43. Parmenides the Priest-Physician

Parmenides the Pythagorean priest-physician

Did Parmenides receive his deep philosophical insights because he was a priest?

If this were true, it would disappoint many moderns who like to view the Presocratics as those who spearheaded the triumph of reason over religion.

While it is correct to say that Presocratics like Xenophanes did accomplish much in discounting narrow superstitious beliefs, it is not at all true that they can be charged with disparaging religion or spirituality. Rather, the evidence shows that in the case of philosophers like Parmenides and Heraclitus, their philosophy was rooted in their religious beliefs and mystical experiences. In other words, they saw no dichotomy between reason and religion.

For the Presocratics, philosophy was far from a purely rational endeavor. In fact, in addition to Parmenides being a philosopher, he was also a priest-physician of Apollo and a Pythagorean disciple.

In my post on Pythagoras, I noted how Pythagoras and his followers formed a religious community; I likened it to the medieval monasteries of Europe. This is often ignored by modern scholars or worse yet, treated as some sort of anomaly or contradiction. It is obvious that we are reading our modern bias into the situation. After all, they reason, someone smart enough to develop a proof like a2 + b2 = c2 couldn’t be a religious fanatic. To put it another way, how could people who rely on mystical experiences and spiritual intuition reason correctly?

The influence of Pythagoras lasted for centuries. The Pythagorean religious communities continued on in one form or another, and the Pythagorean religious and philosophical influence lasted – if you count the Neopythagoreans – until the end of antiquity.1 This movement was eventually absorbed into Neoplatonism, where it continued to have great influence throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.

The epicenter of Pythagoreanism was in ancient Kroton (modern Crotone) in Southern Italy. But what does all of this have to do with Parmenides?

From Kroton to Velia

The Persian invasion of Ionia in 550 B.C. caused an exodus from Asia Minor. This exodus included some of the Presocratic philosophers such as Pythagoras, who was from the island of Samos, and Xenophanes. Around 532 B.C., Pythagoras founded his religious community on the east coast of Southern Italy in a town called Kroton.2

About 10 years prior to that, a colony of people from the Ionian city of Phocaea also fled the Persians and founded the city of Velia on the western coast of Southern Italy, about 200 miles from Kroton.3 It was into this community that Parmenides was born. Velia was also the same city in which Xenophanes founded his school in 536 B.C.

The Pythagorean influence did not stay isolated to Kroton but became pervasive throughout all of Southern Italy. Its influence was felt as far away as Velia, the home of Parmenides and his adopted son and successor Zeno. In fact, many ancient writers say that Parmenides and Zeno had their closest connections with the Pythagoreans in Southern Italy, even being referred to as Pythagoreans themselves.4 Third century A.D. biographer Diogenes Laërtius described Parmenides as being a disciple of “Ameinias, son of Diochaites, the Pythagorean.”5

Parmenides and Xenophanes

It was Aristotle who associated Parmenides with Xenophanes of Velia, stating that Xenophanes was Parmenides’ teacher for they were from the same city of Velia and they both emphasized oneness.6

Some modern scholars state that Parmenides could not have been a Pythagorean because “there are no obvious Pythagorean elements in his thought.” So was Parmenides a Pythagorean or a student of Xenophanes?

As we will see, Parmenides’ central theme was the unity of being, or “Being Is.”7 The universe consists of one, unchanging entity. Parmenides taught:

“A oneness of being that is uncreated, unbegotten, alone-begotten, whole, unmoved, unending, indestructible, homogenous, continuous, contiguous, that it abides in one position…is indivisible, has always been as it is, and never can be any different.”

Xenophanes, on the other hand, taught that “God is one, supreme among gods and men, and not like men either in mass or mind.” He said that God abides in one place and cannot move, and that “all things that come into being and develop are earth and water.”

Even though they both emphasized oneness, apparently Aristotle did not distinguish between Xenophanes attributing the characteristic of oneness to God while Parmenides attributed it to Being.8 This misunderstanding could be why many of those who came after Aristotle credited Xenophanes with being Parmenides’ teacher rather than the Pythagorean Ameinias.

