The Shamanic Experience in Pre-Socratic Greece

In Greece, the rituals of the Orphic and Eleusinian Mysteries which kept alive the essence of the lunar participatory experience, strengthened the sense of participation in an unseen reality and gave initiates an experience of immortality and the omnipresence of the soul. The poet Pindar said of them: “Blessed are they who have seen these things. They know the end of life and they know the God-given beginnings.” Apart from the Mysteries, certain of the Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers of the sixth century BC carry forward the legacy of the lunar experience: the words of Heraclitus, when he suggests that the soul is of unfathomable depth, retain the essence of that ancient perception. Thales of Miletus speaks of the ‘All’ as being alive and full of daemons who are the agents of the one soul-substance. Anaximenes says that humanity and nature are fundamentally inseparable because both participate in the same underlying ‘substance’ which he calls soul. Pythagoras (569–475 BC), after he was exiled from Greece to Crotona on the east coast of southern Italy, having spent forty years with the astronomer-priests of Egypt and Babylon, defined the mathematical laws which embodied the intelligence, wisdom and mathematical harmony of the divine order of the cosmos. He left these words to encourage us:

Take heart, for the human race is divine.


In a book called In the Dark Places of Wisdom, the Classical scholar, Dr. Peter Kingsley, describes the treasures of wisdom bequeathed to the West by Parmenides (ca. 515–ca. 450 BC), who was born at Velia (Elia), in southern Italy, a city now known to have been sacred to the goddess Persephone. Parmenides was one of the greatest of the Pre-Socratic philosophers. Only a few fragments of his teaching survive and we know of them mainly through Plato’s Parmenides and later commentaries. But he did leave a poem, an extraordinary poem written in the incantatory metre that was used to draw people into another state of consciousness, “poetry created,” as Kingsley writes, “under divine inspiration, revealing what humans on their own can never see or know, describing the world of gods and the world of humans and the meetings between humans and gods.” This poem is a key to understanding the shamanic experience of that time. Parmenides, like Pythagoras, was skilled in the practice of incubation, whereby a person wanting to enter another dimension of reality, or request a vision or a visitation from a god or goddess, withdrew into a cave or underground room or enclosed space, sometimes for days on end. He would have used techniques of chanting and breath control to give him access to a transcendent dimension of reality.

Parmenides’ poem describes his shamanic journey into that other dimension of reality in a chariot drawn by mares and guided by young women — daughters of the sun — through immense doors which stretch from earth to heaven and which open on oiled hinges onto the yawning chasm of the Underworld. He speaks of his encounter there with someone whom he calls simply “The Goddess” although we know that her name is Persephone. As Kingsley writes: “Every single figure Parmenides encounters in his poem is a woman or a girl. Even the animals are female. The universe he describes is a feminine one.” The poem begins:

The mares that carry me as far as longing can reach
rode on, once they had come and fetched me onto the legendary
road of the divinity that carries the man who knows
through the vast and dark unknown…

What Parmenides’ poem reveals is that he was a master of the shamanic art of travelling, taking him “as far as longing can reach” into the darkness and mystery of the Immortal Realm, and that his writings about Truth, Justice and the Right Ordering of human existence were derived from his actual experience of that other dimension of reality and his encounter there with the goddess. It also suggests that the great divide that exists in our culture between the rational and the non-rational did not exist in his time and does not need to exist now. It is a barrier created by our fear of the unknown and our tendency to disparage the existence of dimensions of reality of which we no longer have knowledge or experience.