Friday, June 8, 2012

Proclus and Polytheism

Most of this post consists of two excerpts from Marinus' "On True Happiness", the brief biography that he wrote about his teacher, the Divine Proclus. These excerpts paint an unambiguous picture of a fervently religious polytheistic Pagan with a deep and abiding respect for Tradition. (Also see this follow-up post: More Proclus, Please!, and, while you're at it, check out these related posts on Plotinus: Plotinus In Defense of Polytheism, and More on Plotinus on the Gods.)

Among the deities specifically referred to are Athena, Apollo, Telesphorus, Selene, Hekate, Asklepius, Adrotta, the Dioscuri, Cybele, Marnas of Gaza, Thyandrite, Isis, Pan, Hermes, and Attis, as well as "all the Gods and good daimons who watch over the preservation of philosophy."

Other important aspects of Proclus' Paganism:
  • Socrates is portrayed as a divine being worthy of worship and to whom Proclus prays.
  • Proclus had a dream in which he "clearly saw that he belonged to the Hermetic Chain."
  • Proclus' primary teacher in practical theurgy was a woman named Asklepigenia, who was a respected master "in the whole theurgic science".
  • Proclus was especially devoted to the religious traditions of Egypt.
  • Proclus practiced vegetarianism for religious reasons.
  • In section 33 we read that Proclus had a "particular devotion" for Pan, and also was "attached" with great "favor" to Cybele.
The translation is taken from here (where the full text can be found with footnotes):

Excerpt I (sections 6-11)
6. At birth he was welcomed by the Constantinopolitan Goddess Poliouchos [an epithet of the Goddess Athena], who as it were assisted his mother in childbirth. She might have been considered the cause of his life, because he was born in the town she protects and saves; and who, when he reached childhood and youth, made him live well: for she appeared to him in a dream inducing him to follow philosophy. That is how he began so close an intimacy with the Goddess, so that he sacrificed especially to her, and practiced her precepts with the greatest enthusiasm. Shortly after his birth, his parents removed him to their homeland, to Xanthus, a town dedicated to Apollo, and which thus, by some divine chance, became his own homeland. For it seemed no more than fitting that a man who was to become a prince of all sciences should be raised and grow under the influence of the divine Leader of the Muses. The excellent education he received there permitted him to acquire the moral virtues, and to accustom himself to love what duty commands, and to avoid the contrary.

7. That was the time when the great favor of the Gods that he had enjoyed since his birth became most evident. One day he was suffering from a serious illness, and he had been given up for lost when above his bed appeared a child, an exceedingly beautiful boy who, even before he announced his name, was easily recognized as Telesphorus [son of Asclepius]. As he stood near, bending over the pillow, he announced his name and touched the patient's head, curing him of his sickness, and then suddenly disappeared. This divine miracle testified to the favor of the Gods for the youth.

8. For a very short time he attended a grammar school in Lycia, and then traveled to Egyptian Alexandria, already deeply imbued with the moral qualities which charmed the teachers he attended. The Isaurian sophist Leonas, the most celebrated among his fellow philosophers, not only admitted him to his courses, but invited him to become his house-guest, admitted him to intimacy with his wife and children, as if he had been his own son. He introduced the youth to the magistrates who were governing Egypt, who received him among their most intimate friends, charmed with the youth's natural mental vivacity and his manners, distinction and dignity. He frequented the school of the grammarian Orion, who was a descendant of an ancient Egyptian priestly caste, and who was so learned in the practice of his art that he himself composed works very useful to posterity.

Then he attended the lessons of Roman teachers, and rapidly made great progress in their curriculum; for at the beginning he proposed to follow the legal career of his father, who had thereby made himself famous in the capital.

While he was still young, he took much delight in rhetoric, for he had not yet become acquainted with philosophical studies. In rhetoric he even became celebrated, capturing the admiration of his fellow students and his teachers by his fine flow of language, by his facility in assimilating this art, and by his appearing a teacher rather than a student both by his proficiency and diplomacy.

