A poet and prophet of Crete. His father's name was Dosiades or Agesarces. We have an account of him in Diogenes Laertius,1 which, however, is a very uncritical mixture of heterogeneous traditions, so that it is difficult, if not altogether imposible, to discover its real historical substance.
The mythical character of the traditions of Epimenides is sufficiently indicated by the fact of his being called the son of a nymph, and of his being reckoned among the Curetes. It seems, however, pretty clear, that he was a native of Phaestus in Crete,2 and that he spent the greater part of his life at Cnossus, whence he is sometimes called a Cnossian.
There is a story that when yet a boy, he was sent out by his father to fetch a sheep, and that seeking shelter from the heat of the midday sun, he went into a cave. He there fell into a sleep in which he remained for fifty-seven years. On waking he sought for the sheep, not knowing how long he had been sleeping, and was astonished to find everything around him altered. When he returned home, he found to his great amazement, that his younger brother had in the meantime grown an old man.
The time at which Epimenides lived, is determined by his invitation to Athens when he had already arrived at an advanced age. He was looked upon by the Greeks as a great sage and as the favorite of the gods. The Athenians who were visited by a plague in consequence of the crime of Cylon, consulted the Delphic oracle about the means of their delivery. The god commanded them to get their city purified, and the Athenians sent out Nicias with a ship to Crete to invite Epimenides to come and undertake the purification. Epimenides accordingly came to Athens, about 596 BCE or OL 46, and performed the desired task by certain mysterious rites and sacrifices, in consequence of which the plague ceased.
The grateful Athenians decreed to reward him with a talent and the vessel which was to carry him back to his native island. But Epimenides refused the money, and only desired that a friendship should be established between Athens and Cnossus. Whether Epimenides died in Crete or at Sparta, which in later times boasted of possessing his tomb,3 is uncertain, but he is said to have attained the age of 154, 157, or even of 299 years. Such statements, however, are as fabulous as the story about his fifty-seven years' sleep.
According to some accounts, Epimenides was reckoned among the seven wise men of Greece;4 but all that tradition has handed down about him suggests a very different character from that of those seven, and he must rather be ranked in the class of priestly bards and sages who are generally comprised under the name of the Orphici; for everything we hear of him, is of a priestly or religious nature: he was a purifying priest of superhuman knowledge and wisdom, a seer and a prophet, and acquainted with the healing powers of plants.
- Vitae philosophorum i, 100.10.
- Diogenes Laertius. Vitae philosophorum i, 109; Plutarch. Solon, 12; De Defectu Oraculorum, 1.
- Diogenes Laertius. Vitae philosophorum i, 115.
- Diogenes Laertius. Prooemium, 13; Plutarch. Solon, 12.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.