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Observations placeholder

Macrobius - The Descent of the Soul from the Height of Cosmos to the Depths of Earth



Type of Spiritual Experience


Soul = Immortal soul = Higher spirit

The Servius to whom G R S Mead refers in his comment was Maurus Servius Honoratus - a late fourth-century and early fifth-century grammarian, with a reputation of being 'the most learned man of his generation in Italy'; he was the author of a set of commentaries on the works of Virgil.  He need not concern us here as this site is not interested in knowledge acquired via books but wisdom and Macrobius shows wisdom.

A description of the experience

From Thrice-Greatest Hermes, Vol. 1 by G.R.S. Mead [1906]

Let us turn to the commentary of Macrobius on the famous “Dream of Scipio,” which Cicero introduces into his Republic (Bk. VI.), just as Plato appends the Vision of Er to his. Macrobius devotes the twelfth chapter of his First Book to a consideration of “The Descent of the Soul from the Height of Cosmos to the Depths of Earth,” and professes to base himself on Pythagorean and Platonic traditions. His dissertation covers more ground than the precise subject of the zones with which we are more immediately concerned; but as the whole scheme is of interest to our present studies, we will append a translation of practically the whole chapter.


“[According to Pythagoras] when the Soul descends from the Boundary where the Zodiac and Galaxy [or Milky Way] meet, from a spherical form, which is the only divine one, it is elongated into a conical one by its downward tendency.

“Just as the line is born from the point and proceeds into length out of the indivisible, so the soul from its point, that is ‘monad,’ comes into ‘dyad’—its first production [or lengthening].

“And this is the essence which Plato in the Timæus, speaking about the construction of the World-Soul, describes as indivisible yet at the same time divisible.

“For just as the Soul of the World so also the soul of an individual man will be found in one respect incapable of division—if it is regarded from the standpoint of the simplicity of its divine nature—and in another capable [of division]—since the former is diffused through the members of the world, and the latter through those of a man.

“When then the soul is drawn towards body—in this first production of it—it begins to experience a material agitation, matter flowing into it.

“And this is remarked by Plato in the Phædo [when he says] that the soul is drawn to body staggering with recent intoxication,—meaning us to understand by this a new draught of matter’s superfluity, by which it becomes defiled and gravid and so is brought down.

“A symbol of this mystic secret is that Starry Cup (Cratēr) of Father Bacchus placed in the space between Cancer and Leo - meaning that intoxication is there first experienced by souls in their descent by the influx of matter into them. From which cause also forgetfulness, the companion of intoxication, then begins secretly to creep into souls.

“For if souls brought down to body memory of the divine things of which they were conscious in heaven, there would be no difference of opinion among men concerning the divine state. But all, indeed, in their descent drink of forgetfulness—some more, some less.

“And for this cause on earth, though the truth is not clear to all, they nevertheless have all some opinion about it; for opinion arises when memory sinks. Those, however, are greater discoverers of truth who have drunk less of forgetfulness, because they remember more easily what they have known before in that state.

“Hence it is that what the Latins call a ‘lecture’ (lectio) the Greeks call a ‘re-knowing’ (repetita cognitio, because when we give utterance to true things, we re-cognize the things which we knew by nature before the influence of matter intoxicated our souls in their descent into body.

“Now it is this Matter (Hylē) which, after being impressed by the [divine] ideas, fashioned every body in the cosmos which we see. Its highest and purest nature, by means of which the divinities are either sustained or consist,  is called Nectar, and is believed to be the drink of the gods; while its lower and more turbid nature is the drink of souls. The latter is what the Ancients called the River of Lethe [or Forgetfulness].

“The Orphic [initiates], however, suppose that Dionysus himself is to be understood as ‘Hylic Nous’ [that Mind] which after its birth from the Indivisible [Mind] is itself divided into individual [minds].

“And it is for this reason that in their Mystery-tradition Dionysus is represented as being torn limb from limb by the fury of the Titans, and, after the pieces have been buried, as coming together again whole and one; for Nous—which, as we have said, is their term for Mind—by offering itself for division from its undivided state, and by returning to the undivided from the divided, both fulfils the duties of the cosmos and also performs the mysteries of its own nature.

“The soul, therefore, having by means of this first weight [of matter] fallen down from the Zodiac and Galaxy into the series of spheres that lie below them, in continuing its descent through them, is not only enwrapped in the envelope of a luminous body, but also develops the separate motions which it is to exercise.

“In the sphere of Saturn [it develops] the powers of reasoning and theorizing—which [the Greeks] call τὸ λογιστικὸν and τὸ θεωρητικόν; in that of Jupiter, the power of putting into practice—which they call τὸ πρακτικόν; in that of Mars, the power of ardent vehemence—which they call τὸ θυμικόν; in that of the Sun, the nature of sensing and imagining—which they call τὸ αἰσθητικὸν and τὸ φανταστικόν; in that of Venus, the motion of desire—which they call τὸ ἐπιθυμητικόν, in the sphere of Mercury, the power of giving expression to and interpretation of feelings—which they call τὸ ἑρμη νευτικόν; on its entrance into the sphere of the Moon it brings into activity τὸ φυτικόν—that is, the nature of making bodies grow and of moving them.

“And this [soul], though the last thing in the divine series, is nevertheless the first thing in us and in all terrestrial beings; just as this body [of ours], though the dregs of things divine, is still the first substance of the animal world.

“And this is the difference between terrene bodies and supernal—I mean those of the heaven and stars and of the other elements—that the latter are summoned upwards to the abode of the soul, and are worthy of immunity from death from the very nature of the space in which they are and their imitation of sublimity.

“The soul, however, is drawn down to these terrene bodies, and so it is thought to die when it is imprisoned in the region of things fallen and in the abode of death. Nor should it cause distress that we have so often spoken of death in connection with the soul, which we have declared to be superior to death. For the soul is not annihilated by [what is called] its death, but is [only] buried for a time; nor is the blessing of its perpetuity taken from it by its submersion for a time, since when it shall have made it worthy to be cleansed clean utterly of all contagion of its vice, it shall once more return from body to the light of Everlasting Life restored and whole.”

The characteristics of the spheres  are according to their simple energies; there is no question of good or bad; it is the “thinking” of the soul that conditions the use of these energies for beneficent or maleficent ends.


I have done my best to discover some consistent scheme by which the contradictory data in Macrobius, Servius, and Hermes might be reconciled, but the tabularising of their indications only makes confusion worse confounded.

It is evident, however, that the main thing that Macrobius hands on, and which he attributes to Orphic-Pythagorean-Platonic tradition, contains in itself no suggestion that these philosophers attributed any evil tendencies to the characteristics of the spheres in themselves. The tradition of Macrobius is as follows:



τὸ θεωρητικὸν
τὸ λογιστικὸν





τὸ πρακτικὸν


vis agendi.



τὸ θυμικὸν


ardor animositatis.



τὸ αἰσθητικὸν
τὸ φανταστικὸν


natura sentiendi.
natura opinandi.



τὸ ἐπιθυμητικὸν


motus desiderii.



τὸ ἑρμηνευτικὸν


vis pronuntiandi
et interpretandi
quæ sentiantur.



τὸ φυτικὸν


natura plantandi
et agendi corpora.

The confusion between the “vis agendi” of Jupiter and that of the Moon may be resolved by supposing that the former was the application of the reasoning faculty to the practical things of life, while the latter was the power of moving one’s own physical body, if indeed the “et agendi” is not a gloss of Macrobius.


The source of the experience


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