Of Time and the Rivers


Di, quibus imperium est animarum, umbraeque silentes

Et Chaos et Phlegethon, loca tacentia late

Sit mihi fas audita loqui . . .


VIRGIL, Aeneid VI.264


SOCRATES' INIMITABLE HABIT of discussing serious things while telling an improbable story makes it very much worth while to take a closer look at his strange system of rivers.


It appears again in Virgil, almost as a set piece. The Aeneid is noble court poetry, and was not intended to say much about the fate of souls; one cannot expect from it the grave explicit Pythagorean indications of Cicero's Dream of Scipio. But while retaining conventional imagery and the official literary grand style which befitted a glorification of the Roman Empire, it repays attention to its hints, for Virgil was not only a subtle but a very learned poet, Thus, while Aeneas' ingress into Hades begins with a clangorous overture of dark woods, specters, somber caves and awesome nocturnal rites, which betoken a real descent into Erebus below the earth, he soon finds himself in a much vaguer landscape. Ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram . . . "On they went dimly, beneath the lonely night amid the gloom, through the empty halls of Dis and his unsubstantial realm, even as under the grudging light of an Inconstant moon lies a path in the forest."


The beauty of the lines disguises the fact that the voyage really is not through subterranean caverns crowded with the countless dead, but through great stretches of emptiness suggesting night




space, and once the party has crossed the rivers and passed the gates of Elysium thanks to the magic of the Golden Bough, they are in a serene land "whence, in the world above, the full flood of Eridanus rolls amid the forest." Now Eridanus is and was in heaven—surely not, in this context, on the Lombard plain. And here also "an ampler aether clothes the meads with roseate light, and they know their own sun, and stars of their own." There is no mention here of the "pallid plains of asphodel" of Homeric convention. Those hovering souls, "peoples and tribes unnumbered," are clearly on the "true earth in heaven," for it is also stated that many of them await the time of being born or reborn on earth in true Pythagorean fashion. And there is more than an Orphic hint in the words of father Anchises: "Fiery is the vigour and divine the source of those life-seeds, so far as harmful bodies clog them not. . ." But when they have lived, and died, "it must needs be that many a taint, long linked in growth, should in wondrous use become deeply ingrained. Therefore, they are schooled with penalties, for some the stain of guilt is washed away under swirling floods or burned out in fire. Each of us suffers his own spirit." Some remain in the beyond and become pure soul; some, after a thousand years (this comes from Plato) are washed in Lethe and then sent to life and new trials.


This is exactly Socrates' belief. The words "above" and "below" are carefully equivocal, here as there, to respect popular atavistic beliefs or state religion, but this is Plato's other world.


When Dante took up Virgil's wisdom, his strong Christian preconceptions compelled him to locate the world of ultimate punishment "physically below." But his Purgatory is again above, under the open sky, and there is no question but that most, if not quite all, of Virgil's world is a Purgatory and definitely "up above" too. Socrates' strange descriptions have remained alive.


But Virgil offers even more than this. In the Georgics (1.242f.) it is said: "One pole is ever high above us, while the other, beneath our feet, is seen of black Styx and the shades infernal" ( sub pedibus Styx atra videt Manesque profundi).




What can it mean, except that Styx flows in sight of the other pole? The circle which began with Hesiod is now closed. [n1 The symmetry of both polar Zones is clearly in the poet's mind. "Five Zones comprise the heavens; whereof one is ever glowing with the flashing sun, ever scorched by his flames. Round this, at the world's ends, two stretch darkling to right and left, set fast in ice and black storms. Between them and the middle zone, two by grace of the Gods have been vouchsafed to feeble mortals; and a path is cut between the two [the ecliptic], wherein the slanting array of the Signs may turn" (Georgics 1,233-38).].


Great poets seem to understand each other, and to use information usually withheld from the public; Dante carries on where the Aeneid left off. As the wanderers, Dante and the shade of Virgil as his guide, make their way through the upper reaches of Hell (Inferno VII. 102) they come across a little river which bubbles out of the rock. "Its water was dark more than grey-blue"; it is Styx. and as they go along it they come to the black Stygian marsh, here are immersed the souls of those who hated "life in the gentle light of the sun" and spent it in gloom and spite. Then they have to confront the walls of the fiery city of Dis, the ramparts of Inner Hell, guarded by legions of devils, by the Furies with the dreadful Gor­gon herself. It takes the intervention of a Heavenly Messenger to spring the barred gates with the touch of his wand (a variant of Aeneas' Golden Bough) to admit the wanderers into the City of Perdition. As they proceed along the inner circle, there is a river of boiling red water, which eventually will turn into a waterfall plunging toward the bottom of the abyss (baratro = Tartaros). At this point Virgil remarks (xlv.8S): "Of all that I have shown you since we came through the gate that is closed to none, there is nothing you have seen as notable as this stream, whose vapor screens us from the rain of fire." Those are weighty words after all that they have gone through; then comes the explanation, a rather far­ fetched one: "In the midst of the sea," Virgil begins, "there lies a ruined country which is called Crete, under whose kin. [i.e., Saturn] the world was without vice." There, at the heart of Mount Ida where Zeus was born of Rhea, there is a vast cavern in which sits a great statue.




