Samstag, 22. Juni 2019

How Identifications Constitute Difference: Macrobius on the Goddess Maia

It’s often said that Greco-Roman polytheism was additive. This is generally correct, but we cannot take this as if polytheism was a cosmology into which more and more gods could be put. Instead, we also have to think of other aspects as open to addition. In particular, there was an openness to more and more explanations of the same facts, not necessarily in the sense that two explanations were collectively more correct than a single one could be, but certainly in that a person who could refer to many opinions was thought to be more educated. Judgement between alternatives was seen as a sign of erudition as well, but in many circumstances, it was more important to show that one could judge well rather than that one could judge correctly.

This additive approach, which could flesh out the picture especially of such deities as had little definite character, is wonderfully demonstrated in a passage of Macrobius’ magnum opus, the Saturnalia. In a discussion of the twelve months and their names, he derives the name of May (Maius in Latin) from the goddess Maia, and then proceeds to go through a legion of propositions about who she is. In one sense, this is the inverse of the process by which already prominent deities collect the names of minor ones as additional titles: in that case, the question is “under how many names is this great god worshipped?”, in the former, “who is really meant by this obscure name?”. But the effect is not so different, as both minor and major gods become unique nexuses of identifications.

Something that distinguishes Roman religion, at least in the period for which we have records, from that of the Greeks is that questions of mutual identity among the local gods (and not just between native and foreign gods) are central from the very beginning. The contrast should not be overstated—Ares and Enyalios or Apollon and Paion, for example, had an unclear relation of maybe-identity-maybe-not from very early on. But if one can trust the testimony of Macrobius, the rituals contained in the pontifical books (admittedly a vague reference, from which no certain date can be extrapolated) already called on Maia, Bona Dea, Fauna, Ops, and Fatua as one. The large number of Roman gods, many with only a very vaguely defined nature or with an extremely specific domain, both encouraged priests and other thinkers to look for underlying structures, but also meant that many different equally convincing structures could be arrived at. But we should probably imagine that many gods were ambiguously maybe-identical-maybe-not with others from the very beginning, and not just secondarily as a result of speculation; or conversely, we might say that speculation is inherent in ritual formation, but that this kind of implicit theory is in need of and generates further theorizing. If speculation is inherent in the ritual texts and practices, it is also a fundamental part of reading and learning them. Roman pontifical learning, in other words, is not just reproduced or transmitted, but in a constant state of being revised and expanded upon. Yet this revision does not (exclusively) take the form of reformation, where one thing is replaced by another, but a kind of stability through seemingly chaotic pluralism.

But to return to Macrobius: he first (1.12.18) gives the opinion of Cingius, that the Maia after whom the month was named is the wife of Vulcan; and against this that of Piso, that Vulcan’s wife is named Maiesta. An alternative explanation (1.12.19) is that the Maia in question is the mother of Mercury; the association is no doubt derived from the Greeks, as Maia is the mother of Hermes. But the common worship of Maia and Mercury was widely popular among Romans. (In fact, there once was a small temple of the two in my hometown, Regensburg in Bavaria, set up by Roman merchants.)

A more speculative interpretation (1.12.20) is that of Cornelius Labeo, who bypasses the relative identifications (Maia wife of Vulcan or Maia mother of Mercury) and instead takes Maia to be a title of the Earth, meaning “the Greater”, and compares this to Mater Magna “Great Mother”, which is in his view also a name of the Earth. This is in line with his general tendency to take divine names as epithets of planets (the earth counting as a kind of honorary celestial body, but not as a planet in antiquity).

Labeo also uses the circumstantial evidence of the rite from the pontifical rites already mentioned (1.12.21), although the Earth is not explicitly addressed in that ritual, because he also takes all the other goddesses to be epithets of her (1.12.22).

Other alternatives, advanced on single argument each, are the Roman Juno and Proserpine; and, with no supporting evidence at all, the Greek Chthonian Hecate and Semele (1.12.23). But it seems that these are identified not with Maia directly, but with the Bona Dea and indirectly with (the Earth and) Maia (1.12.29). More elaborate is the reasoning for taking her to be the daughter of Faunus (i.e. Fauna, who we have already seen was equated with both Bona Dea and Maia in one ritual), which rests on a mythological explanation of the “divine law” in Bona Dea’s temple (1.12.24–25). Circular proof of this is derived from the fact that Bona Dea is is called theos gunaikeia, ‘women’s goddess,’ in Greek, and that Varro says that she is the daughter of Faunus (1.12.27). (Surely Varro says this about the Greek goddess because he identifies her with Bona Dea, and not the other way around?) Another explanation from features of this temple is that she is Medea (1.12.26).

