Five Ages of Man in Greek Mythology

Hesiod, a famous ancient Greek poet and shepherd, was one of the first poets to propose the Greek Five Ages of Man in his masterpiece Works and Days. Considering how much ancient Greek scholars and the society in general borrowed from ancient civilizations like the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, it is very likely that this idea of Hesiod was taken from one of those civilizations.

The Five Ages of Man places the history of the human race into five successive eras or races – the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, the Age of Heroes, and the Iron Age.

The article below explores in full depth the Five Ages of Man in Greek mythology, as well as the inspiration behind those ideas.

Hesiod’s encounter with the Nine Muses

Aside from being known as a great poet, Hesiod was also a farmer or shepherd in the Boeotian region of ancient Greece. The generally accepted story is that Hesiod once had an encounter with the Nine Muses in Greek mythology. Ancient Greeks believed that the Muses were offspring of Mnemosyne (Memory) and Zeus, the king of the Olympian gods. The Nine Muses were believed to appear to artisans and scholars in dire need of inspiration. This explains why ancient Greek poets often called on them whenever starting a poem.

Five Ages of Man |Image: Hesiod and the Muse (1891), by Gustave Moreau shows the ancient Greek poet presented with a lyre. However, in Hesiod’s account the Muses presented him a laurel staff.

Hesiod’s Works and Days

In Hesiod’s case, the story states that after his interaction with the Muses, the shepherd proceeded to compose one of his most famous masterpieces, Works and Days. The poem, which ranks up there as one of the greatest epic poems of the ancient times, comprises a number of Greek myths about Greek titans, gods and the race of men.

The first story recounts how a second generation titan by the name of Prometheus stole a sacred fire from Mt. Olympus and then gifted it to his creation, man.

In the story of the first woman, Pandora and the jar (box) of human toils and sufferings, Hesiod explains how a prosperous age of man was ruined by Pandora’s curiosity.

Finally, the Five Ages of Man was Hesiod’s way of categorizing the various eras or races of mankind since the dawn of creation.

Five Ages of Man: Summary

The Golden Age began during the reign of Cronus | Image: Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Golden Age

The Golden Age

According to Hesiod’s Works and Days, the first age of man was the Golden Age. The name symbolizes the bright nature of gold or the sun. Like many ancient civilizations, the Greeks believed that the sun was not just the light bringer, but a monumental cosmic object that showered blessings upon the people all day long. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the ancient Greeks used the word “gold” to symbolically refer to the best period of humanity’s existence.

Ancient Greeks believed that the inhabitants of the Golden Age were created by the Greek Titan Cronus (Saturn in Roman mythology), father of Zeus. Initially a benevolent god, Cronus, created a very conducive and harmonious environment for mortals. There was no war or suffering, and the mortals did not need to work as everything was provided for them by nature and the gods. It was spring all year round.

According to some claims, the mortals did not grow old, instead they aged in reverse. The Golden Age in Greek mythology came to an end when Zeus overthrew his father, Cronus.

Silver Age

The Silver Age marked the beginning of steady deterioration of humanity, as the humans began to move apart from the gods | Image: Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Silver Age

Perhaps like the ancient Mesopotamians, the Greeks saw silver as slightly inferior to gold; hence the term was used to refer to an age a bit inferior to the Golden Age.

Following the end of the Golden Age, a new age was ushered in. The age was known as the Silver Age. According to Hesiod, the Silver Age was characterized by the gradual reversal of the good things that happened in the Golden Age. The race of men started to stray a bit further away from the gods. This came in the form of their physical looks and ingenuity. Human beings became less and less sophisticated. With this widening gap, a sense of inferiority engulfed men, as they began to see themselves as puny beings compared to the mighty Greek gods.

Bronze Age

The people of the Bronze Age did not worship the gods as much as their ancestors in the Golden Age did. They also had to fend for themselves by tilling the land in order to obtain food that was once so abundant in the previous age. They did not live as long as the people of the Golden Age or the Silver Age, as the gods created these humans with some noticeable defects.

According to Hesiod, the Bronze Race was formed out of the ashes of trees, which was primarily used in making spears. As a result, the Bronze Age humans were prone to waging war against each other. Their immense strength and less wisdom made them act in a very violent manner. Perhaps this was influenced by their insatiable appetite for the flesh of animals. In the two previous ages, the race of men primarily had a vegetarian diet.

Such was the bloodshed and hubris of the Bronze Age humans that Zeus decided to bring an end to the age. The king of the gods sent a great deluge to wipe them off the face of the earth. The only mortals that survived were Deucalion (Prometheus’ son) and his wife Pyrrha (Epimetheus’ daughter).

The Age of Heroes

With the help of the titan goddess Themis (goddess of justice, wisdom and order), Pyrrha and Deucalion were able to repopulate the world. The Age of Heroes refers to the people that emerged following the Great Deluge. According to Hesiod, this age took place during the Mycenaean era and had more well-behaved humans compared to the Bronze Age.

The people of this age were chivalrous and brave. Many of them were altruistic heroes, willing to put their lives on the line in the service of the community. It is for this reason why some of the heroes of this era were regarded as demigods, including Heracles (Hercules), Perseus, Helen of Troy (or Helen of Sparta), Achilles, Hippolyta (Queen of the Amazons), Orion, and Aeneas.

However, this era was not completely free of strife, wars and chaos. This age witnessed the Trojan War, a war that pitted Greek heroes like Odysseus and Achilles against Trojan fighters such as Hector and Paris.

Iron Age

The Iron Age is one of the Five Ages of Man | Image: Virgil Solis, The Iron Age

According to Hesiod, the Iron Age is the final age of human’s progress. It is also the bloodiest and fiercest of all the ages, as Hesiod expects the Greek gods to once again destroy the race of men.

The Iron Age referred to name Hesiod used to describe his own time as well as the present time. The poet believed that the Iron Race was created evil, greedy and selfish. Additionally, the sorrow, death and misery are just some of the evils that Iron Age humans have to contend with. The environment of this age is so toxic and unholy that the gods packed their bags and baggage and left the earth.

With no deity living among the mortals, the ungodly world continued to descend deeper and deeper into utter chaos until a time when Zeus would have had enough and once again destroyed humanity.

Significance

The Five Ages of Humanity was Hesiod’s way explaining how almost-perfect human beings gradually became degenerate and ungodly creatures that were prone to violence and conflicts. Mixed with mythical concepts, the Five Ages of Man has some form credence as it shows how civilizations rise and then crumble with the progression of time.

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