Triumph of Dionysus and the Seasons
Roman sarcophagus depicting the Triumph of Dionysus and the Seasons
Before getting onto Homer and Hesiod and then to the philosophers, I'm going to include a couple of interesting individuals, similar to Orpheus, who can't be dated because of the legendary accretions surrounding them. There really isn't much to go on so the short entries on Wikipedia will suffice.

A legendary soothsayer and healer, originally of Pylos, who ruled at Argos. He introduced the worship of Dionysus, according to Herodotus, who asserted that his powers as a seer were derived from the Egyptians[2] and that he could understand the language of animals. A number of pseudepigraphal works of divination were circulated in Classical and Hellenistic times under the name Melampus. According to Herodotus and Pausanias (vi.17.6), on the authority of Hesiod, his father was Amythaon, whose name implies the "ineffable" or "unspeakably great";[3] thus Melampus and his heirs were Amythaides of the "House of Amythaon".

In Homer's Odyssey,[4] a digression concerning the lineage of Theoclymenus, "a prophet, sprung from Melampus' line of seers",[5] sketches the epic narrative concerning Melampus with such brevity that its details must have been familiar to Homer's audience. With brief hints, a sequence of episodes is alluded to, in which we discern strife in Pylos between Melampus and Neleus, who usurps Melampus's "great high house", forcing him into heroic exile. Melampus spends a year as bondsman in the house of Phylacus, "all for Neleus' daughter Pero". At his extremity, Melampus is visited by "the mad spell a Fury, murderous spirit, cast upon his mind. But the seer worked free of death" and succeeded at last in rustling Phylacus's cattle back to Pylos, where he avenged himself on Neleus and gave Pero in marriage to his brother Bias. But Melampus's own destiny lay in Argos, where he lived and ruled, married and sired a long line, also briefly sketched in Homer's excursus.

A work attributed in antiquity to Hesiod exists (Melampodia) in such fragmentary quotations and chance remarks that its reconstruction, according to Walter Burkert,[6] is "most uncertain." (Wikipedia)
Again, there isn't much of a factual nature about Orpheus though there is a lot of speculation about Orphism. So, Wikipedia again:

Orpheus and Eurydice painting

Orpheus and Eurydice
It was believed by Aristotle that Orpheus never existed. But to all other ancient writers, he was a real person, though living in remote antiquity. Most of them believed that he lived several generations before Homer. He is not mentioned by Homer or Hesiod.

Orpheus in Greek mythology was a Thracian bard, legendary musician and prophet. He was also a renowned poet and, according to the legend, travelled with Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece, and even descended into the underworld of Hades, to recover his lost wife Eurydice.

For the Greeks, Orpheus was a founder and prophet of the so-called "Orphic" mysteries. He was credited with the composition of the Orphic Hymns and the Orphic Argonautica. Shrines containing purported relics of Orpheus were regarded as oracles. (Wikipedia)
Calliope Orpheus  Alexander August Hirsch

Calliope is taught by Orpheus. Alexander August Hirsch, 1865
See Radcliffe G. Edmonds II, Redefining Ancient Orphism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, (2013) for a better idea of what Orphism was about, though you still won't get any real historical data about any life of Orpheus.

If he lived before Homer and Hesiod, you would think that he would have been mentioned by them considering how otherwise well-known he was. Of course, the authors of the works of Homer and Hesiod may simply not have been aware of what was being talked about and shared among the Greeks in Greece proper; that is, they may have been writing elsewhere. But, since Homer does mention Melampus who was said to have introduced the worship of Dionysus, perhaps Orpheus is simply Melampus by another name?

Here is another Orpheus type:

Musaeus of Athens
A legendary polymath, philosopher, historian, prophet, seer, priest, poet, and musician, said to have been the founder of priestly poetry in Attica. The mystic and oracular verses and customs of Attica, especially of Eleusis, are connected with his name. A Titanomachia and Theogonia are also attributed to him by Gottfried Kinkel. He composed dedicatory and purificatory hymns and prose treatises, and oracular responses.

In 450 BCE, the playwright Euripides in his play Rhesus describes him thus: "Musaeus, too, thy holy citizen, of all men most advanced in lore." In 380 BCE, Plato says in his Ion that poets are inspired by Orpheus and Musaeus but the greater are inspired by Homer. In the Protagoras, Plato says that Musaeus was a hierophant and a prophet. In the Apology, Socrates says: "What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer? Nay, if this be true, let me die again and again." According to Diodorus Siculus, Musaeus was the son of Orpheus, according to Tatian he was the disciple of Orpheus, but according to Diogenes Laërtius he was the son of Eumolpus. (Eumolpus was a legendary king of Thrace, allegedly the son of Poseidon and Chione. Alternately, he was the son of Apollo and the nymph Astycome. He was one of the first priests of Demeter and one of the founders of the Eleusinian Mysteries. According to Philochorus, Eumolpus was the father of Musaeus by the lunar goddess Selene.

