by H. Crosthwaite
IN the literature of ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome, there is a close connection between theories of vision and fire. Seeing an object was an active affair, not a mere receiving of light rays. It is necessary to digress for a moment and glance at a dialogue of Plato, the Timaeus. The fact that the Greeks used the word 'pur', fire, for lightning, suggests that we need to study their cosmology, with its frequent references to fire, from an electrical angle, and here the Timaeus is of great importance. An English translation by Sir Desmond Lee is available in Penguin, reprinted 1988.
The demiurge, i. e. the craftsman, created the cosmos, the ordered universe that we perceive with the senses. He has a perfect model, paradeigma, and as he works he glances away, apablepei, from his material to his model. The result is a universe made up of nous (intelligence), psyche (life), and soma (body). Psyche is the essential vehicle for nous. Psyche was created before soma, is invisible, and is a self-mover, the ultimate cause of motion. It is a divine (theios) source (arche) of rational life. It contains reason and harmony.
As to being a self-mover, Plato's view accords with that of Thales, who used the concept of psyche when describing the action of the magnet.
The planets, sun and moon, seven in number, were created next as a moving image of timeless eternity. They are living creatures, zoa, and are divine, theoi. Plato uses the term 'idea ' to illustrate his use of the word 'divine'. The word implies a shape or form that is seen; it is closely linked with the concept of knowledge. The Greek 'oida' means 'I know', and is a perfect tense, 'I have seen' (Hebrew 'dea' = knowledge). By supplying the missing digamma, we get the Latin verb 'video', see.
Plato tells us that the idea of the theion (divine) is mostly fire, so that it may be seen as being brightest and most beautiful (Oxford Classical Texts, Timaeus 40). This is the origin of the fixed stars, eternal, divine, living creatures.
It is worth noting at this point that Plato here uses the word 'idea', of something which is capable of being apprehended by a human physical sense. This appears to contradict the usual view that the ideal realm can only be perceived by the intellect, or at least fails to support it in a context where support might be expected.
Other gods, as well as the planets, exist, whom Plato calls 'daimons', but he says little about these.
The creator is called father, maker, he who puts together, and god. He now creates human souls, as many as there are stars, and puts one on each star, as on a chariot. Each soul descends to earth for incarnation, and returns to its star on death.
The gods now create human beings. It is significant that it is the gods, not the demiurge, that create humans. (43)
The head is the divinest part of the human being, containing fire. The eyes are the most important organ of sense. Light is a non-burning variety of fire; vision is the result of a stream of fire being directed outwards from the eyeball, mixing with daylight and impinging on external objects.
Of the four elements, fire, air, water and earth, the one with the smallest particles is fire. There are three kinds of fire: flame; radiation that does not burn, or light; and the remains in the embers when flame has departed from the fire.
Elements are composed of particles whose surfaces are geometrical shapes. Those of fire are a combination of triangles forming a pyramid. There are important mixtures of fire and water, viz.: wine (warms both body and soul); oil (pitch, castor-oil, olive oil, etc); honey; and acid.
The gods gave humans an immortal soul principle, in the head, and two forms (eidos) of mortal soul below the neck. The word arche, principle, implies beginning, source, source of authority, and rule. 'Eidos' is similar to 'idea', and refers here to the form or appearance of something.
The head contains nous (intelligence), and fire. Below the neck the better part of the life source (psyche) is above the midriff, the worse below.
To control the stomach the gods created the liver. It is smooth, shining (lampros), sweet, and bitter. It reflects thoughts. But the soul in the liver area is capable of prophecy. When we are asleep, or not in our right mind, it may spend the night in divination and dreams. It is incapable of logos (reason) and phronesis (understanding). A man in his right mind uses logos and phronesis to interpret the liver's message. A distinction is made between the 'mantis' (person affected by the force), and the 'prophetes', the interpreter or proclaimer.
At this point in the dialogue (72 b), Plato uses a clause with both a demonstrative and a relative pronoun: "... whom some call them prophets, " 'hous manteis autous onomazousin tines." Such a construction for a relative clause is characteristic of a Semitic language, not of ancient Greek. It is standard procedure in Hebrew.
Marrow is the life-stuff for creating the body. It contains fire. The best of it contains the divine seed, theion sperma, and goes into the head; the rest goes into the bones. The head's skin covering is pricked by the fire of the divine contents. Hairs emerge through the perforations.
The divine 'periodoi', circlings, in the head, copying those in the sky, can be upset by phlegm and bile. Hence comes epilepsy, the divine disease, or Heraklean disease. The intelligence, nous, can suffer from anoia, lack of perception, stupidity.
Plato reviews the situation thus: Of the three forms of soul, the most authoritative (kuriotaton) is a daimon given by god, living in the summit of the body. It lifts us from earth back to our starry home in heaven.
If a man eagerly pursues learning, wisdom and truth, he will achieve immortality as far as is allowed to a human. He must attend to (therapeuein) the divine element in himself. Thus he will be 'eudaimon', happy. (Therapeuein is a word used of worshippers tending a divinity in a temple).
Plenty of material in harmony with Plato's views can be found in classical authors. Cicero says that diviners perceive beforehand things that "nusquam sunt, sunt autem omnia, sed tempore absunt," "that are nowhere, yet they all exist, but are absent in a time sense." He refers to fate, the utterance of a god, as the Greek 'Heimarmene' or orderly linkage of causes and effects.
