Understanding Hellenistic Dualism

I am continuing to post the materials that I have used in my courses for 45 years now–free for anyone to see and use. You are welcome to print out, read, and share the link via social media, but please do not repost or reproduce without permission. 

For an overview of Hellenistic Religions I know of nothing better than the wonderful summary article by my late teacher Jonathan Z. Smith, titled “Hellenistic Religion” in the Encyclopedia Britannica. As a young Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago in the early 1970s this article, and Smith’s subsequent influence, changed my life and vastly broadened my perspectives in viewing both Judaism and emerging Christianity in the Hellenistic period as part of an international shift from what Smith calls “Locative” to “Utopian” world views.

The following texts illustrate various aspects of what we can roughly label as “Hellenistic” or “Greek” dualism.” By this we mean a radical new dualistic view of both the cosmos and the human person that began to develop in the 5th century BCE. around the Mediterranean world. Humans began to see death as a way of salvation rather than a terminal end. It was in fact a positive thing, viewed as an escape or “getting away” from the world and the body. The Tomb Prayers represent very early versions of this notion, and you can see that they still contain the archaic idea of the underworld of the dead. Plato’s allegory of the Cave is a classic text illustrating the dualistic idea of this world as a shadow of the true heavenly reality. Cicero’s text is very standard, popular, Platonic dualism. Note, that in such a system all humans are immortal and therefore can be called “gods.” The tomb inscriptions illustrate the variety of belief or lack of belief in an afterlife.

Ancient Tomb Prayers (Golden Plates)

Parched with thirst am I, and dying.
Nay, drink of Me, the ever-flowing Spring
Where on the right is a fair cypress.
Who are you? Where are you?–I am the son
of earth and of star-filled Heaven, but
from heaven alone is my house.

Fuller version:

You will find to the left of the House of Hades a spring,
And by the side thereof standing a white cypress.
To this spring approach not near.
But you shall find another, from the lake of Memory
Cold water flowing forth, and there are guardians before it.
Say, “I am a child of Earth and starry Heaven;
But my race is of Heaven alone. This you know yourselves.
But I am parched with thirst and I perish. Give me quickly
the cold water flowing forth from the lake of Memory.”
And of themselves they will give you to drink of the holy spring:
And thereafter you will have lordship among the other heroes.

Sixteen of these gold lamellai have come to light in tombs all over the Mediterranean world. They date from the 4th to 2nd centuries B.C.E. They appear to be a kind of cryptic “cue card” for the initiated soul who encounters the powers of the world of the dead. These are very important early evidence for the notion of dualism.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (4th c. B.C.E.)
Plato, Republic, Book 7

And now, I [Plato] said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: Behold, imagine human beings living in an underground den which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisons there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

I see.

And do you see, I said, men passing all along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.

You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?

And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?

Yes, he said.

And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?

Very true.

And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passersby spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadows?

No question, he replied.

To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.

That is certain.

The allegory ends with one getting free, ascending from the cave and seeing the true light, then returning to the cave but being unable to convince the others of what he has seen.

Immortal Soul
Cicero, Republic 6.24-26 (1st c. B.C.E.)

In this text Scipio Africanus has a dream or vision in which he encounters his deceased father in heaven and is told the secrets of the afterlife.

He [father] replied, “Do, indeed strive and see that it is not you, but your body, that is mortal; for you are not the man that your human form reveals; but the soul of each man is his real self, not the human figure which the eye can see. Know, therefore, that you are a God, if indeed it is a god that has life, sensation, memory, and presides just as the sovereign God rules this universe; and just as the eternal God moves the universe which is in part perishable, so an eternal soul moves the frail body.

25. For that which is ever in motion is immortal, but that which transmits motion to another object and is itself moved from another source must of necessity cease to live when the motion ends. Thus only that which moves itself never ceases to move, because it never forsakes itself; rather it is the source and the cause of motion in other things that are moved. But this cause has no beginning, for all things proceed from a first cause, whereas it cannot be derived from anything else; for that would not be the first cause, if it were derived from another source. And if it never has a beginning, it certainly never has an end. For the first cause, if destroyed, cannot be reborn from any other source nor can it produce anything else itself, because everything must spring from an original source. It follows, therefore, that motion begins with that which is capable of self-motion; this moreover can neither be born nor die; otherwise all Heaven must tumble down and all nature stop; nor will they have any force from which they can be set in motion again.

26. Since, therefore, it is plain that whatever moves itself is eternal, who can deny that this is the natural property of souls? For everything that is set in motion by an external impulse possesses no soul; but whatever has a soul is impelled by an inner motion of its own; for this is the peculiar nature and essence of a soul. Now if a soul, alone, of all things moves of itself, it assuredly has not been born and is immortal. Employ it in the noblest pursuits. And the noblest concerns are those assumed for the safety of your country; a soul stirred and trained by these pursuits will have a quicker flight to this abode, its own home; and this will be the faster, if even now, while imprisoned in the body, it reaches out and by contemplating what is beyond itself, detaches itself as much as possible from the body. For the souls of those who are devoted to the pleasures of the body and have become slaves to them, as it were, and who under the influence of the desires which are subservient to pleasure have violated the laws of Gods and men, such souls, when they have escaped their bodies, hover around the earth itself, and they do not return to this place until they have been tormented for many ages.” He departed; I awoke from sleep.

Funerary Epitaphs

The following sample of epitaphs or tomb inscriptions show the variety of approaches to death in antiquity–both dualistic and otherwise.

1) Among the dead there are two companies; one moves upon the earth, the other in the ether among the choruses of stars. I belong to the latter for I have obtained a god for my guide. (Kaibel, Epig. Graeca 650, Sailor at Marseilles)

2) By wetting my ashes with wine you will make mud, and I shall not drink when I am dead. (Dessau, Inscr. sel. 8156)

3) Non fui, fui, non sum, no curo. I was not, I was, I am not, I don’t care. (Dessau, 8126) *This appears so often that only the initials are some times given on tombs—NFNN.

4) I fled the miseries of sickness and the great ills of life, I am now delivered from all its pains and enjoy a peaceful calm. (Carm. epigr.1274)

5) Farewell, Bonata, you who were pious and just, guard all your kind. (CIL, VIII, 2803a)

6) I drink and drink again, in this monument, the more eagerly because I am obliged to sleep and dwell here.
I ask you my companions, to refresh yourselves here without quarreling.
Come here in good health for the feast and rejoice together.

(Dessau, 8154; 7235; 8139) *All of these were written to associates of the deceased who were members of his funerary society.

7) Weep not, for what use is weeping? Rather venerate me, for I am now a divine star which shows itself at sunset. (IG, XII, 7.123; 20 year old to his mother)

8) Common phrases found on many tombs, often simply abbreviated:

Happy voyage!
May earth be light for you (sit tibi terra levis)
Here rests. . .
For eternal rest (Quieti aeternae)
May his bones rest
In eternal sleep (somno aeterno)

These are a random sample, a more complete collection is found in Richard Lattimore, Themes in Greek and Latin Epitaphs.

Comments are closed.