Parmenides of Elea: What Is Versus What is Not

(1) The car that bears me carried me as far as ever my heart desired, when it had brought me and set me on the renowned way of the goddess, which leads the man who knows through all the towns.  On that way was I borne along; for on it did the wise steeds carry me, drawing my car, and maidens showed the way.  And the axle, glowing in the socket—for it was urged round by the whirling wheels at each end—gave forth a sound as of a pipe, when the daughters of the Sun, hasting to convey me into the light, threw back their veils from off their faces and left the abode of Night.

There are the gates of the ways of Night and Day, fitted above with a lintel and below with a threshold of stone.  They themselves, high in the air, are closed by mighty doors, and Avenging Justice keeps the keys that fit them.  Her did the maidens entreat with gentle words and cunningly persuade to unfasten without demur the bolted bars from the gates.  Then, when the doors were thrown back, they disclosed a wide opening, when their brazen posts fitted with rivets and nails swung back one after the other.  Straight through them, on the broad way, did the maidens guide the horses and the car, and the goddess greeted me kindly, and took my right hand in hers, and spake to me these words:

Welcome, O youth, that comest to my abode on the car that bears thee tended by immortal charioteers!  It is no ill chance, but right and justice that has sent thee forth to travel on this way.  Far, indeed, does it lie from the beaten track of men!  Meet it is that thou shouldst learn all things, as well the unshaken heart of well-rounded truth, as the opinions of mortals in which is no true belief at all.  Yet none the less shalt thou learn these things also,—how passing right through all things one should judge the things that seem to be.

But do thou restrain thy thought from this way of inquiry, nor let habit by its much experience force thee to cast upon this way a wandering eye or sounding ear or tongue; but judge by argument [Logos] the much disputed proof uttered by me.  There is only one way left that can be spoken of…. R. P. 113.[1]

 

Such is the opening of the one and only treatise attributed to Parmenides, one of the most prominent and influential of the Pre-Socratic philosophers who flourished in the late 6th and early 5th century BCE from Elea, a town in Southern Italy which became one of the centers of philosophical development in the Hellenic world in antiquity, the so called Eleatic School.  The poem is believed to have been almost 800 verses in length, and although it only survives in fragmentary form through quotations and excerpts from later authors, it is believed that much of it – and specifically the part that pertains to the mode of inquiry which is to have a such a significant impact on subsequent philosophical development in and around the Mediterranean for centuries afterwards – has been preserved.[2]

In this passage above, Parmenides describes his journey on a chariot up to the gates of heaven led by the maidens of Sun god (Helios) up to the halls of Night, i.e. the realm of the dead, which is guarded by Justice herself.  The whole treatise therefore is rooted in ancient Mythos that is reflective of the general belief systems that permeated the Mediterranean at the time.  The language of the work entitled On Nature is Greek hexameter verse, the same linguistic form of the epic poems of Hesiod and Homer, speaking directly to the continuity of tradition, at least at this period of philosophical development in the Hellenic world, of the form of “inspired” writing and poetic verse which was a legacy of pre-historical antiquity.

The entire treatise in fact, is hinged ancient pre-historical language and terminology, not just with respect to language it is written in, but also in terms of the overall narrative which is steeped in references to the gods and goddesses which were so reflective of the prevailing Mythos of the time.  We have the abode of Night, and the very goddess who was so instrumental in establishing order and justice in the Orphic Theogony as the very same goddess who “reveals” the Way of Truth to Parmenides, and even a reference to the role of Eros as one of the primary forces of nature which speaks directly to the heritage of Hesiod’s Theogony.[3]

In particular, we see this notion of change explored in some detail, couched in what can only be deemed pre-historical terms of the assimilation and interaction of opposing forces – in this case dark and light and male and female, quite reminiscent of the mode of inquiry and metaphysical foundation of Far Eastern thought as reflected in the Yijing.

 

The thing that can be thought and that for the sake of which the thought exists is the same; for you cannot find thought without something that is, as to which it is uttered.   And there is not, and never shall be, anything besides what is, since fate has chained it so as to be whole and immovable. Wherefore all these things are but names which mortals have given, believing them to be true—coming into being and passing away, being and not being, change of place and alteration of bright colour. R. P. 119.

Mortals have made up their minds to name two forms, one of which they should not name, and that is where they go astray from the truth.  They have distinguished them as opposite in form, and have assigned to them marks distinct from one another.  To the one they allot the fire of heaven, gentle, very light, in every direction the same as itself, but not the same as the other.  The other is just the opposite to it, dark night, a compact and heavy body.  Of these I tell thee the whole arrangement as it seems likely; for so no thought of mortals will ever outstrip thee. R. P. 121.

Now that all things have been named light and night, and the names which belong to the power of each have been assigned to these things and to those, everything is full at once of light and dark night, both equal, since neither has aught to do with the other. R. P. 123, 124

The narrower bands were filled with unmixed fire, and those next them with night, and in the midst of these rushes their portion of fire.  In the midst of these is the divinity that directs the course of all things; for she is the beginner of all painful birth and all begetting, driving the female to the embrace of the male, and the male to that of the female. R. P. 125.[4]

 

We can see in these different fragments and quotation from the work, not an altogether dismissal of the belief in the nature of the universe and its becoming into existence as the mixing and interaction of opposing forces, forces which emerge from and have their ultimate source in some divine being, a precursor to Plato’s Demiurge.  We see Parmenides elucidating (and not ignoring or dismissing) the existence of the basic elemental forces of dark and light, male and female, but a hint of a different perspective on how these basic universal attributes should be looked at if one is trying to understand the basic nature of reality, i.e. the nature of change.

For if nothing else, On Nature represents one of the first attempts in the Hellenic intellectual tradition to try to describe the attributes of “what Is” (to eon), a precursor to Aristotle’s notion of “being qua being”, as well as the process by which one can come to an understanding of “true reality” (alêtheia), i.e. reason or Logos, each of which comes to represent the basic hallmark characteristics of the Hellenic philosophical tradition – a tradition which we understand today as it is reflected primarily in the works of Plato and Aristotle and through later interpretations of their works by subsequent “philosophers”.  Both Plato and Aristotle in fact each alludes to and refer to Parmenides as one of the early expounders of philosophy, even if again his ideas are looked upon as incoherent or lacking insight or clarity in certain matters.  In the case of Aristotle in particular, it is Parmenides’s notion of change and its relationship to the definition of “reality” which he takes issue with, the detailed and systematic description of which represent the overarching purpose and themes of Aristotle’s works of course.[5]

Once Parmenides has been allowed into the abode of Night, the goddess begins to teach him the way of true knowledge, in language that is cryptic and full of contradictions that is reminiscent of the language and way of understanding that is presented by Laozi in the Far East actually.

 

(4, 5) Come now, I will tell thee—and do thou hearken to my saying and carry it away—the only two ways of search that can be thought of.  The first, namely, that It is, and that it is impossible for it not to be, is the way of belief, for truth is its companion.  The other, namely, that It is not, and that it must needs not be,—that, I tell thee, is a path that none can learn of at all.  For thou canst not know what is not—that is impossible—nor utter it; for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be. R. P. 114

(6) It needs must be that what can be spoken and thought is;    for it is possible for it to be, and it is not possible for what is nothing to be.  This is what I bid thee ponder.  I hold thee back from this first way of inquiry, and from this other also, upon which mortals knowing naught wander two-faced; for helplessness guides the wandering thought in their breasts, so that they are borne along stupefied like men deaf and blind.  Undiscerning crowds, who hold that it is and is not the same and not the same, and all things travel in opposite directions! R. P. 115[6]

 

Here Parmenides describes “what Is” (to eon), as being related to that which can be thought or spoken of.  Here we have some of the beginning aspects of classical Hellenic philosophical inquiry presented with respect to the relationship of thought (which eventually morphs into Plato’s Forms), as well as the presentation of language, or speech, as the expression of thought (which becomes a key part of the Stoic epistemological tradition for example) herein established as the foundations upon which knowledge – that which can be known and in turn that which can be said to “exist” or is “real” – are put forth.  So while Parmenides presents his treatise in very pseudo-Orphic, illuminary context, i.e. that knowledge itself is “revealed” rather than “understood” or “taught”, he still nonetheless espouses the doctrine that a way of truth, as determined by reason, again Logos, does in fact exist and can, and should, be used to help define “true reality” (alêtheia).

While later interpretations of Parmenides’s thought are couched in terms of classical Hellenic philosophical inquiry, there are clearly significant remnants of pre-historical Mythos that permeate the work.  It should be kept in mind that the bulk of extant fragments from the poem that have been preserved have been done so to either prove or disprove various perspectives of philosophical inquiry by later authors, all of whom had some sort of axe to grind so to speak but regardless of which axe is being grinded they all are trying to prove or disprove certain points or aspects of philosophical inquiry.  Even in the modern academic literature, Parmenides is viewed in terms of the role he play in the development of classical Greek philosophy per se, not necessarily as a bridge between pre-historical Mythos – and the divine revelationary aspects to which it is fundamentally related – and Logos, which provides the intellectual foundations for all subsequent philosophical development.

In this context Parmenides and his poem On Nature does indeed represent one of the early milestones on the intellectual evolutionary journey of philosophical development in ancient Greece.  And despite the strong undercurrent of mythological and illuminary themes, the work does nonetheless represent a significant break in the Hellenic intellectual tradition by expounding upon the mode of inquiry into how an understanding and comprehension of true reality is to be arrived at from which the foundations of knowledge itself upon which it is based should be constructed.  This method of inquiry, what came to be understood as Logos, which was the standard method which was used to ascertain the properties of change which was never challenged as the ultimate property of material existence, was to be a hallmark of the philosophical tradition in the Hellenic world.

 


[1] Early Greek Philosophy, translation with notes and commentary by John Burnet.  Chapter IV., Parmenides of Elea.  3rd editions (1920).  London.  From http://www.classicpersuasion.org/pw/burnet/egp.htm?chapter=4

[2] See Palmer, John, “Parmenides”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2016/entries/parmenides/&gt;.

[3] “(13) First of all the gods she contrived Eros. R. P. 125”.  From Early Greek Philosophy, translation with notes and commentary by John Burnet.  Chapter IV., Parmenides of Elea.  3rd editions (1920).  London.  From http://www.classicpersuasion.org/pw/burnet/egp.htm?chapter=4

[4] Early Greek Philosophy, translation with notes and commentary by John Burnet.  Chapter IV., Parmenides of Elea.  3rd editions (1920).  London.  From http://www.classicpersuasion.org/pw/burnet/egp.htm?chapter=4

[5] For Aristotle’s perspective on Parmenides’s “philosophy”, see Cael. 3.1.298b14–24; Metaph. 1.5.986b14–18, Ph. 1.2.184a25-b12.  References from Palmer, John, “Parmenides”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2016/entries/parmenides/&gt;.  With respect to Plato’s perspective on the “philosophy” of Parmenides, he dedicates an entire dialogue to the topic, i.e. the Parmenides, where a discussion between Parmenides and Socrates is narrated and Plato’s Theory of Forms is defended at length through a series of lengthy deductive arguments.  See Rickless, Samuel, “Plato’s Parmenides”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/plato-parmenides/&gt;.

