Damascius in Photius

Volume 6 of Rene Henry’s edition of the Bibliotheca of Photius arrived this morning.  The first codex in it is a review and summary of Damascius, Life of Isidore.  This now lost work was written by the 6th century Neo-Platonist philosopher, about his predecessor as head of the school at Athens.  I obtained it, as it is said to contain details about the cult of Attis.

The text is a rambling one, full of interesting historical and mythological details.   Here is one, from p.34:

131.  At Hierapolis in Phrygia there is a temple of Apollo and under the temple a subterranean fissue descends, which exhales lethal vapours.  It is  impossible to pass this gulf without danger, even for birds, and everyone who enters it dies.  But the author says that it is possible for initiates to descend into the crevasse itself and stay there without injury.  The author says that he himself and the philosopher Dorus, led by curiosity, descended into it and returned unharmed.  The author says, “I then slept at Hierapolis and in a dream it seemed to me that I was Attis and that, by the order of the Great Mother of the gods, I was celebrating what is called the festival of the Hilaria; this dream signified our liberation from Hades.  On returning to Aphrodisias, I recounted to Asclepiodotus the vision that I had in the dream.  And he, full of admiration for what had happened to me, recounted to me, not “a dream for a dream”, but a great marvel in exchange for a little one.

He said in fact that in his youth he had gone to that place to study the nature of it.  He had rolled his mantle two and three times around his nostrils so that in the event of frequent fumes, he could breathe not the poisoned and deleterious air but pure and safe air which he had brought with him captured in his mantle.  Proceeding thus, he entered on the descent, following a current of hot water which came out from there, and ran the length of the inaccessible crevasse.  All the same he didn’t get to the bottom of the descent, because the access to it was cut off by the abundance of water and the passage was impossible to an ordinary man, but the one descending, possessed by the divinity, was carried to the bottom.  Asclepiodotus then climbed back up from that place without injury thanks to his ingenuity.  Later he even tried to recreate the lethal air using various ingredients.

It would be interesting to know if any such crevasse is found today at Pessinus.   No doubt the fissure was volcanic, the fumes were likely to cause asphyxiation, and those overcome no doubt did dream, influenced by their surroundings.  Did the Attis myth owe its being to the actions of some early priest of Cybele accidentally mutilating himself while imagining himself with the Great Mother?   

4 Responses to “Damascius in Photius”


  1. ikokki

    I remember a few years ago reading an article about the Oracle at Delphi which mentioned another Temple of Apollo in Didyma in Asia Minor where there was a geological formation that produced poisonous gas. The priests would sacrifice animals to Apollo but putting them in a special chamber above the fissure and the animals were killed by the noxious gasses. But I don’t think this is the same location. IIRC Didyma is not in Frygia, it is more towards the interior

  2. Roger Pearse

    Interesting — thank you.

  3. Oliver NIcholson

    Is this Hierapolis of Phrygia not the modern Pamukkale (Turkish for Cotton Caslte), site of warm springs and a temple called the Plutonium. I was there 35 years ago and it was being excavated by an Italian team. It also boasts an octagonal martyrium dedicated to S. Philip the Apostle and his prophetic daughters. I suspect there would be illumination in G. Haspels Highlands of Phrygia or Stephen Mitchell on Anatolia. Didyma is just outside Miletus, much further south.
    OPN

  4. Roger Pearse

    Thank you Oliver — you’re probably right and I was ignorantly thinking of Pessinus. Warm springs has the right sort of feel for Damascius’ account, doesn’t it?