For Thinking about Seirai (Divine Series)

This entire post is something I created a while ago to serve as a starting-point for a discussion, and my main goal in posting it here is so that I have an easy way to refer to it (additionally, so I can link to this from something that I’m posting on the evening of the 23rd). There are previous posts on KALLISTI that summarize this material with more context (diagrams here and some text here), and I encourage you to take a look at them because they were actually put together with the blog post format in mind, unlike this document.

The intention of reflecting on all of these passages at once is to wrap one’s head around the complexities involved in seira/divine series, and this post’s grouping of the material together is a transformative use aimed at encouraging spiritual practice and making transparent certain doctrines, and (most) scholars are generally not writing with us in mind as their audience.

I cite a lot of things in this document — if you look at the table of contents below, you can see that sections are titled after quotations, and that’s because the document is centered around discussing each of them. I encourage you to take a look at each work in its totality if you are interested in getting a full and complete picture of the context of each passage; excerpts are no substitute. Some of the quotations from dialogues are from recent translations that are really nice (and I mean it — the Phaedrus one I read last year sparked joy, to quote Marie Kondo), and I recommend purchasing them to read. Please note that many of these books may be available through interlibrary loan from your library, and most library websites include a form where you can make a purchase request or suggestion. Reading the second volume of Hermias/Syrianus’ Phaedrus commentary in translation was one of the highlights of my 2022, and it can be your highlight of 2023 (or whatever year you’re reading this in, time traveler) if you so choose. If you’re interested in any of the Thomas Taylor translations or the Prolegomena, here’s a link to the US distributor of the Prometheus Trust materials.

  1. Defining “seira”
  2. From Summit to End
    1. (1) Proclus, Essay 6, 6.1.3, 92.2-20
    2. (2) Proclus, Essay 6, section 6.1.2, 78.1
    3. (3) Proclus, Theology of Plato, V.35
    4. (4) Proclus, On Plato’s Timaeus, vol. VI, 166.2-29
  3. What Does This Mean for Us?
    1. (5) Proclus, On Plato’s Timaeus, vol. VI, 159.14-160.12
    2. (6) Olympiodorus, On Plato First Alcibiades, Lecture 3, §20.
    3. (7) Damascius, Life of Isidore, §84E
    4. (8) Proclus, Theology of Plato, VI.18
    5. (9) Proclus, Hymn to Athene
    6. (10) R. M. van den Berg, commenting on said hymn
    7. (11) Marinus of Samara, Life of Proclus, 15-55
    8. (12) Damascius, Life of Isidore, §13
    9. (13) Damascius, Life of Isidore, §152
  4. Looking Back at Plato
    1. (14) Anon. Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy, I.22-46
    2. (15) Plato, Phaedrus, 246d-248c
    3. (16) Plato, Phaedrus, 252c-253c
    4. (17) Damascius, On Plato’s Phaedo, §540
    5. (18) Plato, Theaetetus, 150b-151d
    6. (19) Plato, Apology, 20d-22d
  5. Addendum: Hermias’ notes on Syrianus’ Phaedrus Lectures
    1. (20) Hermias/Syrianus, On Plato Phaedrus, 197,7-197,22
    2. (21) Hermias/Syrianus, On Plato Phaedrus, 199,24-200,7
    3. (22) Hermias/Syrianus, On Plato Phaedrus, 198,1-198,20
    4. (23) Hermias/Syrianus, On Plato Phaedrus, 198,30

In Platonism, reality unfolds from a “compact”, ineffable summit to generate all of the complexity around us. The One and the Henads (unities, or Gods) underlie everything. This unfolding happens through a sequence of steps, and for more information on that, please see Proclus’ Elements of Theology or the helpful diagrams on Proclus from Radek Chlup in Proclus: An Introduction. Each point in the sequence is characterized by more plurality and difference. Most of this unfolding is ontologically prior to us, and for this reason, souls like ours are referred to as particular or partial souls. Our souls are characterized by difference (see Proclus, Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus Book 3, Pt. II, 138.26-139.5), and we experience reincarnation in a cycle, in contact with the even greater difference and differentiation while embodied. However, we do have a share of divinity within us, anchored in a God. Unpacking the meaning of seira in all of its permutations can assist us in knowing ourselves better, which makes us more active and empowered agents in our pursuit to become as Godlike as possible.

To frame this discussion, this document first looks at the definition of seira. It progresses to what Platonists have said about these seirai suspended from Gods, especially where their writings apply to partial souls. It concludes with several passages in Plato that the commentators draw from.

Each quotation is numbered. All brackets (except initial capitalization and ellipses) come from translators unless otherwise noted.

Defining “seira”

Liddell & Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (1940) defines seira as a cord or rope. It’s often translated as chain, but LSJ also lists these definitions: a trace, cord or line with a noose, lasso, bandage, edge/border, an animal’s tail, locks of hair, line/lineage, series, a disease of horses, or the front part of the perineum.

From Summit to End

The way this is developed in Platonism is by referring to its usage as a chain. From each of the Gods, a chain is suspended. However, as with any word that has multiple definitions, concepts like trace and lineage are also relevant. The following chart shows how this works in practice in the Platonic tradition. Note its similarity to the “org chart” common in workplaces.

Proclus describes the ultimate endpoint of the series in Essay 6 on the Republic like this:

(1) Proclus, Essay 6, 6.1.3, 92.2-20

[E]ach series carries the name of its monad, and the divided spiritual beings [at the lower end of that series] love to receive the same names as those beings that are universal [sc. the gods at the head of their series]. It is for this reason that there are many and various Apollos, Poseidons and Hephaesti. Some of them are separate from the universe, while others have been stationed around the heavens. Yet others have been put in command of universal elements, and some have been given authority over an individual one. It would not be surprising if a maximally particularised Hephaestus who has been allotted a daemonic rank should have as his designated task the providential care of the enmattered fire that has been placed upon the Earth, or that he should be the guardian of some craft such as that of the blacksmith (after all, the descent of the gods’ providence has been assigned a well ordered procession from universal and unified causes that exist on high down to the final division). Now this [lowest] Hephaestus would delight in the preservation of the property that he has been allotted and would be opposed to causes that bring about the dissolution of that thing’s composition. Therefore ‘war’ or the division of various and sundry powers exists among these classes, and they have a natural relationship (oikeiotês) to or alienation (allotriotês) from one another. They have an individualised natural affinity (sympatheia) towards the things that they manage.

