EMPEDOCLES (494–443 BC)
The SUPPOSED GOD
No one knows what his birth was, or how he came to earth. He appeared near the golden banks of the river Acragas, in the beautiful city of Agrigento, a little after the time when Xerxes struck the sea with chains. Tradition only records that his grandfather was named Empedocles: none knew him. Undoubtedly, by this we mean that he was a son of himself, as he be suitable for a God. But his disciples assure that before traveling in his glory the countryside of Sicily, he had already spent four lives in our world, and that he had been a plant, a fish, a bird and a young girl. He wore a purple coat on which his long hair fell; he had around his head a strip of gold, at the feet of brass sandals, and he held garlands woven with wool and laurels.
By the laying on of his hands he healed the sick and recited verses, in the Homeric way, with pompous accents, mounted on a chariot, and his head raised to the sky. A large troop of people followed him and prostrated themselves before him to listen to his poems. Under the pure sky that illuminates the wheat, men came from all sides to Empedocles, their arms laden with offerings. He held them gaping as he sang to them the divine vault, made of crystal, the mass of fire that we call sun, and love, which contains everything, like a vast sphere.
All beings, he said, are only disjointed pieces of that sphere of love where hatred insinuated. And what we call love is the desire to unite and merge and merge, as we once were, within the globular god that discord has broken. He invoked the day when the divine sphere would swell, after all the transformations of souls. For the world we know is the work of hatred, and its dissolution will be the work of love. Thus he sang by the cities and by the fields; and his sandals of brass from Laconia were tinkling at his feet, and in front of him sounded cymbals. However, from the mouth of Etna sprang a column of black smoke that cast its shadow over Sicily.
Similar to a king of heaven, Empedocles was rolled in purple and encircled in gold, while the Pythagoreans dragged themselves in their thin linen tunics, with shoes made of papyros. It was said that he knew how to make the chassie disappear, dissolve tumors, and pull pain from the limbs; he was begged to stop the rains and hurricanes; he warded off storms on a circle of hills; at Selinunte he chased away the fever by pouring two rivers into the bed of a third; and the inhabitants of Selinunte worshipped him and erected a temple for him, and struck medals where his image was placed face to face with the image of Apollo.
Others claim that he was a divinator and educated by the magicians of Persia, that he possessed necromancy and the science of herbs that drive you crazy. One day when he was having dinner at Anchitos’ house, a furious man rushed into the room, his sword raised. Empedocles stood up, stretched out his arm, and sang Homer’s verses on the nepenthes that gives insensitivity. And immediately the force of the nepenthes seized the furious, and he remained fixed, the sword in the air, having forgotten everything, as if he had drunk the sweet poison mixed in the sparkling wine of a crater.
The sick came to him from the cities and he was surrounded by a crowd of wretched people. Women mingled in his wake. They grabbed the sides of his precious coat with erotic fervor. One was named Panthea, daughter of a nobleman from Agrigento. It was to be consecrated to Artemis, but she fled away from the cold statue of the goddess and devoted her virginity to Empedocles. We did not see their marks of love, for Empedocles preserved a divine insensitivity. He uttered words only in the epic meter, and in the dialect of Ionia, although the people and their followers used only doric. All his gestures were sacred. When he approached men, it was to bless or heal them. Most of the time, he remained silent. None of those who followed him could ever surprise him in his sleep. It was seen only majestic.
Panthea was dressed in fine wool and gold. His hair was laid out in the rich fashion of Agrigento, where life flowed softly. Her breasts were supported by a red stanza, and the soles of her sandals were fragrant. For the rest, she was beautiful and long in body, and very desirable color. It is impossible to assure that Empedocles loved her, but he took pity on her. Indeed, the Asian breath caused the plague in the Sicilian fields. Many men were touched by the black fingers of the scourge. Even the corpses of the beasts littered the edge of the meadows and here and there were peeled sheep, dead with their mouths open to the sky, with their protruding ribs. And Panthea became languishing from this disease. She fell at Empedocles’ feet and was no longer breathing. Those around him lifted his stiffened limbs and bathed them in wine and herbs. They untied the red stanza that squeezed her young breasts, and rolled her into strips. And his half-open mouth was restrained by a link, and his hollow eyes no longer saw the light.
Empedocles looked at her, detached the golden circle that encircled her forehead, and imposed it on her. He placed the prophetic laurel garland on her breasts, sang unknown verses about the migration of souls, and ordered her three times to stand up and walk. The crowd was full of terror. At the third call, Panthea came out of the shadow realm, and her body came to life and stood on her feet, all swaddled in the funeral bands. And the people saw that Empedocles was evocative of the dead.
Pysianacte, Father of Panthea, came to worship the new god. Tables were set out under the trees of his countryside, in order to offer him libations. Alongside Empedocles, slaves supported large torches. The heralds proclaimed, as well as to the mysteries, solemn silence. Suddenly, on the third vigil, the torches went out and the night enveloped the worshippers. There was a loud voice that called, “Empedocles!” When the light was clear, Empedocles had disappeared. The men did not see him again.
A frightened slave said he saw a red line crisscrossing the darkness towards the top of Etna. The faithful climbed the barren slopes of the mountain in the dreary glow of dawn. The crater of the volcano vomited a sheaf of flames. On the porous margin of lava that encircles the burning abyss, a sandal of brass worked by fire was found.