Monday, November 19, 2012

The myth of the five Ages

I have mentioned before I am a great fan of Hesiod. The 'Theogony' and 'Works and Days' are absolutely fundamental in my practice and Hellenismos at large. The Myth of the five Ages, as laid out in 'Works and Days', speaks to my imagination. I have spoken about the Ages before, but never in great detail. Today, I will remedy that situation, I'll try to place the Ages in historic context and discuss Hómēros' contradictory viewpoint.

The Ages are part of 'Works and Days' (Erga kai Hēmerai, Ἔργα καὶ Ἡμέραι), a didactic poem written around 700 BC. It is a farmer's almanac and giver of moralizing advice on life. Most famous are the story of Prometheus and Pandôra, and the Myth of Five Ages. Hesiod distinguishes five, separate, Ages where the Gods made a form of mankind; the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, the Heroic Age, and the Iron Age.

Golden Age: "First of all the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Kronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods." -- Hesiod

The Golden Age was the only Age over which Kronos ruled. It was mankind's greatest Age; an Age in which they had it all. They remained young until the very end. They were never sick. The earth gave them everything they needed. None needed to work. They lived like Gods or kings. When Zeus overtook his father in the Titanomachy, this Age ended, and those who lived in it, died out. They became daímōns, who still watch over mankind. Roman Christian priest, Saint Jerome (c. 347 – 420), contemplated Hesiod's Ages, and decided the Golden Age was from 1710 to 1674 BC.

Silver Age: "But after earth had covered this generation -- they are called pure spirits dwelling on the earth, and are kindly, delivering from harm, and guardians of mortal men; for they roam everywhere over the earth, clothed in mist and keep watch on judgements and cruel deeds, givers of wealth; for this royal right also they received; -- then they who dwell on Olympus made a second generation which was of silver and less noble by far. It was like the golden race neither in body nor in spirit. A child was brought up at his good mother's side an hundred years, an utter simpleton, playing childishly in his own home. But when they were full grown and were come to the full measure of their prime, they lived only a little time in sorrow because of their foolishness, for they could not keep from sinning and from wronging one another, nor would they serve the immortals, nor sacrifice on the holy altars of the blessed ones as it is right for men to do wherever they dwell. Then Zeus the son of Kronos was angry and put them away, because they would not give honour to the blessed gods who live on Olympus." -- Hesiod

From this point on--with one exception--mankind's demise lay in its hubris. Those who lived the Silver Age refused to honor the Theoi. They remained childlike for a hundred years, and then lived short lives because they were reckless; they squandered the gifts of the Theoi. Zeus' wrath buried this incarnation in the Earth, but because they were blessed by the Theoi, they were still given an honorary place in the Underworld, at the Isle of the Blessed. Saint Jerome placed the Silver Age from 1674 to 1628 BC.

Bronze Age: "But when earth had covered this generation also -- they are called blessed spirits of the underworld by men, and, though they are of second order, yet honour attends them also -- Zeus the Father made a third generation of mortal men, a brazen race, sprung from ash-trees; and it was in no way equal to the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence; they ate no bread, but were hard of heart like adamant, fearful men. Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs. Their armour was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron. These were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and left no name: terrible though they were, black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun." -- Hesiod

Yet again, the next Age was less honorable than the one before. The Bronze Age race was cruel and blood thirsty. They murdered each other before they could reach their prime. They valued only murder, and their own possessions. They killed each other until there were none left. Hades claimed their souls, but they left no  legacy, they fulfill no duty upon earth. In their dishonor, their names and deed are forgotten. According to Saint Jerome, the Bronze Age ran from 1628 to 1472 BC.

Heroic Age: "But when earth had covered this generation also, Zeus the son of Kronos made yet another, the fourth, upon the fruitful earth, which was nobler and more righteous, a god-like race of hero-men who are called demi-gods, the race before our own, throughout the boundless earth. Grim war and dread battle destroyed a part of them, some in the land of Kadmos at seven-gated Thebe when they fought for the flocks of Oedipus, and some, when it had brought them in ships over the great sea gulf to Troy for rich-haired Helen's sake: there death's end enshrouded a part of them. But to the others father Zeus the son of Kronos gave a living and an abode apart from men, and made them dwell at the ends of earth. And they live untouched by sorrow in the islands of the blessed along the shore of deep swirling Ocean, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Kronos rules over them; for the father of men and gods released him from his bonds. And these last equally have honour and glory." -- Hesiod

Hesiod breaks his recounting of the ethics of mankind to insert the fourth Age; the Age of heroes and the main body of Hellenic myth. This is the age of Odysseus and Troy. Because many mythological founders of cities, temples, and other great sites and ideas lived in this Age, it was necessary to break the ethical structure of Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Iron, to include this Age here--Hesiod lived in the Iron Age, and many who claimed origins in mythological heroes, lived in his Age as well. It was, therefor, prudent to set this Age apart from the others. The race of the Heroic Age was far nobler and far more respectful of the Theoi than the race of the Bronze--sometimes referred to as 'Brazen'--Age. The heroes of the Heroic Age rest easy, too, on the Isle of the Blessed, ruled over by Kronos, and eating the bounty of the Earth (much like those of the Golden Age, in fact. According to Saint Jerome, this Age ran from 1460 to 1103 BC.

