Remembering Heraclitus: Convergences

Some notes from starting to read Richard Geldard’s Remembering Heraclitus, which picks up on some of the converging themes in my recent reading (Hadot, Plotinus, Heraclitus, Aurobindo, Beckett, Lispector, Woolf and Nietzsche in particular, also others). These originally were solely for my notebook but pick up on themes I am likely to refer to again in future posts.

“The mythopoetic influence of the Great Mother Goddess was pervasive even in the rich multi-cultural mix of Ephesean culture. By the Classical period, Artemis was still dominant and was worshipped as goddess of the Moon, and her cult was celebrated in her own festival in the month of Munychion (April-May). This strong feminine influence is important to Heraclitus because rather than the masculine sky gods being dominant as they were in Attic Greek religion and culture, the Ephesian religious ethos always had a strong feminine influence and would have been a strong influence on his vision. As we shall see, rather than the idea of “soul” being a weak, feline characteristic compared to masculine “spirit” in later Western philosophy and religion, soul for Heraclitus was powerful and possessed both generative and transformative powers.” Richard Geldard, Remembering Heraclitus

Do we forget that our earliest divinity was a goddess, who assumed the form of an egg, from which tumbled all things that exist?

“In this archaic religious system there were, as yet, neither gods nor priests, but only a universal goddess and her priestesses, women being the dominant sex and man her frightened victim? Fatherhood was not honoured, conception being attributed to the wind, the eating of beans, or the accidental swallowing of an insect; inheritance was matrilineal and snakes were regarded ad incarnations of the dead. Eurynome (“wide wandering”) was the goddess’s title as the visible moon; her Sumerian name was Iahu (“exalted dove”), a title which later passed to Jehovah as the Creator. It was as a dove that Marduk symbolically sliced her in two at the Babylonian Spring Festival, when he inaugurated the new world order.” Robert Graves, The Greek Myths

Eurynome reappears in Milton’s Genesis story as “the wide/Encroaching Eve perhaps,” though she no longer dances.

“The special significance of the years around 500 BC when Heraclitus was in his prime, was the cultural infusion of new thought characteristic of Ephesus must have reached an apex.[..] At this point in world history the culture of myth had sufficiently weakened in its influence to permit new visions of cosmic order and meaning, and what took the place of myth was a wholly new thing in nature. Although Hegel referred in his work to the birth of Christ as the pivotal moment in Western culture, we can say that 500 BC was the axis around which world culture really turns.” Richard Geldard, Remembering Heraclitus

In 500 BC the Buddha, possibly Lao Tse, Confucius and Zoroaster (Zarathustra) were spreading their investigations through teaching.

Karl Jaspers coined the term “Axial Age” to describe this period in the middle of the first millennium BC when the central texts of Chinese, Indian, Buddhist and Hebrew traditions were composed. I use the term texts with some caution as many were communicated orally and were not written for some time.

“Of particular importance at the end of the sixth century BC was the emergence in India of Advaita Vedanta, the non-dualistic religion based on the Hindu Vedas … which emphasised the individual’s autonomous role in transcending the superficial dualism of ordinary existence. Advaita teaches that the human self (atman in Sanskrit) is identical to the soul of things (Brahman). In our own time the foremost philosopher of Vedanta was Sri Aurobindo (Aurobindo Ghose, 1872-1950), whose useful essay on the similarities between Heraclitus and Vedanta was written in 1916-17. It is certainly possible that the main tenets of Vedanta found their way to Ephesus in the sixth century BC. If not, the similarities between the [Heraclitus] fragments and Vedanta suggest a strong argument for the emergence of similar thought over a wide are of the civilised world.” Richard Geldard, Remembering Heraclitus

“Heraclitus does deserve to rank high among the important figures of a crucial era of religious and philosophical development. He is central to the long line of thinkers who trace the thread of Unity through Western culture, including Pythagoras, Empedocles, Plato, Epicurus, Plotinus, St. Augustine, Meister Eckhart, Marcilio Ficino, Jacob Boehme and on to the Romantic and Transcendental idealists of the modern era.” Richard Geldard, Remembering Heraclitus

“In Plotinus the thought of Heraclitus found a new understanding [beyond its deep influence on both Plato and Aristotle]. In his hierarchy of being and theory of emanations [cross reference: Lucretius and Jane Bennett], Plotinus established an intellectual principle having clear correspondences with the Heraclitean Logos.” Richard Geldard, Remembering Heraclitus

5 thoughts on “Remembering Heraclitus: Convergences

  1. Pingback: Heraclitus at the Edge of Language | Time's Flow Stemmed

  2. Some of the dates cited above are doubtful. Zarathustra is very hard to date, but I understand the consensus these days tends towards about 1000 BCE.

    Advaita Vedanta is a product of the common era, though it is an exegesis of texts thought to have been written from ca. 800 BCE onwards into the common era. It is especially associated with Shankara who lived in the 8th-9th century CE and so is very much later than is suggested above.

    Current scholarly consensus estimates of the Buddha’s dates have him dying in about 400±10.BCE. Though of course this date is far from secure since it is based on textual accounts. In 500 BC the Buddha was yet to be born.

    If there was an axial age that included India and Iran then it was smeared out over a considerable number of centuries. If we literally include the figures mentioned and use the best guesses for dates then the axial age spanned two millennia centred roughly on year 1CE. More of an epoch than an age?

    If there is a connection between Greece and Brahmins of India in 6th Century BCE then they are most likely Vedic Brahmins from the west who had yet to embrace the Upaniṣads that began to be composed in the central Ganges Valley by that time. Indeed the area east of the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganges was seen with some contempt by Brahmins of the Āryavarta or Noble Region. And, lest we forget there was the small matter of a Persian Empire and some 7000-8000 kms of difficult terrain between Greece and India. Claims for contact seem always to forget this. Also there is the problem of language. I’d be very interested to know, for example, whether there are any Indic loan words in ancient Greek. The most thorough studies of Vedic (by Prof Michael Witzel) show no loan words from Europe – though plenty from Dravidian and Munda. There is no sign of any direct contact from the Indian side.


    • Thank you so much for your fascinating comments.

      An axial epoch is no less notable than an age. I doubt very much whether scholars are going to agree on these dates without the discovery of some empirical evidence; it depends largely on the argument they are trying to make, which of a wide range they select.

      I’m still looking for a sufficiently authoritative work on the possible influence of the east on Greek wisdom. It seems clear to me the more I read Heraclitus and of the cultural influences of Ephesus. If there was no contact, that two separate traditions were thinking along very similar lines of thought over a broadly similar period is no less fascinating.


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