Pherecydes of Syros and the Occult Roots of Philosophy

Pherecydes of Syros and the Occult Roots of Philosophy

A peculiar self-congratulatory narrative runs throughout contemporary accounts of the history of Western philosophy. According to this narrative, philosophy is, by its very nature, co-extensive with a process of demytholigization. Whereas Greek poets attempted to explain the world mythologically by invoking the unseen operations of gods and spiritual forces, Greek philosophy, on this account, was born through the renunciation of such occult explanations and the desire to explain the natural world exclusively on its own terms (through what can be sensibly perceived). Such accounts take Thales of Miletus to be the progenitor of philosophy, and present him, and the philosophers who came after him, as attempting to fashion a worldview based on reason, not myth, and to explain the natural world through its observable features rather than any kind of unseen spiritual reality. So, for example, the popular Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the Presocratics maintains:

“Hailing from Miletus in Ionia (modern day Turkey), Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes each broke with the poetic and mythological tradition handed down by Hesiod and Homer…. Much of what we know about them suggests that they were protoscientists, concerned with cosmogony… Their cosmogonies and cosmologies are oriented primarily by naturalistic explanations, descriptions, and conjectures, rather than traditional mythology. In other words, the Milesians ostensibly sought to explain the cosmos on its own terms, rather than pointing to the gods as the causes or progenitors of all natural phenomena” (Graham, Presocratics, IEP).

Or again, in the entry on Ancient Greek philosophy:

“Presocratic thought marks a decisive turn away from mythological accounts towards rational explanations of the cosmos. Indeed, some Presocratics openly criticize and ridicule traditional Greek mythology, while others simply explain the world and its causes in material terms. This is not to say that the Presocratics abandoned belief in gods or things sacred, but there is a definite turn away from attributing causes of material events to gods, and at times a refiguring of theology altogether. The foundation of Presocratic thought is the preference and esteem given to rational thought over mythologizing. This movement towards rationality and argumentation would pave the way for the course of Western thought” (Graham, Ancient Greek Philosophy, IEP).

Here, the practice of philosophy is defined as entailing both the rejection of mythological explanation and the acceptance of a purely naturalistic explanatory project. Yet, despite bolstering the egos of contemporary academic philosophers and helping them to justify their research projects, this account of the origins of Western philosophy is not supported by the historical record. For example, the fragments and testimonia concerning Thales present a much more ambiguous picture than the standard view suggests. I’ll devote a later essay to the ambiguous case of Thales, but, for now, I want to contend that, even if we were to concede that Thales was an essentially a demythologizing thinker, the standard narrative overlooks a historical figure whom some testimonia describe as a rival of Thales who inaugerated an alternative tradition of philosophy:1 Pherecydes of Syros.

The Life of Pherecydes

As with other presocratic philosophers, the evidence regarding Phercydes’s life is fragmentary and conflicting. Pherecydes is said to be the son of Babys and to have lived on Syros, an island near Delos, in the sixth century BC (Suda, P2). Classicist M.L. West points out that though Pherecydes is a Greek name, the name of Babys his father is Asiatic, occurring most frequently in “Phrygia, Pisidia, and Galatia.”2 According to some accounts, Pherecydes lived concurrently with the seven sages and was even said to be one of them himself. For example, Diogenes Laertius records that “Hermippus in his book On the Sages says [scil. that the sages were] seventeen, out of whom different people made selections of seven; and that they were […] Phercydes […]” (R10). Alexander in his Successions3 maintains that Pherecydes studied with Pittacus (one of the seven sages) (P5), while others say he had no teacher. For example, Clement of Alexandria, in the Stromata, attests that, “no teacher is recorded for him, [i.e. Thales], just as there is none for Pherecydes of Syros either, with whom Pythagoras studied” (R12). And the Suda records that, “he did not have a teacher himself, but he trained himself after he had acquired the secret books of the Phoenicians” (P6).

