The old myth of the ages or races of man, with a first gold age which degenerates to the hard and fierce iron age as the moral behavior of man worsens, exists in many literatures. A thousand times told in antiquity and since antiquity, it was sufficiently known by Cervantes who was influenced significantly by it: after all, the “Knight of the Sorrowful Figure” aims to create a better world, perhaps like that existed in the “golden age”, judging by the presence which this illusion has in Don Quixote.
Some authors consider Don Quixote as an expression of another Utopia in the style of these of philosophers or historians. It is not so sure, but certainly it comes through in the background a desire to correct the problems in this world to create a better world free of injustice, represented perfectly by Don Quixote and Sancho himself, who will be contaminated and becomes participant of the pursued objective by the knight.
I reproduce the full version which gives Cervantes in Don Quixote and then the story of Hesiod, who is the first of the Ancient we maintain. In a separate article I will collect several other older versions to give the reader a better idea of the importance of this myth in literary creativity since ancient times. It is all a tribute to the survival of ancient myths on Cervantes.
Don Quixote, I, 11
The goatherds did not understand this jargon about squires and knights-errant, and all they did was to eat in silence and stare at their guests, who with great elegance and appetite were stowing away pieces as big as one's fist. The course of meat finished, they spread upon the sheepskins a great heap of parched acorns, and with them they put down a half cheese harder than if it had been made of mortar. All this while the horn was not idle, for it went round so constantly, now full, now empty, like the bucket of a water-wheel, that it soon drained one of the two wine-skins that were in sight. When Don Quixote had quite appeased his appetite he took up a handful of the acorns, and contemplating them attentively delivered himself somewhat in this fashion:
"Happy the age, happy the time, to which the ancients gave the name of golden, not because in that fortunate age the gold so coveted in this our iron one was gained without toil, but because they that lived in it knew not the two words "mine" and "thine"! In that blessed age all things were in common; to win the daily food no labour was required of any save to stretch forth his hand and gather it from the sturdy oaks that stood generously inviting him with their sweet ripe fruit. The clear streams and running brooks yielded their savoury limpid waters in noble abundance. The busy and sagacious bees fixed their republic in the clefts of the rocks and hollows of the trees, offering without usance the plenteous produce of their fragrant toil to every hand. The mighty cork trees, unenforced save of their own courtesy, shed the broad light bark that served at first to roof the houses supported by rude stakes, a protection against the inclemency of heaven alone. Then all was peace, all friendship, all concord; as yet the dull share of the crooked plough had not dared to rend and pierce the tender bowels of our first mother that without compulsion yielded from every portion of her broad fertile bosom all that could satisfy, sustain, and delight the children that then possessed her. Then was it that the innocent and fair young shepherdess roamed from vale to vale and hill to hill, with flowing locks, and no more garments than were needful modestly to cover what modesty seeks and ever sought to hide. Nor were their ornaments like those in use to-day, set off by Tyrian purple, and silk tortured in endless fashions, but the wreathed leaves of the green dock and ivy, wherewith they went as bravely and becomingly decked as our Court dames with all the rare and far-fetched artifices that idle curiosity has taught them. Then the love-thoughts of the heart clothed themselves simply and naturally as the heart conceived them, nor sought to commend themselves by forced and rambling verbiage. Fraud, deceit, or malice had then not yet mingled with truth and sincerity. Justice held her ground, undisturbed and unassailed by the efforts of favour and of interest, that now so much impair, pervert, and beset her. Arbitrary law had not yet established itself in the mind of the judge, for then there was no cause to judge and no one to be judged. Maidens and modesty, as I have said, wandered at will alone and unattended, without fear of insult from lawlessness or libertine assault, and if they were undone it was of their own will and pleasure. But now in this hateful age of ours not one is safe, not though some new labyrinth like that of Crete conceal and surround her; even there the pestilence of gallantry will make its way to them through chinks or on the air by the zeal of its accursed importunity, and, despite of all seclusion, lead them to ruin. In defence of these, as time advanced and wickedness increased, the order of knights-errant was instituted, to defend maidens, to protect widows and to succour the orphans and the needy. To this order I belong, brother goatherds, to whom I return thanks for the hospitality and kindly welcome ye offer me and my squire; for though by natural law all living are bound to show favour to knights-errant, yet, seeing that without knowing this obligation ye have welcomed and feasted me, it is right that with all the good-will in my power I should thank you for yours."