Dirk Baltzly, John F. Finamore, and Graeme Miles, eds., Proclus: Commentary on Plato’s Republic, trans. Dirk Baltzly, John F. Finamore, and Graeme Miles, vol. 2, Proclus: Commentary on Plato’s Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022),, Essay 6, 6.1.3, 92.2-20

Usually, we discuss the endpoints of Gods’ series in terms of their activity related to stones, herbs, and other natural/material contexts, but they’re also active culturally. Here, Proclus further links these lower daimonic ranks to symbols and signs of Gods, especially in the context of sacred rites:

(2) Proclus, Essay 6, section 6.1.2, 78.1

[W]hen it comes to each individual order of gods descending from above down to their end-points and passing through all the genera among [various kinds of] beings, it is possible to see that the endpoints of the series reflect (proïstanai) the sorts of properties that the makers of myths assign to the gods themselves — the sorts of properties that both bring these things into existence and sustain them. It is through such things that the makers of myths conceal the secret understanding (theôria) of the most fundamental things. After all, the last of the genera of daemons — those that are turned towards matter — govern (proïstanai) perversions of powers which are in accordance with nature, the ugliness of enmattered things, temptation towards vice, as well as disorderly and discordant motions. For it is necessary for these things too to be in the universe and to fill out the diversity of the universal order, and it is necessary for the generation of their derivative existence (parupostasis) — and of their stability and permanence — to be included within the eternal genera. Of course, these things having been observed by the founders of sacred rites, they issued orders for defined periods of laughter or lamentation to be celebrated, thus discharging their religious duties to these genera [of daemons] and allotting to them their fair share of the general service that pertains to what is divine. 

Ibid., Essay 6, section 6.1.2, 78.1-18.

When it comes to behavioral symbols, active within the soul and nature, we can also look to what Proclus says in the Platonic Theology:

(3) Proclus, Theology of Plato, V.35

What then is it that the Athenian guest says concerning this monad, which converts to itself in an undefiled manner the Curetic progressions? “The core (κορη) i.e. virgin, and mistress that is with us, being delighted with the discipline of dancing, did not think it proper to play with empty hands; but being adorned with an all-perfect panoply, she thus gave perfection to dancing.” Through these things therefore, the Athenian guest clearly shows the alliance of the Curetic triad to the [Athenaic] monad. For as that triad is said to sport in armour, so he says that the Goddess who is the leader of them [i.e. of their progression] being adorned with an all-perfect panoply, is the source to them of elegant motion. And as he denominates that triad Curetic, from purity, so likewise he calls this goddess Core, as being the cause of undefiled power itself.

Proclus, Theology of Plato, trans. Thomas Taylor, Prometheus Trust, Book 5, Ch. 35.

Proclus also covers this in the Timaeus commentary, with a focus on the daimonic orders at first. Later on in the passage, he shifts to discussing this in the context of partial souls.

(4) Proclus, On Plato’s Timaeus, vol. VI, 166.2-29

And in respect of each God there is its individual number of angels, heroes, and daimons, for each one leads a plurality that takes over its own form (morphê), and on account of this the heavenly ones are attached to the heavenly Gods, both angels and daimons, the generation-producing ones to the generation-producing, the uplifting ones to the uplifting, the creative ones to the creative, the life-generating ones to the life-generating, the unswerving ones to the unswerving Gods; and again, among the uplifting ones, the Kronian to the Kronian and the Solar to the Solar; and, among the life-generating ones, the Lunar to the Lunar and the Aphrodisian to the Aphrodisian. For [the daimonic orders] take their own appellations from the Gods they are attached to, on the assumption that they are contiguous with them and receive the one characteristic (idea) at a subordinate level. What is surprising here, given that individual souls too, recognizing their own chiefs and leaders have used the names of those ones to call themselves by? Or from what source have Asclepii, Dionysi, and Dioscuri been given their names? So just as is the case with the heavenly Gods, so too in the case of the generation-producers one should observe for each of them a plurality in the same line, angelic, daimonic, heroic, and that the number that depends upon it bears its appellation from the one, so that there is an Ouranic God, angel, daimon, and hero, and likewise in the case of Earth, and Oceanus proceeds through all the orders, and Tethys in much the same fashion, and the same with the other Gods. For there is a Jovian plurality, and a Heraian one, and a Kronian one, which is addressed through the same name as the Gods. There is nothing peculiar in this, for we speak of both the intelligible and the sensible human, even though the separation is greater in this case.

Proclus et al., Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus, trans. Harold Tarrant, vol. VI, VI vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 166.2-29.

What Does This Mean for Us?

Partial souls, according to the Platonic tradition, are suspended from a God intrinsically, by their nature, and that is called a soul’s leader-God. Part of “know thyself,” what we are encouraged to do in the Alcibiades I, is coming to puzzle through who our leader-God is and realign with them, which is done at the same time as the development of the virtues.

(5) Proclus, On Plato’s Timaeus, vol. VI, 159.14-160.12

Even amid matters that seem difficult to understand or puzzling, the person who simply knows takes the easy path to divine understanding (gnôsis) — retracing [a path that runs via] the divinely inspired cognition (entheos noêsis) through which things become clear and familiar (gnôrimos), for all things are in the gods. The one who has antecedently comprehended all things is able to fill others with his own understanding. This is precisely what Timaeus has done here when he refers us to the authority of the Theologians and the generation of the gods celebrated by them.

