THE MUSES NINE
In the "year of our Lord" 1439, an ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic church which had been assembled in Ferrara to attempt to resolve the delicate filioque argument, that in 1054 had separated the Greek and Latin churches, was transferred to Cosimo de' Medici's Florence when a plague hit the earlier city. A large and distinguished Greek delegation was in attendance, and the Medici was so inspired with admiration for their Platonic, Neo-platonic, and Pythagorean learning that he determined forthwith to establish on his own estate at Careggi an academy on the model of Plato's in Athens (which in A.D. 529, along with all the other pagan institutions of that time, had been closed by order of the Emperor Justinian).
With the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Turks and the subsequent appearances in the Latin West of Greek manuscripts from Byzantium brought by refugee priests and monks, the historic moment arrived for Cosimo to begin reassembling in his villa as much as might be ever retrieved of the vestiges of classical learning. The University of Florence — likewise alerted by the council — had in 1439 resumed the teaching of the Greek language, which, except in the monasteries and abbeys of Ireland, had been lost to the Latin West for more than seven hundred years. The young Marsilio Ficino (1433-99), an ardent student of both Greek and Latin, had become the Medici's chief translator and advisor, and with the willing cooperation of the victorious sultan Mehmed II himself, Cosimo initiated and organized a thoroughgoing, systematic search for manuscripts that in good time yielded the founding core of an incomparable library, which was later named, after Cosimo's grandson, the Lorentian (Laurenziana).
In this way, through the enterprise of a single inspired individual, the vast catastrophe to the intelligence of Europe which had followed upon the deliberate destruction in A.D. 391 of the irreplaceable Alexandrian library, research center, and museum (Greek, Mouseion, from Mouseios, "of the Muses") was in some measure redressed. Reputed to have contained no less than 500,000 volumes burned to extinction by Christian zealots, the Mouseion had been a center, not only of Hellenistic, Neo-platonic, and Pythagorean learning, but also of Semitic. The Septuagint translation into Greek of the Old Testament had been made there. And that there were influences from India as well cannot be doubted, since already as early as the fourth century B.C. the Buddhist emperor Asoka (as reported in his rock-carved edicts) had sent teachers of the Buddhist Dharma, not only to the court of Ptolemy II of Egypt (the Ptolemies were the founders of the Mouseion), but also to Antiochus II of Syria, Magas of Cyrene, Antigonas Gonatus of Macedonia, and Alexander II of Epirus.(46) Plotinus, the founder of Neo-platonism, born A.D. 205 in Egypt, commenced his career in Alexandria. Theon, the fourth century mathematician to whose recension of Euclid's Elements we owe our knowledge of that work, was also a contributor to the dignity of that culminating Hellenistic center of universal learning. His extraordinary daughter Hypatia, the first notable woman in mathematics and the recognized head of the Alexandrian Neo-platonist school of her day, born A.D. 370, was in March 415 mob- murdered by a mass of monks and general Christian fanatics spiritually inflamed by contagion of their recently installed, vigorously anti-pagan bishop, now canonized, St. Cyril of Alexandria. Whereafter, submerged beneath an increasing tide of "barbarism and religion" (to use Edward Gibbon's phrase), magnificent Alexandria sank to historical insignificance, Only the flotsam and jetsam of its invaluable treasury to be ever retrieved.
However, the galaxy of inspired artists — sculptors, architects, and painters — who appeared as by magic around the philosophical oasis of Cosimo's reconstituted academy and library was amazing. And that his harvest of antiquity, translated from Greek into Latin largely by Marsilio Ficino, had indeed revived the inspiration of late classic spirituality is evident in every detail of the works of art of that moment of Europe's reawakening to its native heritage. It was as though the Muses had themselves awakened and found voice. For among the sculptors of that company were Donatello and Ghiberti; among the architects, Brunelleschi and Michelozzo; painters, Fra Angelico, Andrea del Castagno, and Benozzo Gozzoli; while of the second generation — of the period of Cosimo's grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-92), whose teacher had been Ficino — we read of Verrocchio and his pupils Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, and Michelangelo; the last named having begun his career at the age of fifteen as a pupil in the sculpture school in Lorenzo's garden.
Pico della Mirandola (1463-94) was another inspired associate of this incredible academy, who, having studied not only Latin and Greek but Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic as well, was the first Christian philosopher to apply Cabbalistic learning to the support of Christian theological propositions. In 1486, he arranged for a pan-European assemblage in Rome before which he would announce and defend nine hundred theses drawn from Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic sources. Thirteen of his theses were declared heretical, however, and the assembly was forbidden by the pope.
