The maxim itself is attributed to the Seven Sages of ancient Greece, who flourished from the early to mid sixth century B.C.E. However, there is no agreement as to which Sage actually uttered the maxim. Even the early Church Father Clement of Alexandria knew of the difficulty of ascribing authorship to the maxim.
“The expression, “Know Thyself”, some supposed to be Chilon’s [one of the seven sages of ancient Greece]. But Chamaeleon, in his book ‘About the Gods’ ascribes it to Thales [another of the sages]; Aristotle to the Pythian [Apollo].
Much earlier Heraclitus, in the sixth century B.C.E., makes our first literary reference to the maxim.
“All men have the capacity of Knowing Themselves,” and, “I searched into myself.”
The Oracle and the ‘Seven Sages’ are mentioned by the Greek Historian Herodotus in the fifth century BCE. Plato, also in the fifth century, mentions the Oracle in his ‘Charmides’. Plato first establishes the history of the Maxim in this first extract:
Of these (the Seven Sages) were Thales of Miletus, Pittacus of Mytilene, Bias of Priene, our own Solon, Cleobulus of Lindus, and Myson of Chen, and the seventh of their company was a Spartan, Chilon.... Moreover they met together and dedicated the first fruits of their wisdom to Apollo in his temple at Delphi, inscribing those words which are on everyone’s lips, “Know Thyself” and “Nothing Too Much.”
It features in the Alcibiades I. The discussion between Socrates and Alcibiades is about which Art or exercise makes a man better. The result of the discussion is that through Self Knowledge, one will not only become a better man, but will come to know the Divine.
Proclus (411-484 CE), in his Commentary on Alcibiades I, says, “This dialogue therefore is the beginning of all philosophy, in the same manner as the Knowledge of Ourselves.”
In the Alcibiades I Plato comes to the essential point of the Delphic Maxim:
Soc. Then he who enjoins a knowledge of oneself bids us become acquainted with the soul. And anybody who gets to know something belonging to the body knows the things that are his, but not himself. And if the soul too, my dear Alcibiades, is to know herself, she must surely look at a soul, and especially at that region of it which occurs the virtue of a soul - wisdom, and at any other part of a soul which resembles this? And can we find any part of the soul that we can call more divine than this, which is the seat of knowledge?
Alc. We cannot.
Soc. Then this part of her resembles God, and whoever looks at this, and comes to know all that is divine, will thereby gain the best Knowledge of Himself.
Apollo Worship in Ancient Egypt
The history of Delphi itself goes back, at least, to the Neolithic age, this is known through archaeology. Works of Minoan and Cretan pottery have been found on the site of the temple pointing to a very early settlement. The tradition is that two birds, flying from the opposite ends of the world met in the middle at Delphi. Therefore the temple was considered the middle of the earth. Apollo, the god of Light, won the site from a dark monster, Python. Therefore, Apollo is the god of enlightenment and initiation as well as prophecy.
As we shall see below this shrine may have had extremely ancient precedents. The hymn which tells of Delphi’s foundation mentions Cretans as being its first priests. In view of the new Egyptian evidence, unknown in Classical times, we may push the Idea of Delphi back another thousand years.
The history of Apollo worship may go back much farther than usually noted. The following is an account of such a form of worship. The discussion points out the similarities spanning thousands of years.
“The LXIVth chapter is probably one of the oldest of all in the Egyptian 'Book of the Dead'. Two versions of it seem to have existed in the earliest times”:
“I am Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, and I have the power to be born a second time; I am the divine hidden Soul who createth the gods, and who giveth celestial meals unto the denizens of the underworld, Amentet, and heaven. I am the Rudder of the East, the Possessor of two Divine Faces wherein his beams are seen. I am the Lord of the men who are raised up; the Lord who cometh forth from out of the darkness, and whose forms of existence are of the house wherein are the dead.
Hail, ye two Hawks who are perched upon your resting-places, who hearken unto the things which are said by him, who guide the bier to the hidden place, who lead along Ra, and who follow him into the uppermost place of the shrine which is in the celestial heights!
Hail, Lord of the Shrine which standeth in the middle of the earth. He is I, and I am he,... Send forth thy light upon me, 0 Soul unknown, for I am one of those who are about to enter in, and the divine speech is in my ears in the underworld, and let no defects of my mother be imputed unto me; let me be delivered and let me be kept safe from him whose divine eyes sleep at eventide, when he gathereth together and finisheth the day in night.”
“Hail, Hemti (Runner) hail, Hemti, who carriest away the shades of the dead and the Spirits from the earth, grant thou unto me a prosperous way to the underworld, such as is made for the favoured ones of the god.”
Similarities from Ancient Egypt to Delphi
There are many similarities between the LXIVth chapter of the 'Book of the Dead' and the worship of Apollo at Delphi:
- The timelessness of the God, “I am yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”
- The God of Initiation, “I have the power to be born a second time.”
- The Sun in the world and mind, “The Lord who cometh from out of the darkness.”
- And the two ‘Hawks’ could well be the two birds who flew from the opposite ends of the earth and met at the centre of the earth at Delphi, which are sometimes depicted as sitting on the ‘Omphalos’.
The Egyptian hymn could have been sung by Plutarch as a priest of Apollo at Delphi! However, we must remember it comes from Egypt in the First Dynasty +3100 B. C.!
“Hail, Lord of the Shrine which standeth in the middle of the earth, He is I and I am he. Send forth thy light upon me, 0 Soul unknown, for I am one of those who are about to enter in. Thou art in me and I am in thee and thy attributes are my attributes.”
