Reading Hesiod

Tariq Ali (re)reads Hesiod for the Guardian … here’s the first bit:

I was in my mid-teens when someone gave me a copy of Pears Encyclopaedia of Myth and Legends as a birthday present. It sat on my shelves for many months before I looked at it. When I did, I couldn’t stop reading it. I became an obsessive. It was much more interesting than the boring old monotheistic religions with the single deity in the sky and his enforcers below. The Greek gods and goddesses, and their Egyptian and Indian equivalents (of which I knew very little at the time), were exciting characters, full of foibles and emotions far more closely associated with humans: love, sex, anger, jealousy. The main difference was that the gods were immortal. And yet even in ancient times there were sceptics who denied the existence of the gods, or gods who rebelled and were punished, such as Prometheus, chained to a rock for eternity because he broke the Mount Olympus monopoly and provided humans with the secret of fire. Because of this, he was for ever Marx’s favourite Greek god. “I detest all gods,” said the enchained Prometheus, and the 19th-century philosopher used the image to proclaim his own philosophy: “What was inward illumination becomes a consuming flame that turns outward.”

Later, Prometheus sent Hermes, the messenger of the gods, packing with a memorable verbal kick up his backside: “Be sure of this, I would not change my evil plight for your servility. It is better to be slave to the rock than to serve Father Zeus as his faithful messenger.” A sentence, I think, that could never be understood by contemporary European politicians, permanently in thrall to a system that worships commodities more than human beings, and under the military command of the Father in the White House.

It was reading and rereading the old myths that sent me off happily to Homer, both his tragedy (The Iliad) and his comic and happy-ending Odyssey. The goddess Athena became an instant favourite. Still is. Hesiod came later, much later, but encountering him was a delight that took me back to the encyclopedia, only to transcend it. Hesiod’s cosmic poetry, recounting the history ā€“ Theogony ā€“ of the pagan gods, has no equal in the literature that followed. Killing the father, something Freud picked up, plays a central part in the evolution that leads to the victory of Zeus and stability on Mount Olympus.

… despite the title, the majority of it is about the Theogony

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