Apollon who gleams, who fills us up like a basin —
what light within lightlessness?
The ancients wrote that all could be illumined —
but what illumination for the edge beyond which light
dances eternal with itself alone, bound and liberated,
unseen by all, where space dances out time
and time ricochets oracular in the darkest stars?
Does it mean that the dance of mass and motion
is light even in inference?
What does it mean, the screams of these pulsars,
matter falling in, the eventual decays into spheres
of glasslike light that none beyond may see?
Last week, in a flurry of activity, I wrote out the words above in a Typora document — a liminal thing halfway between prose and poetry, a need and a want. Below that, I wrote the beginnings of a paragraph: “Last year in late autumn, as night cut into daylight, I started taking the shuttle bus to my neighborhood a bit more often than usual in bad weather. It was dark, cold, and damp, and I was contemplating Apollon in a new way.” The thoughts resulted in this blog post about a year ago.
The verses above were about the Nobel prize — specifically, the passages within the scientific description of Penrose’s work on black holes (often called “dark stars” before him) and the unanswered questions that nudged me towards YouTube and a video about how time and space become inverted within a black hole. I texted my partner, “black holes are f*ed up,” because it’s one thing to think about things abstractly in passing and quite another to try to understand them. What bothers me the most is attempting to visualize that time just stops at the singularity.
It’s partly disturbing because I place a lot of importance on light and its symbolism as an illuminating thing, especially within the Platonic texts I’m reading and the fragments of the Chaldean Oracles that I really love.
Then, I promptly forgot about everything — a conference bracketed by meetings and library teaching, two doctors’ appointments, and a flu shot this week — until this morning when I was at the shrine praying to Apollon and reciting the poem “To Apollon of the Steep Cliffs” (in Acts of Speech, now preorderable on many devices or, if you prefer, without DRM).
Earlier in October, I clicked through to one of the endnotes of the Orphic Hymns or encountered an equivalency description in a scholarly footnote somewhere.
Βίος Βίος, Ἀπόλλων Ἀπόλλων, Ἥλιος Ἥλιος, Κόσμος Κόσμος, Φῶς Φῶς
Bios Bios, Apollon Apollon, Helios Helios, Kosmos Kosmos, Phos, Phos
I have encountered this before, most definitely — I mean, I did read all of the endnotes in the Orphic Hymns so my eyeballs did process it even if my brain didn’t — but it’s an inscription from the Black Sea c. 300 BCE, with detailed information here. It grabbed me because I’m reading Proclus’ Timaeus commentary, which is filled with discussions of the hypostasis of Life. (In Platonism, it goes Being – Life – Intellect.) It meshes very sweetly with the other things I have been reading about Apollon in the Late Platonic commentaries, where Helios and Apollon are entwined with each other even though they possess their distinctiveness and light is central to what each of the Gods does. What is notable in the passage below is the unity of and differences between the two:
In the first place therefore, let us survey how Plato, in the same manner as Orpheus, considers the sun to be in a certain respect the same as Apollo, and how he venerates the communion of these gods. For Orpheus clearly says that the sun is the same with Apollo and asserts this (as I may say) through the whole of his poetry. But the Athenian guest indicates this through the union of these divinities, constructing a common temple to Apollo in the sun, and at one time making mention of both, but another, of one only, in consequence of their subsisting according to one union. But he says as follows: “Every year after the conversions of the sun from summer to winter, it is requisite that the whole city should assemble in the temple common to the sun and Apollo, consecrating three of the citizens to the God.” In these words therefore, speaking in common about both these divinities, that it is fit there should be a temple of Apollo and the sun, into which it is necessary the whole city should assemble, after the summer solstice, he discourses in what follows about both, as if they were one, adding, that three of the citizens should be consecrated to the God; thus recurring from the division to the union of both. But elsewhere, he latently indicates the communion of them with each other. And again, in what follows, at one time he says that the citizens [consecrated to God] should offer common first fruits to the sun and Apollo, but at another to the sun alone, in consequence of Apollo being in the sun. According to Plato therefore, there is a kindred conjunction of these divinities, a communion of powers, and an ineffable union.
Socrates also in the Cratylus, proposing to discover the essence of Apollo from his appellation, ascends to the simplicity of his hyparxis, to his power of unfolding truth into light, and to his intellect which is the cause of knowledge, thus sufficiently indicating to us the unmultiplied, simple, and uniform nature of the God. But in the [6th book of the] Republic, arranging the sun analogous to the good, and sensible light, the light proceeding from the good to the intelligible, and calling the light which is present to the intelligible from the good, truth, connecting likewise intellect and the intelligible with each other, he evidently collects together these two series, I mean the Apolloniacal and the solar. For each of these is analogous to the good. But sensible light, and intellectual truth, are analogous to superessential light. And these three lights are successive to each other, viz. the divine, the intellectual, and sensible light; the last indeed pervading to sensibles from the visible sun; but the second extending from Apollo to intellectuals; and the first, from the good to intelligibles.
