Louis Ménard : ‘The Alexandrian Banquet’
Masolino da Panicale, ‘The Philosophers of Alexandria’. detail of a larger fresco at the
Basilica of San Clemente.
We continue our Louis Ménard homage and remembrance cycle with today’s sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA, by adding ‘The Alexandrian Banquet’, a well crafted and deeply evocative work, excerpted from ‘Les rêveries d’un paien mystique’. Paris- George Cres- 1911.
Characters: Noumenios, Porphyry, Cheremon, Tat, Origen, Valentinus
Noumenios: All the expected guests have arrived. I knew that Porphyry and Origen would preserve ‘religiously’ the memory of he who was their Masters and mine and that they wouldn’t fail the invitation, but I thank Tat, Valentinus and Cheremon who didn’t know Ammonios, to have also come to take part to this memorial meal. Without doubt, Plotinus is at the same moment celebrating in Rome, like us in Alexandria, the anniversary of the death of Ammonios or, rather his liberation; as the body is the prison of the soul, and us, Philosophy’s initiates, we know well that there is no eternal separations. That the blissful soul of our friend is chairing our banquet and may it lead among us those of our already departed friends on the great journey and amongst them, Origen’s second Master, Clement of Alexandria.
Origen: I am grateful to you for this souvenir, Noumenios; this is what we call the communion of saints.
Cheremon: In the midst of every home is erected the sacred stone, the domestic altar. It is the center of the family, image of this static center of the world that our fathers called Histie. Homer teaches us that it must receive the first libation. Without associating Origen and Valentinus to a rite that is foreign to their tradition, I will spill the beginning of the banquet on the flame that will carry them to the divine ether. He is the source of life, and as we have nothing to offer that belong to us, we are giving him back a part of his blessings.
Origen: We cannot take part to your sacrifice, Cheremon, but nothing forbids us to recognize the sacred character of the flame; our prophets call the Eternal One a devouring fire, and He revealed Himself in the burning bush to Moses.
Valentinus: It is also that light was the first emanation of the divine thought and it is for us the most perfect image of the invisible.
Tat: This flame, that the Greeks call Hephaestus, my ancestors worshiped it under the name of Phta, and placed it on top of the Memphis trinity.
Porphyry: I fill this cup of wine from Greece. In the painting on the side of the amphora, I see Dionysos bringing back Hephaestus to Olympus. It is the symbol of the libation spread over the flame and going with it towards the Gods.
Noumenios: As you are referring to this antic tale, I ask you, Porphyry, while the wine is been poured in the cups, to explain to those of our guests that may ignore it, why our fathers linked the sacrifice to the worship of the fire and of the wine.
Porphyry: I will gladly do so, but perhaps Cheremon would find my explanations too subtle. Let him propose first his, and if they are not enough, I will seek to complete them.
Cheremon: I said, it is true, Porphyry, that in your ‘Cave of the nymphs’, that you have credited Homer with intentions that I believe he was foreign. We can differ from each other on some points in Hellenism, like Valentinus and Origen differ sometimes on Christian symbols.
Tat: As well, very few Egyptians understand today the sacred writing of the ancient priests, the meaning of mythology that is the religious language of the first ages, which must have been lost throughout the centuries. But its very own obscurity awakes the curiosity of the mind, and the more the tales are against reason, the more we want to penetrate their meaning.
Cheremon: You are speaking the truth, Tat; we shouldn’t guess that the ancients, who left behind them so many works, were inferior to us in wisdom; but the images they enveloped their thoughts often seen to us like enigmas.
For instance, the mythology of fire is difficult to understand because of its great antiquity, as the invention of fire is liked with the origin of human societies. Perhaps they were “two feet animals” – without feathers – as Plato calls them, but the social animal only exists as for foresight and industry; this is why Prometheus is regarded as the creator of Men. The Athenians associate him with Athena and Hephaestus and celebrate in their honor the festival of lights. Athena is the sky’s clarity revealed in the lightning, which the ancients expressed in saying that she is born out of the head of Zeus hit by Hephaestus or Prometheus’s ax. Hephaestus is the flame that burns on the altar; Prometheus is the fire that light before him, the foresighted.
Homer’s stories about Hephaestus, Hesiod’s about Prometheus are also related to the very nature of fire. The bowlegged god, thrown out of Olympus, it is the lightning falling from the sky in winding lines. The Titan chained to a column where Zeus’s eagle devour his bowels always recovering, it is the captive fire on the altar, always devoured by the winds of the sky.