Who, then, are these people and what is the understanding (gnôsis) that belongs to them? Well, in the first place, they are “offspring of the gods” and “clearly know their own parents.” They are offspring and children of the gods in as much as they conserve the form of the god who presides over them through their current way of life, for Apollonian souls are called “offspring and children of Apollo” when they choose a life that is prophetic or dedicated to mystic rites (telestikos bios). These souls are called “children” of Apollo to the extent that they belong to this god in particular and are adapted to that series down here. By contrast, they are called offspring of Apollo because their present lifestyle displays them as such. All souls are therefore children of god, but not all of them have recognised the gods whose children they are. Those who recognise [their leading gods] and choose a similar life are called “children of gods.” This is why Plato added the words “as they say,” for these souls [sc. those of the people to whose authority Timaeus proposes to defer] reveal the order from which they come — as in the case of the Sibyl who delivered oracles from the moment of her birth or Heracles who appeared at his birth together with Demiurgic symbols. When souls of this sort revert upon their parents, they are filled by them with divinely inspired cognition (entheos noêsis). Their understanding (gnôsis) is a matter of divine possession since they are connected to the god through the divine light and [this sort of understanding] transcends all other [kinds of] understanding — both that achieved through [reasoning through] what is likely (di’ eikotôn), as well as that which is demonstrative (apodeiktikos). The former deals with nature and the universals that are in the particulars, while the latter deals with incorporeal essence (ousia) and things that are objects of knowledge. But divinely inspired understanding alone is connected to the gods themselves.

Proclus et al., Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus, trans. Dirk Baltzly, vol. V, VI vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 159.14-160.12.

We may or may not choose a life that is like our leader-God, and we are each active within the domains and behavioral symbolic registers of a variety of Gods while embodied. Olympiodorus explains it like this:

(6) Olympiodorus, On Plato First Alcibiades, Lecture 3, §20.

Now [to live] “according to essence” is to choose the life that befits the chain from which one is suspended: for example, [to live] the military life, if [one is suspended] from the [chain] of Ares; or the life of words and ideas (logikos), if from that of Hermes; or the healing or prophetic life, if from that of Apollo; or quite simply, as was said earlier, to live just as one was born to live.

But if someone sets before himself a life that is not according to his essence, but some other life that differs from this, and focuses in his undertakings on someone else’s work – they say that the intellective (noêros) [daimon] is allotted to this person, and for this reason, because he is doing someone else’s work, he fails to hit the mark in some [instances].

Olympiodorus, Olympiodorus : Life of Plato and On Plato First Alcibiades 1-9, ed. Richard Sorabji and Michael Griffin, trans. Michael Griffin, Ancient Commentators on Aristotle (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015),, Lecture 3, §20.

Far from being straightforward, seira becomes a “slippery” term that can describe a variety of ways in which a soul behaves. The two images below show a soul connected to its leader-God (note that the daimonic levels have been simplified) for both cases in which the soul is aligned with and out of alignment with its leader-God. In both images, other Gods are always active in the background (here represented by a limited number solely due to wanting the image to be readable.)

We can make this more concrete by thinking about this passage in Damascius’ Philosophical History, which is discussing a doctor who has strong connections to Asklepios in his behavior and medical acumen:

(7) Damascius, Life of Isidore, §84E

Iacobus the doctor. He originated from Damascus and was perfect in his science, having reached the very peak of precision not just in the diagnosis of diseases but also in healing them, as with diligence and skill he drew on both theoretical knowledge and experience; so that he carried off the first prize in medical eminence among contemporary doctors and was already compared with the Ancients, most of whom he was deemed to surpass. Indeed he was loved and worshipped by those in need of help as if he had divine power. And he had such confidence in himself and in his own methods of cure that if, upon visiting a patient and diagnosing the disease from its symptoms he declared that the man would live, everybody was filled with the hope that recovery would follow, but if not, they expected death. And nobody’s expectations were ever belied. He used to say that the perfect doctor must either give up hope of curing the disease or, having taken on the patient, improve his condition forthwith and leave him only once he is in a more tolerable state; otherwise he should not abandon him. Indeed he freed almost everybody immediately or in a short time from whatever affliction troubled them, and for this reason people called Iacobus the saviour, just as they had Asclepius in the past. However doctors never stopped discrediting and abusing him for being not a doctor but a holy man and a favourite of the gods. And what they said was true, for the man was pious and truly graced by God. And if I were to report what the philosopher (Isidore) said, he thought that the soul of Iacobus was Asclepeian, endowed by nature with healing powers. Moreover he had that passionate attachment to his calling which is particularly apt to draw the craftsman nearer to the patron god of his art, creating a true intimacy between the two. It was thus that Pheidias, inspired by the god, produced his works of art and that Zeuxis endowed his statues with form.

Damascius, The Philosophical History, or, the Life of Isidore, trans. Polymnia Athanassiadi, Athens, Greece; Oakville, CT: Apamea, 1999, §84E.

Also noteworthy here is that, while we commonly think of the twelve leader-Gods in the Phaedrus, the number twelve is merely symbolic, as Proclus tells us while talking about the liberated Gods.

(8) Proclus, Theology of Plato, VI.18

[Plato] defines according to the measure of the dodecad all the liberated Gods, though the multitude of them is incomprehensible, and not to be numbered by human conceptions; and though none of those theologists that have written any thing concerning them, have been able to define their whole number, in the same manner as they have the ruling multitude or the multitude of the intellectual or intelligible Gods. Plato however, apprehended that the number of the dodecad is adapted to the liberated Gods, as being all-perfect, composed from the first numbers, and completed from things perfect; and he comprehends in this measure all the progressions of these Gods.

Proclus, Theology of Plato, trans. Thomas Taylor, Prometheus Trust, Book 6, Ch. 18, 85.7-16.

Proclus himself has several links to deities, including Athene and Hermes. Here are several passages that show some conflicting information about his series, the first from his “Hymn to Athene”:

(9) Proclus, Hymn to Athene

Hearken to me you, from whose face flashes forth holy light.
Give me, as I am roaming around the earth, a blessed harbour,
give my soul holy light from your sacred myths,
and wisdom, and love. Breathe into my love 
a power so great and of such a kind that it pulls me up back again from the vaults of matter to Olympus, into the abode of your father. 
And if some grievous error in my life overpowers me —
for I know how I am buffeted by many and various unholy actions from different sides, offences which I committed with a foolish spirit —, 
be gracious, mild-counselling goddess, preserver of mortals
do not let me become prey and spoil for the horrible Punishments
lying on the ground, since I profess to belong to you.

