Hesiod’s Guide to Winter

Written by Fiona MacRae

The Works and Days is an epic poem written in a didactic style by Hesiod in the eighth century BCE, concerned with how to be a good farmer and landowner. It contains advice on many things, such as how to store your equipment, which days are good for sowing and harvesting, and even fortuitous birthdays. With the cold Edinburgh winter approaching, and a cost-of-living crisis surrounding us, it is sometimes good to look back at how things were done before central heating and double-glazing. 

Tip 1: Find warmth 

“Pass by the bronze-worker’s bench and his warm lounge in the wintry season, when the cold holds men back from fieldwork but an unhesitating man could greatly foster his household—lest a bad, intractable winter catch you up together with Poverty, and you rub a swollen foot with a skinny hand.”  

(493-7)

We all know that there’s not an awful lot to do outdoors in winter, so Hesiod suggests that you take up a hobby somewhere nice and cosy to save on those heating bills. Perhaps research your essay in a café with a hot chocolate, or read a book wrapped in your duvet. It’s an especially good idea to pick up a side hustle, according to Hesiod, just in case your student loan doesn’t stretch as far as you would like – then you can cover all those other essentials. 

Tip 2: Stay Indoors 

“[The North Wind] blows through the long-haired goat—but not at all through sheep does the force of the wind Boreas blow, for their fleece is plentiful. It makes the old man curved like a wheel, but it does not blow through the soft-skinned maiden who stays at the side of her dear mother inside the house, still ignorant of the works of golden Aphrodite; after washing her tender skin well and anointing herself richly with oil she lies down in the innermost recess inside the house.”  

(514-23)

As many layers as you might be wearing, and whatever they are made from, the most sure-fire way to avoid the wind is if you stay indoors following your skin-care routine. What could be more relaxing than a bubble bath and copious amounts of moisturiser? And even better, Hesiod himself is telling you that you don’t need to leave the house. 

Tip 3: All the Gear 

“And that is when you should put on a defence for your skin, as I bid you: a soft cloak and a tunic that reaches your feet. Wind plenty of woof on a puny warp: put this around you, so that your hairs do not tremble nor stand up straight shivering along your body. Bind around your feet well-fitting boots from the leather of a slaughtered ox, padded inside with felt; when the seasonable cold comes, stitch the skins of newly born kids together with the sinew of an ox, so that you can put it around your back as protection against the rain; wear a well-made felt cap upon your head, so that you do not get your ears wet.”

(536-46) 

If you have to brave the icy winds to attend your lectures or an unavoidable social engagement, Hesiod knows exactly what you should be wearing: 

  • “A soft cloak” – we all wanted them to come back in vogue, and now is your chance. It serves a dual purpose – looks incredible and insulation! 
  • “A tunic that reaches your feet” – very efficient at keeping your legs toasty and protected from a biting wind and icy sleet, and also very fashionable. Kill two birds with one stone, and get yourself a tunic dress! 
  • “Bind around your feet well-fitting boots … padded inside with felt” – Winter is certainly not sandal-season. If your mum is anything like mine, you were told to pack your sturdiest, ugliest boots to wear on icy pavements. She was probably right. Bonus points if they keep your feet warm! 
  • “Stitch the skins of newly born kids together with the sinew of an ox, so that you can put it around your back as protection against the rain.” – This one we don’t need to follow to the letter. Thanks to modern technology we can interpret this as “make sure you have a big warm waterproof coat, especially if your cloak isn’t waterproof.” 
  • “Wear a well-made felt cap upon your head, so that you do not get your ears wet” – Hesiod really is a mum-friend. Grab your fluffiest bobble hat and wear it with aplomb, and if anyone questions you, you can tell them that Hesiod told you to do it, and why. 

Tip 4: Keep Out of the Rain 

“Sometimes it rains towards evening, at other times it blows, when Thracian Boreas drives thick clouds in rout. Forestall him, finish your work and get home ahead of him, lest a shadowy cloud from heaven cover you round, and make your skin wet and drench your clothes. Avoid this: for this is the most difficult month, wintry, difficult for livestock, and difficult for human beings.”  

(552-8)

Sometimes, especially in winter, the British weather is dead-set against you. The combination of heavy showers and forceful Edinburgh gales can leave you stranded at the door of the Main Library contemplating whether it is even worth going home, or if you should set up camp in a study pod for the night. Hesiod did not have the benefit of the Met Office weather forecast, but I’m sure he would agree that the best way to avoid the storms that unleash the wrath of the gods is to go home before they begin, or you’ll end up in an Odyssey all of your own. 

Tip 5: Eat Well 

“At this time give half the usual rations to the oxen, but more to a man”

(559-6)

Finally, even though you may be tempted to reserve rations of pasta and pot noodles, make sure you eat enough. The more you eat, the warmer you’ll be! Or at least, so Hesiod says.  

In conclusion, Hesiod wants you to dress warmly and weather-appropriately, and do what makes you happy, all with the added benefits of keeping your heating bills down and your serotonin levels up! 

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