Alexander Polyhistor, Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius say Musaeus was the teacher of Orpheus. Aristotle quotes him in Book VIII of his Politics: "Song is to mortals of all things the sweetest." According to Diogenes Laërtius he died and was buried at Phalerum, with the epitaph: "Musaeus, to his sire Eumolpus dear, in Phalerean soil lies buried here." According to Pausanias, he was buried on the Mouseion Hill, south-west of the Acropolis, where there was a statue dedicated to a Syrian. For this and other reasons, Artapanus of Alexandria, Alexander Polyhistor, Numenius of Apamea, and Eusebius identify Musaeus with Moses the Jewish lawbringer. Musaeus is singled out in Book 6 of The Aeneid, as someone particularly admired by the souls of Elysium. (Wikipedia)
So, Musaeus was "the son of Orpheus", or the "disciple of Orpheus" or the "teacher of Orpheus". His alleged father, Eumolpus, seems a lot like Melampus - even the names would be easily mixed, I think.

In any event, I have listed Melampus, Orpheus, and Musaeus, because they were definitely part of the intellectual environment in which Greek philosophy arose. The three of them appear to be remarkably similar in type making one wonder if they were all the same person known by different names in different regions?

Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show

If you think that itinerant revival preachers, tent evangelists, or faith-healing meetings are a Christian phenomenon, think again: such activities have their roots in the ancient Orientalizing influences on Greece according to Walter Burkert. They were, it seems, a very special kind of traveling skilled artisans whose importance and influence suggests to us the seriousness of the environment in which such could develop and prosper. Seers and doctors were mentioned by Homer as "migrant craftsmen", individuals which communities were anxious to attract and keep, as the two activities appear to have been closely connected. The fact that these individuals were seen as specialists of a particular craft - partly hereditary, partly acquired by learning and initiation, reveals the important place that religious therapies for individuals, groups, cities and nations held.

The Derveni papyrus, written in about 340 BCE by the circle of philosophers that included the ill-fated Anaxagoras who we will soon meet, describes individuals who specialize in initiations as "He who make the sacred his craft". Strabo, too, refers to the "Dionsiac and Orphic crafts". Even Hippocrates, who was at pains to differentiate between medicine as a science, and psychological catharsis, admitted that migrant seers and healers presented themselves as bearers of special knowledge.

It seems that in those times, as today, charismatic technicians of other-worldly interactions could become widely sought-after personalities. In fact, it appears that they represented the intellectual elite of that time. We get a hint of this in the regard that even Heraclitus had for Pythagoras who was certainly just such a technician. Their special status gave them the ability to freely cross borders and thereby transfer cultural knowledge from one place to another. In the Amarna correspondence from the time of Akhenaten, the kings of Ugarit and Hatti requested physicians and seers from the Egyptians. (Obviously, they were not yet aware of the fact that Egypt, itself, was falling into dire straits and none of its psychic specialists seem to have been able to counter the deleterious effects of the regime of the last members of the 18th dynasty.)

In 670 BC, it is said that Thaletas of Gortyn (Crete), a charismatic musician, delivered Sparta from a plague.[7] Apparently, the presence of an epidemic could attract migrant seers as well as physicians. Before him, there was the legendary Karmanor, the priest who purified Apollo after the god had slain the Delphic dragon. Karmanor himself was later killed by Zeus with a thunderbolt. Walter Burkert notes that the name does not appear to be Greek.[8]

Keep all of the above in mind when we finally get to Epimenides a little further on.

Now, I will turn to Homer and Hesiod who describe and define what ideas the philosophers would soon be dealing with. Keep in mind what I have written before, that the world Homer and Hesiod describe is not the world of the Greeks as we know and understand them.

Homer and Hesiod

The 19th century discovery of the Mycenaean civilization by the amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, and then the discovery of the Minoan civilization by Sir Arthur Evans in the early 20th century, provided hard evidence for many of the mythological details about the gods and heroes of Homer and Hesiod. Unfortunately, the evidence is primarily monumental, not written, since the Linear B script form of ancient Greek found there was used mainly to record practical concerns of daily life such as inventories of goods. Additionally, there are visual representations that are not known in any literary source, so obviously a great deal was lost between the collapse and the re-emergence of human societies.

Archaeology reveals that the earlier inhabitants of the Balkan peninsula were agricultural settlers that appear to have practiced a form of Animism that assigned a spirit to every aspect of nature. At the time of the collapse, with the later appearance of new people, probably driven by widespread unrest or political instability, a new pantheon of gods appeared, probably reflecting the experiences of the northern peoples. These were gods of violence, conquest, force and destruction, obvious evidence of the trials and tribulations endured by the northern peoples of Europe and central Asia at the time of the collapse and destruction of the Bronze Age.