As for the part of Hesiod’s story about Pandora is a moral allegory. Without industry, man would take his female like the other animals, but it is civilization that created the woman; therefore the poet mixes them both in the charming virgin, entrusted with all blessings by the Gods and sentencing Man to work, because she likes luxury and despises poverty. Her curiosity made her open a sealed vase from which all evils of civilized life escaped; evils unknown to the barbarian nations. This is how Zeus trades a good against an evil, because Pandora’s birth was a punishment for the conquest of fire. The reason for this punishment and Prometheus’s ordeal is industry, is a struggle against the cosmic Powers, and there is no struggle for Man without pain. He must conquer through work his food that earth provides freely to the other beings, because the Gods have hidden the sources of life since Prometheus stole the fire from Heaven.
Porphyry: It seems to me, Cheremon, that not only Pandora’s story embodies a moral tale, but is also related to the descent and ascension of the souls; therefore, it is found a lot on sarcophagi. We can see on one side, Prometheus shaping human beings bodies, and Athena, the divine intelligence animates them by laying on their heads a butterfly. In the middle, we see Prometheus’s ordeal, symbol of terrestrial life, and on the other side, his deliverance by Herakles. Man is a sparkle of the divine fire put into a lamp made of clay, a God exiled from heaven, chained by the binders of necessity on the Caucasus of life, where he is devoured by always reborn worries. But the effort of the heroic virtues breaks his chains and delivers him from the beak and claws of the vultures; Herakles brings Prometheus back in Olympus and reconciles earth with heaven.
Origen: Most of these ideas are expressed in the story of Moses in a simpler form, because it is older. We find there Man made out of the slime of the earth, and that the fateful curiosity of a woman cursed mankind to the yoke of work and death.
Noumenios: Could you Origen, explain to us this story of the paradise, of the snake and the apple, as I know that you don’t contend yourself to the literal meaning like many of the Christians, you seek in the Hebrew mythology a hidden meaning.
Origen: The letter (literal meaning) kills; the spirit exhilarates; He who has ears hear. The Garden of Eden, is the state of the souls before their incarnation. Eve and the forbidden fruit, it is pleasure; the snake, it is the unruly attraction of desire and terrestrial passions. The soul, fallen by birth in the prison of the body, is bound to the slavery of sin and cannot be delivered only by the virtue of the Redeemer, who died on the cross for the fate of all mankind.
Cheremon: The liberation of the soul through pain and sacrifices has always been agreed by the Greeks; We, probably, would not say that Christ is more ancient than Prometheus, Herakles and Dionysos.
Valantinus: We can see in the religion of the Greeks, like in the religion of the Jews, a preparation to the Christian Truth. One can look at the Caucasus like an image of the Calvary and Herakles’s labors like a vague prophecy of the Passion.
As for Dionysos’s story, I find it quite obscure. Noumenios has asked you the meaning of the mythology of fire and wine; you have showed us the meaning of the first, we would now like to understand the meaning of the second one.
Cheremon: The religious language would be clearer if we would remember more that all the parts of the universe are animated by a divine life. Where today’s people see only inanimate things, the ancient recognized living energies, and these hidden powers were called by them, the Gods.
The active and vivifying force revealed at spring among the lightning from the storm, that bubbles in the sap of the vine and blossoms in autumn in golden grapes, we call it Dionysos, that is, in my view, the divine liquor. Soon the grape will be torn from its feeding branches and trampled, but the burning sap will rebirth under a new form in the sacred liquor of the libations; such is for me the meaning of the two birth of the God. His death is for us a source of life. This liquid fire warms the numb limbs and carries the spirit in an enchanted world. Spread on the altar he gives himself for us as a sacrifice and carries to the Gods men’s prayers. I know that there are other ways to explain these stories, but Porphyry, who is initiated to the orphic orgies and to the mysteries of Samothrace, can talk about them better than me, without unveiling what needs to remain hidden.
Porphyry: The meaning of symbols is multiple, O Cheremon. I recognize with you that Dionysos is the divine libation that is spreads and burns on the altar and becomes the type of the sacrifice. But this invisible flame that flows in the veins of the plants and ferments in the wine, has its source in the sun and as his action is mysterious and hidden, we recognize a higher form of Dionysos in the sun of the nocturnal hemisphere (the moon), that lights the dead and this is why we call him the choragus of the stars, the shepherd of the white stars. Like warmth and life he spreads in nature, disappears in winter to rebirth in spring, he is the symbol of the resurrection of the souls. They are also lights that only extinguish here to be reborn elsewhere.
