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Technical Notes on the Psellos Translation

Thoughts on the challenges of translating Psellos’ text on Pentecost, notes on stylizations, important words, and some etymologies.

The translation of Michael Psellos on the tongues of pentecost is a work in progress. The English translation posted is in beta and has been updated a number of times since. It may remain in beta for a long time for a number of reasons.

The first reason is Psellos’ love of Platonic literature. The whole framework of his writing is based on this logic. Patristics and ecclesiastical theology is a distinct second. It is quite surprising to find an eleventh century writer devoted to such a genre. The first attempt of translating this work was based on the assumption of a Patristic framework with some theology, and a sprinkling of philosophy. This left me scratching my head. It didn’t make sense. It became apparent that Psellos would liken himself to being Plato reborn. Once the words were traced back to Platonic theory, it all made clear sense.

The second reason is that Psellos assumed his readers understood and appreciated Platonic logic. This is not the case for the modern reader. Most readers will find this translation intellectual gobbley-gook because of this. The dependance of specific Greek words of logic such as ὕλη and εἶδος which arguably are translated as matter and form, doesn’t do justice in the English on their central importance. These are the key cornerstones in Psellos’ logic. In an effort to make this clear, they are highlighted in italics to alert the English reader to its importance, but this still seems very weak. Psellos used these words as a vehicle to describe the nature and purpose of the tongues phenomena. The matter was the indwelling presence of God, but in what form was it expressed? Was it an internal or external type of phenomena? In the English translation, the importance of these words are lost.

Another problem is his mystery style of writing. Psellos was known for purposely being unclear. The book “The Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia” clearly makes this case:

“We are now entitled to ask whether Psellos himself practiced the serpentine art of secret writing, and whether his own works, like those of Plato and Aristotle, contain, “hidden” or esoteric teachings. . . .We know that Psellos was a superb practitioner of the art of rhetoric. As I hope to demonstrate, this philosopher, who disguised himself as an orator who merely fancied himself a philosopher, was acutely aware of the potential of rhetoric for allusion, subtely, deception, misdirection, and veiled pronouncement.”

This can be seen in a number of ways. One of them being his metaphors. On two occasions his use of metaphors were either a misdirection, a veiled pronouncement, or simply on a tangent. An example of a tangent was when he correlated the miracle of tongues with that of giving birth.

…inasmuch the sound was sent into the Apostles not corresponding to language, but it was only necessary to tap the lip and open the mouth, even as I have certainly been often amazed at the midwives about which procures the newborns from the fetus in the wombs, or about her which is in the process of giving birth. For these women, whenever a child has been born or also when they remove the child which is sliding out of the mother with faintings. Thus at that moment they simply put the hands around the foreheads, next they are presaged to breathe a little air, then [the infant] bellows out with mighty [sounds].

The second one is a veiled pronouncement. Psellos inserts the following metaphor after he promoted the option that the miracle can occur in different ways depending on how one perceives it:

And as an example, while the sun has stood in the midday, locusts and the things that see in the night take in something faint of the light, but men and elephants more or less gaze corresponding to the physical tendency which belongs to each one.

The example does not flow properly in his text and once again leaves the reader wondering where his is going with all of this.

Another reason is that of language. Michael Psellos has incorporated Classical, Doric, Ionic and Attic Greek in his writing. The classical is mostly related to his love of Platonic works. There are a number of Doric words that have slipped in with his Attic, and a few Ionic. His political life put him in the epicenter of the Byzantine Greek world where linguistic, theological, and philosophical fields intersected. This makes it very difficult to translate because the presently available toolkits for this era hardly exist. Add to the fact that Psellos is incorporating various sub-dialects into his work makes the level of accuracy even more difficult to attain.