The earliest literary survivals we have of the foundations of Western civilization are Homer's two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey ( dated usually to the 8th century BCE at least in oral form).. Hesiod is a possible near-contemporary of Homer (750-650 BCE) and gives us the Origin of the Gods in his Theogony. Hesiod's Works and Days is a teaching poem about farming life and offers advice on how to survive in a world made dangerous by the gods. In this latter work, Hesiod makes use of a scheme of Four Ages of Man: Golden, Silver, Bronze and Iron, a clear exposition of repeating cataclysmic destructions. These ages are separate 'creations', or time periods of the reign of the gods, signifying the gradual break-up of the Giant Comet and the disasters brought by the various 'offspring'. The Golden Age belonged to the reign of Cronos; the subsequent ages were dominated by Zeus. Hesiod regarded this last period as the worst since it was overrun with evil. He explained the presence of evil by the myth of Pandora, when all of the best of human capabilities, save hope, had been spilled out of her overturned jar. He also writes in such a way as to remind us of the possibility of genetic mutation due to comets, as we covered earlier, and periods of utter horror where cannibalism and human sacrifice were rampant practices devised by pathological deviants who had taken control, supported by terrified authoritarian followers.
All who came forth from Gaia and Ouranos, the most dire of children, from the beginning were hated by their own begetter; and just as soon as any of them came into being he hid them all away and did not let them into the light, in the inward places of Gaia; and Ouranos rejoiced over the evil deed. And she, prodigious Gaia, groaned within for she was crowded out; and she contrived a crafty, evil device... she sent him [Kronos] into a hidden place of ambush, placed in his hands a jagged-toothed sickle, and enjoined on him the whole deceit. Great Ouranos came bringing Night with him, and over Gaia, desiring love, he stretched himself, and spread all over her; and he, his son, from his place of ambush stretched out with his left hand, and with his right he grasped the monstrous sickle, long and jagged-toothed, and swiftly sheared off the genitals of his dear father, and flung them behind him to be carried away...[9]
Interesting imagery: darkness on the earth shattered by a "monstrous sickle" that shears off the "genitals" which are "flung behind" and carried away. Sounds a lot like the breaking up of a comet possibly after impact with another cometary body, and fragments drifting away in the tail.

Parts of Hesiod's account reveal parallelisms with the Hurrian account of the succession of the oldest gods preserved in the Hittite Kumarbi-tablet dating, in its extant form, to around the beginning of the Greek Dark Age. In the Hittite version, the first king in heaven is Alalu, who is driven out by Anu and then Anu is deposed by the father of Kumarbi. As Anu tries to escape into the sky, Kumarbi bites off and swallows his genitals. After being told that he has become impregnated with the Storm God and two other 'terrible gods', he spits it out but it is too late: he's pregnant! He eventually gives birth to the equivalent of Zeus, who deposes Kumarbi and becomes king of heaven. However, the Greek version incorporates non-Mesopotamian elements. Another possibility is that we see in the cutting off of the genitals, a physical interaction with plasma components, discharging a comet and thereby dissolving its tail. What is evident in the above account is that much of this activity occurred in daylight and brought deep darkness to the Earth.

Hesiod's Theogony is not only the fullest surviving account of the gods, but also the fullest surviving account of the archaic bardic function, with its long preliminary invocation to the Muses. Theogony became the subject of many poems, including those attributed to Orpheus, Musaeus, Epimenides, Abaris, and other legendary seers, which are now lost to us. It seems that these were written accompaniments to ritual purifications and mystery-rites designed to appease the gods, some of which must have included sacrifice, but not necessarily all. Obviously, many groups in many places were trying desperately to find the right formula that would bring the chaos and destruction to an end. In fact, it can be said that Hesiod's work not only deals with the 'genealogical' relationships between the gods (the parent comet and its ongoing disintegration), but also serves to demonstrate how, finally, something seems to have worked and Zeus became the ultimate authority and established order by 'defeating' (destruction via impact?) the Titans. Zeus hurls thunderbolts at them and...
The whole earth boiled, and the streams of Okeanos, and the unharvested sea; and them, the earth-born Titans, did a warm blast surround, and flame unquenchable reached the holy aither, and the darting gleam of thunderbolt and lightning blinded the eyes even of strong men. A marvelous burning took hold of Chaos; and it was the same to behold with the eyes or to hear the noise with the ears as if earth and broad heaven above drew together; for just such a great din would have risen up...[10]
The heroic age presented in the Iliad and Odyssey was more entertaining than the divine-focus of the Theogony and therefore is better known. Homer's tales were clearly set in a world that was under the constant threat of bombardment and the relations between gods and humans were rather clearly defined, though later interpreters have completely misread and misinterpreted these things. Homer appears to be presenting a clear formula of how to be in right relations with the gods, and the main focus was Theoxeny[11] and hospitality. One needed to behave decently, even to strangers and foreigners, because they might be gods in disguise, and bad hospitality could bring the fires of heaven down on one's head, literally. One of the attributes of Zeus was 'Xenios', or the stranger. This relates back to the evils of mankind decried by Hesiod. Theoxeny could demonstrate the character of a man and thus determine whether or not he would be spared from destruction. A good man will treat the aged and humble well; a bad man will abuse the helpless and down-trodden. In the Odyssey, this point is made abundantly clear with Odysseus taking the role of the god and the story being mainly about the different forms of hospitality that are shown to Odysseus and then, finally, how Odysseus, in the role of the god, brought absolute and total destruction on the suitors who abused his hospitality. This view is rather more interesting than one might suppose as it appears that, increasing economic disparity, abandonment and abuse of the poor, etc., are among the primary characteristics of a society on the verge of collapse; and such collapse can ultimately include cosmic disaster.

As time passed, and things began to quiet down in the skies, these tales gave rise to cults of heroes who were strictly human, though associated with the gods as either offspring or close affiliation. After a bit more time had passed, it appears that these works were considered to be impossibly wild tales born from primitive imaginings, and subsequent works on these themes became less narrative and more allusive visions, leading to the vision of the world presented by the later emerging philosophers. Certainly, there may have been heroic individuals during those times; as I've already mentioned, such times refine both the best and the worst in human beings. But reducing real, cosmic activity to the level of exaggerated human doings amounted to a cover-up, whether it was intentional or not.

