Hesiod’s Ancient Almanac and the Days of the Month

by Bruce Scofield

originally published in Llewellyn’s 2001 Moon Sign Book)

Roughly 2,700 years ago in ancient Greece, writing began to be used to record the stories that had formerly been kept in the memories of professional storytellers. This was the time of the transition between the oral tradition and the written tradition, an event perhaps not unlike the transition from print to magnetic and digital media that is taking place today. The first two Greek writers, Homer and Hesiod, are still read by students, classicists, and historians today. Their “books” were the epic poems of Homer, the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” and a collection of long poems attributed to Hesiod (Hee’-see-odd) that include the “Works and Days” and the “Theogony.” All of Hesiod’s works, and those of Homer as well, were written in dactylic hexameter meter, probably because that was the easiest way for these carriers of the oral tradition to keep them memorized.

Not much is known about Hesiod. From his writings we are able to glean bits and pieces, but there is much uncertainty and scholars will likely debate the details of his life for centuries to come. It does appear that Hesiod’s father was a sailor and farmer, and due to financial problems, moved from Asia Minor to mainland Greece. He had two sons, Perses and Hesiod, to whom he left his land. Hesiod’s brother Perses managed to get the larger share of the inheritance, by bribing a corrupt local ruler. He then proceeded to run his farm into the ground. In his book “Works and Days,” Hesiod portrays his brother as greedy, a spendthrift, and an idler, and he directs most of his advice on how to live the good life to Perses.

Hesiod became a farmer, and if his writings are any indication how he operated his farm, he was like a boy-scout, doing everything properly and honestly. He believed passionately in two things, justice and hard work. As for why he was motivated to put his knowledge about farming in writing, Hesiod tells us that one day, while tending sheep on Mt. Helicon, he actually met the Muses. They taught him a glorious song which eventually became the text of the “Works and Days.” Another reference to Hesiod’s life mentions an important poet’s contest, which he won. Hesiod apparently died violently, murdered while traveling home after winning the poetry contest. He was staying at a family’s house and was killed by two sons who suspected him of seducing their sister. They threw his body into the ocean, but it was brought ashore by dolphins and later buried.

Portions of poems attributed to Hesiod, and references to Hesiod’s writings that appear in later Greek writings, indicate that he wrote on many subjects, including topics like astrology and divination by birds. In some cases, the fragments of these writings that have survived the ages are questioned by scholars as to their authenticity. The authenticity of his book the “Theogony,” a work on the Greek gods and their origins, is not in doubt and it remains an indispensable reference to this subject. Hesiod’s “Works and Days” is of special interest to readers of the “Moon-Sign Book” because it is essentially an almanac that guides one through the cycle of the year and the cycle of the month.

The first, and larger, portion of “Works and Days describes the cycle of the year and how a resourceful and honest person should live it. This section begins with a lengthy introduction devoted to the gods intermixed with Hesiod’s opinions on justice and what is right and what is wrong. It immediately becomes apparent to the reader that his brother Perses clearly falls into the later category.

Throughout the “Works and Days” Hesiod offered advice, much of which is relevant today. For example, Hesiod said “He does mischief to himself who does mischief to another, and evil planned harms the plotter most.”(1) This notion, that negative thoughts can implode within oneself and cause all sorts of mental and physical problems is a tenet of today’s New Age philosophy. Throughout his poem, Hesiod relentlessly promoted honesty and hard work as exemplified in the line “If your heart within you desires wealth, do these things [the practical advice he gave out] and work with work upon work. Hesiod believed that the right way to satisfy desire was to work for it. What this line also tells me is that Hesiod’s world was probably far from idyllic, it was filled with rotten people – or why would he have made these points over and over again. What’s very interesting about Hesiod is that, unlike Homer, he was addressing the common man. While Homer told tales of heroes, Hesiod told of farmers and woodsmen who cut the wood for the ships that Homer’s heroes sailed to glory on.

