There seems to be an insatiable thirst in the contemporary Anglophone world for new translations of archaic Greek hexameter poetry. It is easy to see why the Homer market is booming. The Odyssey—a gripping, deeply human poem about identity, community, loss, cleverness and lies, gender inequality, wealth and poverty, migration, travel, colonization, mass murder, and cultural difference—has never felt more resonant than it does in 2017. The Iliad—a starker poem about human vulnerability, rage, pain, isolation, honor, and the thrilling, horrific effects of male aggression—feels more chillingly important on each rereading.
The near-contemporary poems by Hesiod, also the products of a long oral tradition and also composed around the eighth or seventh century BCE (although Barry Powell gives an earlier date), are less prominent in our culture. Perhaps the relative paucity of good, reader-friendly translations is partly to blame. There is a nonmetrical and fairly old but still-vibrant translation by Richmond Lattimore (1959) and experimental poetic versions by Daryl Hine (in hexameters, 2005) and by Catherine M. Schlegel and Henry Weinfield (in rhyming couplets, 2006). There is a nice free-verse version by Apostolos N. Athanassakis (1983) and another, in a more folksy register, by Stanley Lombardo (1993). There is also a prose translation by Martin West (1978) and another prose translation for the Loeb library, with facing Greek text, by Glenn Most (2007).
This may seem a large array of choices, but by Homeric standards, it is pitiful. There have been dozens of new translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey into English in the past few decades. I am particularly eager to read the new translation of Works and Days by the talented poet Alicia Stallings, which will appear in March. Until then, we have a new translation by Barry Powell.
There is no recent English Hesiod that fully captures the strange poetic qualities of the original, which would be a tall order. These poems are composed, like Homer’s, in a regular and rhythmical, highly artificial but also fluent and natural-sounding verse. But the tone and subject matter are quite different from the Homeric poems. Hesiod’s themes range from the mythical divine origins of the universe to the importance of not pissing facing the sun. These poems capture a wonderfully confusing rag-bag of popular cultural wisdom, drawn from wide and incompatible sources. This may make Hesiod sound like the ancient equivalent of a random Google search, but his poems are more artful and self-conscious than that. They express a deep yearning for social, ethical, cosmological, and poetic order, and at the same time a fundamental awareness of the randomness and frustrations of life, and of poetry itself.
There are many excellent reasons why nonspecialists might be interested in reading Hesiod in English translation. In an era when we may be desperate for the swamp to be drained and for, in Hesiod’s words, some “true judgments that abide by justice” to be made in Washington, there are particular reasons to turn back to his complex, contradictory analyses to understand how we got here and how it all went wrong.
The name “Hesiod”—like the name “Homer”—probably does not refer to a single individual author, although Powell is credulous about the ostensibly biographical details in the Hesiodic oeuvre. “Hesiodic” is arguably the name of a cluster of archaic poetic genres rather than of an individual: it denotes poems that describe the origins of the world and the gods, that list and evoke the characters of the mythical past, and that convey folk wisdom, from profoundly ethical meditations about the nature of justice to bits of trivia about astronomy, farming, sailing, and household management. The Hesiodic poems—the Theogony and Works and Days, as well as the much later Shield of Herakles and Catalog of Women—do not have the rich, rounded characters or the compulsive narrative interest of the Homeric texts. But they tell us an enormous amount about the dawn of what we used to call “the Western canon.”
It is clear from Hesiod that “Western literature” really begins in the East—in the areas of the world now occupied by Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, and neighboring regions, but once home to the Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians, and (further down the coast into Lebanon and Israel) Phoenicians. As Barry Powell emphasizes in his introduction to his new translation, Hesiod’s poems owe an enormous debt to these non-Greek peoples. They could not have been created at all without the help of the Semitic Phoenicians, whose alphabet the Greeks used to form their own writing system.
In their content, too, the works of Hesiod are as much Eastern as Greek. The creation myths evoked by the Hesiodic Theogony clearly echo similar Hittite stories, preserved on cuneiform tablets, about a struggle for succession between multiple generations of gods. It was the much-earlier Hittites, not the Greeks, who first explored the edifying theme of the divine ruler who is deposed and castrated, and of the final victory of the storm god—whom they called Teshub, not Zeus. The Babylonians told a related story about the divine struggle for power at the beginning of time. The moralizing maxims and proverbs of Hesiod’s Works and Days often come from Eastern traditions; the genre of the animal fable, the myth of the Golden Age, and the stories of Pandora and of Prometheus, as well as the cataloging of lucky and unlucky days, all have non-Greek parallels and likely originated from earlier, non-Greek cultures. It is inspiring, in the current political climate, to remember how much of “our” early heritage is adapted from the great archaic cultures of what is now the Arabic world.
