Hesiod’s Theogony (and The Works and Days) Translated by C.S. Morrissey

Hesiod is a poet whom I have kept close by me from my undergraduate days thirty-some years ago.  I confess, my Greek is little better than Shakespeare’s as described by Jonson, but  my copy of Lattimore’s translation is filled with notes on scraps of paper and in the margins from university seminars and my own reading, and my dear Loeb volume 57 is in a similar state.  And, I can find my way around Liddell & Scott.

When I heard the news that there was a new translation of Hesiod — a Canadian translation, of all things — I was understandably excited.  C.S. Morrissey’s new translation of (part of) Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and (grudgingly) Days from Talon Books is a very pretty thing to look at.  The cover illustration by Daniel Mackie I found very fetching, in a sort of 1969 psychedelic science-fiction cover meets Diego Rivera way.  Perhaps I should have hesitated when I read in the About the Translator bit that Morrissey is a professor who specializes in philosophical theology at a Catholic college and that he has focused on the monotheistic speculations of Hesiod, et.al.  But, a professional cricket commentator is perfectly entitled to write a treatise on carpentry.  And Morrissey’s Translator’s Note is quite encouraging, almost pagan, in its apparent devotion to the Muses and to Hesiod.

As I read Morrissey’s Theogony, however, I began to have some misgivings.  The verse is fairly unobtrusive and fairly formless, perhaps a reflection of the Chaos out of which the Theogony grows, or, more likely, in keeping with modern poetic fashion.  Morrissey’s decision, however, to eschew footnotes or endnotes in favour of sticking parenthetical words or names into the middle (and beginning [and end]) of lines makes for a very distracting read, far more distracting than would footnotes have been.  I remain unsure whether one is meant to read the parenthetical bits as parenthetical bits or as a part of the verse itself. Metrics are, of course, of little help.

But Morrissey does a workmanlike job of rendering the Greek into coloquial English for the most part, which is a positive achievement.  There are some phrases that don’t work or fall flat –Miss Congenitalia didn’t work for me and Morrissey himself acknowledges the laxatives and toilet paper anachronism.  But on the whole Morrissey’s Theogony flows.  The consonance of “He was shepherding sheep on sacred Helicon” is very nice, in fact, as are the archaic repetitions Morrissey retains in the castration scene.

All well and good for a reader with no Greek, but, as I mentioned, I have a little, and that little has given me trouble with certain decisions Morrissey has made, decisions which I think, make this Morrissey’s , not Hesiod’s Theogony.  Perhaps the most obvious is Morrissey’s decision to translate Zeus’ formulaic epithet, which is literally “Father of gods and likewise of men” with the odd phrase “Zeusfather of gods and husbands”. Repeatedly. With slight variation.  Certainly, the Greek word could have the secondary meaning “husband” just as “man” in English can be used in the admonition “Stand by your man”, but why impose the secondary meaning on the reader when the word in English with the same primary meaning has the same secondary meaning?  Please, Mr. Morrissey, allow your readers the liberty to make their own choice.

Another detail which made me uncomfortable was Morrissey’s choice of chapter and section headings.  For example, he titles a description of Zeus and the Muses as “The Holy Family” which, even without knowing the translator’s affiliation, has connotations not wholly appropriate to the religious world of pre-classic Greece.  I couldn’t help but feel that Morrissey was somehow trying to force a link between Hesiod and Psalm 85 or even making the suggestion that the Muses were somehow equivalent to or embodiments of Christ.

But what was perhaps a most obscure but to me most disturbing detail of Morrissey’s translation, even more disturbing than his decision to leave out the last hundred plus lines of the poem without notice of any sort, is the translator’s treatment of Gaia, the divine Earth.  In two particular places Morrissey has treated Her very poorly.  The first is on p. 34 where Morrissey writes:

Previously, these weapons had been locked away
in the vast Earth, inside Tartarus.

These “weapons” are the thunderbolts, etc. which are to be the tools by which Zeus will rule over the other gods and over men.  But Morrissey has done something nasty to the Earth here.  As well as adding “Tartarus” which is not in the text, Morrissey changes the grammar of the passage.  Hesiod does not say that the weapons had been locked away in Gaia; Hesiod says “Gaia [herself] had hidden them”! By changing Gaia from the subject of the sentence to the object of a prepositional phrase, Morrissey has taken away Her agency!  Gaia has gone from being an active participant, in fact, an instigator of the action which gives Zeus his power, to being the passive “vast Earth”, into which Zeus’ weapons have been thrust for safe keeping.

Later on page 58,  Hesiod’s description of Gaia as suggesting, even urging that the gods take Zeus as king is reduced by Morrissey to a parenthetical “(even shrewd Earth agreed)”.  Again Morrissey has reduced the importance of this female character whom Hesiod has made fundamental.

