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The Greek Iatromanteis: Katabasis, Metempsychosis, Soul-Flight, and the Question of ‘Shamanism’

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In this episode we are taking a different look at some of the figures of ancient Greek esoteric culture already discussed in the podcast – notably Orpheus, Pythagoras, and Empedocles – alongside some others we have not yet discussed – notably the mysterious Abaris the Hyperborean, and Aristeas of Proconnesus, author of a lost poem-travelogue which he researched by flying around in the form of a raven alongside the Hyperborean Apollo. What we see across all of these names is a set of linking themes which may or may not have constituted a ‘tradition’ or ‘traditions’:

  • Most of these names are associated with katabasis or with underground cave-incubation;
  • Most are associated with healing and/or purificatory practices,
  • All either taught a doctrine of metempsychosis or were able to leave their body at will in soul-form (or both),
  • And all were associated in later tradition with the name of Pythagoras.

These figures, the healer-seers or iatromanteis, have often been described as the ‘Greek shamans’. In discussing them we consider some of the ‘shamanic’ theories which have been put forward, and their lasting legacy in the cultural memory of the western esoteric traditions.

Works Cited in this Episode:


Abaris the Hyperborean:

  • Healing: Plato seems to associate Abaris with healing charms: Chrm. 158b-d; cf. Iamb. VP 91, 136, 141, Porph. VP 29.
  • (Soul)-Flight: see Herodotus 4.36.
  • For Abaris and Pythagoras, see Burkert 1972, 150 n. 159: Iamblichus connects the two (VP 91-93, 140, 147), making Abaris Pythagoras’ pupil and a member of the Pythagorean community, while the Suda s.v. Πυθαγόρας reverses this relationship, with more chronological plausibility.

Aristeas of Proconneus: Herodotus 4.14-15 is our earliest source. Aristeas’ Arimaspea has been dated as early as the seventh century BCE (Bolton 1962, 3-5, West 2013, 26), as late as the end of the sixth (Ivantchik 1993), and at points in the middle (Burkert 1963, 235 [first half of the sixth century]; Bremmer 2016, 66 [second half of sixth century]), and the dating of the historical figure himself remains problematic.

  • (Soul)-Flight: Aristeas did the research for his travelogue-poem the Arimaspeia while journeying in the form of a raven with the Hyperborean Apollo (see Bolton 1962, 35 ff, 121 ff.). The later tradition interprets Aristeas as having visited the far-flung countries described in his poem through out-of-body travel (see Max. Tyr. X.2.38.3; Suda a 3900 states that he is said to have been able to make his soul leave and re-enter his body at will. Pliny (HN 174.8) saw a statue of Aristeas at Proconnesus depicting his soul, as a raven, emerging from his mouth.
  • Pythagorean Connections: Iamblichus lists an Aristeas among the Pythagoreans of Metapontum (VP 267), which is doubtless the Aristeas mentioned by Herodotus, the author of the Arimaspeia, having reappeared after his 240-year subterranean sojourn. The Pythagorean ἀκούσμα preserved by Iamblichus stating that Pythagoras was the Hyperborean Apollo also points to some kind of traditional link between the sage of Samos and Aristeas.


  • Healing: the terms ἰητρός and μάντις appear together in Empedocles describing the human daimōn in its final incarnation before deification (146 DK), and in Heraclides of Pontus describing Empedocles (112.1-11 Wehrli). Empedocles is positively glowing in his assessment of his own healing abilities: thousands flock to be healed by him, and he and his followers can even bring the dead back to life (111.3, 9; 112.4 DK). Diogenes Laërtius generally emphasises Empedocles’ status as a healer, linking him with the well-known doctor of Acragas, Pausanias, who may have been Empedocles’ boyfriend.
  • Katabasis: Kingsley (1995, Ch. 18) reads the legendary death of Empedocles in Mt. Etna as a garbled reference to katabasis-traditions. See generally Ustinova 2009, esp. pp. 177-217.
  • For Metempsychosis and remembering his previous incarnations, see Episode 21 of the podcast.
  • Pythagorean Connections: Empedocles’ thought genuinely owed much to Pythagoreanism (see Kingsley 1995, passim), and Empedocles is on record as praising him – if the unnamed subject of B 129 DK is indeed Pythagoras. A story survives from the third century that Empedocles was not allowed to join the Pythagorean brotherhood on account of having stolen their teachings (Timæus FGrH 566 F 14 = D.L. 8.54), which attests at least to a perception that Empedocles’ teachings had something Pythagorean in them.


