CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition


1“Radio was heard before it was invented”. This is the observation made at the beginning of Earth Sounds Earth Signals, a book that came out in 2014. By saying this the author, Douglas Kahn, meant that decades before Guglielmo Marconi invented wireless radio communications, Thomas Watson and Alexandre Bell were able to detect radio waves emitting “sounds that were out of this world” thanks to a makeshift antenna they used for their telephone communication experiments. Hence, because the mysterious “bips”, “tweeks”, “hissing” and “whistling” their antenna helped them to hear were really just radio energy that is supposed to be inaudible without the help of a purpose-built radio receiver, “radio was heard before it was invented”.

2Now because everything the author says is based on well-documented historical fact, there is no point in saying there is something “wrong” about this affirmation. On the other hand, there are grounds for suspecting that the first valid example of this sort of experience considerably predates the terminus a quo Kahn speaks of. Indeed it is altogether possible that, in the Western tradition, hearing “earth sounds” qua some sort of “Environmental Electromagnetic Radiation” (EMR) dates back at least to the 8th century bce and probably way before. That in any event is one of the arguments this article will attempt to defend. In addition, I will try to make the case that it is possible (and at one time was quite common) for people to sense something like EMR without the assistance of any of the “remote sensing technologies” (RSTs) we today tend to think are indispensable for doing so. Not, however, because they did not use RSTs. Only because the one they used consisted of transforming their own bodies into a device they could use to auscultate their environment and “incubate” information about it qua some sort of EMR.

3To rise to the challenge I am giving myself, I shall offer a brief review of what authoritative, well-attested historical records tell us about divinatory techniques in Ancient Greece at a time now called “Song culture”. Not all the techniques that were practiced at that time. Only the ones that are the most relevant to what we today would call “Earth Systems Science” or “Geognosy”. The Greek terms for these techniques were meteōrología, teratoskopía and, occasionally, chrêsmología[1].

4To see how these divinatory techniques were relevant to hearing atmospheric whistlers as a “cosmopoietic cantata”, I am going to focus on what the records reveal about the circumstances in which “inspired” oracles “took leave of their senses”, entered a “theoleptic trance” and while in that state experienced hallucinations which they took to be a sort of “divine revelation” [2]. I will look in particular at what the evidence reveals about (1) where these hallucinations happened, (2) what “inspired” oracles are supposed to have experienced while “delirious”, (3) how they experienced it and, finally, (4) why they took the “wildness” they interfaced with for something “sacred” or “divine”. Along the way I will be at pains to stress that the oracle’s supposed ability to communicate with some extra-natural “au-delà” is not as incredible as it sounds and will do so by looking at how modern science would explain the feasibility of this strange practice. Not, however, because I think that such beliefs should not be taken seriously unless modern science can give them a respectably “rational” explanation. I do not. On the other hand, being soberly scientific in considering these matters can help us elude one intolerably absurd idea. Namely, that an entire culture – and not just any culture! – believed that the natural environment “had a voice” and that some of its members could hear it and that everyone adhered to this belief without having a good reason for doing so.

Where the hallucinations happened

5Concerning the places meteōrologoí and oracles went to practice their trade one cannot but be struck by how varied they were. For it could be on a barren hillside, under oak trees in a secluded glade, by riversides or, quite commonly, at the bottom of a cave [3]. Still, despite this variety, all these places had one thing in common: they were almost always likened to “χωριόν ὀμφῆς μεστόν” [4], which means “places full of omphé”. Now the reader will notice that I offer no translation for the word “omphé”. I do not do so because it is very hard to say what exactly is meant by it and its multiple cognates such as “ossa”, “opa”, “klédoun” or “phama” [5]. Still numerous studies carried out on what these words refer to give us some very useful and reliable information. For example, we know that those who were able to detect omphé used mostly acoustic metaphors to refer to what they were experiencing when exposed to its stimulus. Indeed the expression “otherworldly sounds” (θαύματ᾽ ἀκοῦσαι), or one of its variants [6], is now the standard way of referring to what the “inspired” oracle was experiencing while “hallucinating”. The same sources mention that these strange sounds were always imputed to various Gods or their emissaries. They also offer detailed analyses of the way the ancients seemed to distinguish the “voices” of these different divinities according to the volume, pitch and timbre of the “amazing sounds” they heard [7].

6So, what emitted these sounds that only the inspired oracle could “hear”? Or rather, why suppose that the catalyst for these auditory hallucinations were “atmospheric whistlers”?

What the “inspired” oracle is supposed to have experienced

7Now by asking this question, that is to say by presuming that “atmospheric whistlers” are the “instrumental cause” of these “auditory hallucinations”, it is not an option for us to neglect background information pertaining to archaic meteorology and cosmology. A convenient way to do this is to focus on a meteorological agency called “exhalations” (ἀναθυμιάσεις) [8]. The importance of these exhalations for early Hellenic Meteorology and Geognosy becomes evident when we remind ourselves of the fact that and the reasons why the Sky and the Earth were considered to be “divine”. For even if most readers already know that Gaia and Ouranos enjoyed this status because the “disclosure” (ἀνακάλυψις) of the cosmos was considered to be the fruit of their “hierogamy”, they may not know that these cosmocrators did not interact with one another directly. They did so via the energies they precipitate at the each other, notably in the form of the energies we call hot or cold, dry or wet, high or low pressure, etc. What is more, these energies were useless for cosmopoiesis unless they encountered each other in the midst of a pre-cosmic, immaculately quality-free medium usually referred to as “aithér” or “the infinite” or “the self-natured” (τὸ αὐτοφυής). This is so because it was only where and when the energies radiating from the Sky and the Earth meet and blend in this undifferentiated milieu that this latter gets “tempered” (πληγή) or “concocted” (πέσσεσθαι) until it yields “συμπε-πλεγ-μένα” and “σύμ-πλεξ-ις”, which means “com-plex-ions” or “com-plex-ity”. And not just the complexity one sees on display in the natural world – everything one faces and is faced by by Being-in-the-World is the product of the very same complexification.