Yet the depth and range of his learning, reaching back to those centuries of syncretic, transcultural philosophical formulations which had followed upon Alexander the Great's "marriage of East and West" (out of which, indeed, the dogmas of the Latin church had themselves evolved), survived the papal ban. For his bold comparative insights, interpreting Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek, and Christian mythic and symbolic forms as culturally distinguished metaphors of a single, universally consistent poetica theologica, perfectly represented the expanding spirit and world horizon through which Renaissance art and thought were being released in his day from the inbred, tight little fold of the Middle Ages. At the Medici Villa di Careggi, sculpture, architecture, painting, and philosophy were of one accord in the representation of all names and forms, whether of the mind or of the world beheld, as equally radiant of some universal mystery.
In the allegorical diagram of the "Music of the Spheres" that was published in 1496 as the frontispiece of Francinus Gafurius's Practica musice, this idea of a mystery partly revealed is suggested by the clothing of the Muses, whose forms appear in descending series at the left of the composition.
Their number, like that which Dante associated with Beatrice, is 9; for their root, too, is a trinity. However, the trinity here is not of three male divinities with the Virgin then as a feminine fourth but of the classical three Graces with Apollo as a masculine fourth. And as the Muses are here clothed, so the Graces, performing their round-dance on the noumenal plane beyond and above the visible sky, directly in the presence of Apollo, are unclothed. They are the triune personifications of the Aristotelean primum mobile, or "first moving thing," which is of the tenth or highest celestial sphere and derives its circular motion directly from God, the "unmoved mover." Here the image of God, as Apollo, is clothed, since the "unmoved being" of such a "first cause" transcends envisionment (i.e., all names and forms); whereas the Graces are movement itself. As stated in the Latin of the inscribed scroll overhead: "The energy or virtue (vis) of the Apollonian mind moves or inspires (movet) everywhere the Muses."
Both the names and the postures of the Graces tell of the qualities of their influence: (1) Thalia ("Blooming, Abundance"), unites and relates her opposed companions; (2) Euphrosyne ("Mirth, Festivity, Good Cheer"), moves away from the God to the descent, nine-fold, of the Muses; while (3) Aglaia ("Splendor, Beauty, Triumph, Adornment"), confronts him, returning to source.
Pico and Ficino revered these three as an exemplary triad archetypal of all the others of classical myth. In Pico's words, "He that understands profoundly and clearly how the unity of Venus is unfolded in the trinity of the Graces, and the unity of Necessity in the trinity of the Fates, and the unity of Saturn in the trinity of Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto, knows the proper way of proceeding in Orphic theology."(47) For as Edgar Wind points out in comment on this passage, "it was an axiom of Platonic theology that every god exerts his power in a triadic rhythm. (48)
"The bounty bestowed by the gods upon lower beings," states Wind, continuing, "was conceived by the Neoplatonists as a kind of overflowing (emanatio), which produced a vivifying rapture or conversion (called by Ficino conversio, rapto, or vivificatio) whereby the lower beings were drawn back to heaven and rejoined the gods (remeatio)." Moreover: "The munificence of the gods having thus been unfolded in the triple rhythm of emanatio, rapto, and remeatio, it was possible to recognize in this sequence the divine model of what Seneca had defined as the circle of grace: giving, accepting, and returning. . . . But in Proclus, Elements of Theology, prop. 35 (Dodds, 1933, pp. 38f), the sequence reads: (1) inheritence in the cause, (2) procession from the cause, (3) reversion to the cause; and that is the original Neoplatonic scheme."(49)
Translated into Christian trinitarian terms, this triadic revelation of divine grace would appear as (1) the Father, (2) the Son, and (3) the Holy Spirit, three hypostases or "persons" in one godhead, with the idea of the "godhead" represented in Gafurius's design by the clothed Apollo and that of the "persons" or hypostases by the Graces, who in Indian tantric terms are exactly maya-sakti-devi, or in the Sankhya view (as noticed above), prakriti, of three gunas or "characteristics," sattva, rajas, and tamas.
