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How (not) to be a god

April 23, 2021

This piece represents the opinion of the author.
Sophie Lipset

The year: probably somewhere around 560 BCE. The place: Mount Etna. The star of this story: Empedocles, Greek philosopher and self-proclaimed god.

Now, just for a little background on the god situation, this kind of claim was not new for Empedocles. He was a guy fond of your normal, everyday proclamations of immortality. He is quoted as having said, on at least one occasion:

“Hail to ye,

I, an immortal God, no longer mortal,

Now live among you”

He must have been a lot of fun at parties.

Interestingly, he apparently had a collection of followers who believed in his godliness.

Most of this admiration stemmed from his successes as a physician and the allegation that he had brought a woman back from the dead during his lifetime.

On the fateful day on which our story begins, Empedocles decided that just claiming he was immortal was no longer enough. He had to prove it. And, of course, the only logical thing to do in this circumstance was to organize a group meeting atop the local volcano and let his followers witness his ascension via some extreme cliff diving. In an act illustrating the ultimate god complex, he jumped straight into the crater of an active volcano, leaving nothing behind but a single shoe like some kind of Cinderella story gone wildly wrong.

Unfortunately for Empedocles, he was not, in fact a god, nor was he immortal (he was also not Cinderella, but that is somewhat irrelevant to the point). In light of this, jumping into a volcano was probably not the best idea. But what can you do when you have a god complex more powerful than even that kid with the power of god and anime on his side?

And this story is 100 percent true—according to Heraclides, that is. According to modern scholars, not so much. A number of alternative, less fantastical stories of Empedocles’ demise exist. The most likely seems to be that he died far from home in the Peloponnese, which unfortunately lacks the dramatic flair of Heraclides’ take on the situation. It is unlikely we will ever know for sure what happened to this enigmatic figure, but the wild speculation present in the stories that remain is nothing if not entertaining.

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