EPIMENIDES ΤΗΕ CRETAN
Epimenides was the best-known wise man of ancient Crete. He was born in Knossos and lived during the second half of the 7th and beginning of the 6thcentury B.C. He is often classified with Orpheus, Pythagoras and Empedoklis, as a man of secret and superhuman knowledge. Some ancient writers countEpimenides among the seven wise men by excluding Periandros.
His life became a legend early on; as a result it is difficult to disentangle the mythical from the historical elements. Shaman and fortune-teller, miracle-maker and poet, doctor and politician, he was friends with Apollo and the muses. He is described by Diogenis Laertios, in ‘Philosophers Lives’ as a ‘Kouros’ of ancient art, (he had incredibly long hair) and his admirers called him ‘Kouritis’. It is said that his mother was the nymph Valti, an embodiment of the Cretan Artemis.
Known for many miracles, two stand out: the cleansing of Athens, and the prophetic sleep in the cave. The first story has a historical basis, while the second reflects Epimenides’ experiences of mysticism and ecstasy, and possibly comes from his work ‘Birth of the Gods’.
The cleansing of Athens
According to Aristotle, in the ‘Athenian Constitution’, when the trial of Alkmeonides took place, and they were ostracized, Epimenides was responsible for clearing the city from the (“Cylonion agon”), in 596 B.C. In the ‘Life of Solon’, Ploutarchos mentions there were fears and premonitions, and the atmosphere was heavy. Then Epimenides came from Crete. A god-fearing and respectful man, he was an expert in cleansing rituals.
He became friends with Solon and contributed to the crafting of Solon’s laws. He reformed liturgy rituals and funerals. He removed the ‘hard and barbaric’ from the lamentations of women, which rendered them calmer and less violent.
Athenians wanted to thank Epimenides, and so they offered him large sums of money and honours. However, he only claimed a branch of an olive tree.
Epimenides’ prophetic sleep
According to Diogenis Laertios, Epimenides’ father sent him to fetch a sheep for a ritual. In mid-afternoon Epimenides went off the path, and found a cave. Tired from the journey, he fell asleep. When he woke up he returned with the sheep, but he found that everything had changed. He came upon his younger brother, who now looked like a very old man. He told him that 57 years had passed. He had been asleep for all that time in the cave, and had met with gods, including Goodness, Justice and Truth. This became the source of his wisdom.
Epimenides’s poems and prose were circulated in ancient Greece, although he did not sign all of them with his own name. The oldest of those is a ‘theogonia’, an epic poem about the birth of the gods and the Universe. Neoplatonist Damaskus mentions that according to Epimenides’ ‘theogonia’, the first elements of the Universe were the air and the night, from which came Tartaros, who then gave birth to two Titans. From the union of these two Titanscame an egg, which gave rise to the world as we know it; also known from the myths of ancient India and Orphics. From this egg came the entire generation of Greek gods.
Epimenides’ account is different from the (‘Hesiodia’) ,which is much more Cretan-centric. He writes “there is no centre of the earth or of the seas and, if there is, it is known only to the gods”, implicitly landing a blow to the popular contemporary belief that Delphi was the centre of the world.
Another historical work, ‘Kritika,’ is also attributed to Epimenides. It is a collection of legends about the transformation of the mythical heroes into stars relating to the Cretan Dias (Zeus), the Kourites and Idi.
According to legend, Epimenides lived for 157 years, including the 57 he spent asleep in the cave. According to the Cretan legend, he lived for 299 years. Xenophanis on the other hand suggests that he lived for 154 years. He owed his longevity to the secrets of the herbs and plants of the Cretan soil. Ancient writers refer to a herb concoction named ‘Alimon’ (which means ‘free from hunger’), which Epimenides stored in the foot of a bull. He consumed some every day. This made him so perfect that he passed from human to divine. Plutarch, relates Epimenides’ ‘alimon’ to a line from Hesiod’s Works and Days, ‘What a great benefit there is in malva and asfodelos!
Aristotle mentions that Epimenides was a teller of the past and not the future, because his theogeny was subtitled as Chrismi (Pronouncements) and these concern the birth of the Universe (past) and not the future. Thus, this was a philosophical dream with little practical importance.
The relationship between his wisdom and the cave, echoes a long tradition of worshipping in caves, dating from Minoan times. It is possible that Epimenides’s dream relates to a form of contemporary ritual of descending into the cave. Plato and the Pythagoreans were admirers of Epimenides; Pythagoras and Plato were so influenced by Epimenides’ legend that they came to Crete in order to visit his cave.
Epimenides bridges the ages. He connects the past with the present.
Nature, art, religious observance and politics come together in his thought.
Epimenides is a symbol of return.
He unites traditional and modern Crete.