The serpentine, triple-headed form flowing down the center of the composition is Gafurius's adaptation to his design of a symbolic figure that in Alexandria had been associated with an image of the composite Egypto-Greco-Roman God Serapis. "In the great temple of Serapis at Alexandria," states Wind, from whose Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance I have reproduced this chart,
the image of the Egypto-Hellenic god was attended by a triple-headed Monster resembling Cerberus [the watchdog at the gate to Hades] but with this difference that the three heads of the [Alexandrian] beast were distinguished as wolf, lion, and dog. The most informative ancient text on this attribute. . . is Macrobius, Saturnalia I, XX, where the three heads are explained as signifying the three parts of Time: facing left, the voracious wolf represents the vanished past; the hopefully sniffing dog looks to the right, anticipating the future; while the present, in the middle, is embodied in the majestic lion seen full-face. Petrarch's Africa III, 162ff, gives a splendid description of the three heads, followed by a concise statement of the allegory: fugientia tempera signant.(50)
Dante, it will be recalled, at the opening of Inferno 1, 28-68, tells of three beasts that in a savage wood confronted him, barring his way to Salvation: a lion, signifying Pride; a leopard, luxurious Desire; and a she-wolf, Violence and Fear. Dante's leopard is equivalent to Gafurius's hopefully sniffing, Alexandrian dog, and the triad of obstructive sentiments named is exactly of those three temptations that were overcome by the Buddha in yoga at the foot of the Bodhi-tree: "desire" (kama), fear of "death" (mara), and attachment to temporal social ideals (dharma).
There is an immediately evident and more than coincidental likeness of Gafurius's serpent descending through a graded universe to the Indian idea of a yogic "serpent channel" descending from the crown of the head, down the spinal column to a "lotus center" located between the anus and genitalia that is known as "Root Support" (muladhara), where the spiritual energy (sakti) of the unawakened individual sleeps, coiled on itself like a dormant snake (Sanskrit kundalini, "coiled serpent"), which is to be aroused through yoga and brought, uncoiling, up the spinal channel to a radiant lotus at the crown of the head called "Thousand Petaled" (sahasrara).
"Gafurius's serpent," Edgar Wind points out,
is distinguished by a particularly engaging trait. While plunging head-downward into the universe, it curls the end of its tail into a loop on which Apollo ceremoniously sets his feet. A serpent's tail turning back on itself is an image of eternity or perfection (commonly illustrated by a serpent biting its own tail. . .). Gafurius thus makes it diagrammatically clear that Time issues from Eternity, the linear progression of the serpent depends on its attachment to the topmost sphere where its tail coils into a circle."(51)
In Gafurius's design, the circle at the base of the composition, labeled TERRA, corresponds to the yogic "Root Support" where the coiled serpent sleeps. (Serpents shedding their skins to be, as it were, reborn suggest the power of life to cast off death, even to the gaining of eternal life.) The whole upper half of Gafurius's earthly sphere is filled by the vision of those three hovering heads, while below the baseline of the composition, as though hiding below ground, is the first of the nine Muses, whose name, we note, is the same as that of the central member of the unclothed triad of the Graces, namely, Thalia, "Blooming, Abundance." "That the 'descent' of a spiritual force," states Wind, "is compatible with its continuous presence in the 'supercelestial heaven' was a basic tenet of Neoplatonism."
The down-coming of the motivating energy or virtue (vis) of the Apollonian mind is here represented as having devolved from the celestial primum mobile, represented in the Graces, through their reflexes in the Muses, each of which is shown associated with a planetary sphere, in the pre-Copernican, geocentric, Ptolemaic sequence: first, the heaven of fixed stars; next, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, and the Sun; then, the shadowed spheres of Venus, Mercury, and the Moon; until, finally, wrapped in its increasingly weighty elemental envelopes of Fire (ignis). Air (aer), and Water (aqua), this Earth (terra) is entered, where its Muse, unheard, underground, is known as Surda ("Silent") Thalia, and is a Muse of Nocturnal Silence.
For her voice of the bounty of nature is by her intended poet unheard, whose whole mind is so obsessed by its vision of the hovering monster, fugientia tempora signant, that, terrified of his life and of the life also of the world, he has no ear for the gentle whisper of the supportive universe — which is there nevertheless to be heard behind the tricephalous tumult of the beast.
What is therefore required of him, if he is ever to hear that supportive voice, is to forget the passing of time, "regard the lilies of the field . . . and not be anxious" (Matt. 6:28 and 31): place his head, that is to say, together with all its desires and fears for the good of himself and his world directly into the lion's mouth of HERE AND NOW.
In Gen. 3:22-24, we read that when Yahweh drove Adam and Eve from the garden so that they should not "take of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever . . . at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life." That sword of flame is the counterpart of the lion's face of Gafurius's monster, while the guarding cherubim correspond to the heads at either side. An essential feature of temple arts generally, whether of Antiquity or of the Orient, is such a threshold feature: two guardians (either in human or in animal form) with a portal between to some sacred precinct.