R. M. van den Berg, Proclus’ Hymns: Essays, Translations, Commentary, Philosophia Antiqua, v. 90 (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2001), 278. Hymn lines 31-52.

The modern commentator on the passage discusses “since I profess to belong to you” in the following ways, drawing in similar passages from other writings of the period:

(10) R. M. van den Berg, commenting on said hymn

It is a common strategy in the ancient world to declare that one belongs to a deity and in this way oblige the divinity to protect you […]. In the case of Proclus there is something more to it: he is playing the card of theurgical sympatheia. He belongs to the series of Athena, and she should for that reason exercise care and providence towards him, just as she is bound to do so for the whole city of Athens (see commentary on vss. 21-22). For the fact that a deity is obliged to exercise providence towards its products as the pivot of theurgy, see chapter IV §3 and chapter V §3.2. The fact that Proclus regularly calls Athena ‘our mistress’ (see commentary to vs. 22) shows that his claim to belong to Athena was a sincere conviction.

R. M. van den Berg, Proclus’ Hymns: Essays, Translations, Commentary, Philosophia Antiqua, v. 90 (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2001), 307.

Proclus did not originally want to become a philosopher — he was planning to go into his father’s profession. A vision of the Goddess Athene telling him to go to Athens to study philosophy changed the course of his life. However, Proclus was also an extremely prolific author who never stopped working — he composed many books (most of which did not survive), lectured, and led/participated in hieratic rites within the Athenian Platonic school. This next passage is from the memorial oration given by Marinus, a member of the Athenian School who survived Proclus.

(11) Marinus of Samara, Life of Proclus, 15-55

At the beginning of his 42nd year, he so seemed to be shouting the following verses: “I am possessed by a spirit which breathes into me the force of fire, which, enfolding and entrancing my reason in a whirl of flame, flies toward the aether, and with its immortal vibrations reechoes in the starry vaults!”

Besides, in a dream he had clearly seen that he belonged to the Hermetic Chain; and, on the authority of a dream, he was convinced that his was the reincarnated soul of the Pythagorean Nicomachus.

Marinus of Samaria, “The Life of Proclus or Concerning Happiness,” in Proclus’ Life, Hymns, and Works, trans. Kenneth S. Guthrie, 1925, 15–55,

Is Marinus sincere about declaring Proclus to belong to Hermes’ seira (especially with the dream’s description, which could not have come from someone other than Proclus himself?), or is he tongue-in-cheek commenting on Proclus’ extensive writing and comparing it to the vast troves of Hermetica available at the time? There is division about this due to the way he talks about Athene, and what this comes down to is whether we trust Marinus or Proclus’ poem and what the tradition says about his affinity for the Goddess. Ultimately, though, Damascius takes it as a given that Proclus belongs to Hermes during his compare/contrast between Isidore and Proclus in the Life of Isidore.

Isidore, active during/after Proclus and who taught Damascius, is attributed to Hermes’ series.

(12) Damascius, Life of Isidore, §13

Isidore’s appearance was that of a sensible, elderly man, dignified and resolute. His face was almost square, his divine model being that of Logios Hermes. As for his eyes, how can I describe the true charm of Aphrodite herself that resided in them, how can I express the very wisdom of Athena that was contained in them? I would never stop saying that they were an unimaginably harmonious combination of opposites, standing still and, at the same moment, moving animatedly. How can I describe how they moved ceaselessly both in and around the same point, conveying at once dignity and charm, profound and straightforward at will. To put it simply, those eyes were the true images of his soul, and not of the soul alone, but of the divine emanation dwelling in it.

Damascius, The Philosophical History, or, the Life of Isidore, trans. Polymnia Athanassiadi, Athens, Greece; Oakville, CT: Apamea, 1999, §13.

(13) Damascius, Life of Isidore, §152

As I was following the oracles of the philosopher [Isidore] concerning his own chain [Hermetic], somehow the flow of speech, while seeking to classify his soul in the genealogy of the pure chorus, led me to digress and follow the track of the lives of the diadochi whom Proclus had chosen to succeed him.

Damascius, The Philosophical History, or, the Life of Isidore, trans. Polymnia Athanassiadi, Athens, Greece; Oakville, CT: Apamea, 1999, §152.

These two sections are among many that characterize Isidore’s behavior and philosophical prowess, including one that treats his many dreams (Hermes is said to be very active in giving dreams).

Looking Back at Plato

Socrates and Plato have birthdays that are traditionally during the Thargelia, an ancient Athenian festival for Artemis and Apollon that focuses on purification of the polis and the birthdays of the Divine Twins — Socrates was born on Artemis’ day, and Plato on Apollon’s. In the Anonymous Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy, the author describes Plato as “a divine man, an Apollonian man” (1.20), and

(14) Anon. Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy, I.22-46

Socrates had a dream, one day before Plato became his pupil, that an unfledged swan came to sit in his lap, then grew wings and flew away, crying out with a loud, ringing call, so that all who heard it were spell-bound. Its meaning was that Plato, though immature when he came to him, would eventually reach perfection and be so eminent in his teachings that everybody would long to hear him and no one would be able or even try to resist. Plato himself, too, shortly before his death, had a dream of himself as a swan, darting from tree to tree and causing great trouble to the fowlers, who were unable to catch him. […] And not only these dreams prove that he was an Apollonian man, but also his way of life, which was a life of purification; for such is the God himself, as his very name shows: for Apollon means “he who is severed from plurality,” the prefix a- having privative meaning. Another point is the time of his birth: he was born on Thargelion 7th, on which the isle of Delos celebrates the feast of Apollo; the 6th of this month was the birthday of Socrates, when they used to celebrate the birthday feast of Artemis. This indicates the priority of Socrates both as regards time and as regards insight.

