According to Greek mythology, mankind progressed through five ages, called The “Ages of Man,” during which humanity reached its peak and eventual decline.
Hesiod, or “Ἡσίοδος/Hēsíodos” in Ancient Greek, which means “he who emits the voice,” is the most important source for information regarding the Ages of Man.
In his poem entitled “Works and Days,” the poet, who is considered one of the most important early ancient Greek authors along with Homer, outlines the five periods of human history.
“Works and Days” was written around 700 BC and functions as both lessons on life as a farmer and agriculture, and as a mythological source for both the story of Prometheus and Pandora and the Myth of the Five Ages of Man.
The poem, which was written in a complicated rhyming pattern of dactylic hexameter and contains 828 lines in total, is now considered an important source of information regarding the agrarian lifestyle of Greeks at the time, as well as some moral values held by the society, as Hesiod offers advice about living a good life in the work.
Along with his discussion of agriculture, Hesiod also outlines the five ages of humankind. The five periods—The Golden, Silver, Bronze, Heroic, and Iron Ages—describe the progression of humankind through the lens of Greek mythology.
All ages, apart from one, are named after metals. The metals decrease in value as time progresses, but they increase in hardness and durability.
The Five Ages of Man according to Greek mythology
The Golden Age includes the time of the rule of Cronus, the youngest Titan and father of Zeus, over Mt. Olympus. During this time, the “golden” race of man, who were not actually golden but were extremely noble, were created by the immortals of Olympus and were permitted to live among the gods.
During this period, human beings lived to a very old age and did not have to toil or labor for food and comfort as all was provided for them by the gods. When they died, Hesiod said that the souls of the golden men lived on as “guardians” of humankind, something that Plato reaffirms in “Cratylus,” in which he describes these guardians as protectors or mortals.
The Silver Age refers to the period after the fall of Cronus and the rule of his son Zeus over the gods. It is during this period that humankind began to decline from its pinnacle in the Golden Age. Men, who lived to the age 100 during the period, stopped worshiping the Olympian gods and were constantly fighting amongst themselves. Disgusted by their behavior, Zeus eventually destroyed them all.
According to Hesiod, despite the fact that these men were not as noble as their predecessors, their souls lived on in the underworld as “blessed spirits.”
During the following period, the Bronze Age, humans were warlike, and subsequently became extremely tough. After destroying the men from the Silver Age, Zeus created the Bronze Age men out of ash trees.
All of their goods, including tool, weapons, and even homes, were made of bronze, and these men were always at war.
This violence led to their downfall, as they wiped each other out in battle. Their souls are said to reside in the “dark house of Hades.” Anything that remained was washed away in the flood of Deucalion when Zeus decided to flood the earth and chose Deucalion and his wife Pyrra as the only two survivors.
The couple built an arc and eventually went on to repopulate the earth by throwing the “bones of their mother” behind them, which they correctly assumed referred to stones and mother Earth. The rocks Deucalion threw became men while those thrown by Pyrra became women.
The following age, the Heroic Age, is the only one which was not named after a metal, and it is the lone period that is described as improving upon the one which came before it.
During this era, the most famous heroes of Greek mythology included Jason, Perseus, Odysseus, Achilles, Antigone, and Theseus to name a few. The period spans from the arrival of the Greeks in Thessaly until the end of the Trojan war.
Hesiod claims that this race of humankind went to Elysium, where only the noble and heroic went, after they died.
At the time of Hesiod, the Iron Age, mankind must undertake great labor to survive. They live in a time of great suffering during which humans have forgotten the gods and social contracts, such as the sacred relationship between the guest and the host, which have been cast aside.
Hesiod paints a very pessimistic picture of his contemporary age during which there is “no help against evil,” and that the gods will not come to humankind’s help in the event of their destruction. This is akin to a description of the Greek poet’s imagining of the end of the world.
Hesiod’s description of the history and development of the human race was extremely influential in antiquity, and the Roman poet Ovid, who lived from 43 BC to around 16 or 17 AD, later reinterpreted the Five Ages of Man, but reduced them to four.
In his work the Metamorphoses, which outlines a series of myths that involve transformation and evolution, Ovid describes four periods of human history but does not include the Heroic Age, which is present in Hesiod’s work.
Much like Hesiod, Ovid considers the Golden age the pinnacle of mankind, during which peace and justice were widespread, and men did not go to war but only tended to the land.
In the Silver Age, Zeus created seasons, and mankind developed more complex agricultural knowledge and began to learn about art and architecture.
Much like in the work of Hesiod, men during the Bronze Age were warlike and constantly engaging in battle with each other. Unlike in the earlier Greek work, however, these human beings were still dedicated to worshiping the gods.
In the Iron Age, during which men mastered many arts and methods of exploration, human beings lost core moral values, such as honesty and loyalty.