Samson Under Many Skies
THE STORY OF Samson stands out in the Bible as a grand tissue of absurdities. Sunday school pupils must long have been puzzled about his weapon for killing Philistines. But there is much more to puzzle about (Judges xv) :
- And he found a new jawbone of an ass, and put forth his hand and took it, and slew a thousand men therewith.
- And Samson said, with the jawbone of an ass, heaps upon heaps, with the jaw of an ass have I slain a thousand men.
- And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking, that he cast away the jawbone out of his hand, and called that place Ramathle’hi.
- And he was sore athirst, and called on the Lord, and said, Thou hast given this great deliverance into the hand of thy servant: and now shall I die for thirst, and fall into the hand of the uncircumcised?
- But God clave an hollow place that was in the jaw, and there came water thereout; and when he had drunk, his spirit came again, and he revived: wherefore he called the name thereof En-hak’ko-re, which is in Le’hi unto this day.
- And he judged Israel in the days of the Philistines twenty years.
The passage has been bowdlerized in the Revised Version to make it more plausible, but verse 18 is an unshakable reminder that this was not an ordinary bone, or even “the place” of it as suggested recently. For that jaw is in heaven. It was the name given by the Babylonians to the Hyades, which were placed in Taurus as the “Jaw of the Bull.” If we remember the classic tag “the rainy Hyades” it is because Hyades meant “watery.” In the Babylonian creation epic, which antedates Samson, Marduk uses the Hyades as a boomerang-like weapon to destroy the brood of heavenly monsters. The whole story takes place among the gods. It is known, too, that Indra’s powerful weapon, Vajra, the Thunderbolt made of the bones of horse-headed Dadhyank, was not of this earth (see appendix #19)
The story is so universal that it must be seen as spanning the globe. In South America, where bulls were still unknown, the Arawaks, the Tupi, the Quechua of Ecuador spoke of the “jaw of the tapir,” which was connected with the great god, Hunrakán, the hurricane, who certainly knows how to slay his thousands. In our sky, the name of the celestial Samson is Orion, the mighty hunter, alias Nimrod. He remains such even in China as “War Lord Tsan,” the huntmaster of the autumn hunt, but the Hyades are changed there into a net for catching birds. In Cambodia, Orion himself became a trap for tigers; in Borneo, tigers not being available, pigs have to substitute; and in Polynesia, deprived of every kind of big game, Orion is found in the shape of a huge snare for birds. It is this snare that Maui, creator-hero and trickster, used to catch the Sunbird; but having captured it, he proceeded to beat it up and with what?—the jawbone of Muri Ranga Whenua, his own respected grandmother.
If one brings Samson—the biblical Shimshon—back to earth, he becomes a preposterous character, or rather, no character at all, except for his manic violence and his sudden passions. It comes as a shock, after reading that chaotic and whimsical life, to find: “And he judged Israel twenty years.” For if anyone was bereft of judgment, it was this berserker. As Frazer remarks, one doubts whether he particularly adorned the bench.
Yet there is a mysterious importance to his person. On him was piled a hoard of classic fairy tales, like “the man whose soul was placed elsewhere” (the external soul), and the insistent motif of fatal betrayal by women, the motif of Herakles and Llew Llaw Gyffes. More than that, he is an incongruous montage of nonhuman functions which could no longer be put together intelligibly, and were crowded together with cinematographic haste. Even his feats as a young Herakles, tearing a lion apart, change over in a flash to the generation of bees from a carcass, recalling the time-honored bougonia of the fourth book of Virgil’s Georgics.
Of the many nonsense feats there are some which take particular relief from the context. Samson was displeased (Judges XIV-XV) because the wife of his heart, a Philistine, had given away to the children of her people the meaning of his riddle on the lion: “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness,” so that he was held to pay forfeit for his last bet.
- And the Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he went down to Ashkelon, and slew thirty men of them, and took their spoil, and gave change of garments unto them which expounded the riddle. And his anger was kindled, and he went up to his father’s house.
- But Samson’s wife was given to his companion, whom he had used as his friend.
- But it came to pass within a while after, in the time of wheat harvest, that Samson visited his wife with a kid; and he said, I will go in to my wife into the chamber. But her father would not suffer him to go in.
- And her father said, I verily thought that you hadst utterly hated her; therefore I gave her to your companion. Is not her younger sister fairer than she? Take her, I pray thee, instead of her to your compamon.
- And Samson said concerning them, Now shall I be more blameless than the Philistines, though I do them a displeasure.
- And Samson went and caught three hundred foxes, and took firebrands, and turned tail to tail, and put a firebrand in the midst between two tails.
- And when he had set the brands on fire, he let them go into the standing corn of the Philistines, and burnt up both the shocks, and also the standing corn, with the vineyards and olives.
- Then the Philistines said, Who hath done this? And they answered, Samson, the son in law of the Timnite, because he had taken his wife, and given her to his companion. And the Philistines came up, and burnt her and her father with fire.
- And Samson said unto them, Though ye have done this yet will I be avenged of you, and after that I will cease.
- And he smote them hip and thigh with a great slaughter: and he went down and dwelt in the top of the rock Etam.
Leaving the great Shimshon there sitting in the top of the rock, a brief interlude before he goes out again on his own wayward, rash and splenetic way to provoke his enemies, one is moved to reflection.
To catch and corral three hundred foxes, and tie them in pairs by the tail, just to work off a spite, seems more the daydream of a juvenile delinquent or a Paul Bunyan or a “Starke Hans” than the feat of a warrior. It is as if Scripture had remembered that he had to stand out as a great hunter, but had misplaced the occasion of his hunts. After all, lions are not to be found behind every hedgerow, and foxes might do, if only to annoy. But we know from Ovid (Fasti 4, 631 ff.) that in April, at the feast of Ceres, foxes with burning fur were chased through the Circus. This might be the real context. The modern “fertility rite” explanations are so futile that it might be more to the point to be reminded of the three hundred elite “dogs” that Gideon recruited for his band, and which still stand unexplained. One should also consider a more important occasion to which attention has been drawn by Felix Liebrecht: the “Sada-Festival,” during which animals were kindled and chased, burning, through the whole Iranian countryside. This, however, would lead back to Firdausi’s Book of Kings, and beyond that to the whole problem of Kynosoura, that cannot be tackled at this point because it calls for an examination of all that was implied by the starting of celestial fires.
