Friday, 19 May 2017

Zeus and the Sky-Pillar (The Elysian Way)



The word elysion, which thus signifies both the spot struck by lightning and the abode of the divinised dead, is presumably related to elysie, a ' way' The term is remarkable, and its applicability is not at once clear. We must suppose that the Greeks recognised a definite ' way ' from earth to heaven, along which those honoured by the summons of Zeus might pass. This conception would at least square with certain Pindaric phrases. In a context of Pythagorean import the poet tells how —

Souls that thrice on either side
Free from evil can abide
Travel the road of Zeus to Kronos' tower,
Where round islands of the blest
Ocean breezes lull to rest
And forth there flashes many a golden flower.

Again, in an equally arresting fragment Pindar says 

Themis the wise, the heavenly, afar
From Ocean's founts on golden car
Up the dread stair the Fates first bore
Alon^ the gleaming way to Olympos' height,
That Zeus the Saviour might
Have her to wife of yore :
The mother she of the unerring Hours,
Gold-frontleted, gay-fruited powers 

What was this 'road of Zeus,' this 'gleaming way'? If I am not mistaken, it was the broad path of dim and distant splendour that stretches across the abyss of the midnight skyl Our forefathers  called it ' Watling Streef' or 'London Road'.' We know it as the ' Milky Way.' And a collection of names for it such as that got together by H. Gaidoz and E. Rolland proves that all the world over it has been regarded as a celestial track. Further, as E. B. Tylor observed, this track is often held to be the road traversed by the gods or the souls of men :
"The Basutos call it the 'Way of the Gods' ; the Ojis say it is the 'Way of Spirits,' which souls go up to heaven by. North American tribes know it as ' the Path of the Master of Life,' the 'Path of Spirits,' ' the Road of Souls,' where they travel to the land beyond the grave, and where their camp-fires may be seen blazing as brighter stars l Such savage imaginations of the Milky Way fit with the Lithuanian myth of the ' Road of the Birds,' at whose end the souls of the good, fancied as flitting away at death like birds, dwell free and happy."
Classical evidence of the Galaxy conceived as a Seelenpfad is not wanting Ovid speaks of it as a road leading to the palace of lupiter

There is a road aloft in the clear heaven,
Milk-white and therefore named the Milky Way.
Here go the gods to the great Thunderer's house
And royal home. To right and left the halls
Of high-born deities fling wide their doors.
The populace in diverse spots may dwell ;
But on this front the denizens of heaven
Puissant and proud have pitched their own abode

Ovid's celestial city is doubtless made to the pattern of Rome: 'this front,' as R. Merkel saw recalls the frons Palatii. But the via sublinis of the poet's vision was borrowed from an old-world belief held by certain followers of Pythagoras. The Pythagoreans indeed were much exercised about the Milky Way. Most of them took it to be a ' way' of some sort. One group said that it was the track made by a star, which had fallen from its proper position at the time of Phaethon's catastrophe. Others saw in it a burnt pathway marking the sun's original coursel Others again deemed it a mere reflection of the solar rays. These opinions are duly recorded by Aristotle, Manilius', and the doxographer Actios. But a view ignored by them all is of more interest to us. Three writers steeped in neo-Platonic lore, and drawing perhaps from a single source ascribe to Pythagoras himself the belief that the Milky Way is the road by which souls come and go. Porphyrios {c. 233 — c. 304 A.D.), who penned an allegorical treatise On the Cave of the Nymphs in the Odyssey, remarks-:

"Elsewhere he (Homer) speaks of ' the gates of the Sun,' meaning Cancer and Capricornus ; for these are the limits to which it progresses when descending from north to south and again when ascending from south to north. Capricornus and Cancer are set at either side of the Milky Way, the latter on the north, the former on the south. And ' the folk of dreams ' according to Pythagoras are the souls, which—he asserts—are gathered together in the Milky Way, so called from those that are nurtured on milk, when they fall into birth."