9. He was still studying when Leonas invited him to share his journey to Constantinople, which he had undertaken as a favor to Theodorus, the Alexandrian governor, a man of great distinction, liberality and friendliness to philosophy. The youth accompanied his teacher with much pleasure, so as not to interrupt his studies. But, after all, this was exceedingly providential, as it brought him back to the influence of the Goddess who had been the cause of his birth [Athena].

For on his arrival the Goddess advised him to devote himself up to philosophy, and to attend the Athenian schools. So he said farewell to rhetoric, and to his other former studies, and first returning to Alexandria, he attended only what philosophical courses were there given. To begin his study of Aristotle's philosophy he attended the instruction of the Younger Olympiodorus, whose reputation was very extensive. For mathematics, he trusted himself to Heron, a very pious person, who possessed and practiced the best methods of his art.

These teachers were so charmed with the virtues of this youth that Olympiodorus, who had a daughter who was acquainted with philosophy wished to betroth her to him; and Heron did not hesitate to initiate him into all his ideas about religion, and to make him his continuous companion.

Now it seems that Olympiodorus possessed such a gift of speech, that he talked too rapidly and indistinctly, and only a few of his auditors understood him. One day, at the close of the lecture, Proclus repeated the whole lecture to his fellow students, word by word, from memory. It had been very long, but Proclus missed nothing, as I have been informed by one of the other auditors, Ulpian of Gaza, who had also devoted his whole life to philosophy.

Proclus easily understood Aristotle's treatises on logic, at the first reading, though they are difficult to comprehend by beginners.

10. After having studied under the teachers in Alexandria, and having profited by their lessons according to their talent and science, it seemed to him, one day on reading an author with his teacher, that the latter's explanation of the passage had failed to represent the author's meaning. So he looked upon these schools with scorn, and simultaneously remembering the divine vision that had visited him in Constantinople, and the command which it had brought him, he embarked for Athens, so to speak under the escort of [divine] oracles and all the Gods and good daimons who watch over the preservation of philosophy. For he was being sent there by the Gods of philosophy to preserve the school of Plato in its truth and pureness. This was clearly demonstrated by the circumstances of his arrival, and the really divine symbols which clearly prognosticated the function which he was to inherit from his 'father' and the election which was, one day, to call him to the direction and administration of the School.

For at his landing in the Piraeus, and as soon as his arrival was bruited about in Athens, Nicholaus, who was later to become so famous as a sophist, and who at this time was pursuing his studies here, came to the harbor to welcome him, and to offer him hospitality, as he was acquainted with him personally, and was his co-national, from Lycia. So Nicholaus led him to the town; but on the way, having arrived at the monument to Socrates, Proclus felt himself tired of walking. Now he did not know, and had never heard tell that there existed there a place sacred |25 to Socrates. Yet he begged Nicholaus to stop there a moment, so he might sit down to rest, and asked him to fetch him a little water, from any place at all, for, said he, "I am dying of thirst." Nicholaus, very anxious, had some brought him, not from any chance place, but from the consecrated shrine itself, for the spring of Socrates' Pillar was not far off. After Proclus had drunk, Nicholaus suddenly saw in this a symbol, and told him that he was resting in a place consecrated to Socrates, and that the water he had drunk, the first Attic water he had tasted, was from this source. So Proclus rose, and before proceeding, offered a prayer.

As he was arriving at the fortified gate, at the entrance he met the porter, who was already preparing to insert his keys in the lock, and he actually said to Proclus: "Really, if you had not arrived, I should have closed!" Could there have been a clearer omen, and one whose interpretation would need neither a Polles, nor a Melampus, nor any other?

11. Although he was anxiously invited by the teachers of eloquence, as if he had come for this very purpose, he scorned the oratorical theories and methods. Chance led him to hear first Syrianus, son of Philoxenus, at whose lecture was present Lachares, who was profoundly versed in the doctrines of the philosophers, and at that time was an assiduous auditor of the philosopher, although his art in sophistry excited as much admiration as Homer's in poetry. It happened to be late dusk, and the sun was setting during their conversation, and the moon, quitting her conjunction with the sun, began to appear. So as to be able to adore the Goddess alone and leisurely, they tried to dismiss the youth who to them was a stranger. But, after having taken but a few steps from the house Proclus,----he also seeing the moon leaving her celestial house----stopped in his tracks, undid his shoes, and in plain sight of them adored the Goddess. Struck by the free and bold action of the youth, Lachares then said to Syrianus this admirable expression of Plato's about geniuses: "Here is a man who will be a great good, or its contrary!" Such are the presages,----to mention only a few of them----that the Gods sent to our philosopher just as he arrived in Athens

