The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Lilah Grace Canevaro
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Greek epic poetry has it all. Gods and monsters, adventures, love stories, and plenty of gratuitous violence. Everything you need for a hefty dose of escapism. Within epic, though, it’s Hesiod’s Works and Days that keeps drawing me in. The underdog of epic poems. The one my students start the semester dubious about, and are completely attached to by the end of the year.
When did you first come across the Works and Days?
I read the Works and Days in a Greek class at Durham University. I was familiar with some of its stories, but this was my first opportunity to tackle it in the original. I was hooked – and ended up writing my PhD (and first book) on the text.
Can you tell me a bit about the work and its context?
The Works and Days is an archaic didactic epic poem, in which the narrator Hesiod teaches his audience how to negotiate the difficulties of Iron-Age life. He looks back to previous ages of myths, legends and metallic races, sets the Iron-Age scene, and gives advice on everything from farming to seafaring to wearing a hat so your ears don’t get wet. These days the poem tends to play second fiddle to Hesiod’s Theogony (when you’ve got hundred-handed monsters, and gods castrating their relatives, why would you read a catalogue of farming tools?), but in antiquity it was actually the Works and Days that was the more popular, the more quoted.
What is it about this text that appeals to you most?
Its character. In particular, the character of its narrator. We don’t know who composed the poem – whether there was a Hesiod, or a ‘Hesiod’, or Hesiods. Whether it is the product of a single voice, or an anonymous tradition, or something in between. But that almost doesn’t matter. Not when the narrator has such a strong persona. I feel like I know Hesiod. He is grumpy. He doesn’t much like women, his family drive him up the wall, and he reckons we’re probably all headed for disaster. He is meticulous. He thinks of everything, and offers stream-of-consciousness advice that covers all eventualities in painstaking detail (I know more Greek vocab for parts of a plough than I care to think on). He is demanding. He sets high standards, and is definitely in the ‘teach a man to fish’ line. But he is also, deep down, an optimist. His brother Perses has blotted his copy-book more than once – but Hesiod remains convinced he can do better. The Iron Race are on a bad path – but there are ways out. Even women aren’t all bad – as long as you don’t let parts of their anatomy distract you.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I’m mother to two boys under 5. So I don’t have a lot of time for hobbies of my own. Our happy times at the minute involve ‘crafternoons’ (never mind the toilet rolls – we’ve been stockpiling the sequins and pipe cleaners), yoga for kids (it may be Pokemon themed, but it’s still calming), and cooking (the eldest loves baking and is a dab hand with a whisk, the youngest is fervently hoping there’s nothing you can’t puree).
Dr Lilah Grace Canevaro is Lecturer in Greek at the University of Edinburgh. Her research centres on ancient Greek poetry, with a focus on gender. She is pioneering new-materialist approaches to classical study, and has published also in classical reception and comparative literature. Her books include Hesiod’s Works and Days: How to Teach Self-Sufficiency (OUP, 2015) and Women of Substance in Homeric Epic: Objects, Gender, Agency (OUP, 2018).