Plutarch’s account of Cronus worship in the Atlantic north

Here is an important part of a chapter from the Moralia of the 1st/2ndC CE Greek philosopher Plutarch, in which his narrators discuss a fascinating tradition of the worship of Cronus on an island somewhere off or in the archipelagos of northwest Europe. They then go on to digress on the  Orphic mysteries…

From: ‘Concerning the Face  Which Appears in the Orb of the Moon’

26 …Almost before I had finished, Sulla broke in. “Hold on, Lamprias,” he said, “and put to the wicket of your discourse lest you unwittingly run the myth aground, as it were, and confound my drama, which has a different setting and a different disposition. Well, I am but the actor of the piece, but first I shall say that its author began for our sake — if there be no objection — with a quotation from Homer:

An isle, Ogygia, lies far out at sea,

a run of five days off from Britain as you sail westward; and three other islands equally distant from it and from one another lie out from it in the general direction of the summer sunset. In one of these, according to the tale told by the natives, Cronus is confined by Zeus, and the antique Briareus, holding watch and ward over those islands and the sea that they call the Cronian main, has been settled close beside him. The great mainland, by which the great ocean is encircled, while not so far from the other islands, is about five thousand stades from Ogygia, the voyage being made by oar, for the main is slow to traverse and muddy as a result of the multitude of streams. The streams are discharged by the great land-mass and produce alluvial deposits, thus giving density and earthiness to the sea, which has been thought actually to be congealed. On the coast of the mainland Greeks dwell about a gulf which is not smaller than the Maeotis and the mouth of the Caspian sea. These people consider and call themselves continentals and the inhabitants of this land islanders because the sea flows around it on all sides; and they believe that with the peoples of Cronus there mingled at a later time those who arrived in the train of Heracles and were left behind by him and that these latter so to speak rekindled again to a strong, high flame the Hellenic spark there which was already being quenched and overcome by the tongue, the laws, and the manners of the barbarians. Therefore Heracles has the highest honours and Cronos the second. Now when at intervals of thirty years the star of Cronus, which we call ‘Splendent’ but they, our author said, call ‘Night-watchman,’ enters the sign of the Bull, they, having spent a long time in preparation for the sacrifice and the expedition, choose by lot and send forth a sufficient number of envoys in a correspondingly sufficient number of ships, putting aboard a large retinue and the provisions necessary for men who are going to cross so much sea by oar and live such a long time in a foreign land. Now when they have put to sea the several voyagers meet with various fortunes as one might expect; but those who survive the voyage first put in at the outlying islands, which are inhabited by Greeks, and see the sun pass out of sight for less than an hour over a period of thirty days, — and this is night, though it has a darkness that is slight and twilight glimmering from the west. There they spend ninety days regarded with honour and friendliness as holy men and so addressed, and then winds carry them across to their appointed goal. Nor do any others inhabit it but themselves and those who have been dispatched before them, for, while those who have served the god together for the stint of thirty years are allowed to sail off home, most of them usually choose to settle in the spot, some out of habit and others because without toil or trouble they have all things in abundance while they constantly employ their time in sacrifices and celebrations or with various discourse and philosophy, for the nature of the island is marvellous as is the softness of the circumambient air. Some when they intend to sail away are even hindered by the divinity which presents itself to them as to intimates and friends not in dreams only or by means of omens, but many also come upon the visions and the voices of spirits manifest. For Cronus himself sleeps confined in a deep cave of rock that shines like gold — the sleep that Zeus has contrived like a bond for him —, and birds flying in over the summit of the rock bring ambrosia to him, and all the island is suffused with fragrance scattered from the rock as from a fountain; and those spirits mentioned before tend and serve Cronus, having been his comrades what time he ruled as king over gods and men. Many things they do foretell of themselves, for they are oracular; but the prophecies that are greatest and of the greatest matters they come down and report as dreams of Cronus, for all that Zeus premeditates Cronus sees in his dreams and the titanic affections and motions of his soul make him rigidly tense until sleep restores his repose once more and the royal and divine element is all by itself, pure and unalloyed. Here then the stranger was conveyed, as he said, and while he served the god became at his leisure acquainted with astronomy, in which he made as much progress as one can by practising geometry, and with the rest of philosophy by dealing with so much of it as is possible for the natural philosopher. Since he had a strange desire and longing to observe the Great Island (for so, it seems, they call our part of the world), when the thirty years had elapsed, the relief-party having arrived from home, he saluted his friends and sailed away, lightly equipped for the rest but carrying a large viaticum in golden beakers. Well, all his experiences and all the men whom he visited, encountering sacred writings and being initiated in all rites — to recount all this as he reported it to us, relating it thoroughly and in detail, is not a task for a single day; but listen to so much as is pertinent to the present discussion. He spent a great deal of time in Carthage inasmuch as Cronus receives great honour in our country, and he discovered certain sacred parchments that had been secretly spirited off to safety when the earlier city was being destroyed and had lain unnoticed in the ground for a long time. Among the visible gods he said that one should especially honour the moon, and so he kept exhorting me to do, inasmuch as she is sovereign over life and death, bordering as she does upon the meads of Hades.