Powell’s new translation of the Theogony, Works and Days, and The Shield of Herakles is a slim, attractive volume that includes maps and several genealogical tables to help the reader keep all those titans, heroes, and goddesses straight. It also has some lovely full-color illustrations of vase paintings and reliefs; the Eastern influences on the Greek tradition are beautifully shown by the juxtaposition of a Hittite storm god with a Greek vase painting of the storm god Zeus.
But aside from the pretty pictures and his useful account of Eastern influences on Greek myth, Powell’s introductory material is disappointing. His discussion of the composition of these poems is highly debatable and speculative, including a theory about their date of origin that most scholars would consider far too early. And he does almost nothing to analyze the poems as literature, or as proto-philosophy, or as pieces of evidence that might tell us about the social fabric of the Greek-speaking culture in which they were composed.
Classicists such as Jenny Strauss Clay, Pietro Pucci, Kirk Ormand, and the editors and contributors of the excellent Brill Companion to Hesiod (2009) have opened up the Hesiodic corpus in new ways in recent decades. We are now more aware of these poems’ literary interest, their complex configurations of gender roles, and their contradictory positioning between content that seems to value the elite or aristocratic class—divine or heroic epic—and the more popular, perhaps proto-democratic genre of wisdom literature (a literary tradition that involves giving proverbial advice, like Proverbs in the Bible). Glenn Most has reminded us of the conceptual importance of these apparently “primitive” poems by showing how they shaped later Greek philosophical thought. Scholars such as Christos Tsagalis and Richard Hunter have written in stimulating ways about Hesiod’s poetic self-fashioning and the mixed generic identities and ancient reception of the Hesiodic poems.
None of this intellectual wealth is visible in Powell, whose discussion of what he calls “Prominent Themes in Hesiod’s Theogony” runs to only two and a half pages, in which he asserts that the Theogony is about “the climb to power of male over female,” a theme that, we are told, “the Greeks” saw as “normal”; by “Greeks” he perhaps means “male elite Greeks.” In Powell’s account Works and Days, similarly, is a rather simpler and less interesting poem than you might imagine from reading recent scholarship: it is about “the avoidance of evil deeds” and the “necessity of labor.”
The translations themselves are, if possible, worse. Take, as an entirely typical example, this account of the Iron Age:
Zeus made another race of mortal human beings who have come
into being upon the rich earth. Would that I did not live among this fifth
race of men, but that I died before, or that I lived after! For now the race
is of iron, nor do men ever cease from suffering and sorrow by day, nor from
being ruined by destruction at night.
If these lines were laid out as prose, one might still be irritated by the redundancies (“ruined by destruction,” “suffering and sorrow”), the repetitions (“race…race…race”), and the clumsy archaisms (“cease,” “would that I did not”). The original does not repeat the word for “race” (genos) as often as Powell does, and the redundancies are not in the Greek. But at least if Powell had set out his writing as prose, the reader would be free from the frustration of trying to make sense of line breaks that make no sense: Who ends a line with “from”? It may seem as if writing free verse ought to be easier than writing in a regular meter. But free verse rarely works at all well unless the poem’s bones are informed by a structure from which it has leapt away. The glories of H.D.’s metrical innovations come from a deep awareness of English poetic rhythms, from which her feet dance toward the fresh pastures of Euripides. Free verse is not the same as prose with a strange page layout. By this metric, Powell obviously does not write verse, and it would be less painful if he admitted it.
Even beyond the standards of poetics and prosody, Powell’s diction is extremely uneven. It tends toward grandiose archaism (“Mnemosynê of the beautiful tresses, on whom were begotten the nine/Muses”) and awkward, unidiomatic phrases (“all stirred hated battle on that day, the females and the males”). But then there are several strange, comical moments when Powell lapses into a more vernacular mode: we meet “the Harpies who have nice hair” and the bronze-worker relaxes on a “comfy couch,” and when Prometheus tries to trick Zeus, the great Cloud God comments, “O son of Iapetos,/most excellent of all the gods—wow!” Powell’s Hesiod takes on a bizarrely peremptory tone when talking to the Muses (“Come here, you Muses of Pieria,” he tells them bossily, as if addressing a gaggle of noisy preschoolers).
As Lawrence Venuti has reminded us, there is not necessarily anything wrong with a translation that draws attention to its own status as translation. For a classical translator, the occasional use of markedly archaic or markedly modern-sounding words can be a useful device to invite a deeper reflection on the relationship of ancient to modern cultures. But in Powell’s case, where the baseline style is so relentlessly clunky, there seems little reason to imagine that these moments of stylistic schizophrenia are inserted with any particular goal in mind.