Anonymous, Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy, trans. L.G. Westerink (Prometheus Trust, 2011), 1.22-46.

Even to this day, there is some discussion about whose series Socrates is in. Now that we’ve given some Platonic context, it’s time to look at passages from three dialogues — the Phaedrus, Theaetetus, and Apology — and at the ways Socrates is active according to Zeus, Artemis, and Apollon respectively. The passages from the Phaedrus below are also discussed by Platonic commentators when breaking apart the divine classes of Gods, daimones, and partial souls into the causal “org chart” presented in the figure. Each person is only intrinsically descended from one God, and it’s an interesting thought problem to take textual evidence to speculate about Platonists. 

The Phaedrus section called the palinode presents a vivid myth about souls following the Gods to a viewing-point. In addition to describing the descent/fall of the soul, it groups souls into sections based on whom they follow. There are other passages in the Timaeus and Republic that could be used in conjunction with this, namely the choice of lives (and the presiding daimon of a life) on the Meadow in the Republic’s Myth of Er or the description in the Timaeus of souls being sown into stars.

(15) Plato, Phaedrus, 246d-248c

Let us turn to what causes the shedding of the wings, what makes them fall away from a soul. It is something of this sort: By their nature wings have the power to lift up heavy things and raise them aloft where the gods all dwell, and so, more than anything that pertains to the body, they [246E] are akin to the divine, which has beauty, wisdom, goodness, and everything of that sort. These nourish the soul’s wings, which grow best in their presence; but foulness and ugliness make the wings shrink and disappear.

Now Zeus, the great commander in heaven, drives his winged chariot first in the procession, looking after everything and putting all things in order. Following him is an [247A] army of gods and spirits arranged in eleven sections. Hestia is the only one who remains at the home of the gods; all the rest of the twelve are lined up in formation, each god in command of the unit to which he is assigned. Inside heaven are many wonderful places from which to look and many aisles which the blessed gods take up and back, each seeing to his own work, while anyone who is able and wishes to do so follows along, since jealousy has no place in the gods’ chorus. When they go to feast at the banquet they have a [247B] steep climb to the high tier at the rim of heaven; on this slope the gods’ chariots move easily, since they are balanced and well under control, but the other chariots barely make it. The heaviness of the bad horse drags its charioteer toward the earth and weighs him down if he has failed to train it well, and this causes the most extreme toil and struggle that a soul will face. But when the souls we call immortals reach the top, they move outward and take their stand on the high ridge of heaven, where its circular motion carries them [247C] around as they stand while they gaze upon what is outside heaven.

The place beyond heaven — none of our earthly poets has ever sung or ever will sing its praises enough! Still, this is the way it is — risky as it may be, you see, I must attempt to speak the truth, especially since the truth is my subject. What is in this place is without color and without shape and without solidity, a being that really is what it is, the subject of all true knowledge, visible only to intelligence, the soul’s steersman. Now a god’s mind is nourished by intelligence [247D] and pure knowledge, as is the mind of any soul that is concerned to take in what is appropriate to it, and so it is delighted at last to be seeing what is real and watching what is true, feeding on all this and feeling wonderful, until the circular motion brings it around to where it started. On the way around it has a view of Justice as it is; it has a view of Self-control; it has a view of Knowledge — not the knowledge that is close to change, that becomes different as it knows [247E] the different things which we consider real down here. No, it is the knowledge of what really is what it is. And when the soul has seen all the things that are as they are and feasted on them, it sinks back inside heaven and goes home. On its arrival, the charioteer stables the horses by the manger, throws in ambrosia, and gives them nectar to drink besides.

Now that is the life of the gods. [248A] As for the other souls, one that follows a god most closely, making itself most like that god, raises the head of its charioteer up to the place outside and is carried around in the circular motion with the others. Although distracted by the horses, this soul does have a view of Reality, just barely. Another soul rises at one time and falls at another, and because its horses pull it violently in different directions, it sees some real things and misses others. The remaining souls are all eagerly straining to keep up, but are unable to rise; they are carried around below the surface, trampling and striking one another as each tries to get ahead of the others. The result is terribly [248B] noisy, very sweaty, and disorderly. Many souls are crippled by the incompetence of the drivers, and many wings break much of their plumage. After so much trouble, they all leave without having seen reality, uninitiated, and when they have gone they will depend on what they think is nourishment — their own opinions.

The reason there is so much eagerness to see the plain where truth stands is that this pasture has the grass that is the right food for the best part of the soul, and it is the [248C] nature of the wings that lift up the soul to be nourished by it. Besides, the law of Destiny is this: If any soul becomes a companion to a god and catches sight of any true thing, it will be unharmed until the next circuit […]

Plato, Phaedrus, trans. Eva Brann, Peter Kalkavage, and Eric Salem (Hackett Publishing, 1995), 246d-248c.

Several pages later, the discussion is of two people (the lover and the beloved), and interpretively, the “beloved” could be taken broadly as a daimon of the God, or as any focal point of desire. For example, the dialogue Phaedrus could be an object of love, exciting someone who reads it to a vision of beauty that has the “flavor” of their leader-God and that deepens themselves into that contact with the God.

Regarding the daimonic interpretation of what the youth is, the Kronian life (the life according to Kronos, after the myth in the Statesman) is said to be youthful, where time moves backward; it is the intellectual watchtower that looks at its causes. Youthfulness, in this case, is simply “looking back” to that higher state and entrusting oneself to a daimon and to a life that will put one in harmony with that/one’s leader-God.

Also worth noting is that we are all technically following Zeus regardless of our specific leader-God, as Zeus is the leader of the procession in the heavens — some souls follow Zeus directly and others follow via their own leader-God.

(16) Plato, Phaedrus, 252c-253c

But, seriously, the cause of love is as I have really said, and this is how lovers really feel.