All this long harangue (which might very well have been spared) our knight delivered because the acorns they gave him reminded him of the golden age; and the whim seized him to address all this unnecessary argument to the goatherds, who listened to him gaping in amazement without saying a word in reply. Sancho likewise held his peace and ate acorns, and paid repeated visits to the second wine-skin, which they had hung up on a cork tree to keep the wine cool. (Translated by John Ormsby,)
No entendían los cabreros aquella jerigonza de escuderos y de caballeros andantes, y no hacían otra cosa que comer y callar, y mirar a sus huéspedes, que, con mucho donaire y gana, embaulaban tasajo como el puño. Acabado el servicio de carne, tendieron sobre las zaleas gran cantidad de bellotas avellanadas, y juntamente pusieron un medio queso, más duro que si fuera hecho de argamasa. No estaba, en esto, ocioso el cuerno, porque andaba a la redonda tan a menudo (ya lleno, ya vacío, como arcaduz de noria) que con facilidad vació un zaque de dos que estaban de manifiesto. Después que don Quijote hubo bien satisfecho su estómago, tomó un puño de bellotas en la mano, y, mirándolas atentamente, soltó la voz a semejantes razones:
–Dichosa edad y siglos dichosos aquéllos a quien los antiguos pusieron nombre de dorados, y no porque en ellos el oro, que en esta nuestra edad de hierro tanto se estima, se alcanzase en aquella venturosa sin fatiga alguna, sino porque entonces los que en ella vivían ignoraban estas dos palabras de tuyo y mío. Eran en aquella santa edad todas las cosas comunes; a nadie le era necesario, para alcanzar su ordinario sustento, tomar otro trabajo que alzar la mano y alcanzarle de las robustas encinas, que liberalmente les estaban convidando con su dulce y sazonado fruto. Las claras fuentes y corrientes ríos, en magnífica abundancia, sabrosas y transparentes aguas les ofrecían. En las quiebras de las peñas y en lo hueco de los árboles formaban su república las solícitas y discretas abejas, ofreciendo a cualquiera mano, sin interés alguno, la fértil cosecha de su dulcísimo trabajo. Los valientes alcornoques despedían de sí, sin otro artificio que el de su cortesía, sus anchas y livianas cortezas, con que se comenzaron a cubrir las casas, sobre rústicas estacas sustentadas, no más que para defensa de las inclemencias del cielo. Todo era paz entonces, todo amistad, todo concordia; aún no se había atrevido la pesada reja del corvo arado a abrir ni visitar las entrañas piadosas de nuestra primera madre, que ella, sin ser forzada, ofrecía, por todas las partes de su fértil y espacioso seno, lo que pudiese hartar, sustentar y deleitar a los hijos que entonces la poseían. Entonces sí que andaban las simples y hermosas zagalejas de valle en valle y de otero en otero, en trenza y en cabello, sin más vestidos de aquellos que eran menester para cubrir honestamente lo que la honestidad quiere y ha querido siempre que se cubra; y no eran sus adornos de los que ahora se usan, a quien la púrpura de Tiro y la por tantos modos martirizada seda encarecen, sino de algunas hojas verdes de lampazos y yedra entretejidas, con lo que quizá iban tan pomposas y compuestas como van agora nuestras cortesanas con las raras y peregrinas invenciones que la curiosidad ociosa les ha mostrado. Entonces se decoraban los conceptos amorosos del alma simple y sencillamente, del mesmo modo y manera que ella los concebía, sin buscar artificioso rodeo de palabras para encarecerlos. No había la fraude, el engaño ni la malicia mezclándose con la verdad y llaneza. La justicia se estaba en sus propios términos, sin que la osasen turbar ni ofender los del favor y los del interese, que tanto ahora la menoscaban, turban y persiguen. La ley del encaje aún no se había sentado en el entendimiento del juez, porque entonces no había qué juzgar, ni quién fuese juzgado. Las doncellas y la honestidad andaban, como tengo dicho, por dondequiera, sola y señora, sin temor que la ajena desenvoltura y lascivo intento le menoscabasen, y su perdición nacía de su gusto y propria voluntad. Y agora, en estos nuestros detestables siglos, no está segura ninguna, aunque la oculte y cierre otro nuevo laberinto como el de Creta; porque allí, por los resquicios o por el aire, con el celo de la maldita solicitud, se les entra la amorosa pestilencia y les hace dar con todo su recogimiento al traste. Para cuya seguridad, andando más los tiempos y creciendo más la malicia, se instituyó la orden de los caballeros andantes, para defender las doncellas, amparar las viudas y socorrer a los huérfanos y a los menesterosos. Desta orden soy yo, hermanos cabreros, a quien agradezco el gasaje y buen acogimiento que hacéis a mí y a mi escudero; que, aunque por ley natural están todos los que viven obligados a favorecer a los caballeros andantes, todavía, por saber que sin saber vosotros esta obligación me acogistes y regalastes, es razón que, con la voluntad a mí posible, os agradezca la vuestra.
