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”.


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

  1. Dawn says:

    wow…. I wish I had enough time to pour thru this in the manner it deserves.

  2. If you mean “pour through Hesiod’s poetry” I hope you find the time someday.

    If you mean “pour through this post” I hope that if you find the time someday you’ll use it to pour through Hesiod instead.


    And, I came across this promotional video for Morrissey’s translation. I find it strange that Pope Benedict gets so much air time promoting a translation of Ancient Greek poetry. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FaSCfvnxeJo

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