Epimenides’ Paradox

Cretans, as a people, are kind and proud and fierce. I said so to a friend after one of many sojourns to the Isle of Myth.

“All Cretans are liars,” he said.

I said, “That’s a lie.”

“Of course it is; a Cretan said it!”


Epimenides is a legendary figure. He lived in the seventh and sixth centuries BC. He was a poet, philosopher, ascetic, wise man, prophet, and—according to his own countrymen—a god.

Diodorus Siculus, first-century-BC historian of ancient Greece, called Epimenides a theologian and a trustworthy authority on Cretan affairs (Epimenides Fragment 20). In the second century AD, Christian philosopher Clement of Alexandria wrote in The Stromata that Greeks of his time counted Epimenides among the seven (or nine) men most admired for their wisdom.

In the third century, Diogenes Laërtius treats Epimenides in The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. Most of what we know about his life comes from this biography.

Of his youth, Diogenes tells the following legend, which I summarize: While tending sheep one summer day, Epimenides sought shelter from the sun in a cave, where he took a nap. He woke up fifty-seven years later, untouched by age. When folk heard the story, they took him for a favorite of the gods.

His parentage is disputed among ancient historians, but all agree that Epimenides was born and lived in Knossos. Unlike Cretans of the day, he let his hair grow long, and tattoos covered his skin. He ate rarely, in small quantities, and only food provided by nymphs. He purified cities, built shrines and temples, and was given to prophesying.

Though age caught up with him fifty-seven days after his waking, Epimenides lived on to write poetry as well as prose, which Diogenes describes:

He wrote a poem of five thousand verses on the Generation and Theogony of the Curetes and Corybantes, and another poem of six thousand five hundred verses on the building of the Argo and the expedition of Jason to Colchis.

He also wrote a treatise in prose on the Sacrifices in Crete, and the Cretan Constitution, and on Minos and Rhadamanthus, occupying four thousand lines. (Lives, 51)

None of these writings, however, survived the intervening millennia. We know of Epimenides through biographers and fragments of his work in later texts.

One such text is St. Paul’s Letter to Titus, then bishop of Crete. The epistler calls on Titus to reprimand those who rebel against the faith.

They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith. (Titus 1:11-13)

Clement, again in The Stromata, identifies Epimenides as the Cretan prophet of Paul’s letter:

… Epimenides the Cretan, whom Paul knew as a Greek prophet, whom he mentions in the Epistle to Titus, where he speaks thus: “One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, The Cretans are always liars…” (Stromata 1.14)

Some 300 years after Epimenides, Greek poet Callimachus writes: “The Cretans ever feign.” In his Hymn to Zeus, it is the tomb of the father of gods and men—which the Cretans say is in their country, therefore blasphemy—that prompts the denigrating remark.

The Cretans ever feign - Callimachus“The Cretans ever feign” from “The Hymn to Jupiter” translated by William Dodd in The Hymns of Callimachus (London: T. Waller and J. Ward, 1755).

Callimachus doesn’t mention Epimenides. We will see below, however, that the scenario is borrowed from the Knossian prophet—or at least the two writers share a common source.

Though Epimenides’ work is lost, Paul’s Letter to Titus was collected into a large volume, which is both respected for its veracity and widely circulated. And so, what has become known as Epimenides’ Paradox[1] comes down to our times.

In the early twentieth century, biblical scholar and manuscript hunter J. Rendel Harris found evidence linking Paul’s quote with the scenario given by Callimachus. The discovery was made in successive steps. Here, I make short the process, which Harris documents in three articles over five years in a theological journal.[2]

Ishodad of Merv was a theologian of the Nestorian Church, a branch of Eastern Christianity. In the ninth century, he wrote extensive commentary on the Old and New Testaments.

Among Ishodad’s commentary, Harris discovered a familiar refrain concerning Cretans: “Liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.” It is one of a four-line verse describing the same scenario given by Callimachus. And the verse is part of an excerpt summarizing the work of a fourth-century theologian, Theodore of Antioch, called “The Interpreter,” because Theodore’s works were considered heresy.

Furthermore, the excerpt gives the verse as dialog, part of a speech by Minos, mythical King of Crete.

In one article (The Expositor, Oct. 1912), Harris reproduces the text, of which the following is part:

The Cretans said about Zeus, as if it were true, that he was a prince, and was lacerated by a wild boar, and was buried; and behold! his grave is known amongst us; so Minos, the son of Zeus, made a panegyric [speech of elaborate praise] over his father, and in it he said:

The Cretans have fashioned a tomb for thee, O Holy and High!
Liars, evil beasts, idle bellies;
For thou diest not; for ever thou livest and standest;
For in thee we live and move and have our being.

So the blessed Paul took this sentence from Minos.

The final phrase, according to Harris, intends a work by Epimenides, possibly a short title for “Minos and Rhadamanthus,” mentioned by Diogenes.[3]

The tomb of Jove - Callimachus“They have built the tomb of Jove…, who bears no dying frame” from Dodd, who translates the Greek Zeus to the Roman Jupiter and Jove.