Given such conflicting evidence, it is difficult to differentiate between Historie and Geschichte in the life of Pherecydes. For his life, like that of Pythagoras, whom some sources identify as his student, takes on a legendary dimension in our sources. He is said, for instance, to have been a miracle worker, with Diogenes Laertius recording that:

“Many marvels are reported about him. While he was walking on the beach of Samos, he saw a boat sailing with a fair wind and said that soon it would sink—and it sank before his eyes. When he drank water from a well, he predicted that there would be an earthquake two days later—and it happened. When he traveled to Olympia, he advised his host Perilaus in Messene to leave his home together with his household—but he was not persuaded, and Messene was captured. He told the Lacedaemonians to hold neither gold nor silver in honor, as Theopompus says in his Marvels; he had received this order in a dream from Heracles, who that same night ordered the kings obey Pherecydes. But some people attach this story to Pythagoras” (P10).

Pherecydes is here presented as a kind of a shamanic figure. He is said to have precognition about future events (such as earthquakes, military victories, and the sinking of ships), and to be able to operate within the dream world and communicate with the gods who reside there.

In addition to the passage from Diogenes mentioned above (where Pherecydes commands the Spartans to honor neither silver nor gold), several other accounts also link Pherecydes to Sparta. Plutarch, in the Agis, records that, “although Terpander, Thales, and Pherecydes were foreigners, they are particularly honored in Sparta because they constantly sang and proclaimed philosophically the same things as Lycurgus” (P11). And elsewhere, in Pelopidas, Plutarch reports that Pherecydes even died as a human sacrifice at the hands of the Spartans, and that they kept his skin as a kind of talismen or relic which presumably contained his sacred power. Plutarch recounts, “Pherecydes the sage was killed by the Lacedaemonians and, in conformity with the oracle, his skin was preserved by the kings” (P12).

Yet, there are actually multiple accounts of Pherecydes’ death. Some say he died from a disease and was cared for in his last days by Pythagoras (P15). Others say he died during the battle between the Ephesians and the Magnesians and used the opportunity to predict (or possibly bring about) the victory of the Ephesians (P14). And yet others say that “he went to Delphi and threw himself from Mount Corycius” (P14).

Pherecydes’ Work

Pherecydes’ written work, which some sources report to be the the first Greek treatise composed in prose (R4, R5, R6), went under various titles: the “Five-nook” (πεντέμυχος), the “Mixture of the Gods” (θεοκρασία), or simply the “Theogony” (D1). Like Hesiod’s Theogony, it contained “a theology comprising the birth and succession of the gods” (Suda, D1), yet, it also diverged from Hesiod’s account in several crucial respects. Indeed, Pherecydes’ Theogony may have even been written as a self-conscious alternative to Hesiod’s. The difference between them was apparently dramatic enough for Theopompus to assert that Pherecydes “was the first to write for the Greeks about nature and the gods” despite the fact that Hesiod’s Theogony was composed earlier (Diogenes Laertius, D2). Though Pherecydes wrote after Homer and Hesiod, he must have articulated a theology so novel that he was credited with being the first to write about nature and the gods. Likewise, Aristotle goes on to label Pherecydes as a “mixed” theologian (R3). Unlike previous theologies which claimed that the good gradually emerged and developed through time, culminating in the Olympian order of Zeus, Pherecydes, according to Aristotle, maintains that the good is “engendered first” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, R3). Pherecydes’ primary gods, Chronos (Cronus), Zas (Zeus), and Chthonie (Gaia) are posited as eternal first principles which ground the cosmic order. And unlike previous myths which depict a theomachy between the Titans, led by Cronus, and the Olympians, led by Zeus, Pherecydes’ first principles work in harmony with each other.

Pherecydes’ Theogony can be briefly summarized as follows. In the beginning there were three eternal gods, Chronos, Zas, and Chthonie. Chronos ejaculates seed containing the fundamental elements of fire, air (πνεῦμα), and water, and then places it, in varying proportions, in five nooks (μυχοῖ) from which emerge the first created gods. This is the first act of creation.4 The second act of creation is then performed by Zas when he marries Chthonie. Before the marriage, he transforms himself into Eros, weaves a robe for Chthonie, and embroiders Ge (Earth) and Ogenos (Ocean) upon it. In this manner, he fashions the earth as we know it. When Zas presents Chthonie with her robe at the wedding her name is changed to Ge, and Zas’s name may also be changed to Zeus and Chronos to Cronus at this point. Finally, there is a cosmic battle between Cronus and Ophioneus, a snake god, and their corresponding armies. They set terms for the battle such that the side to fall into Ogenos will be forced to reside there, while the victor will retain control of the heavens and dwell therein. Cronus and his troops win the battle. He is crowned, and Zeus distributes honors among the gods.