The evidence seems to show that for Parmenides, there was more of a Pythagorean influence as opposed to that of Xenophanes. If this is indeed the case, it is amazing to think of Parmenides not as simply an independent philosopher, but as a product of that rich mystical tradition that started with Pythagoras. For evidence of Parmenides being a Pythagorean, please see the link associated with this footnote.9

As I write this post, I find myself in the same situation as when I started writing about Heraclitus. The more I learned about Heraclitus, the more I realized that I was in deep waters and that it would take many posts to even begin to understand him.

Parmenides is no different. Not only is he the most enigmatic Presocratic philosopher, but he is also one of the most accomplished. In addition to being a poet and philosopher, he was also an astronomer, biologist, psychologist, and not least of all, a lawgiver.10 But what is most interesting about Parmenides’ identity revolves around what was “unearthed” about him through a series of incredible archeological discoveries in Southern Italy starting in the mid-20th century.

Rare Archaeological Discoveries at Elea in 1958

Starting in 1958, a series of archeological discoveries were made in Elea (formerly Velia), Italy that would continue for 10 years. These archaeological discoveries shed much light on Parmenides’ life and identity.11 Pellegrino Claudio Sestieri, an Italian archaeologist, found a statue that was among the most unique and rarest archeological finds anywhere. For an archeologist, this would be a once in a lifetime discovery. Note the statue below:

How does Oulis relate to Parmenides, the Priest of Apollo?
Oulis son of Euxinos, healer, in the year 379

The importance of this find lies not in the statue itself but in the inscription at its base, which reads, “Oulis son of Euxinos, healer, in the year 379.”12

Inscription on a statue of a priest of Apollo found in Italy

Two more similar inscriptions sans statues were discovered. All three had the name Oulis, but the fathers’ names were different – Ariston and Hieronymus. The dates were also different – 280, 379, 446. They all seem to be referencing certain important years in the past. It begs the question of what was significant about these years they were referencing, and moreover, what does Oulis mean?

The statue and inscriptions date to the time of Christ. It seems that they were torn down and thrown into the harbor shortly after they were made. Why?

The Temple of Asclepius at Velia

Sestieri found the statue and inscriptions in a harbor near the ancient Roman temple of Asclepius in Velia. Asclepius was the Greco-Roman god of medicine. The cult of Asclepius started and grew in the 4th century B.C., about 200 years after Parmenides, so this temple was built long after Parmenides lived.

Homer mentions Asclepius in the Iliad as a physician and the father of two doctors. He was said to be a demigod, the son of Apollo and the mortal princess Coronus. This is significant because Apollo was the god of healing.13 Asclepius was raised by the centaur Chiron, which taught him the art of healing, although it was his father Apollo who gave him the power to heal.

The Greeks viewed serpents as divine beings that could heal and impart wisdom. At some point, Asclepius healed a snake which then imparted secret knowledge to him.14 From then on, Asclepius carried a staff with the snake entwined around it:

The god Asclepius with his snake-wrapped staff.
Asclepius with His Healing Staff

Thus the snake around the staff became the symbol of healing or medicine in the West…

The accurate version of the symbol of healing.

…that is, until around 1850 when, amid much confusion, the staff of Hermes, known as the caduceus, was mistakenly adopted by the U.S. military. The caduceus has two serpents coiled around a winged staff. Even though the single serpent is still used, the caduceus is the symbol we are most familiar with today:

The historically inaccurate caduceus.

This is not correct because the caduceus does not signify healing. Instead it signifies lying, thieving, smooth talking, and alchemy.

Hmm…maybe it is correct.

Many have compared Asclepius’ staff to Moses’ serpent in Numbers 21 – the one that God commanded him to put on a pole so the Israelites could be healed as they looked upon it.