8Now this reminder of the way Gaia and Ouranos were considered cosmocrators is relevant to “exhalations” because these latter are the “instrumental cause” of this cosmos-synthesising, complexity-creating process and as such something meteōrologoí needed to study to know what deposits complexity on to the natural environment’s outward manifestation [9]. And, in turn, this is relevant to the divinatory technique called meteōrología because the reason their practitioners entered a “theoleptic fit” was to apprehend the way “exhalations” circulate up and down and to and fro across a vast ethereal gulf in order to “cook” pre-cosmic aether into com-plex-ions, com-plex-ity and cosmos [10].

9But is it safe to equate these “exhalations” with “EMR”? And can we say that the “auditory hallucinations” raving oracles called “omphé” were symptomatic of their ability to detect what is today called “atmospheric whistlers”?

10On the face of it, the answer is clearly, no, we cannot. Such an assumption presupposes the existence of some sort of homology linking the descriptive terms and explanatory models of modern science with those used in remotest antiquity – something which is self-evidently absurd. Why am I nonetheless tempted to assume that words like omphé and ossa stand for the “acoustic signature” of something like atmospheric whistlers and “exhalations” for something like EMR? For two reasons. The first pertains to the way the physical characteristics of exhalations are described in various ancient sources. In particular those studied by Armand Delatte in his still useful 1934 study devoted to Pre-Socratic aetiologies of “enthusiasm”. To avoid a lengthy disquisition, I shall limit myself to only three of the most salient ways to describe them.


  • (1) By virtue of their role as the cause of movement, change and generation, exhalations should be considered a form of energy rather than a form of physical matter. This is why they are described as “the subtlest and purest of all things” [11] and therefore “compresent and active in everything else in the universe”. The point of their being “in everything” was, it seems, to function the same way as Aristotle’s “πνεῦμα σύμφυτον” functioned in his De generatione animalium. In other words, they were there so that the energy or heat peculiar to them could “scorch” the ethereal protoplasm everything is made out of into each perceived being’s perceived forms (see supra, n. 7).
  • (2) Even though they are essentially insubstantial or at least the least substantial substance imaginable, they are nonetheless described as a “mélange d’air et de feu”, differing from perceptible igneous or gaseous substances only by being too rarefied or exiguous to be sensed the same way [12] – thereby prompting Delatte to suggest that it is something “dont la nature rappelle celle de l’électricité” [13].
  • (3) They are described as affording an acoustical signature to anyone who succeeded in becoming “inspired” enough to tune in to the “rumours” they make while coursing “from above and from below” (ánō te kaì katō). At least this would be true to the extent that we can credit Peter Kingsley’s analysis of the strange “whistling sounds” (σύριγγος, ῥοῖζος) that oracles said they heard while in a theoleptic fit or “ἐνθεάζων χρᾶι” [14].

12Now, I am fairly certain that if a modern Earth Systems Scientist were asked to describe the physical characteristics of EMR and he or she was obliged to use layman’s terms to do so, what one would hear them say would differ by scarcely a jot from the above description of “exhalations”.

13A yet more convincing way to corroborate the equivalence I am postulating is to draw attention to the way these same aetiologies of enthusiasm explain how inspired oracles can “hear” (ἄκουε) these exhalations as what they called the “rumours” of the Gods. Take for example what is said in our sources about the way the inspired oracle was supposed to have “incubated” exhalations.

How did oracles experience “θαύματ᾽ Ἀκοῦσαι”? Tuning in to the grundstimmung of creation

14To be clear on these matters we cannot avoid a small detour. One whose goal will be to explain why “inspired oracles” (ἔνθεοι μάντεις) had to be “out of their wits” (ἔξω ἑαυτοῦ) to practice meteōrología, a quest which in turn obliges us to hazard a foray on to the hermeneutically fraught terrain of early Hellenic ideas on “Phrenology” or “περὶ αἰσθήσεως καὶ τοῦ φρονεῖν δόξαι”.

15Informed readers will know that this could amount to a well-nigh hopeless task given uncertainties as to the precise meanings of the multiple terms used to refer to the parts of the psyche (thymόs, phrēnes, étor, “prapides”, noos, etc.) and establishing where one ends and those adjacent to it begin. Equally challenging is the question of the functions they assured individually, severally and collectively (aisthésis, ideîn, gignōskein, noeîn, etc.) [15]. Still, we can limit the difficulty of the task by focusing on a part of the psyche called the “thymόs” (θύμος). First by identifying what the extant literature would suggest it must have consisted of and then looking at the use the éntheos mántis made of it to attain a “far-thinking” (δολιχόφρονησις) that enabled him to auscultate the “depths” (βυθοί) of the perceived world and in so doing “hear” the “otherworldly sounds” made by cosmopoietic agencies while busily synthesising our respective sensoria.

16The two most commonly noted aspects of the thymόs are (1) that it was the part of the psyche with which we experience passion and sentiment and (2) that it seems to be located inside the “phrēnes” very much the way “air” occupies the “lungs”. And this analogy equating a key part of the psyche with a form of matter is not just an unreflecting “manner of speaking”. The equivalence was altogether literal [16]. Not, however, because the Hellenes of ‘Song culture’ were “incapable” of conceiving of anything that was not “physical” or “material”. Rather because they were “hylozoists” and as a result believed that mind and matter belonged to a continuum which made it impossible to distinguish between what is either “only” matter or “only” mind [17].

