Epimenides, Prophet from Crete

Epimenides, from the island of Crete in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, broke the rules that constrained human thinking in his time, opening a floodgate of inspiration that swept GSOT to a place and a level that could never have been anticipated.

Epimenides gave us the teasing paradox of the liar, when he wrote “Cretans, always liars.” Was his statement a lie?

Is it logically possible that he was telling the truth? The answer depends on whether you take his words to refer to himself as well as other Cretans.

Scholars give differing opinions as to whether Epimenides consciously framed it as a paradox when he wrote the words. I prefer to think that he did. With a wink and a smile he would stimulate your thinking and then move on to the next topic. Certainly by the last few centuries BCE, the Greek world associated him with the Liar’s Paradox, thus acknowledging his contribution to the philosophy of self-reference.[1]

But Epimenides was renowned for much more than that, although very few people today have ever heard or read his name. If only Paul in the New Testament had named this man whom he quoted twice, we might all be better acquainted with him.

Epimenides reportedly wrote 3 major works comprising 15,500 lines of verse in all, but all that we have remaining are scattered lines quoted by later writers including Paul.

Epimenides was said to have spent 57 years asleep in a cave in Crete, passing from young man to venerable sage in the process.[2] The origin of this legend is a matter of speculation. The island is riddled with soluble rock formations known as karst, forming more than 2000 caves.

Caves on the island of Crete. Left: Cave at Lisos. Right top:
Cave of Zeus. Right bottom: Cave of Psychros.

Religious rites were held in the caves, and it is possible that Epimenides received his education largely from priests or priestesses associated with the caves. A long absence from public visibility, perhaps hiding in a cave, also suggests that Epimenides may have been out of favor with the ruling authorities. This would be consistent not only with his deprecation of Cretans as liars, but also with his introduction of new, controversial ideas. As Maximus of Tyre wrote in the 2nd century CE, Epimenides “had come into relations with the gods and the oracles of the gods and Truth and Justice.”[3]

Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Famous Philosophers in the 3rd century CE gives this account of the mission to Athens by Epimenides:

He was considered by the Greeks as a person especially beloved by the Gods, on which account, when the Athenians were afflicted by a plague, and the priestess at Delphi enjoined them to purify their city; they sent a ship and Nicias the son of Niceratus to Crete, to invite Epimenides to Athens; and he, coming there in the forty-sixth Olympiad, purified the city and eradicated the plague for sheep-196287__180that time, he took some black sheep and some white ones, and led them up to the Areopagus, and from thence he let them go wherever they chose, having ordered the attendants to follow them, and wherever any one of them lay down they were to sacrifice him to the God who was the patron of the spot, and so the evil was stayed; and owing to this one may even now find in the different boroughs of the Athenians altars without names, which are a sort of memorial of the propitiation of the Gods that then took place.[4]

The Book of Acts in the Bible tells of Paul’s reaction on seeing one of those Athenian altars to an unnamed god, a legacy of Epimenides.

Areopagus in Athens 2
The Areopagus, or Mars Hill, near the city center in Athens, site of prophetic intervention by Epimenides and, 550 years later, by Paul.

In his Gifford lecture of 1916, William Ramsay suggested that Epimenides’ visit to Athens happened around 500 BCE.

Under the Pisistratidae Athens grew from a small town into an important city; but in this too rapid increase it outgrew healthy conditions. The laws of sanitation, which the old religion had prescribed for small social groups, were quite inadequate for a large city. Athens was ripe for a pestilence; and, after the tyrants were expelled, the slackness and want of forethought which attended Athenian democracy aggravated the evils of city management, while party strife distracted attention. The result was as recorded by Maximus, Diogenes, and others; a plague struck the city.[5]

Epimenides succeeded partly because he understood better methods of sanitation, according to Ramsay. To sway public opinion, he appealed to religion, combining older with newer religious sympathies. Ritual satisfied the majority. But Epimenides also taught “new and higher conceptions of the divine nature and its relation to man.”

