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by H. Crosthwaite



MATERIAL relevant to our subject is to be found in the writings of Plutarch, A. D. 45-120, who was born in Boeotia, central Greece, and moved to Rome as a teacher of philosophy. Among his Moralia are Isis and Osiris, The E at Delphi, About why the Pythia does not now answer in verse, and The Obsolescence of Oracles. The following extracts are partly translation, partly paraphrase or precis.

In Isis and Osiris, a work dedicated to Clea, a Delphic priestess, he gives much information about Greek and Egyptian religion. Very early in the work he declares that the truth is the most important thing for men, and that the effort to arrive at the truth, especially the truth about the gods, is a longing for the divine.

Typhon is mentioned, 351, as the enemy of Isis. In 353b he says that wine was thought by the Egyptians to be the blood of those who had battled against the gods. This adds support to the placing of Dionysus in the sky, with his oldest companion Silenus, who treads out the blood-red grapes.

In The E at Delphi, 387d, he tells how Herakles tried to carry off the tripod by force, explaining the occurrence as the contempt of Herakles for logical reasoning. Later, he says that Dionysus has no less a share in Delphi than Apollo. Theologians declare that the god is immortal and eternal, but undergoes transformations. He has various names: Apollo because he is alone (a-not, polloi, many); Phoebus because he is pure and untainted; Dionysus; Zagreus (the hunter); Nuctelios; Isodaites. And they sing to him dithyrambic tunes full of emotion and of a transformation that contains a certain wandering and dispersion. Indeed, Aeschylus says: "It is appropriate that the dithyramb with its mixed sound should occupy the revellers who attend Dionysus."

392a: One of the explanations put forward for the letter 'E', which was inscribed at Delphi along with 'Know Thyself', and 'Nothing To Excess', is that it means 'Thou Art'. The god greets the visitor with the words 'Know Thyself', and the visitor answers 'Thou Art', as being a true form of address, and the only one fitting, viz., the assertion of existence. (This can be compared with the 'I Am' of the god of Moses). One of the god's names is Ieius. In 393c, Plutarch derives this from the cry 'Ia', uttered when invoking Apollo. He thought it to be the epic word meaning 'one'.

It might be well at this point to remember that we are not concerned here with the truth of Plutarch's beliefs, but with the fact that he and, presumably, many Greeks held them.

394a: The names of Apollo, who is permanent existence, are to be contrasted with the names of another god who is concerned with birth and destruction. Apollo (not many), and Pluto (abounding); Delian (clear), and Aidoneus (unseen); Phoebus (bright), and Scotios (dark). One is accompanied by the Muses and memory, the other by oblivion and silence. One is an observer and discloser, the other 'Lord of dark night and idle sleep. '

In Why the oracle no longer answers in verse, 397b, Plutarch gives us a quotation from Pindar: "Kadmos heard the god revealing correct music, not sweet nor voluptuous nor broken up in the tunes."

397c: "The god does not compose the verses, but he supplies the source of the impulse, and each of the priestesses is moved in accord with her natural tendency. He puts into her mind only the visions, and creates a light in her soul directed at the future."

This is in accord with Plato, Timaeus 71 and 72, where we read that the liver plays a decisive part in aiding or preventing prophetic vision. When the liver is relaxed by gentle thoughts, the soul is open to divination and dreams, while reason and understanding are out of action through sleep, or an abnormal condition caused by disease or divine inspiration. It is the task of 'spokesmen' (prophetai) to interpret the visions and words, not the task of the inspired person. They should not be called prophets, but expounders of the utterances of the prophets.

In this passage, at the start of 72b, "whom they call them prophets ...," Plato's language, using both 'whom' and 'them', betrays oriental influence.

In Plutarch 400b, there is a reference to talk by philosophers of the Stoic school about 'kindlings' and 'exhalations', and it is as well to bear in mind the connection with thumos, thuo, and fire, in the word 'anathumiasis', exhalation. It is used of a rising in fume or vapour, by Aristotle; of the soul, by Heraclitus; and of an exhalation, by Aristotle, De Anima. The related verb anathumiao means to make to rise, to draw up vapour (of the sun, by Empedocles), and to kindle. Polybius uses it in the phrase 'to kindle hatred. '

400f: The guide conducting Plutarch's party round Delphi pointed out the place where lay the iron spits, property of the courtesan Rhodope. Iron may have owed some of its reputation to the fact that it was attracted by a magnet. Iron objects are mentioned, and found, at Samothrace, which will be discussed in greater detail later.

401b: There is a reference to Herophile, of Erythrae, who had the gift of prophecy, and was addressed as Sibyl.

404 c and e: 'The god (anax, Lord, is the word used for Apollo), whose oracle is at Delphi, neither speaks nor conceals; he indicates. ' Add to these well said words and reflect that the god here uses the Pythia for hearing just as the sun uses the moon for sight. For he shows and reveals his thoughts, but shows them blended with a mortal body, and a soul unable to keep quiet or to offer itself unmoved and stable to the mover, but as if tossed by waves and enmeshed in the movements and emotions in it, and making itself more disturbed."