The intoxication of desire makes them descend from the milky way, through the seven realms. When they arrive in the realm of the moon, they fall into birth and becoming, because the sublunary world is submitted to the law of growth and decay, like the moon itself, that holds the key of life and chairs, even though virgin, to birthing and to education.
As long as the soul stays chained in the bonds of desire, it cannot rise above earth, but if it tames desire, it can also chain it in turn and borrow its wings to reach back the superior world. Pleasure made it descend and pain brings it back. Dionysos hands the initiation cup where it drinks the mystical intoxication of ecstasy, and goes back purified to the dwelling of the light, in the motionless realm of the Gods.
Tat: The doctrine that you have just developed, is in great parts borrowed from the Egyptian religion. My ancestors called Osiris, the sun of the lowers regions, the judge and ruler of the dead. The Greeks, as early as the time of Herodotus, knew that Dionysos was the same God Osiris and have granted to the former what the Egyptians taught them of the later.
The stories of the Phoenicians about the death of Adonis, his descent into the hells and his resurrection, are also borrowings from Egypt, and the Christians seem to have borrowed to the same sources a few of their dogmas of their philosophy, such as ‘light that was contained in the darkness and was holding it’. Egypt is the antic mother of all religions; the Greeks admit that their most ancient philosophers all came to seek instruction from our priests. It is from them that Pythagoras learned what he was teaching about the transmigration of the souls and their successive cleansing.
It is difficult to believe that their incarnations have been voluntary. How could they have been so mad to prefer this enslaving to the free dwelling of the light in the great republic of the Gods? It is more suitable to reason to look at terrestrial life as the punishment of fault prior to their birth.
If someone reads you the books of Thoth, my master, whom the Greeks called Hermes Trimegistus, you will find the story of this punishment. After when the souls have been formed from the most pure portion of matter, the Craftsman let them the leftovers in order them to form, in their turn, the visible world. But proud of their creations, they trespassed the boundaries that he set for them. He exiled them on Earth and imprisoned them into bodies, giving as only condition for their return that they do not get attached to their prison. The souls, irritated from this exile and unable to do anything against the Gods, started fighting each other in mutual wars; the earth and the other elements were desecrated by the spilled blood and they complained to the Creator, begging him to send an emanation of Himself to regenerate the world. He sent Osiris, who taught to mankind religion, justice and science; his mission fulfilled he became the judge of the dead. Such is the story told by Isis to her son Horus.
Valentinus: Why all the allegories through which we try to explain the existence of evil, all point as originating from the perverse will of Man, before or after his birth? It’s confusing evil for sin.
Cheremon: Don’t you believe, Valentinus, that it is, in fact, the greatest of the evils for Man? As for me, I think, like all the stoics, that it is the only true evil, because for a being there is evil only when something is contrary to its nature.
Valentinus: Without doubt, but evil exists in the world outside of Man. Pain and Suffering are contrary to the nature of the animals, because they make a lot of efforts to escape them. Even plants seek to preserve their life by sucking the humidity by their roots and light by their leaves. Nevertheless all the terrestrial beings are corruptible and mortal, and life keeps up only through destruction. Who would say this is good? If we pretend that it is necessary, we place necessity above the creative force. If we pretend that matter by its own inertia resists the intentions of the Craftsman, we can then say the Craftsman was un-careful as He should have known in advance the reactions of the matter He will use. If on the contrary He did, He should have forecasted his work to be evil and should never have left his rest.
Origen: Such words, Valentinus, are to be commonly heard in your schools of Gnosis and they are enough to blame the Christians for being impious.
Valentinus: How can you admit that a same principle has produced two opposite effects, Good and Evil, spirit and matter? The world being evil, the Prince of this world can’t be good.
Tat: Earth is the dwelling of evil, but not the world, Valentinus. The celestial bodies aren’t they incorruptible and immortal?
Valentinus: Above the seven planets is the realm of the stars. Higher still, in the unintelligible heaven, dwells the world of pure ideas, of absolute types, of eternal laws. Here is the work of the sovereign God, worthy of his wisdom and might. But the virtues that are emanating from him stray more and more from his perfection, like the light dims the further it recedes from its source. The demiurgic Powers, the Demons that dwell between us and heaven, wanted to imitate the marvelous order of the ideal world, but applied to matter. Evil was the fruit of their carelessness and pride, because matter is corruptible, and death only could result from this rot. Therefore, terrestrial life is only a perpetual death; all living species are condemned to devour each other. Man himself, even though divine wisdom has placed in him a ray of the heavenly lights, is bound by his flesh to the slavery of sin, to corruption and death. But Christ came to fight the Powers of this world, his victory will cast them into the abysses, matter will reintegrate void, from which it should have never originated, and the purified souls will ascend with their Savior towards the unknown Father.
