Though myths lack literal truth, I am convinced that they contain true wisdom that must be attended to by those who desire to grow intellectually, morally, and spiritually. How, you may ask, can I both reject and embrace the message of the myths?
Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?
Boethius: On Allegory
I love the myths of Homer, Hesiod, Virgil, and Ovid. And yet, as a Christian, I do not share their belief in the pagan gods of Greece and Rome. Indeed, many of the Neo-Platonists, who do not follow the God of the Bible, also consider the tales of the ancient poets to be based on falsehoods that no educated person can accept.
I would imagine that most, if not all, of you who are reading this letter, whatever your opinions are regarding God and the supernatural, harbor the same disbelief in the existence of Jupiter, Juno, Mars, Apollo, and the other gods who dwell on Olympus.
And yet, though the myths lack literal truth, I am convinced that they contain true wisdom that must be attended to by those who desire to grow intellectually, morally, and spiritually. How, you may ask, have I been able to reconcile these two things? How can I both reject and embrace the message of the myths?
I can answer that question in one word: allegory.
You who have read only my Consolation of Philosophy may be surprised to find that I am a Christian. It is true that I never mention Jesus or the Bible in my book, but I had a reason for not doing so. My goal in writing the Consolation was to see what truths I could gather from the pre-Christian writers of Greece and Rome: not only the great poets, but Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero as well.
There are two kinds of revelation in the world: special and general. God’s special revelation comes only through the Law, the Prophets, the New Testament writings, and, supremely, Christ himself. Only there does God address us directly. But that does not mean he is otherwise silent. God continually speaks his general revelation through the power and wonder of nature, the whisperings of our conscience, and the inspired writings of non-Jewish, non-Christian poets and philosophers.
Perhaps you are shocked to hear me use the word “inspired” of pagan poets and prophets, but inspired they were: not directly, but indirectly; not with special revelation but with general; not with the power of the sun but with that of a candle in the dark.
And that brings us back to allegory. Though they did not know it, Homer and Virgil, Hesiod and Ovid were touched by truths that they themselves could not fathom and by a Presence that they could not know. They thought the words and images came to them from the muses, never suspecting that there was a deeper, older source whose Voice they could only faintly discern.
As a result, their greatest poetry contains two levels of meaning. On the surface is the myth itself, often mired in the machinations of cruel or licentious gods and seemingly bereft of any moral or message that a righteous man could make use of. Below the surface, hidden beneath the cruelty and licentiousness, lies an allegorical meaning, one that points past the error to an eternal truth, past the darkness to a pinpoint of light.
Let me give you two examples.
In the tenth book of the Odyssey, Homer sweeps us away to the secluded island of Circe the enchantress. With the use of her secret potions and her magic wand, Circe has already transformed dozens of hapless sailors into lions and boars and tigers and wolves.
Sadly, Ulysses’ men are unaware of this, and, when they come upon her shining home, accept with joy her hospitality.
But their joy does not last long. Circe slips a drug into their food and puts an abrupt end to their feasting. One by one she touches them with her wand, transforming them from men into swine. And yet, though they are now encased in the bodies of pigs, their minds remain unchanged, leaving them to bewail their grievous lot.
Ulysses himself might have fallen prey to the same dark spells, but he is helped by Mercury, messenger of the gods. Mercury gives the hero a secret herb that he uses to counteract Circe’s drugs. Then, when she attempts to touch his head with her wand, Ulysses grabs her by the throat and makes her swear that she will do him no further harm. By such means, Ulysses tames the witch and makes her use her magic to return his men to their human form.
As fantastic as this myth may seem, my friends, it points toward truths that the initiate in philosophy would do well to heed. The poisons we should fear are not those of Circe, which only have control over our bodily form, but those stronger, more dreadful poisons that can degrade our mind and turn us into beasts within. For, though the body can be restored, the mind once corrupted seldom returns.
Let us be, not like his men, but like Ulysses himself, who put his trust in Mercury, the bearer of the divine word, and so gained power over evil.
Consider now the tale of Orpheus, as told by Ovid. When Orpheus played his lyre, he brought forth tears from trees and made lions and lambs lie together in peace and harmony. But his music could not prevent the death of his young bride, Eurydice.
Orpheus roamed the world in his grief until he came to the fearsome portal that leads to the underworld. Down he climbed, facing fears that would stop the bravest man; in the end, he came before the throne of Pluto. He begged Pluto to return Eurydice to him, but he refused. So Orpheus took up his lyre and played so beautifully that all the underworld wept as one and Pluto granted him back his dead wife.
But with one constraint: until Orpheus returned to the upper world, he could not look back at his Eurydice. All went well until, as Orpheus neared the portal to our world, he feared that Pluto had tricked him and cast a quick glance behind. He saw Eurydice, her face open in horror. Then a wind came and blew her back into the dark realms of death.
And what is the allegorical meaning of this tale? Just this, my friends. If you wish to follow the path of the philosopher and catch sight of the heavenly forms, you must look ever upward. Let not your vision be drawn toward earthly things lest they drag you down and clip the wings with which you would soar.
Such things one can learn from the myths if he has eyes to see and ears to hear.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Orpheus Mourning the Death of Eurydice” (c. 1814) by Ary Scheffer (1795-1858), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.