HESIOD’S FIVE RACES AND THE INDIAN FOUR YUGAS

Nicolas Kazanas

The legend of the Five Races in Hesiod’s Works and Days, 109-201, and the Four Yugas (=Ages) in India (MB III, 14-8, 1866-9) has parallels in NE cultures and must therefore be discussed with reference to the NE sources as well.

In his edition of Works and Days (hereafter, W and page-number), M L West examines four “striking oriental parallels” – from the Zoroastrians, the Judaic Book of Daniel, the Indian tradition and the Mesopotamian culture (1978: 174-7). He concludes: “Mesopotamia is a likelier place of origin. It was well situated to disseminate ideas to the Persians, the Indians, the Jews and the Greeks… Greece’s oriental contacts in the eighth century were primarily Semitic; [this] is the most probable time for the myth to have come… Nineveh-Karkemish-Posideion-Chalcis-Boeotia would be a plausible enough route”. He rests with this plausibility (p 177).

West gives a good detailed analysis of the Hesiodic account (WD 109-201) but overlooks one noteworthy fact, namely that there is no clear description of exactly how and why these races were created. First was created the golden race by the Olympian immortals at the time of Kronos (109ff) – but we are not told who these Olympians were and how they were related to Kronos nor in what manner they created the golden race of mortals. Then the Olympians created the silver race (127ff). The third race of bronze was created not by the Olympians but by Zeus (142ff): here we are not told why Zeus took over the creation of mortals but we are told (or so is mostly believed) that the bronze race sprang out of ashtrees ek melian; thus we wonder why Zeus should at this point take over and why the poet should give the origin of this race alone. Afterwards, again Zeus created the fourth race of godlike heroes (157-9).Finally came the “iron” generation (176) – but, here, also no origin or mode of creation is given, not even Zeus. The origin of the bronze race from melia is linked with melieaisi ‘race of mortals sprang from ash-trees’ in Theogony 563; another interpretation has “Melian nymphs” connecting this with numphas melias in Theogony 187 (W 179)[1]. Both interpretations originate in two ancient commentators, Eustathius and Proclus (White: 13, n 1; 93, n 2; 121 n1); but also Hesychius with melias karpos to toan anthroapoan genos (GELsuppl). Some scholars combine the two and have ashtree-nymphs engender humans in general (GM 38 n 4; Kerényi 209). Others see in ek melian only a reference (as in Homer) to ashwood-spears (White, 13 n 1), that is an adverbial phrase qualifyingdeinon and obrimon: ‘a race terrible and mighty because of their ashwood-spears’.

If we look at the bare text without the interpretations of ancient and modern commentators, we see that the text narrates a succession of human generations increasingly deteriorating; this deterioration is an additional or parallel reason why at the poet’s time mankind is in a sorry state – apart from Zeus giving to them Pandora with her jar of ills. The text is not really concerned with anthropogony. If it were, it would have given details of the genesis of each race and not only of the third one – if that. In fact the archaic texts contain no anthropogonic accounts. The ad hoc creation of Pandora (WD 60ff) cannot be taken as such, since mankind already existed. Accounts of anthropogony come later, with Anaximander where, according to the extant fragments, men emerge from fish or similar creatures out of slime (KRS 140-1), the Orphics where Zeus creates mortals from the soot of the Titans he had blasted but only after Protogonos and Phanes had created their own distinct races (West 1998: 75, 98, 107, 139, 164, 212), and so on. If such accounts were current before Hesiod, as some sources say (West 1998: 39ff), then it becomes even clearer that Hesiod is not dealing here with anthropogony, otherwise he would have used them; on the other hand, they might have been current, but not known to Hesiod. Penelope’s words “Tell me your race and whence you come, for you don’t come, as said of old, out of the oak or the stone” (Odyssey 19, 162-3) imply that some men came out of the oak(s) or stone(s) and some from elsewhere; although here we see possible references to the legend of Deucalion and Pyrrha (stone) and Theogony 563 (ash-tree), a third source is implied also but left unexplained.