404f: What is called 'enthusiasm' seems to be a mixture of two impulses, the soul being influenced in the one case from outside, in the other in accordance with its own nature.

In The Obsolescence of Oracles, Plutarch tells us that whereas formerly Delphi (where he was an official) was staffed by two full-time priestesses and one reserve, it now has only one, who is adequate for all needs. The work is full of interesting side issues.

410b: The priests at the shrine of Ammon reported that the ever-burning lamp there consumed less oil each year, and they regarded this as proof that the year was becoming shorter.

414d: We must not think that because oracles may die, the god himself is dead. He quotes Sophocles: "The works of gods may die, but not gods."

415: Cleombrotos, one of the speakers, approves of the theory that there is a race of demi-gods midway between gods and men. Hesiod, he says, mentions four classes of rational beings: gods, daimons (demi-gods), heroes, and humans. There is a force that unites them in fellowship.

417c: Concerning the Mysteries, in which one can obtain the best view of, and insight into, the truth about daimons, "Let my lips be sealed," as Herodotus says. As to sacrifices, they are performed apotropes heneka, for the turning away of evil daimons.

We have already met the word 'prester' in a quotation from Heraclitus. The word is used by Plutarch in 419f. One of the speakers, Demetrius, tells how he voyaged to some islands near Britain, almost uninhabited. Some of the islands bore the names of daimons and heroes. When he visited one of these islands, occupied only by a few holy men, there was a tempest; portents (diosemiae), and presters fell. The islanders said that the death had occurred of one of the mightier ones.

From this passage it seems probable that prester, to Plutarch, has its usual meaning of lightning or thunderbolt, though meteorite would fit.

421c: Among the stories about Delphi is one of the slayer of Python. The story of exile in Tempe is untrue. When he was expelled, he went to another kosmos (world), and after nine cycles of great years he became pure and bright (Phoebus), and returned to take over the oracle, which had been guarded by Themis in the meantime.

Such, he said, was the case with stories about Typhons and Titans. There had been battles of daimons versus daimons, then flights of the conquered or punishment of the sinners by a god, as, for example, Typhon is said to have sinned in the matter of Osiris, and Kronos in the matter of Ouranos. The honours you pay to these have become dimmer or failed altogether, when the deities were transferred to another world. I learn that the Solymi too, neighbours of the Lycians, honoured Kronos among the greatest. But he killed their rulers, Arsalos and Dryos and Trosobios, and fled and left for another abode, they can't say which. Kronos was neglected, and Arsalos and his followers are named the hard gods, and the Lycians invoke curses, both public and private, in their names. Many similar examples can be found in the works of theologians. If we call some demi-gods by the usual names of gods, one should not be surprised, said my friend. For with whatever god a man is linked, and from whom he has been allotted some power and honour, from him he is likely to take his name. Indeed one amongst us is Dius, another Athenaios, another Apollonius or Dionysios, another Hermaios. A few by chance have been rightly named, the majority have acquired divine names that are inappropriate.

431e: As the others joined in asking this, I paused for a moment and said: "Actually, Ammonios, by some chance you created an opportunity for introducing the subject on that occasion. For if the souls which have been separated from the body or have never had one are, according to you and the divine Hesiod, 'holy dwellers on earth, guardians of mortal men, ' why do we rob souls in bodies of that power, by which it is the nature of demi-gods to know the future and reveal it beforehand?"

432b: The soul has great powers of memory. But memory is the hearing of silent things and the sight of invisible things. Hence it is not remarkable if, having power over what no longer exists, it grasps in advance many of the things that have not yet happened.

432d: The earth sends up to men springs of many other forces, some ecstatic and bringing disease and death, some good and helpful, as is clear from experience. The prophetic current (rheuma) and breath (pneuma) is most god-like and holy, whether it is produced by itself through the air or whether it comes with running water. It is likely that by warmth and diffusion it opens certain passages which form a picture of the future, just as wine, rising like fire, reveals many impulses and words that were stored and concealed. To quote Euripides: "For Bacchic revelry and passion contain much prophecy," when the soul becomes hot and fiery and thrusts aside the caution that mortal intelligence brings, and often diverts and quenches the inspiration (enthusiasm). At the same time one might not unreasonably say that dryness arising in the soul with the heat makes subtle the breath (of prophecy) and makes it ethereal and pure. For this is 'dry soul', as Heraclitus puts it.

433: The prophetic (mantike anathumiasis) has an affinity and a relationship with souls.

435 c and d: After telling the story of the discovery of Delphic influence on goats and on Koretas, the goatherd, Ammonios said: "The anathumiasis or exhalation, when it is present, whether the victim (goat) trembles or not, will create the inspiration (enthousiasmos), and dispose the soul correspondingly, not only of the Pythia, but of anyone whom it touches." 436f: For we do not make prophecy godless or irrational when we give to it, as material, the human soul, and give the inspiring breath and the exhalation as an instrument or plectrum ...

437: When priests put garlands on victims and pour libations over them and watch the victim tremble, they are watching for a sign that the god is present to give answers.

437c: Plutarch refers to the delightful fragrance that comes from the shrine. It does not come often, nor does it occur regularly. He thinks it likely that it is produced by warmth or some other force.

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