Hesiod, Homeric Hymns, and Homerica, by H. G. Evelyn-White

Of the Origin of Homer and Hesiod, and of their Contest (aka “The Contest of Homer and Hesiod”)

Everyone boasts that the most divine of poets, Homer and Hesiod, are said to be his particular countrymen. Hesiod, indeed, has put a name to his native place and so prevented any rivalry, for he said that his father ‘settled near Helicon in a wretched hamlet, Ascra, which is miserable in winter, sultry in summer, and good at no season.’ But, as for Homer, you might almost say that every city with its inhabitants claims him as her son. Foremost are the men of Smyrna who say that he was the Son of Meles, the river of their town, by a nymph Cretheis, and that he was at first called Melesigenes. He was named Homer later, when he became blind, this being their usual epithet for such people. The Chians, on the other hand, bring forward evidence to show that he was their countryman, saying that there actually remain some of his descendants among them who are called Homeridae. The Colophonians even show the place where they declare that he began to compose when a schoolmaster, and say that his first work was the “Margites”.

As to his parents also, there is on all hands great disagreement.

Hellanicus and Cleanthes say his father was Maeon, but Eugaeon says Meles; Callicles is for Mnesagoras, Democritus of Troezen for Daemon, a merchant-trader. Some, again, say he was the son of Thamyras, but the Egyptians say of Menemachus, a priest-scribe, and there are even those who father him on Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. As for his mother, she is variously called Metis, Cretheis, Themista, and Eugnetho. Others say she was an Ithacan woman sold as a slave by the Phoenicians; other, Calliope the Muse; others again Polycasta, the daughter of Nestor.

Homer himself was called Meles or, according to different accounts, Melesigenes or Altes. Some authorities say he was called Homer, because his father was given as a hostage to the Persians by the men of Cyprus; others, because of his blindness; for amongst the Aeolians the blind are so called. We will set down, however, what we have heard to have been said by the Pythia concerning Homer in the time of the most sacred Emperor Hadrian. When the monarch inquired from what city Homer came, and whose son he was, the priestess delivered a response in hexameters after this fashion:

‘Do you ask me of the obscure race and country of the heavenly siren? Ithaca is his country, Telemachus his father, and Epicasta, Nestor’s daughter, the mother that bare him, a man by far the wisest of mortal kind.’ This we must most implicitly believe, the inquirer and the answerer being who they are — especially since the poet has so greatly glorified his grandfather in his works.

Now some say that he was earlier than Hesiod, others that he was younger and akin to him. They give his descent thus: Apollo and Aethusa, daughter of Poseidon, had a son Linus, to whom was born Pierus. From Pierus and the nymph Methone sprang Oeager; and from Oeager and Calliope Orpheus; from Orpheus, Dres; and from him, Eucles. The descent is continued through Iadmonides, Philoterpes, Euphemus, Epiphrades and Melanopus who had sons Dius and Apelles. Dius by Pycimede, the daughter of Apollo had two sons Hesiod and Perses; while Apelles begot Maeon who was the father of Homer by a daughter of the River Meles.

According to one account they flourished at the same time and even had a contest of skill at Chalcis in Euboea. For, they say, after Homer had composed the “Margites”, he went about from city to city as a minstrel, and coming to Delphi, inquired who he was and of what country? The Pythia answered:

‘The Isle of Ios is your mother’s country and it shall receive you dead; but beware of the riddle of the young children.’ 1

Hearing this, it is said, he hesitated to go to Ios, and remained in the region where he was. Now about the same time Ganyctor was celebrating the funeral rites of his father Amphidamas, king of Euboea, and invited to the gathering not only all those who were famous for bodily strength and fleetness of foot, but also those who excelled in wit, promising them great rewards. And so, as the story goes, the two went to Chalcis and met by chance. The leading Chalcidians were judges together with Paneides, the brother of the dead king; and it is said that after a wonderful contest between the two poets, Hesiod won in the following manner: he came forward into the midst and put Homer one question after another, which Homer answered. Hesiod, then, began:

‘Homer, son of Meles, inspired with wisdom from heaven, come, tell me first what is best for mortal man?’

HOMER: ‘For men on earth ’tis best never to be born at all; or being born, to pass through the gates of Hades with all speed.’

Hesiod then asked again:

‘Come, tell me now this also, godlike Homer: what think you in your heart is most delightsome to men?’

Homer answered:

‘When mirth reigns throughout the town, and feasters about the house, sitting in order, listen to a minstrel; when the tables beside them are laden with bread and meat, and a wine-bearer draws sweet drink from the mixing-bowl and fills the cups: this I think in my heart to be most delightsome.’