Excerpt II (sections 27 through 33):

27. One day while reading with him the Orphic writings, and hearing him, in his commentaries, quoting the interpretations not only of Iamblichus and Syrianus, but also of many more authorities who had explored the depths of theology, I begged the philosopher not to leave this divine Orphic poetry without complete commentaries. He answered me that he had often planned to undertake this, but that he had been hindered by certain dreams of Syrianus who discouraged him therefrom with threats. Thinking of no other expedient, I suggested that he at least paraphrase what he approved of in his master's books. He was kind enough to yield, and wrote certain notes at the beginning of these commentaries. That is how we possess a compendium of all the writings relating to this same author and very extensive notes and commentaries on the Orphics, although he did not consent to do this work on all the Orphic Myths and Rhapsodies.

28. But since, as I said before, by his studies on this subject, he had acquired a still greater and more perfect virtue, namely the theurgic, passing beyond the theoretic step, he did not conform his life exclusively to one of the two characteristics suitable to divine beings, but to both: not only did he direct his thoughts upward to the divine, but by a providential faculty which was not merely social, he cared for those things which were lower.

He practiced the Chaldean prayer-meetings and conferences, and even employed the art of moving the divine tops. [iynx wheels] He was a believer in these practices, in unpremeditated responses, and other such divinations, which he had learned from Asklepigenia, daughter of Plutarch, to whom exclusively her father had confided and taught the mystic rites preserved by Nestorius, and the whole theurgic science.

Even before that, according to the prescribed order, and purified by the Chaldean lustrations, the philosopher had, as epoptic initiate, witnessed the apparitions of Hecate under a luminous form, as he himself has mentioned in a special booklet.

He had the power of producing rains by activating, at the right time, a particular rite, and was able to deliver Attica from a terrible drought. He knew how to foresee earthquakes, he had experimented with the divinatory power of the tripod, and had himself uttered verses prophetic about his own destiny.

When 40 years old, he felt that in a dream he had uttered the following verses: "Here broods an immortal splendor, that is supercelestial, which has sprung from the consecrated spring, and whence streams a fiery light!"

At the beginning of his 42nd year, he so seemed to be shouting the following verses: "I am possessed by a spirit which breathes into me the force of fire, which, enfolding and entrancing my reason in a whirl of flame, flies toward the aether, and with its immortal vibrations reechoes in the starry vaults!"

Besides, in a dream he had clearly seen that he belonged to the Hermetic Chain; and, on the authority of a dream, he was convinced that his was the reincarnated soul of the Pythagorean Nicomachus.

29. If we wished to do so, we might easily extend our observations on the theurgic labors of this blessed man. From among thousands, I will mention but one, which is really miraculous. One day Asklepigenia, daughter of Archiadas and Plutarche, and [now] wife of our benefactor Theagenes, being still small, and being raised at her parents', became ill with a sickness pronounced incurable by the physicians. Archiadas was in despair, as the child was the family's only hope, and naturally uttered distressful lamentations. Seeing her abandoned by the physicians, the father, as in the gravest circumstances of life, turned to his last resort, and ran to the philosopher's, as to the only person who could save her, and urgently besought him to come and pray for his daughter. The latter, taking with him the great Lydian Pericles, who also was a genuine philosopher, ran to the temple of Asklepius to pray to God in favor of the patient, for Athens was still fortunate enough to possess it, and it had not yet been sacked [by the Christians].

While he was praying according to the ancient rite, suddenly a change manifested in the little girl's condition, and there occurred a sudden improvement,----for the Savior, being a divinity, swiftly gave her back her health. On completing the religious ceremonies, Proclus visited Asklepigenia, who had just been delivered from the sufferings that had assailed her, and who now was in perfect health. He had indeed performed his vows and offered his prayers in spite of everybody, so as to preclude any possibility of malicious slander, and the whole household had taken part in this act.