One might imagine that Powell’s translations would at least give what nontranslators like to call a “literal” or “faithful” account of what the Greek actually says. Probably he believes that this is what he has done. But in truth, no translator can avoid making judgments about what matters in the original and what does not. Powell’s style already implies a certain set of judgments about Hesiod’s poetic abilities—judgments that are not very flattering to the poor old Boeotian bard. His translations enact the same kinds of thoughtlessness that are implied by his thin introductory analysis. I will focus on his handling of gender, but much the same point could be made about his approach to other kinds of social status, including the representation of divine power.
Reviewers, especially male reviewers, rarely comment on the gendered assumptions and biases of male translators. So it is worth emphasizing that Powell’s rendering of the Greek is, in a great many moments, noticeably shaped by his unexamined masculine bias. Of course, he is by no means alone in this; he is, in this as in other respects, absolutely typical. That makes it all the more important to notice how a particular kind of gender bias shapes his translation, since similar biases can be seen in many other classical translations that are often imagined to be “objective” or authoritative.
For example, there are two words for “man” in Greek: the word aner can mean either “man” or “husband,” and connotes a specifically male person. This is the first word of the Odyssey: Odysseus is defined as “a man.” By contrast, the word anthropos suggests a human being, as opposed to a god or an animal. Anthropos is masculine in form (as are, for example, the words for “world,” “air,” “house,” and “death” in Greek, and hundreds of abstract others); but it does not necessarily denote only male people. There is clear linguistic evidence for this fact, since the word appears in extant ancient Greek with the female pronoun (he anthropos, “the [feminine] human”).
Hesiod uses anthropos several times to refer to the relationship of gods to humans, or the contrast between people in the mythical past and people of his own time. At the beginning of the Theogony, we are told that the Muses give inspired speakers the ability to end quarrels and to persuade crowds of people: this is “the holy gift of the Muses to human beings [anthropoisin].” Hesiod’s point is surely not that the gods or the Muses speak only to male people; if gender had been the element he wanted to emphasize, he could have used the other word. But in Powell this becomes “Such is the sacred gift of the Muses to men.” Many instances of anthropos are treated in this way by Powell, but not all—which means that the Greek-less reader will have absolutely no way to tell from Powell when Hesiod means “men” and when he means “people.” You might think this distinction matters; but for Powell, it does not.
The same goes for many other words and phrases that are gender-neutral in the original. When Hesiod says that the Gulf of Tartaros is so deep that “one” who entered the gate (an unspecified, gender-neutral person) would not reach the bottom in a whole year, Powell translates, “If a man were to come inside the gates,/he would not reach the floor….” Hera is described in Hesiod as thaleros, a word that can be used of flourishing plants or abundant tears or a muscular warrior’s thighs: it suggests sturdiness or luxuriance or physical power. In Powell, she becomes “buxom Hera his wife.” When Hesiod declares that “giving” (a feminine noun personified) is good, and “stealing” (another personified feminine) is bad, Powell makes only one of them feminine, and by now you can probably guess which: “Give is good; Grab is a bad girl.”
The masculine bias also creeps into Powell’s rendering of the relationships between male and female characters in the text. There is, for example, the short line in the Theogony in which we are told that the goddess Theia was “subdued in sex by Hyperion.” The participle, hypodmetheis’, definitely suggests a nonconsensual and probably violent encounter; the root verb suggests “to overpower” or “to subdue,” and is used for enemies killed or slaves taken in war, or for animals broken to the plow or the harness, or for women overpowered in nonconsensual sex. “Raped” would be a valid translation.
There are common terms in Hesiod for consensual sexual encounters (such as mignumi, “to mix” or “mingle” or “have intercourse”); the text makes a clear distinction between cases of “mingling” and cases of “subduing” or “raping.” One could argue about whether it is or is not appropriate to use a word that is, for us, shocking, and describes an action that is legally recognized as a crime, for an action that is at least a tiny bit more normalized in the Greek text; the choice of a word like “overpowered” over “raped” might be defensible on these grounds. But it is certainly not defensible, on any possible philological or scholarly grounds, to alter the original by making a nonconsensual encounter sound consensual.
Yet this is exactly what Powell does. He renders the line as: “Theia, submitting in love to Hyperion.” There are many rapes in Hesiod, and Powell creates the same distortion every single time. To take just one more example: the Titan Rhea, we are told, is raped by Kronos, and from this act of violence the Olympian gods are born: Rheia de dmetheisa Kronoi teke phaidima tekna (“Rhea, overpowered/raped by Kronos, gave birth to glorious/shining children”). Powell again (and again and again) erases the violence that is obvious in the Greek: his translation reads, “Rhea, sleeping with Kronos, bore splendid children.” Powell presumably knows what the verb damazo means; it is a common enough word, and any basic dictionary will explain its meaning. But the distinction between being “subdued” or “raped” by Kronos and “sleeping with Kronos” is one that this translator clearly assumes does not matter, and therefore does not reflect in his translation.