His writing style is very extensive. He used synonyms frequently, so his vocabulary range is very broad. This work cannot be translated simply using the Lidell Scott Jones dictionary found at Perseus, rather, this can be misleading at times. The expansive Stephanus dictionary, the dictionary of ancient Greek dictionaries, helps but is not aimed for this time period. A large number of other dictionaries were consulted but it was found that Lampe’s Patristic Lexicon and James Donnegan’s A New Greek and English Lexicon; Principally on the plan of the Greek and German Lexicon of Schneider were the two best sources. The internet was helpful at times too. A problem Greek word would by typed in Google Search with the name, Aristotle or Plato inputted beside it, and some good clues could be found. There were a few words that I could not be certain what they meant, so they were left untranslated.

This translation is done with great fear and trepidation because most of the dictionaries are based on words used about six hundred years earlier, and some words after his period. The words may have slight shifts in Psellos’ time, but I have few resources to draw upon that reflect that.

A good example is the word νυκτάλωπες which Perseus, and Lampe has nothing, and Donnegan, “a disease, consisting of loss of vision by night” (Pg. 879). A quick Google search of the Greek word will bring up Nyctalopia: “Night blindness, impaired vision in dim light and in the dark, due to impaired function of certain specialized vision cells (the rods) in the retina.” (medterms.com) However this definition does not fit in with the Psellos text. A look into Stephanus Greek Dictionary implies that it can be a certain type sight problem in low light conditions, but it can be the opposite as well (Stephanus Vol. 5 col. 1589). The French language has adopted this word and called it nyctalope which refers to an animal with night vision. The Psellos text appears to flow with the Stephanus night vision and the French animal night vision. It shows that one should not be so quick to accept the regular dictionary definitions when working with this text.

There are slight nuances in grammar that are different too, but there are no popular grammars that adequately cover this period.

Psellos liked to clearly structure his content using the particles μέν and δὲ. He went a step further and created a more complex particle construct including the masculine definite article, ὁ μέν “the former” and ὁ δὲ “the latter”.

ὥσπερ γὰρ μιᾶς ἀπηχηθείσης ἐν ὑπαίθρῳ φωνῆς ὁ μέν τις ἡμῶν ἤκουσεν, ὁ δὲ ἀδρανέστερον ἀντελάβετο κατὰ τὴν ἀναλογίαν τῆς διαστάσεως καὶ τῆς εἰλικρινοῦς ἀκοῆς, τῶν δὲ μὴ ἀκουσάντων ὁ μὲν διὰ τὸ πολὺ διεστάναι οὐκ ἀντελάβετο, ὁ δὲ διὰ τὸ ἐμπεφράχθαι αὐτῷ τὸν τῆς ἀκοῆς πόρον, ἐμψυγέντος κατ᾽ἐκεῖνο τὸ μέρος τοῦ φλέγματος. . .

For it is like one voice that had been re-echoed in public, the former somehow heard by us, while the latter was not heard, and the former is something more distinct with those who heard and in latter was apprehended [at that moment] more fainter according to the proportion of the distance of the pure sound heard. In respect to those who did not hear, the former was not grasped because of what appears to have been too far apart, the latter was because the sound’s path had been actively blocked from him [regarding] the person possessed in reference to this matter of fire. . .

On the topic of particles, it became tiring and redundant to use on the one hand… and on the other hand throughout. This could become too repetitive for any English reader following the text so creativity with the translation was required. Synonyms to this phrase can be the first option… the second option, on the one hand… alternatively, in the first manner… in the second manner or one way… another way were options for consideration and sometimes utilized.

He tended to use the optative frequently. The subjunctive mood is almost or entirely absent. The use of the articular infinitive is also used sparingly. This goes against the evolutionary stream of the Greek language. The optative was considered dead by this period. Many books and authors, like the Companion to the Ancient Greek Language have emphatically stated this. I think that Psellos wrote in retro-Greek — that is to emulate the great Greek thinkers of the past. His love of the ancient Greek philosophers was embraced and reflected in his style of writing.

