Ancient History

Full Texts Legal Texts Search Help

Studying History Human Origins Mesopotamia/Syria Egypt Persia Israel Greece Hellenistic World Rome Late Antiquity Christian Origins
IHSP Credits

Ancient History Sourcebook

The Fragments of Empedocles

From John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy. 2nd Ed. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1908, 238-261.

from On Nature

(1) And do you give ear, Pausanias, son of Anchitos the wise!

(2) For straitened are the powers that are spread over their bodily parts, and many are the woes that burst in on them and blunt the edge of their careful thoughts! They behold but a brief span of a life that is no life, and, doomed to swift death, are borne up and fly off like smoke. Each is convinced of that alone which he had chanced upon as he is hurried to and fro, and idly boasts he has found the whole. So hardly can these things be seen by the eyes or heard by the ears of men, so hardly grasped by their mind! Thou, then, since thou hast found thy way hither, shalt learn no more than mortal mind hath power.

(3) ... to keep within thy dumb heart.

(4) But, O ye gods, turn aside from my tongue the madness of those men. Hallow my lips and make a pure stream flow from them! And thee, much-wooed, white-armed Virgin Muse, do I beseech that I may hear what is lawful for the children of a day! Speed me on my way from the abode of Holiness and drive my willing car! Thee shall no garlands of glory and honor at the hands of mortals constrain to lift them from the ground, on condition of speaking in thy pride beyond that which is lawful and right, and so to gain a seat upon the heights of wisdom.

Go to now, consider with all thy powers in what way each thing is clear. Hold not thy sight in greater credit as compared with thy hearing, nor value thy resounding ear above the clear instructions of thy tongue; and do not withhold thy confidence in any of thy other bodily parts by which there is an opening for understanding, but consider everything in the way it is clear.

(5) But it is ever the way of low minds to disbelieve their betters. Do thou learn as the sure testimonies of my Muse bid thee, dividing the argument in thy heart.

(6) Hear first the four roots of all things: shining Zeus, life-bringing Hera, Aidoneus, and Nestis whose tear-drops are a well-spring to mortals.

(7) ... uncreated.

(8) And I shall tell thee another thing. There is no coming into being of aught that perishes, nor any end for it in baneful death; but only mingling and change of what has been mingled. Coming into being is but a name given to these by men.

(9) But, when the elements have been mingled in the fashion of a man and come to the light of day, or in the fashion of the race of wild beasts or plants or birds, then men say that these come into being; and when they are separated, they call that woeful death. They call it not aright; but I too follow the custom, and call it so myself.

(10) Avenging death.

(11, 12) Fools! -- for they have no far-reaching thoughts -- who deem that what before was not comes into being, or that aught can perish and be utterly destroyed. For it cannot be that aught can arise from what in no way is, and it is impossible and unheard of that what is should perish; for it will always be, wherever one may keep putting it.

(13) And in the All there is naught empty and naught too full.

(14) In the All there is naught empty. Whence, then, could aught come to increase it?

(15) A man who is wise in such matters would never surmise in his heart that as long as mortals live what they call their life, so long they are, and suffer good and ill; while before they were formed and after they have been dissolved they are just nothing at all.

(16) For of a truth they (Strife and Love) were aforetime and shall be; nor ever, methinks, will boundless time be emptied of that pair.

(17) I shall tell thee a twofold tale. At one time it grew to be one only out of many; at another, it divided up to be many instead of one. There is a double becoming of perishable things and a double passing away. The coming together of all things brings one generation into being and destroys it; the other grows up and is scattered as things become divided. And these things never cease continually changing places, at one time all uniting in one through Love, at another each borne in different directions by the repulsion of Strife. Thus, as far as it is their nature to grow into one out of many, and to become many once more when the one is parted asunder, so far they come into being and their life abides not. But, inasmuch as they never cease changing their places continually, so far they are ever immovable as they go round the circle of existence.