[6] Early Greek Philosophy, translation with notes and commentary by John Burnet.  Chapter IV., Parmenides of Elea.  3rd editions (1920).  London.  From http://www.classicpersuasion.org/pw/burnet/egp.htm?chapter=4

The Theogony of Hesiod: Order (Cronos) from Chaos

One of the nice things that you found as you studied more advanced civilizations, as you got further into the first millennium BCE, you had better material and source texts to work with.  You no longer had to rely on texts and tablets that described ancient rituals for specific temples, or documents or inscriptions associated with royal burial grounds, you actually had books or treatises that were authored and compiled by a single individual that had coherent narratives and compiled and consolidated all the various traditions that might be represented throughout that particular culture.  One of the other nice things as you moved into the study of the civilizations of the Greeks and the Romans is you started to see pretty good one to one representations of their words into modern day English given its more direct relationship to the Latin.

Prior to looking at the mythological creation narratives that were prevalent in classical Greece, it’s worth pointing out some of the terminology that we use today that originated with the Greek language, the Greek poets and philosophers, that has come down to us in English, through the Latin translations, that we use to describe these intellectual traditions.

The words “theogony” and “cosmology” specifically actually both come from their Greek counterparts which in English have very similar meanings but in the Greek have different definitions, definitions that are symbolic of the intellectual tradition which each in turn belonged.  Theogony, or thæogonía (θεογονία) means the study of the origin and genealogy of the gods whereas “cosmology”, or kozmogonía (κοσμογονία) denotes the study of the origins of the universe, the latter term coming into use as the philosophical tradition arose, “kosmos” first being attributed to Pythagoras in fact circa 5th century BCE.  Theogony signifying, as in the case with Hesiod for example, the mythological narrative that described the creation of the gods of the pantheon and their successors.

While thæogonía (theogony; Gr. θεογονία) is the origin and genealogy of the Gods, kozmogonía (cosmogony; Gr. κοσμογονία) is the origin of the universe. In Hellenic polytheistic religion, these two terms are closely related and cannot actually be entirely separated, for the phenomenal universe is itself divine and the personal deities are intimately connected with its origin and both emerge simultaneously.

The etymology of thæogonía is Θεοί (Gods) + γέννα (birth), hence, the birth or origin of the Gods.  The etymology of kozmogonía is kόσμος (order, to put in order) + γέννα (birth); the word kόσμος only later came to mean the entire universe, but its original meaning has some bearing on how we understand our world, as the view of Orphismós sees the birth or origin of the kózmos (cosmos; Gr. κόσμος) as having a form and order, what Pythagóras (Gr. Πυθαγόρας) called diakózmisis (diakosmesis; Gr. διακόσμησις), the orderly arrangement of the universe.[1]

Having clarified this subtle but important distinction, in particular as we look at this time period of ancient Greece where philosophy begins to take precedence over mythology – logos over mythos – the analysis and study of the theogonies of Hesiod and the one attributed to the pseudo-historical figure of Orpheus actually shed much light on the transition, or at least the precursors to the transition which start with Pythagoras and Plato and come to a more solid, rational, foundation with Aristotle.

To the Greeks, and in particular t the tradition associated with Hesiod, it is Chaos that was the arche, or underlying origin, of the universe.  Arche means ‘beginning’, ‘origin’ or ‘first cause’ and ‘power’ in Greek.  It can also denote ‘ultimate underlying substance’ or ‘ultimate indemonstrable principle’ at least as seen in the context of Greek Cosmology.  Later philosophers such as Aristotle expanded upon the meaning of arche as the element or principle of a thing, which although indemonstrable and intangible in and of itself, provides the conditions of the possibility of the existence of such a thing.

In the Greco-Roman tradition, particularly in the works of the Neo-Platonists and other historians of philosophy from Cicero to Diogenes Laertius to Plutarch and others, it was the “first principles” of things that were the topic of the early Greek classical authors such as Hesiod and in turn Orpheus, who was the attributed author of various hymns and poems devoted to the gods that spoke of an alternative theogony, through which later philosophers viewed and interpreted these first principles and through which these later authors juxtaposed and defended the Hellenic philosophical tradition in the face of impending Christianity which took over the theological beliefs of the Mediterranean and Near Eastern peoples a few centuries after the death of Jesus and the birth of Christianity and its adoption by the Roman Empire by Constantine.

In modern times, the arche is the word used by Carl Jung to describe the underlying psychological themes he found present in individual’s unconscious mind through his psychological practices.  To Jung these basic symbols and images that he found present in the modern mind bore striking similarity to primitive mythological motifs, motifs that are found in virtually all of the mythological traditions that we are studying and analyzing within the context of this work.  Jung called these symbols archetypes, the commonality of which across many of his patients he used as the rationalization for the existence of what he called the collective unconscious, the same principle which Joseph Campbell indirectly leveraged to explain the commonality of mythical themes and stories across all pre-civilized man across the globe – as presented in his Hero with a  Thousand Faces for example.  In essence this notion of arche to the Greeks represented the establishment of the basic universal building blocks, the first principles of abstract thought and ideas, upon which was superimposed Greek theogony as it was formulated in order to establish a more rational basis upon which the cosmological world order was maintained and was to be understood.  This transition is typically referred to in the academic literature as logos over mythos but we can view it here within the context of theogony to cosmogony.

 

The orthodox version of creation mythology from classical Greece is from a poetic work attributed to Hesiod called the Theogony.  Compilation of the text is dated to somewhere between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE, somewhat contemporaneous to Homer, and representative of the height of literature to the Greeks even by the classical philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle among others that followed in their footsteps..  The Theogony, or again literally the birth of the gods”, describes the origins and genealogies of the gods of the ancient Greek pantheon.

Hesiod markedly begins his work with an attribute to the divine Muses, the great daughters of Zeus who in the Hellenic world were the masters of mystery and the keepers of the divine mysteries through which any true knowledge or truth could be known.  It is through the Muses themselves that Hesiod relates his tale, speaking directly to their source through which his tale, his Theogony, is related and written.

(ll. 1-25) From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing, who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon, and dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring and the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and, when they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus or in the Horse’s Spring or Olmeius, make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon and move with vigorous feet. Thence they arise and go abroad by night, veiled in thick mist, and utter their song with lovely voice, praising Zeus the aegis- holder and queenly Hera of Argos who walks on golden sandals and the daughter of Zeus the aegis-holder bright-eyed Athene, and Phoebus Apollo, and Artemis who delights in arrows, and Poseidon the earth-holder who shakes the earth, and reverend Themis and quick-glancing (1) Aphrodite, and Hebe with the crown of gold, and fair Dione, Leto, Iapetus, and Cronos the crafty counsellor, Eos and great Helius and bright Selene, Earth too, and great Oceanus, and dark Night, and the holy race of all the other deathless ones that are for ever. And one day they taught Hesiod glorious song while he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon, and this word first the goddesses said to me — the Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus who holds the aegis:

(ll. 26-28) `Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things.’

(ll. 29-35) So said the ready-voiced daughters of great Zeus, and they plucked and gave me a rod, a shoot of sturdy laurel, a marvellous thing, and breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things there were aforetime; and they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternally, but ever to sing of themselves both first and last. But why all this about oak or stone? (2)[2]

We see here not just the invocation to the Muses, in fact the allusion to the very source of the material being the Muses themselves who speak through Hesiod, but also the purpose of the work as explaining the existence of the Greek gods and goddesses that we know all too well even from modern renditions of Greek mythology – reference to Zeus and Hera, Apollo and Athena, Poseidon and Aphrodite, and even Cronos, the older parent of the Greek pantheon who is to play such an important role in the Theogonic tale that Hesiod is to tell.

A few verses later Hesiod provides us with his account of the first initial principles or gods from which the pantheon emerges from, the initial cosmological account of creation as it were.  The reference to the first beings that were ever created from which the pantheon of Greek gods originated and from which his story of rulership, succession, betrayal and the ultimate establishment of order is unfolded.  In Hesiod’s account of the creation of the universe, the initial state of the universe is Chaos, or Khaos in the Greek, and from this initial state of disorder, from which the word still carries the same meaning even in modern English today, the universe comes to life and order begins to manifest.

Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundations of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros (Love), fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them. From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born Aether and Day, whom she conceived and bare from union in love with Erebus. And Earth first bare starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. And she brought forth long Hills, graceful haunts of the goddess-Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of the hills. She bare also the fruitless deep with his raging swell, Pontus, without sweet union of love. But afterwards she lay with Heaven and bare deep-swirling Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne and gold-crowned Phoebe and lovely Tethys. After them was born Cronos the wily, youngest and most terrible of her children, and he hated his lusty sire.[3]

 

So here in the work of Hesiod lie the beginnings of some of the basic principles, or framework at least, from the transition from theogony to cosmology, the primordial arche as it were upon which the Greek pantheon emerges.  We are presented at the beginning of the genealogy with the notion of Chaos, or disorder as the term is still used today, that represents the primordial substance that forms the basis of all creation.  In Hesiod’s account Chaos is a pseudo-anthropomorphic being, a being that although not anthropomorphic per se, i.e. it is without gender or form, and yet it is the primordial substance form which the primary first generation deities and their offspring come forth from.  According to Hesiod out of Chaos emerge Gaia (Earth) and Tartarus – Mother Earth and the Underworld respectively, the great pillars of the world of being inhabited by human souls.  And then, perhaps surprisingly, in this tradition Eros, or Love, is a primary force which then acts to create the rest of the first generation of gods and goddesses and from which the realms of Heaven and Earth and all the basic natural principles and their anthropomorphic counterparts are created and established.

Next in Hesiod’s Theogony, also out of Chaos came Erebus[4], representing darkness or shadow, as well as Nyx, or the Greek’s personification of Night.  Erebus and Nyx then reproduced to form Aether, and Hemera (day).  Then came Gaia who gave birth to Uranus (sky/heaven), and Ourea (mountains) and Pontus (sea).  Uranus then fertilized Gaia and from this union the great Titans are born and the next generation of gods are born, the greatest of which is Cronos and from which the tale of the next generation of gods and the overthrow of Chaos by Cronos (time) is told.

These characters, these entities, represented the first and foremost parts of creation that sprung forth from the “void”, the first generation of gods for the Greeks.  Although the principles or deities themselves were different, there were some parallels to the genealogy of the Egyptians and Mesopotamian story lines albeit the ordering and gods themselves were different for each of the civilizations, perhaps indicative of the different aspects of each of the respective cultures.  Here we can find in this subsequent generation of gods, much like the Egyptian creation mythology, the generation and establishment of the world order, the pieces of the puzzle were laid down as it were, creating the foundations upon which mankind could emerge and flourish.

Hesiod then goes on to tell the tale of the overthrow of the evil ruler Chaos by Cronos, the greatest of the first generation of gods at the behest of his mother Gaia, Mother Earth.  Herein we find the great mythical narrative of the manifestation and establishment of order upon chaos, a tale that is gruesome and graphic no doubt in its details, and speaks to a consistent tradition of castration of the first principles of creation upon which the second generation of order is established.

(ll. 167-169) So she said; but fear seized them all, and none of them uttered a word. But great Cronos the wily took courage and answered his dear mother:

(ll. 170-172) `Mother, I will undertake to do this deed, for I reverence not our father of evil name, for he first thought of doing shameful things.’

(ll. 173-175) So he said: and vast Earth rejoiced greatly in spirit, and set and hid him in an ambush, and put in his hands a jagged sickle, and revealed to him the whole plot.

(ll. 176-206) And Heaven came, bringing on night and longing for love, and he lay about Earth spreading himself full upon her (7).

