You are here

A Re-reading of Empedocles' Fr. 115 DK

Chiara R. Ciampa

King's College London

This paper addresses the debated interpretation of Empedocles’ fr. 115 DK, proposing a new semantic reading of the fragment on the basis of linguistic and hermeneutical reflections.

Empedocles’ fr. 115 portrays the troubled journey of the daimones who, because of an ancient decree of the gods that punishes guilty actions, endure as their penalty a cycle of earthly reincarnations across different forms of life. Scholars habitually hold the daimones to be ‘fallen gods’ who originally belonged to the community of the blessed and lost their primeval condition of bliss by staining their hands with bloodshed (Wright 1981, Primavesi 2008). The Hesiodic parallel of the banishment of the gods from their blessed community for having broken the oath of the river Styx (Th. 782-806) usually supports this mainstream interpretation. 

I propose seeing the law mentioned in fr. 115 DK as a decree made by the gods but governing the lives of humans (as much as the cosmos), rather than something that governs the life of the gods (and decides whether or not any god will be exiled). Consequently, like ancient Platonic sources, I take the daimones mentioned in fr. 115 DK to be the souls of humans undergoing the process of transmigration that keeps them far ‘from the blessed souls’ (v.6: ἀπό μακάρων) already purified, rather than ‘decayed gods’ banished from their ‘blessed community’ and forced to lose their divine citizenship. Firstly, Empedocles’ ambitious cosmological program transforms the purification function of the afterlife into the shared experience of living on earth (Trépanier 2017, Ciampa forthcoming), and two intratextual arguments suggest reframing fr. 115 DK as the universal account of the destiny awaiting the souls after death. Secondly, contemporary literature, as represented by Pindar, represents a significant linguistic and ideological intertext for the appropriation of the non-Homeric eschatological idea of transmigration and its ethical implications. Finally, the alleged inference that gods could commit a crime, as the mainstream interpretation of fr. 115 DK implicitly claims, would clash with the non-anthropomorphic theological view expressed elsewhere by Empedocles and shared with other Presocratics. 

The ‘ancient decree of the gods’ (v.1: θεῶν ψήφισμα παλαιόν) to which Empedocles refers in fr. 115 DK is usually interpreted as a law regulating the community of the gods, but I will show that linguistic parallels (especially Aesch. Ag. 1282-4) point in a different direction, suggesting instead that what is at stake in this passage is a divine, and therefore universal, rule that applies to humans. Empedocles himself addresses the cosmic principle that regulates the cycle of aggregation and separation of elements as ‘broad oath’ (fr. 30, 3 DK)(Sedley 2007). Textual evidence supports a different translation for the prepositional phrase ‘from the blessed’ (v. 6: ἀπόμακάρων) indicating the distance from the souls already purified rather than the departure from the community of the gods. An interesting intertext hermeneutically relevant to Empedocles’ fr. 115 DK is Pindar’ Olympian 2, 53-80, in which the non-Homeric eschatological outcome of some souls reincarnating in other bodies makes an appearance. Similarly, Pindar’s fr. 133 SM presents meaningful linguistic affinities with Empedocles’ fr. 115 DK. As a concluding theological remark, the mainstream assumption that the daimones of fr. 115 DK were gods downgraded to the condition of humans for having committed a crime, would contradict the Empedoclean non-anthropomorphic conception of the divine according to which the gods themselves could hardly be depicted as murderers (fr. 132 DK)(Barnes 1967, Broadie 1999).  

The re-reading of fr. 115 DK here suggested on the basis of intratextual and intertextual arguments grounds Empedocles’ innovative envisioning of the cosmos within the cultural and intellectual environment to which he belongs and that he shared with other contemporaries, including Pindar in particular. The paper, through the lens of eschatology, ultimately aims at loosening the habitual compartmentalization between disciplines, proposing a more flexible approach that recognises the interconnections between what modern scholarship demarcates as literature and philosophy.

Session/Panel Title

Greek Religious Texts

Session/Paper Number


Share This Page

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy