Heavenly Aphrodite

In the Philosophical History, Damascius describes his experience of seeing a magnificent statue of Aphrodite:

Upon seeing it, I fell into a sweat through the influence of divine terror and astonishment and my soul was filled with such joy that I was quite unable to go back home. I went away several times only to return to that sight again. The sculptor has blended into it so much beauty—nothing sweet or sensual, but something dignified and virile: clad in armour and as if just returning from a victory, with an expression of joy.


§63, trans. P. Athanassiadi

Simply reading this description fills me with a holy joy, though I’m sure it’s nothing even close to what Damascius experienced on seeing the actual statue. So I share the quote both in the spirit of passing along that joy, and also to ask:

Can anyone point me to a modern devotional image (whether a statue, a print of a painting, etc.), or a reproduction of an older one, that’s composed in the spirit of the image Damascius describes here? Thanks in advance!

Hail heavenly, shining Aphrodite!

Democracy in America

Today is the anniversary of the first recorded democratic election west of the Mississippi. It was held in what’s now the town of Elk Point, South Dakota, by the members of the Corps of Discovery (a.k.a., the Lewis and Clark expedition), as they made their journey west. Two days earlier, one of the members of the expedition, Sergeant Charles Floyd, died from what was probably acute appendicitis, looking out over the Missouri River near what is now Sioux City, Iowa.

Today, there’s a large obelisk, high up on the bluff, commemorating Sgt. Floyd. He was the only member of the Corps of Discovery to die during the journey, and that monument was the first national memorial to be officially designated by Congress.

The Sergeant Floyd Memorial, Sioux City, IA (Wikimedia Commons)

Sgt. Floyd’s death meant that a new officer was needed to take his place. Lewis and Clark could have just used their authority as the commanders of the expedition to appoint Floyd’s successor. It was, after all, a military expedition in its formal structure. But they, and the men of the Corps of Discovery, were so taken by the prospect of democracy for forming their young country, that they decided to hold a vote. And so, on August 22, 1804, Patrick Gass, a carpenter, was elected to take Sgt. Floyd’s place. Gass would fare much better than his predecessor, returning safely home and living to the ripe old age of 98!

By a fortunate chance, I was travelling through Iowa and South Dakota in the summer of 2020, and pulled off to explore the historical marker at Elk Point, on the very day that was the anniversary of the vote, having visited Sergeant Floyd’s monument earlier than morning. (I made much better time on the interstate highway than Lewis and Clark did rafting up the Missouri!) Given all the unrest in the country that summer, and the contentious election looming that fall, it was quite a profound experience, which led to a lot of reflection.

On the one hand, we might say that the election of Sergeant Gass in 1804 was a really small thing. The members of the expedition talked it over, and then cast some ballots to decide who would get a promotion. Big deal. But from another point of view, the very smallness is the point. There at the “Elk Sign Camp,” the members of the Corps of Discovery were practicing democracy. They were developing the habits of democratic citizens, and in doing so, they were making themselves into the kind of people who can live together well in a democracy. There in that small, relatively safe setting, where not too much was directly riding on the outcome, they were cultivating the skills and patterns that they knew they would need in the rough and tumble of forming a new nation.

Today, let’s remember Sgt. Charles Floyd, Sgt. Patrick Gass, and their companions. And let’s reflect on how we might best honor the legacy they’ve given us. What would it mean to have their faith in the power of democracy? What would to mean for us to earn it?

Perfect Intervals, Made Obscure

Over the last few days, I’ve begun slowly working my way through the second volume of the English translation of Proclus’ commentary on Plato’s Republic. It’s slow going, both because the arguments Proclus offers in the text are challenging in their own right, and also—perhaps moreso—because of the huge barriers and impediments to understanding which the translators add in by their own choices.

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Why We Study the Ancients

First, we are seeking the truth concerning both other metaphysical realities and the soul, since of all realities it is immediately most appropriate to us; secondarily, [we seek] the opinions of those who have reached the pinnacle of knowledge. I therefore believe that is is necessary to give a careful examination to Aristotle’s treatise On the Soul. Plato has handed down many blessed doctrines on the soul, but interpreters of Plato have investigated and explained them sufficiently and in harmony with each other. After Aristotle had completed his treatise On the Soul, as Iamblichus who is the best judge of the truth thought, a great deal of controversy arose among those explicating Aristotle’s doctrine not only concerning the interpretation of Aristotle’s text but especially also concerning the metaphysical realities themselves.

I have therefore decided to investigate and record the coherence of the philosopher both with himself and with the truth, avoiding controversies with others, while seeking clear confirmation for his opinions on doubtful points from Aristotle’s clear doctrines and words. And in every way and to the best of my ability I will adhere to the truth about the metaphysical realities under the guidance of Iamblichus in his own writings on the soul.

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Pure Things

Pure things for the pure. How then
Shall we purify ourselves?
By becoming like
Unto the all-pure Gods,
Do we approach Them, reflect
Them back unto Themselves.

Strip away all
That is alien to Them, all
That binds the soul to the depths
Of mighty matter. Instead,
Let the eye of the soul gaze
Upward, homeward, back
To her eternal source.

Then, only then, do we become
Pure. All
Else falls away, impurities refined,
‘Til what remains
Is an offering, pure,
Returned to the Pure.

Give Water to the Gods

Awkward confession time.

For years, I’ve heard other polytheists encouraging people to offer simple libations of water to the Gods. For whatever reasons—and even after searching my memory, I’m not entirely sure what those reasons were—I always ignored that advice, and even looked down on this practice. Whether it’s because those water offerings were sometimes framed as second-best (“if you can’t give anything else, at least give water”), or because of some other hang-ups on my part, I just didn’t do it. For years, I’ve burned candles at their shrines daily, offered incense regularly, and poured occasional libations of wine or other beverages. But until recently, never water.

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May I Hymn You Always

Bright and holy Gods,
whose care extends throughout the world,
even to the farthest depths and the smallest things,
who are always and ever all good,
the very source of goodness, for whom all beings long,
whose blessings fountain forth abundantly,
providing all that we need,
who are always and everywhere present,
whenever we turn toward you,

Help me always, in everything, to honor you,
to become ever more fully aware
of your presence, your gifts
which uphold me at every moment.
Help me always, with everything, to turn toward you.

May my every word be a hymn.
May my every deed be a hymn.
May my every thought be a hymn.
May my every breath be a hymn.

May all that I say and think and do, all that I am,
be in keeping with your goodness, your providence, your love.

May I hymn you without ending, every moment of my life.

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Lysios

In a dark forest grove
Lit by starlight, flick’ring flame,
Decked with ivy, fragrant flowers,
Your worshippers come, laden down
With their sorrows, their worries.
With the weight of the world.

You, O Lord, lift their burdens.

You show first a glimpse,
Then so much more – rushing,
Swirling, another vision, souls enraptured,
As you draw forth from our lips
Wave upon roaring wave
Of brilliant, rolling laughter.

So hail to you, O Lysios!
Praise, O Lord of Laughter!