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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 3 is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald. It combines Christian motives ("son of thyself") with pagan imagery ("master of the thunderbolt") and philosophical themes ("thou wert poured out"). Still, it is essentially a Christian text, written in 400 after his safe return from Constantinople.

Hymn 3: To the Father and Son

Awake my soul; give thyself unto sacred songs,
lay to rest the stings that are born of matter.

Arm thou the mighty impulses of mind.
For the King of gods we are weaving a crown,
a bloodless offering, libations of poesy.

Thee I invoke in song, Thee in the ocean,
Thee over islands, on mainlands,
in cities and on the craggy mountains,
Thee when'er I rest the twain feet of my limbs
on the far-famed plains,
Thee blessed Creator of a universe.

Night brings me, Thy minstrel, to Thee, O King,
and I lift up to Thee hymns of the day-time,
of the morning, of the evening.

Thy witnesses are the beams of glittering stars,
the courses of the moon, and the mighty witness,
the sun, who presideth over the pure stars,
the holy guardian of pure spirits.

Lifting up my wing that turns away from far-reaching matter,
I have advanced and come to Thy dwelling-place,
Thy bosom, rejoicing.

And now even unto the sacred enclosure
of the Holy Sacrifice am I come, a suppliant.
Now a suppliant I come to the crests of famous mountains,
and the great ravine of desert Libya,
the southern border, which no godless blast of wind sullieth,
nor is the foot-print graven thereon of men whose cares are of the town.

There, purified of passions, released from desires,
ceasing to grieve, to rage or to covert,
may my soul casting off all these things that cause death,
render the hymn that is due unto Thee
with a pure tongue and a sanctified mind.

Let earth and upper air be at peace.
Let the sea be still, let air be still.
Be still, ye gusts of swift winds;
be stilled, onslaughts of curling waves,
mouths of rivers, outwellings of springs.
Let silence hold the caverns of the universe,
while these sacred hymns are offered up.

Let the sinuous trend of serpents sink beneath the earth,
and that winged serpent also, the demon of matter,
he who clouds the soul, rejoicing in images
and urging in his brood of whelps against my supplications.

Do Thou, O Father, O Blessed One, keep away from my soul these
soul-devouring hounds, from my prayer, from my life, from my works.

May our heart's libations be a care to Thy august messengers,
wise bearers to Thee of holy hymns.

Now am I borne back to the starting point of sacred poesy.
Already does the oracle echo in my mind.
Be full of goodness unto me, Blessed One,
be full of goodness to me, Father,
if beyond what is ordered,
if beyond what is destined,
I touch upon that which is Thine.

Whose eye is so wise, whose so availing,
that it blinketh not when checked by Thy shafts of light?

Not even for gods it is lawful to gaze steadfastly on Thy flaming torches,
but Mind, falling from Thy pinnacle, is fain to caress whatsoe'er is near to Thee,
seeking thus to attain the unattainable, to look upon the light that glitters
in Thy untiring profundity; and so relinquishing unapproachable ways,
it fixes the strength of its eye upon the image that first showed itself.

Thence plucking flowers of light to be hymns unto Thee,
may it stay the blast of fitful winds and give thee back Thine own.
For what is there, O King, that is not Thine,
Father of all fathers, Father of Thyself,
Fatherless Ancestor, Son of Thyself,
One prior to the One, Seed of existing things,
Center of all things,
Mind that were without substance at the beginning?

Roof of the world, Thou the Light,
everywhere visible, of primal things,
wise Certainty and wisdom's Fountain,
Mind hidden by Thine own bright rays,
Eye of Thyself, Master of the thunderbolt,
Father of the ages, Immortal higher than the gods,
higher than intellects which thou turnest to one side of the other.