27 When I expressed surprise at this and asked for a clearer account, he said: ‘Many assertions about the gods, Sulla, are current among the Greeks, but not all tom are right. So, for example, although they give the right names to Demeter and Cora, they are wrong in believing that both are together in the same region. The fact is that the former is in the region of earth and is sovereign over terrestrial things, and the latter is in the moon and mistress of lunar things. She has been called both Cora and Phersephonê, the latter as being a bearer of light and Cora because that is what we call the part of the eye in which is reflected the likeness of him who looks into it as the light of the sun is seen in the moon. The tales told of the wandering and the quest of these goddesses Econtain the truth <spoken covertly>, for they long for each other when they are apart and they often embrace in the shadow. The statement concerning Cora that now she is in the light of heaven and now in darkness and night is not false but has given rise to error in the computation of the time, for not throughout six months but every six months we see her being wrapped in shadow by the earth as it were by her mother, and infrequently we see this happen to her at intervals of five months, for she cannot abandon Hades since she is the boundary of Hades, as Homer too has rather well put it in veiled terms:

But to Elysium’s plain, the bourne of earth.

Where the range of the earth’s shadow ends, this he set as the term and boundary of the earth. To this point rises no one who is evil or unclean, but the good are conveyed thither after death and there continue to lead a life most easy to be sure though not blesséd or divine until their second death.

28 And what is this, Sulla? Do not ask about these things, for I am going to give a full explanation myself. Most people rightly hold man to be composite but wrongly hold him to be composed of only two parts. The reason is that they suppose mind to be somehow part of soul, thus erring no less than those who believe soul to be part of body, for in the same degree as soul is superior to body so is mind better and more divine than soul. The result of soul and body commingled is the irrational or the affective factor, whereas of mind and soul the conjunction produces reason; and of these the former is source of pleasure and pain, the latter of virtue and vice. In the composition of these three factors earth furnishes the body, the moon the soul, and the sun furnishes mind to man for the purpose of his generation even as it furnishes light to the moon herself. As to the death we die, one death reduces man from three factors to two and another reduces him from two to one; and the former takes place in the earth that belongs to Demeter (wherefore “to make an end” is called “to render one’s life to her” and Athenians used in olden times to call the dead “Demetrians”), the latter in the moon that belongs to Phersephonê, and associated with the former is Hermes the terrestrial, with the latter Hermes the celestial.While the goddess here dissociates the soul from the body swiftly and violently, Phersephonê gently and by slow degrees detaches the mind from the soul and has therefore been called “single-born” because the best part of man is “born single” when separated off by her. Each of the two separations naturally occurs in this fashion: All soul, whether without mind or with it, when it has issued from the body is destined to wander in the region between earth and moon but not for an equal time. Unjust and licentious souls pay penalties for their offences; but the good souls must in the gentlest part of the air, which they call “the meads of Hades,” pass a certain set time sufficient to purge and blow away the pollutions contracted from the body as from an evil odour. Then, as if brought home from banishment abroad, they savour joy most like that of initiates, which attended by glad expectation is mingled with confusion and excitement. For many, even as they are in the act of clinging to the moon, she thrusts off and sweeps away; and some of those souls too that are on the moon they see turning upside down as if sinking again into the deep. Those that have got up, however, and have found a firm footing first go about like victors crowned with wreaths of feathers called wreaths of steadfastness, because in life they had made the irrational or affective element of the soul orderly and tolerably tractable to reason; secondly, in appearance resembling a ray of light but in respect of their nature, which in the upper region is buoyant as it is here in ours, resembling the ether about the moon, they get from it both tension and strength as edged instruments get a temper, for what laxness and diffuseness they still have is strengthened and becomes firm and translucent. In consequence they are nourished by any exhalation that reaches them, and Heraclitus was right in saying: “Souls employ the sense of smell in Hades.”