In sum, we have two Maias, we might say one Greek and one Roman; and we have two Roman goddesses with whom she is identified directly, namely the Bona Dea and Fauna (as well as Ops, and Fatua who is barely distinct from Fauna in the first place).

Bona Dea is identified with three Roman goddesses, Juno, Proserpine and the daughter of Faunus, with the Greek Chthonian Hecate (perhaps by extension from Proserpine?) and theos gynaikeia (which in fact served as the usual Greek translation for Bona Dea, and I think was actually coined for this purpose), two deified heroines from Greek myth, Semele and Medea.

And finally, both Maia and Bona Dea are anchored, so to speak, in a “visible deity”, the Earth.

These multiple identifications of Maia, rather than explaining her away, make her irreducible to any of the deities she is identified with. Admittedly, the discussion of Bona Dea almost takes over the account about her, but inevitably some “knots” in the net of identifications must cluster closer together than others. Although we can attempt something of a chronology—for example, the Earth only comes in with Cornelius Labeo, in the 3rd (2nd?) century CE—, I think that we must not write that by assuming that there are original unique identities that then become confused. Even if Maia the wife of Vulcan was worshipped before the borrowing of the Greek Maia and the identification with Bona Dea, this does not mean that she was not identified with other deities at that time. What, for example, are we to make of her doublet, Maiestas? And if we wanted to say that Fauna and Bona Dea are one, then why are there two names in the first place, and why does Macrobius feel he has to justify the identification? To say that the Romans were more confused about their religion than we are is hardly reasonable. Instead, we should think of the conception of each god as always having internal tensions and external resonances. Only this, I think, explains the constant concern with differentiating and identifying them, and only that continual negotiation maintains the intelligibility of the gods.

Freitag, 21. Juni 2019

Simplicius on De caelo #1: On Book 1, chapter 1

Excerpted from R.J. Hankinson, Simplicius: On Aristotle's 'On the Heavens 1.1-4'.

From the Prologue.

"Alexander says that the subject of Aristotle's treatise On the Heavens is the world. He says that 'heaven' [ouranos] is used in three senses by Aristotle in this work, to mean both the sphere of the fixed stars and the whole of the divine revolving body, which in this book he also calls the 'furthest heaven' (with the adjective), and additionally 'the world', as Plato called it when he said 'the whole heaven, or the world or whatever else it might care to be called'. And he adduces Theophrastus as witness, since he talks in his On the Heavens not only of the divine body but also about things which come to be and about their principles. Thus Alexander says [the treatise] is about the world and the five bodies in it, that of the heaven and the four of the sublunary world, fire, air, water, earth.


The divine Iamblichus, on the other hand, says that, having set up the heavenly and divine body as the subject of this work, Aristotle in fact includes the study of the whole world, since it is substantially contained in it and under its control in regard to the production of generation; although it is also concerned with the elements and the powers that inhere in them, since all of these things depend upon the heaven and the things which revolve with it.

The great Syrianus and his followers say that the treatise concenrs the heaven proper, i.e. the eternal, revolving body, relying, it seems, on the title, and not accepting Alexander's claim.


[V]ery little is said about the world as a whole [in this work], and only such things as it has in common with the heaven, i.e. that it is eternal, limited in size, and single, and that it has these features because the heaven is eternal, limited and single. But if anyone wishes to inspect Aristotle's theory of the world, it must be said that he presents his account of the world in all of his physiccal treatises taken together.


[I]t seems to me clearly to be the case that in these books Aristotle treats of both the heavens and the sublunary four elements. [...] Of these the first is the heavenly body, which gives its title to the treatise as being more worthy of honour[.]"

Simplicius on Physics #12: On Book 6

Excerpt from David Konstan's translation of On Aristotle Physics 6.

On 241a26-b12:
"[W]hat is unable to come to be [can not] be coming to be. For it would be coming to be in vain, unless it wer eable to come to be. But neither god nor nature does anything in vain [cf. de Caelo 271a33]. Perhaps Aristotle says more exactly taht what cannot come to be is not coming to be at all. For even if those [legendary giants Otus and Ephialtes] put [Mt.] Ossa on top of [Mt.] Olympus and [Mt.] Pelion on top of [Mt.] Ossa, this was not the coming-to-be of an ascent to heaven, since it was not possible for that to come to be."

Donnerstag, 20. Juni 2019

Sextus on Religion #5e: Against the Physicists, book 2

Excerpts from R. G. Bury's Loeb Classical Library translation.

