- Hesiod and Hávamál:Transitions and the Transmission of Wisdom
Study of Hesiod’s Works and Days has long profited from comparative analyses.2 Akkadian, Sumerian, Egyptian, and Hebrew wisdom literature has all been brought to bear on the archaic Greek poem. Many of the Works and Days’ maxims find parallels in, for example, the Akkadian Counsels of Wisdom, or the Egyptian Instruction texts. Hesiod’s myths about the creation of mankind recall stories such as the Babylonian Enuma Eliš and the first part of Atrahasis, or the Biblical narrative of Adam and Eve. Studies such as those of Penglase (1994), West (1997), and Haubold (2013) have tracked the influence of the Near East on Greek literature and culture, positing the fourteenth and the ninth centuries BCE as particular hot-beds of intercultural exchange. It is not too much of a stretch to posit that an archaic Greek poet would have been aware of Near Eastern poetry. However, this is not necessarily the case. Whether parallels between the Works and Days and extant Near Eastern wisdom literature indicate diachronic reception or synchronic cultural similarity is a bit of a grey area. For example, Hesiod is concerned throughout the Works and Days with ideas of measure and balance.3 Egyptian wisdom texts have the same preoccupation: The Instruction of Amen-em-Opet chapter 16 reads “Do not lean on the scales nor falsify the weights, / Nor damage the fractions of the measure …,” and indeed they have the ape god Thoth guarding the balance (“Which god is as great as Thoth?”). Was Hesiod’s interest piqued by the Egyptian wisdom tradition, or was due measure in all things simply a common cultural concern?4 It is not only the possibility of direct influence that makes these comparative studies so compelling. They also give us a glimpse into another tradition: a tradition developing along similar lines and at a similar stage, being guided by poets with similar preoccupations, and being shaped for audiences with similar concerns. They show us that the handing down of wisdom is a cultural inevitability and that certain forms of its expression are constants.
In this article I too offer a comparative analysis. However, I step away from the Near East and away from any suggestion of a chain of transmission. I aim to offer fresh insights into Hesiod’s Works and Days by comparing it to the Eddic Hávamál, a poem far removed in terms of geography and date, but compellingly close in subject matter, construction, and transmission. Those who have studied Hávamál, just like Hesiodic scholars, have tied themselves in knots trying to disentangle the strands of authorship and the narrative threads. Hávamál is, like the Works and Days, a wisdom poem with a composite structure. It is made up not only of precepts and maxims but also elaborate mythological sections. It is associated with catalogic elements which may be original or later accretions, just like Hesiod’s Days, or the Catalogue of Women, or the Ornithomanteia. And most interestingly it is, like the Works and Days, a poem rooted in oral tradition, but poised at that crucial juncture: the advent of writing.
Hesiod’s Works and Days is unique in archaic poetry. In particular, it is the balance between modes of reading which Hesiod maintains throughout the Works and Days that proves truly striking. Both wisdom texts and epic poems can be (and were) read in their entirety and excerpted. But the Works and Days is unique in inviting these two modes of reading in roughly equal measure. I have yet to find an archaic wisdom text from Greece or the Near East with such a strong narrative framework as the Works and Days—one with dynamic threads evolving over the course of the poem and with an addressee whose behaviour gradually changes or a focus which consistently and inexorably narrows.5 Wisdom texts may be read from beginning to end, but they definitely lend themselves more readily to division and cherry-picking. They fall apart far more easily than they hang together. At the other end of the scale is heroic epic. Homer was...