But the main theme of the story will appear more clearly if it is transposed in an utterly different narrative convention, the adventures of Susanowo the Japanese god. They are found in the Japanese Scriptures, in this case the Nihongi, compiled about the 8th century A.D. but going back to unknown times. They are the full equivalent of what the Bible was in our recent past, and even more, for “this body of legend, folklore to us but credible history to the people of the archipelago, is tangled in the roots of everything Japanese.” The quotation is from Post Wheeler, who prepared the latest edition of the Japanese mythical corpus. To quote him further: “In no other land do we find a people’s sacred legend so interknit with the individual’s daily thoughts and life. Its episodes peer at us from every nook and byway. The primeval myth of the slaughter of the Eight-Forked-Serpent by the deity Brave-Swift-Impetuous-Male, brother of Bright-Shiner the Sun-Goddess, is pictured on Japan’s paper currency. I have seen it produced au grand serieux at Tokyo’s Imperial Theatre, in the same week as one of Ibsen”s tragedies and a Viennese light opera.”
[n1 P. Wheeler, The Sacred Scriptures of the Japanese(1952), p. vi.].
Most of Hebrew mythology wears the hempen homespun of peasants and patriarchs from Palestine. Japanese myth bears the mark of an already refined perverse feudal world. back of which there is the baroque elegance and fantasy of late Chinese culture. With this premise, here is the story of the Japanese Samson, Susanowo, whose name means Brave-Swift- Impetuous-Male. No better set of attributes for Mars; he is also officially a god, since his sister Amaterasu, the sun-goddess, is still today the worshiped ancestor of the Imperial dynasty; the courtly precedences are neatly established. The hero need no longer masquerade as boor from the tribe of Dan who raged in Ashkelon and destroyed himself in Gaza.
Now Susanowo was banished from the sky for having thrown the hind part of his backward-flayed piebald stallion, in the weaving hall of his sister Amaterasu. These sudden discourteous gestures seem to be part of the code: Enkidu had thus thrown the hind quarter of the Bull from Heaven in the face of Ishtar, but here there is the additional code feature (it is code) of the backward-flayed animal. Susanowo’s gesture caused the Sun-god to withdraw in anger into a cave: the world was plunged into darkness. The 80,000 gods assembled in the Milky Way to take counsel, and at last came upon a device to coax the Sun out of the cave and end the great blackout. It was a low-comedy trick, part of the stock-intrade that is used to coax Ra in Egypt, Demeter in Greece (the so-called Demeter Agelastos or Unlaughing Demeter) and Skadi in the North—obviously another code device [n2 The obscene dance of old Baubo, also called lambe in Eleusis, parallels the equally uusavory comic act of Loke in the Edda. The point in all cases is that the deities must be made to laugh (cf. also appendix #36).].
Now light was restored to the world, but on earth the hero-god moving out of the darkness had nowhere to lay his head; he wandered around and succeeded in killing the “Eight-Forked-Serpent,” thus saving a damsel.
Afterwards he arranged “The Drawing of the Lands,” and the sowing of more land, giving the islands the shape which they have now, Finally, Brave-Swift-Impetuous-Male, having traveled about the limits of the sky and the earth, even to the Sky-Upright-Limiting-Wall, dwelt on Mount Bear-Moor and finally went to the Lower World, also called the Nether-Distant-Land.
To this his place came a Jason, namely the Kami (Divine Prince) Great-Land-Master, looking for some helpful device against his brothers, “the 80 Kami” who had succeeded in killing him several times (Sky-Producer revived him). Before reaching the house, he married Susanowo’s daughter, Princess-Forward, and this Medea was to support him faithfully, so that he survived the different “stations” which Susanowo had prepared for him [n3 For a comparison of the sequence of troublesome caves, holes, or “houses” that heroes of the Old World as well as of the New World have to pass through, see L. Frobenius, Das Zeitalter des Sonnengottes (1904), pp. 371f.] as proper guest rooms: the fire, the snake-house, the centipede-and-asp-house (Dostoyevsky’s Svidrigailov must have been a great seer):
Then Brave-Swift-Impetuous-Male, having shot a humming arrow into the midst of a great grass-moor, sent him to fetch it and when he had entered the moor, set fire to it on all sides. But when Great-Land-Master found no place of exit, there came a mouse which said, “The inside is hollowly hollow; the outside is narrowly narrow.” Even as it spoke thus, he trod on the spot, and falling into the hollow, hid himself until the fire had burned over, when the mouse brought him the humming arrow in its mouth, and the arrow’s feathers were brought in like manner by its young ones.
Now his wife, Princess-Forward, weeping, made preparation for the funeral, and her father, deeming Great-Land-Master dead, went out and took stand on the moor, but he found his guest standing there, who brought the arrow and gave it to him. Then he great Kami Susanowo took him into the palace and into a great-spaced room, where he made Great-Land-Master pick the lice from his head, among which were many centipedes. His wife, however, gave him aphananth berries and red earth, and he chewed up the berries and spat them out with the red earth which he held in his mouth, so that the great Rami, believing him to be chewing and spitting out the centipedes, began to feel a liking for him in his heart and fell asleep. Then Great-Land-Master bound Brave-Swift-Impetuous-Male’s hair fast to the palace rafters, and blocking up the door with a five-hundred-man-lift rock, took his wife Princess-Forward on his back, possessed himself of the Kami’s great life-preserving word, his bow and arrows, and his Sky-speaking lute, and fled. But the Sky-speaking lute smote against a tree so that the earth resounded, and the great Kami [Susanowo] started from sleep at the sound and pulled down the palace.
While he was freeing his hair from the rafters, however, Great-Land-Master fled a long way; so pursuing after him to the Level-Pass-of-the-Land-of-Night, and gazing on him from afar, Brave-Swift-Impetuous-Male called out to him, saying,”with the great, life-preserving sword and the bow-and-arrow which you carry, pursue your low-born brethren till they crouch on the high-slopes and are swept into the river currents! And do you, fellow! Make good your name of Great-Land-Master, and your name of Spirit-of-the-Living-Land, and making my daughter Princess-Forward your chief wife, make strong the pillars of your palace at the foot of Mount Inquiry in the lowest rock bottom, and near its crossbeams to the Plain-of-the-High-Sky, and dwell there!”