Pherecydes’ Philosophy

Though Pherecydes’ mythological treatise was likely brief, it can be shown to anticipate, if not inaugerate, many of the revolutionary ideas that would come to define later Greek philosophy.

Arche (ἀρχή)

In contrast to Hesiod’s originary chaos which is said to “come to be” (γένετο),5 Pherecydes postulates three eternally existent deities: Zas, Chronos, and Chthonie. This is stipulated at the very outset of his book, which is preserved by Diognes Laertius as follows:

“[…] The book […] its beginning is: Zas and Chronos were always [ἦσαν ἀεὶ], and Chthonie was. But the name of Chthonie became Earth when Zas gave her earth as a present”6 (D5).

Pherecydes here explicitly states, for perhaps the first time in Western philosophy, that the gods always were. There was never a time in which they were not. This sentiment was echoed in the later philosophical tradition. For example, Aristotle records that:

“Xenophanes used to say that those who say the gods are born are just as impious as those who say they die, for in both cases the result is that there is a certain time when the gods do not exist” (Aristotle, Rhetoric, P16).

It is not implausible to suppose that Pherecydes’ novel account of divine eternity was motivated by a concern to articulate a suitable metaphysical first principle or ἀρχή.7 Indeed, later authors explicitly adopted such a reading and identified Pherecydes’ three primary deities with first principles. Eudemus, for instance, maintains that: “Pherecydes of Syros [scil. says]… that Zas always exists as well as Chronos and Chthonie, the three first principles [τρεῖς πρώτας ἀρχάς].” (Eudemus in Damascius, On the Principles, R23). And historian Hermann Schibli observes that “it was the mark of Presocratic philosophers in general that a true ἀρχή, whether a divine being or a divine substance (or, as often, a blend of the two), had no beginning at a past point in time” (Schibli, Pherekydes of Syros, 15). Presumably, a true ἀρχή must be eternal, since the explanation of one temporally conditioned event by another would seem to lead to an infinite regress. For instance, if we attempt to explain a temporally conditioned event t1, by a futher temporally conditioned event t2, reason would demand that we explain this new explanans (i.e. t2). We might attempt to do so by appealing to another temporally conditioned event, say, t3, but this too would require a further explanation, ad infinitum. It seems that to reach a first principle that would satisfy the demands of reason, we would have to appeal to something that is unconditioned by time, i.e. something eternal. In this manner, it is possible to trace the beginings of metaphysics back to Pherecydes mythology.

Moreover, Pherecydes also anticipates the later Platonic identification of the ἀρχή with the Good. Unlike Hesiod who depicted goodness as slowly evolving through struggles between the gods and the solidification of Olympian power under Zeus, Phercydes claims that the Good has always existed. Aristotle attests to this doctrine when he maintains that:

“There is a difficulty, and a cause of criticism to those who easily resolve their doubts, concerning how the elements and principles (ἀρχαί) relate to the good (ἀγαθός) and the beautiful (καλός). The difficulty is this, whether any of those [sc. elements] is such a thing as we mean when we speak of the good itself and the best (ἄριστος), or whether this is not so, and they are on the contrary later in origin. The theologians seem to agree with those of our contemporaries who say that it is not so, but that the good and the beautiful appear as the nature of things progresses… The ancient poets agree with this, inasmuch as they say that the first principles, such as night and heaven or chaos or okeanos, do not have kingship and rule but rather that Zeus does. It is only incumbent upon them to say such things because their rulers of the world do change, since at any rate those of them who give a mixed account, in that they do not say everything in myth, such as Pherekydes and certain others, do posit the first creating principle as the best, as do the Magi and some later philosophers, like both Empedokles and Anaxagoras: the former made Love an element, and the latter made mind a principle” (Aristotle, Metaphysics 1091a29-b12, trans. Schibli).