If we accept the character’s existence at all, Minos was a first generation Cretan. So, while we now better understand the context, the paradox remains.

Diogenes writes that Epimenides died at 299 years of age—“as the Cretans report.”

 


[1] The paradox is sometimes called the “Fallacy of Mentiens,” especially in turn-of-the-twentieth-century textbooks on Logic, e.g. Fowler (1883), Gibson (1914), Bartlett (1922). Diogenes, in another entry of Lives, gives a long list of works by Chrysippus, a philosopher who wrote 200 years after Epimenides. A few of Chrysippus’s titles, grouped together, refer to “the Mentiens Argument.” Among this group, another title is “Reply to those who hold that Propositions may be at once False and True.” Perhaps Mentiens was an earlier writer otherwise fallen into history’s oubliette.

[2] I refer interested readers to Harris’s articles published in The Expositor available on the Biblical Studies website: “The Cretans Always Liars” (Oct. 1906):305-317, “A Further Note on the Cretans” (Apr. 1907):332-337, and “St. Paul and Epimenides” (Oct. 1912):348-353. For more about Harris’s quest for ancient texts, consider his biography by Alessandro Falcetta, The Daily Discoveries of a Bible Scholar and Manuscript Hunter: A Biography of James Rendel Harris (1852–1941).

[3] Ishodad’s excerpt comes from his commentary on Acts of the Apostles. In the text above, “this sentence” refers to the last line of Minos’s dialog, which St. Paul quotes in his speech to the Areopagus (Acts 17:28). For more about references to Epimenides in Titus and Acts, see Paul Davidson’s informative article, “Lying Cretans and Unknown Gods: Allusions to Epimenides in the New Testament,” on Is That in the Bible?

 


Twenty-first-century author Stephen Wendell is writing a novel set in mythological Crete.

 


Farnese Hercules

Heracles is resting. He leans on a club. The end of which is adorned by a lion’s head, hooked by its jaws. The beast’s hide drapes the shoulders. Behind the back, an over-large hand holds two apples. The other hand and the penis are broken off. Even at rest, the hero’s muscles ripple with the strength to lift Heaven from Earth.

The statue was carved in marble by Italian artist Giovanni Comino in the years 1670-1672. It’s a copy of a copy. The original work, long lost, is attributed to the Greek bronze sculptor Lysippos, who worked in the fourth century BC. We know of its existence from the numerous copies made of it. One copy from the third century AD is signed by Glykon of Athens.

Glykon’s reproduction was lost for a time as well. Uncovered in 1546 at the Roman Baths of Caracalla, the statue of Hercules (the hero’s Latin name) was acquired by Alessandro Farnese (1520-1589), who assembled one of the great sculpture collections of the Renaissance. The hero’s resting pose then became known as the Farnese Hercules.

Born to the mortal woman Alcmene, which means “wrathful,” fathered by Zeus wearing her husband’s guise, Heracles was given to fits of rage. In one such fit, he slaughtered his wife and children. In remorse, he sought penance and gave himself into the servitude of Eurystheus, who assigned him a series of labors.

The first labor was to slay the Nemean Lion, which terrorized the countryside. Its teeth could cut armor, and its hide could not be pierced. Heracles whacked it with his club, and skinned the beast with one of its own fangs.

More labors followed, twelve in all. The eleventh was to steal the apples of the Hesperides. Growing from a tree in the goddess Hera’s garden, these apples were of pure gold, tended by the nymph daughters of Atlas, and guarded by a hundred-headed dragon.

Heracles went to the end of the earth, where Atlas, a titan, held the world on his shoulders. Heracles asked where his daughters kept the apples. Atlas agreed to tell him only if Heracles would take his burden for a spell, so he could catch his breath. Heracles sensed a trick, so he lifted the sky, thus giving Atlas some respite without accepting the object of the titan’s condemnation. Information gained, the hero hurried on to the garden, slew the dragon, and purloined the apples.

Glykon’s Farnese Hercules was moved, with much of the Farnese collection, in 1787 to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. Comino’s rendition was installed in the gardens at the Chateaux de Sceaux, south of Paris, in 1686. It was moved in 1793 to the Tuileries Garden, where it lived its still life for over two hundred years. In 2010, the statue returned to Sceaux, protected from weather in the Orangerie. Two more copies were made, both from a mold of Glykon’s work. One occupies the place at Tuileries; the other the flower garden outside the Orangerie at Sceaux.

Farnese Hercules  Comino 1670-1672

Heracles pauses to contemplate his twelfth and final labor: to capture Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the gates of Hades. A task Eurystheus believes impossible…


Cairos, Forgotten God of Favorable Opportunity

There is a moment, that instant when you must choose to do or not to do. Instinct makes you aware of its importance: Act now, and everything hereafter is different. Act not, and things remain the same.