It is said that when Homer had recited these verses, they were so admired by the Greeks as to be called golden by them, and that even now at public sacrifices all the guests solemnly recite them before feasts and libations. Hesiod, however, was annoyed by Homer’s felicity and hurried on to pose him with hard questions. He therefore began with the following lines:

‘Come, Muse; sing not to me of things that are, or that shall be, or that were of old; but think of another song.’

Then Homer, wishing to escape from the impasse by an apt answer, replied:—

‘Never shall horses with clattering hoofs break chariots, striving for victory about the tomb of Zeus.’

Here again Homer had fairly met Hesiod, and so the latter turned to sentences of doubtful meaning 2: he recited many lines and required Homer to complete the sense of each appropriately. The first of the following verses is Hesiod’s and the next Homer’s: but sometimes Hesiod puts his question in two lines.

HESIOD: ‘Then they dined on the flesh of oxen and their horses’ necks —’

HOMER: ‘They unyoked dripping with sweat, when they had had enough of war.’

HESIOD: ‘And the Phrygians, who of all men are handiest at ships —’

HOMER: ‘To filch their dinner from pirates on the beach.’

HESIOD: ‘To shoot forth arrows against the tribes of cursed giants with his hands —’

HOMER: ‘Heracles unslung his curved bow from his shoulders.’

HESIOD: ‘This man is the son of a brave father and a weakling —’

HOMER: ‘Mother; for war is too stern for any woman.’

HESIOD: ‘But for you, your father and lady mother lay in love —’

HOMER: ‘When they begot you by the aid of golden Aphrodite.’

HESIOD: ‘But when she had been made subject in love, Artemis, who delights in arrows —’

HOMER: ‘Slew Callisto with a shot of her silver bow.’

HESIOD: ‘So they feasted all day long, taking nothing —’

HOMER: ‘From their own houses; for Agamemnon, king of men, supplied them.’

HESIOD: ‘When they had feasted, they gathered among the glowing ashes the bones of the dead Zeus —’

HOMER: ‘Born Sarpedon, that bold and godlike man.’

HESIOD: ‘Now we have lingered thus about the plain of Simois, forth from the ships let us go our way, upon our shoulders —’

HOMER: ‘Having our hilted swords and long-helved spears.’

HESIOD: ‘Then the young heroes with their hands from the sea —’

HOMER: ‘Gladly and swiftly hauled out their fleet ship.’

HESIOD: ‘Then they came to Colchis and king Aeetes —’

HOMER: ‘They avoided; for they knew he was inhospitable and lawless.’

HESIOD: ‘Now when they had poured libations and deeply drunk, the surging sea —’

HOMER: ‘They were minded to traverse on well-built ships.’

HESIOD: ‘The Son of Atreus prayed greatly for them that they all might perish —’

HOMER: ‘At no time in the sea: and he opened his mouth said:’

HESIOD: ‘Eat, my guests, and drink, and may no one of you return home to his dear country —’

HOMER: ‘Distressed; but may you all reach home again unscathed.’

When Homer had met him fairly on every point Hesiod said:

‘Only tell me this thing that I ask: How many Achaeans went to Ilium with the sons of Atreus?’

Homer answered in a mathematical problem, thus:

‘There were fifty hearths, and at each hearth were fifty spits, and on each spit were fifty carcases, and there were thrice three hundred Achaeans to each joint.’

This is found to be an incredible number; for as there were fifty hearths, the number of spits is two thousand five hundred; and of carcasses, one hundred and twenty thousand . . .

Homer, then, having the advantage on every point, Hesiod was jealous and began again:

‘Homer, son of Meles, if indeed the Muses, daughters of great Zeus the most high, honour you as it is said, tell me a standard that is both best and worst for mortal-men; for I long to know it.’ Homer replied: ‘Hesiod, son of Dius, I am willing to tell you what you command, and very readily will I answer you. For each man to be a standard will I answer you. For each man to be a standard to himself is most excellent for the good, but for the bad it is the worst of all things. And now ask me whatever else your heart desires.’

HESIOD: ‘How would men best dwell in cities, and with what observances?’

HOMER: ‘By scorning to get unclean gain and if the good were honoured, but justice fell upon the unjust.’

HESIOD: ‘What is the best thing of all for a man to ask of the gods in prayer?’

HOMER: ‘That he may be always at peace with himself continually.’

HESIOD: ‘Can you tell me in briefest space what is best of all?’