Then the son from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him. And not vainly did they fall from his hand; for all the bloody drops that gushed forth Earth received, and as the seasons moved round she bare the strong Erinyes and the great Giants with gleaming armour, holding long spears in their hands and the Nymphs whom they call Meliae (8) all over the boundless earth. And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden. First she drew near holy Cythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Cyprus, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass grew up about her beneath her shapely feet. Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and the foam-born goddess and rich-crowned Cytherea, because she grew amid the foam, and Cytherea because she reached Cythera, and Cyprogenes because she was born in billowy Cyprus, and Philommedes (9) because sprang from the members. And with her went Eros, and comely Desire followed her at her birth at the first and as she went into the assembly of the gods. This honour she has from the beginning, and this is the portion allotted to her amongst men and undying gods, — the whisperings of maidens and smiles and deceits with sweet delight and love and graciousness.[5]

From the seed of the of Chaos then, intermingled and spread about across the earth and sea and land, the other great first primordial creative principles of the first generation of gods, the second generation of deities comes forth as Cronos takes the reins of power from his father and bears children with Rhea, his sister.  But the graphic tale of deceit and disorder continues though, and with this next generation of gods we finally come to the great Zeus, the god of Thunder and Lightning who finally restores balance and order not only to the immortals but to the world of man as well.

As the tale is told Cronos knew he was to be overthrown by one of his seed and therefore after Rhea bore each child, Cronos swallowed them whole to ensure that his reign would last forever.  But Rhea outwitted her spouse and when Zeus was born she hid him from his father in a deep and secret cave, replacing him with a stone and outwitting him in order to fulfill the prophecy and no doubt so that her children could be reborn and live.  In a story that bears much resemblance to the pantheonic struggles so well documented in Egypt between Osiris and Set, who is overthrown by the progeny of Isis and Osiris, namely Horus), Hesiod tells us that Cronos is convinced by Gaia to overthrow his father Uranus and claim authority over the gods.  He did this successfully (in particularly gruesome fashion as it were) and then wedded his sister Rhea after which Rhea and Cronos in turn birthed Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus, finishing the major Olympiad as it were.  After a long struggle steeped in myth and graphic tales of mischief and brutality, Zeus ends up taking over Olympus and control over the Greek pantheon from Cronos.

(ll. 453-491) But Rhea was subject in love to Cronos and bare splendid children, Hestia (18), Demeter, and gold-shod Hera and strong Hades, pitiless in heart, who dwells under the earth, and the loud-crashing Earth-Shaker, and wise Zeus, father of gods and men, by whose thunder the wide earth is shaken. These great Cronos swallowed as each came forth from the womb to his mother’s knees with this intent, that no other of the proud sons of Heaven should hold the kingly office amongst the deathless gods. For he learned from Earth and starry Heaven that he was destined to be overcome by his own son, strong though he was, through the contriving of great Zeus (19). Therefore he kept no blind outlook, but watched and swallowed down his children: and unceasing grief seized Rhea. But when she was about to bear Zeus, the father of gods and men, then she besought her own dear parents, Earth and starry Heaven, to devise some plan with her that the birth of her dear child might be concealed, and that retribution might overtake great, crafty Cronos for his own father and also for the children whom he had swallowed down. And they readily heard and obeyed their dear daughter, and told her all that was destined to happen touching Cronos the king and his stout-hearted son. So they sent her to Lyetus, to the rich land of Crete, when she was ready to bear great Zeus, the youngest of her children. Him did vast Earth receive from Rhea in wide Crete to nourish and to bring up. Thither came Earth carrying him swiftly through the black night to Lyctus first, and took him in her arms and hid him in a remote cave beneath the secret places of the holy earth on thick-wooded Mount Aegeum; but to the mightily ruling son of Heaven, the earlier king of the gods, she gave a great stone wrapped in swaddling clothes. Then he took it in his hands and thrust it down into his belly: wretch! he knew not in his heart that in place of the stone his son was left behind, unconquered and untroubled, and that he was soon to overcome him by force and might and drive him from his honours, himself to reign over the deathless gods.[6]

Zeus then revives his brothers and sisters that his father has swallowed and takes over the rulership of heaven, defeating and killing his father like his father had done before him, and establishing balance and harmony in the heavens and on earth.

(ll. 492-506) After that, the strength and glorious limbs of the prince increased quickly, and as the years rolled on, great Cronos the wily was beguiled by the deep suggestions of Earth, and brought up again his offspring, vanquished by the arts and might of his own son, and he vomited up first the stone which he had swallowed last. And Zeus set it fast in the wide-pathed earth at goodly Pytho under the glens of Parnassus, to be a sign thenceforth and a marvel to mortal men (20). And he set free from their deadly bonds the brothers of his father, sons of Heaven whom his father in his foolishness had bound. And they remembered to be grateful to him for his kindness, and gave him thunder and the glowing thunderbolt and lightening: for before that, huge Earth had hidden these. In them he trusts and rules over mortals and immortals.[7]

 

This great mythical tale that Hesiod spins for us, from the direct inspiration of the Muses which are so closely associated not only with the lyric poetic tradition of of classical Greece but also the mystery cults of the Greeks as well, bears much resemblance to the mythical narratives to the East and West, each of which tell the tale of a first generations of gods or first principles that are born out of chaos, a watery abyss, from which emerge Heaven, Earth, Sea and Sky.  And then from this initial creation, the great Mother Earth (Gaia) produces the next generation of gods with the greatest of her siblings, Cronos, or Time (order, i.e. the Maat of the Egyptians), henceforth establishing order from the initial chaotic abyss.  And then the next generation of gods is brought forth and there is another (symbolic) overthrow of the reign of the gods and goddesses to a second generation, where Zeus, the god of thunder and lightning, takes the throne from his father after an epic battle between the older generation of gods (the Titans) and the new generation born of Earth.

Interestingly, the attributes of Thunder and Lightning which are so closely associated with the Greek god Zeus, the head of the Olympic pantheon as it were, are also closely associated with the Sumer-Babylonian god Marduk, who as we learn from the Sumer-Babylonian theogony of the Enuma Elis also comes to power via the overthrow of the second generation of gods ruled by Tiamut through another epic battle of the forces of good (represented by Marduk) and the forces of evil as represented by Tiamut.  Even more interesting perhaps are the parallels that can be drawn between Zeus and Marduk of the Greek and Sumer-Babylonian pantheons respectively to the role of Thunder and Lightning as a fundamental creative principle, a cornerstone of the cyclical process of universe creation as it were, in the mythos of the ancient Chinese as depicted in the notion of Zhen (Thunder) as one of the eight primary trigrams of both the Earlier and Later Heaven sequences of bagua from the Yijing.

 


[1] http://www.hellenicgods.org/orphiccosmogonyandtheogony

[2] The Theogony of Hesiod.  Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914.  From http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm

[3] http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm (ll. 116-138).

[4] Erebus , or Erebos, is translated into English roughly as “deep darkness, or shadow”.  Erebus is also referred to as a region of the Underworld where the dead had to pass immediately after dying, and is sometimes used interchangeably with Tartarus.

[5] The Theogony of Hesiod.  Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914.  Book II verses 167-206.  From http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm

[6] The Theogony of Hesiod.  Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914.  From http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm

[7] The Theogony of Hesiod.  Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914.  From http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm

 

 

 

The Fisherman and the Net: Geometric Symbolism in the Gospel of John (II of II)

The full geometric symbol of the Jesus and fish catching parable from left to right with the Net consisting of two tetraktys, 16 (17) squares in all, each of which is 153 in width and in total each, 612 in length for each side (the gematria value for Zeus)

The full geometric symbol of the Jesus and fish catching parable from left to right with the Net consisting of two tetraktys, 16 (17) squares in all, each of which is 153 in width and in total each, 612 in length for each side (the gematria value for Zeus)

 

What we’re left with if we are to believe this geometric formulation of the miraculous tale of Jesus and the fishes with his seven disciples in the Sea of Galilee in the Gospel of John is a geometric figure – if transposed from top to bottom rather than left to right is one which the inner circle represents the boat and includes circles of circumference of 1925 (gematria value of “Simon Peter”) representing each of the seven disciples, with Simon Peter being in the central location of the seven disciples within the circular boat, the boat itself having a diameter of 1224 which is the gematria value of “Fishes” and “The Net”, and a radius of 612  which is the gematria value of “Zeus”.  The net, again cast to the right of the boat by the disciples for the catching of fish and represented by another vesica piscis with a width of 612 and a height of 1060.  Furthermore, each of the rhombus squares within the net have a width of 153, there are 17 rhombuses in total (including the encompassing rhombus), and the numbers 1-17 when added together also equal 153.  The perimeter of the net in its entirety is 2448, or 153 x 4 x 4.

The final geometric construct has a top portion whose dimensions are determined by the gematria value of the gematria value for “The Fisherman’s Coat” (1060 again) as well as the gematria value of “Simon Peter” (1925).  This figure rests above the circle representing the disciples in the boat whose dimensions again are determined by the gematria value of “Simon Peter” (1925).  The final figure, now at the bottom of the figure, representing the net that was cast by the disciples to the side of the boat, contains a vesica piscis shape precisely equivalent to the one that contains Peter’s coat at the (now) top of our figure, the net having a perimeter of 2448 and consisting of 16 rhombus squares, each 153 in width, and whose vesica piscis width is 612, the gematria value for “Zeus”.

 

Geometric Transliteration of the tale of Jesus and the miraculous catch of 153 fish showing the three distinct and yet related perspectives on reality of which the Soul, via the Logos, bridges the two to provide for the ascent of the Soul into the upper realms.

Geometric Transliteration of the tale of Jesus and the miraculous catch of 153 fish showing the three distinct and yet related perspectives on reality of which the Soul, via the Logos, bridges the two to provide for the ascent of the Soul into the upper realms.

Here the inner circle includes the seven disciples with the boat, where each inner circle has a circumference of 1925 (“Simon Peter” gematria value), the diameter of the overall circle representing the boat having a value of 1224 (gematria value of “Fishes” and “The Net”) a radius of 612 (the gematria value of “Zeus”), with the net itself having a width of 612 as well and therefore a height of 1060, again closely related to the gematria values for both “Apollo” and “Pleroma” which is calculated using the square root of 3, of which 153 is an important factor as established quite clearly by Archimedes, and where each of the rhombus squares within the net are 153 in width and where the perimeter of the net in its entirety is 153x4x4 or 2448.

The final geometric construct, in our diagram placed on top of the whole figure, is sized by the gematria value of Peter’s coat (1060 again) and is placed precisely above the circle representing the disciples consistent with the circle representing the net below the disciples boat, with a vesica piscis shape exactly like the one that contains the net below the circle representing the boat, and containing within it a circle of diameter 612 and cut in half by presumably Peter’s coat, resembling the setting Sun, again a significant symbol in the mystery and esoteric traditions that flourished in classical Greek antiquity.

Leaving aside for a moment skepticism that might arise from the construction of this geometric diagram simply from the number 153 combined with the gematria values of some key terms in the language itself from which the shape is constructed, one must keep in mind that the Gospel of John more so than any other Gospel, is the one that contains the most explicit references to the Greek philosophical tradition that preceded it, most notably with its reliance on the Logos as a primordial construct from which the universe first emanates and which is associated with Jesus himself as the Logos incarnate in the world of man.

 

But the symbology of the geometry embedded in the story is not finished yet however, for there is a whole other level of geometric values and relationships that can be drawn out of the diagram if you extend it a bit further.  Drawing on metaphysical theories of a divine triad which reflected the complete cosmic world order and specifically mankind’s place in it, once can view the top most circle – the one representing Peter – as representing the ultimate reality, the One of the Neo-Platonist tradition which had begun to take shape at around the same time that New Testament canon was established – most notably with Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus who although were not Christians, still were able to flourish before the pagan traditions were wiped out as the Christian orthodox Church consolidated power.

