Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Hugo H. Koning, Hesiod: the Other Poet. Ancient Reception of a Cultural Icon. Mnemosyne Supplements 325. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2010. Pp. viii, 439. ISBN 9789004186163. $153.

Reviewed by Ruth Scodel, University of Michigan (rscodel@umich.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

Every now and then, reading a scholarly work causes me genuine delight. As I began reading this book, I was enjoying myself, because it applies a straightforward and useful theoretical model to a topic where I would not have expected it. Koning considers the reception of Hesiod in antiquity through collective memory, with particular reliance on Zerubavel's study of historical periodization.1 Zerubavel looks at how collective memory classifies some events together ("lumping") while sharply distinguishing others ("splitting"), so that history can be organized in a way that meets contemporary social needs. Koning shows that throughout antiquity Homer and Hesiod can be either lumped or split, and that the different procedures serve different needs. Lumped, they can be either the broadest of cultural authorities, or a source of misguided and harmful stories about the gods and the Underworld.

The book also presents (pp. 20 and 21), a "commemogram," that charts the frequency with which later Greek authors (up to 300CE) quote particular lines of Theogony and WD (only citations of the actual text, not looser allusions, are included). This is a beautiful example of the visual presentation of quantitative information, although it is immensely frustrating that it is not accompanied by a plain chart that would enable the reader to know exactly what lines are being shown). We see immediately that WD is cited far more often, and that references to Theog. peak around 116-20, with a smaller cluster for the meeting with the Muses and another small peak (6 citations) somewhere after 301. WD has a more even distribution, although there is a striking peak a little before 301 (probably the very popular 287-92; this is clearly the case in the more detailed commemogram of references to WD in the archaic and classical periods on p. 156). Immediately visible is what Koning later calls the "persona's paradox." Greek tradition strongly identifies Hesiod as the poet of farming and the seasons, yet there are relatively few citations of the "Almanac" section of the poem, and very few of the Days. The Five Races also receive relatively little attention. These numbers need to be viewed with considerable caution, of course, since they are mostly small in any case, not all allusions will be direct citations, and the accidents of transmission are likely to have caused some distortion, but as rough indicators they are extraordinarily interesting.

Koning argues that antiquity knew, in effect, three Hesiods. The first was half of Hesiod-and-Homer, "sacred" Hesiod; the second, Hesiod alone, the "real" or "modern" Hesiod, and the last "typical" Hesiod, the Hesiod who is opposed to Homer and so must be only what Homer is not.

So the first main section deals with Hesiod-and-Homer as a unit, their great authority, attacks on them, and the strategies of defense (selection, re-interpretation of words, allegory, claims of poetic freedom, harmonization of poetry and philosophy). Koning does not have much new to say about these processes, but he makes a strong case that scholarship has been too Homerocentric and has tended to make Hesiod an afterthought. In the third chapter, he points to an interesting phenomenon. Often Homer and Hesiod together stand for the entire body of traditional knowledge transmitted by poetry. They can be cited together as more authoritative than the tragedians. Philosophers, however, when they look at the poets as their own predecessors, are splitters rather than lumpers.

Chapter Four looks at Hesiod apart from Homer. Here he very helpfully notes a set of mechanisms that promote specific forms of memory. First, there is assimilation: later authors go to the past to meet their own needs and desires. The misogynist passage at WD 700-795 is among the most echoed because symposiastic poetry likes the theme. The catchword factor is the probability that pithy lines were likely to be quoted. Snowballing is a little less obvious, and clearly important: a quotation of a piece of verse in one author leads to further quotation as authors engage with each other. Then there is clustering, the tendency of a later author to identify a predecessor with a particular theme and to cite a variety of passages from him when treating that theme: Plato associates Hesiod with the elements, Aristotle with beginnings. The Homeric factor is the general tendency, when Hesiod and Homer treat the same topic, for Homer to dominate. Allusions to the Five Races emphasize the Golden and Iron Races, but often omit the heroes altogether, because the heroes belonged to Homer. Finally, there is the persona's paradox. Koning suggests that farming and the Days were so familiar and so "Hesiodic" that they were taken for granted and rarely cited, even though they defined Hesiod's personality. This section continues with a chapter about the forms of wisdom especially attributed to Hesiod: he is an authority on the demonic, on justice and the city, on interpersonal relations, and on moderation. Koning emphasizes how Hesiod was adapted to civic contexts. Here WD is the important text. In the sixth chapter, which deals with Hesiod and philosophy, the Theogony dominates. Much of this chapter addresses revelation as a way of achieving knowledge, exploring first the critiques of Xenophanes and Heraclitus, and then the responses of Parmenides and Empedocles. Koning further argues that Hesiod was used to represent the belief that absolute truth can be expressed in language, and that he was regarded as an "atomist"—not in the technical sense, but as a thinker whose method of understanding the whole was to enumerate the constituent parts.