Dante is going back there to an ancient tradition to be found in Pliny, that an earthquake broke open a cavern in the mountain, where a huge statue was found, of which not much was said, except that it   was 46 cubits high; but Dante supplies the description from a famous vision of Daniel, when the prophet was asked by King Nebuchadnezzar to tell him what he had seen in a frightening dream that he could not remember. Daniel asked God to reveal to him the dream:


"Thou, O king, sawest, and beheld a great image. This great image, whose size was immense, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible. This image's head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of bronze. His legs of iron, his feet part of iron, and part of clay.


Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces. . . and the stone that brake the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth."


At this point Dante takes leave of Daniel, and with that insouciance which marks him even when speaking of Holy Prophets, whom he treats as his equals, he dismisses the royal shenanigans in Babylon. His instinct tells him that the vision must really deal with older and loftier subjects, with the cosmos itself. Hence he proceeds to complete the vision on his own. The four metals stand for the four ages of man, and each of them except the gold symbol of the Age of Innocence) is rent by a weeping crack from whence issue the rivers which carry the sins of mankind to the Nether World. They are Acheron, Styx and Phlegethon. We have noted that he describes the original flow of Styx as dark gray-blue, or steel-blue (perso), just as written in Hesiod and Socrates that he had never read. It may have come to him by way of Servius or Macrobius, no matter; what is remarkable is the strictness with which he preserves the dimly understood tradition of the lapis lazuli landscape of Styx, which will be seen to extend all over the world. As far as Phlegethon goes, the course of the stream follows quite exactly what Socrates had to say about Pyriphlegethon, the "flaming river." We have seen in the Phaidon a low-placed fiery region traversed by a stream of lava, which even sends off real fire to the surface of the earth.




Whereas some interpreters thought it flowed through the interior of our earth, others transferred Pyriphlegethon, as well as the other rivers, into the human soul [n2 Cf. Macrobius. Commentary on the Dream of Scipio 1.10.11 (Stahl trans., p. 128): "Similarly, they thought that Phlegethon was merely the fires of our wraths and passions, that Acheron was the  chagrin we experienced over having said or done something, . . . that Cocyros was anything that moved us to lamentation or tears, and that Styx was anything that plunged human minds into the abyss of mutual hatred."], but there is little doubt that it was originally, as Dieterich has claimed [n3 A. Dieterich, Nekyia (1893). p.27.], a stream of fiery light in heaven, as Eridanus was. In any case, the flaming torrent, as the Aeneid calls it, goes down in spirals carefully traced in Dante's topography, until it cascades down with the other rivers to the icy lake of Cocytus, "where there is no more descent," for it is the center, the Tartaros where Lucifer himself is frozen in the ice. (Dante has been respectful of the Christian tradition which makes the universe, so to speak, diabolocentric.) But why does he say that the fiery river is so particularly "notable"?


G. Rabuse [n4 Der kosmische Aufbau der Ienseitsreiche Dantes (1958), pp. 58-66 , 88-95] has solved this puzzle in a careful analytical study of Dante's three worlds. First, he has found by way of a little-known manuscript of late antiquity, the so-called "Third Vatican Mythographer," that the circular territory occupied by the Red River in Hell was meant "by certain writers" to be the exact counterpart of the circle of Mars in the skies "because they make the heavens to begin in the Nether World" (3.6.4) [n5 See Scriptores Rerum Mythicarum Latini, ed. G. H. Bode (1968 1st ed. 1934) vol. 1, p. 176 : Eundem Phlegethontem nonnulli, qui a caelo infernum incipere autumant, Martis circulum dicunt sicut et Campos Elysios . . . circulum Jovis esse contendunt.]. So Numenius was not wrong after all. The rivers are planetary. Dante subscribed to the doctrine and worked it out with a wealth of parallel features. Mars to him was important because, centrally placed in the planetary system, he held the greatest force for good or evil in action. As the central note in the scale, he can also become the harmonizing force. Both Hermetic tradition and Dante himself are very explicit about it. Is he the planetary Power that stands for Apollo? That requires future investigation.