In this extrapolation of the cosmology embedded in Plato’s Timaeus, and in a tradition that synthesized not only Stoic principles but also Peripatetic (Aristotle) philosophy, the Monad, Dyad and Triad of the Pythagoreans had evolved to reflect the indivisible One from which all of creation emerged, the divine Intellect, or Mind which albeit a reflection of the One was the source of the Dyad, or the multiplicity that was found in the material universe, and then the Soul which was contained attributes of both, both divine and sensual, the goal of life being the ascent of the Soul into the realm of the Good, the abode of intelligibles of Forms, until ultimately a union of the Soul with the Demiurge was possible, consistent with the mystery traditions of Greece, and Egypt, which came before them.

In this sacred geometry than can be gleaned from the parable of Jesus and his disciples and the miraculous catching of the 153 fish, the bottom-most geometric figure which constructed from the gematria values of “Fishes” and “The Net” represents the material world to which our bodies are bound, via the metaphor of the Net, which requires grace, or in this case the messiah Jesus Christ (the Logos in the flesh to the early Christian communities), to release us from this bondage.  The message of the symbology is then that through the belief and faith in Christ and his teachings, as reflected in the middle tier of circles representing the disciples of Jesus who carried forth his message, that this transition from the material world to the spiritual world could in fact be realized.

The connection between Jesus and the Temple at Delphi and Apollo is further crystallized by the fact that if you draw a full circle around the entire diagram, all three circles symbolizing the disciples in the boat, the net and fish, and Simon Peter, the circumference of the circle itself is 7690, 769 being the gematria value of “Pythios”, the holy name for Apollo at the Temple of Delphi.  In this larger geometric symbology, the connection between Jesus the new savior and the Temple at Delphi and Apollo, the historically most significant religious center in the ancient Hellenic world, is born out by the fact that if you draw a full circle around the entire diagram – all three circles symbolizing the disciples in the boat, the net and fish, and Simon Peter – the circumference of said circle is 7690, 769 being the gematria value of “Pythios”, the holy name for Apollo at the Temple of Delphi.

 

Full view of the geometric form of reality encoded in the parable if the miraculous fish story in John which derives the ultimate connection of the three realms with the Temple of Delhi, namely Pythios whose gematria value of 769 is the circumference of the all-encompassing circle.

Full view of the geometric form of reality encoded in the parable if the miraculous fish story in John which derives the ultimate connection of the three realms with the Temple of Delhi, namely Pythios whose gematria value of 769 is the circumference of the all-encompassing circle.

Furthermore, the underlying mathematics that illustrate this divine triad can also be seen by starting with a square with width of one side of a square with equal to 1, representing God the Father of the Christian and the One of the Neo-Platonists.  The diagonal line within this square where each side is again of width 1 is equal to the square root of 2, or 1.415 – the approximate gematria value for “The God Apollo” (1415).  This level of reality is represented by the Nous, or Intellect of the Neo-Platonic triad, the Logos of the Hellenic philosophical which is referred to directly in in John 1, representing the intermediary principle that facilitates and mediates the divine/spiritual and material worlds.  And then the material world, Plato’s World Soul, represented by the Net, or the Holy Spirit in the Christian tradition represented by the height of the vesica piscis that is constructed with a width of the square root of 2, the diagonal of our initial square with each side having a length of 1.  The height of this final vesica piscis is equivalent to the square root of 2 x the square root of three.

The identification of the One which corresponds to the upper portion of the geometric figure which is constructed above with the side of a perfect square, the identification of the bridge between the one and the many (the Logos) as the diagonal within the perfect square whose value is equivalent to the square root of two – 1.415 roughly equivalent to the gematria value of “The God Apollo” which is 1415 – and then the height of a vesica piscis which is constructed from the same dimension of the perfect square whose diagonal is the same width as the vesica piscis from which can be derived the height of the vesica which yields the square root of two times the square root of three, or 2.448, the perimeter of the net in the geometrical symbology above which again is the gematria equivalent to “Fishes” and “The Net” in the story as related in the Gospel of John, a value and shape (of the net) which not surprisingly he equates to Plato’s World Soul.

In its essential mathematical form then, the parable of the story of Jesus and the miraculous catching of fish by his disciples after he is resurrected can be boiled down to the symbolic representation of the three fold view of reality which was prevalent in esoteric and mystical traditions in the Hellenic world at the time of Christ, starting with a square of sides of 1, corresponding to the Neo-Platonic One and underlying unity of all creation (God the Father), the square root of 2 which is the geometric mean between 1 and 2 (the Monad and Dyad respectively) which in the Greek world was symbolized by Apollo (“The God Apollo” gematria value of 1415), the mediator between the heavenly and earthly worlds presiding over the Temple of Delphi, and then lastly Plato’s World Soul, the “Net” of material reality to which we are all bound denoted by the number 2448 (gematria value of “Fishes” and “The Net”) which is almost precisely equivalent to the square root of two times the square root of three (actually 2.448) and represents the height of the vesica piscis which encompasses the net whose width is equal to the diagonal length of the square with sides of 1 (square root of 2).

These Neo-Platonic esoteric elements can be mapped directly to the Christian theological doctrine of the Trinity, where the One of the Neo-Platonists corresponds to the Father of the Christian, the net of the World Soul corresponds to the Holy Spirit which manifests in the material, sensory world, and the Son of God – Jesus – as the mediator between the two worlds, the Logos of the Hellenic tradition who is manifest in the flesh for the salvation of mankind.  Note that this connection to this Greek philosophical tradition and to the Logos doctrine specifically is called out in the opening verse of the Gospel of John itself – “In the beginning was the Word [logos], and the Word [logos] was with God and God was the Word (logos)”[1].  This Logos construct in many respects represents the penultimate theological bridge between the divine and material worlds in the synthesized and most evolved form of the Greek philosophical tradition, at least how it was absorbed and adopted by the early Christian theologians (and Gnostics).  In the Neo-Platonic tradition which continued to evolve somewhat independently of early Christianity, it was referred to as Nous, or the divine Intellect, but the concept was the same – it was the means by which the supernatural could become materially manifest, implying order and reason behind the construction itself and at the same time not being an independent force as it were but one which was metaphysically equivalent with its ontological parent, the One, as well as its ontological child, the (World) Soul[2].

It is not inconceivable then, especially given the first marginalization and then later persecution of the Gnostic sects which attempted to bridge the Hellenistic philosophical doctrine with the interpretation of the meaning of Christ and his message, that the authors of this particular Gospel would try and encode the esoteric and symbolic messages that had been passed down through Pythagoras, Plato and then others within the text itself, burying the meanings in hidden relationships in a story and parable, related to fish of course, that all of the followers of Christianity could glean something from, while at the same time glorifying Jesus as one who was raised from the dead and as a performer of miracles.

 


 

[1] Translation directly from the Greek, i.e. literal translation taken from http://biblehub.com/text/john/1-1.htm.

[2] This triad, in both the Neo-Platonic tradition as well as in the early formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, were described as being of one substance, or of one underlying essence, where three hypostases in one ousia (substance or essence) came to be accepted as the standard and orthodox position regarding the Trinity in early Christianity.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypostatic_union.

The Fisherman and the Net: Geometric Symbolism in the Gospel of John (I of II)

At this juncture a word must be said about some astronomical events and progressions that were at work around the time of Christ which played some role in the formulation of the interpretation of the life and teachings of Jesus and in particular his association with the Zodiac sign of Pisces, or the “fish sign”.  Specifically here we’re referring to the progression of the equinoxes, within which the timeframe of Jesus’s birth takes on significant importance.

First and foremost it must be recognized that astronomy, theology and philosophy were very intertwined disciplines in antiquity.  This tradition can be seen across all ancient, early civilizations (Sumer-Babylon, Mesoamerican cultures, Indo-Aryan peoples, the Persians, etc.) whose reliance on the stars and an understanding of the passage of seasons was a matter of life and death and cultural and social survival, rather than a simple scientific enterprise.  To know astronomy was to know God to the peoples of antiquity and this was reflected in its incorporation into philosophic, mystic and theological disciplines in antiquity across cultures across the globe.

Despite some basic astronomical ignorance of the ancients – like for example that the Earth revolves around the Sun rather than the other way around – the ancients did show, particular in the West, a very solid understanding of not only the dates of the equinoxes (the two times a year when the length of the day and night are equivalent) but also a good understanding of what is called the precession of the equinoxes, an astronomical phenomenon caused by the very slow movement of the shift of the Earth’s axis, akin to the bobbling of a top, that takes approximately 26,000 years, causing the falling of the dates of the equinoxes to move ever so slightly westward along the ecliptic, the opposite direction that the sun moved across the same path.  The ancients didn’t of course understand why this occurred completely, but they did understand that these equinoxes moved ever so slightly in a regressive path across the ecliptic, through the constellations of the Zodiac, and this progression like all astronomical phenomena had great significance to the sages in antiquity.[1]

So what the ancients knew quite clearly was that, according to their geocentric astronomical viewpoint, the Earth traveled around the Sun every 365 days, that twice a year the day and night were of equal length, i.e. the equinoxes (from the Latin words for equal, “aequus”, and night, “nox”), and that every 26,000 years or so there was a shift of the equinoxes to a (preceding) zodiac sign, a transition from Aries to Pisces occurring at approximately 100 BCE, just around the time of the birth of Christ and shedding some light on the visit of the Magi priests from the East at the time of his birth.

The precession of the equinoxes follows the following progression, timing that was clearly well understood during the second half of the first millennium BCE (and perhaps understood much earlier although the evidence for this is unclear and scant at best) with the astronomical discovery being attributed to Hipparchus the Greek mathematician and astronomer in the 2nd century BCE.[2]

 

  • Age of Taurus (Bull) – 4500 BCE – 2000 BCE
  • Age of Aries (Ram) – 2000 BCE – 100 BCE
  • Age of Pisces (Fish) – 100 BCE – 2700 CE
  • Age of Aquarius (Water-bearer) – 2700 CE ff.

 

Having established the astronomical significance of the transition into Pisces in the Zodiac at around the time of Christ it is no surprise that we find stories relating Jesus to fish in the literature surrounding his life and teaching.  In particular we have two such miraculous stories relating to Jesus and the catching of fish in the Gospels, the first of which can be found in the Gospel of Luke where the miraculous catching of fish is attributed to the joining of Peter, James and John as disciples of Jesus (Luke5:1-11) and the second story comes toward the end of the Gospel of John after Jesus is killed[3].

As already mentioned the gematria values for “Jesus” and “Christos”, 888 and 1480 respectively were not only related to the magic square of the Sun being factors of the special number 74, which along with 111 and 666 are special numeric characteristics of the magic square of the Sun, but also relate back to the tradition of the Temple at Delphi as the geometric mean between 888 and 1480 is equal to 769, which is the gematria value of the Greek word “Pythios”, the name for Apollo at the Temple of Delphi.  Perhaps the most mysterious and perplexing example of geometric symbology via gematria comes from the story of Jesus and the casting of the net and catching of 153 fish in the Gospel of John, the Gospel that shows the most Greek philosophic influence (Logos, etc.).