For example, at Nara (Japan), before the Todaiji Temple with its immense bronze image of "The Great Sun Buddha," Mahavairochana (weight, 452 tons; height, 53 feet, 6 inches; date A.D. 749), there is a large, detached south gate where two imposing giants (26 feet, 6 inches high) stand guard with threatening weapons. The mouth of one is open; that of the other, closed. Fear of death and desire for life would be the immediate sentiments that such an actual pair would excite in any visitor — which are the sentiments to be left behind by anyone passing through, not simply physically as a tourist but for an experience within the sanctuary of release from the pressure of the consciousness of mortality. They correspond to the wolf and leopard of Dante's vision, attending the lion of his pride. So that from this point of view, what is excluding man from the knowledge of his immortality is not the wrath of some external god, but the mis-adjustment of his own mind. Within the sacred precinct of the Buddhist temple, therefore, seated on a fully opened lotus before the wish-fulfilling "Tree of 'Awakening'"(bodhi), the Great Sun Buddha, with his right hand raised in abhaya-mudra, the "fear not posture," and his left extended in the "boon-bestowing posture" varada-mudra, gives freely to all who approach, the gift of his light.
Whereas in contrast (and here is the difference), our biblical Yahweh appears in his un-illuminated legend as the archetypal mythic "Hoarder," holding to himself the gift of his grace, and his mythology, consequently, is of man's exile to an earth of dust (Gen. 3:17-19) and of spiritual silence, where no whisper may be heard of Goddess or Muse — except as in that one extraordinary instance, where King Solomon overheard the voice of the Lord God's own Beatrice and Muse, Sophia (Proverbs, passim, as above).
No one can possibly function, either as poet or as artist, in any such a de-sacralized environment. The repudiated and absconded Muse of the living Earth, Surda Thalia, must first be invoked and recalled. And that this may occur, "the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded," as William Blake has declared in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,
to leave his guard of the tree of life, and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed, and appear infinite, and holy, whereas it now appears finite and corrupt. This will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment.
But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul has to be expunged . . . melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' the narrow chinks of his cavern.
From the muladhara, where the kundalini sleeps, three portals open upward, those to right and to left leading to subtle channels bearing the breaths, respectively, of the left and the right nostrils; only the portal between opening to the subtle "serpent channel," sushumna ("most gracious, rich in happiness"), leads to the cranial lotus "Thousand Petalled" (sahasrara), "replete with every form of bliss, and Pure Knowledge itself "(52)
The channel descending from the left nostril is known as ida (nectarous draft, refreshment"); that from the right, as pingala ("fiery, tawney red"); the former conducting breath (prana) of "lunar" consciousness, and the latter, of "solar": "solar" consciousness being of eternity, hence threatening to temporal life (poisonous, fiery, destructive), whereas "lunar" (which is to say, earthly) is restorative and refreshing. Their two portals in the muladhara, flanking that of the sushumna, are likened to the guardians at the entrance to a temple and thus correspond in both position and sense to the wolf and the dog of Gafurius's tricephalous monster.
Now, it can be hardly by coincidence that those overhanging three heads of Gafurius's Renaissance design, based on ideas derived from Hellenistic Alexandria, should match in both placement and function the openings upward from the Indian muladhara. As understood in yogic terms: so long as the two breaths, left and right, are regarded in a dualistic way as separate and distinct from each other (as "spirit" and "nature," for example, understood as in opposition), the central portal is closed and locked. However, the yogi practicing "breath control" (pranayama), breathing deeply, first in through one nostril, out the other, then in through the second, out through the first, ensuring each time that the prana, the breath, goes all the way down to the muladhara, is transforming the opposed breaths into each other as they enter and leave that chamber of the dormant Serpent Power. Untiring, he continues the exercise until, of a sudden, in the muladhara, the two breaths blend to a single fire, which like a blast ascends, together with the awakened Serpent, into the suddenly unlocked sushumna.
In Gafurius's design, the symbolized stages of the transformations of consciousness that follow upon the poet's yielding of his head to the lion's mouth (on having muzzled, so to say, the wolf and the dog, or as Blake has described the change of mind, dismissed the cherub with his flaming sword) are represented metaphorically as under inspiration of the Muses graded in relation to the hierarchy of the ptolemaic order of the spheres. Immediately with his recognition of the instant HERE AND NOW, the hidden Muse, Surda Thalia, wakes. Her voice is heard. And what until then had been the nocturnal silence of a wasteland of dust and toil becomes eloquent of a universal joy.