A snake-wrapped staff became the symbol of health and medicine around the time of the Pythagorean priests of Apollo.
Aubin Vouet (1595–1641), “The Bronze Serpent” (photo: Public Domain)

And of course, Christians see this as a foreshadowing of Christ on the cross. Moses’ serpent foreshadowed Christ because although sinless, he was made “in the likeness” of sin.

Moses' serpent foreshadowed Jesus' death as Jesus was made in the likeness of those who sin.
Fra Angelico, Crucifixion, monk’s cell fresco, 1442 – Museo del Convento di San Marco, Florence

Whatever happened to Asclepius? The answer is that he angered the wrong god. His powers grew to such an extent that he started raising people from the dead. This angered Hades, the god of the underworld, since Asclepius was now depopulating his realm. Hades took the complaint upstairs to the chief god Zeus who agreed with him and killed the god-man Asclepius with a thunderbolt. Later, Zeus relented and resurrected Asclepius and enthroned him in the heavenly places far above the earth as the constellation Ophiuchus, the Serpent Holder. From there, according to myth, he still directed his healing powers to those who asked.

Asclepius as a constellation.
Ophiuchus holding the serpent, Serpens, as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c. 1825. Image via Wikipedia.

Asclepius and Medicine

The cult of Asclepius grew and became very prevalent in the Greco-Roman world. A series of healing temples or Asclepeions soon populated the ancient world. The center of Asclepius worship was Kos, Greece. What we would consider “faith healing” today seemed to be very effective, with many people leaving written accounts of their healing experiences.

The pool of Bethesda, where Jesus healed the paralyzed man in John 5, was most likely an Asclepeion, versus the pool of Siloam which was a Jewish purification pool connected with the Temple. Jesus commanded people to wash in the pool of Siloam as was the Jewish practice, but he never commanded anyone to wash in the pool of Bethesda. The fact that the pool of Bethesda was an Asclepeion makes the Biblical biblical story of the healing of the paralyzed man even more poignant. It is as if Jesus was making a stark contrast between turning to the one true God for healing rather than pagan idols.

With this fact in mind, the rest of the story makes sense, for at the end Jesus told the man to “stop sinning lest something worse happen to you.” Could his sin have been the sin of idolatry? For more information on this fascinating topic, please see the link referenced below.15

Hippocrates, Son of Asclepius

One man from Kos was particularly drawn to the cult of Asclepius. The Asclepeion at Kos was a sight to behold since it was the center of Asclepius’ influence in the ancient world. The man learned from Asclepeion physicians at the temple and soon developed his own philosophy of medicine from what he learned. His name was Hippocrates.

He identified himself as an Asklepiades which means “son of Asclepius.”16 To be a “son of” someone in the ancient world meant that you were an avid disciple of that person and strove to imitate this “father” in all regards. That is why the Hippocratic oath begins, “I swear by Apollo Healer, by Asclepius….”

Hippocrates attempted to separate medicine from mysticism and focused on treating diseases as an imbalance of the natural order. He classified diseases into specific categories. He did so much that would take pages to describe in detail, but the important thing here was that he revolutionized medicine in the West and thus is considered the “Father of Medicine.”

Parmenides: Priest of Apollo

Prior to the Asclepeion medicine that was developed by Hippocrates, there was a much older and established medical tradition based on Apollo. Unlike Asclepius who was primarily a healing god, Apollo was a healing god and a god of prophecy and mysticism, among other things. His main shrine was at the Oracle at Delphi, where a priestess would have mystical experiences and utter prophecies. This is the Oracle who prophesied that Socrates was the wisest of the Greeks, which launched him on his journey for truth.

Apollo was also called Apollo Oulius. Oulius means “healing.” Circling back to the above inscriptions, we notice that they all had one thing in common. The name on all three inscriptions was Oulis, a derivative of Oulius. This was not a proper name, but a title that simply meant “priest of Apollo.” It would be similar to saying, “Rabbi, son of…” These men, in fact, were priests who practiced the healing arts and, unlike Hippocrates who came later, combined healing with mysticism.

