The Classical Quarterly

Research Article

Embryological Analogies in Pre-Socratic Cosmogony

H. C. Baldrya1

a1 Trinity Hall, Cambridge

The extent of the dependence of early Greek cosmogony on mythical conceptions has long been a prolific source of controversy. Views on the subject have varied from Professor Cornford's claim that ‘there is a real continuity between the earliest rational speculation and the religious representation that lay behind it’ to Professor Burnet's extreme statement, ‘it is quite wrong to look for the origins of Ionian science in mythological ideas of any kind.’ The solution of the problem that I wish to suggest is one which should satisfy those who insist on ‘the scientific character of the early Greek cosmology,’ while retaining a direct connection with pre-scientific beliefs—namely, that some, at least, of the earliest philosophers founded their doctrines of the beginning of the universe on a deliberate rationalization of earlier and contemporary mythical ideas. The appearance of notions like the ‘world-egg’ in a number of passages, too well known for quotation, shows that primitive cosmogony assumed an analogy between the generation of the world and the generation of animate creatures. I believe it can be proved that, so far from the ‘renunciation of sexual imagery’ which even Professor Cornford has recently attributed to Anaximander, he and other philosophers retained the habit of regarding cosmogony and anthropogony as parallel phenomena, only substituting for the mythical ‘world-egg’ a more scientific view of the embryo and its development. They looked at the world through the same spectacles as their predecessors, but after wiping from them the rose tint of mythological fancy.