And so, we find a group of people - obviously a minority - in the area of the furthest extent of the ancient Hittite Empire, emerging from the darkness, building societies and trying to bring order out of chaos. They read the myths and knew the stories of their immediate forebears, but they did not see anything going on in the skies, or the world at large, that would explain these things, so they assumed that the language describing the doings of gods was really about forces of nature that had been misunderstood. They didn't have precise scientific terminology as we do today, and they weren't precisely scientific in the beginning, so they utilized the only language they had to do this with: the language of myth. They were concerned with the early history of the Earth, with its creation, its structure, how it worked, and, of course, man's place within it.

The sky was seen as a solid hemisphere, similar to a bowl. It was solid and bright, even metallic. It covered the flat earth and the lower part of the space between earth and sky, up to and including clouds, contained mist (aer); beyond that, from clouds up to the starry sky, was aither, the 'shining upper air' which, interestingly enough, was often conceived of as fiery. In the Iliad, Homer writes, in obvious comet imagery, "the fir-tree reached through the aer to the aither."[12] Below the surface of the earth, its mass continued far down, with roots in Tartaros.[13]
Or seizing him I will hurl him into misty Tartaros, very far, where is the deepest gulf below earth; there are iron gates and brazen threshold, as far beneath Hades as sky is from earth.[14]

Around it [Tartaros] a brazen fence is drawn; and all about it Night in three rows is poured, around the throat; and above are the roots of earth and unharvested sea.[15]
So we see something like a big globe surrounding the Earth, though the part that surrounds the world underneath the flat surface, embraces a big mass of Earth's foundations, as well as the underworld, and is either brass or iron. Some conceived of the Earth's foundations as continuing on indefinitely, but that was a later idea of Xenophanes.

Around the edges of the flat Earth ran the vast river, Okeanos. However, in the Odyssey, a broad outer sea was described. So the idea of Okeanos being a river of fresh water may be Mesopotamian. The encircling river meant that the Sun, after finishing his transit of the sky, sailed in a golden boat around the Earth in the stream of Okeanos and returned to the place of arising the next morning. This may be derived from Egypt where the Sun was depicted as traveling from West to East across subterranean waters.

Okeanos - along with Tethys or the earth itself - was perceived as the 'begetter of gods' and the place where the gods went to sleep. That is, it was over the horizon that the comets arose and then subsequently set. Obviously, they could also go below the horizon to Tartaros or could even be born from Tartaros.
There of murky earth and misty Tartaros and unharvested sea and starry sky, of all of them, are the springs in a row and the grievous, dank limits which even the gods detest; a great gulf, nor would one reach the floor for the whole length of a fulfilling year, if one were once within the gates. But hither and thither storm on grievous storm would carry one on; dreadful is this portent even for immortal gods; and the dreadful halls of gloomy Night stand covered with blue-black clouds.[16]

There are gleaming gates, and brazen threshold unshaken, fixed with continuous roots, self-grown; and in front, far from all the gods, dwell the Titans, across murky Chaos.[17]
We see that this may be an attempt to describe the regions beyond and below the horizon, which are said to be surrounded by night, and above it are the roots of the Earth and the sea.

Epimenides of Cnossos

At this point in our more or less chronological account, we encounter Epimenides who was a semi-mythical 7th or 6th century BC Greek seer and philosopher-poet. Diogenes Laertius tells us that he was summoned to Athens in the 46th Olympiad (595-592 BCE) to purify their city and thereby stop a pestilence. That puts him as a contemporary of Solon (c. 630 - c. 560 BCE), both being contemporaries of Cyrus II of Persia and Croesus of Lydia. It also reminds us of Thaletas of Gortyn (Crete) who was called to Sparta in 670 BC, for the same reason, 75 years earlier.

Epimenides was a Cretan diviner and the following excerpts from Diogenes tell the story in brief:
He [Epimenides] was a native of Cnossos in Crete, though from wearing his hair long he did not look like a Cretan. One day he was sent into the country by his father to look for a stray sheep, and at noon he turned aside out of the way, and went to sleep in a cave, where he slept for fifty-seven years. After this he got up and went in search of the sheep, thinking he had been asleep only a short time. And when he could not find it, he came to the farm, and found everything changed and another owner in possession. ... At length he found his younger brother, now an old man, and learnt the truth from him. So he became famous throughout Greece, and was believed to be a special favourite of heaven.

Hence, when the Athenians were attacked by pestilence, and the Pythian priestess bade them purify the city, they sent a ship ... to Crete to ask the help of Epimenides. And he came in the 46th Olympiad, (595 - 592 BCE), purified their city, and stopped the pestilence...

According to some writers he declared the plague to have been caused by the pollution which Cylon brought on the city and showed them how to remove it. In consequence two young men, Cratinus and Ctesibius, were put to death and the city was delivered from the scourge.

The Athenians voted him a talent in money and a ship to convey him back to Crete. The money he declined, but he concluded a treaty of friendship and alliance between Cnossos and Athens.

So he returned home and soon afterwards died. According to Phlegon in his work On Longevity, he lived one hundred and fifty-seven years; according to the Cretans two hundred and ninety-nine years. Xenophanes of Colophon gives his age as 154, according to hearsay. ...

