Good and bad polytheists (part 4): Herodotus and Empedocles

HERODOTUS

220px-Herodotos_Met_91.8This is the great father of history, who flourished in the middle of the 5th century BCE. He was born a subject of Persia in the Ionian city of Halicarnassus, and from there he may have witnessed, as a young boy, some preparations for the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BCE, which the treacherous queen of the city took part in on the side of Xerxes. What is certain, however, is that he grew up among veterans of both the Ionian revolt of 499 BCE against Persia and (after he left his city) veterans of the Persian invasion. He also seems to have belonged to a patriotic family, because his cousin Panyassis (a poet of some renown) was executed after an uprising in Halicarnassus, against a treacherous Greek tyrant. Nevertheless, whether he left the city by force or by curiosity is not known; as a subject of Persia, he probably thought little of his citizenship within such a vast empire, or at least wondered what had happened to change his world so much. His interest in the event surely drove him to gather and consume many stories, but he was also concerned about various inquiries, especially how and why could Persia, as far as it was in another part of the world, come at the door of Greece and attempt to break through it? For this reason, he composed a work called ‘Ιστοριαι, meaning Inquiries, but more commonly translated as Histories.

It is upon his immortal contribution to understanding and preserving so many valuable stories about ethnic culture and polytheism that the fame of Herodotus rests. Although his work was mainly concerned with the conflicts between the Persians and the Greeks, Herodotus was curious and wise enough to search for indirect and external information that related to both, that is to say, stories and inquiries about neighboring civilizations and peoples, most of whom now belonged to the Persian Empire. He visited many places, such as the rest of Greece, as well as Egypt and Mesopotamia to collect and confirm as much as he could that he believed pertinent to his vast subject. But even though he spent much time and effort concerning foreign matters and people, he never forgot of himself as a Greek; his praise of the treacherous Queen of Halicarnassus, Artemisia, for her courage during the invasion of Greece, also shows he had not forgotten of his native city. Furthermore, he is reasonable in his inquiries without offence to the Gods of his own people, or any others; in spite of what later critics say, he was unbiased, even when he sometimes failed to be accurate. And what is more, he was a fine writer: It is said that he recited parts of his work at a festival and was applauded greatly for it. He is a true story-teller who engages and moves his reader; it is no wonder he drew much inspiration in the writing of his work from the great Homer himself.

 

EMPEDOCLES

220px-Empedokles_fragment_Physika_I_262–300This man, a contemporary of Herodotus, is known as a philosopher, or lover of wisdom, even though, he strayed very far from it as a polytheist. Throughout the Greek lands, all the so-called philosophers at this time (the 5th century BCE) were indeed, with very few exceptions, either bad polytheists or secret monotheists, and in the next century, they would become even worse, with the addition also of atheists among them. Empedocles was born in a Greek colony of Sicily, Acragas, to a family of some wealth. Although his father contributed to overthrowing a tyrant of the city, Empedocles turned against oligarchy in general, and supported the poor with his skilled oratory. He knew that philosophy was a stronger and more enduring weapon than power, which is why he declined to rule his city, when the mob offered it to him. The fanciful stories and magical actions attributed to him confirm his connection to the Pythagoreans, followers of Pythagoras, another so-called philosopher who was originally inspired by Orpheus (discussed in part 3) to found his own mystical religion. The Pythagoreans operated their secret religion in the Greek colonies of Italy, where they had more freedom, and it is from their activity aimed at the common people that Empedocles first strayed from polytheism and contributed to its corruption.

Like other philosophers before him, Empedocles wrote a poem containing his view of cosmogony, nature and the universe. He believed in the orphic mysteries and followed its invented principles, in imitation of the Pythagoreans. His main contributions to philosophy were, first, the essence of strife and love in cosmogony, and second, his theory of the four elements. In the former, he held that the universe was created out of the opposite forces of strife and love, which gradually turned into the two sexes. Like Orpheus and Pherecydes of Syros, he seems to have altered the order of the cosmogony from the accepted one in the holy text Theogony. Instead of beginning with the orthodox chasm (χαος), he places Ερος (Eros-Love) and Θανατος (Thanatos-Strife) as the first Gods of the universe. This is further confirmed by another corruption through his theory of the four elements: He held that air, water, earth, and fire were four components of the universe, which he equated with Hera, Nestis, Aidoneus and Zeus, respectively. In doing so, he strays greatly from the established tradition of Greek polytheism and almost makes a new religion of his own, i.e. one of intellectual pantheism. Although he acknowledges all these as Gods, he also hints also that they were allegorical forces of nature, an interpretation that afterwards contributed further to either monotheism or atheism among most philosophers. Nor did this Empedocles fall short of the ambition of Orpheus or the arrogance of philosophers: After publishing his works, he sought to trick the populace one last time by jumping into Mount Etna to make them think that he was an immortal god. But the Gods confounded his false magic, and caused the mountain to vomit one of his bronze sandals, exposing his impious deception.

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