This indeed was one of Proclus's good fortunes, that he lived in the house that suited him best, where had dwelt both Syrianus, whom he called his father, and Plutarch, whom he called his grandfather. It was in the vicinity of the Asklepius temple which Sophocles had immortalized, and of the Dionysus temple near the theater, and was in sight of the Acropolis.

30. His choice of the philosophic life amply proves how dear he was to the Goddess friendly to wisdom [Athena], But the goddess testified to that herself when the statue of the goddess which had been erected in the Parthenon had been removed by the [Christian] people who move that which should not be moved. In a dream the philosopher thought he saw coming to him a woman of great beauty, who announced to him that he must as quickly prepare his house "because the Athenian Lady wishes to dwell with you."

How high he stood in the esteem of Asklepius has already been shown in the story I have related above, and we were, in his last malady, thereof convinced by the god's appearance. For being in a semi-waking condition, he saw a serpent9 creeping around his head, and from this moment on he felt relieved from his suffering; and he had the feeling that this apparition would cure him from his disease. But he seemed to have been restrained by an ardent and even violent desire for death, and I am indeed certain that he would have completely recovered his health if he had been willing to receive the cares demanded by his condition.

31. Here is one more fact worthy of being remembered, and that I cannot recall without tears. Now arthritis is a disease which is frequently, and even habitually transmitted from parents to children; and as his father had suffered therefrom, Proclus had always feared that it would afflict him also; and in my opinion, his fears were not entirely groundless, for, before the incident I am about to relate, he had felt pains of this nature, when took place another and very surprising incident.

On the advice of certain persons he put on the afflicted foot a bandage. While he was stretched out on his bed, suddenly a sparrow halted in his flight and carried it away. This was a divine sign that was really paeonic, and of a nature that should have inspired him with confidence for the future; but even in spite of this he did not any the less experience fears of being later on visited by this malady.

Having therefore implored the divinity on this subject, and having besought a clear guidance on this subject, while sleeping he saw something that is so bold, apparently, that I have to appeal to my courage to openly proclaim the truth of the matter. So he seemed to see somebody who was returning from Epidaurus, who bent over his legs, and without hesitation, showing a gesture of tender affection, kissed his knees. From this day on, he lived his whole life long without any anxiety about this subject, and he reached an extreme old age without feeling even a twinge of this disorder.

32. The god of Adrotta [in Lydia] most openly showed this holy man's affinities with him. For when Proclus visited him, the god showed Proclus his favor by appearing to him. Because the natives were not in agreement as to which god or gods resided in this place, and were worshipped, Proclus was in doubt about it and desired enlightenment. Resting on numerous testimonies, some supposed that it was a temple of Asklepius; they said that voices really resounded there, that a table was consecrated to that god, and that there had been received there oracular responses relative to health; and that those who came for consultation were cured of the most dangerous maladies, against all hope. Others, on the contrary, thought it was the Dioscuri who haunted that temple, for some persons thought that they had seen on the highway leading to Adrotta two young men, of an extreme beauty, riding horses of great speed, who said that they were going in all haste to the temple, so that, at first glance it had been believed they were human beings; but soon after the onlookers were convinced that it was a really divine manifestation, because when they themselves arrived at the temple and asked questions, they were told by the local officiating attendants that nothing had been seen there, the horsemen having vanished into thin air.

Proclus was therefore uncertain, and hardly knew what credit to give to the facts related. So he begged the local divinities to reveal their true and proper character by some indubitable testimony. In a dream then he saw a god coming to him and speaking clearly to him, thus:
"What, did you not hear Iamblichus say who those two persons were when he praised the names of Machaon and Podilarius [sons of Asklepius]?"
Thereupon the divinity gave this holy man a testimony of his good will. Just as in the theater orators pronounce panegyrics of great men, the god stood up, and with a gesture of his hand, and in a dramatic tone, with great force uttered these words (for I will repeat the exact words uttered by the divinity): "Proclus is the glory of the fatherland!" What greater proof of the gods' affection for this really blessed man could be adduced? After having received such sympathetic testimonies from the divinities, Proclus would burst into tears, every time he would recall to us what he had seen, and the divine praise uttered about him.

