In the Dark Places of Wisdom
Published in Parabola, Winter 1999
Following are excerpts from the author's forthcoming book, In the Dark Places of Wisdom: the Forgotten Origins of the Western World. Parmenides, who lived 2,500 years ago in southern Italy, is well known as the father of philosophy and the founder of Western logic. But his real significance for us all has long been forgotten. This book is the story of remarkable new discoveries and old neglected evidence. It describes Parmenides' connections with the Pythagoreans, and explains the meaning of the poetry he wrote about his journey, guided by girls, to a goddess deep in the world of the dead.
Those girls who guide Parmenides on his journey to the underworld are daughters of the Sun.
That sounds strange, quite a paradox. For us the sun is up above in the light, doesn't have anything to do with darkness or death. But this isn't because we're any wiser or because we've managed to leave the world of myth behind: that would be about as easy as leaving our own death behind. The reason why to us it sounds strange is because we've lost any contact with the underworld.
The underworld isn't just a place of darkness and death. It only seems like that from a distance. In reality it's the supreme place of paradox where all the opposites meet. Right at the roots of western as well as eastern mythology there's the idea that the sun comes out of the underworld and goes back to the underworld every night. It belongs in the underworld. That's where it has its home; where its children come from. The source of light is at home in the darkness.
This was well understood in southern Italy. A whole Italian mythology grew up around the figure of the sun god as he's driven in his chariot by the horses that carry him out of the underworld before they take him down again. That was true in Parmenides' home town, called Velia. And for certain men and women known as Pythagoreans—people who had gathered around Pythagoras when he came out to southern Italy from the east—these same ideas were a basic tradition.
Pythagoreans tended to live close to volcanic regions. For them that was something very meaningful. They saw volcanic fire as the light in the depths of darkness: it was the fire of hell, but also the fire that all the light we know and see derives from. For them the light of the sun and of the moon and stars were just reflections, offshoots of the invisible fire inside the underworld. And they understood that there's no going up without going down, no heaven without going through hell. To them the fire in the underworld was purifying, transforming, immortalizing. Everything was part of a process and there were no short- cuts. Everything had to be experienced, included; and to find clarity meant facing utter darkness.
This is much more than just a matter of mythology. In theory we think we know that each dawn brings a new day, but in practice we never see what that means. Deep down we've all agreed to look for light in the light and avoid everything else: reject the darkness, the depths. Those people realized there's something very important hidden in the depths. For them it wasn't only a question of confronting a little bit of darkness inside themselves. It was a question of going right through the darkness to what lies at the other end.
There were early Christians, too, who talked about the 'depths' of the divine. Most of them were soon silenced. And there were Jewish mystics who spoke of 'descending' to the divine; they were silenced too. It's far simpler to keep the divine somewhere up above, at a safe distance. The trouble is that when the divine is removed from the depths we lose our depth, start viewing the depths with fear and end up struggling, running from ourselves, trying to lift ourselves up by our bootstraps into the beyond.
It's impossible to reach the light at the cost of rejecting darkness. The darkness haunts us; we're chased by our own depths. But the knowledge of the other way was soon left only for a few heretics, and writers of oracles, and for the alchemists.
In that knowledge there's no dogma. It's too subtle for that. It's not even a matter of attitude but simply a question of perception—the perception that light belongs in darkness, clarity in obscurity, that darkness can't be rejected for the sake of light because everything contains its opposite.
As soon as she has welcomed him, down in the world of the dead, the first thing the goddess does is call Parmenides 'young man'. That's just one word in Greek: kouros. A kouros is a young man, a boy, a son or child.
Kouros is an ancient word, older even than the Greek language. Often it's a title of honour, never an expression of contempt. When the great poets before Parmenides used the term it was always to communicate a sense of nobility. It was the kouros, more than anyone else, who was a hero.
In terms of physical age it could mean someone under thirty. But in practice the word had a far wider meaning. A kouros was the man of any age who still saw life as a challenge, who faced it with the whole of his vigour and passion, who hadn't yet stood back to make way for his sons. The word indicated the quality of a man, not how old he was.
It was also closely connected with initiation. The kouros stands at the borderline between the world of the human and the world of the divine; has access to them both, is loved and recognized in both. It's only as a kouros that the initiate can possibly succeed at the great ordeal of making a journey into the beyond—just as Parmenides does.
The kouros has a great deal in common with the world of the divine. In their own way they're both timeless, untouched by age. When the hero Heracles dies and is made immortal, it's as a kouros that he's pictured rising up from the funeral pyre. And the situation of the nameless kouros face to face with the nameless goddess—this was a well-known scenario in the mysteries of initiation.
A kouros was often essential for gaining access to the world of the gods. He was needed for prophecy, for receiving oracles, for the magical process of lying down in a special place at night to obtain messages from the gods through dreams. He was needed because of his sensitivity, his ability to distance himself from the usual human thoughts; because he wouldn't try to interfere unconsciously or consciously with what he heard and received. It was possible for an older person to perform the role of the kouros, but then he had to have the innocence and purity of a child.
Contact with what's timeless doesn't leave you as you are, even though outwardly it can seem to. It takes away your past. That's why the initiate has his old life taken away, is given a 'second destiny' instead—is born again, adopted by the gods. And the tough hero becomes a little child.
Italian sculptures and paintings tell it all: the great hero Heracles as a bearded man reduced to the role of an infant, initiates with the bodies of new-born babies but the faces of old men and women.