Here Aristotle contrasts poets whose first principles do not have kingship and rule (since these are instead attributed to Zeus’s later Olympian regime), with Pherecydes account which posits “the first creating principle as the best.” For Pherecydes, ideal rule need not be wrested from chaos by brute force and Machiavellian guile as it is in previous Greek mythology. Rather, Goodness stands eternal as a fundamental principle of reality.

Because Aristotle stipulates that purely mythological accounts must entail a non-identity between the ἀρχή and the Good, he maintains that Pherecydes holds to a “mixed” account. Yet, this a stipulation strikes me as misguided. For we need not rigidly associate mythology with any one particualar metaphysical outlook. Myths can be used to illustrate a variety of different worldviews. Various world religions, for instance, each present their worldviews mythologically, yet the metaphysical details of those worldviews still differ from each other in dramatic ways.


And Pherecydes’ identification of the first principle with the Good also coincides with another key philosophical revolution: an ethical depiction of the gods. Pherecydes’ gods, unlike those of Homer and Hesiod, act uprightly. They are not subject to human vices (such as anger or lust), and they do not assault each other or commit adultury. Much less do they commit the more than human outrages depicted by the earlier poets (such as castrating their fathers, or eating their children and wives). Rather, Pherecydes presents a surprisingly moral mythology. In it, Chronos, existing from eternity, neither has a father with whom to contend, nor a son against whom he must struggle for power (since Zas is not his son). And, since there is no battle of succession between Zas and Chronos, there is no corresponding war between the Olympians and the Titans. Instead, Chronos and Zas work together, each contributing to the creation of the universe in his own way—Chronos as a primal begetting force, and Zas as a cosmic artisan.

In this manner Pherecydes’ mythology is motivated by the same moral concerns that animated the later philosophical tradition. For example, we can see Pherecydes as anticipating Xenophanes’ criticism that “Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all things that among men are sources of blame and censure: thieving, committing adultury, and deceiving each other” (D8, preserved in Sextus Empiricus, Against the Natural Philosophers), and Plato’s contention that the poets give “a bad image of what the gods and heroes are like… telling the greatest falsehood about the most important things….I mean Hesiod telling us about how Uranus behaved, how Cronus punished him for it, and how he was in turn punished by his own son” (Republic 377e-388a).

And though Pherecydes does recount a battle between the gods, it is not a battle between the primary gods, with the serpent Ophioneus and his followers, the Ophionidai. The Platonist philosopher Celsus took Phercydes’ story to be the source for the later Christian tale of Satan’s fall from heaven. Celsus summarizes Phercydes account as follows:

“Pherecydes, who is much more ancient than Heraclitus invented the myth of one army set in order against another army, gave the command of the one to Cronus and of the other to Ophioneus, and recounted their challenges and combats, and that they made an accord according to which whichever ones of them fell into Ogenos would be defeated, while those who expelled them and defeated them would possess the heavens” (D11).

We thus learn that there are two warring armies in Pherecydes account, one led by Cronus and the other by Ophinieus. And clear terms of enegagement are agreed upon in this war, with the side falling into Ogenus to be declared the loser, and the side remaining above to be declared the winner, having a rightful claim to the heavens. Unlike previous depictions of the Typhonomachy in which Zeus is taken off guard and responds to the monster Typhon’s assaults through brute force, Cronus is depicted as being well aware of the situation and responding according to a rational plan with agreed upon rules. In this manner, Pherecydes infuses his heavenly battle with a moral character.

Cronus and his forces prove to be victorius, pushing Ophioneus and his serpent army into the ocean, and Cronus is “crowned before everyone” (Tertullian, D12). Though Cronus led the heavenly army and was honored as victor, it is probable that Zeus also engaged in combat (given his role as the primary artifacer of creation and his authority to punish gods who commit outragous acts).8 So, even though Pherecydes includes a story of a battle between the gods, he narrates it in a way that prevents the eternal gods from fighting amongst each other and from reliquishing their rule to a new divine lineage, thereby anchoring the moral order in the eternal order of the gods.

