In the second half of his work Science & Religion in Archaic Greece, the present writer’s mentor, the late Roger Sworder, sets out his reading of the famous poem of Parmenides. The section is entitled ‘Parmenides at Delphi’ and Sworder presents a novel hypothesis in which the cosmology of Parmenides’ poem reveals how the Delphic oracle operated in principle. It is a very tight and subtle reading that departs from the usual commentary on Parmenides, carefully drawing parallels between multivalent symbolisms. This was the centre-piece of Roger Sworder’s life’s work: a comprehensive, and Platonic, reading of Parmenides of Elea.
The key move that he makes in this reading is to identify the “goddess” who features in the poem and who instructs the narrator as Aphrodite. He argues that the poem allegorizes the passage of the evening star into the Gates of Night. This is an unusual identification. Scholars have suggested a wide range of deities for the mysterious “goddess” but Sworder’s suggestion of Aphrodite is peculiar to him. Most common in our own times are readings of the poem developed by Peter Kingsley in which he sees the chthonic deities Persephone and Demeter as the key figures in the poem. Kingsley’s reading is shamanic. He sees the poem as a journey into the underworld. He is, importantly, anti-Platonic. He regards Plato as fundamentally out of step with the true nature of Parmenides’ philosophy. Unlike Sworder, he does not see Plato's account of Parmenides as illuminating but rather a departure from Presocratic gnosis into an arid logocentrism that sent Western civilization in the wrong direction for millenia.
The present writer, of course, has a soft spot for the reading offered by his mentor and had the opportunity, extending over decades, to discuss it with him in detail. The identification of Aphrodite as the “goddess” was always the key. But is it right? It is a brilliant solution, certainly, but it has always seemed to the present writer that there is another – somewhat obvious – contender – which is to say there is, therefore, an entirely different way to read the poem, and not only the poem but the whole of Parmenides’ philosophy. Sworder’s reading is far more elegant and cogent than Kingsley’s - which is to say less anthropological - and it supplies answers to most of the conundrums of the poem, and it has the considerable virtue of accounting for pre-modern modes of thinking rather than distorting Parmenides with a modern lens, but it is hardly conclusive. The question is still open.
The other contender is Athena. It is a rather obvious possibility simply because Athena is the goddess of philosophy, and whoever the goddess in the poem might be she instructs the narrator, Parmenides, in philosophy. Which goddess in the Greek pantheon is most likely to take a man by the hand and school him in philosophy? Aphrodite? Persephone? Necessity? Surely the first name that comes to mind is Athena? It is not much to go on, admittedly, but as a starting point it is incontestable. Regarding dating, the attribution of philosophy to Athena is roughly concurrent with Parmenides. Philosophy was a new science. Athena was its divine sponsor.
Let us therefore try to marshall a few preliminary points in support of such an identification. The suggestion has been made before (by Eric Havelock, for instance, in 1958) but it seems not to have been pursued in any thoroughgoing studies. Any case, of course, would need to be argued in great detail and with careful reference to Parmenides’ dense and difficult Greek. In regards the “goddess” though, we are told very little directly in the text. Everything must be inferred and taken from context. Given this, is there a prima facie case? Some general observations:
* There is no doubt whatsoever that Parmenides’ poem (written in hexameter) has Homeric echoes and allusions throughout, and especially in the opening ‘proem’. It is arguable that the primary allusion is to Odysseus in his role as the man who goes to places beyond where ordinary mortals go. The entire poem is presented as such a journey. In that case, might not the parallel extend to the goddess who guides Parmenides being the same goddess who guided Odysseus: namely Athena?
*More generally, Athena is
patroness of heroic endeavour; the narrator’s philosophical journey in
Parmenides poem is presented as heroic. Otto described Athena as the “goddess
of nearness” who mentors and mothers heroes. This conforms very neatly to the
role of the goddess in the poem.(The "goddess of nearness" guides the hero through places far.)
*The specific allusion to the Odyssey seems to be to Odysseus’ journey to the island of Circe (a daughter of the sun), an ultimate place where, we are told, day and night meet. As well, the chariot ride in the poem appears to be an allusion to the chariot ride of Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, in search of his father. The use of Homeric models may be just a poetic formality, but it is more likely to be thematic. We are to understand the narrator as an Odysseus-like figure.
*Note that the goddess instructs the hero of Parmenides’ poem with “deceptive words”. We are reminded that in the parallel parts of the Odyssey Athena lied to Odysseus. For Athena it is sometimes prudent to use skilful deceptions. This is exactly true of the goddess in the poem. If ancient readers of the poem could not help but see the allusions to the Circe episode of the Odyssey, then the goddess’ use of “skilful means” in the poem would immediately recall Athena’s treatment of Odysseus at that point in the Odyssey. The narrator of Parmenides’ poem, like Odysseus, is instructed by and must learn from “the deceptive order of my words.”