For, awake and singing, Thalia, "Blooming and Abundance," is the Muse of bucolic poetry, telling of the innocence and blooming of a living earth. And in this function, her inspiration marks the first stage of the opening of any artist's senses to knowledge of the universal body of which his own is a part. The next Muse of the ascent is Clio (Kleio, "Acclaim"), the Muse of history, associated with the earth-shadowed sphere of the Moon; and the following, Calliope (Kalliope, "of the Beautiful Voice," once chief and leader of the nine), is of epic poetry and the earth-shadowed sphere of Mercury ( = Hermes, guide of souls from the knowledge of time to that of eternity). These first three of the Muses, representing states of mind overshadowed still by concerns of this earth, correspond in the Indian series to the "dispositions of energy" (saktis) of the first three centers of the sushumna, which are namely, muladhara (already discussed), svadhishthana (spinal center of the region of the genitals), and manipura (spinal center of the region of the navel), which are endowed, respectively, with the qualities of the elements earth, water, and fire.
The next three Muses together mark the transformation of consciousness that is in yoga associated with the fourth center, anahata, at the level of the heart, and of the element air (breath, prana, spiritus). They are (1) Terpsichore, "Joy of the Dance," assigned to the earth-shadowed sphere of Venus; (2) Melpomene, the "Singer," Muse of tragedy and of the fiery sun or "Sun Door" of an opening of the heart to compassion by way of an Aristotelian katharsis, or purging of egoity through an access of egoless pity and metaphysical terror; to which (3) Erato, "The Lovely One," attuned to Mars, the first unshadowed sphere, adds lyric poetry.
The Muses of the topmost stages are then of arts suggesting raptures such as yogis at the highest centers of their discipline may know: visuddha ("purified," center of the region of the larynx), ajna ("authority, absolute power": of the inner eye, between the brows), and the sahasrara. The related Muses are Euterpe, "Well Pleasing," Muse of the sphere of Jupiter and dulcet music of the flute; Polyhymnia, "Sacred Choral Song," of the austere sphere of Saturn; and finally, "The Celestial One," Ourania, of the science of astronomy and sphere of the fixed stars.
On Gafurius's chart, the voices of these sisters, born (as Hesiod tells) of Zeus and "Memory" (Mnemosyne), are identified with the ascending tones of the Pythagorean conjoint tetrachord (ABCDEFGA: the A-minor scale), upon which are established the Greek modes: Hypodorian, Hypophrygian, Hypolydian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, and for good measure, to match the number of the Muses, Hypermixolydian, which is equivalent to Dorian.
The Graces then are pictured above as embodiments of the primum mobile, "first moving thing," moved by the energy (vis) of the Apollonian mind. However, in what certainly was a much earher construction, what those Three embodied were aspects of the energy (Sanskrit, sakti), not of Apollo, but of the goddess Aphrodite of the fluttering eyelids. Neoplatonically interpreted (as already noticed from Proclus), the three have been allegorized as (1) inheritance in the cause, (2) procession from the cause, and (3) reversion to the cause.(53) Pico and Ficino wrote of them, however, as (1) procession from the cause, (2) rapture by the cause, and (3) return to the cause,(54) in which case the reading is from left to right with the central figure not facing forward, as in Gafurius's design, but with back to the viewer, as in the frequently reproduced Pompeian fresco of the Graces that is now in the Museo Nationale, Naples. Another reading by Ficino of this version of the arrangement was of the triad as allegorical of "Pulcritudo, Amor, and Voluptas," the first issuing from God as a kind of beacon, the second, within the world, moving it to rapture, and the third, returning in a state of joy to its source.(55) There have been, of course, other readings. However, the matter of essential interest here is not of such identifications and allegories, but of the number 3 itself. Aristotle in De caelo (1.268a) writes of it as follows:
The science which has to do with nature clearly concerns itself for the most part with bodies and magnitudes and their properties and movements, but also with the principles of this sort of substance, as many as they may be. For of things constituted by nature some are bodies and magnitudes, some possess body and magnitude, and some are principles of things which possess these. Now a continuum is that which is divisible into parts always capable of subdivision, and a body is that which is every way divisible. A magnitude if divisible one way is a line, if two ways a surface, and if three a body. Beyond these there is no other magnitude, because the three dimensions are all that there are, and that which is divisible in three directions is divisible in all. For, as the Pythagoreans say, the universe and all that is in it is determined by the number three, since beginning and middle and end give the number of the universe, and the number they give is the triad. And so, having taken these three from nature as (so to speak) laws of it, we make further use of the number three in the worship of the Gods.(56)
Plato in Timaeus (37d-38b) identifies the number with time, which, as he declares, "imitates eternity and revolves according to a law of number."