17However, again, because all that matters to us is clarity on how the thymόs of someone who is “inspired” allows them to hear “atmospheric whistlers” as “omphé”, it is not necessary to take sides in the debates among authorities on this vexata quaestio. Indeed it is enough for our purposes merely to note that whatever happens in the thymόs of anyone whose psyche is affected by what is going on in it is the consequence of stimulus it receives from something outside the person it belongs to. For the archaic Hellenes experienced their Being-in-the-world as though it were “an open force field” [18]. Hence even purely endogenic psychological activity, like dreams and recollection, can only be considered a “remanent” afterglow of exogenous stimulus [19].

18However it seems quite clear from the analyses we are offered by Armand Delatte and others that this exogenous stimulus was mediated and received in two fundamentally different ways. One way which allowed the percipient to become “inspired” (φοιβόληπτος, θεοφόρητος) and while inspired “incubate” “genuine knowledge” (γνησίη γνώμη) and a second way which made it impossible to acquire this γνώμη. To gain a sense of this difference we have only to contrast the way the thymόs of the average “abled” but “non-inspired” percipient gets stimulated by the natural environment with the way this happens in the inspired sorcerer. To do this I will concentrate on what dependable sources and evidence relate about the Peri aisthéseōs of Democritus of Abdera. Not because what we will find there cannot be found in other sources. Indeed much of what follows is significantly enriched by views expressed by Empedocles and other Pre-Socratics. Still, thanks in large measure to Peripatetic doxography, the Fragments of Democritus are better supplied with relevant detailed information about becoming “ἄτμος ἔνθεος” than what we find elsewhere.

The psychoacoustics of inspiration: a form of “splanchnesthesic clairaudience”?

19The point of departure for Democritus’ peri aisthéseōs is the view that everything in the universe is constantly precipitating waves of vibrating air pressure or “imprints” (ἀποτύπωσις ἐν τῷ ἀέρι) called “effluxes” (ἀπορροαί) which undulate homocentrically outward from their emitter [20]. Prior to entering into contact with a normally constituted percipient these ἀπορροαί are only ever potentially any of the “perceptibles” (δείκελα, εἴδολα) anyone actually perceives [21]. What is more, to resemble any of the eidola the average, “abled” percipient is familiar with, two conditions have to be satisfied: first the waves of “imprinted” air have to “preserve the outward shape and likeness of the objects whence they issue” [22]; second the sizes and shapes of the particles in the imprinted air have to “match” (ἐναρμόττειν, ὁμοσχημονεῖν) the sizes and shapes of the “channels of perception” located on the extremities of each of the five organs of sense [23]. And it is this last requirement – the need for a “commensurability” or “isomorphism” between (1) the sizes of the pores on the organs of perception and (2) the particles in the emitted ἀπορροαί – which explains why eyes, ears, noses and fingers sense the same source of sensory stimuli in different ways: quite simply the pores on the tips of each of these sense organs are of different sizes and shapes and therefore filter out all “effluxes” of particles whose sizes and shapes do not fit [24].

20Now the need for effluxes to respect these conditions to be perceived means that the vast majority of them never cross the threshold of our awareness. For the cosmos is awash with effluxes whose constituent particles are “too fine” (λεπτότατος) or “abnormal” (ὑπερφυῆ) to be detected by any of the normal pores of perception with the result that we are oblivious to the air-imprints containing them [25]. And yet, whether perceived or not, our bodies are, to one degree of intensity or another, comprehensively saturated by these sub-sensible, “ὑπερφυῆ” effluxes (Theophrastus, §§57-58). A piece of information which is important for us because it elucidates what distinguishes the “inspired” meteōrologόs from mortals endowed with no more than normal powers of perception. For unlike the latter, the former does not interface with the Umwelt with normal channels of perception. Indeed while “ἔξω ἑαυτοῦ” he specifically filters out of his apprehension of his surroundings everything that can be sensed via the channels of perception the rest of us rely on to sense it [26]. However, this does not mean that while experiencing the “quiescence” (ἡσυχία) this induces he thereby stops interfacing with his Umwelt or that while doing so he is not perceiving anything [27]. All it means is that he is substituting the ordinary organs of sense perception with those which allow him to sense if not all the aporroaí the non-inspired percipient cannot apprehend, at least so many of them as are able to “intromissively” penetrate right into his body (ἐγκαταβυσσοῦσθαι εἰς τὰ σώματα) and stimulate his thymόs (ἐπεισιέναι τῷ θυμῷ) without passing through the normal channels of sense [28].

21How was the meteōrologόs able to attain this “quiescence” and thereby “tune into” these “hypernatural” (ὑπερφυῆ) perceptibles (εἴδολα)? Though the details are vague, it seems clear that it involved the mastery of certain breath control techniques in which the practitioner tenses his “diaphragm” (prapides) in such a way as to transform his lungs into a sort of “resonance chamber” that functioned as a “transductor” for converting normally unsensed circumambient aporroaí into a stimulus the meteōrologόs actually felt (συνεισκρίνεσθαι) as vibrations in his chest or “splánchna” [29].

22However this alone, merely being able to use one’s thymόs to “tune in to” the “hypernatural” aporroaí the average, “abled” percipient cannot detect is no guarantee that the inspired chrêsmologόs is ipso facto practicing meteōrología proficiently or indeed in any sense whatsoever. For the goal of meteōrología was quite specific. It was to attain “genuine knowledge” (γνησίη γνώμη). To have a sense of the noesis that was required to attain this “γνησίη γνώμη”, let us consider what Empedocles called “far-thinking” (δολιχόφρονησις, DK31B11) and Homer, Pindar, Aeschylus and Theognis called “deep-thinking” (φρὴν βαθεῖα).