*Most importantly – this is perhaps the strongest of these points - regarding the striking chariot and equine symbolism in Parmenides’ poem, note that Athena was sometimes given the epithet Hippia (of the horses) because she reputedly created the bit, bridle and chariot. The poem gives emphasis to exactly these things. The entire chariot-ride metaphor in the poem may be taken as a motif of Athena. The poem features her technology. Poseidon is the god of horses, but Athena is the goddess of the technology that tames and renders horses useful for humans. In the Homeric Hymns we are told “she first taught human craftsmen how to build chariots and work the bronze…” All of the equine and chariot symbolism in the poem is well-accounted for by identifying the goddess as Athena (indeed, much better than any other candidate.)
*It is worth asking what was the cultic context of Parmenides’ poem? (Or is it a free-standing literary fiction?) Kingsley thinks it reflects certain practices and rituals of an iatromantic school in Elea. The archaeology tells us that the city of Elea hosted a cult of Aesclepius (god of medicine) but the archaeology also reveals a major temple of Athena. Athena was one of the chief deities of the city. (This is perhaps not saying much since she was a panhellenic favorite, but we can confirm her worship in Elea.) If we take it that the poem had a religious setting, what goddess was prominent in Parmenides’ city?
*Numismatic evidence confirms this. Surviving coins from Elea (albeit slightly later than Parmenides’ time) feature depictions of Athena. There is scant evidence, but we can surely say that Athena was an important deity to the Eleans.
*We must remember that the Eleans came originally from Phocaea, a city established – according to Pausanius - under Athenian leadership. The Phocaeans, then the Eleans, had strong links with Athens, including a shared royal line. The colony had ancestral and historical links with Athens. We can suppose that this fact probably elevates the status of Athena among the Eleans. Sworder gives emphasis to the history of the Eleans and their exile from Phocaea (he takes Parmenides as the great spiritual patriarch of his people and the poem as patriotic) but he overlooks the foundational connections between the Eleans and Athens. If the poem reflects the epic journey of the Phocaean exiles and establishes a new colony in Magna Grecia (a type of founding revelation, as Sworder would have it) then might not Parmenides turn to Athena for this purpose since it was she who first established the colony in Phocaea?
*It is entirely proper and conventional that Parmenides does not name Athena in his poem but refers to her just as “the goddess”. Plato does the same. Of all deities, Athena is most typically just referred to as “the goddess”. Sworder thinks that the goddess is not named because her identification as Aphrodite would have been plainly obvious to readers, yet, it seems, Sworder was the first person in 2500 years to spell it out? Might not the goddess be unnamed for some other reason? Might it not be a convention? Might it not signal that the goddess in question is so mighty that it is proper and pious to be reticient to use her name? That would be Athena.
Then there is the evidence we can extract from Plato’s account of Parmenides:
*In Plato’s depiction of Parmenides, he has Parmenides visiting Athens for the Panathenea – the great festival of Athena. That is, we are to believe that Parmenides – a very old man - traveled all the way to Athens from Elea in order to observe the festival of Athena. On the face of it, this might indicate that Parmenides had a particular reverence for this goddess. If Plato understands the “goddess” in Parmenides’ poem to be Athena, then we can understand why he depicted the Elean in Athens celebrating the Panathanea.
*Moreover, Plato’s entire discussion of Parmenides’ encounter with Socrates is framed by the festival of the Panathenea. Most scholars think this is merely a literary device to explain why old Parmenides was in Athens in the first place. But perhaps the subject of the dialogue is appropriate to the festival, and appropriate to the goddess? As a general point, the settings of Plato’s dialogues are carefully constructed and are not unimportant. Why has Plato set his ‘Parmenides’ on the festival of Athena? Why does Plato depict Parmenides paying homage to this goddess? There might be many reasons, but it might suggest a particular affinity with the great goddess of philosophy.
*Plato uses the same device in the Timaeus. That dialogue is Plato’s own “peri phuseos” (On Nature) – the same genre as Parmenides’ poem. (It shares many of the same structures regarding truth and seeming.) It too is set on “the festival of the goddess” (the Panathenaea) but the goddess (Athena) in that case is unnamed – just “The Goddess”.
*Regarding the actual philosophical content of Parmenides’ poem, the question must be asked: how is the philosophy and doctrine imparted in the instruction given by the goddess typical of that goddess? Sworder has some ammunition. He points to the fragments of Parmenides’ poem that concern sex and reproduction. Certainly, some of the fragments can be be said to be entirely appropriate to the goddess Aphrodite. She brings female to male and male to female. Yet Venus is named as a separate deity – the mixed seeds of Venus - in fragment 18. And it is harder to ascribe the teachings regarding Being and Not-Being to Aphrodite. (As a general criticism, Sworder’s reading works better for the Way of Seeming than for the Way of Truth. He admits this, but thinks that the proper way to understand the poem – and its metaphysics - is through its cosmology.)
