Damascius on Orphic mythology

The philosopher Damascius was the last head of the Academy at Athens, at the time when it was closed down by Justinian in 529 AD. His Problems and Solutions concerning first principles[1] has recently been translated by Sara Ahbel-Rappe, and a preview of the book is online. This is a very useful piece of work; because these very late pagan philosophers have undoubtedly been neglected, and Damascius is a fountain of knowledge about Orphic mythology.  The translation itself is a good piece of work also.

“Phanes” in his egg, from Modena. CIMRM 695

Many books on Mithras refer to the lion-headed god, found in the temples of Mithras, as “Aion”, and there is often a reference to “Phanes” as well. I have been attempting to discover which pieces of ancient evidence tell us who Aion was, and what he looked like.

The answer to this is two mosaics and a red bit of pottery, in all of which the figure is almost obliterated; a long discussion in Damascius’ Dubitationes et solutiones; plus some other bits and pieces in the literary tradition which I have not yet fathomed.

Both Aion and Phanes appear to be part of Orphic mythology.

The word “Aion”, indeed, means “time”; not the days of our lives, like Chronos, but endless, ageless time, eternity even. So the depictions are of a personification of a concept.

References to Aion begin in classical times; and of course Damascius lived a thousand years later. It is perhaps unlikely, therefore, that these ideas remained unchanged through all that time, through the classical period, its collapse and the birth of the Hellenistic world, the collapse of that and the birth of the Roman world, and the collapse of that and the creation of Byzantium. But we have so little to work with, and any identifications in mosaics must be tentative.

Quite by chance this evening, while looking at the Wikipedia article on Phanes, I learned of an old translation of precisely the portion of Damascius that interests us. It is to be found in the preface to a translation of the Orphic Hymns, made by the English Platonist, Thomas Taylor, in the 19th century.[2] Interestingly Taylor had to self-publish his translation, and had to work, not from a critical text, but from some excerpts by Wolfius. In some ways, however, it is easier to understand than the modern (2010) translation.

I give the relevant portion here:

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Time [as we have already observed] is symbolically said to be the one principle of the universe; but ether and chaos[3] are celebrated as the two principles immediately posterior to this one. And being, simply considered, is represented under the symbol of an egg [4]. And this is the first triad of the intelligible Gods. But for the perfection of the second triad they establish either a conceiving and a conceived egg as a God, or a white garment, or a cloud: because from these Phanes leaps forth into light. For indeed they philosophize variously concerning the middle triad. But Phanes here represents intellect. To conceive him however besides this, as father and power, contributes nothing to Orpheus. But they call the third triad Metis as intellect, Ericapaeus as power, and Phanes as father. But sometimes the middle triad is considered according to the three-shaped God, while conceived in the egg: for the middle always represents each of the extremes; as in this instance, where the egg and the three-shaped God subsist together. And here you may perceive that the egg is that which is united; but that the three-shaped and really multiform God is the separating and discriminating cause of that which is intelligible. Likewise the middle triad subsists according to the egg, as yet united; but the third according to the God who separates and distributes the whole intelligible order. And this is the common and familiar Orphic theology. But that delivered by Hieronymus and Hellanicus is as follows. According to them water and matter were the first productions, from which earth was secretly drawn forth: so that water and earth are established as the two first principles; the latter of these having a dispersed subsistence; but the former conglutinating and connecting the latter. They are silent however concerning the principle prior to these two, as being ineffable: for as there are no illuminations about him, his arcane and ineffable nature is from hence sufficiently evinced. But the third principle posterior to these two, water and earth, and which is generated from them, is a dragon, naturally endued with the heads of a bull and a lion, but in the middle having the countenance of the God himself. They add likewise that he has wings on his shoulders, and that he is called undecaying Time, and Hercules; that Necessity resides with him, which is the same as Nature, and incorporeal Adrastia, which is extended throughout the universe, whose limits she binds in amicable conjunction. But as it appears to me, they denominate this third principle as established according to essence; and assert, besides this, that it subsists as male and female, for the purpose of exhibiting the generative causes of all things.