"The past and future," he writes,
are created species of time, which we unconsciously but wrongly transfer to eternal being, for we say that it "was" or "is" or "will be," but the truth is that "is" alone is properly attributed to it, and that "was" and "will be" are only to be spoken of becoming in time, for they are notions, but that which is immovably the same forever cannot become older or younger by time, nor can it be said that it came into being in the past, or has come into being now, or will come into being in the future, nor is it subject at all to any of those states which affect moving and sensible things and of which generation is the cause. These are the forms of time, which imitates eternity and revolves according to a law of number. Moreover, when we say that what has become is become and what becomes is becoming, and that what will become is about to become and that the nonexistent is nonexistent — all these are inaccurate modes of expression.(57)
So that, whether viewed thus by Aristotle as of the nature of things in space or by Plato as of their becoming in time, the number 3 must be recognized as constitutive of phenomenality, which is to say in mythological terms, the body of the Goddess. In Gafurius's design, the number is represented as permeating the universe, from the triad of Graces to the trinity of heads of the monster whose unfolded coil threads the world — which is an idea consistent with the Neo-platonic axiom that in this universe, as a macrocosm, the whole is repeated in every part, as a microcosm.
Wind calls attention to St. Augustine's recognition of an imago tritlitatis in re alia, as well as of what he interpreted as pagan "vestiges of the trinity" in all the mythologies of his time (supposing the trinitas of his own tradition to be, not simply one of many, but the original of all). In the Indian Vedanta, the ultimate triad of names connotative within the field of maya of the universally immanent, metaphysically transcendent brahmatman is sat-cid-ananda, namely, "Being" (sat), "Consciousness" (cit), and "Bliss or Rapture" (ananda), which in anthropomorphic occidental terms would be, approximately. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Neo-platonically, (1) inheritance in the cause, (2) procession from the cause, and (3) reversion to the cause; and in Greek poetic imagery, the Graces.
In sum then, we may think of 3 as the liminal term of things apprehended in the field of space, time, and causality; what James Joyce in Ulysses (part I, chapter 3, opening phrase) defines as the "Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more. . . ." Augustine discerned the imprint of the Trinity in all things, regarding, however, the one essential Trinity as male, whereas the Greeks had a number of essential female trinities, for example, the Graces, the Hours, the Fates, and the Furies, as well as the great triad of the "Judgment of Paris," Aphrodite, Hera, and Athene.
Unquestionably, female triads long predated the historical appearance of Augustine's trinitas of three male personalities in one divine substance; for the mythologies of the great Neolithic goddesses — as the publications of Marija Gimbutas demonstrate — date back to the eighth millennium B.C. — at least! with antecedents even in the Paleolithic. Gimbutas calls attention, for example, to the late Paleolithic "Venus of Laussel" of ca. 20,000-18,000 B.C.(58) In a posture and with a gesture eloquent of some legend, the knowledge of which is irretrievably lost, this impressive little figure, carved in high relief on a limestone block discovered in a rock shelter from the period of the great painted caves of southern France and northern Spain, is of a corpulent, naked female, holding elevated in her raised right hand a bison horn on which thirteen vertical strokes are engraved, while caressing with her left hand her pregnant belly.(59) The figure must have represented some mythic personage so well known to the period that the reference of the elevated horn would have been as well known as, say, in India today, a lotus in the hand of the goddess Sri Lakshmi. Alexander Marshack in The Roots of Civilization remarks that "the count of thirteen is the number of crescent 'horns' that may make up an observational lunar year; it is also the number of days from the birth of the first crescent to just before the days of the mature full moon."(60) Filling the whole back wall of a shallow Paleolithic cave, from ca. 13,000 to ca. 11,000 B.C., at Angles-sur-Anglin (Vienne), there looms a large rock-carved composition of the great bellies, massive loins, and upper thighs of three colossal female presences, sexual triangles strongly marked, hovering as an immense triad above the horned head of a bull.(61) And some 10,000 years later, on a stone Gallo-Roman altar excavated from the site of the present Notre Dame de Paris and preserved in the basement of the nearby Musee de Cluny, there is carved the image of a bull beneath a tree upon which three cranes are to be seen. The inscription reads, Tarvos Trigaranus, "Bull with the Three Cranes," the crane being a bird symbolic at that time of the Celtic Triple Goddess.(62) "The sacredness of the bull," remarks Gimbutas in discussion of Neolithic symbolic forms, "is expressed in particular through the emphasis on horns. They are sometimes as large as the whole animal figurine. Replete with a mysterious power of growth, the horns have become a lunar symbol, which is presumed to have come into being in the Upper Paleolithic Aurignacian when reliefs of naked women holding a horn begin to appear.(63)
The magnificent female triad at Angles-sur-Anglin (Vienne), hovering above the horned head (or mask) of a bull, in what surely was a holy grotto, is (I believe) the earliest known representation of a triad of any kind in the history of art. The date, ca. 13,000-11,000 B.C., is some ten thousand years later than that of the Venus of Laussel, the Woman with the Horn. Another five thousand years and in Asia Minor, among the numerous shrines unearthed at Catal Huyuk, a Neolithic town site elegantly published and illustrated by James Mellaart,(64) there are a number of female figures represented as giving birth to bulls; also, walls ornamented with triads of bull heads, as well as arrays of bull's horns, and an evident association, furthermore, of the symbol of the bull's head with the human cranium. Still another five thousand years, and at the island site in the river Seine of Notre Dame de Paris, that Gallo-Roman altar appeared of three cranes perched in a tree above the figure of a large standing bull.
