“From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing
who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon, and
dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring and
the altar of the almighty son of Cronos…”
“We sing, we sing the light that raises man aloft,
on the nine daughters of great Zeus with splendid voices,
who have rescued from the agony of this world, so hard to bear,
the souls who were wandering in the depth of life
through immaculate rites from intellect-awakening books,
and have taught them to strive eagerly to follow the track leading
beyond the deep gulf of forgetfulness, and, purified, to reach their kindred star
from which they strayed away, when once they fell
onto the ocean shores of birth, maddened by material allotted fortunes.
But, o Goddesses, please put an end to my much-agitated desire too,
and throw me into ecstasy through the noeric words of the wise,
That the race of men (the people) without fear for the Gods
(those who do not fear the Gods) will not lead me astray
from the most divine and brilliant path with its splendid fruit;
always draw my wandering soul towards the holy light,
away from the turmoil of the confused people
heavily laden with your intellect-strengthening bee-hives,
and everlasting glory from its mind-charming eloquence.”
The Muses are “Daughters of Memory and of Zeus of roaring sound” as Orpheus says. The number of the Muses is always nine, as explained by Proclus and Hermeias – the number nine contains in itself all the harmonies and depends on the monad of Apollo. Moreover it was said that the number nine is called “Telesphoros” or “that brings to the end or goal”, also hinting at the duration of the pregnancy period before the birth of the human being. It is also called teleios, or “perfect”, because it is generated from the Triad, that is called “Perfect”; the fact that the Great Eleusinian Mysteries took place during nine nights and days is therefore significant. Special attention is called to its being an emblem of Nature, that, ever changing, is never destroyed; when multiplied by any other number, the number 9 always reproduces itself through addition – for example, 9×2=18 and 1+8=9, and so on. The plurality of the Muses corresponds to the pluralities of the activities in the human being which They bring to the Apollonian one-ness.
“Psychàs katà benthos aloomenas biotoio” indicates the souls who were wandering in the depth of life. Here we have a very popular reference to the fallen soul wandering in this world of matter, in the ‘depth of life’ (benthos biotoio) that is our present life. Proclus uses this expression very often, also in these hymns; it clearly reflects the beautiful Chaldean oracle: “But when you see the formless, the very holy fire shining by leaps and bounds throughout the depths of the whole world – holou katà benthea kosmou – then listen to the voice of the Fire”.
Since our descent into the world of matter, “so hard to bear”, involves forgetfulness about our transcendental origin and nature, we just “wander around”, alaomai. It is true that this verb has the main meaning of “to wander, to roam about”, but the other possible translations explain very well why Proclus has chosen here this particular verb (often used in the tragedies) as it can also mean (with the genitive case) “to be exiled, to depart far away” and also “to be confused and dubious”. All these concepts perfectly describe the situation of the wandering, confused soul, exiled from the paternal halls and cast in this terrible ocean of the material world. The image of the wandering soul is often present in Proclus and other ancient philosophers; it is often connected with the wanderings (plane) of Odysseus. The participle alomenos, “wandering”, is often used by Homer to indicate Odysseus himself and his journey, as in the beautiful scene in the Odyssey where Ino Leucothea, “that now has divine honors among the streaming currents of the sea”, emerges from the watery abyss taking piety on the hero who was “alomenon, alge echonta”, wandering and suffering sorrows. Thus men just wander around in confusion until the Muses reveal the way out, just as Leucothea did, “greatest savior of mortal men”.
These verses echo two Chaldean Oracles: “You must hasten (speudein, just as in Proclus) toward the light and toward the rays of the Father, from where the soul, clothed in mighty intellect, has been sent to you” and “because the Divine is accessible not to mortals who think corporeally, but to all those who, naked, hasten (speudousi) upward toward the heights.” The Muses are traditionally linked to the power of recollection, naturally as They are the blessed daughters of Mnemosyne (Memory). By worshiping the Muses, being in Their service and devoting oneself to a life of study of the sacred texts, mankind is cured from the forgetfulness it is suffering from, and this hastens the return to the Divine World.
We find this Idea in the Orphic hymn to Mnemosyne, where She is invoked as “immune from the bad oblivion that always troubles the mind, She supports every intelligence that lives with the souls of men, She increases the powerfully strong reason of the mortals… She wanders, awakening the mind of everybody”. Thus She is prayed to ward off the terrible forgetfulness that harms the minds of the initiates, so that they will be able to remember the initiation. Here Proclus, also mentioning the ichne (the “traces”), is alluding like Orpheus to the fact that we must remember the initiation, the epopteia that we saw when we were in our kindred star, with one God or another. That initiation, repeated during the life in the world of becoming, is the means to go back and hasten to rise toward the heights of the Gods. Since these traces are divine sparks in the material world, they can be used as theurgical symbola to enter into communion with the Gods; in the same way we can use the sacred books, gifts of the Muses, that constitute the track leading back to the Deities – this is the track that the Muses teach us to follow. Proclus is very clear on this in his commentary to the Politeia: “the myths of Homer do not reveal the truth to the profane, but only offer certain traces (ichne tiná) of the whole mystagogy to those who are by nature capable of being led to the contemplation that is inaccessible to the many”.
