Monday, 6 August 2018

The Miracles (?) of Apollonius of Tyana

     Who the heck was Apollonius of Tyana? I first met him in a novel called My First 2,000 Years (about the Wandering Jew) by G. S. Viereck and P. Eldridge (1928), where he appears as a philosopher who raises a dead woman to life, and informs the narrator that he and Jesus had been disciples of the same master in Tibet. (The latter statement, of course, expresses the common Western trope of Tibet as a centre of profound, occult, and mystical philosophy. While Tibetan Buddhism could well be described in such terms, it did not arrive in the country until the seventh century.)
     Naturally, I assumed that Apollonius was a fictional character. Afterwards, however, I kept seeing references to him as a wonder worker, and always juxtaposed, usually favourably, with Jesus. I was later to discover that he had been cited in anti-Christian writers of the late second and early third centuries, and later by anti-Christian writers of the Enlightenment, up to the present day. But who the heck was he? When I finally managed to read his biography, it turned out to be a damp squib.
     Apollonius was a neo-Pythagorean philosopher who lived to be well into his nineties, and his life thus spanned most of the first century. Originating from a town in the middle of what is now Turkey, he adopted the popular role of a wandering preacher of philosophy, but to a greater extent than others. If we are to believe the accounts, he not only travelled far and wide throughout the Roman Empire, but also to India and Ethiopia. Even allowing for exaggeration, he must have been a larger than life character, because living people who become the subject of fiction usually are - witness all the movies, comics, and dime novels about the sheriffs and gunslingers of the West.
    Now, it is generally accepted that the first three gospels were written well within the first century, and there is strong evidence that the fourth was written before the end of it. However, most of the information on the life of Apollonius was provided by a certain Philostratus, who wrote his biography at the request of the Empress Julia Domna, and completed it some time after her death in 217. Therefore, any similarity to the life to Jesus is more likely to have been the result of copying by Philostratus. It has even been suggested that Philostratus specifically produced it as a counter-narrative to Christianity, but I don't think so, because the similarities aren't that strong, as we shall see.
     Philostratus claims to have based it on the memoires of one of Apollonius' disciples, Damis, and it is a bone of contention among scholars whether such a document really existed and, if it did, whether it was in any way authentic. Philostratus does not state exactly which parts of the narrative are derived from Damis, except for one episode which is certainly fictitious. By and large, the biography has the style of a novel or romance, and the incidents are interspersed with discussions which are nowhere near as profound as one would expect from a real neo-Pythagorean philosopher. The author's aim appears to be present his hero as a wonderful person, but he does not seem to know much about his teachings. That itself should raise suspicions; if Damis really did become a lifelong follower because he considered his teachings of fundamental value, would he not have described them in detail?
     Fortunately, the whole of the biography can now be read on line at Livius. There is even a summary, for those who don't wish to plough through the whole. So let us get started.

Birth and Death
     His mother is said to have had a dream about the god Proteus prior to his birth, and there were a couple of minor events at the time of his birth which were considered to be omens [1.4]. Such things were essentially par for the course in historical narratives in the ancient world.
     As for his death [8.30], it is clear that Philostratus was not making anything up; he simply did not know the facts. Instead, he provided three accounts, the most amazing being that he entered into a temple, whence he was apparently taken into heaven. He later appeared in a dream to a disciple to confirm that the soul is immortal.

     Apollonius did not, strictly speaking, have a reputation as a healer, nor did people seek him out to be healed. Nevertheless, it is recorded [4:45] that he raised a dead girl at her funeral. It was also recorded [6:43] that, in Tarsus, a rabid dog had bitten a boy, who then began to act like a dog. Now the (neo-)Pythagoreans believed in reincarnation, and Apollonius recognized the boy as the reincarnation of Telephus, a hero of the Trojan War, who had been wounded by Achilles, and had been cured by application of the rust from the spear which had wounded him. Although the people could not identify the dog which had done the biting (how many mad dogs were there?), Apollonius, who was psychic, was able to tell them what the dog looked like and where it could be found. By force of his personality, he made the dog lick the boy's wound, upon which the boy was healed. The sage then prayed to the river, and sent the dog across it, and the dog was also cured.
      Remember, all these are random events cemented into a matrix of travel, and discussions which are far from profound. As I said, Apollonius was apparently psychic, and there are a number of references to his precognition, the most dramatic being at Ephesus where, in the midst of an oration, he became aware of the murder of the Emperor Domitian in Italy [8:26]. When the hierophant at Eleusis refused to initiate him into the Mysteries, he predicted the name of his successor who would initiate him four years later [4:18]
     Other unusual things happened in connection with him. For example, a warrant for his arrest was made out for him in Rome, but when the scroll on which the warrant had been written was unrolled, it was found to be blank [4:44]. Likewise, when he was imprisoned, to demonstrate that he would be safe, he simply took his leg out of the fetters, showed it to his followers, laughed, and inserted it again [7:38].

