 86, Pausanias, Description of Greece 3. 18. 10 – 16, Hesiod, Catalogues of Women Fragment 58 ) Specifically, Diodorus Siculus in Library of History 5. 48. 2 says the “wedding of Kadmos and Harmonia was the first, we are told, for which the gods provided the marriage-feast.”

      Admittedly these are special circumstances. So how about Zeus purifying Ixion for the murder of his father-in-law in the very halls of Olympus? (Pindar, Pythian Ode 2. 32 & Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 69. 4) And according to; Tantalus was “Lydian king who was favoured by the gods and invited to dine at their table. But after he stole ambrosia and nectar, he was condemned to spend eternity tortured” Plus you don’t want to eat at his house, remember what he did to his son Pelops! As his daughter says; Latona, why should her shrine be revered, when my divinity lacks incense still? My father’s Tantalus, the only mortal gods in heaven allowed to share their banquet-board.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.)

      Now as to “The fact that male gods took as sexual consorts female humans but not vice versa.” Come on! Everyone gets laid at a wedding, right? Like the “wedding of Kadmos and Harmonia was the first, we are told, for which the gods provided the marriage-feast, and Demeter, becoming enamoured of Iasion” (Diodorus Siculus in Library of History 5. 48. 2) While visiting Olympus “In the profound and secret depths of her own bridal chamber, he [Ixion] assailed the wife of Zeus” Pindar, Pythian Ode 2. 32 ff. And both Peleus and his father Aeacus raped Nereides (Thetis and Psamanthe (Hesiod, Theogony 1003) respectively). The versa got a lot of vice too.

      As to the equality of gods and men; we are not so different as the Olympians desperately try to convince us. Many mortals challenged them, shot them, wrestled them to the ground, saved their bacon at the Gigantomachy and tricked the Olympians. Some of the lesser gods ended up dead. Nothing inferior about us! See the below link for details.

    2. By grooming, I meant treating a naïve (and typically very young) female like a princess in order to disable her rudiments of critical thinking and make quasi-consensual sex with her.
      You are right about Tantal and Ixion. BTW, the story of Ixion makes me laugh because of all humans, Zeus felt affinity to this murderer and cared for him as for a brother. But I have a theory that, for some reason, Zeus could get access to Dia the wife of Ixion only by inviting both to his palace.

      You are right that unions of goddesses and human men also happen but they are rare and almost always with a special sinister purpose. I don't count Iasion because he, although mortal, hasn't a single drop of human blood in his veins. Heracles seems to have been apotheosed by the time he marries Hebe. So, who remains?
      - Eos and Tithonus - alleged revenge by Aphrodite;
      - Selene and Endymion - same as above;
      - Calypso and Odysseus - true exception;
      - Circe and Odysseus - true exception (what's there in this guy?);
      - Aphrodite and Anchises - alleged punishment by Zeus;
      - Merope and Sisyphus - true exception;
      - Harmonia and Cadmus - Zeus' plan; the gods give the feast (I feel that the affair of Cadmus, Harmonia and the Theban deities requires deep digging);
      - Thetis and Peleus - Zeus' plan; the gods give the feast;
      - Psamathe and Aeacus - true exception.
      Did I omit anyone? Calypso mentions Orion but there is such a mess around this character that I prefer to pretend that he doesn't exist.

      Of course we are not inferior to gods, except that we are mortal. In fact, it seems that in contests between mortals and gods, the mortal invariably wins and the jealous god, unable to lose, "solves" the situation by retaliating against the too-competent rival. Gods, however, consider us inferior and usually have the force needed to "prove" their opinion.

    3. Looking at the just-composed catalog, I see that of the 4 true exceptions, 3 involve men with ankylometis. Apparently goddesses, unlike you, have a soft spot for such men!

    4. Maya,

      If include a wandering prince wedding the local eponymous nymph, we could probably come up with a Lot more names. I have a list some where if you think nymphs qualify

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. To me, this is a separate category. Is this list of yours posted anywhere?

  8. Maya,
    I checked all the placenames in the catalogue of ships and the names of all the Oeceanides. Here is the resulting list of eponymous nymphs who married mortals. (Thanks to

    KLONIE (or Clonia) was the Naiad Nymph of a spring or fountain of the town of Hyria in Boiotia (central Greece). She was the wife of the town's eponymous founder, Hyrieus, and the mother of Lykos and Nykteus, regents of the city of Thebes.

