An almost universal myth found in agricultural civilizations is that of a lost paradise or golden age placed in the beginning of human history, or if still supposed to be in existence, beyond the sprawl of civilization, a prehistoric utopia frozen in amber.
The paradise myth we are most familiar with, of course, is that of the Biblical Garden of Eden and the story of the Fall. Yet, there were other myths similar in content that exist elsewhere. In the West, the biggest rival to the story of Adam and Eve and their paradise was that of the Greek poet Hesiod (sometime between 750-650 B.C.E) and his Ages of Man, a concept found in his Works and Days. It was a myth once as well known as that of the Garden of Eden, but isn’t much talked about now. That’s a shame, because it has some very important things to tell us. So let me try…
The first of Hesiod’s ages, the Golden Age was a period when:
First of all the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden men who lived in the time of Cronos 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.
It was all downhill from there.
How exactly this golden age ends isn’t precisely clear, but, Zeus, the new head of the universe after his Titan predecessor, Cronos, is deposed ends up destroying the human race of the Golden Age. The people of the Silver Age that follows are neither as long lived or as content as their golden ancestors. For the first time human beings are forced to seek shelter from the elements and build houses. They are also forced to work for a living and start fighting among themselves. Understandably, the people of the Silver Age are also less than deferential to the gods, and Zeus ends up destroying them too.
The Bronze Age that followed ends up being even more violent than the Silver. Human beings were in a constant state of war and strife. Like turtles or hermit crabs they take shelter from one another in hard houses, made of bronze, of course. Even the none- too- compassionate Zeus was appalled by their barbarity. Yahweh like, he destroyed them in a flood.
There is a pause in the seemingly endless degeneration of humanity with the Heroic Age that follows the Bronze. People here are pious and brave if still violent, and this is the period that we see the world’s heroes, such as Achilles take the stage. But, make no mistake this is only a pause.
The age which follows, the age in which Hesiod finds himself, is the Iron Age. It is the worst yet of the lot for men here are destined to labor to preserve their existence, and continue their strife, with even parents and children coming to blows. If the people of the Golden Age lived long lives, and died peacefully by the end of the Iron Age people will be born with grey hair and die soon after.
Hesiod seems to hold out hope that something better will follow. At least that is how I understand him when he says:
Thereafter, would that I had not been born in the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterward.
But Hesiod gives us no insight into what the sixth age of man will be like.
For me, one of the things I find fascinating is just how many features Hesiod’s Works and Days and the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis share. Both see the movement from paradise into the world as a metamorphosis from a life of ease to a life of labor. Both seem to take a certain negative stance towards knowledge. Genesis against the knowledge of good and evil, and Hesiod against technology. If one thought Yahweh was cruel for cursing humankind to live “by the sweat of his brow” he has nothing on Zeus, who along with his court of Olympian gods:
…keep hidden from men the means of life. Else you would easily do work enough in a day to supply you for a full year even without working.
What a strange idea- that what has made the mysteries of nature so difficult to discover and control is that they have been hidden by the gods. Here, I think, a seed had been sown in the Western mind. The return to paradise would entail the discovery of the “means of life” that had been hidden by the gods. It was a seed that when full grown would give us science and the power over nature, but I will leave that subject for the future.
Instrumental in this “knowledge war” between Zeus and humanity are the characters of Prometheus and Pandora. Again, like Genesis, Works and Days is really not one story but two.
The myth of Prometheus is found in Hesiod’s Works and Days along with his Theogony. The essence of the story is this: Prometheus, the only one of the Titans that had taken Zeus’s side in coup d’état against Cronos had a special place in his heart for human beings having, according to some legends, created them. Not only had Prometheus created humans, who the Greeks with their sharp wisdom called mortals, he was also the one who, when all the useful gifts of nature had seemingly been handed out to the other animals before humans had got to the front of the line, decided to give mortals an upright posture, just like the gods, and that most special gift of all- fire.
Prometheus was up to something.
Having a special place in his heart for the mortals, and a special disdain for Zeus and his cronies who had destroyed his fellow Titans, Prometheus tricked Zeus into accepting worthless bones wrapped in fat rather than the prime parts of an animal for sacrifice, which human would thereafter keep for themselves. Incensed by this trick Zeus took not only fire from the mortals, but hid from them the ways of nature casting them into a world of unending scarcity.
Prometheus is punished by being chained for eternity to a rock. His liver pecked out daily by an eagle only to regenerate during the nights on account of his nature as an immortal like the medical fantasies of nanotechnologist.
The other famous character in Hesiod’s story is Pandora. In yet another way that Hesiod’s Works and Days and Theogony resemble the first chapters of Genesis, Hesiod manages to blame women for all of humankind’s problems. It appears that women didn’t exist before the gods got it into their heads to payback the mortals for Prometheus’ trick with the sacrificial meat. The gods create the beautiful figure of the first woman Pandora, who with her famous box, would bring upon humanity all of its ills with the gift of hope remaining when Pandora shut the lid.
Hesiod’s understanding of the arc of history no doubt strikes modern ears as strange. We are apt to see history as progressive rather than regressive. Longevity increases rather than decreases, material goods and ease increase not decrease, the present is better than the past and the future will be better still. The Golden Age is in front of us rather than, in Hesiod’s scheme, in our distant past.
In recent years the case for general progress has been made by a whole slew of thinkers who, if they take the current crisis into account at all, see it as a mere bump on the road to an inexorably improving human condition. Steven Pinker, for example, in his
Better Angels of Our Nature argues that, despite the news, violence and discrimination have been in steep decline since the Enlightenment. Not only are a lesser number of human beings injured or killed by one another, relative to the population, but the last few centuries have seen the end of slavery, the emancipation of women, the disappearance of state sponsored racism, the recognition of the rights of homosexuals, and the acknowledgement of the rights of animals.
Another recent book, this one by Stephen Moore and called It’s Getting Better All the Time makes a similar case that the world since the beginning of the 20th century has witnessed unprecedented progress. The book has an interesting back story in that Moore crafted the book from the notes of the late Julian Simon who is famous for his bet with the modern day Malthusian Paul Erlich. Erlich’s dystopian work The Population Bomb predicted a Malthusian crisis for the end of the 20th century as the explosive growth of the human population, he thought, would lead to an era of starvation, scarcity and environmental catastrophe. Simon and Erlich wagered on the price of five commodities, Simon predicting that their price would fall, Erlich that they would rise.
Erlich lost the bet, but the argument continues, and Malthusians continue to make quite reasonable arguments that we are headed off the end of a cliff. It’s just taking longer than expected to fall.
It is easy to see this argument tracing its way back to Hesiod. Those who side with technology are in the camp of Prometheus, and those who see our golden age in the primitive, unspoiled past, like Hesiod take the side of Zeus.
Whether the Sixth Age will represent a permanent end to Zeus’ curse or yet another movement away from paradise- only the future will tell.