But come, hearken to my words, for it is learning that increaseth wisdom. As I said before, when I declared the heads of my discussion, I shall tell thee a twofold tale. At one time it grew together to be one only out of many, at another it parted asunder so as to be many instead of one; -- Fire and Water and Earth and the mighty height of Air; dread Strife, too, apart from these, of equal weight to each, and Love among them, equal in length and breadth. Her do thou contemplate with thy mind, nor sit with dazed eyes. It is she that is known as being implanted in the frame of mortals. It is she that makes them have thoughts of love and work the works of peace. They call her by the names of joy and Aphrodite. Her has no mortal yet marked moving round among them, but do thou attend to the undeceitful ordering of my discourse.

For all these are equal and alike in age, yet each has a different prerogative and its own peculiar nature. And nothing comes into being besides these, nor do they pass away; for, if they had been passing away continually, they would not be now, and what could increase this All and whence could it come? How, too, could it perish, since no place is empty of these things? They are what they are; but, running through one another, they become now this, now that, and like things evermore.

(18) Love.

(19) Clinging Love.

(20) This (the contest of Love and Strife) is manifest in the mass of mortal limbs. At one time all the limbs that are the body's portion are brought together by Love in blooming life's high season; at another, severed by cruel Strife, they wander each alone by the breakers of life's sea. It is the same with plants and the fish that make their homes in the waters, with the beasts that have their lairs on the hills and the seabirds that sail on wings.

(21) Come now, look at the things that bear witness to my earlier discourse, if so be that there was any shortcoming as to their form in the earlier list. Behold the sun, everywhere bright and warm, and all the immortal things that are bathed in heat and bright radiance. Behold the rain, everywhere dark and cold; and from the earth issue things close-pressed and solid. When they are in strife all these are different in form and separated; but they come together in love, and are desired by one another.

For out of these have sprung all things that were and are and shall be -- trees and men and women, beasts and birds and the fishes that dwell in the waters, yea, and the gods that live long lives and are exalted in honor.

For these things are what they are; but, running through one another, they take different shapes -- so much does mixture change them.

(22) For all of these -- sun, earth, sky, and sea -- are at one with all their parts that are cast far and wide from them in mortal things. And even so all things that are more adapted for mixture are like to one another and united in love by Aphrodite. Those things, again, that differ most in origin, mixture and the forms imprinted on each, are most hostile, being altogether unaccustomed to unite and very sorry by the bidding of Strife, since it has wrought their birth.

(23) Just as when painters are elaborating temple-offerings, men whom wisdom hath well taught their art, -- they, when they have taken pigments of many colors with their hands, mix them in due proportion, more of some and less of others, and from them produce shapes like unto all things, making trees and men and women, beasts and birds and fishes that dwell in the waters, yea, and gods, that live long lives, and are exalted in honor, -- so let not the error prevail over thy mind, that there is any other source of all the perishable creatures that appear in countless numbers. Know this for sure, for thou hast heard the tale from a goddess.

(24) Stepping from summit to summit, not to travel only one path of words to the end....

(25) What is right may well be said even twice.

(26) For they prevail in turn as the circle comes round, and pass into one another, and grow great in their appointed turn.

They are what they are; but, running through one another, they become men and the tribes of beasts. At one time they are all brought together into one order by Love; at another, they are carried each in different directions by the repulsion of Strife, till they grow once more into one and are wholly subdued. Thus in so far as they are wont to grow into one out of many, and again divided become more than one, so far they come into being and their life is not lasting; but in so far as they never cease changing continually, so far are they evermore, immovable in the circle.

(27) There are distinguished neither the swift limbs of the sun, no, nor the shaggy earth in its might, nor the sea, -- so fast was the god bound in the close covering of Harmony, spherical and round, rejoicing in his circular solitude.

(27a) There is no discord and no unseemly strife in his limbs.

(28) But he was equal on every side and quite without end, spherical and round, rejoicing in his circular solitude.

(29) Two branches do not spring from his back, he has no feet, no swift knees, no fruitful parts; but he was spherical and equal on every side.

(30, 31) But when Strife was grown great in the limbs of the god and sprang to claim his prerogatives, in the fullness of the alternate time set for them by the mighty oath,... for all the limbs of the god in turn quaked.