All this might conceivably be a little less important if the original poems had nothing to say about gender. But this is simply not the case. The complex, often contradictory relationships and hierarchies between men and women, between feminine and masculine powers, and between gods and goddesses are a central part of what the Homeric and Hesiodic poems are all about, and gender in these texts is not a concept that is presented as entirely transparent in meaning.
The Theogony begins with two kinds of divine female power: the nine Muses who inspire the poem itself, and the two primordial female forces, Chaos (or Chasm, Chaos) and Earth (Gaia), who are the first entities in the universe, and who gradually, painfully, give way to the Titans and then to the Olympian gods and goddesses. The biological and social differences between male and female are central to the poem’s violent mythic scheme, in which Kronos castrates his father, Sky, and the bloody drops impregnate Earth; later Kronos is tricked into swallowing his own children and vomiting them up—a parodic echo of the female process of gestation and birth.
These are stories that grapple with hard questions about the nature and gendering of power. Do male authorities have to steal or borrow from female capacities in order to gain control, as Zeus does when he swallows Metis? Is it true—as Powell assures us—that “mind” thus becomes “part of his own being”—or is there a remaining tension between male dominance and female intelligence? Is “the feminine” always to be associated with disorder, or are male beings, who can be (and, in Hesiod’s world, are) castrated, more prone to disintegration, since their bodies are more readily partitioned? Do violence, treachery, and deceit belong more to masculine or feminine power, or to both equally? Is there a way to be simultaneously male and female? The poems raise the questions, without necessarily offering a coherent answer. These disturbing myths about gender roles are an important reason to read and study Hesiod, so it is a pity when a translator of these texts is unable to look at gender with open and critical eyes.
It is in Works and Days that we have the earliest extensive narrative of the story of Pandora, “All Gifts,” the fabricated, not-quite-human woman whom Zeus gives to humans as a punishment, after the Titan Prometheus tricked him and gave fire to mortals. This story, like that of Adam and Eve in Genesis, might be construed as straightforwardly misogynistic: the woman’s decision (to eat the fruit, or to open the box) is at the root of all evil in the world. But it also makes clear that the ultimate cause of human misery is a power struggle between two male deities, Prometheus the Titan and Zeus the Olympian.
The myth appears in two significantly different versions in Hesiod: one in the Theogony, and another in Works and Days. In the Theogony, the female quasi human is unnamed, and women in general are said to be a pema (a “misery” or “calamity”) for mortal men, because they require feeding, which gets expensive. In this version, women have no power and are not described as individuals. In the Works and Days story, by contrast, Pandora’s name suggests that she may be the source of all goodness, as well as all suffering. She makes a choice to open the jar, although we are not told why. Moreover, the Works and Days story makes it clear that the miseries that come into the world when the jar opens are separate from Pandora herself; she is an instrumental cause of their release, but she is not the cause of human pain.
All these contradictions, both within the Pandora story and between the Theogony and the Works and Days versions of the myth, point to some important unresolved tensions in the way active female behavior was conceived in archaic Greek culture. This makes it particularly important for a translator of Hesiod to think carefully about how exactly the poems articulate gender roles, here and elsewhere. But unfortunately, Powell gives no sign of having done any of this work. To take just one detail: Zeus tells Hermes, in Works and Days, to put into Pandora “a doggish mind and a wily character.” The term I translated as “wily” (epiklopos) can be either positive (suggesting cleverness or competence—it is used of Odysseus’s skill in archery) or negative (suggesting the tendency to steal). The term “doggish” (kuneos) is used as an insult by Achilles about Agamemnon in the Iliad; it is common in archaic Greek poetry to accuse one’s enemies of being like dogs.
As Cristiana Franco argued in an important recent study, Shameless: The Canine and the Feminine in Ancient Greece (2014), dogs are creatures that share human food but are not human, so “dog” in archaic Greek culture was a good shorthand for hinting that a person might not be properly human. Hence the insult is more commonly used in these texts against women than men, since their humanity is more often imagined to be in doubt. But kuneos certainly is not exclusively feminine, unlike the modern English insult “bitch,” which carries entirely different and specific connotations of low-level cruelty conceptualized as a particularly feminine quality. Powell makes Pandora’s mental qualities definitely negative, and definitely feminized, in ways that the Greek does not require: his Hermes is told “to put in her the mind/of a bitch and a scheming nature.”
This is a clear case of how translation always involves interpretation, and it illustrates the need for every translator—male or female, young or old—to think as deeply as humanly possible about each verbal, poetic, and interpretative choice. Powell’s translations are often not impossible as a way of reading the Greek. But it is a shame that he, like all too many classical translators, has not thought a little harder about what informs his own readings, and what the alternatives might be.