If the man who is taken by love used to be an attendant on Zeus, he will be able to bear the burden of this feathered force with dignity. But if it is one of Ares’ troops who has fallen prisoner of love — if that is the god with whom he took the circuit — then if he has the slightest suspicion that the boy he loves has done him wrong, he turns murderous, and he is ready to make a sacrifice of himself as well as the boy.

So it is with each of the gods: everyone spends [252D] his life honoring the god in whose chorus he danced, and emulates that god in every way he can, so long as he remains undefiled and in his first life down here. And that is how he behaves with everyone at every turn, not just with those he loves. Everyone chooses his love after his own fashion from among those who are beautiful, and then treats the boy like his very [252E] own god, building him up and adorning him as an image to honor and worship. Those who followed Zeus, for example, choose someone to love who is a Zeus himself in the nobility of his soul. So they make sure he has a talent for philosophy and the guidance of others, and once they have found him and are in love with him they do everything to develop that talent. If any lovers have not yet embarked on this practice, then they start to learn, using any source they can and also making progress on their own. They are well equipped to track down their god’s true nature with their own resources [253A] because of their driving need to gaze at the god, and as they are in touch with the god by memory they are inspired by him and adopt his customs and practices, so far as a human being can share a god’s life. For all of this they know they have the boy to thank, and so they love him all the more; and if they draw their inspiration from Zeus, then, like the Bacchants, they pour it into the soul of the one they love in order to help him take on as much of their own god’s qualities as possible. Hera’s followers look for a kingly [253B] character, and once they have found him they do all the same things for him. And so it is for followers of Apollo or any other god: They take their god’s path and seek for their own a boy whose nature is like the god’s; and when they have got him they emulate the god, convincing the boy they love and training him to follow their god’s pattern and way of life, so far as is possible in each case. They show no envy, no mean-spirited lack of generosity, toward the boy, but make every possible effort to draw him into being totally like themselves and the god to whom they are devoted. This, [253C] then, is any true lover’s heart’s desire: if he follows that desire in the manner I described, this friend who has been driven mad by love will secure a consummation for the one he has befriended that is as beautiful and blissful as I said — if, of course, he captures him.

Plato, Phaedrus, trans. Eva Brann, Peter Kalkavage, and Eric Salem (Hackett Publishing, 1995), 252c-253c.

Often, the Gods who are discussed as having seirai are the eleven (or twelve) of the Phaedrus, but this is not something that is static and intrinsic. Damascius, in his exegesis of the Phaedo, writes that

(17) Damascius, On Plato’s Phaedo, §540

there must be a kind of Tartarean Gods, and then, of course, companions of these Gods too, and consequently also individual souls and whatever else is found at the extremity of each series. These souls not only can be lifted up to the level of the divine herdsmen of their own kind while still remaining in that part of the world, but they may even spend the whole time of their sojourn in genesis there. The commentator says that there must be also souls in heaven who descend no farther, and therefore we may take it that the same occurs in all other parts of the world; on the other hand, there must also be some that descend deeper and ascend again, passing from level to level, upward from the lower regions, downward from the higher ones, for we know that of souls that came down to this earth many have ascended to heaven. With regard to this whole group we must hold that some descend and ascend to a certain point, others the whole way, for each series as it proceeds strives to fill the entire world.

Damascius’ Commentary on Plato’s Phaedo I, trans. Westerink. Prometheus Trust, §540.

Proclus also holds to this idea. In a note on the Republic essay 6 translation, Baltzly et al. discuss Proclus’ association of Homer and Plato, the former Musaic, the latter Apollonian. The Muses are part of the same divine area as Apollon (as he is their Chorister), so despite being suspended from different Gods, there is still a strong common ground for Homer and Plato.

If we turn to the Theaetetus, where Socrates likens himself to Artemis, who presided over midwifery in Ancient Greece, we can see an echo of what the author of the Anonymous Prolegomena pointed out when emphasizing how Socrates’ birthday is related to Artemis. Artemis was born on Ortygia before Apollon was born on Delos, and she assisted at the birth of her younger brother. The author of the Prolegomena was describing a similar relationship between Socrates and Plato. The God compelling Socrates in this passage could be Apollon. The article the is added in brackets where appropriate.

(18) Plato, Theaetetus, 150b-151d

Now my art of midwifery is just like theirs in most respects. The difference is that I attend men and not women, and that I watch over the labor of their souls, not of their bodies. And the most important thing [c] about my art is the ability to apply all possible tests to the offspring, to determine whether the young mind is being delivered of a phantom, that is, an error, or a fertile truth. For one thing which I have in common with the ordinary midwives is that I myself am barren of wisdom. The common reproach against me is that I am always asking questions of other people but never express my own views about anything, because there is no wisdom in me; and that is true enough. And the reason of it is this, that [the] God compels me to attend the travail of others, but has forbidden me to procreate. So that I am not in any sense a wise man; I cannot claim as the [d] child of my own soul any discovery worth the name of wisdom. But with those who associate with me it is different. At first some of them may give the impression of being ignorant and stupid; but as time goes on and our association continues, all whom [the] God permits are seen to make progress—a progress which is amazing both to other people and to themselves. And yet it is clear that this is not due to anything they have learned from me; it is that they discover within themselves a multitude of beautiful things, which they bring forth into the light. But it is I, with [the] God’s help, who deliver them of this offspring. And a proof of this may be seen in the [e] many cases where people who did not realize this fact took all the credit to themselves and thought that I was no good. They have then proceeded to leave me sooner than they should, either of their own accord or through the influence of others. And after they have gone away from me they have resorted to harmful company, with the result that what remained within them has “miscarried”; while they have neglected the children I helped them to bring forth, and lost them, because they set more value upon lies and phantoms than upon the truth; finally they have been set down for ignorant fools, both by themselves and by everybody else. One of these people was [151] Aristides the son of Lysimachus; and there have been very many others. Sometimes they come back, wanting my company again, and ready to move heaven and earth to get it. When that happens, in some cases the divine sign that visits me forbids me to associate with them; in others, it permits me, and then they begin again to make progress.