(32) The joint binds two things.

(33) Even as when fig juice rivets and binds white milk...

(34) Cementing meal with water...

(35, 36) But now I shall retrace my steps over the paths of song that I have traveled before, drawing from my saying a new saying. When Strife was fallen to the lowest depth of the vortex, and Love had reached to the centre of the whirl, in it do all things come together so as to be one only; not all at once, but coming together at their will each from different quarters; and, as they mingled, countless tribes of mortal creatures were scattered abroad.Yet many things remained unmixed, alternating with the things that were being mixed, namely, all that Strife not fallen yet retained; for it had not yet altogether retired perfectly from them to the outermost boundaries of the circle. Some of it still remained within, and some had passed out from the limbs of the All. But in proportion as it kept rushing out, a soft, immortal stream of blameless Love kept running in, and straightway those things became mortal which had been immortal before, those things were mixed that had before been unmixed, each changing its path. And, as they mingled, countless tribes of mortal creatures were scattered abroad endowed with all manner of forms, a wonder to behold.

(37) Earth increases its own mass, and Air swells the bulk of Air.

(38) Come, I shall now tell thee first of all the beginning of the sun, and the sources from which have sprung all the things we now behold, the earth and the billowy sea, the damp vapour and the Titan air that binds his circle fast round all things.

(39) If the depths of the earth and the vast air were infinite, a foolish saying which has been vainly dropped from the lips of many mortals, though they have seen but a little of the All...

(40) The sharp-darting sun and the gentle moon.

(41) But (the sunlight) is gathered together and circles round the mighty heavens.

(42) And she cuts off his rays as he goes above her, and casts a shadow on as much of the earth as is the breadth of the pale-faced moon.

(43) Even so the sunbeam, having struck the broad and mighty circle of the moon, returns at once, running so as to reach the sky.

(44) It flashes back to Olympos with untroubled countenance.

(45, 46) There circles round the earth a round borrowed light, as the nave of the wheel circles round the furthest (goal).

(47) For she gazes at the sacred circle of the lordly sun opposite.

(48) It is the earth that makes night by coming before the lights.

(49) ...of solitary, blind-eyed night.

(50) And Iris bringeth wind or mighty rain from the sea.

(51) (Fire) swiftly rushing upwards...

(52) And many fires burn beneath the earth.

(53) For so it ran, it met them at that time, though often otherwise.

(54) But the air sank down upon the earth with its long roots.

(55) Sea the sweat of the earth.

(56) Salt was solidified by the impact of the sun's beams.

(57) On it (the earth) many heads sprung up without necks and arms wandered bare and deprived of shoulders. Eyes strayed up and down in want of foreheads.

(58) Solitary limbs wandered seeking for union.

(59) But, as divinity was mingled still further with divinity, these things joined together as each might chance, and many other things besides them continually arose.

(60) Shambling creatures with countless hands.

(61) Many creatures with faces and breasts looking in different directions were born; some, offspring of oxen with faces of men, while others, again, arose as offspring of men with the heads of oxen, and creatures in whom the nature of women and men was mingled, furnished with sterile parts.

(62) Come now, hear how the Fire as it was separated caused the night-born shoots of men and tearful women to arise; for my tale is not off the point nor uninformed. Whole-natured forms first arose from the earth, having a portion both of water and fire. These did the fire, desirous of reaching its like, send up, showing as yet neither the charming form of women's limbs, nor yet the voice and parts that are proper to men.

(63) ...But the substance of (the child's) limbs is divided between them, part of it in men's and part in women's (body).

(64) And upon him came desire reminding him through sight.

(65) ...And it was poured out in the pure parts; and when it met with cold women arose from it.

(66) The divided meadows of Aphrodite.

(67) For in its warmer part the womb brings forth males, and that is why men are dark and more manly and shaggy.

(68) On the tenth day of the eighth month the white putrefaction arises.

(69) Double bearing.

(70) Sheepskin.