This could have been spoken by the worshipper of Apollo on entering His temple. It is very close to what Plutarch says in the 'E at Delphi' (392a), which hung over the entrance of the temple.
“No, it is an address and salutation to the god, complete in itself, which, by being spoken, brings him who utters it to thoughts of the god’s power. For the god addresses each one of us as we approach him here with the words ‘Know Thyself’, as a form of welcome, which certainly is in no wise of less import than ‘Hail’; and we in return reply to him ‘Thou Art,’ as rendering unto him a form of address which is truthful, free from deception, and the only one befitting him only, the assertion of Being.”
“This chapter shall be recited by a man who is ceremonially clean and pure, who hath not eaten the flesh of animals or fish, and who hath not had intercourse with women."
These instructions apply to the Egyptian priest as well as his later Hermetic brethren in Hellenistic Alexandria or even later in Plutarch’s time in the second century of our era. Plutarch in his 'E at Delphi' and in Isis and Osiris gives the doctrine of his time and states that it comes from ancient Egypt, E.A. Wallis Budge first published this hymn in The Book of the Dead about 1899, until then this work had not been translated from the ancient script which was unreadable even in Plutarch’s time.
That the doctrine is very similar seems inescapable, that it is identical cannot be proven. But to assume that the similarity is more than accidental and that the same thought is behind both, leads one to the belief that the same God is being worshiped. A Celestial Apollo, as in Delphi from earliest times, yet the Delphic God is very young indeed compared with his First Dynasty counterpart. The idea of the worshipper identifying himself with the God is of ‘soul’ identifying with the Divine Hidden Soul who createth the Gods. This happens through the ‘Experience’ of the worshipper of being absorbed in the God, this is the real ‘Religious Experience’ or ‘Mystical Experience’ of the Saints and Mystics of all times and places.
“If then you do not make yourself equal to God, you cannot apprehend God."
This is from the Hermetica, which contains a doctrine that has its roots in most ancient antiquity.
The Gods of Delphi: Apollo & Dionysus
“Our greatest blessings,” says Socrates in the Phaedrus, “come to us by way of madness.” He qualifies his paradox with the words, “Provided the madness is given us by divine gift.” And he proceeds to distinguish four types of this “divine madness,” which are produced, he says, “by a divinely wrought change in our customary social norms.”
The four types are:
- Prophetic madness, whose patron God is Apollo.
- Telestic or ritual madness, whose patron is Dionysus.
- Poetic madness, inspired by the Muses.
- Erotic madness, inspired by Aphrodite and Eros.
“In the first place, Rohde confused two things that Plato carefully distinguished - the Apolline mediumship which aims at knowledge, whether of the future or of the hidden present, and the Dionysiac experience which is pursued either for its own sake or as a means of mental health, the mantic or mediumistic element being absent or quite subordinate.”
“If I understand early Dionysian ritual aright, its social function was essentially cathartic, in the psychological sense:.. If that is so, Dionysus was in the Archaic Age as much a social necessity as Apollo. Apollo promised security: “Understand your station as man; do as the Father tells you; and you will be safe tomorrow.” Dionysus offered freedom: Forget the difference, and you will find the identity;
“(Dionysus) is the Lusios; “the Liberator”, the god who by very simple means, or by other means not so simple, enables you for a short time to ‘Stop Being Yourself, and thereby sets you free. This was, I think, the main secret of his appeal to the Archaic Age;... For Dionysus was the Master of Magical Illusions, who could make a vine grow out of a ship’s plank, and in general enable his votaries to see the world as the world is not. As the Scythians in Herodotus put it, “Dionysus leads people to behave madly,” which could mean anything from ‘taking you out of yourself’ to a profound alteration of personality.”
But, it is for her philosophical and mystical aspects that Delphi and the Maxims were renowned in ancient times. We cannot but turn to the Philosopher, Plato, for an understanding of the true meaning of the Delphic Maxim.
No, it is an address and salutation to the god, complete in itself, which, by being spoken, brings him who utters it to thoughts of the god’s power. For the god addresses each one of us as we approach him here with the words ‘Know Thyself’, as a form of welcome, which certainly is in no wise of less import that ‘Hail’; and we in turn reply to him ‘Thou Art’, as rendering unto him a form of address which is truthful, free from deception, and the only one befitting him only, the assertion of Being.
But God is (if there be need to say so), and He exists for no fixed time, but for the everlasting ages which are immovable, timeless, and undeviating, in which there is no earlier nor later, no future nor past, no older nor younger; but He, being One, has with only one ‘Now’ completely filled ‘For Ever’; and only when Being is after His pattern is it in reality Being, nor having been nor about to be, nor has it had a beginning nor is it destined to come to an end.
Under these conditions, therefore, we ought, as we pay Him reverence, to greet Him and to address Him with the words, ‘Thou Art’; or even, I vow, as did some of the men of old, ‘Thou Art One.’
But this much may be said; it appears that as a sort of antithesis to “Thou Art” stands the admonition “Know Thyself” and then again it seems, in a manner, to be in accord therewith, for the one is an utterance addressed in awe and reverence to the god as existent through all eternity, the other is a reminder to mortal man of his own nature...
Responding to a question from the Pharisees about when the Kingdom of God would come, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21).
"Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?" (1 Cor 3:16).
"To thine own self be true." ~ Shakespeare
"Turn the spotlight inward." ~Gandhi
"Trust yourself and you will know how to live." ~Goethe