Oak and Stone

November 13, 2021

Part 9 of a series on Whether There Was a West.

Hesiod was an ancient Greek poet thought to have been active sometime between 750 and 650 BCE, making him roughly contemporary with Homer. Wikipedia, paraphrasing the Cambridge History of Classical Literature, offers the tantalizing detail that “He is generally regarded as the first written poet in the Western tradition to regard himself as an individual persona with an active role to play in his subject.”

Think about this. The claim is essentially that he is the first “Western” “subject.” Also, notice the implication is that subjectivity involves self-awareness, Hesiod’s awareness of himself as a self.

We’ve spent the past week on the many problems with “the West”, and soon we’ll be on to the connection between subjectivity and subjection, but first let’s have a look at what Hesiod (“He who sends forth the voice”) has to say for himself.

Hesiod’s Theogony (~700 BC) is the first known Greek cosmogony, which refers to any theory of how the cosmos or universe originated. (He also writes the even odder Works and Days to which I’ll someday return.)

“Theogony” literally means “the birth of the gods.” So a theogony is a cosmogony involving deities. I think the Genesis creation accounts (there are two) would also technically be theogonies, though if someone says “the Theogony” then they are probably referring to Hesiod.

Wikipedia also notes: “Theogonies are a part of Greek mythology which embodies the desire to articulate reality as a whole; this universalizing impulse was fundamental for the first later projects of speculative theorizing.”

Keep this in mind too: the universalizing impulse and its connection to subsequent philosophy.

If this all sounds a bit abstract, Theogony is classic Greek mythology stuff. It lays out the whole Greek pantheon, Zeus, Athena, and all the other gods, demigods, titans, nymphs, and Fates, that you may have learned at some point.

Hesiod really likes listing gods with odd bodily descriptors (my favourite might be the “tapering-ankled Okeanos nymphs”). The lists are almost childlike. As an example, here’s a section at the very beginning of the Theogony (lines 9–25) of Hesiod’s Theogony:1

Thence they arise and go abroad by night, veiled in thick mist, and utter their song with lovely voice, praising Zeus the aegis-holder and queenly Hera of Argos who walks on golden sandals and the daughter of Zeus the aegis-holder bright-eyed Athene, and Phoebus Apollo, and Artemis who delights in arrows, and Poseidon the earth-holder who shakes the earth, and reverend Themis and quick-glancing Aphrodite, and Hebe with the crown of gold, and fair Dione, Leto, Iapetus, and Cronos the crafty counsellor, Eos and great Helius and bright Selene, Earth too, and great Oceanus, and dark Night, and the holy race of all the other deathless ones that are for ever. And one day they taught Hesiod glorious song while he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon, and this word first the goddesses said to me — the Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus who holds the aegis:

In light of the notion, mentioned above, that Hesiod is the first Western subject, it seems important that Hesiod refers to himself in the third person.

My sense is that Hesiod here is doing consensus-building. “Surely you remember Zeus…” And that this consensus building represents an action in the same vein as recollecting memories with friends (as I described yesterday). This invocation does not just name gods, but forces the hearer or reader to recollect them, thereby strengthening them and bringing them to life. I think he’s also inviting listeners to match their local gods with one of the gods in his long list.

Right now I’m also thinking of lines 29–41:

So said the ready-voiced daughters of great Zeus, and they plucked and gave me a rod, a shoot of sturdy laurel, a marvellous thing, and breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things that were aforetime; and they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternally, but ever to sing of themselves both first and last.

If “things that shall be and things that were aforetime” sounds a bit like Yeats’ “Of what is past, or passing, or to come,” have a look at this thread, in which I compare the Theogony to Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928).

Zeus breathes into Hesiod a divine voice to celebrate the gods. “Celebrate” once meant “to consecrate by religious rites” or even “to declare or announce publicly; to promulgate; to proclaim” (OED). These usages are rare, but it can still mean “to extol or spread the fame of” (as in “the celebrated poet”). These older senses are more important here than the modern “mark one’s happiness or satisfaction, revel, rejoice,” which is quite late, starting in the nineteenth century.

Why consecrate gods, declare gods, or make them famous? Aren’t they already gods?

I’m arguing that they’re basically not. The consensus about the genealogy of the gods is coming together here. Or more accurately, the genealogy has come together through centuries of oral tradition (i.e., consensus-making) and is being codified here.

Hesiod continues:

But why all this about oak or stone? Come you, let us begin with the Muses who gladden the great spirit of their father Zeus in Olympus with their songs, telling of things that are and that shall be and that were aforetime with consenting voice. Unwearying flows the sweet sound from their lips, and the house of their father Zeus the loud-thunderer is glad at the lily-like voice of the goddesses as it spreads abroad, and the peaks of snowy Olympus resound, and the homes of the immortals.

When I first read this, I was certain that by “oak and stone” Hesiod meant the old gods. These are the animistic gods, the kind that require no names or lists and live in rocks and trees. The gods were once immanent and direct, probably even more immanent than the Old Testament God was to Adam or Cain, and much more so than God was for Moses (who after all has to keep climbing up mountains to talk to Him).

I’ve subsequently traced this thread very superficially and found that this “oak and stone” passage is a bit of a mystery (many translations note that “Why all this about oak and stone?” just means “Why all these irrelevances?”), but at least one scholar (Lucy Goodison) has come to a similar conclusion.

And I think I was thinking of this passage from Plato’s Phaedrus (370 BC):

SOCRATES: But, my friend, the priests of the temple of Zeus at Dodona say that the first prophecies were the words of an oak. Everyone who lived at that time, not being as wise as you young ones are today, found it rewarding enough in their simplicity to listen to an oak or even a stone, so long as it was telling the truth, while it seems to make a difference to you, Phaedrus, who is speaking and where he comes from. Why, though, don’t you just consider whether what he says is right or wrong?

So what am I saying?

The first recorded subject, according to the (problematic) “Western” tradition, is explicitly past the point where the gods are immanent and self-evident in nature itself. Already they have become abstract, gaining names and epithets (“white-armed Persephone”) to distinguish their already hazy appearances. This is the claim made by Julian Jaynes: As the gods gradually cease to speak, or humans cease to hallucinate first their images and then their voices, the humans are left to write things down, which in turn hastens the “death” of the animistic gods.

But more than this, Hesiod is homogenising the gods. This is an attempt to reduce the chaos of people reverting to their own local gods again. This is also what’s going on with the Old Testament God, who has to keep cajoling His people to stop reverting to the old idols, in which gods once inhered.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.