Swan Songs


Pherecyde of Syros, the uncle and tutor of Pythagoras, active in the 6th century B.C., was the first to affirm that the souls of men are eternal, according to Ciceroi . However I presume that he must have been preceded by many shamans of ancient times, for whom eternity of souls was obvious, because they had personally experienced that human souls can travel between worlds, those of the living and those of the dead, under certain conditions.

Pherecyde wrote of a dead hero: « His soul was sometimes in Hades and sometimes in the places above the earth »ii . Did he have first-hand experience of these strange phenomena? Or was he just repeating stories he had heard from elsewhere ?

According to Suidas, Pherecyde had been influenced by the secret cults of Phoenicia. Many other Greeks, for their part, fell under the spell of the Chaldean rites, as reported by Diodorus of Sicily, or those of Ethiopia, described by Diogenes Laertius, or were fascinated by the depth of the ancient traditions of Egypt, reported by Herodotus with great detail. Many peoples have cultivated religious mysteries. The Magi of Persia loved the dark caves for their sacred celebrations; the Hebrews practiced the mysteries of the Kabbalah, probably long before their late medieval development; Caesar, in his Gallic Wars, describes those of the Druids.

Benjamin Constant devotes part of his book on « Religion, considered in its source, its forms and its development », to this transnational, multicultural, and several thousand year old phenomenon. « The mysteries of Eleusis were brought by Eumolpe, from Egypt or Thrace. Those of Samothrace, which served as a model for almost all those of Greece, were founded by an Egyptian Amazon (Diodorus of Sicily 3.55). The daughters of Danaus established the Thesmophoria (Herodotus 2:171; 4:172) and the Dionysians were taught to the Greeks by Phoenicians (Herodotus 2:49) or Lydians (Euripides, The Bacchaeans, 460-490). The mysteries of Adonis penetrated from Assyria through the island of Cyprus into the Peloponnese. The dance of the Athenian women to the Thesmophoria was not a Greek dance (Pollux, Onomast. 4) and the name of the Sabarian rites brings us back to Phrygia.» iii

Benjamin Constant notes that the names Ceres and Proserpine in the language of the Cabirs are identical to those of the Queen of the Underworld and her daughter among the Indians, Ceres deriving from Axieros and Asyoruca, and Proserpine from Axiocersa and Asyotursha. He quotes Creutzer who asserts, in his Mithraics (III,486), that the formulas with which the Greek initiates were consecrated (« Konx, Om, Pax ») are in reality Sanskrit words. Konx (κονξ) comes from Kansha (the object of desire), Om is the famous Vedic monosyllable, and Pax (παξ) comes from Pasha (Fortune).

Other similarities are worth noting, such as the role of the (stylized) representation of the sexual organs in Vedic and Greek cults. Constant indicates that the Pelagi in Samothrace worshipped the phallus, as reported by Herodotusiv, and that in the Thesmophoria a representation of the cteisv was staged. The Dionysian Canephores, young virgins chosen from the best families, carried the sacred phallus on their heads in baskets and brought it close to the lips of the candidates for initiation. »vi It was through the Lernéan mysteries that were celebrated in Argolide in honor of Bacchus, that the practice of planting phallus on the tombs was introduced »vii, symbols of genetic power, but also of the immortality of the soul and metempsychosis. Cicero speaks of the infamy of the Sabarian mysteriesviii, Ovid and Juvenal describe the obscene ceremonies of the feasts of Adonisix. Tertullian condemns: « What the mysteries of Eleusis have of more holy, what is carefully hidden, what one is admitted to know only very late, it is the simulacrum of the Phallus. » x

Eusebius of Caesarea is also interested in these ancient orgies and quotes Clement of Alexandria, a well-informed source, who does not hide his indignation: « Do you want to see the orgies of the Corybantes? You will see only assassinations, tombs, laments of priests, the natural parts of Bacchus with his throat cut, carried in a box and presented for adoration. But don’t be surprised if the barbaric Tuscans have such a shameful cult. What shall I say of the Athenians and the other Greeks, with their mysteries of Demeter? »» xi.

Both sexes are publicly displayed in the sacred cults of the Dioscuri in Samothrace and Bacchus in the Dionysies. It is a « feast of raw flesh, » the interpretation of which can vary considerably. One may decide to see it as a simple allusion to the wine harvest: the torn body of Bacchus is the body of the grape pulled from the vine and crushed under the press. Ceres is the Earth, the Titans are the grape-pickers, Rhea gathers the members of the God torn to pieces, who is incarnated in the wine made from the juice of the grapes.