A further problem lies in Hesiod’s statements that the first two races were created by the Olympian immortals (not Kronos or Ouranos) and the other three by Zeus. Who were the Olympians that created the golden generation at the time of Kronos?… According toTheogony 114-20 and 543ff, Zeus and the other Olympians – except Aphrodite – did not exist then, nor is there in these passages any mention of the creation of mortals. West thinks they are the Titans (which ones?) and that Hesiod is not careful in his use ofOlympia doamat’echontes ‘those who dwell on Olympus’ (W 179). This may be right but apart from the fact that the Titans did not dwell on Olympus, they (or many of them) were certainly not athanatoi nor were they said in any text to create other creatures. So who were these immortal Olympians?

The situation is very peculiar. I can only suppose that Hesiod (or whoever) had before him several threads of legends and wove them together as best he could. Some were brought by the Greeks themselves in their IE heritage, no doubt altered by the passage of many centuries and perhaps dyed with contacts with other cultures. Others, of a newer and brighter make, came from the Near East, perhaps via the route suggested by West.

West opted, as mentioned earlier, for Mesopotamia as the original source of these legends. This is possible, of course, but not borne out by the available data, and it is a pity that West did not pursue these in greater detail. It has been fashionable since the 1960’s to find affinities and contacts with, and borrowings and influences from NE cultures – just as in the early nineteenth century scholars had their mind on India and in the late nineteenth on Egypt. No doubt satiety will come, or some other event will occur, and the pendulum of interest will swing in a different direction. Hesiod’s myth does not seem to derive as a whole from NE sources. It is an amalgam of disparate elements and some of these are not found in the Near East, only in the Vedic tradition. A consideration of the chronology of the texts involved would point to the same direction. West is quite wrong to list all the parallels he has collected together as of the same chronological value and not distinguish between them according to approximate dates of composition (see also West 1971: 37-46, with motifs from Indian, Judaic, Egyptian, Zoroastrian and Norse traditions; and p 218, n 2, with another collection).

We can easily first put aside the Judaic Book of Daniel. It is true that in chapter 2 of this text Daniel recaptures the dream which King Nebuchadnezzar had seen but forgotten, then relates and explains it to him. The dream is of a large image with head of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs of brass, legs of iron and feet of iron mixed with clay: the head symbolizes Nebuchadnezzar’s own kingdom, and the other four parts four successive kingdoms, one inferior to the former; after the fifth one, which has no unity, God will set up a new kingdom “which shall never be destroyed” (Daniel, II, 1-44). The metals and the five kingdoms do provide a distant parallel but no more. The Book of Daniel in the Old Testament was according to West written c 166 BC (W 175); being some 500 years later than Hesiod it could hardly have influenced him and so we can discard it as a possible source.

However, the Judaic tradition has, in the earlier books that comprise the Torah, and specifically in Genesis, an element that is also present in the Hesiodic myth, namely the shortening of men’s lifespan from the epoch before the Flood and after. In the first period the descendants of Adam live many centuries, Methuselah reaching 969 years (Genesis, ch 5) whereas in the second the descendants of Noah reach scarcely 400 years (ch 12) and later patriarchs like Abraham live only 175 years (ch 25). But these people do not live less because their mode of life becomes less virtuous as is the case with Hesiod’s races; even in the Judaic Paradise life was not entirely free of evil since Adam and Eve disobeyed God, their Lord. This motif of shorter life may derive from Persian or Mesopotamian sources.

Although Mesopotamian literature also contains this belief in the progressive shortening of man’s life, as is evidenced in their king-lists (W 176), this too cannot be regarded as a probable source. Apart from the ante- and post-deluvian periods, we find no Ages or races of men with distinctive features, diminution of virtue and metallic quality. Consequently apart from the location of Mesopotamia and the early date of the king-lists, it is difficult to see why West chooses this as the “likelier place of origin” for the Hesiodic legend [2].