Still, Hesiod was far from the world of today. Like the larger society that he belonged to, Hesiod drew sharp lines between women and men. “Do not let a flaunting woman coax and cozen and deceive you: she is after your barn. The man who trusts womankind trusts deceivers.” Hesiod also offered men some advice about marriage. He recommended that a man should marry around the age of thirty, preferably to a younger woman grown up five years (about age 18 to 20). In Hesiod’s times, this was probably very good advice for bachelors.

Astronomical references abound in the text of the “Works and Day” and inform the reader as to when specific agricultural activities should be commenced. Ploughing should begin at the winter solstice, and vines should be pruned sixty days after this event. Grain should be winnowed when Orion rises just before dawn, which is in July, but when Orion is at the midheaven just before dawn, in September, it’s time to pick the grapes. Having outlined the cycle of the year, which is based on the movement of the Sun and its relationships to the prominent constellations, Hesiod then addressed the cycle of the Moon. This later section of the “Works and Day” is pure astrology.

The Moon’s cycle of about 29 1/2 days was counted by the ancient Greeks in several ways. First there was the basic cycle itself, which varied between 29 or 30 whole days (days don’t come in fractions – this is the origin of our months of varying days). The cycle of the Moon, or month, traditionally began at sunset with the first appearance of the crescent Moon just after the New Moon. It ended with the Moon’s disappearance into the early morning rays of the Sun just before the next New Moon. The second way the cycle was counted was by dividing it into waxing and waning halves. The 14 or 15 days before the Full Moon, days when the illuminated portion of the Moon gradually extends to fullness, are the waxing days. As the Moon moves in its cycle from Full to New Moon, the illuminated portion declines. This is the waning half of the cycle. The third way of counting the cycle of the Moon was by dividing it into thirds of ten days each. The first third Hesiod called the waxing month, the middle third was called the mid-month, and the final third the waning month.

In the “Works and Days” Hesiod uses all three counting traditions to describe the various points in the Moon’s cycle that are good or bad for one thing or another. He first counts the entire cycle, referring to the positive qualities of the first, fourth, and seventh days of the Moon (the first day being the day on which the crescent appears after the New Moon, about 1 to 1 1/2 days after the New Moon). He then shifts into another way of counting the cycle and says the sixth day of the mid-month is bad for plants. This day, six days into the second third of the cycle, is also the 16th day of the Moon, the day after the Full Moon. (I’m pointing this out because I want to let readers understand how Hesiod wrote and how I arranged the table below should they look up the original text).

Hesiod’s “good and bad” days of the lunar month, all the days that are noted in his “Works and Days,” are organized below in a form easier to read than the original poem. I’ve added a few comments in parentheses. Here is the scheme of the world’s first lunar almanac, one that predates this Moon-Sign book by 2,700 years! The list begins with the crescent one day after New Moon.

Day of the Moon Fortune

1 A holy day

4 A holy day and a day for bringing home a bride. A good day to open a jar. (By opening a jar, Hesiod probably means a jar of food or perhaps wine. I would think this day, which is the favorable sextile between the Sun and Moon, is a good one for new beginnings of almost any kind.)

5 A holy day, but also potentially bad.

6 Unfavorable for female births, but good for gelding goats and sheep and for building a fenced-in pen. More favorable for the birth of a boy, though he will be sharp-tonged, cunning and stealthful. (This is the day leading up the square between the Sun and Moon at the first quarter, which according to traditional astrology, is a time of stress, though favorable for doing construction work.)

7 First Quarter

8 Good for getting work done. Good for gelding boars and bulls.

9 Good for getting work done. A good day to be born, whether male or female. Never a totally evil day. (Both this day and the previous day follow the stressful first quarter but are within the period of the waxing Moon. In traditional astrology, the period of the waxing Moon is the time to move things along toward fruition at the Full Moon.)

10 Favorable for the birth of males. (This is the first trine between the Moon and the Sun, a time long considered by astrologers as favorable for doing most things.)