Toda esta larga arenga –que se pudiera muy bien escusar– dijo nuestro caballero porque las bellotas que le dieron le trujeron a la memoria la edad dorada y antojósele hacer aquel inútil razonamiento a los cabreros, que, sin respondelle palabra, embobados y suspensos, le estuvieron escuchando. Sancho, asimesmo, callaba y comía bellotas, y visitaba muy a menudo el segundo zaque, que, porque se enfriase el vino, le tenían colgado de un alcornoque.
The myth in Antiquity:
Hesiod (lived around 700 BC) is the first Greek author who narrates this myth in his "Works and Days", v. 106-201:
Or if you will, I will sum you up another tale well and skilfully—and do you lay it up in your heart,—how the gods and mortal men sprang from one source.
First of all the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods. But after the earth had covered this generation—they are called pure spirits dwelling on the earth, and are kindly, delivering from harm, and guardians of mortal men; [for they roam everywhere over the earth, clothed in mist and keep watch on judgements and cruel deeds, givers of wealth; for this royal right also they received;—then they who dwell on Olympus made a second generation which was of silver and less noble by far. It was like the golden race neither in body nor in spirit. A child was brought up at his good mother's side a hundred years, an utter simpleton, playing childishly in his own home. But when they were full grown and were come to the full measure of their prime, they lived only a little time and that in sorrow because of their foolishness, for they could not keep from sinning and from wronging one another, nor would they serve the immortals, nor sacrifice on the holy altars of the blessed ones as it is right for men to do wherever they dwell. Then Zeus the son of Cronos was angry and put them away, because they would not give honor to the blessed gods who live on Olympus.
But when earth had covered this generation also—they are called blessed spirits of the underworld by men, and, though they are of second order, yet honor attends them also—Zeus the Father made a third generation of mortal men, a brazen race, sprung from ash-trees; and it was in no way equal to the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence; they ate no bread, but were hard of heart like adamant, fearful men. Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs. Their armor was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron. These were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and left no name: terrible though they were, black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun. But when earth had covered this generation also, Zeus the son of Cronos made yet another, the fourth, upon the fruitful earth, which was nobler and more righteous, a god-like race of hero-men who are called demi-gods, the race before our own, throughout the boundless earth. Grim war and dread battle destroyed a part of them, some in the land of Cadmus at seven-gated Thebes when they fought for the flocks of Oedipus, and some, when it had brought them in ships over the great sea gulf to Troy for rich-haired Helen's sake: there death's end enshrouded a part of them. But to the others father Zeus the son of Cronos gave a living and an abode apart from men, and made them dwell at the ends of earth. [And they live untouched by sorrow in the islands of the blessed along the shore of deep-swirling Ocean, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Cronos rules over them; for the father of men and gods released him from his bonds. And these last equally have honor and glory. And again far-seeing Zeus made yet another generation, the fifth, of men who are upon the bounteous earth.
Thereafter, would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labor and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils. And Zeus will destroy this race of mortal men also when they come to have grey hair on the temples at their birth.The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as aforetime. Men will dishonor their parents as they grow quickly old, and will carp at them, chiding them with bitter words, hard-hearted they, not knowing the fear of the gods. They will not repay their aged parents the cost of their nurture, for might shall be their right: and one man will sack another's city. There will be no favor for the man who keeps his oath or for the just or for the good; but rather men will praise the evil-doer and his violent dealing. Strength will be right, and reverence will cease to be; and the wicked will hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him, and will swear an oath upon them. Envy, foul-mouthed, delighting in evil, with scowling face, will go along with wretched men one and all. And then Aidos and Nemesis, with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil.
(English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Works and Days. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.)