A much more likely source is the Iranian tradition. The surviving texts here also are much later than Hesiod. In fact, the Pahlevi texts mentioned by West are from the Christian era, but since, as Boyce writes, they derive from the Zend Avesta, the Zoroastrian Scriptures (1991: 379ff), they may belong to the sixth century BC “and possibly many centuries earlier” (Dunstan 1998: 284). In these the prophet has the vision of a tree with four branches – of gold, of silver, of steel and of iron alloy; these represent the four successive ages into which the religion of Zoroaster will pass as wickedness increases, earth’s fertility diminishes and men become smaller in stature. A second version with an image of seven branches of seven metals and seven periods has nothing more of relevance to the Hesiodic legend and need not therefore concern us, nor the fact that some of these periods are identified with specific historical times. (Now the Hebrews were released from their Babylonian exile captivity by Cyrus the Great in 537 and Judea itself became a vassal state of the Persian Empire until 332 when Alexander absorbed all Palestine; therefore, it is quite possible and likely that the dream of the five-metal statue in Daniel (Book 2) is an adaptation of the Zoroastrian tree.) The Zoroastrian details of increasing wickedness, loss of earth’s fertility and diminution of men, agree in large part with features in Hesiod’s description of the five generations. We can safely assume then that the Persian tradition is one source for Hesiod’s legend or, at least, for some elements in it.

However, the Iranians were IE and their early culture has many points of similarity with the Vedic one in India. To take the language alone, Avestan and Vedic are so close that often passages from the one language can be rendered into the other by sound-changes only: Indo-Iranian is generally regarded as a distinct branch of IE [3]. So it should cause no surprise that a similar legend about the Ages or generations of man appears in the Vedic tradition also. However, here the legend has no metals but has the element of heroes which is present in Works and Days but absent from the Iranian legend.

At this point I should state that I don’t think the Greeks borrowed this legend (or much else) from India during the archaic period. I think rather that they brought some version(s) of it with them. As I argued above (section 1), there were no very significant contacts between Greeks and Indians prior to 326 BC.

I sympathise with West (and any other scholar) who writes, “One of the annoying things about Indian literature is that its chronology is so uncertain” (1971: 34). We need not go into the causes of uncertainty; suffice it to say that sanskritists and indologists in general have learnt to live with this. The doctrine of the four Ages appears in detail in the epicMahābhārata, Bk III Āraņyaka- or Vana-parvan (=Book of the Forest), chapters 148 and 186-9, (though shorter or longer references are found in other Books, eg VI and XII). The Poona critical edition of the epic and J A B van Buitenen’s translation (1981) accept these passages in the Vanaparvan as belonging to the mainstream narrative of the epic. This by itself does not mean very much, of course (van Buitenen gives c 400 for the oldest preserved portions, p xxv). The native Indian tradition places the great war of the Bhāratas which forms the main theme of the epic (hence its name) c 3100, but at present this is disputed by most academics and, in any case, many of the incidents, tales and doctrines in it are certainly much later products. So the period given by West as 500-100 BC (1978: 176) is not unreasonable in the conventional chronology. TheManusmŗti which alludes to the four ages in ch I, stanzas 81-6, can, in the form we have it, be placed within the same period [4]. The Manusmŗti gives only the bare essentials of the doctrine of the four Ages and this implies that the knowledge of its wider aspects was current then. This knowledge was current earlier also since the four Ages are mentioned sporadically in the Upanishads and the Brāhmaņas.