Plato's statement that the planets, the gods, were given an 'idea', chiefly of fire, so that they and their circlings could be seen by men, finds an echo in Cicero: "Religio est iuncta cum cognitione naturae," religion is joined with a knowledge of nature. 'Cognitio' is used of perception and finding out.
The Greek 'prepo' means to appear clearly to the senses. Zeus 'prepei', appears, in the aither (Euripides, Helena: 216). This is the original sense of the word, but it usually means 'to be fitting'. Vergil mentions "radii aurati," golden rays, round the head of a statue (Aeneid XII: 163). 'Radiare' is to shine.
Plato's theory of vision is hardly different from that of the Egyptians. Sunlight is a manifestation of the god Ra, and the utchat is a hieroglyph comprising a picture of an eye and the radiation symbol. In The Book of the Dead there is a reference to gods with eyes as sharp as knives. Greek 'kanthos' is the corner of the eye; Greek anthos = flower. I suggest ka and anthos for kanthos.
The utchat itself suggests the curve of the snake's or lizard's tongue, possibly the augur's lituus, and the Egyptian style of beard, chabes, flame of ka. In the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, the watchman sees a beard of flame, pogon puros, from the signal fire announcing the fall of Troy.
For the derivation of utchat, there is Greek chaite, hair, mane, and Hebrew chata, transgress. A suppliant would touch a person's chin or knee, when asking for mercy or help. Chins and knees were regarded as concentrations of divine muelos, marrow.
The Latin for a battle-line, the cutting edge of the Roman army, is acies. It also means sight, the power of the eye.
Ra says that he is the one who makes light by opening his eyes, and there is darkness if he closes them.
The name of the Egyptian heart-soul, ba, may be found in Hebrew. Labbah is flame, and in Hebrew lebh and libbah both mean heart.
Important words connected with light include: esh (Hebrew), fire, lightning, flame of war, anger, glitter, radiance; lux (Latin), loschna (Etruscan), losk (Slav.), light, gleam. Luscus (Latin), means one-eyed. The poet Juvenal mentions a statue of a figure that is taking aim: "Statua meditatur proelia lusca." The ancient theory of active vision leads easily to the concept of the evil eye, Latin invidere, Greek baskainein, against which one had to defend oneself by, for example, spitting.
The Greek 'phthonos', envy or evil eye, appears in the Timaeus, in the context of the creation of the world. The creator was good, and a good person never has any phthonos in him about anything (or: about anybody). Being without envy, he wished the universe to be as like himself as possible (literally: close alongside, paraplesia). The power of a divine eye can be either creative or destructive.
"We (sc. the Egyptians) were the first people of Asia to use shield and spear, shown by the goddess." (Timaeus 24 b). The spear, Greek 'doru', is frequently a lightning symbol. A shield could be decorated with pictures of snakes or rays to give it apotropaic power, and to frighten the enemy.
Cicero says that an ox liver can be nitidum, shining, (De Divinatione II: 13.) This is in harmony with Plato's description of the human liver as lampros, shining (Timaeus 71 b).
The soul, according to Cicero (De Divinatione II: 67), when we are awake, has inherent power of self motion and is 'incredibili celeritate', of incredible speed.
The Book of the Dead has several references to the utchat, e. g.: "His majesty shone in the primeval time, when the utchat was first upon his head." (Chapter 140, translated by Budge).
The Greek 'chaita' is hair, especially a horse's mane. Comets are, by derivation from Greek 'hairy' stars
The Timaeus has a reputation for being an obscure and difficult dialogue. The reader can be puzzled by the theory of elements, particles and triangles which Plato presents to explain the nature of the physical material of our world, and there are some interesting anticipations of twentieth century physics. Also interesting is the fact that there is some inconsistency in his statements, here and elsewhere, e. g. in the well known cave myth of the Republic, referring to a distinction between a 'real' world of ideas, and the mere shadow world of our physical universe. In the Timaeus we read that an 'idea' can be seen by the human eye, not just grasped by the intellect and dialectic.
This uncertainty and this lack of consistency have an interesting parallel in the uncertainty in the mind of the priest in, say, an Egyptian shrine, trying to determine the nature of the strange deity, a deity who is at one moment invisible, at another is seen and heard, and even felt, as a powerful force; that can be used to impress, to heal, to kill, to exercise magical control of the sky, and whose help is sought to raise the dead and to avert the forces of destruction.
Notes (Chapter Nineteen: The Timaeus)
1. The Hebrew 'ayin' is an eye. It is also a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Hebrew 'zayin' is a weapon. We have met instances of the letter Z pronounced in the Eastern Mediterranean as SD or ST. 'Set', in Hebrew, is a transgressor, or transgression. 'Saat' is to deviate. 'Zayin' is the eye of Set. Egyptian representations of the utchat, the eye of Ra, show a curved line from the eye comparable with the curve of the Roman augur's lituus. The Hebrew letter zayin is similar in appearance to a dagger pointing downwards. A small addition at the bottom would turn it into the Egyptian tcham, the sceptre in the shape of a scotch for killing snakes, with an eagle perched on the top, as described by Sophocles. The Greek verb 'sterizo' , set or stand up, has been mentioned in the context of 'The Bacchae'. Is this 'Set' and 'ara', Set's fire?