29 First they behold the moon as she is in herself: her magnitude and beauty and nature, which is not simple and unmixed but a blend as it were of star and earth. Just as the earth has become soft by having been mixed with breath and moisture and as blood gives rise to sense-perception in the flesh with which it is commingled, so the moon, they say, because it has been permeated through and through by ether is at once animated and fertile and at the same time has the proportion of lightness to heaviness in equipoise. In fact it is in this way too, they say, that the universe itself has entirely escaped local motion, because it has been constructed out of the things that naturally move upwards and those that naturally move downwards. This was also the conception of Xenocrates who, taking his start from Plato, seems to have reached it by a kind of superhuman reasoning. Plato is the one who declared that each of the stars as well was constructed of earth and fire bound together in a proportion by means of the two intermediate natures, for nothing, as he said, attains perceptibility that does not contain an admixture of earth and light; but Xenocrates says that the stars and the sun are composed of fire and the first density, the moon of the second density and air that is proper to her, and the earth of water and air and the third kind of density and that in general neither density all by itself nor subtility is receptive of soul. So much for the moon’s substance. As to her breadth or magnitude, it is not what the geometers say but many times greater. She measures off the earth’s shadow with few of her own magnitudes not because it is small but she more ardently hastens her motion in order that she may quickly pass through the gloomy place bearing away the souls of the good which cry out and urge her one because when they are in the shadow they no longer catch the sound of the harmony of heaven. At the same time too with wails and cries the souls of the chastised then approach through the shadow from below. That is why most people have the custom of beating brasses during eclipses and of raising a din and clatter against the souls, which are frightened off also by the so‑called face when they get near it, for it has a grim and horrible aspect. It is no such thing, however; but just as our earth contains gulfs that are deep and extensive, one here pouring in towards us through the Pillars of Heracles and outside the Caspian and the Red Sea with its gulfs, so those features are depths and hollows of the moon. The largest of them is called “Hecatê’s Recess,” where the souls suffer and exact penalties for whatever they have endured or committed after having already become Spirits; and the two long ones are called “the Gates”, for through them pass the souls now to the side of the moon that faces heaven and now back to the side that faces earth. The side of the moon towards heaven is named “Elysian plain,” the hither side “House of counter-terrestrial Phersephonê.”

30 Yet not forever do the Spirits tarry upon the moon; they descend hither to take charge of oracles, they attend and participate in the highest of the mystic rituals, they act as warders against misdeeds and chastisers of them, and they flash forth as saviour a manifest in war and on the sea. For any act that they perform in these matters not fairly but inspired by wrath or for an unjust end or out of envy they are penalized, for they are cast out upon earth again confined in human bodies. To the former class of better Spirits the attendants of Cronos said that they belong themselves as did aforetime the Idaean Dactyls in Crete and the Corybants in Phrygia as well as the Boeotian Trophoniads in Udora and thousands of others in many parts of the world whose rites, honours, and titles persist but whose powers tended to another place as they achieved the ultimate alteration. They achieve it, some sooner and some later, once the mind has been separated from the soul. It is separated by love for the image in the sun through which shines forth manifest the desirable and fair and divine and blessed towards which all nature in one way or another yearns, for it must be out of love for the sun that the moon herself goes her rounds and gets into conjunction with him in her yearning to receive from him what is most fructifying. The substance of the soul is left upon the moon and retains certain vestiges and dreams of life as it were; it is this that you must properly take to be the subject of the statement

Soul like a dream has taken wing and sped,

for it is not straightway nor once it has been released from the body that it reaches this state but later when, divorced from the mind, it is deserted and alone. Above all else that Homer said his words concerning those in Hades appear to have been divinely inspired.