Then, bearing the great sword and book, Great-Land-Master pursued and scattered the eighty Kami, saying, “They shall not be permitted within the circle of the blue fence of mountains.” He pursued them till they crouched on every hill-slope, he pursued them till they were swept into every river, and then he began to rule the Land. (Therefore the place where he overtook them was called ComeOvertake.) [n4 Wheeler, pp. 44f.]
Later on, the “Genesis” part of the Nihongi will be shown to meet the requirements of archaic theory very exactly. Even incidents that seem like minor embellishments, the little mouse in her burrow, are really recurrent elements in the ancient fugue. Because it is necessary to deal with one theme at a time, much of the tale of Susanowo appears wildly arbitrary although no more so than that of Samson. Also the narrative is confusingly interwoven with other classic plots, recognizably those of Theseus and the Argonauts. And yet there Susanowo is, a maker of darkness at noon, Samson strength-in-hair, who “went away with the pin of the beam, and with the web,” walking off with rafters an rocks and gates and posts, pulling down a palace (his own, for a change), smiting and scattering low-born workers of iniquity “not to be permitted again within the circle of the blue fence. “But the Nihongi shows the ampler scheme in which the old order is smashed and the new foundation of an order is undertaken: “make strong the pillars of your palace at the foot of Mount Inquiry in the lowest rock-bottom, and rear its crossbeams to the Plain of the-High Sky, and dwell there.”
The god has not only judged and apportioned, he has also established and sowed for the future in his capacity as the new king of the underworld; he has gone to sleep in his Ogygia, and appointed his successor as ruler of the new age. Further: the GreatLand-Master had to procure something in the Nether-Distant-Land (in Japan the dead go down there by land with countless windings, whereas the whirlpool in the ocean is good only for transporting there the “sinful dirt”). He had been sent there to get “counsel” from Susanowo (who identified him at the first glance as: “This is the Kami Ugly-Male-of-the-Reed-Plains”) he eventually got it, and added to it the precious life-preserving sword which Susanowo had found in the tail of the Eight-Forked dragon, and the “bow-and-arrows,” and his Orphic Sky-speaking lute, not to forget Princess-Forward. A complicated affair. But the Great-Land-Master undeniably plays a Jupiter role against Susanowo’s Mars, the more so, as his beloved Princess-Forward turns out to be extremely jealous.
Now, after this Far Eastern interlude, Samson’s own tragedy can be seen in better focus (Judges XVI):
- And [Delilah] made him sleep upon her knees; and she called for a man, and she caused him to shave off the seven Iocks of his head; and she began to afflict him, and his strength went from him.
- And she said, The Philistines be upon thee, Samson. And he awoke out of his sleep, and said, I will go out as at other times before, and shake myself. And he wist not that the Lord was departed from him.
- But the Philistines took him, and put out his eyes, and brought him down to Gaza, and bound him with fetters of brass; and he did grind in the prison house. [Appendix #17 ]
- Howbeit the hair of his head began to grow again after he was shaven.
- Then the lords of the Philistines gathered them together for to offer a great sacrifice unto Dagon their god, and to rejoice: for they said, Our god hath delivered Samson our enemy into our hand.
- And when the people saw him, they praised their god: for they said, Our god hath delivered into our hands our enemy, and the destroyer of our country, which slew many of us.
- And it came to pass, when their hearts were merry, that they said, Call for Samson, that he may make us sport. And they called for Samson out of the prison house; and he made them sport; and they set him between the pillars.
- And Samson said unto the lad that held him by Ithe hand, Suffer me that I may feel the pillars whereupon the house standeth, that I may lean upon them.
- Now the house was full of men and women; an all the lords of the Philistines were there; and there were upon the roof about three thousand men and women, that beheld while Samson made sport.
- And Samson called unto the Lord, and said, O Lord God, remember me, pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes.
- And Samson took hold of the two middle pi!lars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of he one with his right hand, and of the other with his left.
- And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistine. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell up the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life. Such is the great story, and it has gone through innumerable variations.
The general design of the tragedy is obviously faulty, more even than most Bible narratives which are superbly indifferent to such consideradons. If Samson had been bred as “a person separate to God,” by the care of the Lord “who sought an occasion gainst the Philistines”, he does not compare with chiefs like Joshua and Gideon. He remains, mythically speaking, a misguided missile. Most great feats of the mythistorical past would not have rated the attention of news media, but Samson’s achievements make so ittle sense, even on rhe micro-scale of Palestine power politics, that Milton finds it hard to justify the ways of God to man. Certai “central” events like the fall of royal houses, whether in Greece or Babylon or Denmark, are capable of a truer and deeper reverberation. That is why great motifs like “darkness at noon” and “pulling down the edifice” combine into a larger theme, obviously cosmic, which is here obscured. The Nihongi is truer to this larger style.
In the arabesque of interlaced motifs, one can mark those where the theme of “pulling down the structure” is in evidence. The powerful Maori hero Whakatau, bent on vengeance,
laid hold of the end of the rope which had passed round he posts of the house, and, rushing out, pulled it with all his strength, and straightaway the house fell down, crushing all within it, so that the whole tribe perished, and Whakatau set it on fire [n5 See Sir George Grey, Polynesian Mythology (1956; 1St ed. 1855), pp. 97f.].
This is familiar. At least one such event comes down simply from history. It happened to the earliest meetinghouse of he Pythagorean sect, and it is set down as a sober account of the outcome of a political conflict, but the legend of Pythagoras was so artfully constructed in early times out of prefabricated materials that doubt is allowable. The essence of true myth is to masquerde behind seemingly objective and everyday details borrowed from known circumstances. However that may be, in many other stories the destruction of the building is linked with a net. Saxo’s, Amlethus does not pull down pillars; he reappears at the banquet set by the king for his own supposed funeral, like Great-Land-Master himself. He throws the knotted carpet net prepared by his mother over the drunken crowd and burns down the hall. In Japan the parallel does not go farther than that but it has its own relevance nevertheless. It suggests the fall of the House of Atreus. The net thrown by Clytemnestra over the king struggling in his bath cannot have come in by chance. But this is an uncertain lead as yet.