HOMER: ‘A sound mind in a manly body, as I believe.’

HESIOD: ‘Of what effect are righteousness and courage?’

HOMER: ‘To advance the common good by private pains.’

HESIOD: ‘What is the mark of wisdom among men?’

HOMER: ‘To read aright the present, and to march with the occasion.’

HESIOD: ‘In what kind of matter is it right to trust in men?’

HOMER: ‘Where danger itself follows the action close.’

HESIOD: ‘What do men mean by happiness?’

HOMER: ‘Death after a life of least pain and greatest pleasure.’

After these verses had been spoken, all the Hellenes called for Homer to be crowned. But King Paneides bade each of them recite the finest passage from his own poems. Hesiod, therefore, began as follows:

‘When the Pleiads, the daughters of Atlas, begin to rise begin the harvest, and begin ploughing ere they set. For forty nights and days they are hidden, but appear again as the year wears round, when first the sickle is sharpened. This is the law of the plains and for those who dwell near the sea or live in the rich-soiled valleys, far from the wave-tossed deep: strip to sow, and strip to plough, and strip to reap when all things are in season.’ 3

Then Homer:

‘The ranks stood firm about the two Aiantes, such that not even Ares would have scorned them had he met them, nor yet Athena who saves armies. For there the chosen best awaited the charge of the Trojans and noble Hector, making a fence of spears and serried shields. Shield closed with shield, and helm with helm, and each man with his fellow, and the peaks of their head-pieces with crests of horse-hair touched as they bent their heads: so close they stood together. The murderous battle bristled with the long, flesh-rending spears they held, and the flash of bronze from polished helms and new-burnished breast-plates and gleaming shields blinded the eyes. Very hard of heart would he have been, who could then have seen that strife with joy and felt no pang.’ 4

Here, again, the Hellenes applauded Homer admiringly, so far did the verses exceed the ordinary level; and demanded that he should be adjudged the winner. But the king gave the crown to Hesiod, declaring that it was right that he who called upon men to follow peace and husbandry should have the prize rather than one who dwelt on war and slaughter. In this way, then, we are told, Hesiod gained the victory and received a brazen tripod which he dedicated to the Muses with this inscription:

‘Hesiod dedicated this tripod to the Muses of Helicon after he had conquered divine Homer at Chalcis in a contest of song.’

After the gathering was dispersed, Hesiod crossed to the mainland and went to Delphi to consult the oracle and to dedicate the first fruits of his victory to the god. They say that as he was approaching the temple, the prophetess became inspired and said:

‘Blessed is this man who serves my house, — Hesiod, who is honoured by the deathless Muses: surely his renown shall be as wide as the light of dawn is spread. But beware of the pleasant grove of Nemean Zeus; for there death’s end is destined to befall you.’

When Hesiod heard this oracle, he kept away from the Peloponnesus, supposing that the god meant the Nemea there; and coming to Oenoe in Locris, he stayed with Amphiphanes and Ganyetor the sons of Phegeus, thus unconsciously fulfilling the oracle; for all that region was called the sacred place of Nemean Zeus. He continued to stay a somewhat long time at Oenoe, until the young men, suspecting Hesiod of seducing their sister, killed him and cast his body into the sea which separates Achaea and Locris. On the third day, however, his body was brought to land by dolphins while some local feast of Ariadne was being held. Thereupon, all the people hurried to the shore, and recognized the body, lamented over it and buried it, and then began to look for the assassins. But these, fearing the anger of their countrymen, launched a fishing boat, and put out to sea for Crete: they had finished half their voyage when Zeus sank them with a thunderbolt, as Alcidamas states in his “Museum”. Eratosthenes, however, says in his “Hesiod” that Ctimenus and Antiphus, sons of Ganyetor, killed him for the reason already stated, and were sacrificed by Eurycles the seer to the gods of hospitality. He adds that the girl, sister of the above-named, hanged herself after she had been seduced, and that she was seduced by some stranger, Demodes by name, who was travelling with Hesiod, and who was also killed by the brothers. At a later time the men of Orchomenus removed his body as they were directed by an oracle, and buried him in their own country where they placed this inscription on his tomb:

‘Ascra with its many cornfields was his native land; but in death the land of the horse-driving Minyans holds the bones of Hesiod, whose renown is greatest among men of all who are judged by the test of wit.’

