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Synesius of Cyrene


Mosaic depicting an angel. Museum of Ptolemais. Photo Marco Prins.
Mosaic depicting an angel. Museum of Ptolemais
Synesius of Cyrene (c.370-c.413) was a Neo-Platonic philosopher who became bishop of Ptolemais in the Cyrenaica. He left behind a small corpus of texts that offer much information about daily life in Late Antiquity, and about the christianization of the Roman world.

Hymn 1 is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald. In Neo-Platonic terms, it describes Synesius' soul's longing to unite with the One. 

Hymn 1: "Arise My Soul"

Sound forth, clear-tongued lyre,
after the Teian cadence, after the Lesbian movement;
sing to me in more time-honored strains a Dorian ode,
not one for dainty love-laughing girls
or for the adolescence of flowering youths
that compelleth desire;
for it is a sacred travail of divine wisdom
and one unsullied
that prompts me to strike the strings of my lyre
to a divine refrain, and bids me flee
from the honied infatuation of earthly loves.

What is force and what beauty,
what is gold or renown,
and what are royal honors
as compared with meditations upon God?

Let one man be apt in driving horses,
another in bending the bow;
let another guard his treasure heaps,
his golden joy.

Another's glory is the hair that sweeps his neck.
Let him be lauded on high
for the brightness of his countenance
by youths and maidens in their songs;
but it be my lot to lead a life not noised abroad,
a life without display in what concerns other men,
but that knows in itself of what pertains to God.

May wisdom be ever with me,
wisdom the good guide of youth and of age,
wisdom the just mistress of wealth,
she who smiling shall easily bear poverty,
impregnable to the bitter cares of life.

May as much be mine as shall suffice
to make me independent
on my neighbor's hut,
sufficient that want may not bend me down
to dark forebodings.

Listen now to the song of the cicada
as she drinks the morning dew.

See how my lyre-strings cry out unbidden notes,
how some prophetic voice flutter
about and around me.
What melody shall this divine parturition bear unto me?

God, the Beginning created of Himself,
Guardian and Father of existing things,
born without birth,
firmly enthroned above the pinnacles of heaven,
proud in glory unwaning,
God sits steadfast,
of unities the pure unity,
and the first monad of monads.

He hath joined the elements of exalted beings,
bringing them to existence in supernatural acts of birth.
From out of these the monad itself,
rushing on through a first-engendered form,
diffused in unspeakable ways,
holds the power of three summits.

But the fountain head which dominates,
is crowned with the beauty of children
leaping from out the center,
and again rushing towoards the center therein.

Pause, audacious lyre, I entreat;
pause, reveal not the mysteries
to the people at large,
mysteries which are celebrated without initiations;
go thou and tell of the things here below;
silence covereth those above.

And now mind is busy with mind's created universe,
for out of his has the good beginning
of man's spirit been divided beyond division.

Mind that waneth not,
though descending to matter,
is the seed of progenitors
that reign in right divine,
a seed however feeble.

But of these, this one whole universal mind,
this whole diffused into the whole,
turns the vast hollow of the heavens,
and keeping guard upon this very whole
is ever present, parted into forms diverse.

The one is the convoying of stars,
another turns to the dances of angels,
yet another has found an earthly form
by a bond descending,
and is severed from its parentage.
Dark oblivion hath it drunk,
and wondereth,
in its blind tormenting cares,
at the joyless earth.

Albeit a God looking on mortal things
is within it, there is still a light
in the veiled pupils of its eyes,
there is some courage
even in those who have fallen here below,
that summoneth them above,
what time that,
fleeing from out of the waves of mortal life,
they enter free from the case
on the sacred paths
that lead to the palace of their Parent.

Happy he who fleeing the voracious cry of matter,
and rising from earth,
urgeth with light bound his footsteps to God.

Happy he who after his allotted destiny,
after troubles, after bitter earthly cares,
enters on the pathways of mind
and beholdeth the deep profound
that shineth with divine light.

It is a labor to take flight
with the whole wings of those desires
that lift upwards to the universal Heart.

Do thou only confirm thy flight
by such flights as transport to the ideal world,
and the Father will appear nigh unto thee
and will hold out His Hands to thee.

For some shaft of light shall leap forth
to illumine thy paths,
and will unfold to thee the field of mind,
the beginning of beauty.

Arise, my soul,
drink from the fountain that runs with gold.

In worship of the Creator ascend thou,
and delay not;
leave to the earth the things of the earth,
and in unison with the Father
thou mayest perchance move
in harmony with God,
thyself divine.
Online 2007
Revision: 10 August 2007
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