Thou the mind's source of intelligence,
the Creator of divine beings,
Shaper of the spirit, Nourisher of the soul,
Fountain of fountains, Origin of origins, Root of roots.
Thou art the Unity of unities, Number of numbers,
at once Monad and Number, Mind and Intellect,
both the knowable and what precedes it,
One and All, and the One of All, and the One before All,
that is the seed of all things, the root and the branch,
and nature in whatsoe'er is endowed with intelligence
the female element and the male.

The mind initiated in the mysteries
says such and such things,
moving in harmony
the while around Thy awful abyss.

Thou art the Generator, Thou the Generated;
Thou the Light that shineth, Thou the Illumined;
Thou what is revealed, Thou that which is hidden in Thine own beams;
The One and All, the One Self-contained and dispersed through all things.

For Thou wert poured out, ineffable Parent,
that Thou mightst beget a child,
to wit, far-famed Wisdom,
Creator of the world, but so outwelling,
Thou dost remain once delivered in the divisions undivided.

I sing to Thee, Unity, I sing to Thee, Trinity;
Thou art One being Three, art Three being One;
and the intelligible segment holds what has been divided still indivisible.

Thou wert poured out on the Son in Thy wisdom's Will,
and that Will Itself was then born,
a nature unutterable, the being pre-existent to matter.

It is against divine law to say that a second one has come from Thee,
it is against it to say that a third has come from the first.
O holy Birth, O unspeakable generation;
Thou art the boundary of natural forces,
of the generating and the generated.

O venerate the hidden ordering of intellectual things,
but there is some medial element that may not be distributed.
Ineffable Offspring of a Father Ineffable,
the birth-pang was through Thee,
and through the birth-pang Thou didst Thyself appear,
showing Thyself together with the Father by the Father's Will.

By the Will of the Father Thou, His Will,
art ever of Thyself beside the Father.
Even deep-eddying Time knoweth not the inevitable procreations,
nor did long ages comprehend the tedious birth.
With the Father He was revealed,
He that had been for all eternity One
that was to come into being.

Who has controlled rashness in regard to unspeakable things?
Godless are the audacities of blind mortals with cunningly devised language,
but Thou art Giver of light, the light of intellect,
and dost bear aloft the minds of holy men away from crooked deceit,
that they sink not in the dark shades of matter.

Thee, Father of the Universe,
Father of the ages,
Creator of the gods,
it is an act of purity to praise.

They who have knowledge praise Thee, O King,
 and they who govern the world,
they of the glittering eyes,
the starry intelligences sing Thy praises,
Blessed One,
as the glorious mass moves
rhythmically around them.

The whole race of the blessed sing to Thee,
they who about the world,
who in the world,
within and without the zones
guide in their wisdom the fates of the cosmos,
protectors they,
side by side with the famous pilots
whom the chain angelic keeps pouring forth.

And the illustrious race of heroes
that goeth through the works of men,
works of mortal mold,
hidden pathways, (sing praises).
And the soul at once steadfast
and bent down to the dark-gleaming
corners of the earth (sing praises).

Thee blessed Nature hymns aloud,
and the offspring of Nature
which Thou, Blessed One,
urgest on with favoring breezes,
drawn from Thy channels and rolling onwards;
for Thou, Leader of immaculate universes,
art the Nature of natures;
Thou cherishest Nature,
birth of mortals,
the image of the eternal monad,
that even the lowest portion of the universe
may be allotted an alternative lot.

For it was not the divine law
that the less of the universe
should contend with the summits.
That which has been wholly ordained
to the assemblage of real existences
shall never perish,
but all find their happiness,
one from another
and each through each.

Of perishable things an eternal circle,
cherished by Thy breath,
places choirs to Thee
throughout all things:
so doth maternal Nature
in her proper colors,
in her proper works,e
embellish them.

And out of living things of varied voices
she creates one harmony in likeness of sound.
All things bring to Thee ageless praise,
even the dawn and the night,
the lightnings, the snows, the firmament,
the ether, and the roots of the soil, water
air, all bodies, all spirits, seeds, fruits,
the plants and the grasses, roots, herbs,
beasts and birds, and shoals of the swimming finny creatures.

