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Clement of Alexandria - Book V

Chapter VIII.—The Use of the Symbolic Style by Poets and Philosophers.

Chapter VIII.--The Use of the Symbolic Style by Poets and Philosophers.

But it was not only the most highly intellectual of the Egyptians, but also such of other barbarians as prosecuted philosophy, that affected the symbolical style. They say, then, that Idanthuris king of the Scythians, as Pherecydes of Syros relates, sent to Darius, on his passing the Ister in threat of war, a symbol, instead of a letter, consisting of a mouse, a frog, a bird, a javelin, a plough. And there being a doubt in reference to them, as was to be expected, Orontopagas the Chiliarch said that they were to resign the kingdom; taking dwellings to be meant by the mouse, waters by the frog, air by the bird, land by the plough, arms by the javelin. But Xiphodres interpreted the contrary; for he said, "If we do not take our flight like birds, or like mice get below the earth, or like frogs beneath the water, we shall not escape their arrows; for we are not lords of the territory."

It is said that Anacharsis the Scythian, while asleep, covered the pudenda with his left hand, and his mouth with his right, to intimate that both ought to be mastered, but that it was a greater thing to master the tongue than voluptuousness.

And why should I linger over the barbarians, when I can adduce the Greeks as exceedingly addicted to the use of the method of concealment? Androcydes the Pythagorean says the far-famed so-called Ephesian letters were of the class of symbols. For he said that askion (shadowless) meant darkness, for it has no shadow; and kataskion (shadowy) light, since it casts with its rays the shadow; and lix if is the earth, according to an ancient appellation; and tetras is the year, in reference to the seasons; and damnameneus is the sun, which overpowers (damazon); and ta aisia is the true voice. And then the symbol intimates that divine things have been arranged in harmonious order--darkness to light, the sun to the year, and the earth to nature's processes of production of every sort. Also Dionysius Thrax, the grammarian, in his book, Respecting the Exposition of the Symbolical Signification in Circles, says expressly, "Some signified actions not by words only, but also by symbols: by words, as is the case of what are called the Delphic maxims, Nothing in excess,' Know thyself,' and the like; and by symbols, as the wheel that is turned in the temples of the gods, derived from the Egyptians, and the branches that are given to the worshippers. For the Thracian Orpheus says:--

"Whatever works of branches are a care to men on earth,

Not one has one fate in the mind, but all things

Revolve around; and it is not lawful to stand at one point,

But each one keeps an equal part of the race as they began."

The branches either stand as the symbol of the first food, or they are that the multitude may know that fruits spring and grow universally, remaining a very long time; but that the duration of life allotted to themselves is brief. And it is on this account that they will have it that the branches are given; and perhaps also that they may know, that as these, on the other hand, are burned, so also they themselves speedily leave this life, and will become fuel for fire.

Very useful, then, is the mode of symbolic interpretation for many purposes; and it is helpful to the right theology, and to piety, and to the display of intelligence, and the practice of brevity, and the exhibition of wisdom. "For the use of symbolical speech is characteristic of the wise man," appositely remarks the grammarian Didymus, "and the explanation of what is signified by it." And indeed the most elementary instruction of children embraces the interpretation of the four elements; for it is said that the Phrygians call water Bedu, as also Orpheus says: [3036] --

"And bright water is poured down, the Bedu of the nymphs."

Dion Thytes also seems to write similarly:--

And taking Bedu, pour it on your hands, and turn to divination."

On the other hand, the comic poet, Philydeus, understands by Bedu the air, as being (Biodoros) life-giver, in the following lines:--

"I pray that I may inhale the salutary Bedu,

Which is the most essential part of health;

Inhale the pure, the unsullied air."

In the same opinion also concurs Neanthes of Cyzicum, who writes that the Macedonian priests invoke Bedu, which they interpret to mean the air, to be propitious to them and to their children. And Zaps some have ignorantly taken for fire (from zesin, boiling); for so the sea is called, as Euphorion, in his reply to Theoridas:--

"And Zaps, destroyer of ships, wrecked it on the rocks."

And Dionysius Iambus similarly:--

"Briny Zaps moans about the maddened deep."

Similarly Cratinus the younger, the comic poet:--

"Zaps casts forth shrimps and little fishes."