On the same page, Morrissey pumps up Zeus by suggesting that his actions are merely “inspired” by Gaia and Ouranus while Hesiod writes that Gaia and Ouranus suggest or advise the actions.  Active agency is again removed from Gaia (and Ouranus).

What is Morrissey doing here?  Why this effort to inflate Zeus’ importance while trying hard to deflate Gaia?

Coincidentally, just as I was reading Morrissey’s Theogony, Dr. Henry Morgentaler died, and a little piece was published in the Globe and Mail under the byline “C.S. Morrissey”.  In that piece, Morrissey lays out his opinion of Dr. Morgentaler’s legacy and the effect of current (lack of) abortion laws on civil liberties in Canada.  Rather frighteningly, Morrissey gets through this entire piece about abortion and abortion rights without ever once using the word “woman”. Or “women”. Or “Mother.”

Somehow I smell an agenda.  The Theogony is all about the control of fertility. First Ouranos tries to control Gaia’s fertility and fails, and at the end that Morrissey imposes on the poem, Zeus tries to control Metis’ fertility (by swallowing her) and also fails.

Morrissey ends, as I said, by leaving out over a hundred lines of Hesiod’s verse, with no note to the reader that he has done so.  And he ends with the tastles, unHesiodic and sort of meaningless quip that Metis is “the ultimate insider”.

I’ve not yet finished Morrissey’s translation of  The Works (and Days) but I notice he starts right off with another “Zeusfather of gods and husbands”.  Furthermore, Morrissey inserts into the creation of Pandora story near the beginning of The Works and Days the doubly anachronistic phrase “chemical blueprint”.  I find this phrase suspiciously parallel to Morrissey’s use (in his abortion opinion piece) of Pope Francis’ statement that at conception, the zygote “has all the genetic code of a human being”. (So does a bone marrow stem cell or a hair follicle, for that matter, but I’m not here to argue the ethics of bone marrow transplants, eyebrow plucking or even abortion.) Into one piece Morrissey inserts “genetic code” at conception; into the other he inserts “chemical blueprint” at the creation of Pandora, molded of Earth.  Morrissey is trying to get a message across here, and that message is not in Hesiod’s Greek. Disappointing.

C.S. Morrissey’s translation of (part of) Hesiod’s Theogony and The Works and Days is published by Talon Books.


A quick update now that I’m well into the Pandora section of The Works and Days.  I’ve just read a gratuitously misogynistic fabricated expansion of Hesiod’s explanation of Pandora’s name.  For simplicity, I’ll quote Evelyn-White’s century old Loeb translation of the passage:

Also the Guide, the slayer of Argus, contrived within her lies and crafty words and a deceitful nature at the will of loud thundering Zeus, and the Herald of gods put speech in her.  And he called this woman Pandora, because all they who dwelt on Olympus gave each a gift, a plague to men who eat bread.

Okay, Hesiod was no feminist, but look what Morrissey does with  the passage:

But then Hermes, Zeus’ messenger and
the Slayer of Argus the monster, put into her breast
his  cunning character:
wily lies and winning words.
He did this according to the plan of deep-thundering Zeus.
This clever voice that he,
the clever herald of the gods, placed in her,
is the reason why he named this woman
Pandora – the “Gift” for Whom “Anything Goes.”
Also, in her “anything” a god living on Olympus has
was “gifted” by them to us: Pandora
– the “Gift” into Whom “Anything Goes.”
She is why husbands work for food: a pain.

Nice slut-shaming, Professor!

To be honest, I don’t know if I can stomach finishing this “translation”.

We live in the Science Fiction I read as a teen

It’s strange to have artistic time on my hands now that “My Village” is hanging on display and I’ve taken a few pieces to Harcourt House for the annual Members’ Show and Sale.  As I sat minding “My Village” yesterday, I started doodling illustrations for an idea I had a few days ago.  For the past few months I’ve been following the adventure of “Astronaut Abby“, Abigail Harrison, an audacious teenager from Minnesota who intends to be the first person to walk on Mars.  As part of her preparation, Abby has devoted herself to reaching out to other young people to inspire them to pursue studies and careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).  The latest part of that outreach has been a partnership with ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano and a crowdfunded journey to Baikonur Cosmodrome to see Luca’s launch.  On her return, Abby intends to visit schools in person and to give virtual talks and workshops about her experiences and ambitions.  Throughout, this astronautic mission has been powered by social media in its finest manifestation.