A Creator God

Another crucial innovation of Pherecydes is the idea of a demiurge, the idea that God is a great artisan who formed the world as a work of art.9 It is customary to maintain that this idea first emerged in Greek philosophy with Plato’s Timaeus, but Pherecydes’ treatise predates this account.10 In Pherecydes’ myth, Zas takes on the demiurgic work of crafting the world when he marries Chthonie. The Grenfell papyrus records the episode as follows:

“… for him [i.e. Zas] they make buildings, many and great, and when they had finished them all, the objects, male servants, female servants, and everything else that is necessary, when then everything is ready, they perform the wedding. And when the third day of the wedding comes, then Zas makes a robe, great and beautiful, and on it he embroiders Earth, Ogenos [i.e. Ocean] and the houses of Ogenos.

[Zas then speaks to Chthonie:] … ‘since I want this marriage to be yours, it is you that I honor with this. But you, receive my greeting and be my wife.’ They say that these were the first anakalypteria11 that were performed, and from this time this custom (νομος) has existed, for both gods and men. And she answers him, receiving the robe from him…” (D9).

This story attests to a twofold design of the cosmos. First, Zas weaves the world as a wedding gift for Chthonie. He embroiders the lands and oceans onto the robe he fashions for her, crafting thereby the earth as we know it. Here Zas operates as an intelligent designer, creating the world to be an object of beauty. And, like a dedicated craftsman, Zas skillfully fashions his magnum opus with love and devotion. Proclus even reports that Zeus transformed himself into Eros when undertaking the work of creation (D8). And, when married to Zas and endowed with her robe, Chthonie is given the new name of Ge (Earth). In the renaming of Chthonie, our earth comes to be. Isodore records that Pherecydes used the image of a “winged oak” with an “embroidered robe on it” (D10) as a symbol of this completed creation.

Second, Pherecydes, taking pains to ground the legitimacy of human institutions and practices in the world of the gods, maintains that our social world is intelligently designed. For instance, by providing an aetiology of the practice of anakalypteria, Pherecydes attempts to root the human insitutiton of marriage in a divine archetype.12 Schibli explains,

“In sum, in the marriage of Zas and Chthonie the divine world touches upon the human world. The institutions and customs of men are traced back to the gods. In Pherekydes’ book, marriages are literally made in heaven as each marriage re-enacts the first divine marriage. In mythical thought, human acts are real because they repeat the deeds of the gods” (67-68).

And Pherecydes provides a similar aetiology for the banquet table at the wedding feast. Diogenes Laertius recounts:

“And he [Pherecydes] also said that the gods call [scil. the banquet] table a table for offerings (θυωρος)” (D17).

Once again, Pherecydes grounds a human practice in a corresponding practice of the gods.13 Schibli suggets that, in appealing to the terms used by the gods, Pherecydes expresses the ancient view that “the gods have a language of their own, in which they call things by their correct names” (67). One would, by using this divine language, speak the truth of things. Such a view is attested to, for example, in Plato’s Cratylus in a discussion between Socrates and Hermogenes:

“Socrates: Well if that doesn’t suit you, you’ll have to learn from Homer and the other poets.

Hermogenes: And where does Homer say anything about names, Socrates, and what does he say?

Socrates: In lots of places. The best and most important are the ones in which he distinguishes between the names humans call things and those the gods call them. Or don’t you think that these passages tell us something remarkable about the correctness of names? Surely the gods call things by their naturally correct names—or don’t you think so?” (391d).

Here Plato attests to an ancient view, held by Homer and the other poets, that distinguishes human language from the language of the gods. According to this view, the names used by the gods, presumably in contrast to those used by us, correspond to the true nature of reality.14 In this manner, not only is our physical cosmos the result of divine craftsmanship, but that same design also permeates our human Lebenswelt.