And Simmias of Rhodes:--

"Parent of the Ignetes and the Telchines briny Zaps was born." [3037]

And chthon is the earth (kechumene) spread forth to bigness. And Plectron, according to some, is the sky (polos), according to others, it is the air, which strikes (plessonta) and moves to nature and increase, and which fills all things. But these have not read Cleanthes the philosopher, who expressly calls Plectron the sun; for darting his beams in the east, as if striking the world, he leads the light to its harmonious course. And from the sun it signifies also the rest of the stars.

And the Sphinx is not the comprehension [3038] of the universe, and the revolution of the world, according to the poet Aratus; but perhaps it is the spiritual tone which pervades and holds together the universe. But it is better to regard it as the ether, which holds together and presses all things; as also Empedocles says:--

"But come now, first will I speak of the Sun, the first principle of all things,

From which all, that we look upon, has sprung,

Both earth, and billowy deep, and humid air;

Titan and Ether too, which binds all things around."

And Apollodorus of Corcyra says that these lines were recited by Branchus the seer, when purifying the Milesians from plague; for he, sprinkling the multitude with branches of laurel, led off the hymn somehow as follows:--

"Sing Boys Hecaergus and Hecaerga."

And the people accompanied him, saying, "Bedu, [3039] Zaps, Chthon, Plectron, Sphinx, Cnaxzbi, Chthyptes, Phlegmos, Drops." Callimachus relates the story in iambics. Cnaxzbi is, by derivation, the plague, from its gnawing (knaiein) and destroying (diaphtheirein), and thupsai is to consume with a thunderbolt. Thespis the tragic poet says that something else was signified by these, writing thus: "Lo, I offer to thee a libation of white Cnaxzbi, having pressed it from the yellow nurses. Lo, to thee, O two-horned Pan, mixing Chthyptes cheese with red honey, I place it on thy sacred altars. Lo, to thee I pour as a libation the sparkling gleam of Bromius." He signifies, as I think, the soul's first milk-like nutriment of the four-and-twenty elements, after which solidified milk comes as food. And last, he teaches of the blood of the vine of the Word, the sparkling wine, the perfecting gladness of instruction. And Drops is the operating Word, which, beginning with elementary training, and advancing to the growth of the man, inflames and illumines man up to the measure of maturity.

The third is said to be a writing copy for children--marptes, sphinx, klops, zunchthedon. And it signifies, in my opinion, that by the arrangement of the elements and of the world, we must advance to the knowledge of what is more perfect, since eternal salvation is attained by force and toil; for marpsai is to grasp. And the harmony of the world is meant by the Sphinx; and zunchthedon means difficulty; and klopss means at once the secret knowledge of the Lord and day. Well! does not Epigenes, in his book on the Poetry of Orpheus, in exhibiting the peculiarities found in Orpheus, [3040] say that by "the curved rods" (keraisi) is meant "ploughs;" and by the warp (stemosi), the furrows; and the woof (mitos) is a figurative expression for the seed; and that the tears of Zeus signify a shower; and that the "parts" (moirai) are, again, the phases of the moon, the thirtieth day, and the fifteenth, and the new moon, and that Orpheus accordingly calls them "white-robed," as being parts of the light? Again, that the Spring is called "flowery," from its nature; and Night "still," on account of rest; and the Moon "Gorgonian," on account of the face in it; and that the time in which it is necessary to sow is called Aphrodite by the "Theologian." [3041] In the same way, too, the Pythagoreans figuratively called the planets the "dogs of Persephone;" and to the sea they applied the metaphorical appellation of "the tears of Kronus." Myriads on myriads of enigmatical utterances by both poets and philosophers are to be found; and there are also whole books which present the mind of the writer veiled, as that of Heraclitus On Nature, who on this very account is called "Obscure." Similar to this book is the Theology of Pherecydes of Syrus; for Euphorion the poet, and the Causes of Callimachus, and the Alexandra of Lycophron, and the like, are proposed as an exercise in exposition to all the grammarians.

It is, then, proper that the Barbarian philosophy, on which it is our business to speak, should prophesy also obscurely and by symbols, as was evinced. Such are the injunctions of Moses: "These common things, the sow, the hawk, the eagle, and the raven, are not to be eaten." [3042] For the sow is the emblem of voluptuous and unclean lust of food, and lecherous and filthy licentiousness in venery, always prurient, and material, and lying in the mire, and fattening for slaughter and destruction.