I couldn’t help but think as I followed Abby’s exploits, and the exploits of Cmdr. Chris Hadfield, that Abby is, in fact, living in the science fiction I read as a teen. So, I decided to recreate a little piece of Abby’s Golden Age Science Adventure as a bit of doodling.  First I jotted down an opening for a story about a mid-west teen setting out on an adventure to Baikonur, the Space Station, and Mars, trying to catch a bit of the flavour of 1930’s juvenile pulp magazine science fiction.  Then, as I sat minding “My Village” I doodled in a sketchbook.  Here’s the final sketch I made:


Then I scanned the sketch and did a bit of computer work on it:

Abby second scanAbby third scanAnd finally I juggled the elements around a bit, added the text I’d written, printed the whole thing out on newsprint and scanned the whole thing again:

Abby's Soyuz Adventure

Then I chiriped the product off to Abby at the mighty spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome from my handheld teleputer just in time for Luca’s launch to the World’s Space Station.

Now I’m about to watch Abby’s mysterious Italian mentor arrive at his destination in his Soyuz space ship. On one of I don’t know how many computers I have in my house.

It’s science fiction, I tell you!

Update, June 2, 2013 – Astronaut Thomas H. Marshburn (@AstroMarshburn) tweeted at 9:23 PM on Sun, Jun 02, 2013 this bit of Science Fiction Poetry (it even rhymes):

“Perfect morning under gray skies with a light rain & warm wind on my face. I missed life under clouds while in space.”
(https://twitter.com/AstroMarshburn/status/341394697975128064) .

But it’s not Science Fiction! This is a real Spaceman celebrating his return to the Green Hills of Earth!

Tomorrow is here!

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On Violent Extremism

Last December I posted something I’d written On an Anniversary. Those who have read the piece or experienced the days following December 6, 1989 will recall that initially the response to the deaths in Montréal was to say that it was the act of a mad man. But shortly, as the fact that the victims had been singled out because they were women who were making a success of themselves in what has traditionally been a “man’s field” — as the fact that they had been singled out because the killer blamed women, particularly successful women, for all of the failures in his own pitiful little life — the conversation quickly shifted.  Certainly the killer was “a mad man”, but he developed his “madness” within the context of a society which still had gendered expectations, a society which still tolerated “jokes” which would be considered hate speech if cracked about an ethnic rather than a gendered segment of society.  In short, there was a realization in Canada that the fourteen women died for the unexamined sexist sins of society at large.  Sadly, I can’t help but think that now, almost a quarter century later, they seemed to have died in vain.  But that is beside the point of this post.

The killer on that December evening was a violent extremist.  Yes, he was a savage mad man. Yes, he was a barbarian.  But, his mad extremism was a mad extreme of “normal” accepted attitudes of large segments of Canadian society.  Many men (and women) then (and now) believed that a woman’s place was in the home, not working, and that women should be obedient to “their” men, that men should be the bread winners in a properly ordered society.  And so on.  And such ideas were (and are) publicly expressed at all levels of society, in print, on the radio, on television, around kitchen tables (and today on the Internet) without anyone questioning that such expression was acceptable and few finding anything disturbing about such ideas.

Montréal changed that.  Sure, the ideas are still expressed, perhaps expressed more widely and loudly today than twenty years ago.  But today, the idea that such ideas are morally wrong, detrimental to a well ordered society and simply impolite in any company, has become a strong bit of currency in public discourse in Canada.  Today, if a Member of Parliament were to utter the words “I don’t beat my wife, do you, George? Har Har” in the House of Commons, the Speaker would almost literally have that Member’s head.  When that exact disgusting moment played out in Ottawa in 1982, there was certainly shock and condemnation from around the country, but it was considered a bit of embarrassing Old Boyishness in most quarters. Since Montréal the discussion has changed and in most contexts, violence against women is not considered a joke (violence against sex workers and against indigenous women are shameful exceptions).

All of the above is preamble to my response to the murder of the British soldier in London a few days ago.  We are all rightly shocked and horrified.  And we all know that individuals are murdered every day in major metropolises around the world.  Sometimes they are murdered in public and in equally horrific ways.  Those murders might make international news or might not, depending on the news cycle at the moment.  But the murder of Royal Fusilier Drummer Lee Rigby was guaranteed it’s place on international newscasts because he was targeted because he was a British Soldier and was targeted because the killers considered themselves Muslim.  If two chavs had killed a schoolmate because he was a ginger, the conversation would be quite different — likely about bullying — and rightly so.

And it absolutely correct that British Muslim groups condemned the attacks with utmost dispatch.  And, I sympathize with those, Muslim or otherwise, who articulately state that “this is not Islam” . . .

But . . .

The killer in Montréal was Canadian. Certainly, he in no way represented what was good and noble about Canada (his victims did that), but he did stand for an aspect of Canadian society which I despise but which I can’t deny is part of Canada.  As long as there are sexist jokes, as long as there is sexual harassment and sexual discrimination and sexual assault and cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women that go uninvestigated, Canada has a sexism problem.  Indeed, until no one would remain silent in the face of sexism, Canada is at some level, a sexist society.