Apparently, there was a whole series of these statues depicting the succession of each priest of Apollo who practiced their arts in Velia. It was as if the people of Velia, at the time of Christ, wanted to memorialize their incredible tradition by constructing a museum of some sort. Maybe they felt things slipping away with the encroachment of Roman power and wanted to exert their influence.

Earthshattering Archeological Discovery at Elea in 1962

In 1962, Mario Napoli was searching through the same location in Elea where Sestieri had found the inscriptions four years earlier when he stumbled upon something even more monumental.17 He found a block of marble with an inscription that had been tossed into a drainage ditch 1900 years prior so as to keep people from falling into it. It was a statue of Parmenides, minus his head!

The inscription read:

“Parmenides son of Pyres Ouliades Physikos”

It is certain that this is the Parmenides because it was well known in the ancient world that his father was Pyres.

But what was unique about this inscription compared with the other three that had been found in 1958? First of all, this is the first time that we encounter a proper name “Parmenides” instead of the priestly title of “Oulis.” Secondly, what is even more conspicuous is the absence of the date reference “in the year….”

So what can we conclude from all of this? Simply that Parmenides marked the year zero. It was he who started a new line of priests at Velia so that all subsequent priests for centuries would look back and reference him as their founder. It was normal in the ancient world to date a tradition based on its founder, and it was discovered that any other priest of Apollo was referenced back to him.

Parmenides the Priest-Physician

So Parmenides was not just a priest of Apollo, rather he was the Priest of Apollo at Velia. This is remarkable because this is a very unconventional way of looking at Parmenides in modern times. We focus mainly on him being a philosopher in the modern sense of the word when in reality he was primarily a priest. This does not compute with us. How could a religious priest produce such deep philosophy?

We ignore the fact that some of the most profound philosophy ever developed was by Catholic priests, especially in medieval times. It is the connection with the divine that enhances rather than hinders philosophical thought, which is why much of modern secular philosophy has found itself in a cul-de-sac.

Let’s unpack the phrase “Ouliades Physikos” in the inscription. This is where it gets even more interesting. Physikos simply means “nature,” but this in and of itself is ambiguous. “Nature” can refer to the physical or natural elements of the universe. This is where we get the words “physical” and “physics.” As such, it also applies to someone who practices the healing arts on a natural level, i.e., a “physician.”

Nature can also refer to the primordial principles of the universe, the very essence of things and how things came to be.18 Thus, a theoretical physicist studies not just the physical nature of things, but probes deeper into origins and what makes those things the way they are. This definition of nature is more philosophical, even signifying what we would term “metaphysics” today.

At first, the word physikos, as applied to these early healers, meant philosopher more than physician. They sought to heal people by trying to perceive the reality that lay behind the natural world. By understanding the nature of reality, they could apply this to the healing arts. Only later did physikos come to mean “physician” in the modern sense of the word.

Parmenides, a Pythagorean

As I stated above, Parmenides was a Pythagorean. The 3rd century A.D. philosopher Porphyry stated that Pythagoras was a priest of the Temple of Diospolis in Egypt. According to tradition, Pythagoras went around the countryside healing rather than teaching. If this is the case, then Parmenides, as a Pythagorean, was well-practiced in the healing arts. These skills did not just suddenly emerge.

What was left for Parmenides to do was to become a priest. There was a strong cult of Apollo in Velia because those who founded Velia had brought Apollo worship from Phocaea, where it was heavily practiced. This would have been a natural choice for Parmenides.

The word “Ouliades” in the above inscription of Parmenides’ name is a longer version of Oulis and simply means “the son of the healer.” In other words, Parmenides was the son of the healing god Apollo Oulius just as Hippocrates was the son of Apollo’s son Asclepius.

Mystical practices were strongly associated with the cult of Apollo. So a priest of Apollo would have much experience in things like meditation, trances, and vision, etc. In summary, a Pythagorean “priest-physician” in Velia like Parmenides would be more like a mystic philosopher-healer rather than what we have come to know as a physician in the modern sense of the word.