In the Gospel of John story, Peter and 6 other disciples are in a boat fishing all night in the Sea of Galilee and have caught nothing.  In the morning, Jesus (unrecognized at first) asks them from the shore if they have caught anything to which they replied no.  He then instructs them to cast their net to the right side of the boat after which they catch a large number (haul) of fish and after which they recognize the man to be Jesus.  Peter then puts on an outer garment (ἐπενδύτην), jumps from the boat (“casts himself into the sea”) and swims ashore to meet him, while the rest of the disciples came ashore to find Jesus and a fire of coals with fish and bread waiting for them.  Jesus then instructs them to bring their net full of fish which they find has 153 fish in it and despite the great load, the net itself had not been broken.  The disciples then eat with Jesus on the shore, it having been the third time that Jesus had revealed himself after he had been crucified.[4]

Keeping to the geometric and mathematical symbolism of the selection of the number 153, we also find references to a very similar story regarding the calculation of fish in the mythical narrative surrounding the life of Pythagoras as reported by Iamblichus as well as Porphyry, both Neo-Platonists philosophers writing some few centuries after Christ but presumably drawing on much older sources, and both clearly showing significant influence by Pythagorean teachings.  The story is related by Iamblichus, the earlier of the two authors from the third/fourth century CE, below:

 

AT that time also, when he was journeying from Sybaris to Crotona, he met near the shore with some fishermen, who were then drawing their nets heavily laden with fishes from the deep, and told them he knew the exact number of the fish they had caught.  But the fishermen promising they would perform whatever he should order them to do, if the event corresponded with his prediction, he ordered them, after they had accurately numbered the fish, to return them alive to the sea: and what is yet more wonderful, not one of the fish died while he stood on the shore, though they had been detained from the water a considerable time.  Having therefore paid the fishermen the price of their fish, he departed for Crotona. But they everywhere divulged the fact, and having learnt his name from some children, they told it to all men.[5]

 

In this Pythagorean story/myth, which is most definitely associated with the miraculous powers attributed to Pythagoras and contributed to his fame there is no mention of the number of fish in the net, despite the attempt by later Biblical and esoteric historians to try and connect the two stories directly.  What does seem rather odd however, is the narrative of the story and how similar it is to the account of Jesus and the miraculous catch of fish at the end of John.  Whether or not the story is attributed to Jesus, and the geometric symbolism tied to and built off of the number 153 is constructed off of that myth/fable remains an unverifiable connection to say the least but the general parallels cannot be ignored, especially since the esoteric geometric symbology which can be constructed from the story itself, stemming from the specific number of fish that are called out as caught in the net that is cast from the boat of disciples, show signs of Pythagorean mathematical and symbology as we have come to understand Pythagorean cosmology and esoteria through antiquity as interpolated by later expositors of his doctrines, again such as Iamblichus and Porphyry, the Neo-Platonist philosophers who are contemporaneous with early Christian theological developments and who clearly held Pythagoras in such high esteem, viewed him as the father of Greek philosophy, and presumably had access to oral as well as written traditions about his life and teachings which are lost to us now.

One might legitimately ask why this number 153 has come to be understood as carrying such great mystical and symbolic meaning.  Despite its very special properties as a number in and of itself (sum of the values 1-17 consistent with the sacred Pythagorean tetraktys triangular shape which followed a similar pattern albeit stopping at 4), and one which clearly shows evidence of knowledge of the latest mathematical developments in late Hellenic antiquity (Archimedes for example who presumably drew from earlier sources to establish the closest know fraction to the value of the square root of three which represents the length/height of the vesica piscis), one could easily right off the numeric value as simply a count of the number of the fish that were actually caught.  For it is not too far-fetched a hypothesis to believe that the disciples, being fisherman themselves, were simply counting the number of fish that Jesus had so miraculously brought into their net.

But this does not explain the geometric symbology that can be crafted and developed from the story itself, starting with the number 153, designing a geometrical circular figure that contains seven same size circles which represents the seven disciples in the boat, each with a circumference of the gematria value of “Simon Peter”, the key figure in the story as 1925.  These seven circles, each with a circumference of 1925 consistent with the circle representing Simon Peter of circumference 1925, reside within a larger circle which encompasses all seven circles representing the disciples which in turn symbolizes the boat, has a diameter of 1224, which is equivalent to the gematria value in Greek of both “fishes” and “the net”.

 

Figure 1: The geometry symbolism of Simon Peter and the disciples in the boat, where the circumference of the circle representing the disciples being equal to 1925 and the diameter of the circle of the boat being equivalent to 1224, the gematria value of “Fishes” and “The Net”.

Figure 1: The geometry symbolism of Simon Peter and the disciples in the boat, where the circumference of the circle representing the disciples being equal to 1925 and the diameter of the circle of the boat being equivalent to 1224, the gematria value of “Fishes” and “The Net”.

At this point Jesus tells the disciples to recast their net to the right side of the boat, using the symbology of the net which has significant esoteric meaning in antiquity, having been quoted by Proclus as a metaphor for the manifestation of the material world which is covered by a net, or web of objects of the senses and mankind’s desire of the same, as well as by the Template of Delphi practitioners whose omphalos stone which formed important element to its divination ceremonies and was considered by some in the Delphic circles to be the center of the world in antiquity, was also covered by a net to effect the same symbolism of the world of name and form from which the individual soul must liberate itself from in order to ascend to the higher realms of spiritual illumination.  The same symbology is used by the Vedic/Hindu tradition to describe the world of Maya, or illusion, which is also symbolized by a net which catches spiritual aspirants and from which they must escape to realize the true nature of reality and attain spiritual illumination and freedom from the bonds of the sensory, material world which is governed by desire.

In the miraculous fish story relayed in John, the disciples then cast the net to the right side of the boat, which following the gematria numeric symbology creates a circle just to the right of the circle of the boat which carries the disciples with the special properties of a vesica piscis being formed whose left outermost edge tangentially brushes up against the center of the circle of the boat (whose height of course is also the square root of 3 which is closely related to the 163 number value that connects the whole geometric symbol.  This net that is case to the right of the boat that rests within the vesica piscis also carries with it special geometric properties as it can be filled with an oblong polygon whose corners align with each center side of the vesica piscis and whose top two corners line up with the top and bottom of the vesica piscis, forming an oblong square which, when cut into a four by four square, visually representing a net one might add, has the special mathematical properties of having its height equal to 1060 (the gematria value of Apollo – the height and width times the square root of 3) a perimeter equal to 2448 or 612 x 4, where each small square across each perimeter of the net is equal again to 153 (153×4 = 612).

Once the boat has been constructed with 7 circles of circumference 1925 (gematria value of “Simon Peter”) and the net has been created just to the right, adjoining to the circle of the boat via the vesica piscis with height of approximately 1060, and the net itself has been broken down into 4 by four squares, reflecting the visual representation of the net, whereby each square is 153 in width and the total perimeter of the square with the 16 inner squares having perimeter of 153x4x4 = 612×8 = 2448, double the gematria value of both “fishes” and “the net” in their Greek transliteration.  The net itself in this geometric diagram is incidentally made up of two Pythagorean tetraktys appended to each other, one on top of the other, where the base of the triangle is 4, the next level is 3, the next two and the top 1 which of course is known to have very symbolic and esoteric meaning in the Pythagorean schools.  The number 153 is reflected in this geometric construction as well as the total number of rhombuses (also referred to as an equilateral quadrilateral), including the outer rhombus itself has not only a width of 153, but also contains 17 rhombuses in total, again including the larger all encompassing rhombus within which all of the other rhombuses are housed – as also already pointed out, 153 is the sum of the numbers 1-17, the number of components in the geometric net.

 

Figure 2: Geometric symbol representing the casting of the net to the right of the boat containing the seven disciples.  The height of the vesica piscis being equal to 1060, and the perimeter of the net having a value of 2448, when divided into 16 equivalent squares (which is two inverted Pythagorean tetraktys on top of each other), each square is 153 in width, the number of fishes caught in the net.

Figure 2: Geometric symbol representing the casting of the net to the right of the boat containing the seven disciples. The height of the vesica piscis being equal to 1060, and the perimeter of the net having a value of 2448, when divided into 16 equivalent squares (which is two inverted Pythagorean tetraktys on top of each other), each square is 153 in width, the number of fishes caught in the net.

The net itself in this geometric diagram can be broken down into two Pythagorean tetraktys appended to each other, one on top of the other, where the base of the triangle is 4, the next level is 3, the next two and the top 1 which of course is known to have very symbolic and esoteric meaning in the Pythagorean schools (see Figure below).  The number 153 is reflected in this geometric construction as well as the total number of rhombuses (also referred to as an equilateral quadrilateral), including the outer rhombus itself has not only a width of 153, but also contains 17 rhombuses in total, again including the larger all-encompassing rhombus within which all of the other rhombuses are housed – as also already pointed out, 153 is the sum of the numbers 1-17, the number of components in the geometric net.

The next, and final level of geometric symbology that can be drawn out of the parable is can be constructed using the gematria value for the fisher’s coat which Peter places on himself before he leaps out of the boat to swim to Jesus on the shore.  The gematria value for the transliteration of “The Fisher’s Coat” or “overcoat” in Greek is 1060, laying out the dimension for the height of the vesica piscis, whose width in turn is 612, the gematria value for “Zeus”.  Its height in turn is closely correlated to the square root of 3, which we know is associated with 153 as well as determined by the closest known approximation for the square root of three at the time, or 265/153 as established by Archimedes some three centuries prior if not earlier.  1060 in turn is not only very close approximation for the gematria value for Apollo (1061) but also for the gematria value of “Pleroma” (1059), which conceptually plays a significant role in early Christian and Gnostic circles, is found in the New Testament and Gnostic treatises, and denotes the complete totality of existence.  Inserted in this vesica piscis is also a representation of Simon Peter, again a circle with circumference of 1925 and a diameter of approximately 612, the gematria value of “Zeus” which is the width of the vesica piscis.

 

 

 

[1] The Zodiac is a circle of approximately 30 degree divisions of celestial longitude that are centered on the ecliptic, 12 divisions in all that are associated with the various animals and mythical figures with which we are familiar, starting with Aries and ending with Pisces.  The calendar and Zodiac astronomical system is attributed to the Babylonians, more specifically the Chaldean people, who came to be known to the Greeks as synonymous with astronomy – for example the magi of the East in the New Testament which anticipated the birth of Christ based upon astronomical phenomena.  The origins of the twelve signs of the zodiac which correspond to the twelve months of our Gregorian calendar can be found as far back as the first millennium BCE.

[2] Although the discovery of the precession of the equinoxes is attributed to the Greek astronomer Hipparchus (circa 190-120 BCE), whose work on precession was continued by Ptolemy, some scholars attribute this knowledge at least at a superficial level to the Babylonians and/or the Egyptian civilizations and priests prior to the Greeks.    This precession is sometimes referred to as the Great Month, the precession through the entire Zodiac being referred to in this context as the Great Year.

[3] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miraculous_catch_of_fish for a brief account of both of the miracle accounts.

[4] John 21:1-11.  See http://biblehub.com/text/john/21-1.htm.

[5] Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras Chapter VIII, translated by Thomas Taylor.  London: J.M. Watkins 1818.

Vedic Cosmological Narratives (Part II)

The Hymn of Purusha: God Takes Shape[1]

While the preceding passage from the Rig Veda contains some of the root kernel philosophical elements of Vedic philosophy, there is another passage from the same collection of hymns dating back to the 2nd millennium BCE that speaks to the more what we might call, classically ancient mythological, bent of the Indo-Aryans. This is a verse (quoted below) which describes a variation on the creation story/narrative which comes much closer to what we would call “myth”, and has a much more anthropomorphic bent, than the esoteric passage quoted above.

1 A THOUSAND heads hath Puruṣa, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet.

On every side pervading earth he fills a space ten fingers wide.