Again therefore, these Gods are demonstrated to be connascent with each other, according to their analogy to the good. But together with union, they also have a separation adapted to them. Hence by poets inspired by Phœbus, the different generative causes and fountains of them are celebrated, from which being allotted their hypostasis, they are separated from each other. But they are likewise celebrated by these poets, as mutually connascent and united, and are praised by the appellations of each other. For the sun vehemently rejoices, to be celebrated in hymns as Apollo. And Apollo when he is invoked as the sun, benevolently causes the light of truth to shine forth. If therefore, the hyparxes of these divinities are united to, and subsist together with each other, but many powers of Apollo are delivered to us by Plato himself, and are happily allotted an appropriate theory, it is certainly proper to collect from these by a reasoning process, the solar progressions.Proclus, Platonic Theology, trans. Thomas Taylor, Book 6, 58.1-60.3
And here, in the Cratylus commentary, where I will point out “harmonic assimilation to the universe” and the light imagery:
That this God is “eternal lord of darts” (405C) demonstrates that his sovereignty prevails over all things in the cosmos. From the supercelestial order above he sows all the cosmos with channels and the rays of light from Zeus; for his “darts” symbolize his rays of light. That he is God of music (406A) demonstrates that Apollo is cause of all harmony, both invisible and visible, through his directive powers, by which with Mnemosyne and Zeus he engenders the Muses, and he cooperates in organizing the perceptible universe with his demiurgic powers, which the sons of the theurgists call “hands”, since indeed the activity of harmony is dependent upon the motion of the hands. But he also puts both souls and bodies in order through the harmonic ratios […]. Furthermore, the whole celestial order and its motion demonstrates the harmonic work of the God. This is why individual souls as well, once they have removed the disharmony that results from generation, are perfected in no other way than by harmonic assimilation to the universe. For then they achieve the best life that is offered to them by the God.Proclus, On Plato Cratylus, trans. Brian Duvick, 101,17-102,9
I decided to chant Βίος Βίος, Ἀπόλλων Ἀπόλλων, Ἥλιος Ἥλιος, Κόσμος Κόσμος, Φῶς Φῶς because I’m always looking out for passages that make good Apollonian chants — things complex enough to be good focal points for devotional worship, yet simple enough that they get out of the way after one knows them well enough. (Kyklos Apollon’s Todd Jackson came up with another one that I use a lot, Paian Pythian Apollon Apollon Apollon Pythian Paian.) This one worked really well considering all of the above symbolism and the vast intertexuality that comes from all of these words in proximity to one another. The chant hums like a bee on the tongue. The beauty of the chant and the way that the words and concepts behind them cascade together in a beautiful tapestry of associations is one root of the urgency and distress in my mind about light and singularities.
So, back to black holes.
Many of the poems I write about the Gods — such as those in the latter two sections of Acts of Speech — are written based on impressions, mental images, and associations that come about while praying or contemplating after prayer. “To Apollon of the Steep Cliffs” is based on a feeling on the tip of my tongue that I could describe as hollow-yet-full, like the scent of stone. It was also a playful piece because, as I often say, I tend to associate Apollon more with some concepts from cosmology (and physics) and the analogies one can make to harmonies, light, and so on within it. I mentioned black holes in the piece at one point and had completely forgotten about it. The trapped light of the YouTube video was embedded in the verses, too, as if my question had been answered months before I had even asked it; the symbols were just waiting to be tripped over in just the right way. The light is still there, even if it cannot be seen.
And the question, perhaps, is actually that I want to know what I don’t know and what many of us are working through — which of the many symbols and tokens of this science-saturated age and this beautiful, centerless-yet-centered universe that we inhabit and are part of — complete with galaxy collisions, singularities whose mouths gape wide, the all-cutting radiation, the silence of the (mostly) vacuum around us —— or the fact that we live in the Sun’s atmosphere, the solar envelope that protects all within a star’s influence from (many) interstellar threats —— even the giddiness of how weird it is that we live on a planet where compounds literally precipitate out of the atmosphere — are best for feeling that sense of wholeness and connection in prayer and that feeling that one has adequately praised a God after giving incense or liquid to lim? Definitely a poetry thing.
Life, past, present, future, image, sun, oracular darkness, oracular light, radiance, love.