So much for Hesiod. But Homer, after losing the victory, went from place to place reciting his poems, and first of all the “Thebais” in seven thousand verses which begins: ‘Goddess, sing of parched Argos whence kings . . . ’, and then the “Epigoni” in seven thousand verses beginning: ‘And now, Muses, let us begin to sing of men of later days’; for some say that these poems also are by Homer. Now Xanthus and Gorgus, son of Midas the king, heard his epics and invited him to compose a epitaph for the tomb of their father on which was a bronze figure of a maiden bewailing the death of Midas. He wrote the following lines:—

‘I am a maiden of bronze and sit upon the tomb of Midas. While water flows, and tall trees put forth leaves, and rivers swell, and the sea breaks on the shore; while the sun rises and shines and the bright moon also, ever remaining on this mournful tomb I tell the passer-by that Midas here lies buried.’

For these verses they gave him a silver bowl which he dedicated to Apollo at Delphi with this inscription: ‘Lord Phoebus, I, Homer, have given you a noble gift for the wisdom I have of you: do you ever grant me renown.’

After this he composed the “Odyssey” in twelve thousand verses, having previously written the “Iliad” in fifteen thousand five hundred verses 5. From Delphi, as we are told, he went to Athens and was entertained by Medon, king of the Athenians. And being one day in the council hall when it was cold and a fire was burning there, he drew off the following lines:

‘Children are a man’s crown, and towers of a city, horses are the ornament of a plain, and ships of the sea; and good it is to see a people seated in assembly. But with a blazing fire a house looks worthier upon a wintry day when the Son of Cronos sends down snow.’

From Athens he went on to Corinth, where he sang snatches of his poems and was received with distinction. Next he went to Argos and there recited these verses from the “Iliad”:

‘The sons of the Achaeans who held Argos and walled Tiryns, and Hermione and Asine which lie along a deep bay, and Troezen, and Eiones, and vine-clad Epidaurus, and the island of Aegina, and Mases, — these followed strong-voiced Diomedes, son of Tydeus, who had the spirit of his father the son of Oeneus, and Sthenelus, dear son of famous Capaneus. And with these two there went a third leader, Eurypylus, a godlike man, son of the lord Mecisteus, sprung of Talaus; but strong-voiced Diomedes was their chief leader. These men had eighty dark ships wherein were ranged men skilled in war, Argives with linen jerkins, very goads of war.’ 6

This praise of their race by the most famous of all poets so exceedingly delighted the leading Argives, that they rewarded him with costly gifts and set up a brazen statue to him, decreeing that sacrifice should be offered to Homer daily, monthly, and yearly; and that another sacrifice should be sent to Chios every five years. This is the inscription they cut upon his statue:

‘This is divine Homer who by his sweet-voiced art honoured all proud Hellas, but especially the Argives who threw down the god-built walls of Troy to avenge rich-haired Helen. For this cause the people of a great city set his statue here and serve him with the honours of the deathless gods.’

After he had stayed for some time in Argos, he crossed over to Delos, to the great assembly, and there, standing on the altar of horns, he recited the “Hymn to Apollo” 7 which begins: ‘I will remember and not forget Apollo the far-shooter.’ When the hymn was ended, the Ionians made him a citizen of each one of their states, and the Delians wrote the poem on a whitened tablet and dedicated it in the temple of Artemis. The poet sailed to Ios, after the assembly was broken up, to join Creophylus, and stayed there some time, being now an old man. And, it is said, as he was sitting by the sea he asked some boys who were returning from fishing:

‘Sirs, hunters of deep-sea prey, have we caught anything?’

To this replied:

‘All that we caught, we left behind, and carry away all that we did not catch.’

Homer did not understand this reply and asked what they meant. They then explained that they had caught nothing in fishing, but had been catching their lice, and those of the lice which they caught, they left behind; but carried away in their clothes those which they did not catch. Hereupon Homer remembered the oracle and, perceiving that the end of his life had come composed his own epitaph. And while he was retiring from that place, he slipped in a clayey place and fell upon his side, and died, it is said, the third day after. He was buried in Ios, and this is his epitaph:

‘Here the earth covers the sacred head of divine Homer, the glorifier of hero-men.’

1 sc. the riddle of the fisher-boys which comes at the end of this work.

2 The verses of Hesiod are called doubtful in meaning because they are, if taken alone, either incomplete or absurd.

3 “Works and Days”, ll. 383-392.

4 “Iliad” xiii, ll. 126-133, 339-344.

5 The accepted text of the “Iliad” contains 15,693 verses; that of the “Odyssey”, 12,110.

6 “Iliad” ii, ll. 559-568 (with two additional verses).

7 “Homeric Hymns”, iii.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 18:57