Demetrius reports a story that he received from the Nymphs food of a special sort and kept it in a cow's hoof; that he took small doses of this food, which was entirely absorbed into his system, and he was never seen to eat. ... they say he had superhuman foresight... It is also stated that he... claimed that his soul had passed through many incarnations... The Lacedaemonians guard his body in their own keeping in obedience to a certain oracle; this is stated by Sosibius the Laconian.[18] (Plutarch also tells a more elaborated version of the story in the parallel Lives.)
It is noteworthy that Epimenides (along with Melampus), was alleged to have been one of the founders of Orphism which apparently taught reincarnation. Curiously, Epimenides is quoted twice in the New Testament. The alleged poem of Epimenides goes as follows:
They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,

Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.

But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,

For in you we live and move and have our being.[19]
The fourth line is quoted in Acts 17:28:
For in Him we live and move and have our being; as even some of your poets have said, For we are also His offspring.
Then, in Titus 1:12:
One of their number, a prophet of their own, said, Cretans are always liars, hurtful beasts, idle and lazy gluttons.
The "lie" of the Cretans is that Zeus was mortal; Epimenides considered Zeus immortal.

We note from the brief biography, that Epimenides apparently blamed this plague on "the pollution which Cylon brought on the city and showed them how to remove it."

Cylon was an Athenian noble and a previous winner in the Olympics. Apparently, he plotted with his father-in-law, Theagenes, the tyrant of Megara, to seize Athens in a coup in either 636 B.C.E. or 632 BCE (which was quite a bit before the 46th Olympiad (595-592 BCE) when Epimenides was called in!). Not much is known about Theagenes except that he became a tyrant by way of his own coup and Aristotle wrote in his Rhetoric that Theagenes had first asked for a bodyguard: "he who is plotting tyranny asks for a body guard." He is compared with Pisistratus,[20] "who when granted it [a body guard] became a tyrant."[21] What is curious about the episode of Theagenes is that Aristotle mentions that he slaughtered the flocks of the rich. "They would do this because they had the confidence of the people, a confidence based upon hostility to the rich."[22] This is paralleled again by Aristotle with Pisistratus' leading a revolt of dwellers on the plain. Aristotle comes out clearly in support of the rule of the wealthy elite.

Anyway, back to Cylon: he married Theagenes' daughter and consulted the Delphic oracle who told him to seize Athens during a festival of Zeus, which Cylon understood to mean the Olympics of 640 BCE. However, the coup did not succeed and Cylon and his supporters took refuge in Athena's temple on the Acropolis. Cylon and his brother escaped, but his followers were cornered by Athens's nine archons. According to Plutarch and Thucydides[23], they were persuaded by the archons to leave the temple and stand trial after being assured that their lives would be spared. The Athenian archons, led by Megacles, proceeded to stone them to death which was the "great sin" that Cylon brought on Athens, not his attempted coup!

So, it seems, based on the dates, that Athens was suffering a great deal for a considerable period of time before they called in Epimenides. The seer made it clear that Megacles and his whole wealthy and powerful family, the Alcmaeonidae, had to be exiled from the city which is what happened to elites when things went bad for the society. Not only did they exile the entire family from the city, they even dug up their buried ancestors and moved them outside the city limits! (The later Pericles and Alcibiades also belonged to the Alcmaeonidae.)


Around 600 BCE there was a Spartan choral/lyric poet named Alcman who apparently wrote a theogonical cosmogony. We only have a 2nd century AD papyrus commentary with limited extracts of the work. It obviously puzzled the commentator.[24] What is important about it is that the fragment preserves a couple of unusual terms: poros, as 'paths in the primeval sea', and tekmor, as 'signs of direction through it', or through the stars. This appears to us to be a description of a physical path or passage through the heavens, described in terms of the background stars though, as yet, there were no constellations named by the Greeks. The new terms are neither oriental nor Hesiodic, so where did they come from? Alcman's compositional dialect (Homeric mixed with Doric Laconian vernacular) and many references to Lydian and Asian culture suggests his origins. Aristotle said that that Alcman came to Sparta as a slave to the family of Agesidas by whom he was eventually emancipated because of his great skill.[25] The choral lyrics of Alcman were meant to be performed within the social, political, and religious context of Sparta. Swiss scholar Claude Calame suggests they are a type of drama connected with initiation rites.[26]


Pherecydes was, according to one ancient authority, a contemporary of the Lydian king Alyattes, i.e. 605-560 BC. He was born on the Greek island of Syros[27], and is said by many scholars to have been the bridge between the ancient myths and pre-Socratic Greek philosophy. According to Diogenes, Pherecydes' work survived into his own time, the 3rd century CE. Diogenes recites miracle stories about Pherecydes, such as prediction of an earthquake, a shipwreck, the outcome of a battle, and so forth. What is problematical is that the same miracles were also attributed to Pythagoras. Associations between the two were assumed only after the 5th century BCE, probably due to a passing comment made by Ion of Chios[28] and recorded by Diogenes:
Thus did [Pherecydes] excel in manhood and honor, and now that he is dead he has a delightful existence for his soul - if Pythagoras was truly wise, who above all others knew and learned thoroughly the opinions of men.[29]
The confused association between Pherecydes and Pythagoras suggests that there were few reliable details about either and people could just make stuff up at will. Thus, it is probably best to be skeptical of a connection.

