Why Don't We Remember?

By Grace F. Knoche

Drugged with the waters of Lethe, we forget that Nous, our spiritual guide and mentor, does remember, does have knowledge, and could re-collect for us those fleeting visions of things spiritual, those faint yet potent draughts from wisdom's well, would we but place Psyche, our soul, in her care.

In ancient days the Greeks sought guidance from oracles at Delphi, Trophonius, Mount Olympus, and other sacred shrines. If the heart was pure, the mind disciplined, the answers received reawakened inner sources of wisdom. What lines of communication existed then between gods and humans? Today we seek guidance as of old, seek light upon the vexing problems of fear and despair which long ages of folly, ignorance, and greed have precipitated upon us in the present confusion of ideals. Where are the oracles of ancient memory, the shrines to induce god and goddess to pay heed to our call? Indeed, where are the Mysteria of Eleusis, of Samothrace, and of other centers in which an aspirant could experience the requisite training and discipline so that the world might benefit?

Alas, the woods are full of quack oracles, counterfeit priests and priestesses who, professing communion with the divine, sell their unholy wares to the foolish and emotion-blinded. Nonetheless, communion between god and man is and always will be possible, for the power to tap the secret wellspring of truth is resident within the soul. Knowledge of such, however, is reserved for those who consort with Nous, the knower within, personified as Mnemosyne, Goddess of Memory. Who is this goddess and what her function?

Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses, is the handmaiden of Nous, whose duty it is to arouse Psyche, the soul, to recollection of truth, so that remembering her divine origin she will at last claim union with Nous. Among the relics of the Orphic mysteries, recovered from tombs in Crete and southern Italy, are eight small and very thin gold-leaf tablets finely inscribed in Greek characters. One of these near Petelia, in the environs of Strongoli, tells of two wellsprings near the entrance to the Underworld: the fount of Lethe or Oblivion (unnamed) on the left, that of Mnemosyne or Memory to the right:

Thou shalt find to the left of the House of Hades a Well-spring,
And by the side thereof standing a white cypress.
To this Well-spring approach not near.
But thou shalt find another by the Lake of Memory,
Cold water flowing forth, and there are Guardians before it.
Say: "I am a child of Earth and of Starry Heaven;
But my race is of Heaven (alone). This ye know yourselves.
And lo, I am parched with thirst and I perish. Give me quickly
The cold water flowing forth from the Lake of Memory."
And of themselves they will give thee to drink from the holy Well-spring,
And thereafter among the other Heroes thou shalt have lordship. . . . (1)

In this Hymn the Orphic candidate is warned against imbibing the waters of Lethe. In another account by Pausanias, 2nd century ad Greek traveler and geographer, the candidate drinks from the well of Lethe in order to "forget all that he has been thinking of hitherto." Thereafter he partakes of the waters of Mnemosyne, that he may remember all he has seen and heard, for Mnemosyne is "the holy wellspring" whose waters are for the "pure and healthy in hand and heart and who have no evil conscience in themselves." (2)

Orphic Tablet from Petelia, Italy (in Harrison, Prolegomena, p. 573)

Long periods, perhaps lifetimes, were and always will be required before one is able fully to resist the seduction of Lethe. As aid thereto, the Orphika invokes the fair goddess of Memory, not by empty ritual but with unshakable faith that Nous will at last stir Psyche to remembrance. Thomas Taylor (1758-1835), indefatigable translator of Greek and Neoplatonic classics, published in 1787 a small collection of Orphic Hymns, from which we reproduce the following:

To Mnemosyne or the Goddess of Memory:
The consort I invoke of Jove divine,
Source of the holy, sweetly speaking Nine [Muses];
Free from th' oblivion of the fallen mind,
By whom the soul with intellect is join'd.
Reason's increase and thought to thee belong,
All-powerful, pleasant, vigilant, and strong.
'Tis thine to waken from lethargic rest
All thoughts deposited within the breast;
And nought neglecting, vig'rous to excite
The mental eye from dark oblivion's night.
Come, blessed pow'r, thy mystics' mem'ry wake
To holy rites, and Lethe's fetters break. (3)