The Immortality of the Soul

Finally, Pherecydes is also said to be the first Greek philosopher to have articulated the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Though Homer depicted a form of disembodied existence after death, it was a vague and spectral existence in the underworld; all that remained after death was an emasciated form of consciousness. When recounting Odysseus’ journey to the underworld in Book XI of the Odyssey, Homer depicts the gathered shades as needing to drink sacrificial blood in order to speak, and he portrays the hero Achilles as attesting that he would rather be a peasant in the world of men than a ruler among the dead. In contrast, Pherecydes presents the revolutionary idea that the soul has a positive reality of its own and can persist unharmed after the death of the body. Cicero, in his Tuscan Disputations, testifies that Pherecydes is the first in the West to have articulated such a doctrine:

“Indeed it takes a great intellect to withdraw the mind from the senses and divert thought from habit. [Magni autem est ingenii sevocare mentem a sensibus et cogitationem ab consuetudine abducere.] So, for my part, I believe that there were also others in so many centuries, but as far as the literary records go, Pherekydes of Syros first said that the souls of men are eternal [Pherecydes Syrius primus dixit animos esse hominum sempiternos], and he is clearly ancient, for he lived when my clansman was ruling. (Servius Tullius, 578-535). This teaching his disciple Pythagoras greatly supported.” (Fragment 7, Schibli Appendix 2, see also Laks and Most R14).

In contrast to previous thinkers who likened the soul to a sensible object, identifying it with what is experienced by the physical body, Pherecydes, according to Cicero, had the strength of mind to abstract from these familiar associations and consider consciousness in itself. As a result, he was able to discern that the soul of man is eternal. And Cicero goes on to note that this doctrine was adopted by Pythagoras and the Pythagorean school.

Pherecydes paired the doctrine of the immortality of the soul with the doctrine of metempsychosis, the idea that the soul reincarnates after death. So, for example, the Suda reports that “[…] He [Pherecydes] was the fist to introduce the idea of metempsychosis” (R15). And this acceptance of the doctrine of metempsychosis introduces an ineluctably moral dimension to human life, since the soul is eternal and can face judgement for its actions. We see this moral dimension of Pherecydes’ thought attested to by Themistios when he declares that:

“Thus the divine spirit of the king takes forethought to keep his hands pure from even just bloodshed, more than Pherekydes and Pythagoras, so that he (Constantius II) joined in compelling and forcing even the other [Decentius] of the tyrants, for whom death was necessary upon acting with violence, to become his own tyrannicide” (Themistios, Orationes, Schibli trans. Appendix II, fragment 90).

Here Pherecydes, like Pythagoras, is said to have warned people to avoid unjust bloodshed. In the case of Pythagoras, the doctrine of reincarnation motivated him to extend this principle to the animal world and accept a vegetarian diet.15 It is possible that this view had its roots in Pherecydes’ teaching, but it cannot be determined for certain.

Pherecydes likely articulated his doctrine of metempsychosis within the cosmology set forth earlier in his work so that the story of the soul (the microcosm) corresponds to the story of the cosmos (the macrocosm).16 Recall that, for Pherecydes, Chronos created the universe by taking his seed and placing it within five nooks (μυχοῖ) from which the first created gods emerged. In like manner, Pherecydes associates the entrance and departure of the soul into earthly life with μυχοῖ through which the soul passes.17 Porphyry, for example, records that “Pherecydes of Syros, […] speaks of nooks (μυχοῖ), of hollows (βόθροι), of caves (ἄντρα), of doors (θύρα), of gates (πύλαι) and means by these terms allegorically the births and departures of the souls” (R26, Porphyry, The Cave of the Nymphs). And, just as the first act of creation was associated with the outflow of Chronos’s seed, so too is the incarnation of the human soul associated with an outflow (ἐκροή). The medieval writer Apponius reports that the soul had two aspects for Pherecydes: it was both eternal and served as a principle of life for the body. He explains:

“[…] They say that a certain Pherecydes, before all others, taught his students the doctrine that the soul of man is immortal and that it is the life of the body, and he believed on the one hand that it is breathed into us from heaven and on the other that it is supplied by earthly seeds” (Apponius, Commentary on the Song of Songs, R16).