The Sacred Book of the ancient Maya Quiche, the famous
Popol Vuh (the Book of Counsel) tells of Zipacna, son of Vucub-Caquix (=Seven Arara). He sees 400 youths dragging a huge log that they want as a ridgepole for their house. Zipacna alone carries the tree without effort to the spot where a hole has been dug for the post to support the ridgepole. The youths, jealous and afraid, try to kill Zipacna by crushing him in the hole, but he escapes and brings down the house on their heads. They are removed to the sky, in a “group,” and the Pleiades are called after them (appendix #18).
Then there is a true avenger-of-his-father, the Tuamotuan Tahaki, who, after long travels, arrives in the dark at the house of the goblin band who tortured his father. He conjures upon them “the intense cold of Havaiki” (the other world) which puts them to sleep.
Then Tahaki gathered up the net given to him by Kuhi, and carried it to the door of the long house. He set fire to the house. When the goblin myriads shouted out together “Where is the door?” Tahaki called out: “Here it is.” They thought it was one of their own band who had called out, and so they rushed headlong into the net, and Tahaki burned them up in the fire [n6 J. F. Stimson, The Legends of Maui and Tahaki (1934), pp. 51, 66.].
What the net could be is known from the story of Kaulu. This adventurous hero, wanting to destroy a she-cannibal, first flew up to Makalii the great god, and asked for his nets, the Pleiades and the Hyades, into which he entangled the evil one before he burned down her house [n7 A. Fornander, Hawaiian Antiquities (1916-1920), vol. 4, pp. 50f.; vol. 5, p. 368.]. It is clear who was the owner of the nets up there. The Pleiades are in the right hand of Orion on the Farnese Globe [n8 R. Eisler, Orpheus the Fisher (1921), pp. 25f.], and they used to be called the “lagobolion” (hare net). The Hyades were for big game [n9 G. Schlegel, L’Uranographie Chinoise (1967), pp. 351-58, 365-70.].
At the end of this far-ranging exploration, it is fair now to ask, who could Samson have been? Clearly a god, and a planetary power, for such were the gods of old. As Brave-Swift-Impetuous-Male, as the Nazirite Strong One, he has all the countersigns that belong to Mars, and to none other. Clearly, while trying to draw the concluding episode of the investigation of Amlethus-Kronos, King of the Cosmic Mill, something else has come into, view, the new and formidable personage of Mars—or Ares as the Greeks called him. He will come back more than once. Yet there is no question but that the name of Samson comes up quite spontaneously in connection with the Sampo, the original quern. It was clearly and unequivocally within the Amlethus design. At this point, the intrusion of this new planetary Power must be recognized. Even Susanowo substitutes for Kronos in his very reign of the Underworld. It would have been desirable to present the Powers separately, and each in his own shape, as will be done farther on. But the many-threaded tale has its own runes, and this exemplifies an important one. There are no Powers more diverse than Saturn and Mars; yet this is not the only time they will appear as a confusing and unexplained doublet of the two.
One of the motifs, destruction, is often associated with the Amlethus figure. The other belongs more specifically to Mars. There is a peculiar blind aspect to Mars, insisted on in both Harranian and Mexican myths. It is even echoed in Virgil: “caeco Marte.” But it does not stand only for blind fury. It must be sought in the Nether World, which will come soon. Meanwhile, here is the first presentation of the double figure of Mars and Kronos. In Mexico, it stands out dreadfully in the grotesque forms of the Black and the Red Tezcatlipoca. There is a certain phase in the Great Tale, obviously, in which the wrecking powers of Mars unleash and make up a fatal compound with the avenging implacable design of Saturn. Shakespeare has, with his preternatural insight, alluded to both when he: made Hamlet warn the raging Laertes before their final encounter:
Though I am not by nature rash and splenetic
Yet there is in me something dangerous
Which let thy wisdom fear. . .
But obviously there is more, and what emerges here lifts the veil of a fundamental archaic design. The real actors on the stage of the universe are very few, if their adventures are many. The most “ancient treasure”—in Aristotle’s word—that was left to us by our predecessors of the High and Far-Off Times was the idea that the gods are really stars, and that there are no others. The forces reside in the starry heavens, and all the stories, characters and adventures narrated by mythology concentrate on the active powers among the stars, who are the planets. A prodigious assignment it may seem for those few planets to account for all those stories and also to run the affairs of the whole universe. What, abstractly, might be for modern men the various motions of those pointers over the dial became, in times without writing, where all was entrusted to images and memory, the Great Game played over the aeons, a never-ending tale of positions and relations, starting from an assigned Time Zero, a complex web of encounters, drama, mating and conflict.
Lucian of Samosata, that most delightful writer of antiquity, the inventor of modern “science fiction,” who knew how to be light and ironic on serious subjects without frivolity, and was fully aware of the “ancient treasure,” remarked once that the ludicrous story of Hephaistos the Lame surprising his wife Aphrokite in bed with Mars, and pinning down the couple with a net to exhibit their shame to the other gods, was not an idle fancy, but must have referred to a conjunction of Mars and Venus, and it is fair to add, a conjunction in the Pleiades.
This little comedy may serve to show the design, which turns out to be constant: the constellations were seen as the setting, or the dominating influences, or even only the garments at the appointed time by the Powers in various disguises on their way through their heavenly adventures.
No one could deny, in the case of the Amlethus-Samson epiphany, that this fierce power, or momentary combination of powers, wears here the figure of Orion the blind giant, called also Nimrod the Hunter, brandishing the Hyades, working he Mill of the Stars, like Talos, the bronze giant of Crete. For the feature which clinches the case has been named. Orion was blind, the only blind figure of constellation myth. He was said to have regained his sight eventually, as befits an eternal personage. But this is how legend portrays him, wading through the rushing flood of the whirlpool at his feet (where he will appear again), guided by the eyes of little Tom Thumb sitting on his shoulder, whose name, Kedalion, suggests a low-comedy occupation. But who are we to impose Mrs. Grundy on the assembly of heaven?
Socrates’ Last Tale
WHAT A MAN has to say in the last hours of is life deserves attention. Most especially if that man be Socrates, awaiting execution in his jail and conversing with Pythagorean friends. He has already left the world behind, has made his philosophical will and is now quietly communing with his own truth. This is the close of the Phaedo (107D-115A), and it is expressed in the form of a myth.
