The concept of dividing history into several different ages is a common one, which shows up in multiple societies, but perhaps most famously in the work of the Greek poet Hesiod. In Works and Days, he splits history into the Golden, Silver, Bronze, Heroic, and Iron Ages. Yeah, I know that Heroic Age really doesn’t fit in there; I would think it’s better suited to fall between the ages of gods and humans. Hesiod observed that there was a time when bronze was used instead of iron to make tools. I don’t think he figured that the people in earlier ages used golden and silver tools so much as that bronze was considered more valuable and pure than iron, so the use of these metals symbolizes the degradation of the human race. It’s a common belief that the age in which we’re currently living is the most morally depraved, although that’s often due to a lack of research combined with a longing for how we saw the world in our younger days. People who are annoyed by progress often seem to only mean the progress that occurred within their own lifetimes, although there certainly are those who romanticize more distant and seemingly simpler times. Then there’s how things that are far away tend to be fictionalized; the tales of King Arthur are much more enjoyable than what everyday life was probably like in medieval England. And Hesiod proves that the idea long predates the Middle Ages.
The Golden Age was ruled by Kronos, the guy who’s best known for swallowing his own children. I guess he was nicer to mankind. In those days, humans and gods freely mingled, peace reigned, the earth provided food without labor, and lifespans were long.
After Zeus took over from Kronos, the Silver Age began, and it wasn’t quite as idyllic as the previous age. This was when seasons and agriculture were introduced, and lifespans were reduced to a mere century. Most of that was spent in a youthful state, however, with aging occurring only at the very end of life.
The Bronze Age was a violent, warlike one, but without the immorality that marked the Iron. In the age Hesiod considered to be his present one, the respect due to family and strangers could no longer be found. Sound familiar? Times change, but what doesn’t change is people thinking theirs is the worst.
It’s interesting that believers in this model held that not only did people become less moral over time, but their lives also became more difficult.
In the Bible, lifespans gradually decrease over time, from hundreds of years before the Flood to more realistic spans in better-remembered times. There’s also the theme of agriculture replacing living off the land present there.
There’s a similar concept in Hinduism with the four Yugas, each successive one having less virtue, but also marking a significant decrease in human lifespan, size, peace, and ability to work miracles. The thing is, research has determined that human lives are generally getting longer. Sure, there have been times of decrease due to poor hygiene and the like, but for the most part improvements to health have gone right along with more advanced ways to kill each other. And while farming is hard work, it marked an overall improvement over the hunger-gatherer system, in which people were constantly looking for food. Writers of mythology were aware that there was a time before humans learned farming and relied on the earth to provide food, but since they conflated it with a magical time of plenty when the gods were more active in human affairs, it came to be associated with ease and comfort that almost certainly didn’t actually exist. There’s also the recurring theme of humanity losing innocence over time, as if the species is growing up in the same manner as an individual person.
The Bronze and Iron Ages are still used by historians and archaeologists in much the same way Hesiod did, although they’re preceded by the Stone Age rather than the Gold or Silver. Sometimes a Copper Age is added in as well. It’s not entirely clear when the Iron Age ended, or if it ever did. In the fourth century AD, St. Jerome considered himself to still be living in the Iron Age. Some say it ended with the Industrial Age, while in the twentieth century someone seems to declare new ages constantly: the Atomic Age, the Space Age, the Information Age. By now, I’d say we’re pretty much aged out.