The evidence is thus consistent, extensive, and unmistakable, of a prehistoric continuity of no less than twenty thousand years for a mythology of the female body as the matrix of what Plato in Timaeus referred to as "those states which affect moving and sensible things and of which generation is the cause . . . : the forms of time, which imitates eternity and revolves according to a law of number."
Already in the figure of the Venus of Laussel there is evidence of an interest in number; number associated, moreover, with the cycle of the moon, and the crescent moon associated with the horn or horns of a bull. The figure's left hand held to the belly suggests that a relationship had been already recognized between the female menstrual cycle and the waxing and waning of the moon — which in turn implies a dawning of the recognition of an identity of some kind, coordinating earthly and celestial numbers.
Marshack in The Roots of Civilization has demonstrated for the Upper Paleolithic an interest in day counts. Examining with a microscope the rows of notches carved in series along staves of horn, ivory, or bone, he found that in every case the successive notches had been carved by different instruments, presumably at different times, and he termed such artifacts "time factored." Moreover, since a significant number showed counts that matched lunar cycles, the possible inference followed of women keeping tally of their menstrual cycles in observation of the phases of the moon.
The phases of the moon are four: three visible (waxing, full, and waning) and one invisible (three nights dark). Persephone, ravished to the netherworld by Hades/Pluto, became — while there invisible to the living — queen of a netherworld of death and regeneration. Such an identification of the mystery of generation with death and sacrifice is, by analogy, in lunar imagery, associated with the fourth, the invisible phase, of the lunar cycle, which in the Eleusinian legend is equated with the night of the marriage of Persephone and Pluto. Classical representations of the triad of goddesses, Athene, Hera, and Aphrodite, at the scene of the Judgment of Paris show them attended by Hermes as a fourth, who, in fact, is the one who summons Paris to the confrontation. The two mythic episodes are of the same mythological vocabulary. And in both, the designation of a male-female conjunctio is related, one way or the other, to an association with the idea of a fourth in relation to a three.
The Angles-sur-Anglin triad, in association with the bull as a fourth, is a Paleolithic counterpart of the classical traid attended by Hermes. For as Marija Gimbutas points out, "The male god's principal epiphany was in the form of a bull." And as she remarks further, "A human head grafted onto a bull's body reaches a culmination of power through symbiosis: the wisdom and passions of man merged with the physical strength and potency of the bull."(65) "The bull god was alive," she reminds us, in many areas of Greece and particularly in Macedonia in the time of Euripides whose Bacchae abounds in bull epiphanies:
A Horned God was found
And a God with serpents crowned
(Euripides, Bacchae, 99)
In the Orphic mystery, the worshipper ate the raw flesh of the bull before he became "Bacchos." The ritual of Dionysus in Thrace included "bull-voiced" mimes who bellowed to the god. The scholiast on Lychophron's Alexandra says that the women who worshipped Dionysus Laphystion wore horns themselves, in imitation of the god, for he was imagined to be bull-headed and is so represented in art. . . . Dionysus also manifested himself as the bull Zagreus, in which guise he was torn to pieces by the Titans.(66)
The art of the Upper Paleolithic is the earliest art of which we have knowledge, providing our earliest pictorial evidence of mankind's mythic themes and actual ritual practices. The animal paintings in the stupendous temple caves had evidently to do with ceremonials of the hunt; probably also with the initiation of adolescents to manhood. The human figures represented are few and exclusively male, masked or semi-animal in form. The sculptural art of the numerous female figurines, on the other hand, is related generally to dwelling sites, and whereas in the caves the human figures are in action, performing ceremonials of one kind or another, the figurines are simply presentations in the nude of the female form. The little figures usually have no feet. A few have been found set standing upright in the earth of household shrines. Furthermore, in contrast to the shamanic figures in the caves, which seem to be always in the performance of their social functions, the female statuettes are not in action of any kind. They are simply there, in being, little presences in themselves, representations and reminders (for contemplation) of the mystery of the female body itself, which is, in fact, the sole source of the life and well-being of the very dwelling site in which the little figure will have been set standing.