  • Incubation and Pythagorean Connections: Epimenides is said to have slept in the cave of Diktaian Zeus for an epic period, ranging from forty to sixty years (A1 DK; cf. D.L. 1.109; Paus. 1.14.4; Plut. Mor. 784a). At D.L. 8.3 he makes this descent with Pythagoras (which would imply a very long life for the seventh-century Epimenides).
  • Healing and Purification: Epimenides is said to have purified Athens from the `Pollution of Cylon’ around the year 600 (see Pl. Laws 642d4; Paus. 1.14.4; FGrH 457, esp. T 46; Plut. Solon 12; Aristotle, Ath. Pol. 1; D.L. 1.109), and his name was long synonymous with purification (e.g. Amm. Marc. 28.4.5).
  • Metempsychosis: Epimenides claimed to have lived as Aiakos and referred to his own repeated reincarnations (D.L. 1.114: Rohde 1925, 331 interprets this passage as a reference to soul-travel, but we follow Dodds 1968, 143 n. 51 in referring it to a belief in metempsychosis).
  • Soul-Flight: In the Suda (s.v. Ἐπιμενίδης) Epimenides could project his soul from his body.

Heracleides of Pontus: see Fritz Wehrli. Die Schule des Aristoteles: Texte und Kommentar. Benno Schwabe, Basel, 1944-55; the relevant fragments are 76-89.

  • At 77 and 79 Empedocles resurrects a woman from a 30-day coma, and, after having saved the woman and a sacrificial banquet [sacrifice? Empedocles??], Empedocles vanished and was accorded divine honours. Cf. D.L. 8.61.
  • Fragments 93-98 tell the story or Empedotimus, Heracleides’ fictional iatromantis-figure.

Hermotimus of Clazomenæ: on his philosophy, see Arist. Metaph. 984b20; Sextus Empiricus, Adv. math. 9, Adv. phys. 1.7.

  • Soul-Flight: Hermotimus was said to be able to send his soul out, leaving his body in a cataleptic state, and to return with knowledge of the future (Arist. Metaph. 984b19; Apollon. Mir. 1.3; Pliny HN 7.174; Lucian. Musc. Enc. 7).
  • Metempsychosis and Pythagorean Connections: D.L. 8.4 records that Hermotimus was an earlier incarnation of Pythagoras.

Odysseus: The so-called Nekuia, where Odysseus journeys to the underworld and returns, is told at Od. 10.487-540 and 11.1-332, 385-640.

Orpheus and Orphic Initiators:

  • Katabatic Myth: The earliest-known telling of the katabasis of Orpheus is the lost poem, the Descent to Hades, referred to by one Epigenes who wrote a treatise On the Poetry of Orpheus in the early fourth century (Clem. Al. Strom. I.131 = t. 222 Kern; see West 1983, 9-11). Of course, the poetry on which Epigenes was commenting must have predated him to some degree, making it at least slightly earlier. On the origin and dating of this text see Bremmer 2021, 281-2, following Dieterich 1893, 129. Edmonds 2015 argues persuasively that there were probably multiple such poetic accounts of Orpheus’ katabasis in circulation. Euripides’ Alcestis 357-62 (438 BCE) refers to the myth, as does Aristophanes’ Frogs later in the century. West (1983, 5-7, 144-50) considers the account of Orpheus’ descent as originating in the Greek `shamanic’ tradition, which would make its terminus post quem anyone’s guess. Scholars associating the figure of Orpheus with `shamanism’ include Dodds 1968, 140-47; Burkert 1972, 162-5; West 1983, 4-7.
  • On the Orpheotelestai, see Burkert 1982, 4-11. Aside from Plato (R. 364b-365a; Phædr. 244d-e), we have a reference to the Orphic initiators in Theophrastus (Char. 16.28).
  • Metempsychosis: A comment of Aristotle (De anima 410b19) indicates that some writers of Orphika believed in a pre-existent, separable soul; later tradition among both Platonists and many scholars would assume metempsychosis as a central Orphic doctrine.
  • Pythagorean Connections: On the strong connections between Orphism and Pythagoreanism, as well as Orphika and Pythagoreanism, see e.g. Burkert 1972, 39: `Orphism and Pythagoreanism were almost inextricably linked in the fifth century, so that it is understandable that, within the pre-Socratic domain, Pythagorean doctrine developed as a transposed version of Orphic cosmology.’ The reception-tradition also links the figures of Orpheus and Pythagoras in various ways.

Pindar: Ol. 2.75 ff.


