The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XXIX

Heracleitus the Obscure…

His Critique of the Olympian Gods…

God as Unitary Wisdom…

As Fire…

The Unity and Immutability of Fire throughout its Elemental Transformations…

Heracleitus was a native of Ephesus, more or less midway on the Asia Minor coast between Miletus and Colophon. Some time around 500 B.C., he produced a book of which a hundred or so fragments have survived: fragments whose cryptic tone and terseness have earned their author the cognomen, “the Obscure”.

Like his predecessor Xenophanes, Heracleitus begins with a bitter critique of the popular polytheism of Homer. As one fragment runs,

A knowledge of many things does not teach one to have intelligence…


Wisdom is one: it is to understand the thought which steers all things through all things.

To know many things — the causes of lightning or rain or earthquake — is merely to enter the narthex of knowledge; but wisdom itself requires the understanding of the one Cause that underlies and governs all the multifarious operations of the cosmos.


This “wisdom”, as becomes immediately obvious, is Heracleitus’ designation for the Divine, a God who once again is unitary (as opposed to the many gods of Homeric myth) and rational. Heracleitus is indeed the first in the Western religious tradition to explicitly invest the Godhead with the attribute and name of Wisdom — several centuries, that is, before the Hebrew sapiential literature (whose hypostatic Wisdom figure was later identified by Christian theologians with the Logos of the Stoics, becoming the second person of the Christian Trinity).

But, as Heracleitus insists in one of his most famous logions,

The one and only wisdom is willing and unwilling to be called Zeus.

To the extent that it is divine, the One Wisdom that governs the operations of the universe is willing to be called “Zeus”, the god, that is, who is the head of the Olympian pantheon, and thus the name that men customarily give to the Divine. But the One Wisdom is also unwilling to be called by that name, insofar as it properly repudiates the crude, anthropomorphic associations that it inevitably conjures up in the minds of men.

Xenophanes had already thoroughly ridiculed the finite, concretistic, and anthropomorphic attributes and traits that the poets of myth had projected upon the Olympian gods: their having hands and feet like men; wearing the regional costumes of their local worshipers; being subject to the most irrational and indecorous of human appetites and passions. For Xenophanes, a god, by definition, must utterly transcend all the limitations of human existence and experience, and be wholly unsusceptible to the undignified vicissitudes of human suffering and emotion. Indeed, from Xenophanes’ time to the end of classical antiquity, we encounter as an axiomatic topos of Greek theology that the Divine can only be described by negation, as incorporeal, immutable, impassible, and eternal.

Heracleitus’ critique of the popular cult of the Olympians expresses the same revulsion, not only at the notorious immorality of Homer’s gods, but at their adherents’ rank theological ignorance. Thus he rails against the shameless representation of Dionysus as a phallus, and the irrationality of praying to statues made of the same corruptible materials as those of which men build their houses

Nonetheless, as much as such presumptively rational thinkers as Xenophanes and Heracleitus might prefer to strip the Divine of all sensual and corporeal qualities and associations, to do so would mean that nothing could be predicated of it. And so, like all Western poets, philosophers, and theologians, Heracleitus is bound inevitably to fall back upon analogies and images drawn from the familiar world of human experience — to fall back, that is, upon myth.


Heracleitus’ signal God-image is Fire. As air was for Anaximenes the divine element that endured while metamorphosing into all things, so, for Heracleitus, fire is the universal and unchanging substrate of things. As Diogenes Laertius (the indispensable second-century A.D. biographer of the Greek philosophers) records:

Heracleitus describes change as a way up and down, and the world-order as coming into being in accordance with it. For fire, when it is contracted, becomes moist; when it is contracted still further, it becomes water; and water, when it is contracted, turns to earth. This is the downward way. And earth liquefies again; and from it water arises; and from water the rest…. And this is the upward way.

Adapting Anaximenes’ world-generating process of dilation and compression, Heracleitus now merely substitutes fire for air.

But though fire thus undergoes endless transformations, like Anaximenes’ god air, it too remains everlastingly one and unchanged. As we read in a fragment preserved by the early Christian Father Clement of Alexandria,

This world-order is the same for all; no god made it, nor any man, but it always was and is and will be an ever-living fire, kindling by measure and going out by measure.

Heracleitus’ fire, thus, once again, exhibits all the canonical properties of the Divine, including eternity, immutability, and self-generation.


The world-process, on the other hand, is constantly in flux. Thus, another of his famous dicta, recorded by Plato:

Heracleitus, you know, says that everything moves on, and that nothing is at rest; and comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says that you could not step in the same river twice.

What the Sage undoubtedly meant, of course, is that, though the waters into which one successively steps are different, the river remains the same. And so it is in the world-order: in the midst of constant change the everlasting fire remains one and the same, “kindling in measure and going out in measure”.

The kindlings and goings-out of fire are simply the transformations of the fire into the different elements in the “upward” and “downward” phases of the cycle.

All things [runs a fragment preserved by Plutarch] are an exchange for fire, and fire for all things, as goods are for gold, and gold for goods.

The transformation of sea into earth is balanced by an equal and opposite transformation of earth into sea, the equilibrium of the whole being preserved by means of the equality of these exchanges, as wares are exchanged for gold and gold for wares. What is essential in maintaining this equilibrium is what Heracleitus calls “measure”.

As another fragment preserved by Plutarch reads,

The sun will not overstep his measure, for it he does, the Furies, defenders of Justice, will find him out.

If the sun were to fail to turn back toward the equator at the time of the summer solstice, the orderly succession of the seasons would be disrupted, and the whole balance of nature would be overturned.

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