The Ages of Man were theoretical ages of humanity that existed before current day human being was created and formed a part of the greater cosmological understanding of both the Greek and Roman civilizations. Two of the most complete recordings of these can be found in Hesiod’s Works and Days, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. For the sake of chronology, we will start with Hesiod’s version, and his Golden age and move onto Ovid in part two.
Hesiod had five different ages defined in his version (Ovid only recognized four):The Golden age was the first age, and the only one created by Kronos before the Titanomachy (the first great war in the Heavens) and Zeus’ subsequent rule.
The Golden Age was one where the lifestyles of the mortals echoed those of the gods; filled with leisure and pleasure. Abundant food supplies were provided freely from the earth itself, working the land a foreign concept as the earth freely offered bountiful yields that could be plucked and consumed as required. This race did not suffer mortal concerns such as aging or disease. They lived without aging, and when it was time to shed their mortal coil they passed peacefully into sleep. When the age ended and the people were consumed back into the earthly mother they still did not suffer; their spirits left to wander the earth as good energies that could bestow their favor to subsequent races of mortals as they chose.
Second was the Silver age, and these mortals were markedly different. Stunted by arrested development these mortals clung to their Mother’s skirts for an entire century before they entered adolescents and adulthood, stages that were relatively short to their extended childhood, and marked by suffering due to their inability to mature and grow after years of coddling. These humans behaved like the children they were indulged to be, fighting and misbehaving without the guidance of a parental force. Zeus turned on these mortals; their inability to mentally grow and thrive meant that they also didn’t fulfill their obligations to the gods with worship and sacrifices. Eventually they too were returned to the earth, their spirits ranked among the mortal blessed.
The third race was that of Bronze, again inferior to their predecessors. These mortals were made from the ash trees and were designed to be both terrible and fierce. These men worshiped Ares and the ideals of wars. The earth descended into chaos as these men fought brutal wars against each other, their namesake coming from the bronze armor and weapons they covered themselves in. Eventually this race was swallowed too, sent to Hades to live with Him in His house of death.
Hesiod’s fourth race formed the heroic age; a race once again filled with nobility and devotion to their gods. These creatures possessed an advantage over the others in that they weren’t simple mortals, but demigods who fulfilled the heroic deeds that needed to restore the earth back to order. Stopping wars, destroying monsters and fulfilling destinies were the main concerns of this race, and when they had righted some of the wrongs they were sent to the edges of the earth where they live among the Isles of the Blessed Ones.
The final and fifth race is the current age; the race of Iron. Sadly for us, the gods have deserted us, sick of our infighting and intolerance; even the embodiments of decency and moral disapproval will give up and walk away from us all before we too are returned to the earth.
We have a hard lot; age, disease and other things we cannot control all take their toll, yet our inability to love, share and commune with our fellow beings – things we can control – leave us in a darkness of our own making.
A poignant point to consider as we watch the world descend into pandemics and crises and our inability to function as a cohesive collective and think beyond our own selfish wants adds fuel to these fires…
So let us commune, celebrate, and enjoy good will unto ourselves and each other as we enter this new year.
The Earth will consume us, too.
*We used Hesiod, Works and Days, Trans M.L. West, Oxford University Press 1988