33. But if I was to enumerate all the facts of this kind, and to report the particular devotion which he held for Pan, son of Hermes, the great favors he received, and the numerous times he was, in Athens, saved by intervention of the divinity, and to relate in detail the protections and the advantages he received from the Mother of the Gods, of which he was particularly proud and happy, I would no doubt seem chattering vainly, to those who may light on this book by chance, and some may even think I am saying things little worthy of belief. For there were a considerable number of episodes, that were of almost daily occurrence, when this goddess [Cybele] spoke or acted in his favor; and their number and character are so unusual that I myself do not have their exact and precise memory.

If anyone desires to know with what favor he was attached to this Goddess, let him read Proclus's book on the Mother of the Gods, and it will be seen that with inspiration from on high he has been able to expound the whole theology relative to the Goddess, and to explain philosophically all that the liturgical actions and the oral instructions mythically teach us about the goddess, and Attis, so that they will no longer be troubled by those seemingly absurd lamentations [for Attis] and all the secret traditions related in her ceremonies.

Shedding Light on Cosmopolitan Paganism: Of Particles, Waves, and Egyptian Mysteries

Is light made of discrete physical particles, or is it "made" out of waves (that is, is light really just a disturbance or vibration traveling through some medium)? For centuries scientists argued this question up one side and down the other. Many of the greatest names in science, including Bacon, Kepler, Descartes, Gassendi, Huygens, and Newton, all made fundamental contributions to the debates and investigations that eventually led to our current understanding of light, although in the process of doing so they were often arguing against each other.

Anyone who has taken a decent science course, even long ago in high school, should have some familiarity with the fact that light, as it turns out, exhibits properties associated with both waves and particles. But what does that mean? What is light? The answer, of course, is that light is light, and that the words "particle" and "wave" refer to models that we use to think about and describe light. Under some circumstances one model works best, but sometimes the other one is called for.

For example, the photoelectric effect is best described in terms of discrete particles of light, or photons, as was demonstrated by Albert Einstein in his 1905 paper "On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light". On the other hand, Maxwell's Equations (published by James Clerk Maxwell in 1861 and 1862 in his four part paper "Physical Lines of Force"), which are part of the foundation of classical electromagnetic theory, treat light as purely a wave phenomenon. Fortunately we needn't choose between Maxwell and Einstein, because they were both right.

What does all this have to do with those fascinating manifestations of ancient Pagan religiosity known as "The Mysteries"? Well, for decades scholars have debated the Egyptian-ness versus the Greek-ness of these mysteries, and this reminds me very much of the centuries-long argument over whether light is made of "light particles" or of "light waves". Perhaps the now well established "wave/particle duality" model of electromagnetic radiation can, if you will, shed some light on the "Greek versus Egyptian" conundrum with respect to the mysteries. To be more precise, perhaps we can get to the point where we can dispense with insisting on a false choice between two options that are not mutually exclusive.

In the first place, μυστήρια is a Greek word, and moreovoer, according to noted classicist Sarah Iles Johnston in her essay "The Mysteries", in the strictest sense only the beliefs and practices associated with Eleusis can be called Mysteries: "The Greek word μυστήρια (mysteries) properly applies only to the Eleusinian festival." However, immediately after saying that professor Johnston then states: "but μυστήρια was also used [by the ancient Greeks] to refer to other, similar cults, and modern scholars have followed suit." [p. 101 in Ancient Religions, ed. Sarah Iles Johnston]

Elsewhere Johnston also states that "Greece and Rome" are "the homes of mystery cults in the strictest sense of the term." But here again Johnston is quick to point out that these Greek and Roman mystery cults existed within a much broader context of "other cultures of the ancient Mediterranean," and that in this context one finds "a range of [non-Greek and non-Roman] religious phenomena with which they [Greek and Roman mysteries] share salient characteristics, notably a promise of personal transformation and a demand for secrecy." [ibid p. 98]