There is another point also in which those who associate with me are like women in child-birth. They suffer the pains of labor, and are filled day and night with distress; indeed they suffer far more than women. And this pain my art is able to bring on, and also to allay.

[b] Well, that’s what happens to them; but at times, Theaetetus, I come across people who do not seem to me somehow to be pregnant. Then I realize that they have no need of me, and with the best will in the world I undertake the business of match-making; and I think I am good enough — God willing — at guessing with whom they might profitably keep company. Many of them I have given away to Prodicus; and a great number also to other wise and inspired persons.

Well, my dear lad, this has been a long yarn; but the reason was that I have a suspicion that you (as you think yourself) are pregnant and in [c] labor. So I want you to come to me as to one who is both the son of a midwife and himself skilled in the art; and try to answer the questions I shall ask you as well as you can. And when I examine what you say, I may perhaps think it is a phantom and not truth, and proceed to take it quietly from you and abandon it. Now if this happens, you mustn’t get savage with me, like a mother over her first-born child. Do you know, people have often before now got into such a state with me as to be literally ready to bite when I take away some nonsense or other from them. They never believe that I am doing this in all goodwill; they are so far from [d] realizing that no God can wish evil to man, and that even I don’t do this kind of thing out of malice, but because it is not permitted to me to accept a lie and put away truth.

Plato, Theaetetus, trans. M. J. Levett, revised by M. Burnyeat, In Plato: Complete Works, ed. J.M. Cooper & D.S. Hutchinson (Hackett Publishing, 1997), 150b-151d.

Finally, in Socrates’ defense speech from his trial, he describes his relationship with the God Apollon and the mission he has undertaken to understand what the God said. 

(19) Plato, Apology, 20d-22d

I shall call upon the god at Delphi as witness to the existence and nature of my wisdom, if it be such. You know Chaerephon. He was my friend from youth, and the friend of most of you, as he shared your exile and your return. You surely know the kind of man he was, how impulsive in any course of action. He went to Delphi at one time and ventured to ask the oracle — as I say, gentlemen, do not create a disturbance — he asked if any man was wiser than I, and the Pythian replied that no one was wiser. Chaerephon is dead, but his brother will testify to you about this.

Consider that I tell you this because I would inform you about the origin [b] of the slander. When I heard of this reply I asked myself: “Whatever does the god mean? What is his riddle? I am very conscious that I am not wise at all; what then does he mean by saying that I am the wisest? For surely he does not lie; it is not legitimate for him to do so.” For a long time I was at a loss as to his meaning; then I very reluctantly turned to some such investigation as this; I went to one of those reputed wise, thinking [c] that there, if anywhere, I could refute the oracle and say to it: “This man is wiser than I, but you said I was.” Then, when I examined this man — there is no need for me to tell you his name, he was one of our public men — my experience was something like this: I thought that he appeared wise to many people and especially to himself, but he was not. I then tried to show him that he thought himself wise, but that he was not. As a result [d] he came to dislike me, and so did many of the bystanders. So I withdrew and thought to myself: “I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.” After this I approached another man, one of those thought to be wiser than he, and I thought the same thing, and [e] so I came to be disliked both by him and by many others.

After that I proceeded systematically. I realized, to my sorrow and alarm, that I was getting unpopular, but I thought that I must attach the greatest importance to the god’s oracle, so I must go to all those who had any reputation for knowledge to examine its meaning. And by the dog, men of Athens — for I must tell you the truth — I experienced something like this: in my investigation in the service of the god I found that those who had the highest reputation were nearly the most deficient, while those who were thought to be inferior were more knowledgeable. I must give you an account of my journeyings as if they were labors I had undertaken to prove the oracle irrefutable. After the politicians, I went to the poets, [b] the writers of tragedies and dithyrambs and the others, intending in their case to catch myself being more ignorant than they. So I took up those poems with which they seemed to have taken most trouble and asked them what they meant, in order that I might at the same time learn something from them. I am ashamed to tell you the truth, gentlemen, but I must. Almost all the bystanders might have explained the poems better [c] than their authors could. I soon realized that poets do not compose their poems with knowledge, but by some inborn talent and by inspiration, like seers and prophets who also say many fine things without any understanding of what they say. The poets seemed to me to have had a similar experience. At the same time I saw that, because of their poetry, they thought themselves very wise men in other respects, which they were not. So there again I withdrew, thinking that I had the same advantage over them as I had over the politicians.

[d] Finally I went to the craftsmen, for I was conscious of knowing practically nothing, and I knew that I would find that they had knowledge of many fine things. In this I was not mistaken; they knew things I did not know, and to that extent they were wiser than I. But, men of Athens, the good craftsmen seemed to me to have the same fault as the poets: each of them, because of his success at his craft, thought himself very wise in other most [e] important pursuits, and this error of theirs overshadowed the wisdom they had, so that I asked myself, on behalf of the oracle, whether I should prefer to be as I am, with neither their wisdom nor their ignorance, or to have both. The answer I gave myself and the oracle was that it was to my advantage to be as I am.

Plato, Apology, trans. G.M.A. Grube, In Plato: Complete Works, ed. J.M. Cooper & D.S. Hutchinson (Hackett Publishing, 1997), 20d-22d.

These Platonic passages are not exhaustive, yet they provide a starting point to discussing seirai and their impact on partial souls. While diving into this information is inherently messy due to the amount of cross-author/lateral reading it involves among Platonists active in Late Antiquity, thinking about how the term is used in Platonic writers and what it means for us can lead to fruitful conversations.

Addendum: Hermias’ notes on Syrianus’ Phaedrus Lectures

Hermias provides some additional context for divine series in the lecture notes he took from Syrianus’ lectures (hereafter referred to by “Hermias/Syrianus”). Every soul is suspended from a God, its intrinsic God that it attempts to follow. The nine types of life that Plato mentions in the Phaedrus are dispositions; Hermias/Syrianus says that someone with a military life could be a philosopher, but would express that incarnation in a very militaristic way.