2 This Puruṣa is all that yet hath been and all that is to be;

The Lord of Immortality which waxes greater still by food.

3 So mighty is his greatness; yea, greater than this is Puruṣa.

All creatures are one-fourth of him, three-fourths eternal life in heaven.

4 With three-fourths Puruṣa went up: one-fourth of him again was here.

Thence he strode out to every side over what eats not and what eats.

5 From him Virāj was born; again Puruṣa from Virāj was born.

As soon as he was born he spread eastward and westward o’er the earth.

6 When Gods prepared the sacrifice with Puruṣa as their offering,

Its oil was spring, the holy gift was autumn; summer was the wood.

7 They balmed as victim on the grass Puruṣa born in earliest time.

With him the Deities and all Sādhyas and Ṛṣis sacrificed.

8 From that great general sacrifice the dripping fat was gathered up.

He formed the creatures of-the air, and animals both wild and tame.

9 From that great general sacrifice Ṛcas and Sāma-hymns were born:

Therefrom were spells and charms produced; the Yajus had its birth from it.

10 From it were horses born, from it all cattle with two rows of teeth:

From it were generated kine, from it the goats and sheep were born.

11 When they divided Puruṣa how many portions did they make?

What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?

12 The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rājanya made.

His thighs became the Vaiśya, from his feet the Śūdra was produced.

13 The Moon was gendered from his mind, and from his eye the Sun had birth;

Indra and Agni from his mouth were born, and Vāyu from his breath.

14 Forth from his navel came mid-air the sky was fashioned from his head

Earth from his feet, and from his car the regions. Thus they formed the worlds.

15 Seven fencing-sticks had he, thrice seven layers of fuel were prepared,

When the Gods, offering sacrifice, bound, as their victim, Puruṣa.

16 Gods, sacrificing, sacrificed the victim these were the earliest holy ordinances.

The Mighty Ones attained the height of heaven, there where the Sādhyas, Gods of old, are dwelling.[2]

Here we see many of the basic, core elements of ancient creation mythology that we are familiar with in the West – the creation of the seasons, animals, anthropomorphism, etc. We also see a connection drawn from the creation cosmology to societal and theological structure, i.e. the caste system which was such a key component of the Indo-Aryan peoples for much of their history, and the connection between hymn and scripture and the godhead himself. We also see the creation of the astral and celestial elements such as the Earth, Sun and Moon and Sky, as well as the emergence of the first pantheon of Gods such as Indra, Vayu and Agni, both elements that are found in creation mythology throughout antiquity (the Greeks, the Romans, etc.).

Furthermore, this ancient primordial pseudo-anthropological principal – Purusha – evolved over time to become an integral part of two of the main Vedic philosophical systems, namely Samkhya and Yoga, each of which held universal creation to be a balance between two primordial forces – Purusha and Prakriti – male and female, inactive and active respectively, sharing many basic elements with Taoism (Yin/Yang) which emerged independently (presumably) in the Far East. So again we see the roots of the core Vedic and Hindu philosophical elements in the very earliest cosmological narrative, speaking to the duration and strength of the lineage itself and the strong connection between the cosmological narrative and the philosophy – brothers in arms as it were.

Manu, the Cosmic Egg and Dharma

We also find a very detailed account of creation in a very influential socio-political work from India called The Laws of Manu – aka Manusmriti – a work reflecting the latter part of the 2nd millennium BCE to the middle of the first millennium BCE (roughly running parallel with the transcription of the early Upanishads) dealing with social and cultural issues – laws, practices, customs, etc. – rather than ritual or mythical traditions as were codified in the Vedas and Upanishads. In it Manu, the mythical Adam of the Indo-Aryans, lays out the social philosophical principals and practices to a group of great sages (rishis), providing the guiding principals that were to underpin the governing of Indo-Aryan society for millennia.

Although not considered part of the orthodox Vedic scriptural tradition per se, the text is nonetheless extremely influential in the development of Indo-Aryan civilization, and Indian history in particular, as it lays the groundwork for the operation and management of a healthy society. The work may be looked at in contrast, or similar to Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Politics although it contains a much more practical, or perhaps more aptly put Judaic-Christian (and Islamic) bent, as it deals with laws and the proper functioning of society in a very concrete way whereas the Greek philosophers dealt much more in the abstract.

The text deals primarily with what is referred to in the Indian philosophical tradition as dharma, a fairly deep and profound term which can be loosely translated as righteousness, path, or way but is a sophisticated and profound term that implies righteous and aligned living and is tightly interwoven into social considerations, i.e. one’s station in life. It is a concept which is found in the Bhagavad Gita as well and spans not just the Indian philosophical tradition but Buddhism too, speaking to its age, as well as its importance in the Eastern philosophical milieu in general.

But despite being a guidebook to good living and proper management of civilization as it were, the Laws of Manu contains a very well constructed and detailed creation story (two variants actually) at its very beginning as well, its author feeling compelled no doubt to establish the basic underpinnings of not just the Indo-Aryan society, but of the universe at large, helping the great seers of old to who he was speaking connect the dots through creation itself to the emergence of advanced society.

Although a fairly lengthy passage, it is worth quoting (mostly) in full so the reader can gain a full appreciation of the depth of the story and its striking parallels with other ancient creation cosmological narratives.

There was this world – pitch dark, indiscernible, without distinguishing marks, unthinkable, incomprehensible, in a kind of deep sleep all over. Then the Self-existent Lord appeared – the Unmanifest manifesting this world beginning with the elements, projecting his might, and dispelling the darkness. That One – who is beyond the range of the senses; who cannot be grasped; who is subtle, unmanifest, and eternal; who contains all beings; and who transcends thought – it is he who shone forth on his own.

As he focused his thought with the desire of bringing forth diverse creatures from his own body, it was the waters that he first brought forth; and into them he poured forth his semen. That became a golden egg, as bright as the sun; and in it he himself took birth as Brahma, the grandfather of all the worlds.

After residing in the egg for a full year, the Lord on his own split the egg in two by brooding on his own body. From these two halves, he formed the sky and the earth, and between them the mid-space, the eight directions, and the eternal place of the waters.

From his body, moreover, he drew out the mind having the nature of both the existent and the non-existent; and from the mind, the ego – producer of self-awareness and ruler – as also the great self, all things composed of the three attributes[3] and gradually the five sensory organs that grasp the sense objects. By merging the subtle parts of these six possessing boundless might into particles of his own body, moreover, he formed all beings. Because the six parts of his physical frame became attached to these beings, the wise called his physical frame “body”. The great elements[4] enter it accompanied by their activities, as also the mind, the imperishable producer of all beings, accompanied by its subtle particles.

From the subtle particles of the physical frames of the seven males of great might, this world comes into being, the perishable from the imperishable. Of these, each succeeding element acquires the quality specific to each preceding. Thus, each element, tradition tells us, possesses the same number of qualities as the number of its position in the series. In the beginning through the words of the Veda alone, he fashioned for all of them specific names and activities, as also specific stations.

The Lord brought forth the group of gods who are endowed with breath and whose nature it is to act, the subtle group of Sadhyas, and the eternal sacrifice. From fire, wind, and sun, he squeezed out the eternal triple Veda characterized by the Rig verses, the Yajus formulas, and the Saman chants, for the purpose of carrying out the sacrifice. Time, divisions of time, constellations, planets, rivers, oceans, mountains, flat and rough terrain, austerity, speech, sexual pleasure, desire, and anger – he brought forth this creation in his wish to bring forth these creatures.

To establish distinctions among activities, moreover, he distinguished the Right (dharma) from the Wrong (adharma) and afflicted these creatures with the pairs of opposites such as pleasure and pain. Together with the perishable atomic particles of the five elements given in tradition, this whole world comes into being in an orderly sequence. As they are brought forth again and again, each creature follows on its own the very activity assigned to it in the beginning by the Lord. Violence or non-violence, gentleness or cruelty, righteousness (dharma) or unrighteousness (adharma), truthfulness or untruthfulness – whichever he assigned to each at the time of creation, it stuck automatically to that creature. As the change of seasons each season automatically adopts its own distinctive marks, so do embodied beings adopt their own distinctive acts.

For the growth of these worlds, moreover, he produced from his mouth, arms, thighs, and feet, the Brahmin, the Ksatriya, the Vaisya, and the Sudra.[5]

Here we see a much more comprehensive and elaborate creation story relative to its parallel verses in the Vedas, and the integration of a much more sophisticated philosophical system, but yet at the same time shows clear signs of strong Vedic (Rig-Veda) influence. We see the emergence of an ordered world from a primordial chaotic universe through the will and power of an anthropomorphic grand deity, the universe itself being a manifestation of his physical form and creation occurring by his will/seed across the primordial waters. We also see the inclusion of the analogy of the “cosmic egg” from which came forth the sky and the earth, a metaphor which can be found in various Brahmanas (commentaries on the Vedas transcribed in the first few centuries first millennium BCE), and in the Chandogya Upanishad (3.19), one of the earliest of the Upanishads (from the early part of the first millennium BCE). In the Chandogya Upanishad, the cosmic egg splits into golden and silver parts and from which the sky and earth germinate respectively and a reference to this same “golden egg” can also be found in Rig Veda verse as well (10.121), where the Sanskrit word Hiranyagarbha (10.121)[6], literally the “golden womb” or “golden egg”, is used as an epithet of the Creator, or Brahma.[7]

We furthermore see in this rendition of creation the emergence of the Gods, the Vedas themselves and the rituals which they describe and encode, the core elements of the universe (ether, wind, light, water, earth), the celestial elements of the universe, time itself, etc. all emerging from this great creation process, as do the creation of all living beings and creatures on earth. Parallels here can be drawn directly with the order of creation in Genesis for example, while the segmentation into 7 days isn’t found but the basic natural universal creation narrative follows a very similar line.

Finally at the end, and consistent with the purpose of the treatise as a whole, with some antecedents found in the Vedas themselves, we have a final attestation of the establishment of right (dharma) from wrong (adharma), as well as the basic social structure, as the final piece of creation and the establishment of order, leading quote nicely into the text itself which now sits on the foundation of universal order, from which the social order arises.

Summary: Vedic Cosmology, a Distinctive Approach

So what we see in the Vedic-Hindu creation mythological narrative then, and what distinguishes the tradition as a whole from the Judeo-Christian tradition (again within which we place Islam) is a string philosophical and analytical bent that goes back to the roots of the very scriptural tradition itself. This unbroken tradition, which starts with the pre-historical Indo-Aryans as reflected in the Vedas, and then passes through the Upanishadic phase which further codifies and elaborates on the philosophical and ritualistic tradition that we find in the Vedas and then moves to a more classic Western epic poetry phase which involves the pre-eminence of Gods and heroes – the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Puranas – includes not just what we would consider to be the classic theological components of a religion in today’s modern parlance – the classic creation story/myth – but also an underlying thread of philosophy and esotericism which were altogether abandoned from the Judeo-Christian narrative as it looked to focus more not on incorporating various streams of thought and schools of (philosophical) belief but on excluding as many different interpretations and traditions as possible so as to avoid any shadow of doubt with respect to how God was to be viewed and how his creation was to be perceived and even how one was to live their life in concordance with the laws of the Church.

So the Hindu creation mythology ascribes the source of the universe to Brahma, a layer of anthropomorphic abstraction between Brahman and the world of gods and men, who sits atop of the creation and destruction of this known universe, and that in turn each known universe has its own creation, preservation and destruction process and this process repeats itself ad infinitum through the ages. The Brahma of the Hindus is equivalent theologically to the Judeo-Christian God.