Ramsay’s estimate of the teaching of Epimenides is based partly on the scant surviving lines of his poem “Cretica.” The poem addresses Zeus, who may be thought of either as the foremost of the Greek gods or as the major male deity gaining prominence in the matriarchal Minoan religion.[6] The following lines are based on the recognition that a quote in the Syriac commentary of Ishodad actually derives from Epimenides:

They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,
Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.
But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,
For in you we live and move and have our being.

These words convict the Cretans who built a tomb for Zeus, according to local myth buried there after dying from a wild boar’s attack. In reading these lines 2500 years later, I find it remarkable that Epimenides in his own culture had to contend with the “death of God.” More importantly, Epimenides conceived of Zeus in universal terms, not as a god who merely led the Olympian or Minoan court, but as eternal God the source of creation. Encountering the last of these 4 lines in the Bible (Acts 17:28) many years ago without any knowledge of its source, I was struck by the contrast with what I had previously understood as primitive Greek mythology.

I wonder if Epimenides consciously saw himself as one of the Cretans who had slandered God (all Cretans always liars?)…or if the old myth of Zeus’ death somehow stimulated him to prophesy that God’s hiddenness might relate to human incapacity for self-recognition, an inability to see that “in you we live and move and have our being.”

When Socrates taught in Athens during the latter half of the 5th century BCE, the older and newer conceptions of the gods continued to demand human decision. Xenophon makes this clear in his Memorabilia of Socrates:

[Socrates] believed that the gods care for men, but not in the way that most people believe they do. They suppose that the gods know some things but not others; but Socrates believed that they know everything, both words and actions and unspoken intentions, and that they are present everywhere and communicate to people about all kinds of human affairs….  Socrates…in his relationship to the gods said and did only what was recognizably consistent with the deepest reverence.[7]

It’s reasonable to speculate that Epimenides, summoned to Athens at a time of crisis, could have influenced Socrates substantially over the span of one or two generations, contributing to a new age of universal wisdom heralded by the concept of omniscient God. If this is pressing the point, then let me say that Epimenides at least emblemized the break with the past caused by the new way of thinking. After 2500 years the passion of the Cretan prophet’s insight elicits wonder still.


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Photos:  Rocky beach and mountains of Crete at Preveli, Jarek, CC Public domain on Pixabay. Caves of Crete, all CC by SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons: left, Wolfgang Sauber; top right, Olaf Tausch; bottom right, Torben Schramme. Sheep, Papi, CC Public domain on Pixabay. Areopagus,  C Messier, CC by SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Anna Strataridaki from the University of Crete suggests that Epimenides intended a broad philosophical point, so that a better translation of his words would be “All humans, ever liars.” Strataridaki, A.I. Epimenides of Crete: some notes on his life, works, and the verse ‘Kretes aei pseustai’, Fortunatae 2 (1991): 207-223. Accessed 8/20/2016 at https://dialnet.unirioja.es/descarga/articulo/163834.pdf.

[2] Immanuel Kant likewise began his major contributions late in life, describing himself as awakening from a “dogmatic slumber” upon instigation from the Scottish skeptic, David Hume.

[3] Ramsay, W.M. Gifford Lecture on Epimenides, chap. 3 in Asianic Elements in Greek Civilisation, University of Edinburgh, 1915-1916, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1928; pp. 20-39. Accessed 8/14/2016 at http://www.elfinspell.com/ClassicalTexts/Ramsay-AsianicElementsInGreekCivilization/Chap3-Epimenides.html

[4] Diogenes Laertius. The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. Transl. by Yonge, C.D., London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853. Accessed 8/16/2016 at http://classicpersuasion.org/pw/diogenes/dlepimenides.htm.

[5] Ramsay, op.cit.

[6] Strataridaki, op.cit.

[7] Xenophon. Memoirs of Socrates, in Conversations of Socrates. Transl. by Hugh Tredennick and Robin Waterfield. London, Penguin, 1990, p. 72.


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