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Medieval and Classical Library

Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica

(aka "The Contest of Homer and Hesiod")

Online Medieval and Classical Library Release #8

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 countrymen, 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

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

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

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.'

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

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

`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

`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.

[End of "Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns, and Homerica"]