To the ancient Greeks when they started colonizing Italy, the hero acted as a prototype and guide. He held in his hand the mythical map for them to follow in their wanderings and journeys. But he was far more than that. He also held the map for the initiate, and it was the map of immortality. This going back to the state of a child doesn't have anything to do with physical age. And it has nothing to do with immaturity, either. It isn't some state of naivete to grow out of or go beyond.
On the contrary, this is the only real maturity there is: the maturity of struggling beyond the physical world and discovering that you're also at home somewhere else. As for immaturity, that's when we grow old and empty because we've missed the opportunities life brings for making conscious contact with the timeless.
Becoming a Pythagorean wasn't a casual matter of learning something and leaving. The process touched aspects of the human being so remote from ordinary experience that it can only be described in abstract terms, even though there was nothing abstract about it.
You could say it was about what we fear most. It was about facing silence, about having no choice but to give up every kind of opinion and theory that we cling to, about not even finding anything to replace them for years on end.
Your whole life was turned upside down, from the inside out. And during this process the bond between teacher and disciple was essential. That's why it was seen as the relationship between a parent and an adopted child. Your teacher became your father or mother—just the same as through initiation into the mysteries. Becoming a Pythagorean meant being adopted, being introduced into a great family.
The background to the type of adoption practiced by Pythagoreans was very simple. Essentially it was a process of rebirth: of becoming a child again, a kouros. And in this setting there was more to being adopted than meets the eye.
The physical facts of heredity were never wiped out or cancelled. They continued to apply and have their obvious validity. But alongside that, something else was created.
The adoption wasn't just a part of a mystery. It was a mystery in itself. It meant being initiated into a family that exists on another level from anything we're used to. Outwardly all the links with the past still existed. And yet inwardly there was an awareness of belonging somewhere else more than it's ever possible to belong anywhere here—of being cared for more intimately than it's possible to be cared for by a human being.
As for the people who played the role of teacher and initiator, they could seem human enough. But the role they played was far more than the role of a human parent. They were the embodiments of another world. At their hands you died to everything you were, to everything you'd learned to cling to as though it was your whole existence. That's why they sometimes were referred to—in the cases where they were men—as 'true fathers'. And the emphasis was on the word 'true'. From the point of view of the mysteries the ordinary life we all know is only a first step, a preliminary to something else entirely.
Among early Pythagoreans the importance attached to this process of interaction between 'parent' and 'child', of transmission from one to the other, was fundamental. It led to ethical demands that were tremendous. And these demands weren't always formal requirements: often they had to be intuited instead. Even the Pythagorean legends still reflect the need that sometimes might be felt to be present physically at the teacher's deathbed.
But behind the specifics there was one central fact. This was the fact that the teacher is a point of access to something beyond the teacher. And behind one teacher there's a whole line of teachers, one behind the other. The teaching was simply transmitted from generation to generation, one step at a time, often in secret and sometimes in circumstances of immense difficulty.
The result was utterly paradoxical. People's lives and even their deaths were surrendered to their teacher. And yet they surrendered to nothing. They became a part of a vast system; but through that system they found an extraordinary creativity. They became members of a family that was indescribably intimate—and totally impersonal.
Each teacher seemed to have a face but really was faceless: just one link in a chain of tradition reaching back to Pythagoras. And Pythagoras himself was nameless. Pythagoreans avoided mentioning him by name because his identity was a mystery—in the same way that they often avoided mentioning each other's names or the names of the gods. As far as they were concerned, Pythagoras wasn't only the man he had appeared to be.
They knew him as a son of Apollo or, quite simply, as Apollo himself: the god whom they had learned to identify with the sun.
Really Apollo's links with the sun go back far into the past. But formal statements from Greeks identifying the sun with Apollo only start appearing at acertain time, which was also the time when Parmenides was alive. And what's most important about these statements is the way they indicate that the identification was esoteric—a matter for initiates only, for people familiar with 'the silent names of the gods'.
Now it's easy to assume that Apollo and the sun are all a matter of brightness and light. But that's to forget where the sun is most at home: in the darkness of the underworld. And it's also to miss what those statements about the sun and Apollo actually say.
One of them happens to be the oldest mention in ancient literature of the descent that Orpheus made to the underworld. It explains how Orpheus came to be so devoted to Apollo. Tradition made him a priest and prophet of Apollo, sometimes even made him his son. But this account says it was only after he went down to the world of the dead and 'because he saw the things to be seen there just as they are' that he understood why the sun is the greatest of the gods—and is identical to Apollo. The account goes on to say how he used to wake up at night and climb a mountain so he could catch a glimpse of his god at dawn.
There was also a famous Orphic poem, written by a Pythagorean in southern Italy. Hardly any traces of it have been allowed to survive. It presented Orpheus making his journey to the underworld in another state of consciousness, in a kind of dream. And the poem described him as making one major discovery that he brought back to the world of the living. This was the fact that Apollo shares his powers with Night.
We know less about the poem than about the response it evoked from religious authorities centuries later. Orpheus was mocked for his imaginary wisdom, attacked for spreading his 'false notions' through the world. And there was a famous writer called Plutarch—a good man, a good Platonist—who put the official position clearly on record. 'Apollo and Night have nothing in common.'
And for most people they didn't any more. Experience of another world holds little value once you start to place all your trust in the apparent powers of reason.