But the metaphor can be completely overturned, and one can read in it the profound message of a theophany of God’s death and sacrifice, of his dismembered body shared in communion, in a strange prefiguration of Christ’s death, and then of the communion of his flesh and blood by his faithful, even today, at the crucial moment of the Mass.

Always in a kind of pagan prefiguration of Christian beliefs, more than half a millennium ahead of time, we witness the death and resurrection of God: Attys, Adonis, Bacchus and Cadmille die and rise again, following the example of Osiris and Zagreus, avatar of the mystic Dionysus.

We can see that the mystery religions of the Greeks owe almost everything to much older cults, coming from Egypt, Phoenicia, Chaldea, Mesopotamia, and further east still.

This raises a question which is not without merit: to what extent was Christian worship, which appeared some seven or eight centuries later, influenced by those ancient pagan cults revering a God who died in sacrifice for men, and whose body and blood are shared in communion by them? « The Logos as son of God and mediator is clearly designated in all the mysteries. » Benjamin Constant affirms in this regard. xii

The protagonists of the initiation ceremonies, composed of many degrees, certainly did not ask themselves such questions at the time. The initiates to the small mysteries (μύσται, the « mystes ») remained confined to the vestibules of the temples, only the initiates to the great mysteries (ἐπόπται, the « epoptes », a name that later applied to Christian « bishops ») could enter the sanctuary.

But what was their motivation? What was this secret that was so difficult to obtain? What justified to stoically endure eighty degrees of trials (hunger, whip, stay in the mud, in the ice water, and other torments…) to be initiated, for example, to the mysteries of Mithra?

What is certain is that these systems of initiation were subversive, they ruined the bases of the established order, of public religions, making too many gods proliferate, too visible. Part of this last revelation, which it took so long to discover, was the idea of the non-existence of these Homeric gods, popular, multiplied, covering the peristyles of the cities, encouraged by the government of the plebeians. The radical negation of the existence of the national gods, was part of the truths finally revealed to only a very small number of chosen ones.

« The secret did not lie in traditions, fables, allegories, opinions, or the substitution of a purer doctrine: all these things were known. What was secret, then, was not the things that were revealed, but that these things were thus revealed, that they were revealed as the dogmas and practices of an occult religion, that they were revealed gradually. » xiii

The initiation was, well before the time of the modern Enlightenment, a conditioning, a training of the mind, an asceticism of the soul, an exercise in radical doubt, an absolute « mise en abîme ». It was a revelation of the inanity of all revelation. At the end of this long journey, there were no other established doctrines than the absence of any doctrine, only an absolute negation of all known assertions, those which the uneducated people were being fed with. There were no more dogmas, but only signs of recognition, symbols, rallying words that allowed the initiated to allusively share the feeling of their election to penetrate the ultimate ends.

But what were these? If we had to free ourselves from all known gods and dogmas, what was left to believe?

That men go to heaven, and that the Gods have gone to earth.

Cicero testifies to this, in an exchange with an initiate: « In a word, and to avoid a longer detail, was it not men who populated the heaven? If I were to delve into antiquity, and take it upon myself to delve deeper into the stories of the Greeks, we would find that even those of the Gods, who are given the first rank, lived on earth, before going to heaven. Find out which of these Gods, whose tombs are shown in Greece. Since you are initiated into the mysteries, remember the traditions. » xiv

Cicero encourages us to recognize that the greatest of mysteries is that of our soul, and that the most sacred sanctuary is therefore not so inaccessible, since it is so close, though buried in the depths of our intimacy, in the center of our very soul.

« And truly there is nothing so great as to see with the eyes of the soul, the soul itself. This is the meaning of the oracle, which wants everyone to know each other. No doubt Apollo did not pretend to tell us to know our body, our size, our figure. For he who speaks of us does not speak of our body; and when I speak to you, it is not to your body that I speak. When therefore the oracle says to us, ‘Know thyself,’ he hears, ‘Know thy soul. Your body is, so to speak, only the vessel, only the home of your soul. » xv

Cicero, at the peak of his art, is modest. He knows that he owes everything he believes to Plato. This can be summed up in a few incisive phrases, in precise, surgical logic: « The soul feels that she is moving: she feels that she is not dependent on a foreign cause, but that she is by herself, and by her own virtue; it can never happen that she misses herself, so she is immortal.» xvi

If one finds the elliptic reasoning, one can read the more elaborate version, as developed by Plato in the Phaedra, as cited by Cicero in his Tusculanes:

« A being that always moves, will always exist. But he who gives movement to another, and who receives it himself from another, necessarily ceases to exist, when he loses his movement. There is therefore only the being moved by his own virtue, who never loses his movement, because he never misses himself. And moreover he is for all other things that have movement, the source and principle of the movement they have. Now, who says principle, says what has no origin. For it is from the principle that everything comes, and the principle cannot come from anything else. It would not be a principle if it came from elsewhere. And since it has no origin, it will therefore have no end. For, being destroyed, it could neither be itself reproduced by another principle, nor produce another, since a principle presupposes nothing anterior. Thus the principle of movement is in the being moved by its own virtue. A principle that can be neither produced nor destroyed. Otherwise it is necessary that heaven and earth be turned upside down, and that they fall into eternal rest, without ever being able to recover a force, which, as before, makes them move. It is obvious, therefore, that that which is moved by its own virtue, will always exist. And can it be denied that the ability to move in this way is not an attribute of the soul? For everything that is moved only by a foreign cause is inanimate. But that which is animated is moved by its own virtue, by its inner action. Such is the nature of the soul, such is its property. Therefore, the soul being, of all that exists, the only thing that always moves itself, let us conclude from this that it is not born, and that it will never die ». xvii

Are we satisfied enough? Do we need more? We are still far from the Gods, or perhaps much closer than we think. « Immortality, wisdom, intelligence, memory. Since our soul gathers these perfections, it is therefore divine, as I say. Or even a God, as Euripides dared to say. » xviii

The soul is a sun. Cicero reports these last words of Socrates, a few moments before drinking the hemlock: « The whole life of philosophers is a continual meditation of death ». This was his swan song. The swans, by the way, were dedicated to Apollo, because they seem to hold from him the art of knowing the future. Foreseeing the benefits of following death, the swans die voluptuously, while singing. Likewise Socrates, who took the time to recall this metaphor in front of his assembled disciples, sang an unforgettable song, and pondered his ultimate doubt, in the face of imminent death, with the smile of a wise man: « When one looks too fixedly at the setting sun. One comes to see no more. And in the same way, when our soul looks at herself, her intelligence sometimes becomes blurred, so that our thoughts become blurred. We no longer know what to fix ourselves on, we fall from one doubt to another, and our reasoning has as little consistency as a ship beaten by the waves. »

This very doubt, this blindness, this ultimate blurring, when we approach revelation, comes only from the too great strength of this inner sun, which the weak eyes of the mind cannot bear.

To detach the mind from the body is to learn how to die. Let us separate ourselves from our bodies by the power of the soul, and thus become accustomed to dying. By this means, our life will already hold a heavenly life, and we will be better prepared to take off when our chains break.

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i« According to the written documents, Pherecyde of Syros was the first to have said that the souls of men are eternal. « Cicero, Tusculanes, I, 16, 38.

iiPherecyde of Syros, fragment B 22, trans. G. Colli, La sagesse grecque, t. 2, p. 103: scholies of Apollonius of Rhodes, I, 643-648.

iiiBenjamin Constant. Of religion considered in its source, its forms and its developments. 1831. Book 13, ch.12

ivHerodotus, Story 2:51: « The Greeks, then, hold these and many other rites among the Egyptians, of which I will speak later; but it is not according to these peoples that they give the statues of Mercury an indecent attitude. The Athenians were the first to take this custom from the Pelasians; the rest of Greece followed their example. The Pelasges remained in fact in the same canton as the Athenians, who, from that time, were among the Hellenes; and it is for this reason that they then began to be reputed as Hellenes themselves. Whoever is initiated into the mysteries of the Cabires, which the Samothracians celebrate, understands what I am saying; for these Pelasges who came to dwell with the Athenians used to inhabit Samothrace, and it is from them that the peoples of this island took their mysteries. The Athenians are thus the first of the Hellenes who learned from the Pelagiuses to make statues of Mercury in the state we have just represented. The Pelasges give a sacred reason for this, which is explained in the mysteries of Samothrace. « Pierre-Henri Larcher. Paris, Lefevre and Charpentier 1842.

vSee Theodoret, Serm. 7 and 12. The cteis is a Greek word which literally means « tooth comb » but which also figuratively designates the pubis of the woman, and also means « cup, chalice ».

viTheodoret, Therapeut. Disput. 1, cited by B. Constant in op.cit. Book 13, ch.2

viiB. Constant in op.cit. Book 13, ch.2

viiiCicero, De Nat. Deo III,13

ixOvid, De Art. Amand. I, 75. Juvenal Sat. VI. In op.cit

xTertullian. Ad. Valent.

xiQuoted by B. Constant in op.cit. Book 13, ch.2

xiiB. Constant in op.cit. Book 13, ch.6

xiiiB. Constant in op.cit. Book 13, ch.8

xivCicero. Tusculans I, 12-13

xvCicero. Tusculans I, 22

xviCicero. Tusculans I, 23

xviiCicero. Tusculans I, 23

xviiiCicero. Tusculans I, 26