    MEROPE was one of the seven Pleiades, star-nymph daughters of the Titan Atlas. She married the impious king Sisyphos

    CALLIRHOE (or Callirhoe) was the Naiad Nymph of a spring or fountain of the main town of Akarnania (central Greece). She was a daughter of the river-god Akheloios (Achelous), who married the Argive prophet Alkmaion (Alcmaeon)

    Menoitios, the child of the nymph Aigina and Aktor."

    MYCE′NE (Mukênê), a daughter of Inachus and wife of Arestor, from whom the town of Mycenae or Mycene

    SPARTE was the Naiad Nymph of the main spring, well or fountain of the town of Sparta in Lakedaimonia (Lacedaemonia) (southern Greece). She was a daughter of the river Eurotas, and wife of the country's eponymous king Lakedaimon.

    KYLLENE (or Cyllene) was an Oreiad or Naiad nymph of Mount Kyllene (Cyllene) in Arkadia, southern Greece. She was the wife of Pelasgos the first Arkadian king who lived in the days before the Great Deluge.

    MELIBOIA (or Meliboea) was an Okeanid Nymph of the region of Mounts Kyllene (Cyllene0 in Arkadia (southern Greece). She was the wife of King Pelasgos, the eponymous first king of the aboriginal Pelasgian tribes of Arkadia.

    SAMIA was the Naiad Nymph of the spring, well or fountain of the main town of the island of Samos in the Aegean. She was a daughter of the mainland river Maiandros (Meander), and the wife of Ankaios (Ancaeus), the island's first king.

    MAIRA (or Maera) was the nymph of the dog-star Seirios whose rising in conjunction with the sun brought on the scorching heat of midsummer. Like the Pleiades and Hyades, Maira was a starry daughter of the Titan Atlas. She married a mortal king, the Arkadian Tegeates.

    KYANEE (Cyanea) was the Naiad Nymph of a spring or fountain of the town of Miletos in Karia (south-western Anatolia). She was a daughter of the River Maiandros (Meander), and the wife of the town's founding king, Miletos.

    ORSEIS was the Naiad Nymph of spring in the region of Hellas, Thessalia (northern Greece). She married Hellen, an early King of Northern Greece, sole son of Deukalion and Pyrrha, survivors of the Great Deluge

    METHONE was the Naiad Nymph of the spring, well or fountain of the town of Methone in Pieria (northern Greece). She was the wife of the country's eponymous king, Pieros.

    EIDYIA (or Idyia) was an Okeanis nymph of the town of Kolkhis (Colchis) in Aia at the far eastern end of the Black Sea and the wife of the magician-king Aeetes. (He might be immortal)

    NEPHELE (1) A Nymphe "cloud" who was the wife of the mortal King Athamas


  9. Thank you. Why don't you paste them in a "full-right" blog post?

  10. While I don't like Hesiod too much, I increasingly respect him as a historical source. He wrote correctly that the Bronze Age was brought to an end by wars. Then, he called the Iron Age many names. I thought it to be mere slander of a conservative person with too little goodwill and imagination, but see how an academic source describes the early Iron Age:

    "Between the Mycenaean times and the Archaic Period was the Greek Dark Ages, a time of low population, iron-making, lawlessness, lack of art, and illiteracy."

    Logical, in fact, keeping in mind that it was great social cataclysms that motivated and allowed people to process iron for first time.

  11. Maya,

    In Works and Days, Hesiod is a whiner! Another interesting loose correlation between myth and fact during the Dark Ages is the historic Dorian Invasion and the mythic Return of the Hercalidae (Heracles' grandsons, they reclaimed the Pelopennian Peninsula.


  12. Curiously, I've learned about the Dorian Invasion at school, and now its factuality is questioned! As joked a historian named Cartledge:

    "It has of late become an acknowledged scandal that the Dorians, archaeologically speaking, do not exist. That is, there is no cultural trait surviving in the material record for the two centuries or so after 1200 which can be regarded as a peculiarly Dorian hallmark. Robbed of their patents for Geometric pottery, cremation burial, iron-working and, the unkindest prick of all, the humble straight pin, the hapless Dorians stand naked before their creator – or, some would say, inventor."

  13. Maya,

    Dont worry, wait 15 minutes and some scientist will restore the Doric past. I have been waiting for the announcement that the world is flat again