His alternating usage of γλῶσσα and γλῶττα throughout the text was initially perplexing. They both are the same word, just different branches of the Greek language. The first being what is found in the Bible and Ionic Greek in Origin. The second being Attic and the language which Psellos communicated in. Psellos used the Biblical spelling when relating to the historic mystical event along with its theology, while he used the Attic spelling when writing in a non-theological context.

Psellos used the keywords, φωνή, διαλέκτος and γλῶσσα within his text. Psellos does not depart from the traditional definitions. Φωνή is the speech/sound or emittance with little reference to the type or nature. Διαλέκτος is becoming more specific. Sophocles dictionary describes it as “language; dialect, a variety of a particular language” (Page 365). It relates to a language family and sometimes to a particular dialect. It is the characteristic that distinguishes men from animals. Γλῶσσα is very close to διαλέκτος in meaning and in most occasions could be used as a synonym. In other cases it is more specific, relating to a specific language or dialect.

Here are a few of the new words used by Psellos in describing the pentecostal tongues phenomena. The definitions given are from a number of dictionaries and is shown in shortened form here:

  • αἴσθησις ➞ perception of the senses
  • ἀνεπαίσθητος ➞ unperceived, imperceptible
  • ἀνεπιστήμων ➞ ignorant, unskilful
  • ἀσώματος ➞ incorporeal
  • ἀπηχέω ➞ re-echo, utter
  • αὐτόπτης ➞ detected by a fact, eyewitness
  • αὐτοπτικός ➞ concerned with a direct vision of divinity
  • διάνοια ➞ thought, intention, the faculty of reasoning
  • διαλέγομαι ➞ to speak
  • διίστημι ➞ to separate, be divided
  • ἐνθεαστάς ➞ divine enthusiasm
  • ἐνθεαστικός ➞ divinely or prophetically inspired
  • ἐνηχέω ➞ to be resonant, ringing in the ears
  • ἐπιπνοια ➞ inspiration
  • ἐπόπτης ➞ visible, watcher, highest level of esoteric knowledge
  • εὐγλωσσία ➞ glibness of tongue, fluency of speech
  • θεοληψία ➞ inspiration
  • μαίνομαι ➞ burn with enthusiasm or devotion
  • μεταβάλλω ➞ distribute, change, alter
  • ὁμιλία ➞ instruction, lecture
  • προσομιλέω ➞ discourse, lecture
  • προσφθέγγομαι ➞ to call, address
  • φαντάζω ➞ to form an idea or image in the mind
  • φανταστικός ➞ to see with the mind’s eye
  • φῶς ➞ light — a divine light, something Psellos was concerned about how it worked inside the person
  • ὠνόμαζω ➞ to name, speak or call by name

Φαντάζω and φανταστικός are words that are scantly described in any of my Greek dictionaries, but the same type of formula is found in the writings of the Latin scholar, Thomas Aquinas, who appeared about two centuries later. I had previously translated Aquinas on a similar theme and his insights are an influence in translating the Platonic themes presented by Psellos.

In the last paragraphs, Psellos delves into the role of plants, mysticism, healing and ancient Greek practices on these subjects. They are a sharp departure from the previous paragraphs in content, style, and word usage. It almost appears part of a different theme and later stitched in with the earlier text. If it is a piece of the original text, then one would could surmise that the ancient Greek prophetesses entrance into ecstasy, and subsequent speaking in foreign languages, was part of the ancient Greek ritual of healing.

Many thanks to Alex Poulos for discovering and doing some initial translation work on this writer. His translation and introduction can be found here, Michael Psellos 11th century Greek text and commentary regarding Gregory’s On Pentecost

Psellos on the Tongues of Pentecost

An English translation of Michael Psellos complex text on the tongues of Pentecost.