Origen: I confess, Valentinus, that those of the Basilidian communion, the other Gnostics that separate themselves from the Great Assembly and you, you seem to me less Christian than disciples of Heraclites, Empedocles or other Greek philosophers.
Noumenios: Is it a sin, Origen, to rely on the wisdom of our fathers?
Origen: This wisdom, when it does not stray is borrowed from the holy books of the Jews. You recognized it your self, Noumenios, since you said that Plato was no more than a Moses from Attica.
Noumenios: When I said that, I only know Moses through the books of Philo. Since, I have read the Genesis. It was impossible for me to find anything relating to the spiritual world, to the soul and its immortality. You received this doctrine from Homer and the Greek philosophy, as you have as well borrowed the story of the fall from our Gigantomachy(battle between the giants and the Gods) of which the books of the Jews don’t speak. You could recognize through what Porphyry and Cheremon said that Redemption by the death of a God is not an exclusive Christian Dogma. The Greeks themselves took it from the Egyptians, like Tat demonstrated and it finally doesn’t matter from whom it was borrowed.
Origen: It would matter not if there was a borrowing. But what relationship do you have between Christ’s Passion and those mystical stories that you even only acknowledge a physical sense? I cannot be touched by the adventures of the grape being trampled in the press, or by the descent of the sun in all the inferior zodiacal signs. On the contrary, Christ is a man who suffers and dies, and his Passion is the summary of all the human sufferings, the anguish of the soul and the torture of the body; his friends left him; his disciple denied him; the ungratefulness of the people; the cowardly insults from the soldiers; the mockery of the scarlet tunic and the crown of thorns; the slaps and spitting ; the whip at the slaves pole; the cross carried across the via dolorosa; and the gallows erected right in front of his mother’s eyes; the nails; the spear and the bitter vinegar and finally the torment between the two thieves.
Cheremon: You are right, Origen, all this is new and great in the world, and if you only wanted to make the apology of the just dying for the truth, let him be welcomed among the Heroes, but at the conditions that he has been only a man. You are not touched by the death of the sun, do you think that I might be interested to the torments of a God wearing the human form, who know that his death is nothing but a comedy, as he will be resurrected three days after to sit at the right side of his Father? Man can give his life in sacrifice, Gods cannot, and this is why Man is superior to them. If our soul is eternal, only them would know, and they would hide this mystery in respect for the human virtues that would lose all of their merits if they would expect another reward than the divine peace of the fulfilled duty.
Noumenios: It seems to me, Cheremon, that if the Christians would consider Christ as a divinized man, they would do what we blame Evhemeros, who has mistaken the Gods with the Heroes. It is in the divine essence to be eternal, but it manifests in time, and if a man by his doctrine and by his life has revealed a God to the other men, he is truly its incarnation. When the Christians tell us that Christ is God and Man at the same time, they proceed to the supreme glorification of the virtue of Man and they translate the stoic morality into the mythological language which is the natural language of the religions; I don’t know anything more divine than the sacrifice of the self; this is why Christ has a place in my Pantheon.
Porphyry: Do not hope, Noumenios, that this concession will satisfy the Christians. They would consider you as one of their own only once you have denied all the other Gods.
Noumenios: It is not a concession and I don’t bother to please anybody. I seek truth and take it everywhere I find it. I see the divine in nature and I worship, under their visible revelations, the multiple laws of the universe. The moral law is also a divine law and I worship the consciousness, the interior God that we all carry in us. As the human virtue manifests only through the struggle with the cosmic powers, it is natural that the Christians deny the ancients Gods; the religion of the soul must react against the religions of the world. All the religions are true, due to the intelligence that embraces the divine, in the harmony of their successive revelations; Each form of the ideal, each affirmation of the consciousness of the human kind is one of the ray s of the eternal truth, one of the facets of the universal prism.
Porphyry: Noumenios, the sun has disappeared under the horizon. Homer told us that the last libation of every banquet must be spilled on the altar to honor Hermes.
Noumenios: Accept the wine of this cup, twilight God, whose golden wand spreads along the horizon of dusk, celestial messenger that brings to the Gods the prayers of men and to men the blessings of the Gods. Divine word, binding of the intelligences, lead our speeches, so that the diversity of beliefs does not alter the friendship of the hearts. Divine psuchopompos (guide) of the souls, as you brought to this banquet the friends that have already accomplished before our time their terrestrial destiny, come to great us at the time of our deliverance and lead us to them in the dwelling of the light and peace.