West was wrong to write that “the theory [of the 4 Ages] is absent from the Vedas and Brāhmaņas” (W 176). The Vedic Index by A A Macdonell and A B Keith, upon which subsequent studies and discussions of this doctrine are based, does indeed doubt the presence of the four Ages in the Vedas and Brāhmaņas (vol 2, pp 192-3, under Yuga). But the two scholars give no substantial reasons for their doubt other than their own choice of a particular interpretation of certain passages where the word yuga occurs. Sanskrit yuga means ‘team, pair, generation, race, epoch’. In the sense ‘Age’ the word occurs very frequently in the Ŗgveda and we read of ‘former ages’ (pūrvāņi yugāni VII, 70, 4), of ‘future ages’ (uttarā yugāni III, 33, 8) and ‘from one age to another’ (yuge yuge‘in every age’: I, 139, 8), but the ‘Four Ages’ (catvāri yugāni) are not mentioned. InAtharvaveda VIII, 2, 21, which is a hymn prayer “for exemption from the dangers of death” (Bloomfield 2000: 55), we read “A hundred years, ten thousand years, two, three, four ages allot we to thee…”. Now this verse can be interpreted in many ways according to one’s predilections. One Indian scholar for instance translates “O man, thine is the age of a hundred years, with two intervals of day and night and three seasons of summer, winter and rains, and four stages of childhood, youth, middle age and old age…” (Chand 1982: 341) omitting the term ayuta ‘ten thousand’, arbitrarily inserting the three seasons and ignoring that dve yuge means simply ‘two yugas/ages’ (and not ‘intervals of day and night’, which were mentioned in the previous stanza as ahne… rāraye) and also that the catvāri ‘four’ does not of itself automatically denote the four stages of man’s life as stated. There is no real reason why the ‘four ages’ here should not refer to the Four Ages or Yugas. True, the Four Yugas are not mentioned by name, but then why should they?… (The Vedic Index writes: “the inference from this [sequence] seems to be that a Yuga means more than an ayuta, but is not very certain”. This is very lame, because it is undoubtedly more certain that a Yuga in this sequence means more years than that it does not.) That a reference to the Four Yugas may be intended can be supported by the context: subsequent stanzas implore for immortality (eg 26: “Deathless be, immortal […amŗta]…”) and this implies superseding the Four Yugas which are for this reason perhaps allotted in stanza 21. Some of the names of the Yugas occur in two Brāhmaņas (Vedic Index ibid) and all four of them occur in Aitareya, VIII, 2, 21 (kŗta, tretā, dvāpara, kali). Here again the Vedic Index doubts the meaning and cites one scholar who thought that dice-throws were meant (a quite legitimate thought) against five others who thought the Four Yugas were meant. For my  part, I do think that the doctrine of the Four Yugas was known fully in the earlier period of the Vedas because much that is not stated (or only partly stated), not defined and not explained, in so many cases in the Rigvedic hymns appears more fully in later texts, even though there may be innovation or departure from the original concepts. In many hymns there are tantalizing hints, allusions, brief incidents and so on, that suggest there was current a much wider web of mythological knowledge.

Now, the preceding paragraph does not aim to show that, as was mentioned earlier, Hesiod borrowed this myth from Indian sources, but only that the doctrine was present in India as well as in Persia and Greece, and is therefore part of the inherited IE lore. Some scholars, like West (W 177) and A Arora (1981: 183-4, citing others) think that the Indian version originated in, or was influenced by, NE legends. This is totally improbable. Mesopotamia had no such legend – at least in the extant documents; if early tablets with a similar legend are unearthed, then the situation will, of course, need to be re-appraised. The Judaic legend is much too late. We are left only with the Iranian myth, which, again, is too late, since this is later than the Vedas even if these are placed by the most conservative dating c 1000-800. Apart from all such considerations, the analysis that follows of affinities and differences shows that such a borrowing by the Indians is extremely unlikely. The Indian texts nowhere allude to the metallic framework present in the Iranian and Greek legends. In the discussion that follows the Judaic legend in the Book of Daniel is excluded.

Greek : Golden, Silver, Bronze, Heroes, Iron.

Persian: Golden, Silver, Steel, –––, Iron.

Indian: Sat, Kŗta, Tretā, Dvāpara, Sandhyā, Kali.