Thinking ec-statically “far” by thinking en-statically “deep”

23To judge from what Empedocles says in his enigmatic Fr. B129 and elsewhere, this “δολιχόφρονησις” consisted of using an organ called the “prapides” to “auscultate” (ἄκουε, Fr. B6) the perceptible aspect of the “sacred signs” (διοσημεῖαι) that dapple our sensoria in order to “incubate” (ἐγκοιμάομαι) intelligence about the modus operandi of the agencies that power them into their ἀνακάλυψις [30]. Characterised this way one would have to assume that δολιχόφρονησις was vain unless one was able to project one’s thymόs “transitively” into the depths (βυθοί) [31] of objects potentially extremely far away, rather along the lines of the “divine pilgrimage” (θείων θεωριῶν) Plato describes in the Phaedrus or the “ἀεροβατεῖν” attributed, inter alia, to Abaris the Hyperborean, Aristeas of Proconnesus and Epimenides of Cnossos (supra, n. 1). And indeed it is hard to fault the studies which cite the ipsis verbis of Fr. B129 to emphasise precisely this point [32]. Other readings, however, are possible and among them are some which fare better at making allowances for the overdetermined meanings of Empedocles’ unmistakably oracular mode of expression. One such is the gloss Delatte proposes when he compares the use of the word prapides in Fr. B129 with how it is used in other fragments. Making this comparison led him to the suspicion that what was being “stretched” was not so much the sage’s “pensée” or “forces mentales” as his diaphragm and that the stretching it was being subjected to was the first stage in a process in which the sage’s awareness (νοεῖν) got stretched “enstatically” into his own body or splánchna.

24In other words, the “φρὴν ἱερὴ καὶ ἀθέσφατος” or “περιώσια εἰδώς” or “γνησίη γνώμη” he was exerting his “forces mentales” to source in the “βυθοί” of distant objects wasn’t found by “translatively” “going” somewhere. They were found by going on a “pilgrimage” into the depths of his own thymόs[33]. This, after all, was the whole point of the “purifying” breath control exercises referred to above and which some believe was a prerequisite for anyone who wanted to become “ἐμπιμπλαμένη τοῦ πνεύματος” or “ἄτμος ἔνθεος”. It was a question of purging from one’s noeîn all ideation synthesised out of the stimulus transmitted to it by “normal” perception so that thanks to the “stillness” gained thereby one could the better tune in to (ἄκουε) vibrating air pressure swirling about all around us emitted by agencies who knows how far away. What made this aspiration feasible was, as we saw above, the training the meteōrologόs received on how to “stretch” his diaphragm in order to transform his lungs into an “echo chamber” that amplifies the imprints of the aporroaí anyone who was not “inspired” never notices. Hence all that was required for the meteōrologόs to “hear” the “rumours” of activity as remote as “happenings above the sky and below the earth” was for the agencies that cause these “παθήματα” to emit vibrating air pressure whose “imprint” was sufficiently distinct that the inspired sage could feel it vibrating in his lungs [34].

25However, it has to be assumed that an awful lot was going on in the “depths” of the far away agencies that the meteōrología-practicing oracle was using his distended lungs to auscultate. As a result many of the “supernatural” (ὑπερφυῆ) aporroaí he was able to incubate whilst in a “cataleptic trance” were as worthless for the geognosy it was his mission to distil as the eidola the average, “abled” but non-inspired percipient can perceive with the conventional channels of perception. Indeed, as we saw, only one variety of aporroaí was useful for meteōrología and geognosy. Namely those emitted by the ana-thym-iaseis we identified as the “instrumental cause” of cosmopoiesis because of the way they “blister” pre-cosmic aether into the “sacred signs” (διοσημεῖαι) adorning the perceptible side of the space between the sky and the earth that hosts our existences. So, because they alone are what power the cosmos into the “complexity” we face and are faced by when we notice it, they alone “afford” the intelligence about cosmopoiesis that counted for the meteōrología-practicing theomántis. Alternately, the better the latter was at using his thymόs to tune in to the acoustic signature of these ana-thym-iaseis – and tune out everything else –, the better informed he was by the “cosmopoietic cantata” he heard whilst doing so about the behaviour of the agencies that grace the cosmos with its ἀνακάλυψις and anyone who beholds it with their Being-in-the-world.

An interim conclusion

26To the extent that any credit can be given to the foregoing analysis of “the psychoacoustics of inspiration” and its applications for “meteorological divination”, the following conclusions seem unavoidable. Enthusiasm was all about attaining a state of “mindfulness” which aimed at creating a “co-naturation” (ὁμοφυλία, ὁμοπαθεία) between the thymόs of the inspired entheoi and the thymόs of the things around them. But to grasp how this applies specifically to the “meteorological” applications of “ἐνθουσιασμός”, an important qualification must be made. For the “empathy” that occurs in the thymόs of a mortal while in the presence of a suffering relative is a form of mindfulness. So also is what happened to Sappho when upon seeing her lover her phrēnes was “shaken like wind falling upon oaks down a mountain” (Fr. 42 Bgk.). But examples of “mindfulness” like these are not comparable to what the “possessed sorcerer” (μαινόμενος ἔνθεος) experiences whilst in the throes of a theoleptic fit. For in the former case the phrēnes is agitated into “mindfulness” by stimulus received via the channels of normal sense perception. In the case of the latter, however, the “mindfulness” occurring in the possessed sorcerer’s phrēnes depends upon not being stimulated this way. This is so because the goal is to execute a homopatheía between (i) the incubating thymόs and (ii) the thymόs of an agency that cannot be sensed with the normal channels of perception, namely the “ana-thym-iaseis” that “cook” aithér into the complexions or “διοσημεῖαι” that dapple our respective sensoria when we observe it. This is why the “otherworldly sounds” these sorcerers said they heard could not be heard by others: these latter were tuning in to sonic stimuli that blocked the acoustic signature of “exhalations” busily spinning aithér into cosmos and everything it contains. The inspired sorcerer on the other hand filtered out of his awareness all stimulus except the “cosmopoietic cantata” one hears when one receives the acoustic signal of anathymiaseis while fretting aithér into complexions, complexity and cosmos.

