The Origin of Human Work

A short history according to Virgil

“…. The Great Father
did not will that the way of agriculture be easy. He was the first to waken
the fields with his skill, peaking mortal hearts with cares,
not allowing his kingdoms to lie in complete laziness.
Before Jove, no farmers ruled over the fields:
it was not divine wish that they mark the land or divide it
along a boundary. These men shared a common life, and the earth
bore everything more freely, though no man was coaxing it.

Then, the god put noxious venom in snakes, making them deadly,
and willed that wolves should prey as hunters and the sea be tossed about.
He extracted honey from tree-leaves and tempered fire,
and everywhere he filtered out the streams of wine running in the rivers,
so that, by pursuing different means, men might begin to forge skills:
to start using furrows, little by little, trying for a crop of grain—
to strike out the sparks hidden in black flint.

The rivers first felt the weight of boats, hollowed from alders;
then he numbered the stars and gave them names for men to sail by—
the Pleiades, the Hyades, and bright Ursa, born of Lycaon.
Then he started to catch wild beasts in snares and lure prey with lime,
encircling wooded glades with great dogs;
while one man strikes the wide river, casting his net high,
another drags his wet web over the sea.
Then chill iron and the bright blade of the ax came into use—
for our ancestors split wood with wedges, until it cracked.
Then came further skills, all in a series. Ruthless toil triumphed over all things,
and urgent necessity during times of hardship.

Then Ceres first willed that mortals use an iron plough to turn the earth,
since even the sacred forests were losing their acorns and strawberries,
and Dodona refused to bear fruit.
Soon after this, distress had settled on the grain, so that an insidious blight
beset the hay-stalks, and the last remaining thistle shivered in the fields.
The crops perished, and a shaggy thicket crept up—
bur-bushes and star-thistles, and among the blooming plants
unlucky weeds and fruitless stalks prevailed.

Therefore, unless you till your crop with steady hoes—
scaring off the birds with the noise—and push away the shadows
cast on overgrown land with a sickle, calling down the rain with your prayers—
in vain will you watch for the great harvest which another has,
and only by beating against an oak will you soothe your hunger.”


This is an original translation of Virgil’s Georgics by Guest Contributor Elizabeth Ridgeway, a student of Classics and a private Latin tutor in Atlanta, Georgia.

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