The expression “katharàs dè moleîn potì synnomon astron” means “purified, to go to their kindred star”. The Timaeus contains this idea of a native star from which the individual soul descended into a body and to which it will return after a virtuous life: after the creation of the cosmos, the Demiurge allots each soul to a star. Meanwhile He shows them the nature of the universe and instructs them all about the Laws of their destiny, that include incarnation and repeated births in the world of becoming. The incarnation in a mortal body necessarily exposes the soul to sensations and emotions: the mastery of these experiences results in a virtuous life, while subjection to them gives a wicked life “and anyone who lived well for his appointed time would return home to his native star and live an appropriately blissful life (bion eudaimona)”.
These souls are pure because they have been purified by a life of Justice and Devotion, hence they are allowed to rise high again and then they are “full of noeric life” and together with their universal soul they govern the cosmos and exercise providence toward it: this the blissful afterlife, the completion of the circle or cycle. “The soul is divided in a Titanic way and harmonized in a way that is in accordance with the Muses (Mousikôs), because the essence of the soul has been divided into three parts in a Dionysiac way and has been reunited and joined in a way that is productive of life (Zoiogonikôs)”. We can remember here that this name always refers either to Rhea or to Hekate in the Chaldean Oracles, as quoted by Proclus himself: “Now, the third intelligible triad is self generated, about which even the Oracles say ‘It is a worker, (that) it is the dispenser of life giving fire (pyròs zoephorou) (that) fills up the life-giving (zoiogonou) womb of Hekate (and)… pours on the Connectors (highly important cosmic entities in the Chaldean system, the synocheîs: Their main task is to harmonize and protect the various parts of the cosmos, because They are “protective powers”) the force of a fruitful and very powerful fire” and also in fragment 56, that speaks about Rhea and Her immense generative power, the Gods call Her “zoiogonou pegês”, generative source: so we can here see this Company of the Gods – the Muses, Dionysos and the Zoiogonos Theá, the Goddess productive of Life.
A philosopher follows the small path (atrapitós) as opposed to the large highways followed by the masses (hoi polloi). We can remember here an epitaph commemorating Arideikes from the third century CE: “We honor the Muses who fostered you with Their nursing hands toward the Platonic trails (Platoneius atrapitoýs)”. The Neo-platonic philosophers (see Damascius and Olympiodorus, commentary to the Phaedrus) associate this path with the Pythagorean instruction “do not tread the highway” (this instruction is always repeated by all the great Neo-platonic philosophers). This path is characterized as being “divine and brilliant with its splendid fruit” (zateos, eripheggés, aglaokarpos): this last adjective is very important as it reminds us of a Goddess, Anassa Demeter- Demetros Aglaokarpou, as She is described in an Orphic fragment. This is a Chaldean expression that very clearly expresses the real gift of Demeter, because the contemplation of the Intelligible is often compared to “fruits”.
Also the reference to the “intellect-strengthening bee-hives” is clear in this context, because the bee is the emblem of the Potnia, “the Pure Mother Bee”. The bees are the priestesses of the rites of the Goddesses Rhea, Demeter and Artemis, and the honey is the food of the mystic rebirth at Eleusis. The bee is also sacred to the Muses for its connection with oracular powers and poetic inspiration; sometimes the Muses are seen as a unique triad – the Thriaí – the three maidens who teach the oracular art in the Korykion anthron, the cave under the gorge of Parnassus. According to Plato, Ion (a very beautiful dialogue in which the main theme is the question of whether the poet gives his performance on account of his skill and knowledge or by virtue of divine possession) the Muses induce a state of Bacchic frenzy in which the poets compose melodies “gathered from the rills that run with honey, out of the glens and gardens of the Muses, and they bring them to us as bees do with honey, flying like the bees”.
The same holds true for our beloved masters and philosophers, divine figures who were all perfect followers of Dionysos, true carriers of the thyrsus and valuable servants of the Muses: they have brought us Their precious gift of the anagogic, holy light sent from the halls of the Father. Our beloved Plato wrote in the Phaedrus: “The engagement in these things becomes even more beautiful when one, making use of dialectics, takes a fit soul, plants and sows in it discourses accompanied by knowledge, that make it able to help itself and those who have sown them and that are not unfruitful, but have seeds that sprout in the nature of other men, giving birth to other discourses that are able to make these seeds immortal, so that one who possesses them becomes as happy as it is possible for a man.”