What does this have to do with Drummer Rigby’s murder?

Simply this, and I’m going to be as clear and succinct as possible:

As long as a single Muslim man, woman or child sits silent in a mosque, a marketplace, at a television or radio, at a kitchen table, in a nation’s parliament or a company’s boardroom — as long as any self-identifying Muslim sits quiet as a Muslim figure of authority utters a suggestion that violent jihad is in any way acceptable, Drummer Rigby’s murder and all other violent extremism is an aspect of Islam.

Please, my Muslim neighbours and friends, my brothers and sisters: do not ever again remain silent! Do not wait for the next Islamist murder to wring your hands and cry “This is not Islam!”  No. There is something you must do every day, every hour.  Do not ever again allow an imam to preach violent jihad without standing to oppose the very idea.  If you remain silent, you are in no way defending Drummer Rigby. You are turning a deaf ear to his calls for aid and accepting that his murder is Islam.

On the Occasion of Commander Hadfield’s Return to Earth

I have written elsewhere about my inspiration as a youngster watching Neil Armstrong stepping down onto the Moon, the same event that put another young Canadian boy on the road to command of the ISS.  I have written elsewhere about the writings of Carl Sagan leading me to the great Irish mystic poet Yeats.  I have written elsewhere about how obvious it seems to me that science and art are fundamentally the same thing, that both inspire and move us, the both change us and our world and, perhaps most importantly, both science and art, and all the wonder they stir in us, are accessible to all of us.  I have always known this to be true.  I have always seen supporting Science and supporting the Arts as obvious obligations of individuals and society. But I am very aware that many friends and acquaintances have never been able to see through those lenses.

Over the last five months I’ve often thought of Spider and Jeanne Robinson’s Stardance in which art comes to a space station as dance. And, of course, I’ve thought of the paintings of astronaut Alan Bean and of cosmonaut Alexey Leonov.  While Bean and Leonov’s art is exquisite and inspiring, they painted after they came home. And the Robinsons so wonderfully imagine making art in space, but they never did it.  But, perhaps because they lacked the internet, these artists never caught the larger public’s attention.  They never joined, on a grand scale, science to ordinary people through art.

I realized tonight as Commander Hadfield’s new video of Space Oddity went viral, that this fairly  unassuming gentleman from Sarnia has done it.  He has shown ordinary people art and science meeting together  And the people get it!

Using social media and the biggest stage possible – the sky – Hadfield has had us watch him rapt for five months as he shape-shifted from rock star to zero-gravity chef to science teacher to science fiction character to military commander, and, finally, to a fifty something man with a crew-cut and moustache who actually pulls off a self-shot music video of his own acoustic cover of perhaps the most iconic Bowie song.  Whatever the flaws of adaptation or performance, Hadfield has capped his inspiring public Space Odyssey with a piece of art that captures the tension apparent in his earlier collaboration with Ed Robertson, the tension between the unknowable-to-most joy of looking down on Earth from a home in the sky and the universal human joy of standing at home on the Green Hills of Earth.  No longer the story of an ominous malfunction of Major Tom’s capsule which leaves the astronaut stranded, Hadfield’s revised Space Oddity is a bitter-sweet lament for the end of his stay on the Space Station and his final return to earth. He is facing an inversion of Bowie’s original conceit of the Marooned Astronaut  –  Hadfield knows that it is to Space, not to Earth, that he will never return. With this recording Hadfield has turned a once inconceivable  Space Oddity – a Canadian kid from Sarnia becoming the tweeting rock star commander of the International Space Station opening hailing frequencies to Captain Kirk – into an Odyssey of Space very true to the spirit of the Greek epic poem.  Although at last he stands on the shores of Ithaca, he can’t help but look longingly back at the Cosmic Ocean he has sailed.

Hadfield has put himself up there and made a point of making art with us and for us from that tin can he’s sitting in.  He makes us all feel like we’re there with him, doing science, looking down on our blue home, feeling wonder at the speed and the vastness.

And we can’t help but sing along.

Thank you, Commander Hadfield.

We can hear you, Major Tom!

Safe landing!


Update, May 14, 2014: Yesterday Commander Hadfield’s one year licence from Space Oddity‘s publishing company ran out, so the Space Oddity video was voluntarily taken down from YouTube.  Sad, in a way, I guess.  For those who missed it: you missed something pretty special. For those who saw and heard glitter space rock science fiction become science fact, you’ve been part of something special.  This morning Jian Ghomeshi gave us a fine audio essay on the vanishing of Hadfield’s Major Tom.