Something So Ordinary That It Was Lost

From the Moongiant calendar

I left for the Heartland Pagan Festival at the new Moon, and the first time that I noted the crescent was Saturday night, as the Moon rose over the Pavilion where Tuatha Dea was playing.

So I made my usual gesture, which is just blowing a kiss to Her.

But there used to be a different gesture that people used in Greece and elsewhere. I have asked several Classicists, but no one has yet told me what it was.

From an old book on Neoplatonism comes this story of the philosopher Proclus when he was a young man studying in Athens, which in the early 5th century was still a polytheistic enclave in the increasingly Christianized Roman empire:((C. Bigg, Neoplatonism. Chief Ancient Philosophies (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1895), 319–20.))

For life at that time no small courage was wanted. But Proclus did not lack resolution. When he paid his freshman’s call upon Syrianus [head of the Platonic Academy], it was the evening of the new moon, and the old professor dismissed him rather curtly, being anxious to get to his devotions as soon as possible, and not knowing what manner of man he had to deal with. But happening to catch a glimpse through the window, he saw Proclus take off his shoes, and do obeisance to the crescent moon in the open street.

In other words, Proclus made it clear that he, like Syrianus, was a devout Hellenic Pagan at a time when that was becoming riskier and riskier.

One friend thought that the obeisance might be a raising of the arms, but what about the taking off of the shoes?

Obviously this was once a commonplace gesture, like (in the USA) placing your hand on your heart when the national flag goes by at the beginning of a July 4th parade.

Now no one seems to know how it was done.

8 thoughts on “Something So Ordinary That It Was Lost

  1. I asked a friend who has read a lot of primary source material. According to them:

    The word translated “obeisance” is probably some version of ??????????? (proskynesis; literally “incline towards”) which in the Greek world was originally reserved exclusively for the Gods; however in other parts of the world, especially in Babylon and Egypt, it was part of the court ritual. In it’s simplest form proskynesis involved kissing the hand and then extending it out towards the recipient (sometimes pounding the fist against the heart first); in its full form the person knelt, bowed fully forward, and then did it. This latter is the version the Greeks objected to.

    The bit about him taking off his shoes suggests it might have been the full form of proskynesis. Note the simplified form is, essentially, blowing a kiss, just as you did.

    1. Dver, thanks for commenting. I was plugging your new book at one of my Heartland workshops — I like both of them a lot – they live on the bedstand next to Marcus Aurelius.

      Yes, I had in fact heard that blowing a kiss was ancient, but what do you mean by “full form of proskynesis”? Taking off the shoes sounds like a “salaam,” which is pretty “oriental” for the Greeks (I suppose the Persians did it), but maybe during the period of the Eastern Empire it was a thing?

      1. Thanks for plugging my book! 🙂

        I mean, the second form I mentioned where the person fully prostrates themselves on the ground before extending out the arm, rather than staying upright.

    2. Erik

      I was going to suggest asking that person myself!

      I find myself bowing to the moon, these days – I know it’s not traditionally Hellenic, but after a decade of intensive martial arts practice it’s become second nature…

  2. Pitch313

    Well, first it would be interesting to know just what sort of 5th century footwear Proclus took off. Some sorts might be amenable to quick removal. But others might take a few minutes to untie laces and remove from your feet. If attending the Moon was risky. (I’ll bet the translator did not wear baxae. I never have.)

    [The oldest sandals known, incidentally, were discovered in Fort Rock Cave, Oregon. Made of sagebrush. About 10,000 years old.]

    Second, right you are. Familiar gestures and ritual elements are sometimes just lost and gone.

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