In the exceptional example, from ca. 20,000 B.C., of the Woman with the Horn, discovered at one end of a long limestone ledge at Laussel, the essential features of the lunar mythology of which the figurines are expressions are unmistakably brought to view. And in the great triad at Angles-sur-Anglin (Vienne) the further mythological implications of these essential features are unfolded.
Normally, of course, it would be improper to suggest attributions to the figures from the twelfth millennium B.C. of ideas that become clear to us only from the first. However, when the vocabularies of two pictorial documents are visibly identical, it becomes difficult to argue that the artists in the first instance cannot have known what they were saying. Three female forms in association with a bull as the fourth! Three major goddesses in association with Hermes as a fourth! Three Graces ("the first moving thing") in association with Apollo as a fourth! Three visible phases of the waxing, full, and waning moon with the moon of the nights invisible as a fourth: the night's invisible being of the moon's apparent death and, then, resurrection! There is plenty of evidence that the people of the Upper Paleolithic understood very well the relationship of sexual intercourse to pregnancy. In the same site at Laussel at which the Woman with the Horn was found, there was also a sculptured representation of a couple in sexual union.(67) Since the elevated horn bearing thirteen strokes may be interpreted (as Marshack has suggested) as symbolic of the visibly waxing moon, while the woman's hand on her belly relates the phenomenon to that of the pregnant womb, there is surely an intention to be recognized in the appearance in the same sanctuary of a representation of what Freud and his school have called the "primal scene," which in terms of a lunar symbolic schedule is of the mystery of the fourth, the invisible phase.
Considering further the interesting triad at Angles-sur-Anglin, one cannot but notice that the sexual triangles are, all three, very well defined and that the mesial grooves are conspicuous. The triangles, furthermore, are distinctly equilateral, like the Pythagorean tetraktys, with the grooves then suggesting the point at the tetraktian apex as connoting the invisible source from which the visible form has proceeded — which is perhaps pressing the interpretation a bit too far; and yet, the analogy is impossible to miss. The triangle, furthermore, is the same as that which in Indian Tantric iconography is taken to connote the energy of the womb as identical with that of maya.
In the Paleolithic pictogram, the 3 triangles of 3 sides each announce, moreover, the number 9, which is that of the Muses manifesting in the field of space-time the energy (vis) of the Apollonian mind as mediated through the Graces — which is again, perhaps, pressing an interpretation too far; yet the number is conspicuously represented as of 3 mighty females hovering over the mask or head of a bull as a fourth — or, in relation to the 9, as a tenth. In relation to the Graces, Apollo appears as a fourth, and in relation to the Muses, as a tenth.
Now, whether allegorical thoughts of this kind can have been present in any way in the minds responsible for this masterwork — whether consciously, half-consciously, or unconsciously — who shall say? Many artists whom I know today are willing, even eager, to impute such mythological implications to their profoundly inspired productions when they learn of them from such scholars as myself. Psychoanalysts with their pudendascopes (James Joyce's word) readily discern intentions in works of art that no artist would have recognized. The method of mythology is analogy, and that the artists of the Paleolithic age were competent in analogy is surely evident in the statement of the Woman with the Horn, where a triple analogy is rendered of (1) the growing horns of a bull, (2) waxing crescent of the moon, and (3) growing child, en ventre sa mere.
The imagery of this art is derived, not only from accurate observation, but also from an unconditioned identification with the natural order. And the mythologies originating from that primal age were of the same disposition. The two modes, of art and of myth, therefore, not only supplemented each other, but also remained in accord with the root-being of phenomenal life, self-validated through the sense that they inspired of fulfillment.
By what coincidence of nature, however, can the numerology of the Paleolithic and Neolithic lunar reckoning of 3+3+3, as of the visible body of the universal Great Goddess, have been carried on, only amplified, in the Old Sumerian numerological reading of 4+3+2, to accord with an actual "Great," or "Platonic" Zodiacal cycle of 25,920 solar years, where 2+5+9+2+0 = 18, and 1+8= 9, whose root, as Dante saw, is a trinity?
In All Her Names