Michael Psellos was an eleventh-century Byzantine politician, philosopher, historian, writer and, perhaps at times, a monk. He especially had a fondness for pagan Greek literature, especially that of Plato. His coverage of the tongues of Pentecost combine his Christian faith, Gregory Nazianzus, pagan Greek ecstasy and speech, neoplatonism, and pharmacology. He mixes this all together with his unique writing style which makes translating and reading difficult. It is not an easy read. Some basic understanding of Greek classical philosophy may help the reader in understanding this text.

However, the portions which are comprehensible have serious ramifications on the christian doctrine of tongues. His work was at least five-hundred years ahead of its time. If this work was ubiquitous and known when the modern tongues outbreak first started occurring in the early 1800s, it may have changed the course of the discussion entirely.

This translation is in a beta state with many revisions likely to come in the future. There is a good possibility that there will be no final edition because of the level of difficulty with the text in a number of areas. This will be outlined in a future article.

The Greek edition can be found at Psellos on the Doctrine of Tongues in the Original Greek.

The following translation is from the Greek text found in: Michaelis Pselli Theologica. Vol. 1. Paul Gautier ed. BSB B.G. Teubner Verlagsgesellschaft. 1989. Pg. 293-295.

Here is the translation:


For this, “The Apostles were filled with the holy Spirit and they began to speak in other tongues, even as the Spirit gave them to utter.”

Many held a contrary miracle, where concerning the matter of the fiery tongues the divine implanted voice parted. And how, they say, is it not incredible, if many languages germinated from one and the same voice? Similarly, as from one stalk [are the] antherikes, and also akides and sheaths and husks. It is the ability to change to the native voice for those who are hearing, thus also a man who travels to many cities and has become acquainted with the greatest knowledge in languages could produce. And we now behold many among us are uttering the Arabic voice, and converse among the Phoenicians or Egyptians, and through these same ones dividing also the tongue with [the] Persians, Iberians, Galatians, and Assyrians, [and so] we are amazed on the one hand [by] those ones who surely possess fluency of speech, as some have the capacity to speak, on the other hand, we certainly do not assign this manifold sound a sign of a divine manifestation. If someone ought to divide the one common speech into many languages, so as the Phoenician, Assyrian, Scythian, and Ethiopian understands it, we are naturally to assume this in communication.

But the great father marveled at the opposite of this, the superior option is all the languages together spontaneously happening in the same place attributed to the Apostles, and added the case in dispute. If then these persons were speaking in one tongue, while those present were taking hold of it, the miracle of apprehending with the mind was to be reasonably supposed of them, so that these ones were drawing off the one common language into conformity with the native tongue for themselves.

If, on the other hand, the Jew, to whom is of a minority, who had learned only the sound of the Jews, speaks hereafter to the Assyrians then according to the tongue of others and back to Mede, and next those to the Babylonians, while he clearly [and] entirely did not know the names, in this way the divine inspiration was to have been demonstrated, as in many kinds having been immediately shown forth and from one fount by which the Jew is speaking articulately many streams. According to these things the great man deemed this rather than the other of a theophany.

How then was it also that they were uttering one voice, then those alighted upon were to have many kinds heard? For if some type of matter was itself consisting of the form of discourse, a type of thing which was uniquely a breathing sound, springing forth from the lung down below, it sends up to the tongue through the wind-pipe, inasmuch the sound was sent into the Apostles not corresponding to language, but it was only necessary to tap the lip and open the mouth, even as I have certainly been often amazed at the midwives, about which procures the newborns from the fetus in the wombs, or about her which is in the process of giving birth. For these women, whenever a child has been born or also when they remove the child which is sliding out of the mother with faintings. Thus at that moment they simply put the hands around the foreheads, next they are presaged to breathe a little air, then [the infant] bellows out with mighty [sounds].

If, the apostles were therefore uttering according to such a matter of the voice, they were not spreading out something at all concerning things such as the idle babbles of old women. On the other hand, if they were producing the speech with assistance by the form of discourse, what kind of thing was it?