Pherecydes thus seems to link the eternal soul to a particular body through the medium of earthly seed. And Porphyry likewise reports that, for Pherecydes, the incarnation of the soul was connected to the outflow (ἐκροή) of seed. He attests:

“…The other account is that this is the moment [of the soul’s entry into the embryo], when the semen is deposited, as it [i.e. the semen] would not be able to be productively retained in the womb unless the soul were to complete the union by its entry from outside—here especially Numenios and the interpreters of Pythagoras’ hidden meanings undertand as semen the river Ameles in Plato, and the Styx in Hesiod and the Orphics, and the outflow (ἐκροή) in Pherekydes.” (Porphyry, To Gaurus on the Animation of the Embryo, Fragment 87 Appendix 2, Schibli, see also Laks and Most, R18).

The incarnation of the soul into the body is here associated with the outflow of semen into the womb and the conception of an embryo. As a result, then, it appears that Pherecydes account of human life mirrored his account of the life of the universe. Just as the cosmos began through the mixture of Chronos’s seed within the five primordial μυχοῖ, so too does the soul’s experience of a particular human life begin with the outflow of seed into the womb and the consequent conception of a body.


So, far from constituting a break with mythology, some of the central concerns of philosophy actually have their roots in myth. Pherecydes of Syros, with his mythology of the five nook god mixing, is the first thinker in the Greek tradition to have introduced the quest for an eternal ἀρχή, the first to articulate a distinctively moral theology, the first to have forged the idea of a creator God, and the first to have taught the doctrines of reincarnation and the immortality of the soul. Given such a profound influence, it is no wonder that Josephus would attest that Pherecydes was one of “the first among the Greeks to philosophize about celestial phenomena and divine matters” (Josephus, Against Apion, D4). As a result, many of the concerns of later philosophy appear to flow not from some kind of naturalistic rejection of myth, but from what Aristotle calls a “mixed-theology”, a worldview that is at once both mythological and rational. And, even more profoundly, if the legends are to be believed which credit Pherecydes’ knowledge to his study of magic and the secret books of the Phoencians (Suda P6), then the true roots of philosophy lie in the occult. It is thus reasonable to ask with Tertullian,

“Indeed we know that it is proper to magic to search out secrets through the catabolic and paredral and pythonic spirits. For did not also Pherekydes, the teacher of Pythagoras, divine, not to say dream, by these kinds of arts perhaps?” (Tertullian, De anima, Schibli, Fragment 84).

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[The image used in the thumbnail of this essay is Caspar David Friedrich’s Eichbaum im Schnee and is in the public domain. It can be found here:,Caspar_David-_Eichbaum_im_Schnee.jpg ]

1 For instance, in a passage from On the Poets preserved by Diogenes Laertius, Aristotle maintains that “Pherecydes was the rival of Thales” (R11). Just as Thales was said to inaugerate the Milesian school, followed by Anaximander and Aniximenes, so too is Pherecydes said to inaugerate an Italian school, followed by Pythagoras and later Pythagoreans. For example, Clement of Alexandria records in his Stromata, “no teacher is recorded for him [i.e. Thales], just as none for Pherecydes of Syros either, with whom Pythagoras studied” (R12). All fragment numbers and translations will come from Laks and Most, Early Greek Philosophy Vol. II: Beginnings and Early Ionian Thinkers Part 1 unless otherwise noted.

2 M.L. West, Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient, 3. West goes on to speculate that this may have inspired him to take a syncretistic approach to his overall philosophy.

3 Preserved in Diogenes Laertius.

4 Schibli, Pherekydes of Syros, 16.

5 “Chaos was born first and after it came Gaia the broad-breasted, the firm seat of all immortals who hold the peaks of snowy Olympos, and the misty Tartaros in the depths of broad-pathed earth and Eros, the fairest of the deathless gods” (Hesiod, Theogony, 116-120, trans. Athanassakis).

6 “Ζὰς μὲν καὶ Χρόνος ἦσαν ἀεὶ καὶ Χθονίη: Χθονίῃ δὲ ὄνομα ἐγένετο Γῆ, ἐπειδὴ αὐτῇ Ζὰς γῆν γέρας διδοῖ.” σώζεται δὲ καὶ ἡλιοτροπεῖον ἐν Σύρῳ τῇ νήσῳ.”