Strangely enough, innumerable commentators have not taken the trouble to scrutinize it, and have been content to extract from it some pious generalities about the rewards of the soul. Yet it is a thoughtful and elaborate statement, attributed to an authority whom Socrates (or Plato) prefers not to name. It is clothed in a strange physical garb. It is worth accepting Plato’s suggestion to take it with due attention. Socrates is quietly moving into the other world, he is a denizen of it already, and his words stand, as it were, for a rite of passage:
“The story goes that when a man dies his guardian deity, to whose lot it fell to watch over the man while he was alive, undertakes to conduct him to some place where those who gather must submit their cases to judgment before journeying to the other world; and this they do with the guide to whom the task has been assigned of taking them there. When they have there met with their appropriate fates and waited the appropriate time, another guide. brings them back here again, after many long cycles of time. The journey , then, is not as Aeschylus’ Telephys describes it: he says that a single track leads to the other world, but I don’t think that it is ‘single’ or ‘one’ at all. If it were, there would be no need of guides; no one would lose the way, if there were only one road. As it is, there seem to be many partings of the way and places where three roads meet. I say this, judging by the sacrifices and rites that are performed. here. The orderly and wise soul follows on its way and is not ignorant of its surroundings; but that which yearns for the body, as I said before, after its long period of passionate excitement concerning the body and the visible region, departs only after much struggling and suffering, taken by force, with great difficulty, by the appropriate deity. When it arrives where the others are, the unpurified soul, guilty of some act for which atonement has not been made, tainted with wicked murder or the commission of some other crime which is akin to this and work of a kindred soul, is shunned and avoided by every one, and no one will be its fellow-traveller or guide, but all by itself it wanders, the victim of every kind of doubt and distraction, until certain periods of time have elapsed, and when they are completed, it is carried perforce to its appropriate habitation. But that soul which has spent its life in a pure and temperate fashion finds companions and divine guides, and each dwells in the place that is suited to it. There are many wonderful places in the world, and the world itself is not of such a kind or so small as is supposed by those who generally discourse about it; of that a certain person has convinced me.”
“How do you mean, Socrates?” asked Simmias. “I too have heard a great deal about the world, but not the doctrine that has found favour with you. I would much like to hear about it.”
“Well, I don’t think it requires the skill of a Glaucus [n1 Whoever this (unidentified) Glaucus is, he has nothing to do with it. the Glaucus of Anthedon mentioned in the epigraph, a fisherman who on a eating certain plant was overtaken by a transmutation and threw himself into the sea where he became a marine god.] to. relate my theory; but to prove that it is true would be a task, I think, too difficult for the skill of Glaucus. In the first place I would probably not even be capable of proving it, and then again, even if I did know how to, I don’t think my lifetime would be long enough for me to give the explanation. There is, however, no reason why I should not tell you about the shape of the earth as I believe it to be, and its various regions.”
“That will certainly do,” said Simmias.
“I am satisfied,” he said, “in the first place that if it is spherical and in the middle of the universe, it has no need of air or any other force of that sort to make it impossible for it to fall; it is sufficient by itself to maintain the symmetry of the universe and the equipoise of the earth itself. A thing which is in equipoise and placed in the midst of something symmetrical will not be able to incline more or less towards any particular direction; being in equilibrium, it will remain motionless. This is the first point,” he said, “of which I am convinced!” [n2 Thus far, this is Anaximander and his Principle of Sufficient Reason. But we cannot draw further conclusions: Socrates is, here, deep in his own myth already, and far beyond Ionian physics which, in his opinion, ought not to be taken seriously.]
“And quite rightly so,” said Simmias.
“And again, I am sure that it is very big,” he said, “and that we who live between the Phasis river and the pillars of Hercules inhabit only a small part of it, living round the coast of the sea like ants or frogs by a pond, while many others live elsewhere, in many similar regions. All over the earth there are many hollows of all sorts of shape and size, into which the water and mist and air have collected. The earth itself is a pure thing lying in the midst of the pure heavens, in which are the stars; and most of those who generally discourse about such things call these heavens the ‘ether.’ They say that these things I have mentioned are the precipitation of the ‘ether’ and flow continually into the hollows of the earth. We do not realize that we are living in the earth’s hollows, and suppose that we are living up above on the top of the earth—just as if someone living in the middle of the seabed were to suppose that he was living on the top of the sea, and then, noticing the sun and the stars through the water, were to imagine that the sea was sky; through sluggishness and weakness he might never have reached the top of the sea, nor by working his way up and popping up out of the sea into this region have observed how much purer and more beautiful it is than theirs; nor even heard about it from anyone who had seen it. That is exactly what has happened to us: we live in a hollow in the earth, but suppose that we are living on top of it; and we call the air sky, as though this were the sky, and the stars moved across it. But the truth of the matter is just the same—through weakness and sluggishness we are not able to pass through to the limit of the air. If anyone could climb to the air’s surface, or grow wings and fly up, then, as here the fishes of he sea pop their heads up and see our world, so he would pop his head up and catch sight of that upper region; and if his nature were such that he could bear the sight, he would come to realize that that was the real sky and the real light and the real earth. This earth of ours, and the stones, and all the region here is corrupted and corroded, just as the things in the sea are corroded by the brine; and in the sea nothing worth mentioning grows, and practically nothing is perfect—there are just caves and sand and indescribable mud and mire, wherever there is earth too, and there is nothing in any way comparable with the beautiful things of our world; but those things in the upper world, in their turn, would be seen far to surpass the things of our world. If it is a good thing to tell a story then you should listen, Simmias, and hear what the regions on the earth beneath the sky are really like.”
“We should certainly very much like to hear this story, Socrates,” said Simmias.