Behold now in Thy Libya, in Thy august priesthood,
a soul feeble and exhausted, one given up to holy prayers to Thee,
but whom a cloud of matter besets.
But Thine Eye, O Father, pierces matter,
and now my heart, made fruitful with hymns to Thee,
has exited my mind with fiery impulses.
Do Thou, O King, kindle the uplifting beams,
and grant, Father, that, fleeing the body,
(the soul) may ne'er again descend to an earthly doom.

But as long as I remain in the chains of a life
that has commerce with matter,
may a gentle destiny, O Blessed One, nourish me.
May it not blow adversely,
consuming my life with grim cares of the mind,
so that I may have no time for the things of God,
nor be involved in such cares;
but rather fleeing from these, by Thy gifts,
may I weave for thee this garland
from the sacred meadows.

I bring to Thee this praise, Leader of unsullied worlds,
and to Thy wise Son, whom Thou has sent forth from Thy sacred bosom
together with wisdom itself.
Springing forth from Thee,
He remains within Thee,
that He may explore
all things with subtle breathings,
that He may rule the profundities of hoary ages,
and direct the feet of a rugged world,
even unto the last depth of what belongeth to earthly destiny;
his light shining in pious hearts,
that He may release living mortals from their labors, from their cares,
He the Accomplisher of good deeds,
the Chaser away of distress.
And why should it be a thing to wonder at,
that the Maker of the universe keeps
evil destinies from His own works?

I come, O Ruler of the great universe,
to acquit myself of a vow I made to Thee,
even from Thrace,
where for three years I dwelt
in a way near to the king's palace in that land.
And labors I endured,
griefs I endured meet for many tears,
bearing on my shoulders my mother-city.

The earth was watered with the sweat of my limbs
that toiled in the contest day by day,
and my couch was moistened
with the dropping of tears
from my eyelids weeping
from night to night.

And as many temples as were built
for Thy holy ceremonies, O King,
to all these I repaired.
There prostate, a suppliant,
I prayed, watering the ground
with the dew of my eyelids,
that I might not find my journey vain.

I supplicated gods that labor,
even as many as hold the fruitful plain of Thrace,
and those who on the other side
rule the Chalcedonian pastures,
whom Thou, O King,
has crowned with Thy annunciating beams,
to be Thy sacred ministers.

The blessed ones have indeed
taken to them my supplications,
they have engaged in many labors with me.
My life was not at that time dear to me
because my fatherland was so tormented;
but Thou, O King, has lifted it from out its sorrows.

O Ruler of the universe,
Thou, the Ageless,
sustaindest the force of my limbs,
when my soul was already failing
and my members already breaking up.
Thou didst breathe strength into my wretched soul;
a sweet ending to my labors didst Thou find me,
O King, and one according to my desire,
granting to my works a repose from long labors.

Do Thou, I Blessed One,
preserve all these gains for the Libyans
for a long roll of time,
for the sake of the memory of Thy great goodness,
and for the soul that has suffered grievous things.
Give moreover to Thy suppliant a life free from harm,
deliver me from sufferings, deliver me from diseases,
deliver me from cares that bring death;
grant Thy servant a life of the intellect.
Adjudge me not earthly showers of gold,
O King, that may render me without leisure for the things divine,
nor let grim poverty attack my house
and draw down to earth the meditations of my heart,
for both these weigh down the soul to the earth,
and both bring forgetfulness of mind, whensoe'er,
O Blessed One, Thou offerest not Thy help.

O Father, Fountain of pure wisdom,
kindle in my mind a flame of intellect
out of Thy bosom, illumine our heart
out of Thy strength with a gleam of wisdom.
Give this as a symbol of the sacred way to Thee,
even Thine own seal.
Chase from my life and from my prayer
the deadly demons of matter,
preserve my body safe and sound
from the approach of spiteful violence,
and guard in my safety my spirit unpolluted, O King.