In addition to Diogenes, there is a reference to Pherecydes in the Suda[30], which says:
There is a story that Pythagoras was taught by him [Pherecydes]; but that he himself had no instructor, but trained himself after obtaining the secret books of the Phoenicians.[31]
There is another thing that is most interesting that Diogenes has reported about Pherecydes:
There is preserved of the man of Syros the book ... and there is preserved also a solstice-marker in the island of Syros.
This may possibly be related to a line from the Odyssey:
There is an island called Syrie - perhaps you have heard of it - above Ortygie, where are the turnings of the sun.
The "turnings of the sun" would refer to the summer and winter solstices when the Sun reaches its highest and lowest points and appears to 'turn back' due to the angle of the Earth's axis vis- à-vis the Sun through the annual orbit. Kirk, Raven and Schofield add in a footnote:
...the only other place in Homer where Ortygie is mentioned is Odyssey V, 123, where Orion, having been carried off by Eos, is slain in Ortygie by Artemis. The implication is that Ortygie was the dwelling-place of Eos, the dawn, and therefore that it lies in the east. ... since solstices would normally be observed at sunrise and in summer, and so in the north-east-by-east direction, that is what the phrase might suggest. Thus the intention may be to indicate the general direction of this probably mythical Ortygie. In fact the dwelling-place of Eos was often conceived as being Aia, commonly identified with Colchis; and Colchis does lie roughly north-east-by-east from the centre of the Ionian coastline.[32]
Kirk et al. also include comments, aka scholia, on the couplet from Homer written by later scholars:
Aristarchus comment: They say there is a cave of the sun there, through which they mark the sun's turnings.

Herodian: As it were toward the turnings of the sun, which is in the westward direction, above Delos.[33]
The comments show that two interpretations (at least) of this couplet from Homer were being discussed in Alexandria. One of them suggests that it was thought there was a solstice-marker that had been used by Pherecydes; that is, that he was making astronomical observations. But what is more interesting is that it appears that the existence of this marker was known by Homer. One wonders if Pherecydes discovered it by following clues in Homer which leads to the question: how did Homer know about it? But of course, this whole thing needs to be taken with a grain of salt or two since, according to the scholars, there is no other evidence that Pherecydes was a practical scientist, although, to me, the evidence suggests he was making astronomical observations. Further, the fact that many megalithic structures of northern Europe have been shown to be designed to mark the solstices and/or equinoxes is very intriguing. Did Pherecydes have a northern source for his information?

Pherecydes is said to have been the first to write about the gods in prose as opposed to poetry. That is, poetic works appear to have had ritual purposes, while Pherecydes broke with this tradition; perhaps he was attempting to write about these things in a pragmatic way. His major work was entitled Heptamychos, or 'the seven sanctuaries' or recesses. Some sources say it was Pentemychos, which is translated as meaning 'five recesses' and the later Pythagoreans were said to have developed their pentagram and 'spiritual purification' system based on the 'five recesses'. It is assumed by some that Pherecydes was teaching esoteric things via the medium of mythic representation, i.e. allegorically. One ancient commentator wrote:
Also, Pherecydes, the man of Syros, talks of recesses and pits and caves and doors and gates, and through these speaks in riddles of becomings and deceases of souls.[34]
Well, sure, we could interpret this in view of the many astronomically oriented megalithic structures and conclude that there was some metaphysical or spiritual purpose to them, as well as a connection between them and Pherecydes' 'recesses'. However, as we have seen from our brief review above starting with Homer and Hesiod, particularly discussions of gates and doors and so forth, this is undoubtedly incorrect; It seems that Pherecydes was talking about regions of the sky exactly as did Homer and Hesiod.

Pherecydes described a cosmogony based on three 'principles': Zas (Zeus), Cthonie (earth) and Chronos. Pentemychos was about a cosmic battle taking place, with Chronos as the head of one side and Ophioneus - the serpent - as the leader of the other. As we know, the same story is elsewhere enacted with Zeus and Typhon/Typhoeus, Marduk vs. Tiamat, and other parallels. The semen (seeds) of Chronos was placed in the 'recesses' and numerous other gods and their offspring were the result. This is described in a fragment preserved in Damascius' On First Principles[35] and we've read almost exactly the same thing in Hesiod, quoted above in the story of the castration of Chronos.

With the understanding of giant comets, and that they were perceived to arrive from certain areas of the sky with regularity, as explained by the science we have reviewed, we can better interpret the 'recesses' as being particular areas of the sky that were later defined as constellations, created and named in accordance with the cometary activity. This point can be understood by reviewing the development of the history of astrological signs. John H. Rogers, in Origins of the ancient constellations[36], (in 2 parts), explains that the division of the zodiac into 12 equal parts was not done by even the Babylonians until between 600 and 475 BC, around the time that zodiacal horoscopes were introduced. The 48 constellations of the classical world were first described by Eudoxus and Aratus, and the definitive list was not made until the time of Ptolemy (90-c.168 CE). Only a subset of the classical constellations came from Babylonia - the zodiac and four associated animals: serpent, crow, eagle and fish.