Parmenides’ philosophy came not from sheer cognition or rationalistic thinking, but rather emerged out of his mystical life as a priest. This is why it is so enigmatic, almost like a riddle – for that is how Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi prophesied, in riddles. This will be important when we talk about his philosophy in the next post. The mistake we make in trying to understand Parmenides’ philosophy is in applying modern rationalistic thinking rules and rules of logic on something that was never meant to be understood that way. Approaching his philosophy from a mystical standpoint will open up the door of understanding to his enigmatic utterances.

Two Philosophies of Medicine

In the West, we have traditionally traced the origins of modern medicine back to Hippocrates, who lived about a century after Parmenides. What Hippocrates did, among many of his numerous other innovations, was to make medicine a separate standalone discipline.

Prior to Hippocrates, medicine was intertwined with philosophy and mysticism. It was this type of medicine prior to Hippocrates that was practiced by priests such as Pythagoras and Parmenides. These priest-physicians were eventually targeted for extinction and discredited in the Hippocratic writings.19 Why did this happen?

The obvious reason is competition. If you want your brand to succeed, you have to find a way of wiping out the competition. Could this be why the statues were abruptly thrown into the harbor? Maybe it was simply the new guard replacing the old guard.

It is similar to the historic rivalry between the allopathic (M.D.) disease model and the osteopathic (D.O.) or holistic model of medicine. Today, in the West, we almost exclusively use the allopathic model to the extreme exclusion of the holistic. Unfortunately, this has been to our detriment and is one of the reasons why big pharma rules the day. But that is a topic for another time.

We know that the gods Apollo and Asclepius never physically existed, but in reality, they did exist – as personifications of ideas in the mind of man in his attempt to understand reality.

Apollo represented a more holistic approach to medicine, after all, he was not just the god of healing, but of prophecy, truth, music, poetry, and art. His son Asclepius represented a more specialized approach since he was primarily a god of healing. These two “gods” represent the two approaches to medicine that we see today – a holistic verses a systems approach. The systems approach, given to us by Hippocrates, has many advantages, but has many weaknesses as well.

As we look at history, we can see that as time goes on, we tend to become more specialized and compartmentalized. For example, Asclepius had a daughter named Hygiene. Hygiene represents just one aspect of the practice of medicine. Over time we have witnessed increasing specialization in all fields, not just medicine. Specialization in medicine has many benefits – after all, as an optometrist, I specialize in the visual system. But, for a medical professional, practicing holistically is also important.

I have practiced holistically for years, looking not just at the visual system, but taking into consideration the entire patient. When appropriate, I consider factors like the patient’s stress level, family dynamics, job situation, emotional well-being, and even their spirituality. I deal with my patients based on the premise that they have a soul as well as a body.

This has opened up a whole new approach for me that has yielded amazing results. One patient remarked that I seemed like a “fortune teller” since I had deep insight into her situation. I laughed to myself and thought, “No, I am not a fortune teller. But rather, just like Parmenides, I seek to look into the nature of the realities that lay behind the physical world and apply them in a practical way for the benefit of my patients.”

By the way, after six years of searching, Mario Napoli, in 1968, finally found Parmenides’ head.20 As a culture that is careening out of control, maybe we would eventually find ours as well.

The head of the original Pythagorean Priest of Apollo was finally found.
The Head of Parmenides found by Mario Napoli in 1968

The following quote is taken from the book Where Have All the Healers Gone?: A Doctor’s Recovery Journey by Luke Van Orden:

“Well, so much for the caduceus. Somebody obviously got the wrong symbol for modern medicine – or did they? The caduceus seems to be an appropriate symbol for modern commercial medicine. Of particular relevance are the functions of…commerce, luck, eloquence, cheating, and thieving. These have become symbolic of how medicine evolved in the late twentieth century.”

Do you have any thoughts on holistic verses allopathic medicine? Leave your comments below. Thank you!