(71) But if thy assurance of these things was in any way deficient as to how, out of Water and Earth and Air and Fire mingled together, arose the forms and colours of all those mortal things that have been fitted together by Aphrodite, and so are now come into being...

(72) How tall trees and the fishes in the sea...

(73) And even as at that time Kypris, preparing warmth, after she had moistened the Earth in water, gave it to swift fire to harden it...

(74) Leading the songless tribe of fertile fish.

(75) All of those which are dense within and rare without, having received a moisture of this kind at the hands of Kypris....

(76) This thou mayest see in the heavy-backed shell-fish that dwell in the sea, in sea-snails and the stony-skinned turtles. In them thou mayest see that the earthy part dwells on the uppermost surface.

(77-78) It is the air that makes evergreen trees flourish with abundance of fruit the whole year round.

(79) And so first of all tall olive trees bear eggs....

(80) Wherefore pomegranates are late-born and apples succulent.

(81) Wine is the water from the bark, putrefied in the wood.

(82) Hair and leaves, and thick feathers of birds, and the scales that grow on mighty limbs, are the same thing.

(83) But the hair of hedgehogs is sharp-pointed and bristles on their backs.

(84) And even as when a man thinking to sally forth through a stormy night, gets him ready a lantern, a flame of blazing fire, fastening to it horn plates to keep out all manner of winds, and they scatter the blast of the winds that blow, but the light leaping out through them, shines across the threshold with unfailing beams, as much of it as is finer; even so did she (Love) then entrap the elemental fire, the round pupil, confined within membranes and delicate tissues, which are pierced through and through with wondrous passages. They keep out the deep water that surrounds the pupil, but they let through the fire, as much of it as is finer.

(85) But the gentle flame (of the eye) has but a scanty portion of earth.

(86) Out of these divine Aphrodite fashioned unwearying eyes.

(87) Aphrodite fitting these together with rivets of love.

(88) One vision is produced by both the eyes.

(89) Know that effluences flow from all things that have come into being.

(90) So sweet lays hold of sweet, and bitter rushes to bitter; acid comes to acid, and warm couples with warm.

(91) Water fits better into wine, but it will not (mingle) with oil.

(92) Brass mixed with tin.

(93) The berry of the blue elder is mingled with scarlet.

(94) And the black colour at the bottom of a river arises from the shadow. The same is seen in hollow caves.

(95) Since they (the eyes) first grew together in the hands of Kypris.

(96) The kindly earth received in its broad funnels two parts of gleaming Nestis out of the eight, and four of Hephaistos. So arose white bones divinely fitted together by the cement of proportion.

(97) The spine (was broken).

(98) And the earth, anchoring in the perfect harbours of Aphrodite, meets with these in nearly equal proportions, with Hephaistos and Water and gleaming Air -- either a little more of it, or less of them and more of it. From these did blood arise and the manifold forms of flesh.

(99) The bell... the fleshy sprout (of the ear).

(100) Thus do all things draw breath and breathe it out again. All have bloodless tubes of flesh extended over the surface of their bodies; and at the mouths of these the outermost surface of the skin is perforated all over with pores closely packed together, so as to keep in the blood while a free passage is cut for the air to pass through. Then, when the thin blood recedes from these, the bubbling air rushes in with an impetuous surge; and when the blood runs back it is breathed out again. Just as when a girl, playing with a water-clock of shining brass, puts the orifice of the pipe upon her comely hand, and dips the water-clock into the yielding mass of silvery water, -- the stream does not then flow into the vessel, but the bulk of the air inside, pressing upon the close-packed perforations, keeps it out till she uncovers the compressed stream; but then air escapes and an equal volume of water runs in, -- just in the same way, when water occupies the depths of the brazen vessel and the opening and passage is stopped up by the human hand, the air outside, striving to get in, holds the water back at the gates of the ill-sounding neck, pressing upon its surface, till she lets go with her hand. Then, on the contrary, just in the opposite way to what happened before, the wind rushes in and an equal volume of water runs out to make room. Even so, when the thin blood that surges through the limbs rushes backwards to the interior, straightway the stream of air comes in with a rushing swell; but when the blood runs back the air breathes out again in equal quantity.