27But why would one have to be receptive to something like “atmospheric whistlers” or any other kind of environmental EMR to be able to tune into the ana-thym-iaseis whose acoustic signature is audible to the “inspired” meteōrologόs as “the rumours of the divine”? This, after all, is what we were looking for in what we analysed above; proof that while practicing meteōrología the inspired theomántis was using his “splánchna” as a “remote sensing technology” to “source” a variety of EMR whose acoustic signature is picked up on a frequency modulator as what we today would call “atmospheric whistlers” but which he preferred to call the voices of Muses, Sirens and Gods. So, again, have we made our case? Were the sounds or “θυμῷ ἀκουάζοντα” the inspired meteōrologόs likened to the “ὄσσαι” and “ὀπὶ καλῇ” of the Muses really just the acoustic signature of the EMR responsible for “atmospheric whistlers”?

28In a sense, we have already answered that question. There where we admitted that the probative value of anything one can say to credit this hypothesis is fatally compromised by the inexistence of a tertium comparationis which could act as a homological milieu through which it would be possible to correlate concepts situated on one side or the other of a frontier separating what are ultimately two wildly dissimilar ways of mapping reality and thereby hope that any sort of interoperability between the comparanda is possible. On this concession there can be no going back. This, however, does not mean that we are withal deprived of things to say that lend the hypothesis a significant degree of convergence validity.

Convergence validity for our hypothesis

29Take for example the evidence suggesting that there is nothing fanciful about the idea that the human body can detect EMR not sensed via the normal channels of perception. A case in point is the plight of people who suffer from “Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance attributed to Electromagnetic Fields” (IEI–EMF). Far from being fanciful, susceptibility to environmental EMR is an all too painful reality for IEI-EMF syndrome sufferers. And let us not uncritically suppose that the qualifier “idiopathic” in the label used to identify this pathology means we should refrain from speaking of it as a “reality”. That would be legitimate if modern medical science was able to prove that the complaints of self-proclaimed IEI-EMF sufferers were groundless. That, however, it does not have. So, in the absence of the possibility of making this case, there is absolutely no reason to doubt the good faith of IEI-EMF sufferers and the reality of what they complain about. And if this be so, if modern science has not been able to prove that human physiology cannot “somesthetically” sense environmental EMR, what is so improbable about the two hypotheses we are putting forward here? In other words, why couldn’t the “inspiration” we looked at above have the same “aetiology” as what IEI-EMF syndrome sufferers complain of? And why couldn’t what is today detectable by a frequency modulator as “atmospheric whistlers” be comparable to the “θαύματ᾽ ἀκοῦσαι” that ancient oracles were wont to call the “rumours of the divine”.

30Further convergence validity is found in something we did not say about those all-important “effluxes” (aporroaí). For we noted that everything in the universe is constantly precipitating them. We also noted that they were circulating all over the place within a common medium in the form of compressed air waves undulating homocentrically outward from an energy source. Finally, we noted that some of these effluxes can be detected by the normally constituted human being visually, aurally, haptically or odorously, while others can only be sensed by the thymόs of a meteōrologόs and only while he or she is “out of their wits”. What we did not note, however, is how closely this description of their behaviour matches the usual way of describing the way EMR is propagated through one kind of conductor material which transductors in the eye can convert into sensations of colours and through another kind of conductor which transductors in the ear can convert into sound. If this be so, why couldn’t other kinds of conducting media communicate other frequencies of electromagnetic activity which transductors in other parts of the body can convert into other kinds of sensation? I ask the question because if this possibility cannot be excluded, then neither can our hypothesis.

31A third significant piece of convergence validity can be found in Democritus’ intriguing suggestion that the “sixth sense” which gave entheoi the ability to hear θαύματ᾽ ἀκοῦσαι is a gift they share with “the Gods and dumb animals” (DK68A116). Why it was convenient or expedient for self-declared “sages” to claim they shared this ability with “the Gods” needs no explaining. How, after all, can they receive the “glad tidings” (εὖ εἰδώς) which Muses and Gods bestow on them unless both the addressor and the addressee communicate via a common medium and idiom? However, why animals too are supposed to have the ability to hear “θαύματ᾽ ἀκοῦσαι” is more than a little surprising. But only until one recalls the well-known fact that many species of animals have the ability to “hear” forms of energy whose “acoustic signature” falls outside the frequency range covered by what for the average, “abled” human percipient would be called “normal audibility”. How this fact could elucidate the ability of an “inspired” meteōrología-practicing theomántis to hear “otherworldly sound” – and their non-inspired fellows cannot – speaks for itself. Quite simply, the former is able to make his lungs a RST which can sense vibrating air pressure that is normally inaudible because it is higher or lower than the Hertzian frequency range covering what counts as effective perceived noise for the average “abled” human listener.

32A final piece of convergence validity concerns the strange “hissing, whistling sounds” (σύριγγος) that Peter Kingsley says were heard by oracles while in the throes of a cataleptic trance [35]. Kingsley’s main aim in evoking them was to draw parallels between accounts of Greek mystical experience and what happens to anyone practicing a form of yoga called “kundalinî”. This rapprochement is useful and important for us because in both instances, the Hellenic and the Yogic, the sounds referred to were those emitted by what in each tradition counted as the supreme cosmocratic principle (Vak, Prajapâti, Apollo, etc.). But on this occasion I will not endorse Kingsley’s views on these matters. That would involve a lengthy analysis of some of his philologically questionable exegeses and other points on which consensus will never be reached.