It is remarkable that we have these testimonials of a wisdom that speaks to the immortal and not merely to the ephemeral. To Mnemosyne her duty is plain: with vigor and exactitude to waken us to our true heritage so that consciously we will begin the ages-long task of loosening the bonds of selfishness and matter-based thinking. Then, prudently partaking of the spring of Forgetfulness, and drinking deep of the cooling waters from the Lake of Memory, we may rightfully utter the ancestral password:

I am a child of Earth and of Starry Heaven;
But my race is of Heaven (alone).

The descent into Hades completed, the successful candidate returned to light clothed with the radiance of things seen and remembered. That the independent experiences of each might be recorded while still fresh in memory, upon ascending from the grotto Trophonius for example, the one newly-born was required "to dedicate a tablet on which is written all that each has heard or seen." Thus Pausanias reports what he had learned from personal experience and also from others who had undergone the sacred rite. (4)

So much for the daring disciple of ancient or modern Mysteria, but what about you and me, who may feel genuine nostalgia for knowledge of things unseen, but who yet require the sweet oblivion of sleep and partial non-awareness until we have sufficiently grown in self-knowledge, judgment, and compassion. Imprisoned though we may be by self-made bonds, a part of us longs to waken our "mystic memory" of holy things.

Again we ask: Why don't we remember? Plato gives us a hint near the close of his Republic, when the souls had each one chosen their lot for their coming birth on earth. Having been warned to have a care and not be covetous, they pass before the three Moirai or Spinners of Destiny. Arriving at sundown at the arid plain of Forgetfulness, they were enjoined to drink "a certain quantity" from the river Lethe. Sagely he notes that "those who were not saved by wisdom drank more than was necessary," and so forgot "all things." In those few words lies the whole drama, the tragi-comedy of human existence, and also its enduring hope. Who of us in our desire to forget the painful encounters of the day does not welcome the boon of sleep; how much more should we not appreciate the mercy of death, whereafter the noble and beautiful of a life leaves its indelible impress on the soul?

Nature is ever compassionate and just: since the bright waters of Mnemosyne could be death-dealing to the unready, she provides a caring method whereby one or more of her daughters may inspire to nobility of soul. Do we not even today seek Terpsichore, Melpomene, or Polyhymnia -- Muses of Dance, Song, and Hymn -- for inner as well as outer refreshment? Do not scientists, in self-sacrificing labor and research, receive intuitions from Urania whose magic staff points to heavenly spheres whence comes her celestial knowledge? Assuredly, every human being is the particular care of one or more of the "sweetly speaking Nine" -- messengers of our spiritual self, whose life-giving wisdom is a constant aid to remembrance.

So profoundly was this understood that the poet Hesiod exclaimed:

Unutterably blest
He whom the Muses love.
  • (From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Theosophical University Press.)

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    1. See "Critical Appendix on the Orphic Tablets"contributed by Professor Gilbert Murray to Jane Harrison's Prologomena to the Study of the Greek Religion, Meridian Books, 2nd printing, 1957, pp. 659-73. (return to text)

    2. Inscriptiones Graecae Insularum Maris Aegaei, vol. 1, No. 789, quoted in Pagan Regeneration: A Study of Mystery Initiations in the Graeco-Roman World by Harold R. Willoughby, University of Chicago Press, 1929, p. 44n. (return to text)

    3. Thomas Taylor, The Mystical Hymns of Orpheus: Translated from the Greek, and demonstrated to be the Invocations which were used in the Eleusinian Mysteries, New Edition, Bertram Dobell, London, 1896, p. 146. (return to text)

    4. Description of Greece, The Loeb Classical Library, vol. IV, Greek with English translation by W. H. S. Jones, Litt.D., Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1979, Section Boeotia, passim. (return to text)