(101) (The dog) with its nostrils tracking out the fragments of the beast's limbs, and the breath from their feet that they leave in the soft grass.

(102) Thus all things have their share of breath and smell.

(103, 104) Thus have all things thought by fortune's will.... And inasmuch as the rarest things came together in their fall.

(105) (The heart), dwelling in the sea of blood that runs in opposite directions, where chiefly is what men call thought; for the blood round the heart is the thought of men.

(106) For the wisdom of men grows according to what is before them.

(107) For out of these are all things formed and fitted together, and by these do men think and feel pleasure and pain.

(108) And just so far as they grow to be different, so far do different thoughts ever present themselves to their minds (in dreams).

(109) For it is with earth that we see Earth, and Water with water; by air we see bright Air, by fire destroying Fire. By love do we see Love, and Hate by grievous hate.

(110) For if, supported on your steadfast mind, thou wilt contemplate these things with good intent and faultless care, then shalt thou have all these things in abundance throughout thy life, and thou shalt gain many others from them. For these things grow of themselves into thy heart, where is each man's true nature. But if thou strivest after things of another kind, as is the way with men, ten thousand woes await thee to blunt thy careful thoughts, soon will these things desert thee when the time comes round; for they long to return once more to their own kind; for know that all things have wisdom and a share of thought.

(111) And thou shalt learn all the drugs that are a defense against ills and old age; since for thee alone will I accomplish all this. Thou shalt arrest the violence of the weariless winds that arise to sweep the earth; and again, when thou so desirest, thou shalt bring back their blasts with a rush. Thou shalt cause for men a seasonable drought after the dark rains, and again thou shalt change the summer drought for streams that feed the trees as they pour down from the sky. Thou shalt bring back from Hades the life of a dead men.

from Purifications

(112) Friends, that inhabit the great town looking down on the yellow rock of Akragas, up by the citadel, busy in goodly works, harbours of honor for the stranger, men unskilled in meanness, all hail. I go about among you an immortal god, no mortal now, honoured among all as is meet, crowned with fillets and flowery garlands. Straightway, whenever I enter with these in my train, both men and women, into the flourishing towns, is reverence done me; they go after me in countless throngs, asking of me what is the way to gain; some desiring oracles, while some, who for many a weary day have been pierced by the grievous pangs of all manner of sickness, beg to hear from me the word of healing.

(113) But why do I harp on these things, as if it were any great matter that I should surpass mortal, perishable humans?

(114) Friends, I know indeed that truth is in the words I shall utter, but it is hard for men, and jealous are they of the assault of belief on their souls.

(115) There is an oracle of Necessity, an ancient ordinance of the gods, eternal and sealed fast by broad oaths, that whenever one of the daemons, whose portion is length of days, has sinfully polluted his hands with blood, or followed strife and forsworn himself, he must wander thrice ten thousand years from the abodes of the blessed, being born throughout the time in all manners of mortal forms, changing one toilsome path of life for another. For the mighty Air drives him into the Sea, and the Sea spews him on the dry Earth; Earth tosses him into the beams of the blazing Sun, and he flings him back to the eddies of Air. One takes him from the other, and all reject him. One of these I now am, an exile and a wanderer from the gods, for that I put my trust in insensate strife.

(116) Charis loathes intolerable Necessity.

(117) For I have been ere now a boy and a girl, a bush and a bird and a dumb fish in the sea.

(118) I wept and I wailed when I saw the unfamiliar land.

(119) From what honor, from what. a height of bliss have I fallen to go about among mortals here on earth.

(120) We have come under this roofed-in cave.

(121) ...the joyless land, where are Death and Wrath and troops of Dooms besides; and parching Plagues and Rottennesses and Floods roam in darkness over the meadow of Ate.