"The ancients also in planning the order of the Universe laid down place as the first principle of all things, and starting out from it Hesiod proclaimed how—
Verily first created of all was Chaos; thereafter
Earth broad-bosom’d, unshakable seat of all things for ever—
meaning by “Chaos” the place which serves to contain all things; for if this had not subsisted neither earth nor water nor the rest of the elements, nor the Universe as a whole, could have been constructed. And even if, in imagination, we abolish all things, the place wherein all things were will not be abolished, but remains possessing its three dimensions—length, depth, breadth,—but without solidity; for this is an attribute peculiar to body."

The word translated as "created" is really closer to "was born" and "came into being"."

Mittwoch, 19. Juni 2019

Simplicius(?) on De anima #2: On Book 3, chapters 1-5

Excerpts from H.J. Blumenthal's 2000 translation. Page numbers of the translation.

p. 22
"On what basis then does he argue that there is no other sense besides the five? The belief in this does not come from induction: there are more unapparent types of living beings than ones we can clearly see. Some are also mortal, the others are those that are superhuman. Nor can it be argued from the elements, on the basis of each of them coming under its own sense, they being four, as well as the exhalation of which smell is said to be the sense, as sight is of fire, hearing of air and the other senses of the others, smell of water and touch of earth. For fire is cognized not only by sight but also by touch, as being hot. So it is unclear whether it has some other quality which we do not know about because we lack a sense which perceives it. How then does Aristotle make us believe that there are only five senses? From the perfection of the life in us and the fact that our sense-organs are not insufficient. Any sense would be insufficient either because the life is dim and is as if one had fainted, being too weak to act in respect of all of them, or because of the insufficiency of the instruments, which are the sense-organs. If therefore the life is perfect and none of the sense-organs is missing, it is reasonable and even necessary that such living beings have all the senses."

Simplicius on Physics #8: On Book 4, chapters 6-9

Excerpts from Paul Lettinck & J.O. Urmson, Philoponus: On Aristotle Physics 5-8 with Simplicius: On Aristotle On the Void, 1994. Page numbering according to the translation.

p. 174-176
"He confirms the antiquity of this argument that introduces the void on the basis of motionk from Melissus’ treatment of the consequent as an obvious one, saying that, if what is moves, it moves through a void, and adding ‘but, however, there is no void’, and concluding that ‘therefore what is does not move’. It is clear that Melissus thus in a way relies on the argument. But he relies on it not with regard to the bodily or the partial, but to the intelligible and perfect. For he claims that this is one and unchangingk, proving, I think, its unchangingnessk through it being all and there being nothing beyond it, whither it will be transferred through the void. For THERE there is no void, nor, perhaps, even diversity, since it is everything. Also what is not will have no place in what is wholly real (to pantelôs on). And, even if there is diversity (heterotêsTHERE, by which the forms are distinguished from each other, still diversity is a reality. The void has no place in that which wholly is, as does that which is not. ‘But do you guard your thought from this way of enquiry’ as the great Parmenides says.

Using the doctrine (endoxon) of the Pythagoreans, he adds their opinion as a fifth argument for the existence of the void. For these said that the void entered the cosmos which, as it were, breathed in or inhaled it like a breath from that which surrounded it outside. It fulfilled a need to prevent all bodies from being continuous with each other, as Alexander understands them. But Aristotle did not understand them as referring to bodies, but, he says, it ‘distinguishes different natures, the void being an agent of a certain separation of a series and distinguishing its members’. For the members of a series, with nothing between them, are what the void distinguishes; things separated by other things between them are not separated by the void but by those things. Such a power of the void applied to numbers and appeared first to distinguish their natures. For what else is it that distinguishes the monad from the dyad and this from the triad except the void, since no substance was between them?

But what might be these riddles of the Pythagoreans? Is it that the otherness that distinguishes the forms THERE beyond the bodily cosmos was participated in by the cosmos and so brought about the distinction and separation of the forms in it, there being no void THERE (for the beautiful, for example, is different from the just, not because it is not just, but because everything is in accordance with the beautiful through the union THERE, and because in that which wholly is there is not that which is not). But HERE a separation comes about through the intervention of that which is not. For the monad is not a dyad and the dyad not a monad, and the non-existent between them is the void which separates the forms in the cosmos, just as the otherness THERE beyond the cosmos does the forms. It is a being itself also and is not called not-being, and, therefore, not void, but is the cause of the void HERE. That is why Plato in the Sophist called it too, in a way, not-being.