  • Bilocation of Pythagoras: Arist. fr. 191 = A7 DK.
  • Katabasis: Pythagoras’ descent to and return from Hades is found in reasonably early testimony (e.g. the third-century BCE Hieronymous of Rhodes (ap. D.L. 8.21; cf. 41), who is widely thought to have been relying, at least indirectly, on an older, poetic katabasis-account in which `Pythagoras’ described, in the first-person, what he saw in Hades (see Graf 1974, 122) perhaps dating to the fourth century (Burkert 1972, 199; Bremmer 2014, 341-2). See generally Burkert 1969 passim, with cautionary note at Bremmer 2021, 284.
  • Cave incubation or similar: Hieronymus’ rough contemporary Hermippus recounts (FGrH 1026 F 21-27) a fraudulent katabasis on Pythagoras’ part, during which he in fact descended into a subterranean chamber in his house at Croton. Cf. (Ps.) Hippol. Ref. 1.2.18. See Burkert 1972, 155-61; Kingsley 1995, 282-8.
  • Healing/Purification: Pythagoras practiced healing arts: Æl. V.H. 4.17; D.L. 8.12; Porph. VP 33; Iamb. VP 64.163.

The Suda can be accessed at Suda Online.


  • Dodds 1968 (see below), we cite p. 145.
  • Mircea Eliade. Le Chamanisme et les techniques archaïques de l’extase. Payot, 1951. For some of the critiques cited in the episode, see e.g. Carlo Ginzburg. Mircea Eliade’s Ambivalent Legacy. In W. Doniger and C. K. Wedemeyer, editors, Hermeneutics, Politics, and the History of Religions: The Contested Legacies of Joachim Wach & Mircea Eliade, page 307–323. Oxford University Press, Oxford/New York, NY, 2010; Jan N. Bremmer. Shamanism in Classical Scholarship: Where are We Now? In P. Jackson, editor, Horizons of Shamanism: A Triangular Approach to the History and Anthropology of Ecstatic Techniques, pages 52–78. Stockholm University Press, Stockholm, 2016.
  • Peter Kingsley on iatromantic incubation: In the Dark Places of Wisdom. Golden Sufi Publishing, Inverness, CA, 1999. On Abaris as Mongolian shaman-traveller: A Story Waiting to Pierce You: Mongolia, Tibet and the Destiny of the Western World. Golden Sufi Center, 2010.
  • Karl Meuli. Scythica. Hermes, 70(2):121–76, 1935.

Recommended Reading:

  • Alberto Bernabé and Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal. Instructions for the Netherworld: The Orphic Gold Tablets. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2008. Michael Chase, trans.
  • J.D.P. Bolton. Aristeas of Proconnesus. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1962.
  • Jan N Bremmer. Descents to hell and ascents to heaven in apocalyptic literature. In J.J. Collins, editor, The Oxford Handbook of Apocalyptic, pages 340–357. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014.
  • Idem. Goês: Zum griechischen “Schamanismus”. Rheinisches Museum, 105: 36–55, 1962.
  • Idem. Das Proömium des Parmenides und die “Katabasis” des Pythagoras. Phronesis, 14(1):1–30, 1969.
  • Idem. Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1972. Translated by Edward L. Minar.
  • Idem. Craft Versus Sect: The Problem of Orphics and Pythagoreans. In Ben F. Meyer and E.P. Sanders, editors, Jewish and Christian Self-Definition, volume 3, pages 1–22. Fortress Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1982.
  • I.P. Culianu. Le vol magique dans l’antiquité tardive: quelques considérations. Revue de l’histoire des religions, 198(1):57–66, January-March 1981.
  • Idem. 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.
  • Idem. Out of this World: Otherwordly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein. Shambhala, Boston, MA/London, 1991 [see esp. pp. 126-37].
  • E. R. Dodds. The Greeks and the Irrational. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1968.
  • Radcliffe G. Edmonds. Myths of the Underworld Journey: Plato, Aristophanes, and the “Orphic” Gold Tablets. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004.
  • Idem. “When I Walked the Dark Road of Hades”: Orphic Katábasis and the Katábasis of Orpheus. Les Études Classiques, 83:261–79, 2015.
  • Fritz Graf. Eleusis und die orphische Dichtung Athens in vorhellenistischer Zeit. Berlin, 1974.
  • János Harmatta, Sur l’origine du mythe des Hyperboréens, Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 3 (1955): 57-66.
  • Askold Ivantchik. La datation du poème l’Arimaspée d’Aristéas de Proconnèse. L’Antiquité Classique, 62:35–67, 1993.
  • Peter Kingsley. Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995.
  • Ivan Linforth. The Arts of Orpheus. Arno Press, New York, NY, 1973.
  • Erwin Rohde. Psyche: The Cult of Soul and Belief in Immortality Among the Greeks. Kegan Paul, London, 1925. [English translation of the classic study 1895 study by Rohde. Rohde was a friend of Nietzsche’s, and it shows in his funny ideas about Dionysus and Apollo, but his work remains both a classic and immensely valuable].
  • Yulia Ustinova. Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind. Descending Underground in the Search for Ultimate Truth. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009.