“In the first place, then, my friend, the true earth is said to appear to anyone looking at it from above like those balls which are made of twelve pieces of leather, variegated, a patchwork of colour, of which the colours that we know here—those that our painters use—are samples, as it were. There the whole earth is made of such colours, and of colours much brighter and purer than these: part of it is purple, of wondrous beauty, and part again golden, and all that part which is white is whiter than the whiteness of chalk or snow; and it is made up of all the other colours likewise, and of even more numerous and more beautiful colours than those that we have seen. Indeed these very hollows of the earth, full of water and of air, are said to present a kind of colour as they glitter amid the variety of all the other colours, so that the whole appears as one continuous variegated picture. And in this colourful world the same may be said of the things that grow up—trees and flowers and all the fruits; and in the same way again the smoothness and transparency and colours of the stars are more beautiful than in our world. Our little stones, these highly prized ones, sards and jaspers and emeralds and so on, are but fragments of those there; there, they say, everything is like this, or even more beautiful than these stones that we possess. The reason is that the stones there are pure, and not corroded or corrupted, as ours are, by rust and brine, as a result of all that has collected here, bringing ugliness and diseases to stones and to soil, and to animals and to plants besides. The earth itself, they say, is ornamented with all things, and moreover with gold and silver and all things of that sort. They are exposed to view on the surface, many in number and large, all over the earth, so that the earth is a sight for the blessed to behold. There are many living creatures upon it, including men; some live inland, some live round about the borders of the air as we do on the coasts of the sea, while others again live on islands encompassed by air near the mainland. In a word, what the water and the sea are to us, for our purposes, the air is to them; and what the air is to us, the ‘ether’ is to them. Their climate is such that they are free from illnesses, and live much longer than the inhabitants of our world, and surpass us in sight and hearing and wisdom and so on, by as much as the pureness of air surpasses that of water, and the pureness of ‘ether’ surpasses that of air.
“Moreover they have groves and temples sacred to the gods, in which the gods really dwell, and utterances and prophesies and visions of the gods; and other such means of intercourse are for them direct and face to face. And they see the sun and moon and stars as they really are, and their blessedness in other respects is no less than in these.
“This is the nature of the earth as a whole, and of the regions round about it, and in the earth, in the cavities all over its surface, are many regions, some deeper and wider than that in which we live, others deeper but with a narrower opening than ours, while others again are shallower than this one and broader. All of these are connected with each other by underground passages, some narrower, some widerbored through in many different places; and they have channels along which much water flows, from one region to another as into mixing-bowls; and they have, too, enormous ever-flowing underground rivers and enormous hot and cold springs, and a great deal of fire, and huge rivers of fire, and many rivers also of wet mud, some clearer, some denser, like the rivers of mud that flow before the lava in Sicily, and the lava itself; and they fill the several regions into which, at any given time, they happen to be flowing. They are all set in motion, upwards and downwards, by a sort of pulsation within the earth. The existence of this pulsation is due to something like this: one of the chasms of the earth is not only the biggest of them all, but is bored right tbrough the earth—the one that Homer meant, when he said that it is ‘very far off, where is the deepest abyss of all below the earth.’ Homer elsewhere-and many other poets besides-have called this Tartarus. Now into this chasm all the rivers flow together, and then they all flow back out again; and their natures are determined by the sort of earth through which they flow. The reason why all these streams flow out of there and flow in is this, that this fluid has no bottom or resting place: it simply pulsates and surges upwards and downwards, and the air and the wind round about it does the same; they follow with it, whenever it rushes to the far side of the earth, and again whenever it rushes back to this side, and as the breath that men breathe is always exhaled and inhaled in succession, so the wind pulsates in unison with the fluid, creating terrible, unimaginable blasts as it enters and as it comes out. Whenever the water withdraws to what we call the lower region, the streams flow into the regions on the farther side of the earth and fill them, like irrigating canals; and whenever it leaves those parts and rushes back here, it fills the streams here afresh, and they when filled flow through their several channels and through the earth, and as each set of streams arrives at the particular regions to which its passages lead, it creates seas and marshes and rivers and springs; and then, sinking back again down into the earth, some encircling larger and more numerous regions, others fewer and smaller, these streams issue back into Tartarus again —some of them at a point much lower down than that from which they were emitted, others only a little lower, but all flow in below the place from which they poured forth. Some flow into the same part of Tartarus from which they sprang, some into the part on the opposite side; and others again go right round in a circle, coiling themselves round the earth several times like snakes, before descending as low as possible and falling back again.
“It is possible to descend in either direction as far as the centre, but not beyond, for the ground on either side begins to slop upwards in the face of both sets of streams.
“There are many large streams of every sort, but among these many there are four that I would mention in particular. The largest, the one which flows all round in a circle furthest from the centre, is that which is called Oceanus; over against this, and flowing in the opposite direction, is Acheron, which flows through many desert places and finally, as it flows under the earth, reaches the Acherusian lake, where the souls of most of the dead arrive and spend certain appointed periods; before being sent back again to the generations of living creatures. The third of these rivers issues forth between these two, and near the place where it issues forth it falls into a vast region burning with a great fire, and forms a marsh that is larger than our sea, balling with water and mud. Thence it makes its way, turbulent and muddy, and as it coils its way round inside the earth it arrives, among other places, at the borders of the Acherusian lake , but it does not mix with the water of the lake; and having coiled round many times beneath the earth, it flows back at a lower point in Tartarus. This is the river they call Pyriphlegethon, and volcanoes belch forth lava from it in various parts of the world. Over against this, again, the fourth river flows out, into a region that is terrible and wild, all of a steely blue-grey colour, called the Stygian region; and the marsh which the river forms as it flows in is called the Styx. After issuing into this marsh and receiving terrible powers in its waters, it sinks down into the earth, and coiling itself round proceeds in the opposite direction to that of Pyriphlegethon, and then meets it coming from the opposite way at the Acherusian lake. The water of this river likewise mixes with no other, but itself goes round in a circle and then flows back into Tartarus opposite to Pyriphlegethon; and the name of this river, according to the poets, is Cocytus.
“Such is the nature of the world; and when the dead reach the region to which their divine guides severally take them, they first stand trial, those who have lived nobly and piously, as well as those who have not. And those who are found to have lived neither particularly well nor particularly badly journey to Acheron, and embarking on such vessels as are provided for them arrive in them at the lake.
