I will imagine these things as being like the truth….

 

 

*

 

 

What is clear is this: no man has seen what is—

the fact of the gods and all things of which I speak.

The man who speaks with greatest certainty

     of what chance has brought into being—

he doesn’t know who he is. Of all things, belief builds itself.  

 

 

The gods are given birth to, so humans think—

& wear clothing, speak, and have bodies like their own.

 

 

The gods of the Ethiopians are flat-nosed and black;

The Thracians say their gods exist: blue-eyed, red-haired.

 

 

If horses and oxen and lions had hands

& with their hands could draw and do all that men do,

horses as horses, and oxen as oxen

would draw the forms of the gods, each god’s

body bearing the shape of the one who drew it.

 

 

Homer and Hesiod tattle about all the gods do,

things which, among humans, are blemish and blame—

thievery, adultery, and deceiving one another.

 

 

The gods didn’t, at the beginning, offer mortals all things—

But in time, question by question, they discover more, more truly.

 

 

God is one, among gods and humans greatest, 

not like mortals in body, not like mortals in thought.

 

 

All of him sees, every sense thinks, all of him listens.

 

 

On eternal pause he waits, never moving,

Not going among others, never seen here, then there.

 

 

It takes no effort—with mind and heart he strikes

the all-bell cosmos and it rings.

 

 

*

 

 

From ur-seed to the flow of flower

All things that are are earth and water.

 

 

The sea is water’s flowing source, flowing source of wind—

nor can the strong winds blowing out the clouds

come to be without the open ocean’s great expanse,

nor the streaming rivers, nor the rain dropping water from the sky.

But the great ocean is mother of clouds of winds

and also of rivers.

 

 

The upper crust of the earth can be seen and touches the air; 

below the earth is limitless, an infinite reach.

 

 

*

 

 

If god had not made golden honey, many say

the fig-tree’s fruit would be sweetest.

 

 

She whom they call Iris, this is just a cloud grown large,

Purple and dark red and pale green to see.

 

 

And when Pythagoras passed by men thrashing a puppy

     he felt pity, they say, and said these words:

“Stop! Don’t strike him with that stick! He has a soul

     Of an old friend. I recognize him hearing his voice.”

 

 

From earth all things come, in earth all things end.



Original ↓

1.

ταῦτα δεδοξάσθω μὲν ἐοικότα τοῖς ἐτύμοισι … 

 

 

*

 

2.

καὶ τὸ μὲν οὖν σαφὲς οὔτις ἀνῆρ ἴδεν οὐδέ τις ἔσται

εἰδώς ἀμφὶ Θεῶν τε καὶ ἄσσα λέγω περὶ πάντων·

εἰ γὰρ καὶ τὰ μάλιστα τύχοι τετελεσμένον εἰπὼν,

αὐτὸς ὅμως οὐκ οἶδε· δόκος δ᾽ ἐπὶ πᾶσι τέτυκται. 

 

 

3.

ἀλλ᾽ οἱ βροτοὶ δοκέουσι γεννᾶσθαι θεούς,

τὴν σφετέρην ἐσθῆτά τ᾽ ἔχειν φωνήν τε δέμας τε. 

 

4. 

Αἰθίοπές τε <θεοὺς σφετέρους> σιμούς μέλανάς τε

Θρῆκές τε γλαυκοὺς καὶ πυρρούς <φασι πέλεσθαι>.

 

5. 

ἀλλ᾽ εἴ τοι χείράς <γ᾽> εἴχον βόες ἠὲ λέοντες

ἤ γράψαι χείρεσσι καὶ ἔργα τελεῖν ἄπερ ἄνδρες,

ἵπποι μέν θ᾽ ἵπποισι βόες δέ τε βουσὶν ὁμοίας

καί <κε> θεῶν ἰδέας ἔγραφον καὶ σώματ᾽ ἐποίουν

τοιαῦδ᾽ οἵόν περ καὐτοὶ δέμας εἴχομ <ἕκαστοι>. 

 

6. 

πάντα θεοῖσ᾽ ἀνέθηκαν Ὅμηρός θ᾽ Ἡσίοδός τε,

ὅσσα παρ᾽ ἀνδρώποισιν ὀνείδεα καὶ ψόγος ἐστίν,

κλέπτειν μοιχεύειν τε καὶ ἀλλήλους ἀπατεύειν. 

 

7.

οὕτοι ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς πάντα θεοὶ θνητοῖσ᾽ ὑπέδειξαν,

ἀλλὰ χρόνῳ ζητοῦντες ἐφευρίσκουσιν ἄμεινον.

 

8. 

εἷς θεός, ἔν τε θεοῖσι καὶ ἀνθρώποισι μέγιστος,

οὔτι δέμας θνητοῖσιν ὁμοίιος οὐδὲ νοήμα. 

 

9. 

οὗλος ὁρᾷ, οὗλος δὲ νοεῖ, οὗλος δέ τ᾽ ἀκούει. 

 

10. 

αἰεὶ δ᾽ ἐν ταύτῷ μίμνει κινούμενος οὐδέν,

οὐδὲ μετέρχεσθαί μιν ἐπιπρέπει ἄλλοτε ἄλλῃ. 

 

11. 

ἀλλ᾽ ἀπάνευθε πόνοιο νόου φρενὶ πάντα κραδαίνει. 

 

 

 

 *

  

12. 

γῆ καὶ ὕδωρ πάντ᾽ ἐσθ᾽ ὅσα γίνοντ᾽ ἡδὲ φύονται. 

 

 

13. 