7 In brief, an ἀρχή functions as an ultimate ground, either metaphysically or epistemologically. Aristotle, in his usual analytical brilliance lists several possible definitions of ἀρχή as follows in the opening of Book V of the Metaphysics: “We call an origin (ἀρχή) (1) that part of a thing from which one would start first, e.g. a line or a road has an origin in either of the contrary directions. (2) That from which each thing would best be originated, e.g. we must sometimes begin to learn not from the first point and the origin of the thing, but from the start from which we would learn most easily. (3) That from which (as an immanenet part) a thing first arises, e.g. as the keel of a ship and the foundation of a house, while in animals some suppose the heart, others the brain, others some other part, to be of this nature. (4) That from which (not as an immanent part) a thing first arises, and from which the movement or the change naturally first proceeds, as a child comes from the father and the mother, and a fight from abusive language. (5) That by whose choice that which is moved is moved and that which changes changes, e.g. the magistracies in cities, and oligarchies and monarchies and tyrannies, are called origins, and so are the arts, and of these especially archetectonic arts. (6) That from which a thing can first be known; for this also is called the origin of the thing, e.g. the hypotheses are the origins of demonstrations. (Causes are spoken of in an equal number of senses; for all casues are origins). It is common, then, to all to be the first point from which a thing either is or comes to be or is known; but of these some are immanenet in the thing and others are outside. Therefore the nature of a thing is an origin, and so are the elements of a thing, and thought and choice, and substance, and that for the sake of which—for the good and beautiful are the origin both of the knowledge and of the movement of many things” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1013a1-24, trans. Ross).

8 “Below that portion is the portion of Tartarus. The daughters of Boreas, the Harpies and Thyella [i.e. the storm], guard it. It is to there that Zeus banishes any of the gods when he commits an outrage” (Celsus, D13). Schibili even suggests that Zeus may have won the war by fighting with Ophioneus in one on one combat as Homeric heroes were said to have done. “Yet it is hard to conceive that Zas, the cosmic craftsman who created Earth and Ogenos and emerges auctor of the present world order, should have remained on the sidelines of the cosmic battle. Thus, while Kronos in view of his priority as originator of the cosmos is made the leader of the heavenly armies, it stands to reason that he was abetted in the fight against Ophioneus and the Ophionidai by his co-creator Zas. Possibly Zas distinguished himself in a single combat with Ophioneus that helped determine the victory of Kronos” (Schibli, 97).

9 Schibili observes that “neither in Homer nor in Hesiod is Zeus represented as a craftsman and that in the pre-philosophical period of Greece the world as a whole is not yet conceived of as an artefact made by a god” (Schibili, 54).

10 According to the Timaeus, “we must begin by making the following distinction: What is that which always is and has no beginning, and what is that which becomes but never is? The former is grasped by the understanding, which involves a reasoned account. It is unchanging. The latter is grasped by opinion, which involves unreasoning sense perception. It comes to be and passes away, but never really is. Now everything that comes to be must of necessity come to be by the agency of some cause, for it is impossible for anything to come to be without a cause. So whenever the craftsman (demiourgos) looks at what is always changeless and, using a thing of that kind as his model, reproduces its form and character, then, of necessity, all that he so completes is beautiful. But were he to look at a thing that has come to be and use as his model something that has been begotten, his work will lack beauty” (Plato, Timaeus, 28a-b).

11 The anakalypteria, or feast of unveiling, was a ceremony in a wedding where the groom would give his bride gifts and unveil her.

12 “Primarily, the marriage of Zas and Chthonie grounds the human institution of marriage in the world of the gods” (Schibli, 64).

13 Schibli, 66.

14 Schibili finds further evidence for the existence of such a viewpoint in Homer’s accounts of the Scamander River and of the plant given to Odyssues (67).

15 The idea here is that, since other animals are similarly ensouled, it would be wrong to kill them and eat their flesh.

16 “There may even have been in Pherekydes’ book a parallelism between the anthropogony, in which the ‘outflow’ with its connotation of seed was linked to the rebirth of human souls, and the theogony, in which the seed-elements of Chronos were deposited in the μυχοῖ for the genesis of the gods” (Schibli, 116-117).

17 The later astrological doctrine here comes to mind, which associates the sign of Cancer with the gate by which the soul comes into embodiment, and the sign of Capricorn with the gate where it returns once more to the heavens.

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