The fact that Johnston speaks of both Greece and Rome, rather than just Greece, is already a telling detail. This becomes even more significant when we recognize that "Rome" included much of Britain and Germany as well as North Africa and Iberia, while "Greece " included all of Anatolia, the Levant and Persia and even extends as far East as modern day Afghanistan. And the plot really thickens when we recognize that both "Rome" and "Greece" very much included Egypt, or, to be more precise, that Egypt was the jewel in the crown of the eastern portion of the Roman Empire, and that it was also the cultural, economic and demographic center of gravity of the Hellenistic world, and that Alexander himself had chosen Egypt as the site for the political capital of his Macedonian Empire, most of which lay in African and Asia.

And when we think of Egypt in the classical and late-antique periods (the historical time of The Mysteries) then we cannot help but think of Alexandria, which was not merely the most important city of Egypt, but possibly the most important city in the entire world. The whole tussle over the mysteries is also played out all over again when it comes to the nature of the city on the Nile named for the son of Philip of Macedon.

There can be no doubt that Alexandria was a thoroughly Hellenic city. After all, it is where Euclid wrote his Elements, and Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth, and Ptolemy wrote his scientific treatises, and Callimachus wrote his Hymns, and Apollonius wrote his Argonautica, , and Plotinus studied under Ammonius Saccas, and Aristarchus produced his critical editions of Homer.

But just as Alexandria was a city founded by Greeks and infused with Hellenism, it was also very much an Egyptian city. And a Roman city.

For my present purposes, it is quite appropriate to briefly emphasize the fact that Alexandria was also one of the most important centers of Judaism in the ancient and late-antique world. In fact, Alexandrians even had their own presence in Jerusalem, where they were among those Jews who most strongly resisted the new cult of Jesus (as recounted in the sixth book of Acts). And Alexandria is where the Greek translation of the Tanakh, the Septuagint, was produced, as well as being the obvious home of the noted Jewish scholar and Platonic exegete Philo of Alexandria.

In other words, ancient Alexandria was a truly cosmopolitan city. This ancient cosmopolitanism however, differs significantly from modern day politically correct notions of "multi-culturalism". The Jews and Greeks and Romans and Egyptians, etc, did not make up one big happy family taking turns singing kumbayah in their own language. Communities of different cultures lived separately and in many respects unequally. And these communities felt perfectly free to dislike one another, and even to occasionally engage in violent conflicts, sometimes with impressive body-counts.

Despite the fact that sometimes sharp boundaries separated different groups from one another, Alexandria was also a place where these boundaries could be freely crossed by those so inclined. And so Alexandria was the natural place for Hermeticism (that truly, and literally quintessential form of Cosmopolitan Paganism) to thrive.

Which brings us to the whole reason, or at least the real reason, why anyone today bothers at all about the Egyptian-ness versus of the Greek-ness of the ancient mysteries: because there are those today, and Yours Truly is among them, who claim to be followers of spiritual traditions descended from those Pagan Mysteries that were simultaneously Greek and Roman and Egyptian, and that are so intimately associated with Alexandria and with Hermes Trismegistus. And then there are those who make it their business to heap misrepresentations on top of falsehoods on top of half-truths in attempts to prove that the ancient mysteries were not Egyptian and who remain blindly dedicated to the completely discredited proposition that the modern and ancient mysteries have "nothing in common, except the name".

This is a good start. More will follow soon .... And in the meantime, here are some related posts from this blog:

Modern Paganism and the Ancient Mysteries:
  1. Part One: Sallustius, Gardner & Wicca: "A general statement of their creed."
  2. Part Two: Gerald Gardner, Sallustius, and the Problem of Evil
  3. Part Three: Gerald Gardner, Sallustius, and Reincarnation
  4. Part Four: "Divested of their garments"

Further Adventures in Platonism, Polytheism, and Modern Paganism
  1. "On the Nature of the Gods and the Cosmos" (full text)
  2. Plotinus In Defense of Polytheism
  3. A Question for Ronald Hutton
  4. More on Plotinus on the Gods
  5. Hinduism, Paganism, & Polytheism
  6. Wicca and polytheism