These, then, are the arguments of those who said that there was void as set out by Aristotle. But Strato of Lampsacus reduced the four to two, that from changek of place and that from the compression of bodies, but adds a third which is from attraction. For it happens that the iron-stone attracts other iron things through yet others, when the stone draws out the contents of the pores of the iron, with which material the iron is also pulled along, and this in turn draws out material from another, and this from another, and thus a chain of pieces of iron hangs from the stone."

p. 180
"It is clear that according to that account of the void which says that that is void in which there is no body perceptible to touch, i.e. heavy or light, then, if there be some interval in which are the heavens, that would be void. For the divine body in circular motion is neither heavy nor light, as was proved in On the Heavens."

Simplicius on Physics #10: Corollary on Time

Excerpts from J. O. Urmson, Simplicius: Corollaries on Place and Time, 1992.

From pages 88f of the translation = pages 774f of the edition:

"So time is the measure of the flow of being, and by being I mean not only essential nature but also activity. Aristotle saw wonderfully well the nature of time and made it clear, saying that for process ‘and the rest to be in time is that their being is measured by time’ [Physics 221a8]. But just as a process does not take place in indivisible parts (for it is not composed of elementary changes, nor a line of points, but the limits of both a line and a process are indivisible, whereas the portions of them of which they are composed, being continuous, are not indivisible but divisible), so in the same way some elements of time that are bounds, the ‘nows’, are indivisible, but the portions of time are not so. For, since time is continuous, it too has portions that are infinitely divisible. So that, even if process and time be in continuous flux, they are not unreal, but have their being in becoming. But becoming is not simply not-being, but is to exist atdifferent times in different areas of being. For just as eternity is the cause of that which undergoes an intelligible differentiation from its own proper unified being remaining within its own single being, so time is the cause of the dance around the intelligible One by that radiance from the form which has descended from THERE into perception and which holds the continuous dance in order. For just as because of place the portions of separate things do not merge together, so because of time the being of the Trojan war is not confounded with that of the Peloponnesian war, nor in each person the being of the baby with that of the adolescent. It is clear that everywhere time is involved with process and alteration, holding together in becoming those things which have their being therein, which is the same thing as to make that which becomes dance around that which is."

From page 103 of the translation = pages 784f of the edition:

"If I am right about this, this primary time is related to the soul as unparticipated eternity is to life. For neither is life eternal (for the eternal is that which is measured by eternity), though it has the same nature as the eternal, viewed from a different perspective, nor is the soul in time but is its own time. The only difference is that soul exists as life-creating, but time as the measurement of the duration of being, unless, indeed, procession has divided their natures, so that soul is one thing, time another. For THERE also there must be this threefold intermediacy, in one way viewed as life, in another as eternity and in another as wholeness; but these are not divided in themselves, though we make divisions in their unified totality. It is clear that this must be the time that is honoured as a god by the Chaldeans and other holy religion (hieras hagisteias, 'sacred ritual'), but it is not this that natural scientists study but that which is viewed in participation. So that must be enough on this topic."

Pages 116f of the translation = page 795 of the edition:

"But Proclus, the Lycian philosopher and the guide of our teachers, also holds roughly the same philosophical view about the separated time (chronos) as Iamblichus, and strives to demonstrate that it is not only intellect but also a god, so that it has even been called on to appear by the theurgists (tôn theourgôn). He says that this time has its internal activities unchangeable, whereas those reaching beyond it are in change. However, concerning the participated time that is inseparable from becoming he maintains the same view as Aristotle, believing that Aristotle says that time exists only in the now. Proclus’ successors right up to our time have followed him not only on this point but in all other matters. I except Asclepiodotus, the best of Proclus’ pupils, and our Damascius, of whom the former, because of his extreme cleverness, rejoiced in novel doctrines, while Damascius, through rivalry and his sympathy with Iamblichus, did not hesitate to reject many of Proclus’ doctrines. With regard to the opinions of these two philosophers, suffice it for me to say that if those who have sought the cause of time among intellects and gods have said that it, too, is an intellect and unchanging and a god, we must accept it. For if anyone seeks the first causes of process and coming to be he will most certainly find them to be intellect and god. There is nothing surprising if they should call time itself by the same names, since this has often seemed good to theologians [or: mythological poets], and perhaps also to the gods themselves. But if anyone is enquiring into the generally recognised time which is present in process, I do not think it possible to call it unchanging or existing as a simultaneous whole or intellect just as it is not possible to think of process as unchanging or existing as a simultaneous whole."

The reference to theurgists here and Chaldaeans in the previous excerpt is probably to the Julians (Julian the Chaldaean and Julian the theurgist), who coined the word 'theurgy'.