With the Indo-Aryan tradition then, we find belief in a single unified Creator God, Brahma, coupled with a robust philosophical tradition – Vedanta – from which the social and ethical structure of society evolves from and sits upon (as exemplified with Manu’s Laws and ethical precepts), and we also have a rich mythical poetic narrative, that is coupled with and compliments this deep philosophical system of thought no doubt capturing the imagination of Hindu’s from time immemorial. The cosmology embedded in the various scriptural texts, some of which we have looked at in detail here, captures essence and order of universal creation, the establishment of different classes of society, the creation narrative from the basic primary elements of universal matter to gods, sages, humans and all the way to the rest of life – plants, animals, etc.


[1] Although there is some debate as to the dating of all the verses within the Purusha Sukta (for example the verse which enumerates the various Indian castes), for the purposes of our discussion we can view the hymn as a 1st millennium BCE myth which speaks to a cosmological narrative surrounding Purusha which shows the early origins of the philosophy surrounding the same and the philosophical origins as embedded in the cosmological narrative itself in its earliest form – i.e. the scholarly debate on the dating of the composition or pieces thereof is not relevant to the this particular discussion albeit important and relevant enough to at least mention so the reader is aware.

[2] Rig Veda, Hymn XC. Purusa. Translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith [1896]. From http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/rv10090.htm.

[3] The three gunas, or qualities; i.e. sattva, rajas and tamas. The gunas are a key element of Vedic/Indian philosophy, originally stemming from the Samkhya school and then pervading most variants of Indian philosophy over time. The concept being that that these are the three fundamental characteristics and constituents of the universe, and the individual Soul (Atman), and that sattva – peace, calm, harmony – is to be cultivated for spiritual enlightenment. Tamas – darkness, inertia, sloth – is to be avoided and rajas, being somewhat beneficial – passion, action – is to be cultivated but should be tempered by sattva.

[4] “Elements” here, and below, referring to the five classic elements of the universe from the Indian philosophical perspective which diverged somewhat from the classic earth, air, water, fire that we are accustomed to seeing (alchemy for example) in the West. We have ether, wind, light, water, and earth, each created one from the other at the beginning of the universe, emanating from the mind of the creator when he awakens from his deep sleep. The process of creation of these elements, and their associated characteristics, is delineated in passage 1.75-8 of Laws of Manu and is alluded to here – “in a series”.

[5] Manu’s Code of Law, Chapter 1 verses 5-31. Translated by Patrick Olivelle. Oxford University Press, 2005 – pgs. 87-88.

[6] See Rig Veda translation by Ralph T.H. Griffith [1896], Hymn CXXI

[7] For a comprehensive look at the cosmic egg analogy, from which heaven and earth emerge, and its relationship to the age old theme of celestial, chaotic waters, see Origins of the Worlds Mythologies, E.J. Michael Witzel, Oxford University Press 2012 pgs. 121-124 where he looks extensively at these mythemes and their common use throughout a variety of ancient cultures in the Middle and Far East as well as into China and East Asia and provides specific reference passages in the Vedic literature.

Vedic Creation Narratives and Philosophy: Brothers in Arms (Part I)

When looking at the Indo-Aryan tradition, given its age and maturity and its fundamental belief and faith in the unity of man and the universe from which he emerged (unique to the Eastern religious traditions in general), a line can be drawn between creation mythology, aka cosmology[1], and the philosophical underpinnings of the school of thought, or metaphysics as it were. The connection between cosmology/creation mythology and philosophy is quite direct in the Vedic/Indo-Aryan philosophical tradition and in some sense this distinguishes this tradition from most other theological and philosophical traditions from antiquity and most certainly distinguishes it from Western theological traditions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) where philosophy and theology are very much subsumed and overwhelmed by scriptural dogma and law. This delineation between philosophy and theology, philosophy and religion really, is not nearly as hard cut in the Eastern philosophical tradition as it is in the West, or at the very least it can be said that the connections between the two seemingly distinct areas of study and concepts are more evident because they are not clouded within a tradition that is more focused on literal interpretation and the “word” rather than underlying “meaning”.

To be fair the delegation of philosophy as a discipline and practice, or way of life, to religion, theology and faith in the “Word” is a somewhat later development in the West, aligned with the preeminence of the Roman Empire and the spread of Christianity as a systematic faith with approved scripture along with their associated approved interpretations of fundamental theological narratives (the Holy Trinity for example). This theological development not only marginalizes the Jewish faith and theological tradition, but also gives rise to Islam which arose in no small measure as a reaction and counterbalance to Christian interpretation of Biblical scripture and narrative, and in particular interpretation of the life and message of the prophet Jesus – and of course to fill a socio-political vacuum which is so often the case. With this rise in Christianity’s influence and predominance we see the waning of the Greco-Roman philosophical schools – Neo-Platonism, Stoicism and Epicureanism being the most far reaching and influential – after which we see a sharp decline in epistemological and social/ethical philosophy and a steep inclination toward scriptural dogma and moral and ethical platitudes and “law” as it were. Enter the Dark Ages.

The Eastern philosophical tradition however remains unbroken with respect to its emphasis on basic, classical philosophical questions in tandem to its emphasis on faith and theology. No doubt the Eastern tradition in antiquity had its pantheon of Gods and Goddesses which were formed out of the primordial chaos from which the universe emanates, just as the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions espoused in fact, but the philosophical strain as it were was embedded deep in the Eastern traditions and was not subsumed by its anthropomorphic aspects and its scriptural tradition in and of itself. In both Taoism and Hinduism, and of course with Buddhism, we see a much more philosophic flavor than the grand dictums of the Judeo-Christian traditions that cast such a long shadow, and eventually subsumed, the philosophic traditions of the Greco-Romans that had shaped the development of civilization for some one thousand years or so.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.

And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.

10 And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.

11 And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.

12 And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

13 And the evening and the morning were the third day.

14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:

15 And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.

16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.

17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,

18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.

19 And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.[2]

In this creation narrative, one that no doubt has shaped the theological beliefs of Western society for some 1500 years at least, we have the formulation of structure and time as underpinnings for the story itself – God creates the world in seven days – but we also see the emanation of various basic universal elements, and then the heaven and earth itself, that emerge from the “primordial waters”, a very old cosmological motif that is virtually ubiquitous in ancient civilization of the Middle, Near and Far East.

But core to this narrative in fact, and underlining the Judeo-Christian world-view (which in turn is shared by the Muslim tradition despite its basic disagreement with its Judeo-Christian brethren on the relative importance of various prophets and basic theological stances such as the Holy Trinity and its implications on the underlying unity of God/Allah) is the role of God, the grand creator, preserver (and ultimate destroyer) of not just humanity but the universe itself. In this tradition we do not have any thread of philosophical questions with respect to the unity of existence, duality from unity or even any epistemological questions as to what could be known or who it could be known by (the chicken and the egg question so to speak), we simply have a creation story in succinct form which lays out what was created, when, by whom in quite literal fashion – laying the groundwork for a moral and ethical framework which is just as unforgiving as it were, given its lack of philosophical foundations, despite the longstanding work done by the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition to facilitate these philosophical lines of questions.

At some level a religious tradition can be thought of as distinguished by, or even defined by, its creation story – i.e. its cosmological narrative – and the Hindu/Vedic tradition is no different in this regard although it has many nuances and variances that distinguish it from Western theological traditions as noted above. If we approach the mythology as codified in the Hindu literature with an open mind – and myth in the Hindu tradition runs very deep – we can see that Vedic philosophy ultimately sprung forth from these ancient creation stories, the mythological tradition as it were, which in turn yielded over time an in depth, scientific and analytical approach to the nature of mind and its relationship to liberation and experience of the divine which forms the basis of Yoga in all its forms. We can see this philosophical bent from some of the earliest language we have surrounding creation, from the Rig Veda which codifies stories, remnants and artifacts of the ritualistic, mythological and philosophical belief systems of the Indo-Aryan peoples from the second millennium BCE (1900-1200 BCE) from which the Hindu religion eventually emerges (as well as Buddhism). And in these very early creation narratives, we find philosophical questions and openings that were preserved by the theological tradition of the East over millennia which provided scriptural support for philosophy itself, something again that is lacking in the Western theological tradition.

From one of the earliest and most famous verses of the Rig Veda, one of the oldest Hindu/Vedic scriptural texts and perhaps some of the oldest extant theological literature that is presently known to man, we find the following very famous narrative (translation from Vedic Sanskrit, Griffith 1896):

THEN was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it. What covered in, and where? and what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?

Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day’s and night’s divider. That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever.

Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos. All that existed then was void and form less: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit.

Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning, Desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit. Sages who searched with their heart’s thought discovered the existent’s kinship in the non-existent.

Transversely was their severing line extended: what was above it then, and what below it? There were begetters, there were mighty forces, free action here and energy up yonder

Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation? The Gods are later than this world’s production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?

He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,

Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.[3]

Here we have, in the English translation/transliteration of course, one of the earliest perspectives on universal creation that has ever been written. While Old Testament Genesis creation mythology, which bears many similarities to Sumer-Babylonian mythos as has been well documented, is a first millennium BCE creation more or less, the Rig Veda verses and text have been dated to a period of time in ancient history some millennium or so earlier, to mid or late second millennium BCE and quite clearly stems from an oral tradition that is even much earlier than this (as is the case with much of the mythological texts that we find in antiquity, the Vedic literature being no exception). And yet, despite its relative age, in many respects it bears philosophical marks that we do not see in the West until the Greek philosophers centuries, millennium really, later.

What we see in this verse of the Rig-Veda from purely mythical perspective is very similar in some respects to what we see in ancient Egyptian and Sumer-Babylonian cultures, the origin of the universe stemming from a fundamental, non-differentiated and chaotic cosmic principle – in this case somewhat questioningly identified with water or apas[4]. We also see clear anthropomorphic elements as well, establishing the basis for Hindu mythology and sacrificial rights that were an integral part of these ancient hunter-gatherers which we like to call the Indo-Aryans. But what we also see here, in one of the most famous and oft-quoted verses of the Rig-Veda, is the hint of the unknowable nature of the universe, laying the epistemological and philosophical groundwork to the long standing and rich philosophical tradition of the Indo-Aryan peoples from which Buddhism and Vedanta eventually emerge. This passage clearly indicates that this philosophical tradition in the East reaches deep into antiquity and parallels in many respects the philosophical developments that take place to the West, namely in classical Greece and Rome, but yet has roots that are at least one thousand years or so earlier in history.

What’s also interesting about this verse in the Rig Veda, is that despite sharing many common cosmological motifs – order from chaos, primordial waters, desire (Eros) sowing the seed of creation – it also contains many of the core, underpinning philosophical elements that distinguish Vedanta from other theological traditions, not just in antiquity but into modern times as well. The unknowable nature of creation and the Creator, the role of breath or life force in the creative process, the process of defining the unknowable by what it is not (versus what it is) which is a somewhat unique characteristic of the Eastern philosophical traditions and still can be found in some of the Buddhist and Vedic philosophical schools (Yoga for example with prana) even today. Many of these seeds are sown here, in this passage of the Rig Veda and it is for this reason that this text is still so widely revered even today by Vedic sages and scholars alike.


[1] Cosmology in this context to be the study of the origins of the universe from an ancient mythological or philosophical perspective as distinguished between today’s, perhaps better known definition of cosmology which denotes the study of universal origins from a theoretical physics or astronomical perspective.

[2] Genesis 1, King James Version. From https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+1&version=KJV.