Common to the Greek, Persian and Indian traditions are the Four Ages, although the Greek one has in addition the heroic race (and Persia two more ages and metals in the later version). The diminishment of virtue, of man’s lifespan and of earth’s fertility is also common to all three traditions. Common also is the note of prophecy that sounds in the description of the final Age (W 198). However, the series of metals is common to Greece and Persia only. The Vedic tradition (at least in the Mahābhārata) gives instead a change in the colour of Vişņu, the god who embodies the world: white corresponds to Krrta, the yuga of harmony and perfection; red to Tretā, the yuga of knowledge; yellow to Dvāpara, the yuga of passion, fragmentation and multitudinous ritual; black to Kali, the yuga of ignorance, selfishness and lawlessness. It is worth mentioning here that theManusmŗti (I, 86) prescribes one virtue or practice as appropriate or remedial for every yuga: for Kŗta is recommended tapas ‘austerity, inner concentration’, for Tretā jňāna‘knowledge’, for Dvāpara yajňa ‘sacrifice’ and for Kali dāna ‘generosity’. The Greek and the Indian sources present the Ages as successive periods without any visions or symbols, whereas the Iranian version gives the vision of a tree with four branches that represent the Ages. The Indian version alone sees the Four Ages within a larger cycle of universal recurrence[5], which is first mentioned in Ŗgveda X, 190, 3, whereas the Greek tale alone introduces the generation of heroes.

West thinks that the Greek poet(s) inserted the heroic generation into the NE legend with its metallic frame so as “to do justice to ‘folk memory’” which harped back on the heroes of the Theban and Trojan wars (W 174). This may well be so. If we consider the subtle contradictions and difficulties of Hesiod’s narrative mentioned at the beginning of this paper, we must take it that the poet had before him more than one version of the succession of Ages. When we add the tales of gods and demigods, titans and giants, centaurs and other monstrous creatures, we can surmise that a poet (or compiler) would not have found it easy to accommodate them all into a neat framework. As for “the general Greek idea of history” which West invokes as fitting for Hesiod’s last three generations (leaving out the golden and silver races), we don’t really know what that was before Homer’s and Hesiod’s works, but I am inclined to agree with this idea, as I show below.

I propose a different explanation, based on several indications that the basic idea of the succession of the generations was the primary element, an IE inherited one, suitably transformed with Greek innovations, and that the metallic scheme was welded onto it. 

To begin with, there are some verbal and conceptual parallels between the Greek and the Vedic – which, however, I admit, may be wholly fortuitous. In Hesiod’s silver age, people fail to serve the gods (athanatous therapeuein) and to offer sacrifices. In the Indian version[6] this failure occurs in the third yuga, corresponding to Hesiod’s bronze race; the Indian second yuga has as its main feature the performance of sacrifice (and Manu, as we noted above, recommends this as a remedy for the third yuga). The inconsistency between the two versions  is not so important (when the time involved after the dispersal is taken into account); more significant is perhaps the actual mention of sacrifice. A second interesting correspondence is found in the last Age of both versions (Hesiod’s iron race and Indian Kali-yuga) where is stressed the enmity between fathers and sons and the failure to keep one’s vow as two of the multifarious manifestations of sinfulness; another correspondent detail is the grey hair with which in Hesiod’s description new born babies will appear and which, in the Indian version, youths will have at sixteen: these correspondences may be fortuitous.[7] Then, Hesiod’s bronze people have great strength but also a hard heart while in the corresponding Indian Dvāpara yuga people are full of lusts and pursue selfish ends even in religious matters: these too may be coincidental. The bronze race are also said not to eat grain (oude ti siton ēsthion), while in the Indian Kali yuga the people “will live on fish and bad meat”: here some commentators of the Greek text see a turning away from vegetarianism (W 188). Another point is that as the Greek heroic race is destroyed and followed by the iron generation, so the Indian kşatriya class of warriors and heroes gets annihilated in the great Bhārata war on the eve of the Kali yuga (=Hesiodic Iron Age). This is the transitional period, sandhyā .