“There they dwell and are purified; paying due penalties, they are absolved from any sins that they have committed, and receive rewards for their good deeds, each according to his merits. Those who are judged incurable because of the enormity of their crimes, having committed many heinous acts of sacrilege or many treacherous and abominable murders or crimes of that magnitude, are hurled by their fitting destiny into Tartarus, whence they never more emerge . Those who are judged to be guilty of crimes that are curable but nevertheless great—those, for example, who having done some act of violence to father or mother in anger live the rest of their lives repenting of their wickedness, or who have killed someone in other circumstances of a similar nature—must fall into Tartarus; but when they have fallen in and stayed there a year, the wave casts them forth—the murderers along Cocytus, those who have struck their fathers or mothers along Pyriphlegethon; and when they are being carried past the Acherusian lake, they shout and cry out to those whom the have murdered or outraged, and calling upon them beg and implore them to let them come out into the lake, and to receive them; and if they can prevail upon them, they come out and cease from their woe, but if not, they are carried again into Tartarus, and from there once more into the rivers, and they do not stop suffering this until they can prevail upon those whom they have wronged, for such is the sentence that the judges have pronounced upon them. Lastly, those who are found to have lived exceptionally good lives are released from these regions within the earth and allowed to depart from them as from a prison, and they reach the pure dwelling place up above an live on the surface of the earth; and of these, those who have sufficiently purified themselves by means of philosophy dwell free fro the body for all time to come, and arrive at habitations even fairer t an these, habitations that it is not easy to describe; and there is not time to make the attempt now. But for these reasons, Simmias, which we have discussed, we should do all in our power to achieve some measure of virtue and of wisdom during our lives, for great i the reward, and great the hope.
“No man of sense should affirm decisively that all this is exactly as I have described it. But that the nature of our souls and of their habitations is either as I have described or very similar, since the soul is shown to be immortal—that, I think, is a very proper belief to hold, and such as a man should risk: for the risk is well worth while. And one should repeat these things over and over again to oneself, like a charm, which is precisely the reason why I have spent so long in expounding the story now.
“For these reasons, then, a man should have no fear about his soul, if throughout his life he has rejected bodily pleasures and bodily adornments, as being alien to it and doing more harm than good, and has concentrated on the pleasures of learning, and having adorned his soul with adornments that are not alien to it, but appropriate—temperance and justice and courage and freedom and truth—continues to wait, thus prepared, for the time to come for him to journey to the other world. As for you, Simmias and Cebes and all you other, you will make your several journeys later, at an appointed time; but in my case, as a character in a tragedy might put it, Destiny is already sumoning me; and it is almost time for me to go to the boat. I think it is better to have a bath before drinking the poison, and not to give the women the trouble of washing a corpse.” [n3 R. S. Bluck trans. (1955), pp. 128-39.].
The end has an invincible beauty, calm and serene, already shimmering with immortality, and yet preserving that light skeptical irony which makes “a man of sense” in this world. It puts the seal of confidence on what might otherwise be really an incantation that one repeats to himself in his last moments.
Readers who are insensitive to this magic will be tempted to dismiss the story as so much poetic nonsense. If Socrates, or rather Plato, is really talking of a system of rivers within the earth, then he obviously does not understand the first thing about hydraulics, and he has only let his fancy run wild. But looking again at the setting, one begins to wonder if he is referring at all to the earth as we understand it. He mentions a certain place where we live, and it looks like a marsh in a hollow or maybe like the bottom of a lake, full of rocks, and caverns, and sand, “and an endless slough of “mud.” The “true earth,” which is like a ball of twelve colored pieces, is above us, and one may think instinctively that Plato refers to the upper limits of the stratosphere, but of course he has never heard of that. He is dealing with “another” world above us, and although there are some fantasies of lovely landscapes and animals and gems, it is in the “aether” as the Greeks understood it. It is above us, and centered like “our” place, whatever that is, on the center of the universe. There, the celestial bodies have become clear to the mind, and the gods are visible and present already. If they have “temples and houses in which they really dwell,” these look very much like the houses of the zodiac. Although some features are scrambled for keeping up an impression of the wondrous, one suspects that this is heaven pure and simple. Then comes the unequivocal geometric countersign.
That world is a dodecahedron. This is what the sphere of twelve pieces stands for: there is the same simile in the Timaeus(55C), and then it is said further that the Demiurge had the twelve faces decorated with figures (diazographon) which certainly stand for the signs of the zodiac. A. E. Taylor insisted rather prosily that one cannot suppose the zodiacal band uniformly distributed on a spherical surface, and suggested that Plato (and Plutarch after him) had a dodecagon in mind and they did not know what they were talking about. This is an unsafe way of dealing with Plato, and Professor Taylor’s suffisance soon led him to grieve . Yet Plutarch had warned him: the dodecahedron “seems to resemble both the Zodiac and the year.”
Is their opinion true who think that he ascribed a dodecahedron to the globe, when he says that God made use of its bases and the obtuseness of its angles, avoiding all rectitude, it is flexible, and by circumtension, like globes made of twelve skins, it becomes circular and comprehensive. For it has twenty solid angles, each of which is contained by three obtuse planes, and each of these contains one and the fifth part of a right angle. Now it is made up of twelve equilateral and equangular quinquangles (or pentagons), each of which consists of thirty of the first scalene triangles. Therefore it seems to resemble both the Zodiac and the year, it being divided into the same number of parts as these [n4 Quaestiones Platonicae 5.1, 1003C (R. Brown trans.), in Plutarch’s Morals, ed. W. W. Goodwin (1870), vol. 5, p. 433.].
1n other words, it is stereometrically the number 12 also the number 30, the number 360 (“the elements which are produced when each pentagon is divided into 5 isosceles triangles and each of the latter into 6 scalene triangles”)—the golden section itself. This is what it means to think like a Pythagorean.
Plato did not worry about future professional critics very much. He only provided a delectable image, and left them to puzzle it out. But what stands firm is the terminology. After the Demiurge had used the first four perfect bodies for the elements, says the Timaeus, he had the dodecahedron left over, and he used it for the frame of the whole.
There is no need to go into the reasons, geometrical and numerological, which fitted the “sphere of twelve pentagons,” as it was called, for the role. What counts here: it was the whole, the cosmos, that was meant. Plato had stood by the original Pythagorean tradition, which called cosmos the order of the sun, moon and planets with what it comprised. As a free-roving soul, you can look at it “from above.” (Archimedes in the Sand-reckonerstill uses the term cosmos loosely in that sense, at least by way of a concession to old usage.)