Thereafter marked I mighty Heracles — His shade; but he is with the deathless god. . .

In fact the self of each of us is not anger or fear or desire just as it is not bits of flesh or fluids either but is that which we reason and understand; and the soul receives the impression of its shape through being moulded by the mind and moulding in turn and enfolding the body on all sides, so that, even if it be separated from either one for a long time, since it preserves the likeness and the imprint it is correctly called an image. Of these, as has been said, the moon is the element, for they are resolved into it as the bodies of the dead are resolved into earth. This happens quickly to the temperate souls who had been fond of a leisurely, unmeddlesome, and philosophical life, for abandoned by the mind and no longer exercising the passions for anything they quickly wither away. Of the ambitious and the active, the irascible and those who are enamoured of the body, however, some pass their time as it were in sleep with the memories of their lives for dreams as did the soul of Endymion; but, when they are excited by restlessness and emotion and drawn away from the moon to another birth, she forbids them <to sink towards earth> and keeps conjuring them back and binding them with charms, for it is no slight, quiet, or harmonious business when with the affective faculty apart from reason they seize upon a body. Creatures like Tityus and Typho and the Python that with insolence and violence occupied Delphi and confounded the oracle belonged to this class of souls, void of reason and subject to the affective element gone astray through delusion; but even these in time the moon took back to herself and reduced to order. Then when the sun with his vital force has again sowed mind in her she receives it and produces new souls, and earth in the third place furnishes body. In fact, the earth gives nothing in giving back after death all that she takes for generation, and the sun takes nothing but takes back the mind that he gives, whereas the moon both takes and gives and joins together and divides asunder in virtue of her different powers, of which the one that joins together is called Ilithyia and that which divides asunder Artemis. Of the three Fates too Atropos enthroned in the sun initiates generation, Clotho in motion on the moon mingles and binds together, and finally upon the earth Lachesis too puts her hand to the task, she who has the largest share in chance. For the inanimate is itself powerless and susceptible to alien agents, and the mind is impassable and sovereign; but the soul is a mixed and intermediate thing, even as the moon has been created by god a compound and blend of the things above and below and therefore stands to the sun in the relation of earth to moon.’

This,” said Sulla, “I heard the stranger relate; and he had the account, as he said himself, from the chamberlains and servitors of Cronus. You and your companions, Lamprias, may make what you will of the tale.”

These passages detail an Atlantic cult of ‘Cronus’ whose initiates spend 30 years in service – the same period Caesar quoted for the druids. They also perform peregrinations from their central territory, where Cronus is believed interred in a cavern in the earth. Plutarch states this place to be Ogygia – an island supposed in Greek myth to have been inhabited by Atlas (Atlantis) and his daughter Calypso, who imprisoned Oddyseus for 7 years – a period of time typical to Irish fairy abduction myths written in the middle ages. Irish myths sometimes portray the magical islands associated with Manannan in such a way – including the Isle of Man.  The name ‘Ogygia’ is connected to the Gyges or ‘giants’ of whom the Titans seem to be the main class in Greek myth. The names of Okeanos and Ogyges have been linked, and Plutarch’s account seems to back up this identity, perhaps conflating Cronus, Okeanos and Atlas/Atlantis under the same identity…

The text also discusses the flight of souls to the moon, which Plutarch describes as being near to Hades in the context of this chapter. Surely he is not describing a purely Greek myth? To the Greeks Hades’ realm is a chthonic underworld place, sitting above the pit of Tartarus…


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