Monday, November 03, 2008

A Sprig of Moly

Homer, Odyssey X:

But when, as I went through the sacred glades, I was about to come to the great house of the sorceress, Circe, then Hermes, of the golden wand, met me as I went toward the house, in the likeness of a young man with the first down upon his lip, in whom the charm of youth is fairest. He clasped my hand, and spoke, and addressed me: “‘Whither now again, hapless man, dost thou go alone through the hills, knowing naught of the country? Lo, thy comrades yonder in the house of Circe are penned like swine in close-barred sties. And art thou come to release them? Nay, I tell thee, thou shalt not thyself return, but shalt remain there with the others. But come, I will free thee from harm, and save thee. Here, take this potent herb, and go to the house of Circe, and it shall ward off from thy head the evil day. And I will tell thee all the baneful wiles of Circe. She will mix thee a potion, and cast drugs into the food; but even so she shall not be able to bewitch thee, for the potent herb that I shall give thee will not suffer it.


Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis VII, 16:

As, then, if a man should, similarly to those drugged by Circe, become a beast; so he, who has spurned the ecclesiastical tradition, and darted off to the opinions of heretical men, has ceased to be a man of God and to remain faithful to the Lord. But he who has returned from this deception, on hearing the Scriptures, and turned his life to the truth, is, as it were, from being a man made a god.


Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy IV, meter 3:

The east wind wafted the sails which carried on the wandering ships of Ithaca's king to the island where dwelt the fair goddess Circe, the sun's own daughter. There for her new guests she mingled cups bewitched by charms. Her hand, well skilled in use of herbs, changed these guests to different forms. One bears the face of a boar; another grows like to an African lion with fangs and claws; this one becomes as a wolf, and when he thinks to weep, he howls; that one is an Indian tiger, though he walks all harmless round about the dwelling-place. The leader alone, Ulysses, though beset by so many dangers, was saved from the goddess's bane by the pity of the winged god, Mercury. But the sailors had drunk of her cups, and now had turned from food of corn to husks and acorns, food of swine. Naught is left the same, speech and form are gone; only the mind remains unchanged, to bewail their unnatural sufferings.

How weak was that hand, how powerless those magic herbs which could change the limbs but not the heart! Within lies the strength of men, hidden in deep security. Stronger are those dread poisons which can drag a man out of himself, which work their way within: they hurt not the body, but on the mind their rage inflicts a grievous wound.


Boethius, in a way analogous to Clement, has just contrasted the theriogenic tendency of vice to the deifying tendency of virtue: "Thus then a man who loses his goodness, ceases to be a man, and since he cannot change his condition for that of a god, he turns into a beast." The allegorical interpretation of Odysseus's encounter with Circe seems actually to have become fairly common among the Neoplatonists: Hermes, divine reason, gives to human beings the herb moly, the divine paideia which renders the mind indomitable, a pharmakon esthlon, a potent drug, to counter Circe's pharmakon lugron, her bitter drug; Circe represents, of course, the passions, which, given dominance over the mind, turn us mentally into beasts. Thus moly is a sort of right reason or prudence that the passions cannot shake. Boethius makes a similar use of the story to convey the point (which he ties closely to the argument of Plato's Gorgias) that the good are always powerful and the wicked are always weak; but notice that he does it not by allegorizing the story but by a sort of contrast: Circe could turn men physically into beasts, but the passions are more powerful and dangerous than Circe, because they can turn the mind bestial and "drag a man out of himself".

This fits into a larger theme that dominates the Consolation, namely, the contrast between the merely beast-like mind and the mind that nobly and freely lifts itself up to look at the stars (an image that recurs again and again in different forms, from Philosophy's first poem to her last). That image is drawn from Ovid:

Thus, while the mute creation downward bend
Their sight, and to their earthly mother tend,
Man looks aloft; and with erected eyes
Beholds his own hereditary skies.
From such rude principles our form began;
And earth was metamorphos'd into Man.

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