(122, 123) There were Chthonie and far-sighted Heliope, bloody Discord and gentle-visaged Harmony, Kallisto and Aischre, Speed and Tarrying, lovely Truth and dark-haired Uncertainty, Birth and Decay, Sleep and Waking, Movement and Immobility, crowned Majesty and Meanness, Silence and Voice.

(124) Alas, O wretched race of mortals, twice unblessed: such are the strifes and groanings from which you have been born!

(125) From living creatures he made them dead, changing their forms.

(126) (The goddess) clothing them with a strange garment of flesh.

(127) Among beasts they become lions that make their lair on the hills and their couch on the ground; and laurels among trees with goodly foliage.

(128) Nor had they any Ares for a god nor Kydoimos, no nor King Zeus nor Kronus nor Poseidon, but Kypris the Queen. ...He r did they propitiate with holy gifts, with painted figures and perfumes of cunning fragrance, with offerings of pure myrrh and sweet-smelling frankincense, casting on the ground libations of brown honey. And the altar did not reek with pure bull's blood, but this was held in the greatest abomination among people, to eat the goodly limbs after tearing out the life.

(129) And there was among them a person of rare knowledge, most skilled in all manner of wise works, a person who had won the utmost wealth of wisdom; for whenever he strained with all his mind, he easily saw everything of all the things that are, in ten, yea, twenty lifetimes of men.

(130) For all things were tame and gentle to man, both beasts and birds, and friendly feelings were kindled everywhere.

(131) If ever, as regards the things of a day, immortal Muse, thou didst deign to take thought for my endeavor, then stand by me once more as I pray to thee, O Kalliopeia, as I utter a pure discourse concerning the blessed gods.

(132) Blessed is the man who has gained the riches of divine wisdom; wretched he who has a dim opinion of the gods in his heart.

(133) It is not possible for us to set God before our eyes, or to lay hold of him with our hands, which is the broadest way of persuasion that leads into the heart of man.

(134) For he is not furnished with a human head on his body, two branches do not sprout from his shoulders, he has no feet, no swift knees, nor hairy parts; but he is only a sacred and unutterable mind flashing through the whole world with rapid thoughts.

(135) This is not lawful for some and unlawful for others; but the law for all extends everywhere, through the wide-ruling air and the infinite light of heaven.

(136) Will ye not cease from this ill-sounding slaughter? See ye not that ye are devouring one another in the thoughtlessness of your hearts?

(137) And the father lifts up his own son in a changed form and slays him with a prayer. Infatuated fool! And they run up to the sacrificers, begging mercy, while he, deaf to their cries, slaughters them in his halls and gets ready the evil feast. In like manner does the son seize his father, and children their mother, tear out their life and eat the kindred flesh.

(138) Draining their life with bronze.

(139) Ah, woe is me that the pitiless day of death did not destroy me ere ever I wrought evil deeds of devouring with my lips!

(140) Abstain wholly from laurel leaves.

(141) Wretches, utter wretches, keep your hands from beans!

(142) Him will the roofed palace of aigis-bearing Zeus never rejoice, nor yet the house of...

(143) Wash your hands, cutting the water from the five springs in the unyielding bronze.

(144) Fast from wickedness!

(145) Therefore are ye distraught by grievous wickednesses, and will not unburden your souls of wretched sorrows.

(146, 147) But, at the last, they appear among mortal men as prophets, song-writers, physicians, and princes; and thence they rise up as gods highest ranking in honour, sharing the hearth of the other gods and the same table, free from human woes, safe from destiny, and incapable of hurt.

(148) ...Earth that envelops the man.


John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy. 2nd Ed. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1908, 238-261.

This text is part of the Internet Ancient History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to ancient history. Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

Paul Halsall, February 2023
[email protected]

The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is located at the History Department of  Fordham University, New York. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and other medieval components of the project, are located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.The IHSP recognizes the contribution of Fordham University, the Fordham University History Department, and the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies in providing web space and server support for the project. The IHSP is a project independent of Fordham University.  Although the IHSP seeks to follow all applicable copyright law, Fordham University is not the institutional owner, and is not liable as the result of any legal action.

© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall, created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 5 June 2023 [CV]