The last part looks at Hesiod when he is contrasted with Homer. It looks not only at the Certamen, but at other versions of the contest, and shows how divergent they are. Particularly salient and stable is the opposition between warfare and farming. In contrast, versions differ about whether the judge is a king or not, and so locate Hesiod and Homer differently in the socio-political spectrum. Usually, Homer excites wonder in the audience, while Hesiod in the Certamen wins because the king makes a moral judgment; consistently, Homer is associated with powerful emotion and a grand or varied style, while Hesiod's style is plain. The basic theme of this entire section is polarization: once the two poets are contrasted, they inevitably are made to appear as different as possible. In Chapter Nine, Koning argues that Hesiod is often the poet of truth, Homer of fiction. However, when inspiration became less about truth and more about creativity, Hesiod became the poet of hard work, Homer of divine inspiration and, thanks to Plato, of poetic madness.

The book as a whole is fascinating, even though it covers so much ground that it is necessarily often superficial, especially in the discussion of much-debated passages. There are such odd moments as n. 106 (p. 322), where Koning says, "Most scholars agree that the encounter with the Muses was 'real' for Hesiod," but cites nothing later than 1991, even though he elsewhere refers (favorably) to the many scholars who do not believe that an individual Hesiod ever existed. It would have been helpful had he clarified his own views about Homer and Hesiod and the origins of the texts. On 246, he takes WD 654-9 as a claim of victory over Homer (and on 304 he endorses the view that Homer's poetry is the target of the lines on the lying Muses (Theog. 26-8). Yet on 285 Koning speculates that Homer's Thersites is a caricature of Hesiod, although only a few pages earlier (276-7) he argued that oral theory would indicate that WD 11-12 is not a correction of Theog. 225-32 because that would suppose a stable text. There may be a coherent view of the texts behind these various comments, but I am perplexed.

There are other problems with the book. Koning does not give sufficient weight to the nature of our sources. For example, he comments that, while Homer and Hesiod together are given great authority, when we find specific descriptions of the content of the poetry, these are nearly always concerned with their depictions of the Underworld and of the gods, and are very negative. This is doubtless true, but it is also an example of "snowballing"—criticizing Homer and Hesiod's accounts of the gods is a tradition in itself, carried on by philosophers and authors engaged with philosophy. So note 69 in Chapter 5 (p. 176) says that Aeschines' quotation of Hesiod in Ctes. 134-5 shows "that Hesiod was of some nomothetical importance when it came to justice in the polis, which contrasts markedly with the critique on the supposedly polis-disruptive quality of Hesiod and Homer together." Surely, though, the most important contrast here is not between Homer-and-Hesiod and Hesiod alone, but between the philosophers and the orators. Both the positive view of Hesiod as an expert on daimones and the negative view of Homer-and- Hesiod as promulgators of false views about the gods belong to philosophy (broadly defined).

The argument at pp. 220-221 that Protagoras' myth in Plato's Protagoras does not just use Hesiodic mythology, but exploits the association between Hesiod and the possibility of simple truth in language is clever, but I am not convinced that Protagoras could not make a good argument that every man has some skill in politics; he makes the good point that even bands of thieves must cooperate among themselves. Some of Koning's interpretations seem to me too far-fetched. For example, the discussion of Pindar's Paean7b on p. 315, assumes, in my view, that Mnemosyne will have the same connotations in one passage as in another. The poem seems to be concerned mainly with the difficulty of creating truly original poetry. In general, the book sometimes pushes thin evidence hard and places weight on tenuous links.

There are occasional minor inaccuracies. For example, on 245 note 21 Koning says "In Pl. Ion 531a-e Ion claims he knows only Homer's poetry and not that of Hesiod." Ion says only that he is not a skilled interpreter of Hesiod. The reader simply needs to be a little cautious about details. The thesis of the three Hesiods, though, is generally convincing, and Koning often indicates how many complexities enter into the process of reception, so that he offers good warnings even against his own occasional oversimplifications. For antiquity, Homer was the poet of pleasure, Hesiod all too often merely didactic, but this book achieves a fair measure of both.

Table of Contents:

Part One: Hesiod and Homer
Chapter One. Equating Hesiod and Homer
Chapter Two. The Boundless Authority of Hesiod and Homer
Chapter Three. Hesiod and Homer: the Storekeepers of Knowledge
Part Two: The 'Real' Hesiod
Chapter Four. Searching for Hesiod
Chapter Five. Ethics and Politics: The Common and the Arcane
Chapter Six. Philosophy: Great and Small
Part Three: Hesiod Versus Homer
Chapter Seven: Introduction: The Contest of Hesiod and Homer
Chapter Eight: Swords and Ploughshares
Chapter Nine: The Other Poetics
Chapter Ten. Conclusion


1.   Zerubavel, E. (2003). Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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