An idea of how the sky was divided for the purpose of recording astronomical events can be gained by a review of Stanislaus Lubienietzki's (1623-1675) Theatrum Cometicum[37], published in 1668 in Amsterdam, which contains 80 fabulous illustrations that accompany over 400 comet sightings. The book records the observations of such scholars as Athanasius Kircher, Christian Huygens and Johannes Hevelius (plus others), and each of them provided their own constellation charts which reflect different sky-mapping traditions.
comet chart 17th century
© R. P. A. Curtio/Theatrum Cometicum
This first image is a comet observation by R. P. A. Curtio. Notice how particular stars are designated in the grid he has drawn so as to accurately place his comet in relation to those stars. Notice the triangulation from Cygnus and Polaris to the head of the comet. In this chart, we also see the oblique line of the zodiac crossed by the horizontal line of the celestial equator. (Keep all this in mind; it is going to solve a great, ancient mystery further on!) The next image is another way of mapping a comet sighting.

Theatrum Cometicum horoscope map

Theatrum Cometicum
This is a more horoscopic type of map which shows the symbols of the zodiac and designates which sign the Sun is in. The little circle at the bottom probably designates the Earth from where the comet is viewed and notice how the tail of the comet changed over the duration of the observation (this is like time-lapse engraving!) in relation to the Sun. One can easily imagine how the segments of the zodiac, before they were named constellations, could have been thought of as 'caves' or 'recesses', especially if the sky was alive with comet activity!

That's just a couple of selections from the Theatrum Cometicum that I have selected to make my point that I think Pherecydes was either making direct comet observations, or was studying the myths and legends and knew what they were and was endeavoring to standardize locations in the sky where those terrifying events took place. It is worth noting that a significant number of the comet maps in the Theatrum Cometicum depict comets in the area of the sky between Taurus and Scorpio, though along the celestial equator rather than the zodiac. It isn't difficult to imagine Pherecydes including just such charts as illustrations to his idea about the 'recesses', 'pits', 'gates', 'caves', and so on.

A relationship appears to exist between these recesses and Chthonie, which is another of the three first-existing things. Chthonie has to do with the origin of the word 'chthonic'; her name means 'underlying the earth'. That can be explained by the fact that the comets either appear from, or pass below, the horizon, seeming to be either born from the Earth, or to go 'inside the earth' or into the ocean from the constellation 'recesses' as in the following land oriented image.
comet observation 17th century
© Theatrum Cometicum
Ophioneus and its brood of serpents are depicted as ruling the birthing cosmos for some time, before finally falling from power thanks to the arrival of the cavalry in the form of Zeus who 'orders and distributes' things, i.e. kicks most of the comets out of play like a massive bowling strike. The story describing this has Zas making a cloth which he decorates with earth and sea and presents as a wedding gift to Chthonie, wrapping it around her as a wedding garment. In another fragment it is not Chthonie, but a winged oak that is wrapped in the cloth. The winged oak in this cosmology has no precedent in Greek tradition but, thanks to Ballie, Clube and Napier, we certainly know of trees of life as comets, with their attendant ion tails and other electrical activity, and the World Tree is typical of northern cosmogonies. Nevertheless, we perceived something of the decorated cloth wrapped around the earth in the quote above from Hesiod: "Great Ouranos came bringing Night with him, and over Gaia, desiring love, he stretched himself, and spread all over her..." And, since the topic is on the table at the moment, I should mention here that many of these sexual images that were used to describe the activities of the comet gods, were later used to justify such things as incest and pederasty. After all, if the gods do it, why can't we? That's due, of course, to the 'astralizing' influence taken to an extreme.

Back to Pherecydes story; apparently, the chaotic forces - or comets, as we know them - are eternal and cannot be destroyed, so Zeus takes possession of the sky, space and time, and throws Ophioneus and the gang out from the ordered world and locks them away in Tartaros. As noted, Hesiod described Tartaros as being "in a recess (mychos) of broad-wayed earth", i.e. they disappeared below the horizon.

The locks to Tartaros are fashioned in iron by Zeus, and in bronze by Poseidon, which could mean that some of the comet fragments came to Earth and others plunged into the ocean. Judging from some ancient fragments, Ophioneus is thrown into Okeanos, but not into Tartaros. In one version, it is Kronos who orders the offspring - the comet fragments - out from the cosmos to Tartaros. In short, they were flung off into space, i.e. were probably moved into different orbits, passing from view below the horizon or, more intriguingly, passing out of the plane of the ecliptic into other regions of the sky. The question is: do they still exist in these orbits?

We are told about chaotic beings put into the Pentemychos, and we are told that the Darkness has an offspring that is cast into the recesses of Tartaros. No surviving fragment makes the connection, but it is possible that the prison-house in Tartaros and the Pentemychos are ways of referring to essentially the same thing.[38] Was Pherecydes dividing the sky into 10 segments with five of them always being below the horizon? Notice that the image drawn by Hevelius below does exactly that, though with six 'recesses' based on the 12-sign zodiac and the sexagesimal circle later obtained via the Babylonians.
comet map observations 17th century
© Hevelius
A comparatively large number of sources say Pherecydes was the first to teach the eternity and transmigration of human souls, i.e. reincarnation.[39] Both Cicero and Augustine thought of him as having given the first teaching of the 'immortality of the soul'[40] and Hellenic scholar Hermann S. Schibli writes that Pherecydes "included in his book [Pentemychos] at least a rudimentary treatment of the immortality of the soul, its wanderings in the underworld, and the reasons for the soul's incarnations."[41] One gets the impression that this 'astralizing' of the behavior of perfectly astronomical comets was the origin of the idea of reincarnation itself, derived from the reappearance, at regular intervals, of the Comet Gods from their 'wanderings in the underworld' beyond the horizon of the Earth! And that isn't to say that reincarnation isn't an idea worth exploring; I'm just pointing out that there is a far more rational explanation for what Pherecydes was talking about than reincarnation.