If on the one hand they were comprehending the very thing from the beginning after the building of the tower, or, alternatively, if it was important to believe about those speaking, the first one, specifically Adam, possessed with God in paradise, what was the new thing being uttered, the Jewish [tongue] as the common language, or did the fiery tongue do something more with these ones?

If, on the other hand, the language of these [people] had been changed to a different voice, Iberian or Assyrian, through whatever one is upon that is causing such amazement, would it not rather have appeared more powerful and lofty than over the process of dividing all the languages? If someone had the ability to thoroughly learn at the immediate moment the Egyptian voice and was given the ability upon some persons of articulate sounds in them, except to be conversant of the language by the Spirit alone, we marvel at the fluency of the speech and suitableness to the training. Indeed, what is the new kind of thing which has been proclaimed in public instruction to be reckoned for what it produces? But we nevertheless are both delighted with the mastery of the [completely] foreign language and moved with these most excellent things that they immediately had learned.

If the person who had learned [only] one language [and] after that is to call out all at once this new one therefore in every [language] to everyone, neither had this person learned beforehand nor after, is this man certainly not enviable, blessed, and a really pure vessel of elevated inspirations? Could this not be a pen of a quick writer, for is it as the writer having a strong inclination and who delivers and produces also in a single motion of this? For if the tongue had been conformed to every language but does not utter anything corresponding to a specific one without training. In fact all the languages at that instant have poured into the apostles [like] a way of a river through the soul, they were manifested like a spring [of running water] on the tongue. How is it then that a person is conversing in their language? How is it that a person is changing into the speech of each one? [How is it that a person has ] the skill with the many language families? But by no means had they learned this. But is it the nature of the soul? And it was certainly necessary through this that all were to suddenly be conversant in all these languages. But the mind, [how does it work in all of this]?

But with this, the nature is to be intelligibly grasped [by the mind] about the forms [being expressed], but by no means to converse in languages for the purpose of a lecture. It was therefore not evident that some sort of divine inspiration was animated to those around Peter, rather on this issue the divine presence rested in the upper part of the soul, like some queen, who was to convey and change the subjugated tongue to her own desire.

In fact this therefore had been correctly a matter of doubt by the father and was lit upon of a fitting remedy [for such a difficult problem]. I have also placed doubt in this instance. Did in fact the apostles who are sequentially [going from] one [language] to another, know the language in the distinct utterances of those conversing and which some are to utter? Or were they vocalizing the solitary sound such as this, moreso could it be unperceptible things were lit upon of a certain nature of the nations? And seeing that from [the work] of Apollo: the prophetess, by the mouth, the word follows, she became overcome around the three-legged boiler on the one hand to the Persians, and on the other to the Assyrians, and the Phoenicians — all according to metre and also rhythm which she had not known with beautiful language which she not had learned.

How therefore were the unskilled and those who are disciples in Christ happening to do this of whom were in fact conversant with and speaking? By no means [for this claim is contradictory of each other]. For this is opposite those who are mad and a deviation from those who support the common thought. Certainly even as the the ones who burned with madness which the ones long ago were calling the persons possessed of Phoebe, and neither of those things they were beholding, nor certainly of those things they were speaking did they obtain wise things.

But the inspiration in these ones was spontaneously upon them and was bursting forth in many voices and affecting holy visions. Those around Peter were not out of their senses regarding the natural reasoning power and they were partaking of something much better from which in fact they had the knowledge for this intellectual work. Therefore, each one of the disciples knew that who will be next to him is Persian, that it was necessary to send forth to him in the Persian voice, with regard to the Mede also that it was necessary to utter in [the language of] the Medes.

Therefore on the one hand it was of the ability to know and intelligence that those alighted upon had the ability to distinguish apart from the forms of the domestic [language]. On the other hand these ones who put on new clothes in foreign styles have the ability to understand and utter, that each one would have known the voice in the greatest and highest degree, and about such a thing, they were in fact held in high esteem at that time.