πηγὴ δ᾽ ἐστὶ θάλασσ᾽ ὕδατος, πηγὴ δ᾽ ἀνέμοιο·

οὔτε γὰρ ἐν νέφεσι <γίνοιτό κε ἳς ἀνέμοιο

ἐκπνείοντος> ἔσωθεν ἄνευ πόντου μεγάλοιο

οὔτε ῥοαὶ ποταμῶν οὔτ᾽ αἰθέρος ὄμβριον ὕδωρ,

ἀλλὰ μέγας πόντος γενέτωρ νεφέων ἀνέμων τε

καὶ ποταμῶν.

 

14. 

γαίης μὲν τόδε πεῖρας ἄνω παρὰ ποσσὶν ὁρᾶται

ἠέρι προσπλάζον, <τὸ> κάτω δ᾽ ἐς ἄπειρον ἱκνεῖται. 

 

 

 

15. 

εἰ μὴ χλωρὸν ἔφυσε θεὸς μέλι, πολλὸν ἔφασκον

γλύσσονα σῦκα πέλεσθαι. 

 

16. 

ἣν τ᾽ Ἶριν καλέουσι, νέφος καὶ τοῦτο πέφυκε,

πορφύρεον καὶ φοινίκεον καὶ χλωρὸν ἰδέσθαι. 

 

17. 

καί ποτέ μιν στυφελιζομένου σκύλακος παριόντα

φασίν ἐποικτῖραι καὶ τόδε φάσθαι ἔπος·

‘παῦσαι μηδὲ ῥάπιζ᾽, ἐπεὶ ἦ φίλου ἀνέρος ἐστίν

ψυχή, τὴν ἔγνων φθεγξαμένης ἀίων’. 

 

18. 

ἐκ γαίης γὰρ πάντα καὶ εἰς γῆν πάντα τελευτᾷ. 

 

 

 

Sources in order of appearance (as cited in M.R. Wright's The Presocratics, Bristol Classical Press, 1985):

1. Plutarch, Symposium 746b

2. Sextus Empiricus, Adversus methematicos 7.49

3. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 5.109

4. Ibid, 7.22

5. Ibid, 5.110

6. Sextus Empiricus, Adversos mathematicos 9.193

7. Stobaeus, Eclogae 1.8.2

8. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 5.109

9. Sextus Empiricus, Adversos mathematicos 9.144

10. Simplicius, In Aristotelis Physica commentaria 23.11

11. Ibid, 23.20

12. Ibid, 189.1

13. Scholiast on Iliad 21.196 (Geneva codex)

14. Achilles Tatius, Isagoge ad Arati Phaenomena 4

15. Herodian, Περὶ μονήρους λέξεως 41.5

16. Eustathius, scholia on Iliad 11.27

17. Diogenes Laertius, Vitae Philosophorum 8.36

18. Sextus Empiricus, Adversus mathematicos 10.313

Translator's Note


From the age of 25, and for the next 67 years, Xenophanes wandered through Greece, reading his poems to those who would listen. The poems that survive, all in fragments, reveal a poet of a sharp philosophic mind—and by sharp, I mean not only the acute insight the poetry offers, but also the honed edge of satire that cuts through it. He mocks Homer and Hesiod (fragment 6) for teaching us that the gods behave as we do: shamefully. He chides Pythagoras (fragment 17) for that philosopher’s claim of continuous memory through many different lives, recognizing in the bark of a dog, the voice of an old friend from lifetimes ago. 

But in that mockery lurks a subtle revolution in thought. He notes (fragments 3-5) a tendency in humankind to paint the absolute other as a portrait of ourselves—those gods, so like us in their unthinkable unlikeness. We offer potencies we cannot fathom the limits we find ourselves within. Xenophanes will have none of it. Iconoclast to popular opinion in ways that Socrates will fully embody (and fully suffer the consequences of), Xenophanes begins to posit a god or a God of another kind: kin to no human, kin to no creature at all. As Diogenes Laertius puts it: a sphere that “is the totality of mind and thought, and is eternal.” It is a new thread in the weave of Greek thought, one that Anaxagoras and Empedocles work into the tapestry of their own concerns, considering the world as originating from something other than the elements, from Mind, from Love, from Strife. Xenophanes claims there are many worlds, but none exist at the same time; he is the first to say that the soul is a form of breath; he reminds us that what breathes is also what dies. 

Some say he had no teachers; others say this is not true. Boton of Athens taught him, or Archelaus. Born in Colophon, but banished, he lived in Sicily, Elea, and Catana. Then he roamed. It is said he was sold into slavery, but freed by two followers of Pythagoras. He felt few things in life became thinkable. And some things in life unbearable: he buried his sons with his own hands.

My main effort is simply to fuse back together the ancient conglomeration of poetry and philosophy, proceeding by image foremost, seeking language of honest surprise that also maintains faithfulness to the text. I’ll allow multiple meanings to accrue in a single word to give some sense of the thicker context in which a given word dwells. Lastly, I arrange the fragments to read as a broken poem, looking for a logic that will hold the whole together in feelingly coherent ways—here, a working through the strange nature of belief, of the nature of the gods versus a God, and the creation of the universe that follows forth.


Dan Beachy-Quick

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In the Classroom

Fragmented DiversionConsider how Dan Beachy-Quick’s translation of Xenophanes would read if the fragments were arranged in a different sequence—how many different stories can be told about the nature of the god(s) and the universe, through the simple act of rearrangement? Following the notion of the "broken poem" introduced in the Translator's Note, break up the fragments into even smaller pieces and construct a new poem out of the stanzas they create.
Bonus points if you scatter the fragments somewhere to be excavated and reconstructed by another reader.

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