Two more points need to be made. a) Hesiod’s heroic race seems in fact to be an extension of the bronze race: here West seems quite right in seeing “an unwillingness to couple” the heroic with the bronze race (W 174) – but wrong in thinking that the bronze race might be “bellicose gigantes” (ibid). The bronze race also consists of warriors, strong and hard-hearted, who love fighting and indulge in hubris (like the bold heroes who often challenge the gods in the epics) and who finally destroy themselves in wars (again like the heroes). b) The Mahābhārata speaks also of a Twilight period (sandhi/sandhyā ‘conjuction, transition’) comprising the close of one yuga and the start of the next (Bk V, 186, 17 ff). The Bhārata war took place precisely in the sandhi-period just before the Kali yuga, which period could easily be taken as a separate era.In the light of the preceding considerations I suggest that the immigrant Greeks brought with them some version(s) of the legend of successive Ages. Reshaped with appropriate innovations, this knowledge was mixed with similar notions from the Near East and particularly the attractive scheme of metals. Hesiod’s version in Works and Days gives us the one surviving fusion of these elements.

Notes:

1. W and number stands throughout for West 1978 and page number. West’s subsequent studyThe East Face of Helicon discusses again this subject but adduces no fresh material and seems even less convincing (1997: 312-9).

2. Arora cites (p 16) two secondary works saying the Mesopotamians had “a primordial paradise” and, perhaps, seven Creations, but no primary text or secondary authority mentions anything like the idea of 4-5 Ages (Jacobsen 1976; Bottéro 1992; Dalley 1991).

3. The Irish Celts form another IE branch and affinities between them and Indo-Aryans are noted extensively by M Dillon (1975, passim). The four, five or six races and invasions (MacCulloch 1948: 10-11; MacCana 1996: 54ff) mentioned in some early sources (all late in the Christian Era) may conceal the idea of Four or Five Ages as well (Arora 1981: 16), but “even in the oldest documents that have survived, the Biblical Adam and Eve have already been accepted as the first parents of mankind” (Rees 1995: 95) and the innovations are so prolific that this tradition cannot provide reliable grounds for comparison.

4. It has been argued that since in Manusmŗti X, 44, are mentioned Greeks, Scythians and Pahlavas, this stanza at least is of the second century C E (Buhler, pp cxiv-cxvii). A similar argument is used by Farquhar (1920: 83) for the MB. Two points here: (a) The alien people could have been known long before their arrival (as the Greeks yavana certainly were). (b) The “prophecy” of foreign kings ruling NW India in the Kali Yuga (MB III, 186, 30) has Greeks and Scythians but not Pahlavas. If Pahlavas (=Parthians) had already been in occupation, then they most probably would have been mentioned in the relevant passage.

5. The Norse Edda speaks of the recurrence or regeneration of the Cosmos after its destruction at Ragnarok (1996: 56), but as these texts are very late and show influences from Greece and Rome (ibid, 64-6) this motif may derive from Stoic or (Neo-)Pythagorean notions of recurrence. Crossley-Holland mentions also Christian influences (1993: 235-6) and although he concludes that the motif is preChristian, we must exercise caution.

6. All references to the Indian version will be found in van Buitenen’s translation (1981: vol II, 504-6 and 593-8)

7. It may be argued that these correspondences may be due to Indians borrowing from Greeks since there is evidence (Arora 1981: 179-81) that some Indians in the North knew Greek. However, if the Indians knew of, and borrowed from, Hesiod, we should expect more and closer affinities and also perhaps the metallic scheme; for it seems to me most unlikely that only the bare succession of the ages and few details would reach the Indians. Besides, all Yugas were mentioned in the Brāhmaņa and Upanishadic texts, as we saw, and the certainty with which the Indian epic speaks of the succession of the Four Yugas, the sandhi-periods and the distinctive traits of each Yuga, indicates an older, long tradition.

Bibliography.

For Greek texts the Loeb editions are useful but, of course, there are many good translations in many languages.

The Old Testament of the Jews is also in many editions and translations

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