Cosmic Cycles #10: Original Sin.

In the passage we call “Strasbourg ensemble d1”, Empedocles discusses what we today would call “original sin”; i.e. some sinful deed that inaugurates a new eon. The inclusion of this with the content from ensembles a, b and c further weakensthe two-poem and disunity theses.2 While ensembles a and c are predominantly physical, d shows a strong overlap with the katharmoi:

…to fall and meet their fate separately from each other,

very willingly, because of baneful necessity,

rotting; and despite now having love and….

The Harpies will be present…with lots [to be cast] for death.

[5] Woe is me! That the pitiless day did not destroy me 

before I devised with my claws terrible deeds for the sake of food.

…in vain in this…I wet my cheeks

….very deep….I thinker

…despite willingness, pains will be present in the heart.

[10]….But we shall set forth again [or: later] upon our accounts

…. an untiring flame happened to meet…

….bringing a mixture of much woe

…. things able to be parents were born…

…. even now dawn gazes on their remains

[15] ….I entered the final place…

………..with a cry and a shout



Ensemble d is highly fragmentary, and thus must be read in the context of the rest of the corpus. In light of this, however, it is perhaps enough to show that physical and katharmic ideas were freely mixed in our best-attested single source.Within ensemble d itself, we have a reference to the separation of components of living creatures: “to fall and meet their fate separately from one another”. In the context of the other Strasbourg ensembles this would seem to be either referring to the separation of the Four Elements during the Cosmic Cycle, or to the devolution of “Men and Women” into “Separate Limbs”. It might also refer to both, since in either case this happens “despite now having love”, i.e., under the influence ofStrife, the contrary Force as found in ensemble c line 4 above. But just after this we find a previously-known katharmic fragment: “Woe is me! That the pitiless day did not destroy me before I devised with my claws terrible deeds for the sake of food.”3 On the two-poem view, these lines would have without a doubt originated in the Katharmoi. There are numerous features that support the two-poem view:

  1. “harpies will be present” (line 4) – On a literal reading, this can have one of two meanings, either physical or katharmic. On the latter, the “Harpies” are associated with divine justice the seeks out and punishes the sinner.4
  2. Lines 5-6 were previously attested in Porphyry’s “De abstentia”, a strongly katharmic text.
  3. The mention of the narrator’s “claws” (line 6), which on the literal reading implies that this occurred in a previous incarnation as a clawed animal. Since it is hard to see how reincarnation fits into system of Ionian-style physics, this supports the katharmic reading as well.

All of these considerations have caused two-poem and disunity scholars to place DK B139, the previously-known portion of ensemble d, in the Katharmoi,5 but as we have seen such an attribution is questionable.

Conclusion: For reasons given above, we consider the balance of the evidence to lie on the side of unitarian and one-poem readings of Empedocles. However, this cannot yet be taken as a given, and in the following this remaining uncertainty should to be kept in mind. But once we progress from the basic principles of the philosophy to the details of the cosmic cycle, we face a whole new set of problems which have engaged modern interpreters. It is to this that we now turn.

1 DK31 B139+

2Trepanier (2004) 

3Previously known as DK B 139 found in Porphyry’s De abstentia 2.31.5.

4Harpies are associated with divine justice that seeks out and punishes the sinner.

5Kirk and Raven (1957), Burnett (1961), etc.


One thought on “Cosmic Cycles #10: Original Sin.

  1. Pingback: Cosmic Cycles #9: “Mid-level” elements | Zoon Echon Blogon

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