In her History of Ancient Sculpture (1883), Lucy M. Mitchell describes a Greek deity, long out of fashion, represented in sculpture by Lysippos, who worked in fourth-century-BC Peloponnese:

“Cairos was to the people of Lysippos’ day … an actual god, believed to influence men at critical moments, when sudden decision was required, and leading them to the proper improvement of every fleeting opportunity” (511).

Choose.


Muses of Montparnasse

In time primordial, before there were such things as music, story, or any art,
Earth and Sky were quiet, for no thought could yet be formed.
High atop Mount Helicon a winged horse touched hooves to ground,
Where sprung from Earth a fountain, jet of water unto Sky.
So from Gaia Mother Earth and Uranus Father Sky,
Were begat Melete and Mneme and Aoide, Muses of practice, memory, and song.

The concept of an inspirational muse was born as early as the eighth century BC. In that period, Hesiod dedicates the poetic Theogony as “a rhapsody in honor of the Muses.”

In his Description of Greece, the second-century AD Greek tourist and geographer Pausanias tells of two generations of Muses. The first consists of three elder Muses, daughters of Gaia and Uranus, born as water nymphs on Mount Helicon.

A second generation, offspring of the god-king Zeus and the memory goddess Mnemosyne, gives us the nine Muses of classical Greek mythology. Pausanias has the sisters comfortably installed in their home at the top of Mount Parnassus, one of Greece’s highest peaks.

Each Muse presides over her own domain:

Calliope — eloquence, epic poetry
Clio — history
Euterpe — music, song, lyric poetry
Erato — love poetry, elegy
Melpomene — tragedy
Polyhymnia — hymns, lyric poetry, pantomime
Terpsichore — dance
Thalia — comedy
Urania — astronomy 

Relief sculpture from a second-century Roman sarcophagusRelief sculpture of the nine Muses
from a second-century Roman sarcophagus, now at the Louvre

Such was the status quo until the seventeenth century, when artists, inspired by the Muses, began to imagine each their own personal muse:

“In the seventeenth century, muse was extended to the inspiration of each poet (1665, Boileau), often evoked in the feminine…”
—Muse entry from a French language historical dictionary, Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, Alain Rey (translation mine)

Instead of inspiring the multitude, the third generation muse tends to the creative spark within an individual artist. Furthermore, while in previous generations muses were feminine, in modern times a muse’s gender is open to the artist’s interpretation:

“Traditionally, the muses were women, but mine’s a guy; I’m afraid we’ll just have to live with that.” —Stephen King, On Writing

Meanwhile, still in the seventeenth century, students at the University of Paris, La Sorbonne, held regular poetry recitals to test their wit. They chose for their venue the Pré-aux-Clercs, an abandoned stretch of land along the Seine given to the university by Charlemagne and neighbored by the Church of Saint-Germain des Prés.

In addition to love sonnets and heroic epics, bawdy limericks and derisive satire were among favorite forms. These later, fueled by quantities of alcohol and directed at clergy and church ladies, prompted a veritable war between students and churchmen. At least one death was reported in ensuing riots. Eventually, the university sold the land, and the students were encouraged to take their Dead Poets Society elsewhere.

On the outskirts of the city, a mound of rubble, piled up from a nearby stone quarry, became a convenient dumping ground. Once the city walls were pushed beyond the man-made hill, the dumping ceased, and nature reclaimed its rights.

Over time the mound was packed into a smooth hillock. It was covered with high grass and rampant weeds when the student poets moved in. Having learned well their lessons in Greek mythology, they welcomed inspiration to the recital space by naming the hill after the Greek home of Muses. 

Veuë d'une partie de l'église des carmes“View of part of Carmes Deschaussez Church
and the grand gallery of the Louvre”

In this seventeenth-century drawing by Israel Silvestre, the butte of Montmartre rises in the background, while the artist does his work on Mont de Parnasse (foreground)

The hill itself is long gone now, flattened to make way for Parisian boulevards. However, the name remains. As the city grew, the neighborhood that sprouted up around the old trash heap became known as Montparnasse.

Most recently, in the 1970s, the city’s only sky scraper was pulled up out of the ground: Tour Montparnasse, new home for muses.

Montparnasse Tower over the Jardin de LuxembourgMontparnasse Tower reaches into the sky over the Jardin de Luxembourg

 

 

 

 

 


The first part of this article is myth: “a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon” (Merriam-Webster). In this case, the myth explains the source of human inspiration.

The second part is legend: “a story coming down from the past; especially one popularly regarded as historical although not verifiable” (Merriam-Webster). Though many guide books and historical street atlases make reference to the hell-raising student poets, I've found no primary source to support the story.


 

Plan de Paris en 1657Map of Paris
Johannes Janssonius, 1657

The map is oriented with north to the lower left corner. “Mont de Parnasse” is found in the upper right. The site today is Place Pablo-Picasso in the 6th arrondissement. It’s completely flat.