33That said, I am not going to renounce the idea that hearing “whistling sounds” is something that happens to a “sky-walking” theomántis while on a “divine pilgrimage” to empty the cosmos and its contents of the secrets of their Being-there. I will, however, attempt to credit the claim in a somewhat roundabout way. Specifically, I shall question the merits of the assumption that the “mystical” overtones of what Parmenides, Plutarch and others relate about these sounds suffices to make their testimony something modern readers should be sceptical about. Alternately, I am going to presume that under all the mystical trappings the basic idea is garbed in, these sources refer to a simple reality that modern science can and should recognise and even credit. The better to make the case, I am going to execute a reversal in our habitual way of approaching and assessing the outwardly implausible claims made in the extant literature. That is to say, I am going to switch the focus away from all the sound “scientific” reasons for doubting the credibility of the things the doxographers say about hearing “σύριγγος” and towards the question of what changes need to be made to the way we look at things when we do so “scientifically” so that thanks to these changes we are able to say there is nothing at all “supernatural” about what these sources relate.

34To execute this switch of focus I am going to ask a simple, straightforward question: what concepts, frames of references, descriptive terms and explanatory models would someone like Parmenides have to have used to present his views on these σύριγγος to be convincing to a public of no non-sense modern scientists while at the same time remaining faithful to his own understanding of the realities he wanted to explain?

35Obviously it would be imprudent to suppose that there was only one way to do this. Still, it would be difficult to think of a “λόγον διδόναι” that better fits the bill than the hypothesis we are putting forward in these pages. Namely that the σύριγγος the “inspired” meteōrologoí said they heard whilst “out of their wits” was in reality circumambient EMR whose signal a transistor radio picks up as “atmospheric whistlers” and the inspired meteōrologόs picks up as “θαύματ᾽ ἀκοῦσαι”. The only difference between the two being that whereas an “Audio Systems Engineer” requires advanced “signal processing technologies” to do this, the meteōrologόs resorted to a far simpler expedient; he learned meditation techniques that gave him the power to transform his own body into an “remote sensing technology” with the ability to tune in to “air imprints” which encoded intelligence about cosmopoiesis and in this guise sang to him as a cosmopoietic cantata.

36Again, it can be objected that all the “convergence validity” we have presented to credit our hypothesis is closer to a dubious exercise in argumentum ex silentio than to anything approaching actual “proof”. Despite this I maintain that in their “aetiologies of enthusiasm” the Pre-Socratic natural philosophers were using a taxonomy of explanatory concepts and descriptive terms that were current in the 6th century bce to describe the way “inspired” theománteis were able to “hear” something either identical to or at worst very close to what today would be called electromagnetic activity.


