I suppose, for accuracy, I should have said roots not elements, since Empedokles referred to these generative forces as rhizai (“roots”) or rhizômata (“root-clumps”) which is significant when you consider that according to Timaios after getting expelled from the Pythagorean brotherhood Empedokles began associating with rhizotomoi (“root-cutters”) or magicians who specialized in plants, a knowledge he boasted of in his treatise The Purifications.
What got me thinking of this wizard of philosophy this morning was reading a passage from Athenaios:
The word anestis is identical with nestis (“fasting”), by redundant use of a, like stachys and astachys (“ear of grain”). It is found in Kratinos: ‘Surely you are not the first uninvited guest to come to dinner hungry.’ (Deipnosophistai 47b)
I either forgot or never bothered to look up the derivation of Nestis. I’d always just accepted it as a euphemistic gloss for Persephone in her role as a nymph of waters à la Photios:
A Sicilian goddess mentioned by Alexis. (s.v. Nestis)
Empedocles mixes four parts of fire to make bones (perhaps saying they have more fire than any of the other elements because of their dryness and white color, and two of earth and one of air, one of water, which he calls both ‘Nestis’ and ‘gleaming’ – Nestis because of their fluidity, from naein ‘swimming’ and ‘flowing’; and ‘gleaming’ since they are transparent. (Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima 68.2-14)
So I checked a lexicon and discovered that, indeed, νῆστις means fasting:
From the inseparable negative particle ne- (not) and esthio (to consume); not eating, i.e. to abstain from food for religious reasons.
Which makes sense in light of the punishment that Demeter inflicted upon Sicily in her daughter’s absence:
Where the girl was she knew not, but reproached the whole wide world as ungrateful, not deserving her gift of grain – and Trinacria in chief, for this was where she had found the traces of her loss. So there with angry hands she broke the ploughs that turned the soil and sent to death alike the farmer and his labouring ox, and bade the fields betray their trust, and spoilt the seeds. False lay the island’s fertility, famous through all the world. The young crops died in the first blade, destroyed now by the rain too violent, now by the sun too strong. The stars and the winds assailed them; hungry birds gobbled the scattered seeds; thistles and twitch, unconquerable twitch, wore down the wheat. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 5. 475 ff )
This was also an element of one of Persephone’s most important festivals:
And whenever they are famished, they invoke the witticism that they are celebrating the middle day of the Thesmophoria. This day, the eleventh of Pyanepsion, was the Nesteia on which the women abstained from eating and remained at rest. (Scholion on Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazousae 80)
And as you see, the name is right there; since the Thesmophoria was a popular festival in Sicily (albeit celebrated with some slight variations from the Attic form we tend to be more familiar with) this is likely where Empedokles got it from.
Further corroboration is found in one of the few extant references to Nestis, an Orphic gold tablet from Thurii in Southern Italy, which I’ve found in two separate and very different translations.
To the First-Born, to Mother Earth, to Cybela, daughter of Demeter.
Zeus, Air, Sun. Fire conquers all.
Avatars of fortune and Phanes. Moirai that remember all. You, O illustrious daimon.
Father who subdues all. Compensation.
Air, Fire, Mother, Nestis, Night, Day.
Fasting for seven days. Zeus who sees all. Always. Mother, hear my prayer.
Fine sacrifices. Sacrifices. Demeter. Fire. Zeus. The Underground Girl.
Hero. Light to the intelligence. The Adviser seized the Girl.
Earth. Air. To the intelligence.
To Earth, first-born Mother, Cybelean Kore said: … [lacuna] … of Demeter … all-seeing Zeus.
O Sun, Fire, you went through all towns, when you appeared with the Victories and Fortunes and All-wise Fate, where you increase the brightness of the festival with your lordship, O glorious deity! By you all things are subdued, all things overpowered, all things smitten! The Decrees of Fate must everywhere be endured. O Fire, lead me to the Mother, if the fast can endure, to fast for seven nights and days! For there was a seven-day fast, O Olympian Zeus and all-seeing Sun …
Based on this one might surmise that Empedokles would have associated Persephone with the rhiza of earth, but instead he makes her preside over water. Indeed this is the only association explicitly stated, leaving commenters both ancient and modern to puzzle out the rest.
I tend to agree with the solution that John Burnet proposed:
Now αἰθήρ certainly means Fire in Anaxagoras, as we shall see, but there is no doubt that in Empedokles it meant Air. It seems likely, then, that Knatz is right (“Empedoclea” in Schedae Philologicae Hermanno Usenero oblatae, 1891, pp. 1 sqq.) in holding that the bright Air of Empedokles was Zeus. This leaves Aidoneus to stand for Fire; and nothing could have been more natural for a Sicilian poet, with the volcanoes and hot springs of his native island in mind, than this identification. He refers to the fires that burn beneath the Earth himself (fr. 52). If that is so, we shall have to agree with the Homeric Allegorists that Hera is Earth; and surely φερέσβιος Ἥρα can be none other than “Mother Earth.” The epithet seems only to be used of earth and corn. (Early Greek philosophy, chapter 5)
As opposed to that of Hippolytus in the Refutation of All Heresies (1.33), though I like how Hippolytus links fasting and fluidity:
Jupiter is fire, and life-giving Juno earth, which produces fruits for the support of existence; and Aidoneus air, because although through him we behold all things, yet himself alone we do not see. But Nestis is water, for this is a sole vehicle of food, and thus becomes a cause of sustenance to all those that are being nourished; but this of itself is not able to afford nutriment to those that are being nourished. For if it did possess the power of affording nutriment, animal life, he says, could never be destroyed by famine, inasmuch as water is always superabundant in the world. For this reason he denominates Nestis water, because, though indirectly being a cause of nutriment, it is not of itself competent to afford nutriment to those things that are being nourished.