Regarding the difficult problem and in fact concerning the tongues that they had certainly marveled at, and that I should have been relating the word to the general characteristic of what was perceived, I am approaching most diligently with the theory and I am at a loss in any way whatever physical form demonstrates the divine things, and how these things work themselves out, and how the light spreads out with those. Seeing that there are two camps of thought about these things, on the one hand are our opinions, and on the other are those of the eminent Greeks. It is necessary for me to explain both to you. First of all then, the opinions belonging to us. The divine nature, that whatever it is, which is incorporeal, for the powers of those who are receiving, it produces the indigenous theophanies more distinctly fainter than clearer, and additionally being revealed to those with a display of feeling and on the other hand is made clear to them beyond the mode of sense.

Rather, I would prefer on this occasion to speak more accurately, on the one hand this remains unchangeable and unalterable, but on the other we are being changed and altered through this. For it is like one voice that had been re-echoed in public, the former somehow heard by us, while the latter was not heard, and the former is something more distinct with those who heard and in latter was apprehended [at that moment] more fainter according to the proportion of the distance of the pure sound heard. In respect to those who did not hear, the former was not grasped because of what appears to have been too far apart, the latter was because the sound’s path had been actively blocked from him, [regarding] the person possessed in reference to this matter of fire.

In this same way, it was to be acted out in different means, and this different variety was producing not according to a voice which had been brought forth, but a hearing that had been brought forth, in this way in relation to God, He is certainly not about to change, we have been changed concerning this and such as this or that, we have come into a new state.

And as an example, while the sun has stood in the midday, locusts and the things that see
in the night take in something faint of the light, but men and elephants more or less gaze corresponding to the physical tendency which belongs to each one.

Therefore because of these things, those surrounding Peter and those happening to be near at that time beheld these fiery tongues, the divine presence had been not formed through a language, but that the work of the spirit was destined to be produced through language. But those Apostles were contemplating the theophany in respect to the value of the soul, while others were certainly about to be witnesses of a great spectacle.

These things certainly belong in our own house. The children of the Greeks, of whom Proklos the last sacred torchbearer and teacher of sacred truths happened to belong to, divided the act of bringing forward the gods by physical incantations in these three [categories]: first they say an witnessing the fact of it, then the entrance into the highest mysteries, and lastly, that which pertains to divine inspiration, seers with special inner wisdom and divine inspirations.

If anything in fact with the intellectual part of the soul, a form of illumination, and a sereneness, as possessing of a nature that sees God, being also a spectator itself, this is a personal fact. Whatever images is being brought forward of the divine things in the mode by seeing with the mind’s eye inside the soul, for this one is aroused by a different divine influence according to these things.

It is dependent whatever the seer might call upon. If it is both not to publicly show in reference to the mind or what is seen with the mind’s eye, indeed being carried by these alone with some type of forms of the divine into the air, this then inspires the divine influence all around these, and an inspired state is to be declared. They say also the light that is being spread throughout the body by the gods, they do not certainly grasp with the mind, on the one hand these ones happen to be governed of the nature of sight, such as Socrates and Plotinus formed, while on the other hand according to some periods of time by the moon in like manner with light these ones are undergoing change in intellectual capacities. The Egyptians, they say the eyes, whether by what is called the tarro or by the perforation of the libanos tree or the bdellion shrub and also sap drinks and unguents, in certain compounding of sentences and in those things which cannot be spoken will be expressed and in secret letters [of those things mystically revealed] in the priestly leaves these ones cleanse themselves, they contemplated in admiration the light spreading with incorporeal powers.

Indeed Porphurios, Iamblichus, and the marvelous Proklos speak nonsense about these things. For let it be made plain by me none of these things has happened to be right. But we certainly ought not to know only the plants which do healings but the poisonous ones, as well, as though we are to be restored to health by these, on the other hand far from these things are we able to arrive in a new state, and we ought to not fall into those peculiar exotic things. ■