In the sky of Mars in his Paradise Dante placed the sign of the Cross ("I come to bring not peace but a sword"), a symbol of reckless valor and utter sacrifice, exemplified by his own ancestor the Crusader with whom he passionately identified. In the circle of Mars in Hell he placed, albeit reluctantly, most of the great characters he really admired, from Farinata, Emperor Frederick I , his Chancellor Pier della Vigna, to Brunetto, Capaneus and many proud conquerors. In truth, even Ulysses belongs in it, clothed in the "ancient flame," the symbol of his "ire" more than of his deceit. Virtues appear down there with the sign minus; they stand as fiery refusal, "blind greed and mad anger" which punish themselves: but their possessors are nonetheless, on the whole, noble, as, in the Nihongi, Brave-Swift-Impetuous-Male, the force of action par excellence. The meek may inherit the earth, but of the Kingdom of Heaven it has been written: violenti rapiunt illud. Christ stands in Dante as the Heliand, the conquering hero, the judge of the living and the dead: rex tremendae majestatis.


However that may be, the equivalence of above and below, of the rivers with the planets, remains established. By artifice Dante brings in at this point the figure of the Colossus of Crete, built out of archaic mythical material. By identifying the rivers with the world-ages, he emphasizes the identity of the rivers with Time: not here the Time that brings into being, but that of passing away—the Time that takes along with it the "sinful dirt," the load of errors of life as it is lived.


Men's minds in the 13th century were still very much alive to the archaic structure. But over and above this, by way of the Circle of Mars, an unexpected insight appears. Through the solemn Christian architecture of the poem, through the subtle logical organization, beyond the "veil of strange verses" and the intention they cloaked, there is a glimpse of what the author cared for more than he would say, of the man Alighieri's own existential choice. Poets cannot guard their own truth. Ulysses setting out toward the southwest in a last desperate attempt foreordained to failure by the order of things, trying to reach the "world denied to mortals," swallowed by the whirlpool in sight of his goal, that is the symbol.




It is revealed not by the poet's conscious thinking, but by the power of the lines themselves, so utterly remote, like light coming from a "quasi­stellar object." To be sure, the Greek stayed lost in Hell for his ruthless resourcefulness in life as much as for his impiety: he was branded by Virgil as "dire and fierce"; the sentence was accepted. But he was the one who had willed to the last, even against God, to conquer experience and knowledge. His Luciferian loftiness remains in our memory more than the supreme harmony of the choirs of heaven.


To pursue this hazardous inquiry the first source is Homer, "the teacher of Hellas." The voyage of Odysseus to Hades is the first such expedition in Greek literature. It is undertaken by the weary hero to consult the shade of Teiresias about his future. The advice he eventually gets is startlingly outside the frame of his adventures and of the Odyssey itself (10.508ff.). It will be necessary to come back to this strange prophecy. But as far as the voyage itself goes, Circe gives the hero these sailing instructions:


"Set your mast, hoist your sail, and sit tight: the North Wind will take you along. When you have crossed over the ocean, you will see a low shore, and the groves of Persephoneia, tall poplars and fruit-wasting willows; there beach your ship beside deep-eddying Okeanos, and go on yourself to the dank house of Hades.


There into Acheron, the river of pain, two streams flow, Pyriphlegethon blazing with fire, and Cocytos resounding with lamentation, which is a branch of the hateful water of Styx: a rock is there, by which the two roaring streams unite. Draw near to this, brave man, and be careful to do what I bid you. Dig a pit about one cubit's length along and across, and pour into it a drink-offering for all souls. . ."


Many centuries later, a remarkable commentary on this passage was made by Krates of Pergamon, a mathematician and mythographer of the Alexandrian period. It has been preserved by Strabo [n6 1.1.7. Referring to Odyssey 1l.639-12.3. See H. J. Mette, Sphairophoiia (1936), pp. 75, 250.]: Odysseus coming from Circe's island, sailing to Hades and coming back, "must have used the part of the Ocean which goes from the hibernal tropic [of Capricorn] to the South Pole, and Circe helped with sending the North Wind."




This is puzzling geography, but astronomically it makes sense, and Krates seems to have had good reasons of his own to make the South Pole the objective.