[3] Rig Veda, Hymn CXXIX. Creation. Translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith [1896]. From http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/rv10129.htm

[4] Ap (áp-) is the Vedic Sanskrit term for “water”, in Classical Sanskrit occurring only in the plural, āpas.

Creation Stories of the Ancient Egyptians: Order (Maat) from Chaos

Cultural Context

As Charlie began to delve into the mythology of the Ancient Egyptians, and in particular their cosmology, or mythological description of the origins of the known universe, he found that a narrative of mythology or a book of writings on the topic (like that of Ovid for the Romans for example) was lacking.  To find out about Egyptian creation myths then, Charlie had to parse through Egyptian texts that described hymns, magical rites, funeral rites and rituals, along with some reference to Egyptian mythology from Plutarch, the first century AD Greek historian and philosopher.  Charlie of course didn’t read any form of Egyptian, nor did he read Greek or Latin, so he had to rely on second hand interpretations and translations of all of the extant materials

But what struck Charlie as unique to the Egyptians though, was the variety of interpretations of Egyptian myth in general.  There wasn’t just one creation myth, there were several versions, each with basically the same cast of characters, but yet each subtly different in its own way.  But based on his studies of the Ancient Egyptian culture though, Charlie thought that this was not due to a lack of formal mythology of the Ancient Egyptians, as some scholars postulated, but due to the age or maturity of the civilization itself.

Charlie knew enough about Ancient Civilizations, as well as the origins of mankind from an anthropomorphic, archeological and genetic standpoint, that as you went further back into history, the historian had to rely less on actual firsthand accounts, or the mature formalization of ideas and principles, and more on archeological evidence and second hand accounts from later historians.  And that was what Charlie was represented with for the most part when he delved into the mythology of the Ancient Egyptians.

What was somewhat unique about the Ancient Egyptians, Charlie thought, and you could make the same argument for all of the earliest civilizations, is that the civilization was primarily marked by a loose configuration of peoples that were bound by a geographical and cultural construct.  In contract to the Greek or Roman civilizations for example, where the culture, and in turn the mythology and theology, was more consistent and coherent reflecting the predominant cultural influence that the Greeks and Romans had on all of its peoples.

The Egyptian civilization formed primarily around the shared experience of the Nile River, and its annual cycles.  You had Lower and Upper Egypt[1] (lower being the more northern parts of Ancient Egypt which never ceased to confuse Charlie), and they were bound by the dependence on the fertilization power of the Nile.  Most ancient civilizations were formed out of combined, collective social experience and organization around river valleys, such as Sumer around the Tigris-Euphrates, and Ancient Egypt was no exception.

The mythology, and in turn the cosmology, of the Ancient Egyptians reflected this hodge-podge relationship of its peoples, along with the collective experience and attachment to cyclical nature of the people’s relationship with the Nile river.  Much of their mythology and theology in turn, evolved from this relationship with the annual cycle of the flooding of the Nile, around ideas of a cycle, and natural order of things that repeated itself – the rising and setting of the sun god Ra every day for example, or the cycle of the birth and death of the divine ruler, or the pharaoh.

One of the more marked and unique aspect of Egyptian mythology, and in turn Egyptian culture and society, was the importance of the cycles of the day and the year.  According to most historians, and Charlie most definitely agreed with their interpretation in this regard, the Egyptian focus and obsession with the cycle of life, marked most notably by the passage of the sun across the sky and the annual flooding of the Nile, reflected the great cultural and sociological dependence on the Nile for food and nourishment.  And this annual flooding of the Nile was in turn a primary focus of the society to ensure their survival.

The primary focus of the Egyptian religion then, and the intent of most of their rituals and religious ceremonies, was to ensure that the cyclical events of nature that ensured their survival continued to occur on a regular basis, an effort to maintain the natural order of maat[2].  Maat, or Ma’at, to the Ancient Egyptian represented the fixed, eternal order of the universe, both in the cosmos and in human society.  Maat had always existed, and would always exist, and it was the ever present and all pervading principle that provided the order and structure to the known universe.

 

Common Themes and Sources

But regardless of the variety of creation myths that existed throughout ancient Egypt, Charlie found that for the most part they all shared a common component; that is the emergence of the world from a primordial ocean of chaos.  One version for example described the manifestation of Atum, one of the ancient Egyptian sun gods, out of this primordial soup which was called Nu.  Atum then created Shu and Tefnut, gods of air and moisture respectively, who then in turn gave birth to Geb, Earth, and Nut, Sky, from which the rest of the Egyptian deities emerged.

In another version of the creation myth, Khepri, an aspect of the sun god and depicted as a scarab[3], establishes maat, as well as creates Shu and Tefnut once again out of the primordial chaos called Nu, who in turn gave birth to Geb and Nut.  Regardless of these variations, the act of creation represented the initial establishment of maat and the pattern for the subsequent cycles of time.

The scarab, or dung beetle, was an important figure in Egyptian mythology.  These beetles are best known for rolling and collecting round balls of dung, which the Egyptians used as an analogy for the pushing of the sun across the sky and through the underworld in its daily cycle.  Hence the association of Khepri, depicted by a scarab, with the sun god Ra.

Charlie found a good explanation for this concept of Nun, or the primordial abyss from which the universe came forth:

Nu (“Watery One”) or Nun (“The Inert One”) is the deification of the primordial watery abyss.  The Ancient Egyptians envisaged the oceanic abyss of the Nun as surrounding a bubble in which the sphere of life is encapsulated, representing the deepest mystery of their cosmogony.  In Ancient Egyptian creation accounts the original mound of land comes forth from the waters of the Nun.  The Nun is the source of all that appears in a differentiated world, encompassing all aspects of divine and earthly existence.

Nu was shown usually as male but also had aspects that could be represented as female or male.  Naunet (also spelt Nunet) is the female aspect, which is the name Nu with a female gender ending.  The male aspect, Nun, is written with a male gender ending.  As with the primordial concepts of the Ogdoad, Nu’s male aspect was depicted as a frog, or a frog-headed man.  In Ancient Egyptian art, Nun also appears as a bearded man, with blue-green skin, representing water.  Naunet is represented as a snake or snake-headed woman.[4]

Established at the creation of the world, the presence of maat represents the evolution of the universe into a system of order and law, as distinguished from the chaos or primordial soup which preceded it.  The concept of maat encompassed not only the cosmic principle of order and law, but also the law and order of society at large, and also the normal functioning of the forces of nature, all of which allow for the happiness of the individual, as well as the collective civilization.  So maat, as Charlie understood the concept at least, represented a core part of the belief system of the Ancient Egyptians, and in turn had a cosmological context within which the term was viewed, even if it referred to the social or natural order of the known universe.

The importance of this concept to the Ancient Egyptians is most clearly illustrated by the fact that the maintainer and shepherd of this concept of maat in this world was the Pharaoh.  And his job you could say, was to implement and manifest the universal world order to the order and law in the known universe, the daily lives of the Ancient Egyptians.  The Pharoah’s role you could say was to interpret and reflect the cosmic order to the social order, maintaining life and society at large by ensuring that the gods were pleased and sustained with offerings and rituals, and the importance of this principle was upheld by the general population.

The concept of the underworld, and its relation to the sun god Ra, was another one of the distinguishing characteristics of Egyptian religion and mythology, and one which Charlie could not necessarily find a counterpart to in the mythology of the Greeks or Romans.  The Egyptians believed that Ra made had to pass through the underworld every night in order to rise again the following day.  The idea of the underworld, and its relation to human existence was a large part of the theological and philosophical context within which the Egyptian lived, and was a large part of their theological system of beliefs.

 

Conclusion: The Cycle of Life and Resurrection

From Charlie’s perspective, the Egyptian culture, more so than any other, was marked by their fascination with death and the afterworld.  They had a fascination with the intimate connection of death with life, a concept that carried over to some degree to Greek and Roman mythology in their idea of Hades[5] (Pluto to the Romans).  When you think of Ancient Egypt, Charlie mused, you had to think of their mummies for example.  But Charlie thought this was more a reflection of the archeological record, which primarily rested in the study of the tombs of the ancient pharaohs of Egypt and the associated hieroglyphics, rather than a reflection of the Egyptian culture itself.

Looking at it another way, if you looked at current society and culture primarily through the lens of our funeral ceremonies, you’d be left with a somewhat skewed version of the reality of present day.  But when looking that far back in time, sometimes that was all you had to go with, i.e. religion and funeral rites.

But from the tombs of the pharaohs, and the written record that accompanied these tombs inscribed on their walls and entranceways, you could see a glimpse of the of the myths of creation, which varied from region to region throughout Ancient Egypt, but still had some very consistent themes throughout.  The core cosmology of the Ancient Egyptian culture, Charlie found, was that the core Gods and Goddesses emerged out of a primordial chaos or abyss.  Their society reflected this concept, and its underlying cyclical nature, in their worship of the Pharaoh as a manifestation of the divine, and in their focus on ritual and sacrifice to the gods to retain this order and balance in their world.

Again from Charlie’s perspective, he thought that the reason that ancient Egyptian historians focused on this cyclical and mythical aspect of the Egyptian culture was because most of the firsthand accounts and descriptions that were left for the historian to analyze came from the remnants of ancient ritual and worship, and of course from the tombs of the dead, all of which illustrated this cyclical and codependent relationship between life and death, and the desire for immortality, which represented a fundamental tenant of their philosophy and belief system.

It would be interesting, thought Charlie, to get a firsthand account of the religious and theological beliefs of an Ancient Egyptian tradesman or craftsman to get a better understanding of their concept of religion and theology.  Did they really think that their pharaoh was divine?  Did they really think that if they built a great tomb for themselves, and preserved their bodies like the pharaohs and other members of royalty did that they would truly live forever?  But that didn’t exist unfortunately, and Charlie was left with the main historical record, which again represented primarily by the inscriptions of the tombs of the pharaohs, and the record of religious ceremonies.

 


[1] In Ancient Egypt, Lower Egypt was to the north (in the region of the Nile Delta) and to the south was Upper Egypt.  The two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt were united around the third millennium BC, but each region maintained some level of autonomy.  The terminology “Upper” and “Lower” derives from the flow of the Nile from the highlands of East Africa northwards to the Mediterranean Sea.  Incidentally, the Nile is only main river system that flows from south to north and its name is derived from the Greek “Nelios”, meaning River Valley.

[2] Maat was the ancient Egyptian concept of truth, balance, order, law, morality, and justice.  Maat was also personified as a goddess regulating the stars, seasons, and the actions of both mortals and the deities, who set the order of the universe from chaos at the moment of creation.  Later, as a goddess in other traditions of the Egyptian pantheon, where most goddesses were paired with a male aspect, her masculine counterpart was Thoth and their attributes are the same. After the rise of Ra they were depicted together in the Solar Barque.  After her role in creation and continuously preventing the universe from returning to chaos, her primary role in Egyptian mythology dealt with the weighing of souls that took place in the underworld, Duat. Her feather was the measure that determined whether the souls (considered to reside in the heart) of the departed would reach the paradise of afterlife successfully. Pharaohs are often depicted with the emblems of Maat to emphasize their role in upholding the laws of the Creator.

[3]  The scarab, or dung beetle, was an important figure in Egyptian mythology.  These beetles are best known for rolling and collecting round balls of dung, which the Egyptians used as an analogy for the pushing of the sun across the sky and through the underworld in its daily cycle.  Hence the association of Khepri, depicted by a scarab, with the sun god Ra.

[5] Hades was the Greek mythical ruler of the Underworld and was the son of the Titan gods Cronus and Rhea.  He was brothers with Zeus and Poseidon.

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