22 March 2009

Sirens and labyrinths

Philosophers such as Empedocles, Heraclitus and Parmenides, who lived in the 6th and 5th c. BC, are usually grouped together under the term Pre-Socratic (or rather Pre-Platonic, as some scholars prefer), i.e. they are seen as the immediate predecessors of classical Greek philosophy, the golden age of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. However, it is also possible to analyze Pre-Platonic philosophy from a different perspective, not only as the initiators or precursors of something, but also as the recipients of a long-ranging oral and sapiential tradition that dates back to prehistoric times. In his recent book on the subject, La sirena di Archimede. Etnolinguistica comparata e tradizione preplatonica (Edizioni dell’Orso, 2008), the Italian linguist Gabriele Costa offers a comprehensive analysis of Pre-Platonic philosophy, identifying many of its elements as a manifestation of the above mentioned sapiential tradition: initiation rites, the use of ritual incubation for healing or divination, the use of breathing techniques or drugs to reach a ‘higher’ level of self-consciousness, the use of symbolic images, like the flight of the soul, to describe ecstatic experiences, the use of mystery and wordplay, including enigmas, the defense of the oral tradition as the only recipient of wisdom, the multifaceted nature of the philosopher as a guide or a poet, magician, diviner, healer, and more generally the repository of knowledge in the community. Can these elements be seen as the original invention of Pythagoras or other Pre-Platonic thinkers? Most probably not. In his book, Gabriele Costa sees these elements in connection with the world of shamanism, offering many examples that show clear parallels between them. On the other hand, similar elements can be found in other Indo-European (IE) traditions: in Rome, India, Iran, and also in the Celtic and Germanic areas, even at the level of poetic forms and language. What we see here is the continuity of these IE elements from prehistory to the beginning of classical antiquity, with oral poetry as the main vehicle of transmission. Apart from this sapiential or esoteric tradition, which focuses on the individual experience of the initiated, there is another main line of cultural transmission concerning the narration of the heroic past of the group, and expressed as a more collective type of poetry. As the Greek example shows, both types of poetry are rooted in the same prehistoric, already IE context. Classical philosophy was not just a ‘miracle’ or a creation ex novo. Philosophical and scientific speculation had already been born in the context of the ritualised and esoteric schools that preceded the classical age.

Apart from philosophical texts (including the ones attributed to Pre-Platonic authors and especially the ones written about them), the presence of this long-ranging tradition can also be felt in the narrative of myths. Costa offers some examples taken from the Odyssey and other ancient texts. Mythical stories such as the labyrinth of the Minotaur can be seen originally as the depiction of an initiation rite, which also includes a symbolic flight towards divinity. The story of the sirens, in Homer’s Odyssey, is interpretable in similar terms, where just one of the crew members of the ship, Ulysses, has to go through the ordeal of listening to the chant of the sirens. It’s not just that these scenes remind us of initiation rites; there is also a great deal of data, for example from the linguistic analysis of the terminology, pointing in this direction and making the comparison more than plausible, as the author shows with great richness of detail and depth of analysis.

In conclusion, La sirena di Archimede is one of these books that really opens new perspectives to the reader, and I strongly recommend it.


D. Sky Onosson said...

Can you recommend any other books that deal with similar subject matter, perhaps a little older than this work and in English (unfortunately, I don't speak Italian, and my university's library collection is not always very up-to-date).

Jesús Sanchis said...

Gabriele Costa is a member of the Paleolithic Continuity Group (PCT), and you can find some of his articles in the PCT web-site, here: http://www.continuitas.com/texts.html

Most of the articles are written in Italian, and I don't know if any of his books have been translated into English. Probably not.

In "La sirena di Archimede" he uses hundreds of references. Let's remember that the study of Pre-Platonic philosophy has been a very active field of study in recent centuries and the number of books written about it are countless. And we should also add the texts about linguistics, anthropology, etc. that Costa has also used in his research. And many of these books (e.g. the ones by C. Severi, G. Cerri, Louis Gernet and Françoise Bader, just to mention a few) are not written in English. In general, it seems that being able to read in French, German and Italian is quite necessary for anyone trying to do research in this field of study.

D. Sky Onosson said...

Thank you for the reply. I was particularly interested in works that share the perspective you refer to, regarding "recipients of a long-ranging ... tradition that dates back to prehistoric times".

Reading in French is ok for me, Italian would be difficult (I know some Spanish, which together with French would take me part of the way, I suppose), and German not at all. But I'm just curious, more than wanting to do any serious research. Thanks for the information!

Anonymous said...

In response to D. Sky Onosson and in continuation of this thread: I can, and should, strongly recommend the books and writings of Peter Kingsley. They are easily available in English; his first book -- Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic -- was published by Oxford Univ. Press in 1995. Costa in fact depends quite heavily on Kingsley's work, even more than his footnotes and references would suggest. For more info about Kingsley see www.peterkingsley.org
I hope this helps, Amber Goldwin