  • [1]
    On archaic meteōrología as a form of Geognosy, see O. Gilbert, Die meteorologischen Theorien des griechischen Altertums, Leipzig, B.G. Teubner, 1907; F. Solmsen, Aristotle’s System of the Physical World, Ithaca, Cornell UP, 1960, pp. 393-407 and M. Wilson, Structure and Method in Aristotle’s Meteorologica, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  • [2]
    The exemplars of this manner of “exploring happenings in the celestial Empyrean and in the Earth’s vasty deeps” (τὰ περὶ τῶν οὐρανίων παθημάτων καὶ περὶ τῶν ἐν Ἅιδου) would include the legendary “singers of sacred song” (θεσπιῳδοί) like Orpheus, Tiresias and Musaeus as well as those shaman-like, “sky-walking seers” (αἰθροβάττοι, φοιβόληπτοι) such as Abaris, Aristeas, Epimenides, Hermotimus and Pherecydes on whom see A. Bouché-Leclercq, [1880] Histoire de la divination dans l’antiquité, Paris, E. Leroux, vol. II, pp. 95-132; E. Rohde, Psyche, London, Routledge, 1925, pp. 300-303; E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1951, pp. 141-156; W. Burkert, Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism, Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1972, pp. 147-153; J.-P. Vernant, Mythe et pensée chez les Grecs, Paris, La Découverte, 1996, pp. 385-89; Y. Ustinova, Divine Mania: Alteration of Consciousness in Ancient Greece, London, Routledge, 2018, pp. 328-37.
  • [3]
    See Rohde, op. cit., pp. 92-93, 104-106, 186; Y. Ustinova, Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind, Oxford UP, 2009; P. Kingsley, In the Dark Places of Wisdom, London, Duckworth, 1999, p. 63.
  • [4]
    Philostratus, Imagines, II, 33,3 (Loeb). See also infra note 5.
  • [5]
    Dodds, op. cit., p. 117; J.S. Clay, « Planktai and Moly: Divine Naming and Knowing in Homer », Hermes, 1972, n° 100, pp. 127-131; A.L. Ford, Homer: The Poetry of the Past, Ithaca, Cornell UP, 1992, pp. 184-88; D. Collins, «Hesiod and the Divine Voice of the Muses », Arethusa, 1999, n° 32, pp. 241-62; K. Stoddard, « The Muses and the Mortal Narrator», Helios, 2005, n° 32, pp. 1-28.
  • [6]
    For examples of these “amazing sounds”, see Hesiod, Theogony, 829-35; Homer, Od., 12.181-200, Il. 16.234; Pindar, Pyth., 1.21-28, 3.89-91; Homer, Hymn Hermes, 535-565; Theognis, 805-10; Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 84-87, 101-105; Euripides, Hippolytus, 86 and Plato, Phaedrus, 275b. For a useful analysis of the cosmological significance of these sounds, see O. Goslin, « Hesiod’s Typhonomachy and the Ordering of Sound », Transactions of the American Philological Association, 2010, vol. 140, n° 2, pp. 351-373.
  • [7]
    See M. Kaimio, Characterization of Sound in Early Greek Literature, Helsinki, Societas Scientiarum Fennica, 1977 and D. Collins, art cit., pp. 241-62.
  • [8]
    By this term I refer to both the warm, dry descending and the cool, moist ascending vapours that were familiar to meteorological speculation among the early Hellenes, on which see Wilson, op. cit., p. 74.
  • [9]
    Especially useful on this point are the studies devoted to Aristotle’s Meteorologica which emphasise that Aristotle’s goal in this work was to match descriptions of observable, naturally occurring meteorological phenomena with an account of the way exhalations should behave if they are the efficient causes of the described phenomena. See Solmsen, op. cit., pp. 409 sq. and Wilson, op. cit., p. 74.
  • [10]
    See A. Delatte, « Les conceptions de l’enthousiasme chez les philosophes présocratiques », L’Antiquité classique, n°3, 1934, pp. 16-18 on Frr. DK22B30, 31, 64, 66 & 90. Despite the evident misgivings of the dialogue’s author, we see a good description of this process in Cratylus 412d-413c.
  • [11]
    “λεπτότατον πάντων χρημάτων καὶ καθαρώτατον”. Though it could be objected that this expression applies only to Anaxagoras’ description of noûs (DK59B12), it cannot be objected that the same description applies to the instrumental cause of cosmopoiesis in all the other peri physeus historian about which we have any relevant information, e.g., Aristotle, Physics, 187a14-15, 203a1-19.
  • [12]
    This comes across strongly in Aristotle’s Physics (ibid.) which seems to contain a description of the physical qualities of ἀναθυμιάσεις discussed in Meteorologica (340b29) and De Caelo (269a 31).
  • [13]
    A. Delatte, art. cit., p. 17. Comp. Rohde, op. cit., p. 435 (nn. 140-143). The most obvious justification for this conclusion are the references to κεραυνός and πῦρ ἀείζωον in Heraclitus’ Fr. DK22B31, B64 and B120 which all clearly refer to the sort of electrical activity in the atmosphere that was then thought to be responsible for diakosmesis. Further support for this view can be found in a careful consideration of Aristotle’s reproach to Empedocles and Anaxagoras for comparing aithér to a sort of “fiery air” (Meteorologica, I, iii, II, ix). Though the evidence is ambiguous, it seems likely that the latter considered aithér as such to be as little akin to fire or air as the πρώτος σώματος in Aristotle’s own cosmology. Why then the persistence of references to aithér as “fiery air” (μικτὸν ἐξ ἀέρος καὶ ὀλίγου πυρός, Fr. DK31A30)? Quite simply to account for the physical properties of the lightning-like agency that “encosmises” (ἐγκοσμεῖτε) pre-cosmic aithér by scorching it into the forms it assumes around us in the natural environment.
  • [14]
    See Kingsley, op.cit., pp. 116-135. This view receives support in the accounts of the process whereby aither gets “separated off” (ἀποκριθῆναι) from its trans-celestial, pre-cosmic state and “breathed into” (ἐκπνέω) its “encosmic” forms. Not surprisingly, the commotion this process creates is frequently alluded to as causing a “whistling” or “hissing” sound (Anaximander, DK12A11; Parmenides, DK28B1; Leucippus, DK67A1; Empedocles, DK31B100; Anaxagoras, DK59A74; Philolaus, Aristotle, Fr. 201 (Rose); Diogenes, Aetius, II,13,5). Presumably the notes of the diatonic pitch scale attributed to celestial bodies in motion (Plato, Republic, 617cd & Aristotle, De Caelo, II, ix, 290b12-291a28) is just an extension of this basic idea.
  • [15]
    See inter alia S.D. Sullivan, Psychological activity in Homer: a study of Phrēn’, Ottawa, Carleton UP, pp. 178 sq.
  • [16]
    See Rohde, op. cit., p. 30; B. Snell, Die Entdeckung des Geistes, Göttingen, Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1960, p. 16 and R.B. Onians, The Origins of European Thought, Cambridge UP, 1951, pp. 44sq., 65sq.
  • [17]
    Rohde, op. cit., pp. 365, 385, 432 and Snell, ibid., p. 16. For a plausible account of why, when and how mind and matter underwent the dualisation that became the norm in western thought after Anaxagoras (DK59B12), see Rohde, ibid., pp. 301-303, 595-596 and Dodds, op. cit., pp. 142-156.
  • [18]
    Snell, ibid., p. 20.
  • [19]
