Michael Psellos – About Homer’s Golden Chain

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Michael Psellos (left) with his student, Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Doukas.
from Psellos’ ‘Chronography’, Codex 234, f. 245a, 12th-13th century, in the library of the Pantokrator Monastery in Mount Athos. Picture by C. Plakidas.


Another sharing for the day from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA, a little exegesis of Homer’s Golden Chain allegory at the opening of chapter VIII of the ‘Iliad’ by 11th-century Byzantine historian and philosopher, Michael Psellos. Here, our Via-HYGEIA English translation is from the French of professor Pierre Lévèque in his ‘Aurea Catena Homeri, une étude sur l’allégorie grecque’, itself translating from the original Greek, published by the ‘Annales Littéraires de l’Universite de Besançon’ in 1959. From the appendix, pages 78 to 81. We checked also for comparison the French translation made of it by Dutch scholar Hans Van Kasteel in his generous undertaking of editing and translating most-if-not-all of the Homeric commentaries written throughout time, the voluminous and exceptional ‘Questions Homériques’, published by Beya Editions in 2012.


Iliad VIII, opening, original Greek

Iliad VIII excerpt-English translation by A. S. Kline.

As Dawn prepared to spread her saffron mantle over the land, Zeus the Thunderer gathered the gods to the highest peak of many-ridged Olympus, and spoke to them while all listened: ‘Hear me, gods and goddesses, while I say what my heart prompts. Let none of you try to defy me: all must assent, so I may swiftly achieve my aim. Whomever I find inclined to help the Greeks or Trojans, shall suffer the lightning stroke and be sent back ignominiously to Olympus, or be seized and hurled into dark Tartarus, into the furthest, deepest gulf beneath the earth, with iron gates and threshold of bronze, as far below Hades as earth is from heaven. Then you will see how much mightier I am than you immortals. Go on: attempt it, and see. If you tied a chain of gold to the sky, and all of you, gods and goddesses, took hold, you could not drag Zeus the High Counsellor to earth with all your efforts. But if I determined to pull with a will, I could haul up land and sea then loop the chain round a peak of Olympus, and leave them dangling in space. By that much am I greater than gods and men.’


Introduction by Professor Pierre Lévèque

In the eleventh century, a Byzantine scholar who was at the same time an influent statesman, Michael Psellos, wrote for his students and friends small treatises devoted to explain in an allegorical manner the works of Homer and meant to complete with them another on-going work, his paraphrase of the ‘Iliad’. The aim was a great undertaking: To unfold the knowledge of the Antiquity, only way to save the empire, and to demonstrate that Hellenism, in its love for the allegory, had concealed under the veil of myths a deep truth that foreshadowed the Christian truth. In a broad manner, it is the Neo-Platonist philosophy that provided him the gist of his exegeses, hence the interest for us to read his works, because he could use books by Porphyry, Iamblichus or Proclus that are now lost.


Michael Psellos’ Exegesis

‘Homer most probably refrained himself in further making the golden chain a myth; but you embarrass me by focusing without discrimination about what is beyond the heavens and what is under the earth; among you, one fancies about the golden chain, another about a heavenly swing (‘Iliad’ 15, 18), and to be honest, it is a little bit like everyone has his own preferred story and all of you obsess about the whole book! As for me, I am full of fear in front of all the difficulties of the analogy, and further more because you require me, not only that I explain the allegories in verses of the Greeks, but also that I transpose their mysteries into our beliefs. But, please, let’s follow them first in the common sense and sing in Greek or speak in an allegorical manner; then, we will be ‘melting their salt‘ in the stream of water we are drinking of.

Their Zeus tells the other gods he is challenging: “Hang me a golden chain from heaven, and lay hold of it all of you, gods and goddesses together – tug as you will, you will not drag Zeus the supreme counselor from heaven to earth; but were I to pull at it myself I should draw you up with earth and sea into the bargain, then would I bind the chain about some pinnacle of Olympus and leave you all dangling in the mid firmament. So far am I above all others either of gods or men.” This was the proud speech of Zeus, supreme god or son of Chronos.

This is what I would suggest about this subject: this poet, having been a regular attendant of the Orphic Mysteries, does not present things in a direct way, according to his manner, but after having them being wrapped in the manure of myth, as another would present Zeus to his audience. But you, you certainly would taste them in the way they are presented, but, on the contrary, if I take away what surrounds them, like the skin of a sacrificed victim, then could maybe appear to you what is truly given and what is comestible.

So, our Zeus is not the planet that follows Chronos (Saturn), nor the son born of him, but the one that is represented in their culture as the demiurge of all existing things; Chronos engendered him, but the primordial parent is fundamentally the One; because the most theological orientated Greeks called the first unborn, the One, by elimination of multiplicity; then, he engenders spirit, because he directly enjoys the One, calling him Chronos, the spirit fully satisfied and replete; then, having engendered the demiurge, they brought him in the cosmogony and calling him after Zena or Dia. Dia, in capacity of cause of existence of all things and because he visits all beings. Zena, because he communicates himself to all other beings the movements and changes of the living beings; after the demiurge, we discover the following theogonies, gods and goddesses, male and female angels, male and female daimons, heroes and heroines; the Platonist Iamblichus and Proclus the successor of such doctrines used a wide range of these words; Porphyry also often used these denominations et more did the the two Julian under the rule of Marcus-Aurelius, Julian the Elder and Julian the Younger. About Julian the Younger, here is the silly story that is been repeated a lot: his father about to engender him, asked to ‘Whom embraces the universe‘ an archangelic soul for the being of his son; after having engendered him, he placed him under the auspicious protection of all the gods and of the soul of Plato, who lives in the entourage of Apollo and Hermes; he would often query this soul through a hieratic art, consulting him about everything; but this is their myth.

This demiurgic Zeus, having determined the first and second order of the gods, as a token of agreement, used this golden chain; because the golden chain is the symbol of interweaving and the relationship of the elements between them. Therefore, the second are linked to the first, the third to the second, and so on by contiguity, and all rely on the first principle, who is the Zeus of the Greeks. But, the natural elements, hence suspended and tied to the first god, cannot exercise their strength upon Zeus, but it is him who can easily attract them to him; in fact, the worst always converts to the best, and not the opposite, until it finds its due place; therefore the body rises towards the soul, the soul towards the spirit, the spirit towards God, but conversely the later cannot be influenced by those who are their subjects.

I want a this point of my discourse to digress upon a point of doctrine of Porphyry that hasn’t been exanimated yet; he says in his ‘Pathway to the Intelligible‘: “Among beings which generate, however, some do not turn their attention at all towards what they generate, while others both do and do not turn their attention thither, and others again have their attention turned only towards what they generate, and not towards themselves.” (13, 3 to 5, English by  John Dillon). This thought has not been examined yet and, in order to please you, i will tell you what I think of this paragraph: I place these three elements in Porphyry’s three orders: spirit, soul and nature; spirit, engenders the soul, but is not turning its attention towards it; because the soul becomes spiritual not when the spirit turns its attention towards it, but when the soul rises to the spirit; nature turns its attention towards the bodies and rule them, without turning towards itself because it is a substance separated from the body and cease to be at the same time as the bodies. The soul, as long as it keeps its own rank, has as it own nature to not bend its attention towards the bodies; but if it is inspired by the ability of an event, then it will turn its attention towards the bodies; in conclusion, spirit always partakes in itself,  nature always to another, and the soul to itself and to another.

To return to our subject, Zeus can attract the other gods, but they can absolutely not drag him down. Here is why: the elements that are following the first principle hold unto him and rise towards him, but he is not bent towards any of them. But how can, the last ones rising towards the first ones, the chain be linked to a summit of the heaven? And how those who climb find themselves in the sky? Because, the first principle of all beings, even though he is called by the philosophers ‘The link to all’ or ‘summit of the whole construction’, having no contact with the secondary elements, dominating them but rests independent of all and bindless; so, he ties the chain to the first of the following gods, that he called heaven by excellence (Ouranos).

This is how I allegorically explain this myth; but Plato in his ‘Theaetetus’ shows that movement is generative of life, and introducing the myth as a sort of crowning, in his own words, of his demonstration, explains allegorically this golden chain as the sun and he says: “As long as the movement of the stars is uninterrupted, all is in order, but if  would stop like as caught in a net, everything would be upside down, and this would be what is called the universal upheaval.” (153c and d).

And even though I desire to end my discourse here, I am quite convinced that you are going to ask me for the rest, that I propose an allegorical explanation that is in harmony with our beliefs. So, here we are: We have a unique god, distinct and undivided. Identical in substance, triple in persons (hypostasis), alone eternal, and that nothing surpasses. So this god, who is our god and the true one, after having created the intelligible world and the sensible world, distinguished them by their proper nature, and linked them to each other, so that the angels may visit men and so that men could, if they would want that, become other angels-without crossing from their nature to the nature of the angels-but because they are worthy of their greatness; we could give this link the name of chain, because in some sort of manner the threads of our lives are intertwined; it is said to be of gold, because such an intertwine is dazzling and has nothing hidden, and by the participation of the first order which is of gold, we become also golden; and the principle of the chain is divine might transcending everything. We are pulled by God, but we cannot pull Him. No being can contain God, and none can pull Him whatsoever his nature is; but God that has all creation enshrouded, would contain easily the Speeches of all creature, or, for the love of man God has put himself at the center of everything-according to Plato, like a model-and He pulls us up through the imitation He is the object of; and having pulled, He has suspended the chain, after having tied it elsewhere-because no engendered nature can come close to God; but as we have been freed from the body, we thrive to access the middle of the air; and the angels and the cherubim flapping their wings to get closer also cannot. The chain that rises towards God is concealed somewhere and it is not possible to rise further towards Him.

Do you see how far this myth has brought us ? What I see is that you will soon give it some power of authenticity, in the manner of the Orphic Mysteries! As for me, I smile, because if it wouldn’t have been for my explanations, having broken the shell providing you with the inner gist, you would have all left starving !









We warmly recommend the latest ‘complete’ offering of all the available commentaries on Homer’s ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’, published in French by Hans Van Kasteel for Beya editions in 2012. Is there ‘out there’ any English speaking publishing company daringly up to the task to undertake an English translation to bring to the English speaking audience?


More about Michel Psellos: 🌿 Psellos and other Homeric exegetes in the most complete French translation: 🌿A. Kline ‘Iliad’ English translation:
Bu paylaşımın Türkçe çevirisi henüz mevcut değildir. Yazının tercümesi önceliklendirilsin isterseniz adresine e-posta göndermenizi rica ederiz.

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