To conclude: the “true earth” was nothing but the Pythagorean cosmos, and the rivers that flowed from its surface to the center and back can hardly be imagined as strictly terrestrial, although with that curious archaic intrication of earth and heaven which has become familiar and which makes great rivers flow from heaven to earth, it is not surprising to find oneself dealing with “real” fiery currents like Pyriphlegethon connected with volcanic fire. But where is Styx? Hardly down here, with its landscape of blue. And the immense storm-swept abyss of Tartaros is not a cavern under the ground, it belongs somewhere in “outer” space.
This is all the world of the dead, from the surface down and throughout. It localizes as poorly as the nether world of the Republic. The winding rivers which carry the dead and which go back on their tracks are suggestive more of astronomy than of hydraulics. The “seesaw” swinging of the earth (N.B.: it has to be the “true earth”) might well be the swinging of the ecliptic and the sky with the seasons. There is no need now to go into the confusing earthy or infernal details of the description except to note that Numenius of Apamea, an important exegete of Plato, comes out flatly with the contention that the other world rivers and Tartaros itself are the “region of planets.” But Proclus, an even more important and learned exegete, comes out flatly against Numenius [n5 See F. Buffiere, Les Mythes d’Homere et la Pensée Grecque (1956), p. 444.]. Enough is known, indeed more than enough of the welter of oriental traditions on the Rivers of Heaven with their bewildering mixture of astronomical and biological imagery, which culminated in Anaximander’s idea of the “Boundless Flow,” the Apeiron, to see whence early Greece got its lore.
It can be left alone here. But Socrates is citing an Orphic version, whence his restraint in naming his authorities, and its strange entities, such as Okeanos and Chronos, deserve attention. What is meant here is not Kronos, Saturn, but really Chronos, Time. As concerns Okeanos, even Jane Harrison, who could hardly be accused of a tendency to search for the gods somewhere else than on the surface or in the interior of the earth, had to admit: “Okeanos is much more than Ocean and of other birth.” [n6 J. E. Harrison, Themis (1960), pp. 456f.]. In her eyes he is “a daimon of the upper air.” An important concession which may lead a long way.
We bypass for the moment the imposing work of Eisler, Weltenmantel und Himmelszelt (1910), an inexhaustible lode but one which provides more information than guidance. Onians’ Origins of European Thoughtoffers a more recent appraisal [n7 P. B. Onians: The Origins of European Thought about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate(2d ed. 1953), pp. 249ff.]. He compares Okeanos to Achelous, the primal river of water that “was conceived as a serpent with human head and horns.” He goes on:
The procreation element in any body was the psyche, which appeared in the form of a serpent. Okeanos was, as may now be seen, the primeval psyche and this would be conceived as a serpent in relation to procreative liquid. . . Thus we may see, for Homer, who refers allusively to the conception shared by his contemporaries, the universe had the form of an egg girt about by “Okeanos, who is the generation of All” . . . We can perhaps also better understand… why in this Orphic version [Frgs. 54, 57, 58 Kern] the serpent was called Chronos and why, when asked what Chronos was, Pythagoras answered that it was the psyche of the universe. According to Pherekydes it was from the seed of Chronos that fire and air and water were produced.
The great Orphic entity was Chronos Aion (the Iranian Zurvan akarana), commonly understood as “Time Unbounded,” and in “Aion” Professor Onians sees “the procreative fluid with which the psyche was identified, the spinal marrow believed to take serpent form” and it may well be so, since these are timeless ideas which still live today in ophidic cults and in the “kundalini” of Indian Yoga. But Aion certainly meant “a period of time,’ and age, hence “world-age” and later “eternity,” and there is no reason to think that the biological meaning must have been prior and dominant. It is known that for the Orphics Chronos was mated to Ananke, Necessity, which also, according to the Pythagoreans, surrounds the universe. Time and Necessity circling the universe, this is a fairly clear and fundamental conception; it is linked with heavenly motions independently from biology, and it leads directly to Plato’s idea of timeless as “the moving image of eternity.”
It would be helpful if historians of archaic thought would first present straight data, without pressing and squeezing their material into a shape that reflects their preconceived conclusion that biological images must come first in “primitive” psychology, like all that is concerned with generation.
If one wants psychology, one can go back to Socrates in a very different phase of his life, where he is really talking psychology in the Theaetetus (152E): “When Homer sings the wonder of ‘Ocean whence sprang the Gods and Mother Tethys,’ does he not mean that all things are the offspring of flux and motion?” The question arises, would the ocean be an image of flux except for the tides? But Socrates’ Aegean had no tides. The image comes to him from Hesiod’s description of Okeanos (Theogony 790ff.): “With nine swirling streams he winds about the earth and the sea’s wide back, and then falls into the main; but the tenth flows out from a rock, a sore trouble to the Gods.” That dreaded tenth is the river of Styx. Jane Harrison was right. Okeanos is “of another birth” than our Ocean.
The authority of Berger can reconstruct the image [n8 E. H. Berger, Mythische Kosmographie der Griechen (1904), pp. 1ff.]. The attributes of Okeanos in the literature are “deep-flowing,” “flowing-back-on-itself,” “untiring,” “placidly flowing,” “without billows.” These images, remarks Berger, suggest silence, regularity, depth, stillness, rotation—what belongs really to the starry heaven. Later the name was transferred to another more earthbound concept: the actual sea which was supposed to surround the land on all sides. But the explicit distinction, often repeated, from the “main” shows that this was never the original idea.
If Okeanos is a “silver-swirling” river with many branches which obviously never were on sea or land, then the main is not the sea either, pontos or thalassa, it has to be the Waters Above. The Okeanos of myth preserves these imposing characters of remoteness and silence. He as the one who could remain by himself when Zeus commanded attendance in Olympus by all the gods. It was he who sent his daughters to lament over the chained outcast Prometheus, and offered his powerful mediation on his behalf. He is the Father of Rivers; he dimly appears in tradition, indeed, as the original god of heaven in the past. He stands in an Orphic hymn [n9 83.7 (ed. Quandt, p. 55): terma philion gaies, arche polou.] as “beloved end of the earth, ruler of the pole,” and in that famous ancient lexicon, the Etymologicum magnum, his name is seen to derive from “heaven.”