*Few deities are more complex than Athena, and her character changes and expands over time. But later accounts routinely identify her as a metaphysical goddess. They suppose that her renowned virginity is emblematic of an otherworldly nature. She is aloof, mental. A goddess of nous. Relevant to Parmenides, this is true among the Pythagoreans. Although originally a goddess of action, she became the goddess of (virginal) contemplation, par excellence. Which other goddess has such metaphysical concerns? Which other goddess might instruct a contemplative in metaphysics?
*One of Athena’s skills is making philosophical distinctions. Consider the most common story of her birth: Zeus married and impregnated Metis ("most knowing of the gods and men" (Hesiod, frag. 343.15; Theogony 886–900) but then, to avoid being usurped by a son, swallowed her. Zeus subsequently developed a headache, so Hephaestus – weilding his axe – split Zeus’ head in two and out jumped Athena, fully grown and fully armed. This strange story tells us that Athena is a mental deity (born from Zeus’ head) but the story also concerns making mental distinctions – Zeus’ head is split in two. (His “splitting headache” is a mythological pun.) One reading of the myth might be: where we make fundamental distinctions, there is Athena, fully formed. The poem of Parmenides consists of a series of fundamental distinctions: truth/seeming, being/non-being, etcetera.
*Moreover, this goddess – more
than any other in the entire Greek pantheon – embodies the idea of paradox: and
Parmenides philosophy, and that of his school and pupils like Zeno, is
resoundingly paradoxical. The main claim of this philosophy, we might say, is
that all opposites are identical. Night is day and day is night. The failure of
the “opinion of mortals” is that they fail to grasp this paradox and all that
it implies. The paradox of Athena
is a stark one in the context of Greek sociology: she is the most masculine of
any goddess. She is a strange combination of masculine and feminine qualities.
She is quite remarkable in this respect. We might not appreciate this because
she is familiar to us, but in her context she is remarkable. Although she
represents the Polis, and is preeminently the sponsor of the Greek patriarchal
order, along with Zeus (who she almost matches), she paradoxically destabilizes
that order; she refuses to marry and can defend her chastity with as much
military strength, ferocity and prowess as Ares himself. As mythographers often
point out, she is a very odd mixture of traits that are paradoxical against all
Greek sociological norms. Might not Athena be a suitable goddess to reveal the
paradoxes of Parmenides’ poem? Paradox is her domain.
*As per Sworder, the depiction of the "goddess" bringing together female and male and male and female would undoubtedly suit Aphrodite, but it is role not alien to Athena. In Aeschylus' Eumenides (736 - 738) - one of our best sources regarding the cultus of Athena - she is depicted as reconciling men and gods and also, because of her nature and her birth, Aeschylus says, men and women. This goddess - in whom masculine and feminine traits are mixed - reconciles female to male and male to female.
*According to Parmenides, when we escape the “opinions of mortals” and take the Way of Truth – we leave the physical realm and dwell in pure thought – we encounter paradox. This, surely, is the point of Zeno’s famous paradoxes. In the physical universe Achilles overtakes the tortoise, but not in the realm of pure thought. That realm of pure thought is the “virginity” of Athena, and it is inherently paradoxical.
*In Athens, especially, the paradoxes of Athena go further: she is not just a virgin, but rather a virgin mother. (The Athenians explored this paradox in intricate surrogacy myths.) The ultimate paradox of Athena is that, although she is resolutely virginal, and a metaphysical goddess, she is – mysteriously – a goddess of generation. She is involved in creation, but without ever being sullied by it.
*One of the curiosities of
Parmenides’ poem is why the Way of Seeming is even necessary. Why not just the
Way of Truth? Why the “deceptive order of words”? It seems – paradoxically –
that you cannot have one without the other. In any mythology – Christianity,
most notably – the configuration “Virgin Mother” depicts the paradox of
non-duality: the Many doesn’t really exist, but it must exist for the One to be
One. Or some such rendering of the transcendent/immanent paradox. This paradox –
however one understands it - is the centre-piece of Parmenidean philosophy. In
Greek mythology it is most typical of Athena, virgin and mother. This
(paradoxical) maternal aspect of Athena might possibly account for material
concerning birth and reproduction in the fragments of Parmenides’ poem. At
least, there is no reason to think such material might be contrary to the
character of Athena and an obstacle to identifying her as the goddess of the
* * *
All of this is just a
sketch. Does it have legs? Roger Sworder was quick to pour a ton of cold water
on it. Assuredly, countless objections, ifs and buts, readily come to mind. The
above are just scatter-gun remarks made from memory and without much deliberation
or further research. But it still seems to the present writer like a promising
line of inquiry.
Harper McAlpine Black