    For a dissenting view, see Sullivan, op. cit., pp. 3-7 and Y. Ustinova, op. cit., 2018, pp. 332.
  • [20]
    Theophrastus, §50 & DK68A77. Comp. Empedocles, B89, B109, A57. See also W. Burkert, « Air-Imprints or Eidola: Democritus’ Aetiology of Vision », Illinois, Classical Studies, 1977, n° 2, p. 99. From De Anima, 410b28 it seems certain that this doxa goes back to the Orphics. For similar instances of the same idea in Homer, Hesiod, Alcman and the Homeric Hymns, see Onians, op. cit, pp. 73-74.
  • [21]
    In an article as short as this, many hotly debated points must be left out. One issue however cannot be ignored, namely, the significance of the “lantern” simile in Empedocles DK31B84. Despite the obvious “literal” meaning of the fragment, portraying the eye as a lantern in no wise supports the notion that Empedocles ascribed to an “extramissonist” theory of vision similar to the one Plato describes in Timaeus, 45b-e. See D. O’Brien, « The effect of a simile. Empedocles’ theories of seeing and breathing », Journal of Hellenic Studies, 90, 1970, pp. 146 and A.-G. Wersinger, « Empédocle et la poétique de l’analogie dans le Fragment 84 », Philosophia, 42, 2012, pp. 55-56.
  • [22]
    Theophrastus, §§51-52 & DK68A77.
  • [23]
    On the “πόροι δι’ ὧν αἱ αἰσθήσεις”, see Empedocles DK31B100 & DK31A86 and Alcmaeon of Croton DK24A5. From Archytas DK47B1 (ll. 10-18), it seems clear that the notion of pores of perception was inherited from the Pythagoreans.
  • [24]
    See Theophrastus §7. Comp. Plato’s Meno, 76a-b & O’Brien, art. cit., pp. 164-165 and Wersinger, art. cit., p. 58.
  • [25]
    This is what Democritus implies in Fr. DK68B166 about εἴδωλα καὶ ἀπορροίας that ‘οἱ παλαιοί’ took to be “signs sent by Gods to men as visions and voices” (προσημαίνειν […] τοῖς ἀνθρώποις θεωρούμενα καὶ φωνὰς ἀφιέντα). By qualifying them as “supernatural” or “otherworldly” (ὑπερφυῆ or ὑπερορίας) he was saying that they cannot be detected with the channels of perception the rest of us use to interface with “τὰ παρόντα”.
  • [26]
    See Plutarch, Moralia 7, 588de which despite its Platonic overtones elucidates the whole process of “purification” that is essential to the “εὐμενέως καθαρῆισιν ἐποπτεύσηις μελέτηισιν” in Empedocles DK31B110 and therefore acquiring a “visionary thymόs” (ἰδυίῃσι πραπίδεσσι) and using it to sense “φρὴν ἱερὴ” (on which, see F. Frontisi-Ducroux, «Avec son diaphragme visionnaire: Ἰδυίῃσι πραπίδεσσι», Revue des Etudes Grecques, t. 115, 2002, p. 468).
  • [27]
    For highly plausible descriptions of the way “stillness” (ἡσυχία) was essential to Parmenides’ mantological powers and why his ability to attain it was emblematic of the way all meteōrologoí became “ἄτμος ἔνθεος”, see Delatte, art. cit., pp. 52-53; Vernant, op. cit., pp. 124-25, 143; A. Francotte, «Le genre de vie parménidien et les techniques de l’extase dans la Grèce archaïque» in Philippe Marçais (dir.), Mélanges à la mémoire de Philippe Marçais, Paris, Maisonneuve, 1985, pp. 26-31; Kingsley, op. cit., pp. 177-92 and Ustinova, op. cit., 2009, pp. 191-209.
  • [28]
    This is no doubt what Aristophanes was referring to in Clouds, 228-233. Additional support for the view that the thymόs can perceive without the help of the five “canonical” senses is supplied by Fragment DK81A19 (= Theophrastus, De sensibus §42) where Diogenes of Apollonia speaks of a part of human physiology he calls “inner air” (ἐντὸς ἀήρ) and which can “perceive” (αἰσθάνεται). Significantly the acuteness of the aisthésis peculiar to this “μόριον τοῦ θεοῦ” is inversely proportional to the extent to which a percipient’s awareness (νοῦς) is preoccupied by stimulus supplied by vision or audition (ἔχοντες οὔθ’ ὁρῶμεν οὔτ’ ἀκούμεν).
  • [29]
    This, I believe, is what Empedocles refers to in Fr. B5 (γνῶθι διασσηθέντος ἐνὶ σπλάγχνοισι λόγοιο) while enjoining his listeners to use their “viscera” when attempting to “discriminate” the wisdom of the Muses. See also Vernant: ibid.; Francotte, ibid.; Frontisi-Ducroux, art. cit., pp. 475-82; Kingsley, ibid., pp. 109, 130 and Ustinova, op. cit., 2018, p. 331.
  • [30]
    For a splendid description of inspiration in Empedocles, see Rohde, op. cit., pp. 384, 406, n. 96 and in particular his analysis of Fr. DK31B129.
  • [31]
    This is what Anaxagoras refers to in his famed “phenomena are a glimpse of the obscure” (ὄψις γὰρ τῶν ἀδήλων τὰ φαινόμενα) aphorism (Anaxagoras, DK59B21a). Comp. Leucippus, DK67A9; Democritus, DK 68B9, B11, B117 and Heraclitus DK22B54, B123.
  • [32]
    See C. Macris and P. Skarsouli, « La sagesse et les pouvoirs du mystérieux τις du fragment 129 d’Empédocle », in A.G. Wersinger, Empédocle, Les Dieux, le sacrifice et la Grâce, Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, 2012, 3, n°75, pp. 357-377, p. 365.
  • [33]
    This affirmation might seem to be at variance with the explicit “textual” meaning of well-attested testimony on the subject. For example the view that Aristeas’ epopteia wasn’t possible unless his psyche had beforehand “taken leave of his body” (καταλιποῦσα τὸ σῶμα, Rohde, op. cit., p. 328n.109). In reality this remark confirms what I am suggesting here in that the “leave taking” referred to is one that separates Aristeas’ awareness (νοεῖν) from the stimulus of perception received via the pores of sense on the surface of his body so that his νοεῖν can focus interoceptively on the “air imprints” emitted by distant sources and detectable only with the thymόs of someone in a cataleptic trance.
  • [34]
    On this point, it is important to recall what Theophrastus (De sensibus, §§55-57) reports about Democritus’ theory of audition, namely that imprints that the ear can hear as sound can also be sensed “pansomatically” (κατὰ πᾶν τὸ σῶμα).
  • [35]
    See supra, note 11.

This paper takes a fresh, unprejudiced look at the testimony and evidence pertaining to the “otherworldly sounds” (θαύματ᾽ ἀκοῦσαι) that “inspired oracles” in ancient Greece were supposed to have heard while in the throes of a “theoleptic fit”. It argues that the available information can be read in such a way as to suppose that there is a “rational” explanation for the pretention. In other words, the oracles concerned mastered certain concentration techniques that had the effect of transforming their bodies into a “remote sensing technology” which gave them the ability to “tune in to” circumambient electromagnetic activity. Hence the “voices” of the Muses and Gods that inspired oracles said they heard while in a cataleptic trance were merely the acoustic signature of a stimulus imputable to electromagnetic activity that is normally inaudible because it is higher or lower than the Hertzian frequency range covering what counts as “effective perceived noise” for the average “abled” human listener.

Fionn Bennett
Université de Reims
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