Podcast episode

Episode 129: Nilüfer Akçay on Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs

[Corrigendum: In the interview I casually suggest that Augustine was translating from Porphyry’s Greek when he cited him in On the City of God; we have much reason to surmise that he was actually reading Porphyry in someone else’s Latin translation, most likely Marius Victorinus’.]

On the Cave of the Nymphs in Homer’s Odyssey is an amazing source for late antique esoteric hermeneutics, for Porphyry’s understanding of the journey of the human soul into and out of the kosmos, and for a bunch of really fascinating lore about Mithraism, ritual practice to do with the manipulation of souls, astrology, and much else. Dr Nilüfer Akcay is a perfect guide to this rich material, having published the only full-length monograph on the work in English.

Topics discussed include:

  • Porphyry’s use not only of Homer’s text, but of Numenius’ earlier reading thereof, and construction of a single skopos, a single thematic endpoint, for Homer’s ainigma of the cave,
  • The scale of virtues implicit in the work by which the practitioner will achieve immortalisation and escape from the kosmic cycle of genesis,
  • The role of theurgic ritual (and veganism) in this process for Porphyry,
  • The suggestion that the two Orphica cited by Porphyry in the On the Cave might have actually been written by Porphyry,
  • The textual dynamics of the intensive and pervasive presence of pairs of opposites in Porphyry’s work,
  • The hotly-debated question of the value of Porphyry’s On the Cave as a source (practically our only literary source) for understanding aspects of the Mithraic mysteries,
  • The formation of multiple ‘astral bodies’ in the process of the descent of the soul into the sensible kosmos, and the resolution of these bodies through the process of apogenesis,
  • Porphyry’s attempts to reconcile Homer and Plato, and much more.

Interview Bio:

Nilüfer Akçay is a researcher specialising in ancient Platonism. She is currently translating the Enneads of Plotinus into Turkish. Her book, Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs in its Intellectual Context, is available from Brill.

Recommended Reading:

To access the text in English, your best bets are:

  • Porphyry, The Cave of the Nymphs in the Odyssey. Edited by Seminar Classics 609 State University of New York at Buffalo, J. M. Duffy, P. F. Sheridan, L. G. Westerink and J. A. White. Arethusa Monograph 1. Buffalo, NY: Department of Classics, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1969.
  • Robert Lamberton, trans. Porphyry On the Cave of the Nymphs. Station Hill Press, Barrytown, NY, 1983.

Of further interest:

  • Crystal Addey. Divination and Theurgy in Neoplatonism: Oracles of the Gods. Ashgate, Dorchester, 2014, esp. pp. 57–71.
  • Nilüfer Akçay. Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs in its Intellectual Context. Number 23 in Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic Tradition. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2019.
  • F. Buffière. Les mythes d’Homère et la pensée grecque. Paris, 1956. James A. Coulter. The Literary Microcosm: Theories of Interpretation of the Later Neoplatonists. Brill, Leiden, 1976.
  • Edwards, M.J. (1996), ‘Porphyry’s “Cave of the Nymphs” and the Gnostic Controversy,’ Hermes 124, 88–100.
  • Robert Lamberton. Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1989.
  • Martin P. Nilsson. Die astrale Unsterblichkeit und die kosmische Mystik. Numen, 1 (2):106–19, 1954.
  • Jean Pépin. Porphyre, éxègete d’Homère. In Porphyre, volume 12 of Entretiens Hardt, pages 229–66. Fondation Hardt, Geneva, 1966.
  • Laura Simonini, editor. Porfirio, L’Antro delle Ninfe. Milan, 1986.
  • Peter T. Struck. Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of their Texts. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2004.


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