Dealing with Spirits
    However, it is with Apollonius' dealing with the spirits that the history loses all credibility. When he visited Troy, he called up the ghost of Achilles and conversed with him [4:16]. Admittedly, no-one else was a witness to the event, so we only have Apolonius' word for it. Nevertheless, on the advice of Achilles, they took ship, and the sage uncovered a statue of Palamedes [4:13].
    Some writers refer to Apollonius as an exorcist. In fact, he had only a single exorcism to his name [4.20]. In Athens, when a young dandy who was known for his licentiousness and erratic behaviour insulted Apollonius, the latter recognized that a demon was inside him, and ordered it to quit the young man. As a sign of its departure, the demon toppled over a statue, after which the young man reverted to being a respectable citizen.
    What Apollonius apparently did have was an uncanny ability to discern spirits. Thus, during his sojourn in Egypt, he met a man with a pet lion [5:42], which the sage immediately recognized as being the reincarnation of Pharoah Amasis, and he recommended that he be transferred to the temple at Leontopolis, or Lion City. Obviously, if we are to regard this account as historical, we would ascribe the action solely to Apollonius' imagination, for there is no independent evidence that the lion possessed a human soul. This cannot, however, be said about some of the other incidents.
    For example, when the city of Ephesus was beset by plague, the citizens requested his presence as a physician. Instead, he led them to the theatre, where he demanded they stone a blind beggar they found there [4:10]. Of course, the populace was horrified, but they were persuaded to act accordingly, upon which the beggar's apparently blind eyes blazed with fire, and they recognized him as a demon. So after that they had stoned it so heavily that it ended up covered by a pile of stones. Then, when they pulled the stones away, there lay the demon in its true shape, like a gigantic hound, pounded to a pulp and vomiting foam.
     Another time, he was in Ethiopia, by which is meant the northern part of what is now the Sudan, when some women came screaming and calling upon everyone to pursue a thing which had molested them. They claimed it was one of the naked sages, but Apollonius told them not to worry; it was just a satyr [6:27]. Satyrs, you may be aware, were nature spirits similar to the Roman fauns: the upper body human, but the lower body that or a goat or horse, or else human, but with a horse's tail. They were always male, and typically lustful. Apollonius knew how to tame them. They filled a trough with wine, summoned the satyr, and watched the level of wine sink as an invisible creature consumed it. Later, Apollonius took the people to the cave of the nymphs, and there they saw the satyr, sound asleep and drunk. The sage informed them that he would be now quite amenable.
     Another superstition of the ancient world involved the empusae: filthy female demons with the haunches of donkeys, who wore bronze slippers, and waylaid travellers in the form of bitches or cows, but which could be driven off with insulting words. The empusae were also conflated with beautiful female vampires known as lamias, who would suck out the vital forces of young men as they slept.
     Having passed the Caucasus Mountains, Apollonius and his companions were travelling by bright moonlight, when a strange figure beset them, changing from one shape to another, and occasionally vanishing completely. Apollonius recognized it as an empusa, and instructed his companions to heap abuse upon it, upon which it fled shrieking away [2:4]
     But the most famous of Apollonius' exploits, according to Philostratus, occurred in Corinth [4:25]. A young would be disciple called Menippus had just met a beautiful woman, and was besotted with her. Apollonius, however, informed him that he could not marry her; he had cherished a serpent, and was cherished by one. The following morning, he attended the wedding breakfast at the house of the lady, pointed to all of the gold and silver vessels and other adornments, and declared that they were simply illusions. And so it turned out, for he compelled the lady to confess that she was a lamia, and was simply fattening up Menippus prior to consuming him.
     Philostratus declared that he got this story direct from Damis' account which, in my humble opinion, says a lot about his trustworthiness.

What are we to make of all this?
     The story of Apollonius is a romance, not history. He was obviously a larger than life character, with the result that exaggerated stories got attached to him. He no doubt did travel a lot, though whether he ever went to India, the Sudan, or Spain is anyone's guess. It must be emphasized that these supernatural stories are embedded in a long account of travel and disputation, in which his philosophy is never really spelled out. They are the sort of wonders which gradually accumulate over a couple of centuries of retelling.
     And, most emphatically, they bear no real similarity to the miracles of Jesus. The only reason the two have ever been associated is because certain people have a desire to denigrate Jesus, and one of their ways is to compare him with the subject of a later, fabulous account. They would be better off attacking the gospel accounts directly, rather than calling in Apollonius as such a dubious ally.