Olympiodorus’ and Pollux’ Taxonomies

1 Introduction

Olympiodorus is one of the last generation of pagan Neoplatonists we know of, dying around the same time that the prophet Muhammad was born (570s CE). The Neoplatonists are often noted for their baroque and sometimes bizarre metaphysical constructions, and this reputation is not altogether undeserved. But the present passage shows that their ideas about the gods were in touch with the mainstream of Greco-Roman paganism even to the end. Here, Olympiodorus lists the kinds of gods recognized by Platonic philosophy, centering on those within the cosmos, and his taxonomy ends up remarkably close to one found in a wholly different context half a millennium earlier.

Julius Pollux, a lexicographer of the second century CE, does not mean to give us a taxonomy per se, but the way he arranges the adjectives applied to gods ends up constituting one nevertheless. This is often the way with lexicographical material, in fact, and while a dictionary cannot be trusted as a direct representation of how the language was actually used, it often represents a counterpoint to philosophical habits of structuring the world. Pollux gives us, in effect, six spatial or elemental categories: (1) celestial, (2) aethereal, (3) aerial, (4) terrestrial, (5) marine, and (6) subterrestrial.

He then continues with other adjectives, the first few showing a clear similarity to the end of Olympiodorus’ taxonomy, while the rest sometimes name real groups of gods or bynames that can be applied to individual gods, but often pertain only to Zeus (as Pollux himself notes). Some of these bynames of Zeus also have important ethical implications, as Proclus explains.

2 Olympiodorus, On the Alcibiades pp. 19–20

Since we have said that the first kind among the celestials is the divine, one should know that of the gods, some are beyond the cosmos (hyperkosmioi), from whom our souls are suspended, but no body of any kind; others are within the cosmos (enkosmioi), on whom only our bodies are dependent.

Of those in the cosmos, some are celestial (ouranioi), others aethereal or fiery (aitherioi / pyrioi), others aerial (aerioi), others aquatic (enydrioi), others terrestrial/chthonic (khthonioi), some again are below Tartarus (hypotartarioi), as the poet also says: “They call them the sub-Tartareans (hypotartarious)” (Iliad 14.279).

And of the terrestrial ones, some are rulers of regions (klimatarkhai), others city-holders (polioukhoi), some again are domestic (katoikidioi, ‘of the household’).

3 Julius Pollux, Onomasticon 1.23–24

(There are) gods above heaven (hyperouranioi), in heaven (enouranioi), upon heaven (epouranioi);
in aether (enaitherioi);
in air (enaerioi);
upon earth (epigeioi), who are also called epichthonic (=also ‘upon earth’);
in the sea (enalioi), marine (thalattioi), who are also called enthalattioi (=also ‘in the sea’);
below earth (hypogeioi), chthonic (=‘earthly’), hypochthonic and katachthonic (=both also ‘below earth’);

(Other gods are) hearth-holding (hestioukhoi) or city-holding (polioukhoi);
Ancestral (patrôioi), of hospitality (xenioi), of friendship (philioi), of companionship (hetaireioi), of the fraternity (phratrioi);
Of lightning (asteropêtai), of the market-place (agoraioi), loud-thundering (erigdoupoi), guardians of the hearth (ephestioi), guardians of the crops (epikarpioi), of the army (stratioi), trophy-holding (tropaioukhoi), of supplicants (ikesioi);
Tropaic and apotropaic (=‘averting evil’), delivering (lysioi), purifying (katharsioi), sanctifying (hagnitai), banishing (phyxioi), saviors (sôtêres), securing (asphaleioi);
Avengers of guilt (palamnaioi), prostropaic (=‘directing evil at someone’);
Of birth (genethlioi), of marriage (gamêlioi), of plants (phytalioi), or over the vintage (protrygaioi).

Many of these are practically unique to Zeus, like Hyetios (=‘of the rain’), Kataibates (=‘descending [in thunder and lightning]’), or Phratrios among the Athenians.

But as far as concerns “Cloud-Gatherer” and the like applied to Zeus, or “Earth-Shaker” (Ennosigaios and Enosikhthôn) and such applied to Poseidon, let these be given over to the poets alone.

4 A Note on sub-Tartarean gods

Tartarus is below the underworld, but there is not supposed to be anything below it. Much less in the Neoplatonic worldview, in which Tartarus and the underworld are within the Earth, which is at the center of the cosmos. There are different explanations for the term.

The Neoplatonist Damascius writes: “Why are the Titans called ‘sub-Tartarean’? Either as the Tartareans within the perceptible cosmos, below the higher Tartareans (beyond the cosmos). But a better explanation is that they are stationed in the abyss of the Tartarus, which has many parts; for the ‘sub-Tartarean’ region is the lowest part of Tartarus, as the ‘subterrestrial’ is of the Earth” (Damascius, First Commentary on the Phaedo 538).

The ancient Homeric scholia give a simpler explanation: “‘Sub-Tartarean’ means those in Tartarus; for there is nothing below Tartarus” (Scholia vetera on Iliad 14.279).