The next information comes from Hesiod in his Theogony (775-­814), and very obscure it is. After having heard of the "echoing halls" of Hades and Persephone, he says:


"And there dwells the goddess loathed by the deathless gods, terrible Styx, eldest daughter of backflowing Ocean. She lives apart from the gods in her glorious house vaulted over with great rocks and propped up to heaven all around with silver pillars. Rarely does the daughter of Thaumas, swift-footed Iris, come to her with a message over the sea's wide back.


"But when strife and quarrel arise among the deathless gods, and when anyone of them who live in the house of Olympus lies, then Zeus sends Iris to bring in a golden jug the great oath of the gods from far away, the famous cold water which trickles down from a high and beetling rock.


"Far under the wide-pathed earth a branch of Oceanus flows through the dark night out of the holy stream, and a tenth part of his water is allotted to her. With nine silver-swirling streams he winds about the earth and the sea's wide back, .and then falls into the main; but the tenth flows out from a rock, a sore trouble to the gods. For whoever of the deathless gods that hold the peaks of snowy Olympus pours a libation of her water and is forsworn, lies breathless until a full year is completed, and never comes near to taste ambrosia and nectar, but lies spiritless and voiceless on a strewn bed: and a heavy trance [coma] covers him.


"But when he has spent a long year in his sickness, another penance and a harder follows after the first. For nine years he is cut off from the eternal gods and never joins their councils or their feasts, nine full years. But in the tenth year he comes again to join the assemblies of the deathless gods who live in the house of Olympus. Such an oath, then, did the gods appoint the eternal and primeval water of Styx to be: and it spouts through a rugged place.


"And there, all in their order, are the sources and limits of the dark earth and misty Tartarus and the unfruitful sea [pontos] and starry heaven, loathsome and dank, which even the gods abhor. And there are shining gates and an immoveable threshold of bronze having unending roots and it is grown of itself. And beyond, away from all the gods, are the Titans, beyond gloomy Chaos."




This is Hesiod's version of the "Foundations of the Abyss." Its very details make confusion worse confounded, as befits the subject. The difficult word ogygion, translated often with "primeval," seems to designate things vaguely beyond time and place; one might say, the hidden treasure at the end of the rainbow. It was also the name for the resting place of Kronos, where he awaited the time of his return. But the paradoxical piling up of sources, limits, "unending roots" of earth, sea, heaven, and Tartaros too, remove any thought of a location at the earth's core, such as the cryptic words were popularly felt to convey. This "deeper than the deep" must have been "beyond the other side of the earth," and for reasons of symmetry, opposite to our pole. The shining gates and the immovable threshold of bronze are said elsewhere in the text to be the gates of Night and Day. Two centuries later, Parmenides, taking up Hesiod's allegorical language, speaks again of those gates of Night and Day [n7 G. de Santillana, Prologue to Parmenides, U. of Cincinnati, Semple Lecture, 1964. Reprinted in Reflections on Man and Ideas (1968), p. 82.]. But his image becomes clearer, as befits his invincibly geometrical imagination. The gates are "high up in the aether," leading to the abode of the Goddess of Truth and Necessity, and in his case too they must be at the Pole for explicit reasons of symmetry. We once tentatively suggested the North Pole, but many concurrent clues would indicate now the other one, the unknown, the Utterly Inaccessible. Hesiod says that Styx is a branch of Okeanos in heaven, "under the wide-pathed earth"; its dreaded goddess lives in a house "propped up to heaven all around with silver pillars," the water drips from a high rock. It can be reached by Iris coming with her rainbow "from snowy Olympus in the north." This ogygion region, that the gods abhor, has to be both under and beyond the earth; this should mean something like "on the other side of heaven." Homer never spoke of "above" and "below" in the strict sense. He simply made Odysseus land on a flat shore far away.


But what of the dreadful Styx which seems to be the core of the mystery? A river of death, even to gods, who can at least expect to come out of their coma at the appointed time.




It is inimical to all matter: it cracks glass, metal, stone, any container. Only a horse's hoof is proof against it, says the legend [n8 Pausanias 8.184-6; ed. J. G. Frazer, Pausanias' Description of Greece 4, pp. 248-56; also O. Waser, Roscher 4, cols. 1574, 1576. Pausanias leaves it open whether or not Alexander was killed by means of Stygian water, as was fabled.]. It adds that to men that water is inescapably lethal—except for one day of the year, which no one knows, when it becomes a water of immortality. This leads finally to the tragic ambiguity which gives drama to the tale of Gilgamesh and Alexander.