Persephone is associated with water and other fluids by more than just Empedokles, as John Opsopaus ably demonstrates:
Springs, wells and other sources of water from the earth were central to the Mysteries of Persephone, and the Eleusinian Mysteries grew up around a spring. This is because springs represent entrances to the Underworld, especially in Greece, where it is common for them to reenter the earth after flowing above ground for some distance. When Persephone was abducted, She was taken down the spring called Kuanê, which was said to have been created from the Maiden’s tears, and She is virtually identical with Kuanê, the nymph of that spring. Indeed, Persephone is Queen of the Nymphs, the daughters of Ocean who are the spirits of springs and streams. Similarly, Demeter, mourning Her lost daughter, created a spring from Her tears. (The equation of Water and divine tears is a distinctly Pythagorean idea, which will be considered later in connection with the Salt Sea.) Kuanos (blue) is the color of divine mourning and grief and is associated with the Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone, which are closely connected with Pythagoreanism and Empedoclean magic; Pythagoreans (especially women) were often the Priests and Priestesses in the mysteries of Demeter and Persephone. Therefore Kuanos is associated with Water and the Underworld.; it is also the color of Cocytus, the river of mourning and tears, which is opposite Pyriphlegethon, the river of fire in the Underworld, as Water is opposite Fire on the Elemental Square. (According to Damscius, each of the Four Rivers of the Underworld has an associated Element.) Water is also connected with the Milk of Immortality from Persephone’s Breasts, for in the Mysteries She is a Goddess of joyous rebirth as well as grievous dissolution. For example, on the Bacchic/Orphic gold tablets (Zuntz A1-3) from Thessaly (a region known for Witchcraft), which date back to the fifth century BCE, we read:
I have flown out of the Circle of Heavy Grief
and stepped swift-footed on the Circle of Joy.
I have made straight for the Breast of the Mistress, the Queen of the Underworld.
And now I come a suppliant to Holy Persephoneia,
that of Her Grace She send me to the Seats of the Hallowed.
Happy and Blessed One, thou shalt be God instead of mortal.
A Kid I have fallen into Milk.
An abundance of milk is a standard symbol in the Bacchic Mysteries, and milk is often involved in immortalization rites. Further, many enlightened individuals are described as consuming only milk.
The Water of Life is found near Persephone’s Tree. Pherecydes (6th. cent. BCE), a mentor of Pythagoras, told how Khthoniê (She Beneath the Earth – one of Persephone’s names) stretches upward as a self-supporting Winged Oak (Hupopteros Drus), with Her Roots in the Underworld, Her trunk climbing through the middle elements, Her crown in Heaven. At the base of the Tree, between Her Roots, is the Outflow (Ekroê), the Springs of Ambrosia (Krênai Ambrosiai), for the Waters of the Underworld flow out from Her Roots. The Winged Oak, round which the Robe of Earth is wrapped, draws into Her Roots the sap of life, the Waters of the Abyss, conveys it upward to Her crown, from which the golden Ambrosial Dew drips down like honey to feed immortal souls. (Indeed “Ambrosia” means “immortal.”) Before a soul can return to incarnation, it must approach one of these rivers and drink the Water of Life from it, for the Outflow of the Rivers is called the Semen of Life. Thus a fourth century BCE Orphic Gold Tablet (Zuntz B1) is inscribed:
Thou shalt find to the left of the House of Hades a Spring,
and by the side thereof standing a White Cypress.
To this Spring approach not near.
But thou shalt find another, from the Lake of Memory,
Cold Water flowing forth, and there are Guardians before it.
Say: “I am a child of Earth and Starry Heaven,
but my race is of Heaven alone. This Ye know Yourselves.
But 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 of the Holy Spring.
And thereafter among the other Heroes thou shalt have lordship.
The spring on the left is associated with Forgetfulness (Lêthê) and dissolution, the spring on the right with Memory and immortality. The revitalizing Tree of Life belongs to the Goddess and is guarded by the serpent Ophioneus (or Ophiôn) who dwells in the waters around Her roots. (We find this same theme in the serpent guarding the Apples of the Tree of the nymphs Hesperides, which is in the west, the region of death, near the World Axis where Atlas supports Heaven.)
Total aside, but this fragment from Pherekydes has always reminded me of that section from The Doors’ Celebration of the Lizard:
Some outlaws lived by the side of a lake
The minister’s daughter’s in love with the snake
Who lives in a well by the side of the road
Wake up, Girl, we’re almost home.
Is the Girl that wakes up the weaver Persephone or the spinner Ariadne? Depends on how much she drank.
Want to have your mind totally blown? There’s another place you can find mortal tears and αἰθήρ mixed. Tarentum.