I likewise find in the Orphic rhapsodies, that neglecting the two first principles, together with the one principle who is delivered in silence, the third principle, posterior to the two, is established by the theology as the original; because this first of all possesses something effable and commensurate to human discourse. For in the former hypothesis, the highly reverenced and undecaying Time, the father of aether and chaos, was the principle : but in this Time is neglected, and the principle becomes a dragon. It likewise calls triple aether, moist; and chaos, infinite; and Erebus, cloudy and dark; delivering this second triad analogous to the first: this being potential, as that was paternal. Hence the third procession of this triad is dark Erebus: its paternal and summit aether, not according to a simple but intellectual subsistence: but its middle infinite chaos, considered as a progeny or procession, and among these parturient, because from these the third intelligible triad proceeds. What then is the third intelligible triad? I answer, the egg; the duad of the natures of male and female which it contains, and the multitude of all-various seeds, residing in the middle of this triad: And the third among these is an incorporeal God, bearing golden wings on his shoulders; but in his inward parts naturally possessing the heads of bulls, upon which heads a mighty dragon appears, invested with the all-various forms of wild beasts. This last then must be considered as the intellect of the triad; but the middle progeny, which are many as well as two, correspond to power, and the egg itself is the paternal principle of the third triad: but the third God of this third triad, this theology celebrates as Protogonus, and calls him Jupiter, the disposer of all things and of the whole world; and on this account denominates him Pan. And such is the information which this theology affords us, concerning the genealogy of the intelligible principles of things.

But in the writings of the Peripatetic Eudemus, containing the theology of Orpheus, the whole intelligible order is passed over in silence, as being every way ineffable and unknown, and incapable of verbal enunciation. Eudemus therefore commences his genealogy from Night, from which also Homer begins: though Eudemus is far from making the Homeric genealogy consistent and connected, for he asserts that Homer begins from Ocean and Tethys. It is however apparent, that Night is according to Homer the greatest divinity, since she is reverenced even by Jupiter himself. For the poet says of Jupiter, that he feared lest he should act in a manner displeasing to swift Night.” So that Homer begins his genealogy of the Gods from Night. But it appears to me that Hesiod, when he asserts that Chaos was first generated, signifies by Chaos the incomprehensible and perfectly united nature of that which is intelligible: but that he produces Earth the first from thence, as a certain principle of the whole procession of the Gods. Unless perhaps Chaos is the second of the two principles: but Earth, Tartarus, and Love form the triple intelligible. So that Love is to be placed for the third monad of the intelligible order, considered according to its convertive nature; for it is thus denominated by Orpheus in his rhapsodies. But Earth for the first, as being first established in a certain firm and essential station. But Tartarus for the middle, as in a certain respect exciting and moving forms into distribution. But Acusilaus appears to me to establish Chaos for the first principle, as entirely unknown; and after this, two principles, Erebus as male, and Night as female; placing the latter for infinity, but the former for bound. But from the mixture of these, he says that Aether, Love, and Counsel are generated, forming three intelligible hypostases. And he places Aether as the summit; but Love in the middle, according to its naturally middle subsistence; but Metis or Counsel as the third, and the same as highly reverenced intellect. And, according to the history of Eudemus, from these he produces a great number of other Gods.

  1. [1]Damascius, Dubitationes et solutiones de primis principiis, 1889, vol 1, p.381. Eng. tr. Sara Ahbel-Rappe, Damascius’ Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles, Oxford University Press, 2010, p.416.
  2. [2]Thomas Taylor, The mystical hymns of Orpheus, 2nd ed. (1824). Online here. Our section begins on p.xiv.
  3. [3]These two principles are called by Plato, in the Philebus, bound and infinity.
  4. [4]This Orphic egg is the same with the mixture from bound and infinity, mentioned by Plato in the Philebus. See the third book of my translation of Proclus on the Theology of Plato. (T.Taylor)