It is clear by now that the rivers are understood to be Time—­the time of heaven. But images have their own logic. Where are the sources? The Colossus of Crete is Dante's own invention. Before him, there were many other accounts of the cracks from which flow the world-ages. Kai Khusrau, the Iranian Amlethus, was persecuted by a murderous uncle, established a Golden Age and then moved off in melancholy into the Great Beyond. The bad uncle, Afrasiyab, in his desperate efforts to seize the holy legitimacy, the "Glory" (Hvarna), had turned himself into a creature of the deep waters and plunged into the mystic Lake Vurukasha, diving after the "Glory." Three times he dove, but every time;: "this glory escaped, this glory went away": and at every try, it escaped through an outlet which led to a river to the Beyond. The name of the first outlet was Hausravah, the original Avestan name of Kai Khusrau. This should make the epoch and design tolerably plain.


An equally ancient story of three outlets comes from Hawaii. It appears in Judge Fornander's invaluable Account compiled a century ago, when the tradition was still alive. The "living waters" belong to Kane, the world-creating Demiurge or craftsman god. These waters are to be found in an invisible divine country, Pali-uli (= blue mountain), where Kane, Ku, and Lono created the first man, Kumu honua ("earth-rooted") or alternatively, the living waters are on the "flying island of Kane" (the Greek Hephaistos lived also on a floating island). Fornander describes the spring of this "living water" as


beautifully transparent and clear. Its banks are splendid. It had three outlets: one for Kane, one for Ku, one for Lono; and through these outlets the fish entered the pond.




If the fish of this pond were thrown on the ground or on the fire, they did not die; and if a man had been killed and was afterwards sprinkled over with this water he did soon come to life again [n9 A. Fornander, An Account of the Polynesian Race, Its Origin and Migrations (1878), vol. I, pp. 72f. cf. Fornander Collection of Hawaiian Antiquities and Folk-Lore, Mem. BPB Mus. 6 (1920), pp. 77f.].


An extraordinary theme has been set, that of the "revived fish" which will later show itself as central in Mid-Eastern myth, from Gilgamesh to Glaukos to Alexander himself. And then there are again the three outlets. These may help individualize the notion of Kane's "spring of life," which might otherwise sound as commonplace to folklorists as the Fountain of Youth. But something really startling can be found in good sound Pythagorean tradition. Plutarch in his essay "Why oracles no longer give answer" tells us (422E) that Petron, a Pythagorean of the early Italian school, a contemporary and friend to the great doctor Alcmaeon (c. 550 B.C.) theorized that there must be many worlds—183 of them. More about these 183 worlds was reported by Kleombrotos, one of the persons taking part in the conversation about the obsolescence of oracles, who had received his information from a mysterious "man" who used to meet human beings only once every year near the Persian Gulf, spending "the other days of his life in association with roving nymphs and demigods" (421A). According to Kleombrotos, he placed these worlds on an equilateral triangle, sixty to each side, and one extra at each corner. No further reason is given, but


they were so ordered that one always touched another in a circle, like those who dance in a ring. The plain within the triangle is . . . the foundation and common altar to all these worlds, which is called the Plain of Truth, in which lie the designs, moulds, ideas, and invariable examples of all things which were, or ever shall be; and about there is Eternity, whence flowed Time, as from a river, into the worlds. Moreover, that the souls of men, if they have lived well in this world, do see these ideas once in ten thousand years; and that the most holy mystical ceremonies which are performed here are not more than a dream of this sacred vision [n10 Plutarch, De defectu oraculorum, ch. 22, 422BC.].


What is this? A mythical prefiguration of Plato's metaphysics? And why this triangular "Plain of Truth," which turns out again to be a lake of Living Water?




Pythagoreans did not care to explain. Nor did Plutarch [n11 Proclus (comm. on Plato's Timaeus 138B, ed. Diehl, BT, vol. 1, p. 454) claimed this to be a "barbarous opinion" (doxe barbarike). He shows no particular interest in the triangular plain of truth, alias our "lake" with its outlets, but he has more to say about the 180 "subordinate" and the 3 "leading" worlds (hegemonas) at the angles, and how to interpret them. To which Festugiere, in his (highly welcome and marvelous) translation of Proclus' commentary, remarks (vol. 2, p. 336, n. I): "On notera que Proclus donne a la fois moins et plus que Plutarque. A-t-il lu ces elucubrations pythagoriciennes elles-memes?"]. But here is at least one original way of linking Eternity with the flow of Time. When it came to geometric fantasy, no one could outbid the Pythagoreans.




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