11 Excellent for shearing sheep and picking fruits. (Obviously, this means a good time for harvesting).

12 Even better for shearing sheep and picking fruits, a good day for a woman to work on her loom and get on with her work. A good day for gelding hard-working mules. (Notice that this day and the previous, days that occur just before the climax of the Full Moon, are days for harvesting. This makes perfect sense if one sees the Full Moon as the point of “ripeness” in the total lunar cycle.)

13 Don’t sow seeds now. Favorable for nurturing plants. (This is too close to the Full Moon for starting plants, or other things as well.)

14 The holiest of days. Favorable for the birth of females. Favorable for taming sheep and oxen, dogs, and mules. Favorable to begin building narrow ships. (This and the next day are the Full Moon, a time of spiritual climax that may have been reflected in religious rituals of Hesiod’s time. It is also a time of decisiveness, which is needed to tame animals or to make fast ships. It is also the time when the Moon is a rival to the Sun, and perhaps this is the reason for it being a favorable day for female births.)

15 Full Moon

16 Unfavorable for plants, but good for the birth of males. Not favorable for female births or for weddings.

17 Thresh grain, cut beams for building. (Notice that this day, near the beginning of the waning portion of the lunar cycle, is favorable for threshing or processing grain, not for harvesting it. It follows that this point of the lunar cycle is good for continuing work on activities that were begun during a waxing Moon.

19 Conditions improve toward evening. (On this day the Moon is moving toward the favorable trine aspect to the Sun.)

20 A day on which wise men are born. (This day is when the favorable trine between Sun and Moon form, and right before the third quarter of the Moon, which is a square between Sun and Moon. According to Dane Rudhyar, one of the most important astrologers of the 20th century, the third quarter represents a “crisis of consciousness” in the unfolding of human life. In other words, this quarter differs from the first quarter, considered a “crisis in action,” by being a time that produces challenges of the mind. It follows then that intelligent people might be born just before or near this part of the lunar cycle.)

22 Third Quarter

24 Avoid troubles. A fateful day, worse in evening.

27 Favorable for opening wine jars, for yoking oxen and mules, and launching a ship. (Why this day, so near to the end of the cycle, should be good for such things is not clear to me.)

29 New Moon

30 New Moon. The best day for supervising work done and giving out rations. (This makes sense as one cycle is closing while another is coming into being. It’s a time for evaluating things.)

You’ve no doubt noticed that Hesiod left out many days. Of these he says “The other days are meaningless, untouched by fortune. Men have days they favor, but few really know.”(2) What I think Hesiod means by this statement is that other traditions may have something to say about these other days, but he doesn’t recognize any authority on them.

Do the astrological fortunes of the days really work? In general, you’ll notice that the delineations for the waxing (first half) of the lunar cycle are both more positive and plentiful than those of the waning half. There is also the testimony of traditional Western astrology to consider. Notice that the day before the first quarter is considered bad. This is in keeping with the astrological notion that the square between the Sun and Moon, which forms at the first and third quarters, is stressful, and that activities should not be commenced just before it becomes exact. Theoretically, the fortune of the 21st day should also be bad. Also notice that the day before the Full Moon is very favorable, but the day after unfavorable. Astrology points to the Full Moon as being the climax of the lunar cycle, decline sets in just after the alignment between the Sun and Moon become exact. The 10th and 20th days, the days near the trine aspect between Sun and Moon, are days of good fortune, again consistent with the astrological doctrine of the essential positiveness of the trine aspect.

Hesiod’s “Works and Days” is a fascinating almanac, and also a window through which we can see what life was like in ancient Greece. His account of the lunar cycle recounted here is a record of a kind of “living” astrology that was deeply integrated into the lives of these early hard-working farmers, except for Hesiod’s lazy brother Perses, of course.

Footnotes:

(1) This quote and the next are from Evelyn-White, Hugh, trans. “Hesiod: The Homeric Hymns and Homerica. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1972, pp. 23 and 31.

(2) From Athanassakis, Apostolos N. Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, Shield. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

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