The passages on seirai that come when Hermias is discussing the reaction of a soul about to awaken to its object of desire and how that object (here, the beautiful youth, but in practice, this could be any focal point, like falling in love with the lush images in the Phaedrus dialogue itself) is connected to the soul’s leader.

(20) Hermias/Syrianus, On Plato Phaedrus, 197,7-197,22

[Plato] said in the Timaeus that the Demiurge assigned the souls to gods on the basis of kinship (okeiotês), saying that ‘he sowed some in the earth, some in the sun’. Here he has also talked about the nine types of life (bios) (248C8 ff.) and also talked about the twelve gods (246E4 ff.), symbolically including the whole multitude [of them]. Now, in what follows (252C3-253C2), he wants to state the goal of the erotic [enterprise], [which is] that souls are possessed by Love in different ways and that they seek a beloved in line with the particular character of their own god. For instance, one who has been possessed by Apollo [looks for] his beloved to be of a prophetic disposition, while one possessed by Zeus [looks for him] to be leaderly, and in the case of the rest too [a beloved is chosen] on the basis of his similarity to the [lover’s] god. What he is saying, then, is this: that [the lovers] choose [their] beloved and [his] pursuits and [his] character (êthê) and everything else on the basis of the particular character of [their] own god and that it is their goal to recognise their own god and to make their choices on the basis of affinity with him. So what he is saying is this: the Zeusian soul looks for his beloved to be Zeusian, and he bears [the burden of] love with some decorum, with restraint, and without being too readily provoked. After all, everything that is Zeusian is steadfast, stable, and remains always the same; and because of this he wants the character and pursuits of the beloved to be of the same kind, for he wants to make the beloved like himself.

Hermias/Syrianus, Hermias: On Plato Phaedrus 245E–257C, trans. Share, Michael, and Dirk Baltzly, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022, 197,7-197,22.

In the Timaeus, souls are seeded into the stars, which have been interpreted as either parts of the fixed stars or the astrologically-significant planets — the influence of astrology on Late Platonism leads the interpreters to frequently examine this sowing in that context, although the sun, moon, and other planets can be understood symbolically and not physically, too. “Symbolically including the whole multitude of them” is related to the passage from Proclus earlier in this document — the number is not a literal limit of twelve Gods. “It is their goal to recognize their own God and to make their choices on the basis of affinity” emphasizes the important know thyself aspect of investigating one’s own leader-God, as what is best for us varies depending on this. 

(21) Hermias/Syrianus, On Plato Phaedrus, 199,24-200,7

Seeking [to discover] on their own: that is, reverting upon themselves so as to see those [intelligible] forms within themselves. He says seeking in order to convey that they are getting [this] knowledge (gnôsis) as though from images. Thus what he is saying is this: when they revert upon themselves and hunt out through themselves the [character] of their own god, they then become successful (euporos).

They both learn [from wherever they can [learn] anything] and pursue [the matter] themselves as not having knowledge but [nevertheless] having some idea (emphasis) of such an ascent; and they pursue the sorts of studies (epitêdeuma) that appertain to their own god — a musical person, for instance, sounds and rhythms and the like, a philosophical one geometry, astronomy, and the like — until such time as, by seeking, they discover the very nature of their own god.

And laying hold (ephaptein) of him [in memory]: he says laying hold because they have not yet been united but their reversion upon themselves arises first from indistinct traces, then through contact (epaphê), then through unification. So when, having reverted, they lay hold of him, then they are united through memory to their own god himself.

Hermias/Syrianus, Hermias: On Plato Phaedrus 245E–257C, trans. Share, Michael, and Dirk Baltzly, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022, 199,24-200,7.

This passage, where Hermias/Syrianus is weaving in the Phaedrus and expanding on various elements of the recollection/ascent, shows the “hunting out” process of figuring out which God one is connected to. The “indistinct traces” are similar to the tracks of animals that one is following while hunting.

(22) Hermias/Syrianus, On Plato Phaedrus, 198,1-198,20

One needs to be aware that it is a universal [truth] that each person shares in the gifts bestowed by the gods according to his particular connection. For instance, Lady Aphrodite graciously bestows affection (philia) and union, but since this illumination that is given by the goddess is mixed in together with matter, often the recipient alters such a gift and affection becomes debauchery (moikheia) on the part of someone who shares in [this gift] in a wicked manner. For [such gifts] are shared out in one manner by the gods, but participated in in another by the participants. In the same way, although the warmth of the sun is a single thing, when different materials are present, one (wax, for example) melts, another (mud, for example) dries out; for each thing shares in what is given in accordance with its own essence, even though the light of the sun is of a single kind. And for this reason Idomeneus partook of affection, that is to say, Aphrodite, in one way, Paris in another, and Socrates loved Phaedrus in one way, and Lysias [loved him] in another – whence, he says, those inspired by Zeus are steadfast and those inspired by Ares murderous and jealous. And this – the perversion (apoptôsis) of the erotic – is the surface (phainomenos), as it were, interpretation. More allegorically (theôrêtikôteron), one might say that this ‘murderous person’ means the philosopher because of his breaking away from matter through his vehemence, and his divesting himself of matter, and his being no longer active on the physical plane but on the intellectual one, and his achieving ascent for them [sc. for himself and his beloved], even before it is time, if possible. After all, in the case of the gods, their turning away from (apostasis) secondary things could be called ‘murder’, in the way that here below ‘murder’ means deprivation of this [earthly] life.

Hermias/Syrianus, Hermias: On Plato Phaedrus 245E–257C, trans. Share, Michael, and Dirk Baltzly, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022, 198,1-198,20.

Hermias points out differences between different Gods’ series. The parallel modes of being in Ares’ series are interesting here.

(23) Hermias/Syrianus, On Plato Phaedrus, 198,30

For this is the soul’s happiness: to be able to imitate its own god, to the extent of each person’s power, so long as [that person] lives life here [on earth] in an uncorrupted manner.

 Hermias/Syrianus, Hermias: On Plato Phaedrus 245E–257C, trans. Share, Michael, and Dirk Baltzly, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022, 198,30.

This is a fitting point to end on. 🙂

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