Episode 69: Plutarch’s Myths of Cosmic Ascent
Plutarch’s Moralia contain three myths composed by Plutarch himself. Plutarch’s take on traditional myth – that it often hides esoteric philosophic wisdom within its symbolic covering, and that traditional stories in fact come from ancient sages, nomothetes, and even the gods themselves – puts his own position as mythmaker into highly problematic territory. We ask the question, what is Plutarch doing when he composes these myths, and give a few answers. Mostly, though, we let the question hang in the air; we shall return to it again in the course of the podcast in various contexts.
Of course, the SHWEP is committed to narrative – to storytelling – and we spend most of this episode discussing what actually happens in these myths of Plutarch’s. The soul, separated form the body, immediately ascends to the elemental spheres surrounding the earth below the moon; we are looking at ‘astral immortality’, which has been around in Greek thought for some time, but from Plutarch’s time onward seems to become the dominant model of our fate after death among Platonists.
The soul is depicted differently in each myth, but a few things are constant in all of them. The soul and the daimôn are the same sort of being, and souls can convert into daimones and vice versa. The moon is an important way-station in the post-mortem ascent in all the accounts: above the moon, the higher, more transcendent sort of afterlife begins, though we don’t get many details of what it’s like. Below the moon, however, it’s reincarnation again and again, with various punishments sometimes being meted out by avenging daimones or goddesses for souls in need of rectification before they return to earth.
This is some of the doctrinal material, but these stories are bursting with much more of what we have come to expect from Plutarch: fascinating religious lore from antiquity, bizarre mythic accounts, esoteric Platonist doctrines of various sorts, and much more.
Works Cited in this Episode:
Our three myths can be found in the following works in Plutarch’s Moralia: De sera numinis vindicta (548c-368a); De genio Socratis (575b-598f); De facie in orbe lunæ (940f-945d).
- De sera: Myth from 563b-368a. On what it’s like to leave the body: 563e-f. The Sibyl on the moon: 566d, cf. De pythiae oraculis 398c-d, where it is suggested that the face visible in the moon is that of the Sibyl; Clem. Strom. I.15.70.4.
- De genio: Myth from 589f-592e. See Pausanias 9.39.4 for the freaky-as-hell procedure at the oracle of Trophonius, and more on the oracle in the following episode. On the fear and terror of the experience, see collection of sources at Renberg 2017, 571 n. 15. See Bonnechere 2003, 32–61 on the rituals before, during, and after visiting Trophonius.
- De facie: Myth from 941a ad fin.
- P. Bonnechere. Trophonios de Lébadée: cultes et mythes d’une cité béotienne au miroir de la mentalité antique. Number 150 in Religions in the Græco-Roman World. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2003.
- Ioan Petru Culianu. Psychanodia I. A Survey of the Evidence Concerning the Ascension of the Soul and its Relevance, volume 99 of Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l’empire romain. Brill, Leiden, 1983.
- Werner Deuse. ‘Plutarch’s Eschatological Myths’. In Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, editor, On the Daimonion of Socrates: Plutarch, pages 169–97. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 2010.
- Jean Hani. Plutarque: Oeuvres morales VIII. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1980.
- Robert Klaerr and Yvonne Vernière. Plutarch: oeuvres morales VII.2. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1974.
- Gil Renberg. Where Dreams May Come: Incubation-Sanctuaries in the Greco-Roman World, volume 2 vols. Brill, Leiden, 2017. [Vol. II, Appendix II, pp. 565-602 gives a superb and detailed survey of our evidence for the Trophonion and what went on there. See also Episode 70, where we interview the author in question].
- von Arnim, H.. Plutarch über Dämonen und Mantik. Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen te Amsterdam, Afdeeling Letterkunde. J. Müller, Amsterdam, 1925.
On the second-century revival of Greek oracle-culture, see
- P. Brown. The World of Late Antiquity. Thames and Hudson, London, 1971, 50-51.