Finally, the material that comes to us from Pherecydes is dotted with original terms and imagery that strikes me as 1) possibly derived from northern sources, and 2) a quasi-scientific attempt to depict real events, not myth. The flying oak with the marriage cloth that covers Earth is just fascinating!

Pherecydes was said by Diogenes to have been the student of Pittacus (640-568 BC) who was a Mytilenaean[42] general who defeated the Athenians and was named as one of the 'Seven Sages'.
seven sages greece philosophy painting

The Seven Sages of Greece Disputing over the Tripod

According to the story, when the Athenians were preparing to attack, Pittacus challenged their General to single combat to decide the war and avoid senseless bloodshed. He won and was chosen ruler of his city.
In Protagoras, Plato has his character, Prodicus, refer to Pittacus as a barbarian because he spoke Aeolic Greek derived from Boeotia, one of the earliest inhabited regions of Greece, the home of Oedipus, Kadmus, Ogyges, the legend of the Deluge, etc. So, that may be one of the sources of information available to Pherecydes. Hesiod was also born in Boeotia.


[1] The name, if it is significant, signifies "black foot".

[2] Herodotus, Histories 2.49.

[3] Robert Graves, The Greek Myths 1955, s.v. "Amythaon".

[4] Odyssey, XV.223-42.

[5] Robert Fagles's translation, 1996:326-27.

[6] Walter Burkert, Homo Necans, tr. by Peter Bing, 1983:170 note 12

[7] Plutarch, Mus. 42.1146 b-c.

[8] Burkert (1992) p. 63.

[9] Hesiod, Theogony ­154.

[10] Hesiod, Theogony 695.

[11] 'Theoxeny, the belief that strangers had magical powers or were deities themselves. From 'theo' meaning 'god' and 'xeno' meaning 'alien', 'strange', 'guest'.

[12] Iliad, XIV 288.

[13] In Greek mythology, Tartarus is both a deity and a place in the underworld. Hesiod asserts that a bronze anvil falling from heaven would fall nine days before it reached the earth. The anvil would take nine more days to fall from earth to Tartarus.

[14] Iliad VIII, 13, Zeus speaking.

[15] Hesiod, Theogony 726.

[16] Hesiod, Theogony 736.

[17] Hesiod, Theogony 811.

[18] Diogenes Laertius I, 109-120.

[19] Epimenides' Cretica found in the 9th century Syriac commentary by Isho'dad of Merv on the Acts of the Apostles, discovered, edited and translated (into Greek) by Prof. J. Rendel Harris in a series of articles in the Expositor, Oct. 1906, 305-17; Apr. 1907, 332-37; Apr. 1912, 348-353.

[20] Herodotus reports that Onomacritus, a compiler of oracles who lived at the court of Pisistratus, was hired by Pisistratus to compile the oracles of Musaeus, but that Onomacritus inserted forgeries of his own that were detected. As a result, Onomacritus was banished from Athens by Pisistratus' son Hipparchus. After the flight of the Pisistratids to Persia, Onomacritus was reconciled with them. According to Herodotus, Onomacritus induced Xerxes I, the King of Persia, by his oracular responses, to decide upon his war with Greece.

[21] Aristotle. Rhetoric, 1357b.

[22] Aristotle. Politics, 1305a 22-4.

[24] Kirk, Raven & Schofield (1983) The Presocratic Philosophers, pp. 46-49.

[25] Huxley, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 15 (1974) 210-1 n. 19

[26] Calame, Les Chœurs de jeunes filles en Grèce archaïque, 2 vols. (Rome:L'Ateneo and Bizzarri), 1977; translated as Choruses of Ancient Women in Greece: their morphology, religious roles and social functions (Lanham, MD:Rowman and Littlefield), 1996.

[27] Greek island in the Cyclades, in the Aegean Sea, located about 144 km south-east of Athens.

[28] Ion of Chios (c. 490/480 - c. 420 BCE) was a Greek writer, dramatist, lyric poet and philosopher.

[29] Diogenes, I, 120.

[30] A massive 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world, formerly attributed to an author called Suidas.

[31] Suda, s.v. Pherecydes.

[32] Kirk et al., p. 55.

[33] Kirk et al., p. 54.

[35] Ahbel-Rappe (2010) Damascius' Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles. Damascius was head of the Neoplatonist academy in Athens when the Emperor Justinian shut its doors forever in 529. His work, Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles, is the last surviving independent philosophical treatise from the Late Academy.

[36] Rogers (1998) Origins of the ancient constellations, Part I: The Mesopotamian Tradition and Part II: The Mediterranean Tradition.

[37] Theatrum Cometicum, Stanislaus Lubienietzki (1668),

[38] Kirk et al. (1983).

[39] Schibli (1990) Pherekydes of Syros.

[40] Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th edition, Volume 18: Pherecydes of Syros.

[41] Schibli, ibid., p. 108.

[42] Mytilene is a town on the Greek island of Lesbos.

Next: Part 5