Again, he commands to eat that which parts the hoof and ruminates; "intimating," says Barnabas, "that we ought to cleave to those who fear the Lord, and meditate in their heart on that portion of the word which they have received, to those who speak and keep the Lord's statutes, to those to whom meditation is a work of gladness, and who ruminate on the word of the Lord. And what is the parted hoof? That the righteous walks in this world, and expects the holy eternity to come." Then he adds, "See how well Moses enacted. But whence could they understand or comprehend these things? We who have rightly understood speak the commandments as the Lord wished; wherefore He circumcised our ears and hearts, that we may comprehend these things. And when he says, Thou shalt not eat the eagle, the hawk, the kite, and the crow;' he says, Thou shalt not adhere to or become like those men who know not how to procure for themselves subsistence by toil and sweat, but live by plunder, and lawlessly.' For the eagle indicates robbery, the hawk injustice, and the raven greed. It is also written, With the innocent man thou wilt be innocent, and with the chosen choice, and with the perverse thou shall pervert.' [3043] It is incumbent on us to cleave to the saints, because they that cleave to them shall be sanctified." [3044]

Thence Theognis writes:--

"For from the good you will learn good things;

But if you mix with the bad, you will destroy any mind you may have."

And when, again, it is said in the ode, "For He hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath He cast into the sea;" [3045] the many-limbed and brutal affection, lust, with the rider mounted, who gives the reins to pleasures, "He has cast into the sea," throwing them away into the disorders of the world. Thus also Plato, in his book On the Soul, says that the charioteer and the horse that ran off--the irrational part, which is divided in two, into anger and concupiscence--fall down; and so the myth intimates that it was through the licentiousness of the steeds that Phaëthon was thrown out. Also in the case of Joseph: the brothers having envied this young man, who by his knowledge was possessed of uncommon foresight, stripped off the coat of many colours, and took and threw him into a pit (the pit was empty, it had no water), rejecting the good man's varied knowledge, springing from his love of instruction; or, in the exercise of the bare faith, which is according to the law, they threw him into the pit empty of water, selling him into Egypt, which was destitute of the divine word. And the pit was destitute of knowledge; into which being thrown and stript of his knowledge, he that had become unconsciously wise, stript of knowledge, seemed like his brethren. Otherwise interpreted, the coat of many colours is lust, which takes its way into a yawning pit. "And if one open up or hew out a pit," it is said, "and do not cover it, and there fall in there a calf or ass, the owner of the pit shall pay the price in money, and give it to his neighbour; and the dead body shall be his. [3046] Here add that prophecy: "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel hath not understood Me." [3047] In order, then, that none of those, who have fallen in with the knowledge taught by thee, may become incapable of holding the truth, and disobey and fall away, it is said, Be thou sure in the treatment of the word, and shut up the living spring in the depth from those who approach irrationally, but reach drink to those that thirst for truth. Conceal it, then, from those who are unfit to receive the depth of knowledge, and so cover the pit. The owner of the pit, then, the Gnostic, shall himself be punished, incurring the blame of the others stumbling, and of being overwhelmed by the greatness of the word, he himself being of small capacity; or transferring the worker into the region of speculation, and on that account dislodging him from off-hand faith. "And will pay money," rendering a reckoning, and submitting his accounts to the "omnipotent Will."

This, then, is the type of "the law and the prophets which were until John;" [3048] while he, though speaking more perspicuously as no longer prophesying, but pointing out as now present, Him, who was proclaimed symbolically from the beginning, nevertheless said, "I am not worthy to loose the latchet of the Lord's shoe." [3049] For he confesses that he is not worthy to baptize so great a Power; for it behooves those, who purify others, to free the soul from the body and its sins, as the foot from the thong. Perhaps also this signified the final exertion of the Saviour's power toward us--the immediate, I mean--that by His presence, concealed in the enigma of prophecy, inasmuch as he, by pointing out to sight Him that had been prophesied of, and indicating the Presence which had come, walking forth into the light, loosed the latchet of the oracles of the [old] economy, by unveiling the meaning of the symbols.

And the observances practiced by the Romans in the case of wills have a place here; those balances and small coins to denote justice, and freeing of slaves, and rubbing of the ears. For these observances are, that things may be transacted with justice; and those for the dispensing of honour; and the last, that he who happens to be near, as if a burden were imposed on him, should stand and hear and take the post of mediator.