Iron Age: "And again far-seeing Zeus made yet another generation, the fifth, of men who are upon the bounteous earth. Thereafter, would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils. And Zeus will destroy this race of mortal men also when they come to have grey hair on the temples at their birth. The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as aforetime. Men will dishonour their parents as they grow quickly old, and will carp at them, chiding them with bitter words, hard-hearted they, not knowing the fear of the gods. They will not repay their aged parents the cost their nurture, for might shall be their right: and one man will sack another's city. There will be no favour for the man who keeps his oath or for the just or for the good; but rather men will praise the evil-doer and his violent dealing. Strength will be right and reverence will cease to be; and the wicked will hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him, and will swear an oath upon them. Envy, foul-mouthed, delighting in evil, with scowling face, will go along with wretched men one and all. And then Aidos and Nemesis, with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil." -- Hesiod

Hesiod placed himself in the Iron Age, and regretfully so. The Iron Age is a moral continuation of the Bronze Age, not the Heroic Age; those of the Heroic Age were far nobler. Men of the Iron Age bicker amongst themselves, there is no respect for parents, for guests, or the Theoi. Bitter war rules, and those who have the strength to cease power, do so without hesitation and without caring about the lives of those they oppress. It is a bleak Age, because those of the Iron Age are even more wicked than those of the Bronze age: they will not end their own lives. Either the Theoi will end this Age, or They will retreat from it, leaving the race to fend for themselves. Saint Jerome found this Age to match his forth century AD world, and figured it still ongoing.

I pose a question: are we a part of the Iron Age? There are still many wars, and much strife amongst mortals. Yet, it could also be that Hesiod's fifth Age has come to pass--the Theoi had forsaken mankind for a long time, as mankind turned to other Gods--and we are now--as the worship of the Theoi comes back slowly--in a transitional period towards a new Age, an Age of remembrance of the old Hellenic ways and their Gods. A better Age than the Iron Age... or worse, perhaps, depending on what we do with it.

There is one more thing I must address: daímōns. Hesiod's Ages speak of only one race who became daímōns; those of the Golden Age, yet those of the Silver and Heroic Age also received many honors after their passing, and they were held in high regard. In fact, Hesiod encourages the creation of shrines for the Heroes, so they do not have to wander aimlessly. Hesiod makes clear distinction between the Theoi and daímōns: the Theoi are Gods, daímōns are members of the Gold Age who gained immortality. This differentiation is much less pronounced in the writings of Hómēros, where God and daímōn is used virtually interchangeably.

This difference led to a misinterpretation of the nature of the race of the Silver Age: they became dangerous daímōns in the eyes of later writers (like Plato), and eventually the demons of Christianity. Yet, neither Hómēros or Hesiod ever intended them to be so: all daímōns were pure and Immortal; they acted as a policing force for humanity. Daímōns fulfill an important role in mythology and life: all aspects of life can be overseen by Deathless beings, without taking away from--or needlessly adding to--the portfolio of the Theoi.

This is the myth of the five Ages, as written down by Hesiod. It was interpreted and re-interpreted many times, and we may never truly know what Hesiod intended when he wrote his masterpiece. His work leaves many questions, one posed in this post. What is your take on the Ages? In what Age do we live? And what can we do to break the downward spiral of Hesiod's expectations so we come into a better Age than the Iron Age when it passes? Also, how will we name it?

1 comment:

Maya M said...

I think Hesiod's description of the Ages should be taken with a grain of salt, like his stance on women.
He claims that the Bronze Age men kept fighting until they killed themselves off. One should ask, what happened then to their women and children? We know from other sources what really happened to those people. They did not kill each other to the last one, they were drowned. And Hesiod may claim that they were wicked (babies presumably included), but Athenians apparently were of another opinion. They made annual libations to the flood victims. I doubt they would do it if they found that those victims had just received their due.
Then, the Heroic Age... Hesiod claims that it was the best after the Golden Age. Yet, you have the house of Atreus, you have the Seven and the Epigoni obsessed with destroying Thebes, you have Orestes and Neoptolemus etc. Actually, when the gods seek a virtuous mortal to marry Thetis off to him, they cannot find any better than the kinslayer Peleus.
So I think that our Iron Age is progress after all.