Macrobius (c. 400 A.D.) in his Commentary on the Dream of Scipio says:
"The following order is observed in the descent by which the soul of man slips from heaven to the lower regions of this present life. The Milky Way embraces the zodiac by means of the circular contact of its oblique periphery in such a way that it intersects the zodiac at the points where two tropic signs, Capricornus and Cancer, are said to be. These the physicists have called the gates of the Sun, because both prevent it from further advance when such is forbidden by the solstice and turn it back to the pathway of that zone whose bounds it never quits. It is supposed that through these gates souls pass from heaven to earth and again from earth to heaven. One is called the gate of men, the other that of the gods : Cancer is the gate of men, because through it they descend to the lower regions ; Capricornus, the gate of the gods, because through it souls return to the seat of their own proper immortality and rejoin the company of the gods. This is what Homer, a poet of divine foresight, intended by his description of the cave in Ithake. Hence too Pythagoras holds that from the Milky Way downwards begins the realm of Dis, since souls that have fallen from it seem already to have left the world above. Milk—he says—is the first food offered to the new-born, because their first movement downwards in the direction of earthly bodies begins at the Milky Way. Wherefore also Scipio, pointing to the Milky Way, observed with regard to the souls of the blessed :
'Hence they start, and hither they return!'"
Proklos (410—485 A.D.), after citing from the Pythagorising Platonist Noumenios a somewhat similar account of Capricornus and Cancer as the openings through which souls are sent upwards and downwards, continues:
"For Pythagoras in mystic language calls the Milky Way 'Hades' and 'the place of souls,' since there they are crowded together. Whence sundry nations pour a libation of milk to the gods that purify souls, and milk is the first food taken by souls that fall into birth."
This belief in the Milky Way as a soul-road is found in several authors who, without being definitely followers of Pythagoras, are known to have come more or less under the influence of Pythagorean speculation. Thus Parmenides' in the preface to his great philosophical poem describes how he was conducted in a chariot ' on the far-famed way of the goddess ' (Ananke ?) and ' maidens led the way,' to wit the Heliades, who escorted him towards the light through the portals of Night and Day till he reached the home of the goddess". The 'way' in question is not improbably the Milky Way'. Again, Empedotimos of Syracuse who figures as an adherent of Pythagoras, held ' that the Milky Way is the road of souls traversing the Hades in heaven'.' Platon too is presumably Pythagorising, when in a famous passage of the Phaidros he tells how god-like souls follow the gods round the great arch of heaven and from its summit behold sights of unspeakable splendour in the region beyond the sky:
"Zeus, the great chieftain in heaven, driving a winged car, travels first, arranging and presiding over all things ; and after him comes a host of gods and inferior deities, marshalled in eleven divisions, for Hestia stays at home alone in the mansion of the gods ; but all the other ruling powers, that have their place in the number of the twelve, march at the head of a troop in the order to which they have been severally  appointed. Now there are, it is true, many ravishing views and opening paths within the bounds of heaven, whereon the family of the blessed gods go to and fro, each in performance of his own proper work ; and they are followed by all who from time to time possess both will and power ; for envy has no place in the celestial choir. But whenever they go to feast and revel, they forthwith journey by an uphill path to the summit of the heavenly vault. Now the chariots of the gods being of equal poise, and obedient to the rein, move easily, but all others with difficulty ; for they are burdened by the horse of vicious temper, which sways and sinks them towards the earth, if haply he has received no good training from his charioteer. Whereupon there awaits the soul a crowning pain and agony. For those which we called immortal go outside when they are come to the topmost height, and stand on the outer surface of heaven, and as they stand they are borne round by its revolution, and gaze on the eternal scene. Now of that region beyond the sky no earthly bard has ever yet sung or ever will sing in worthy strains'. 
It can hardly be doubted that the ' uphill path to the summit of the heavenly vault,' a path along which the souls of the blessed go to the fulness of fruition, imphes the Pythagorean conception of the Milky Way as an Elysian road. 

In the Republic the same bright track is compared with 'the undergirders of triremes' ; but the figure is complicated by the addition of ' a straight Hght like a pillar' stretching along the axis of the universe—an idea taken up by the Manichaeans, who spoke of a 'pillar of glory' or a 'pillar of light' filled with souls in process of purification''. This pillar has no counterpart in astronomical fact or, for that matter, in astronomical theory. It would, however, be unwise to assume that it was introduced by Platon merely to facilitate the transition to his ensuing image—the ' spindle of Ananke.' Rather we may surmise that it was based upon popular belief with ritual usage behind it.

- "Zeus, A study in Ancient Religion" by Arthur Bernard Cook


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