Mythology - The Five Ages of Man According to Hesiod

by Erin on May 21, 2012

We often think wistfully of some far off time, a Golden Age, an era when things were in harmony and prosperity was the order of the day. This nostalgic desire for a bygone time is most definitely not something new. Even the ancient Greek poets, creating works a couple of thousand years ago, looked back longingly to simpler, more idyllic days.

One of our best examples of this in fact comes from such an ancient Greek poet. Hesiod composed a remarkable poem called the Works and Days. In this piece, Hesiod codified his version of the Ages of Man, which he divided into five distinct periods, each of which was populated by a specific race. Today’s post will explore the information found in lines 110-201 of Hesiod’s Works and Days.

For the record, all lines refer to the Works and Days unless otherwise noted. As always my translation of Hesiod’s poem is from the incomparable Apostolos N. Athanassakis.

The Golden Age

This was the Age of the first race of mortals, who were dubbed by Hesiod “the golden race”. This golden race was created by the gods. The Golden Age was populated by men who did not grow old, and lived during an era of endless abundance and prosperity. Since they were mortals, however, in time the members of the golden race died peaceful deaths. After death, the golden race continued to wander the earth as benevolent spirits.

The Silver Age

Following the Golden Age was the Silver. As the Golden Age had its golden race, the Silver Age had its silver race. Hesiod characterizes this second, silver race as “a much worse one” (line 129) compared to the previous golden children of gods. Clearly, already things have declined in Hesiod’s opinion. The silver race are characterized as foolish and immature. However, their fatal flaw was much worse - they refused to worship the gods and goddesses. This was enough to anger Zeus, and so he destroyed the silver race of mortals.

The Bronze Age

After Silver comes the third, or Bronze Age. The bronze race were the successors of the silver, and had become far more violent. Hesiod says of the bronze race: “Black death claimed them for all their fierceness, and they left the bright sunlight behind them” (lines 155-6). Essentially, these mortals destroyed each other with their weapons of bronze.

The Age of Heroes

The fourth Age features a race that is composed of heroes, who Hesiod describes as “better and more just” (line 159). This is the Age of Heroes. And not just heroes - demigods as well. The Works and Days includes references to some of the legendary men who fought in the Trojan War, for example, without explicitly naming them. It is worth noting that this is the only Age not associated with a type of metal.

The Age of Iron

Hesiod names this, the fifth and last race of men he lists in his Works and Days the race of iron, and counts himself among its number, for his was the Age of Iron. It is a time of turmoil, and strife, and sadness for mortals.

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