Footnotes

  1. Huffman, Carl, “Pythagoreanism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2019/entries/pythagoreanism
  2. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia, “Pythagoras,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 19 Feb. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pythagoras.
  3. DeLong, Jeremy C., “Parmenides of Elea,” Section 1, Life, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/parmenid
  4. Kingsley, Peter, In the Dark Places of Wisdom, p. 153, The Golden Sufi Center, Point Reyes, California, 2019
  5. Levin, Noah, “Parmenides and Zeno’s Paradoxes,” Humanities, LibreTexts, updated March 10, 2021, https://human.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Philosophy/Ancient_Philosophy_Reader_(Levin)/01%3A_The_Start_of_Western_Philosophy_and_the_Pre-Socratics/1.05%3A_Parmenides_and_Zeno%E2%80%99s_Paradoxes
  6. English, Robert B. “Parmenides’ Indebtedness to the Pythagoreans.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, vol. 43, 1912, pp. 81–94. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/282753; Metaphysics 986b
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. www.jstor.org/stable/282753
  10. Sworder, Roger, Science & Religion in Archaic Greece, p. 172, Sophia Perennis, San Rafael, California, 2008
  11. Kingsley, Peter, In the Dark Places of Wisdom, p. 55
  12. Himetop, The History of Medicine Topographical Database, Archeological finds in Velia’s old Temple of Asclepius, http://himetop.wikidot.com/archeological-finds-in-velia-s-old-temple-of-asclepius
  13. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia, “Asclepius,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 4 May 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Asclepius. Accessed 14 August 2021
  14. “Asclepius,” Greek Mythology.com, https://www.greekmythology.com/Other_Gods/Asclepius/asclepius.html
  15. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, “The Pool Of Bethesda As A Healing Center Of Asclepius,” Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, Dec. 1, 2014, https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/jewish-studies/bethesda-pool-jerusalem-shrine-asclepius
  16. Kingsley, Peter, In the Dark Places of Wisdom, p. 153
  17. Kingsley, Peter, In the Dark Places of Wisdom, pp. 139-140
  18. Kingsley, Peter, In the Dark Places of Wisdom, pp. 141-143
  19. Kingsley, Peter, In the Dark Places of Wisdom, pp. 143-144
  20. Kingsley, Peter, In the Dark Places of Wisdom, p. 195
  21.  Van Orden, Luke (2002), Where Have All the Healers Gone?: A Doctor’s Recovery Journey, iUniverse, p. 129, ISBN 0-595-24455-6 as cited from the Wikipedia article “Caduceus as a symbol of medicine,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caduceus_as_a_symbol_of_medicine

Bibliography and Sources

  1. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia, “Pythagoras,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 19 Feb. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pythagoras
  2. DeLong, Jeremy C., “Parmenides of Elea,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/parmenid
  3. Edelstein, Emma J., Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1998
  4. Huffman, Carl, “Pythagoreanism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2019/entries/pythagoreanism
  5. Kingsley, Peter, In the Dark Places of Wisdom, The Golden Sufi Center, Point Reyes, California, 2019
  6. Sworder, Roger, Science & Religion in Archaic Greece, Sophia Perennis, San Rafael, California, 2008

I consider this the best book on the life of Parmenides. In its unique and refreshing approach, it portrays Parmenides as not just a “philosopher” but as so much more. It give interesting historical and archeological facts that help round out the enigmatic person that we know as Parmenides.

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  1. Thank you for your comments! I wanted to expand upon what you said, but I realized that you said better than I could. I think that you captured the spirit of what I am trying to accomplish with my blog. Thank you again!

  2. Terrific! Makes a lot of sense. I really enjoy these insights into ancient philosophy.

    Those ancients were always making gods out of their great men and heroes and exagerating their prowess, but deep down those mythological stories have a background of truth. I had noticed also the conection between Asclepius staff with the serpent and Moses. Who came first? Moses, of course. As in many other cases, history gets more or less distorted or enhanced in mythology, and Bible history ends up in legends all over the world. Sometimes very unchanged, other times almost irrecognizable, but still there.

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