Hesiod was a Greek poet who lived and wrote during the time of Homer (between 750 and 650 B.C.E). From his writings we have one of the first developmental theories, not about the individual stages of life, but rather about how humanity develops over time. He believed there were five ages of humankind, four of which were named after metals–gold, silver, bronze, and iron–each one less harmonious than its predecessors.
The Gold Age: This was a time when humans lived in harmony with the gods, people lived to a very old age in perfect health, they didn’t need to work, nature provided an abundance of nourishing food, and they died peacefully. All in all it was a kind of heaven-on-earth. The spirits of these individuals lived on as ”guardians.”
The Silver Age: In this era, humans retained childhood characteristics for the first one hundred years of life, supported by their mothers, then lived just a short time as adults since they’d start fighting and kill each other. They didn’t make offerings to the gods (and in particular to the head god Zeus), and so he killed them all. After death, humans of this age became “blessed spirits” of the underworld.
The Bronze Age: This age was named after the bronze weapons that were forged by men at that time to create weapons and wage war. They eventually killed each other off. The age ended with a great flood. The dead didn’t live on as spirits but rather dwelt in the ”dank house of Hades.”
The Heroic Age: This age was a little different from the others in not being named after a metal, and in not following the pattern of progressive disintegration. It was the age of the great heroes and demigods of ancient Greece such as those written about by Homer in the Illiad and the Odyssey. This race of humans died and went to Elysium.
The Iron Age: This was the worst age (and the one Hesiod believed he lived in), when children are born with the gray hair of old men, where children dishonor their parents, brother fights with brother, and the social contract between guest and host is forgotten. In this age humans are motivated entirely by self-interest, tell lies as truth, continually fight with each other, and where eventually the gods will abandon them and humanity will destroy itself.
Later poets in the Western tradition would draw upon Hesiod’s theory, and in particular, his ideas of a Golden Age, in waxing nostalgic about a better era in the distant past.
For information about the stages of life in different cultural traditions, get Thomas Armstrong’s The Human Odyssey: Navigating the Twelve Stages of Life (Ixia/Dover).