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Parmenides’ Proem: Divine Inspiration as a Form of Expression

Kenneth Thomas Munro Mackenzie

Recent scholarship on Parmenides’ poem has been divided between those who have regarded its function primarily as religious (such as Kingsley 1999, and Gemelli Marciano 2008) and those who have emphasized its philosophical aspects (for example, Palmer 2009 and Curd 2002). However, philosophical and religious concerns are not mutually exclusive, and to draw such distinct categories in this period is anachronistic. Rather than categorising the poem as primarily one or the other, my aim is to demonstrate that its concerns, and in particular its claims to divine wisdom, can be seen as consistent with the themes and forms of expression of earlier Greek hexameter poetry (as has been argued of the Presocratics more generally by Most 1999). As regards the question of shamanism, the label will not be ruled out as a possible characterisation of Parmenides’ divine inspiration; however, it will be argued that if we are to use such a label for Parmenides, it should also be used of Muse inspiration in Homer and Hesiod, and regarded as a more characteristically Greek phenomenon than is usually allowed. 

Central to the debate has been the question of whether the proem is to be interpreted allegorically as an image of philosophical enlightenment or literally as an account of a religious experience. It will be argued that an allegorical reading of Parmenides’ proem is not anachronistic, as some have claimed (for instance, Graham 2010 Vol.1 p.234), and is consistent with the kinds of figurative language used in earlier hexameter poetry. Moreover, it is not inconsistent with a reading of the poem as an expression of a religious experience, especially as the symbolic use of images is typical of texts which we can confidently claim had a clear religious function (such as oracular utterances, and certain expressions used in the Orphic gold tablets). As a result, the proem will be regarded as a symbolic expression of a claim to knowledge, in terms familiar from Homer, Hesiod and the Homeric hymns. Such a claim to knowledge is indeed expressed in terms of divine inspiration, but whether such a claim was literally conceived by the author as divinely inspired will be left as an open question.

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Greek Shamanism Reconsidered

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