In sooth I carry on me already the darkling stain of Matter,
and I am held fast by desires, by earthly chains.
But Thou art my liberator, Thou my purifier.
Release me from evils, from illness, from fetters.
I carry in me Thy seed, the spark of high-born Mind,
but a spark falling down to the depths of matter.

But Thou hast deposited soul in the cosmos,
and through soul hast down mind in the body, O King.
Take pity on thine handmaiden, O Blessed One.
I descended from Thee to be a servant of earth,
instead of living as a hireling, I became a bondslave.
Matter fettered me with magic arts.

For all that, there is still some strength
in the ball of the eye hidden within me,
it has not yet extinguished all its might.

But a great wave has broken over me from above,
blinding the soul that seeth God.
Pity, O Father, Thy suppliant handmaiden,
whom longing for devouring matter strangles,
when ofttimes she strives to ascend
by the paths of mind to thee.

But do Thou, O King, kindle the lights that lead upwards,
do Thou light the gleam and the beacon
by augmenting the scanty seed
in the noblest part of my mind.
Enthrone me, O Father, in the strength of the life-bringing life,
where nature advanceth not her hand, whence nor earth,
nor the fated spinning of Necessity yet makes me recoil.

May false generation leave Thy servant in flight!
Let fire be between me, O Father,
and the tumult of the earth Grant,
O Creator, grant unto Thy minister
now to spread his wings of Mind.
Now at last let the suppliant soul
bear the seal of the Father,
a terror to hostile demons,
who dart aloft from deep lurking places of the earth
to breathe godless impulses upon mortals;
and let this be a sign to Thy pure ministers,
who throughout the depths of the august universe
are keybearers to the fiery ascents,
that they should open wide to me the gates of light,
and that while still creeping upon the vain earth,
I may not be of its soil.

And of the works written in fire give me,
 even here, fruit as a witness, sure utterances,
and as many tokens as cherish the hope immortal of souls.

I repent me of this life of clay.
Hence, eyesores of godless mortals,
dominations of cities!
Hence all-sweetened destinies of perdition,
and grace that is no grace,
wherewith the beguiled soul
is held fast in bondage to earth,
the soul which drank,
in its great cowardice,
oblivion of its own good,
until it fell upon envy as its portion.

For debauched matter has twain parts,
and whoso stretches out his hand to the table,
to touch the sweet viands,
will in sooth greatly lament his bitter lot,
when the hostile elements
drag him down with them.

Verily this law of earthly necessity pours out a life
to mortals from two sources,
and the one is unmixed and is pure good, a god or things divine.
I have been inebriated with the sweet cup,
I have touched the lands of evil things,
I have fallen into the snare,
I have known the fate of Epimetheus.

So I hate inconstant laws;
and I hasten to my Father's carefree meadow.
Thither I spread my wings
in flight from the twin gifts of matter.

Behold me, Thou who dost order the mind's life.
Behold Thy suppliant, a soul upon the earth,
striving towards the ascents by mind,
and do Thou kindle, O King,
the lights that lead aloft, giving unto me light wings.

Cut Thou the knot, loose Thou the grip of the twin desires
by which artful Nature bends down souls to the earth.
Grant to me to escape the destiny of the body
and to spring swiftly even to Thy courts,
to Thy bosom, whence floweth forth the fountain of the soul.

A heavenly drop I am shed upon the earth.
Do thou restore me to that fountain
whence I was poured forth,
a wanderer who comes and goes.

Grant me to mingle with ancestral light.
And grant that, cared for by Thee,
the Father, I may with the kingly choir
bear aloft in sanctity the songs of mind.

Grant, O Father, that mingled with the light
I sink not again into an earthly destiny,
but as long as I remain in the chains
of a material life, may a kindly fortune,
O Blessed One, nurture me!
Online 2007
Revision: 21 August 2007
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