Ancient Egyptian idols destroyed in the life of Severus of Antioch

Here is another statement from Mango’s article:

At the end of the fifth century a great number of idols, salvaged from the temple of Isis at Memphis, were concealed in a house behind a false wall. But their presence was detected by the Christians.  The statues were loaded on twenty camels and taken to Alexandria where they were exposed to public ridicule and destroyed.

The reference is to the Life of Severus of Antioch, by Zacharias Rhetor (d. 553), published in the Patrologia Orientalis II (1903), p.27-37.[1]  Originally composed in Greek, it survives only in Syriac.  The last date in it is 512 AD, as it finishes before the events of the patriarchate of Severus.  I’ve turned the French translation from the PO into English, and I have found that it is a very interesting read indeed.

Some introduction to the context is necessary.

The scene is set in Alexandria in the late 5th century.  The emperor Zeno is on the throne, and Peter Mongus is the (monophysite) patriarch of Alexandria.  The intellectual life of the city is lively, and the city is full of students.  Many of the teachers are Christians, and there are plenty of zealous young men actively interested in the controversies of the day, and doing church work.  These call themselves the Philoponoi — the “lovers of work”.  But circles of pagan teachers such as Horapollon are still teaching in Alexandria, even though paganism is officially illegal and has been for a century.  Some of these pagans are in touch with a temple and oracle of Isis at nearby Menouthis.  Students come from all parts of the Eastern Roman Empire to study.  There is also a (monophysite) monastery at Enaton, headed by a certain Salomon.  The Pachomian monasteries are Chalcedonian, and there is one at Tabennesiote.

Paralios of Aphrodisias in Caria is one of these students who have come to Alexandria to get an education.  He is a pagan, but has a brother who has gone into the Enaton monastery, and taken the name of “Athanasius”, where he works with a fellow monk and former sophist named Stephen.  But Paralios has been instructed by his family to have no contact with Athanasius.  He attends the lectures of Horapollon and Asclepiodotus; and then sneaks out to talk to Athanasius, and the shrewd Stephen.  The latter plants doubts in his mind about paganism.  For a while Paralios shuttles between the two camps.  He visits Menouthis and listens to the oracle; and then hears criticism of the stupidity and superstition of paganism at Enaton.

He learns from Asclepiodotos of a pagan miracle; that the latter has had a child, even though his wife is too old.  Stephen pointedly asks whether or not the sterile wife is also nursing the child.  Paralios’ investigation suggests that the child is actually a fraud; the illegitimate son of one of the Isis priestesses.  For his pains, he gets beaten up.  The Christian students are outraged, and there are disturbances.  The uproar is so great as to cause the monophysite monks at Enaton and the Chalcedonian Tabennesiote monks to make common cause against the pagans.

Now read on.  The speaker is Zacharias himself.

*    *    *    *   *    *   *    *

At the news of these facts, the great Stephen called us to Enaton, at the Convent of Salomon. He asked Paralios, if he could reveal the pagan idols hidden at Menouthis. Paralios said that he would reveal them, that he would hand over the altar, and prove the sacrifices that they had dared do. Thereupon, we decided once again, with the most illustrious Salomon, to go and make known these things to the Bishop Peter. Once there, Paralios promised before Peter to reveal the idols, the altar and the sacrifices, and to make known the priest of the idolatrous error. The high priest of God, Peter, then gave us some members of the clergy and invited by letter those who lived in the convent called “of the Tabennesiotes”, located at Canopus, to help us eradicate and overturn the demonic gods of the heathen.

After praying, as was right, we went to Menouthis and came to a house which was totally covered with pagan inscriptions (hieroglyphics).  In one corner the wall was double.  Behind this wall, the idols were hidden.  A narrow entrance in the form of a window led into it, and this is how the priest went in to conduct the sacrifices.  Hoping that our search would lead to nothing, helpers of the priestess who lived in this house – they were indeed aware of the uprising that had taken place in the town – had filled up the mouth of the entrance with stones and lime.  In addition, so that the recent nature of the masonry might not be observed, and so that we would not discover the ruse and the artifice, they placed a cabinet full of incense and popana (?) in front of the place, and above that they suspended a lamp which was kept burning until daylight.  The result was that Paralios was initially a little troubled and embarassed, not knowing what had happened to the entrance, in the form of a window.  However, not without difficulty, he discovered the ruse.  He then made the sign of the cross, took down the lamp, moved the cabinet aside and revealed the entrance which was blocked at that moment with stones, by recent masonry work.  He then asked the Tabennesiotes who were accompanying us to help, to bring an axe; then he ordered one of them to open what had been freshly constructed and to make the original aspect (of the opening) appear.  The Tabennesiote then entered.  When he saw the multitude of idols, and the altar covered with blood, he cried out in Egyptian, “There is only one God!”, meaning by this that the error of polytheism must be extirpated.  First he handed us the idol of Kronos, which was entirely filled with blood; then all the other idols of the demons, then a varied collection of idols of every species, including dogs, cats, monkeys, crocodiles, and reptiles; because in the past the Egyptians worshipped also these animals.  He also handed us the rebel dragon.  His idol was of wood, and it seems to me that those who worshipped this serpent, or rather that the latter wanted to be worshipped in this way, recalled the rebellion of the first creatures, who did so by the wood (tree) on the advice of the serpent.  It was said that these idols had been removed from the temple of Isis at Memphis by the priest of that period when it was realised that paganism had lost its strength and was abolished.   They had been hidden, as we have said.   It was hoped – a vain and futile hope – that they would not be discovered.

We gave to the flames, in Menouthis itself, those of the idols which, because of their high antiquity, were already largely deteriorated.

The inhabitants who lived in the town thought, under the influence of the demons who possessed them, that it was impossible for them to go on living if any outrage was inflicted on the idols; they believed that they would die on the spot.  So we wanted to show them by the facts that all the power of the pagan gods and the demons was broken and abolished since the coming and incarnation of the Messiah, the Word of God, who voluntarily suffered for us on the cross, in order to destroy every adverse power; for He said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven, and I have given you the power to trample underfoot serpents and scorpions and all the power of the enemy.”  And it was for this reason that we gave one part of the idols to the flames.  As for the other idols, we made an inventory of those that were of brass, and that were made with a certain ingenious art, as well as those which were of marble, of every form, without forgetting the brazen altar and the wooden dragon.  Then we sent this description to the city, to Peter the patriarch of our Lord Jesus Christ, and asked him to tell us what to do.

Those who passed for Christians at Menouthis, and those who were part of the clergy of the church of the town, were, with the sole exception of their priest, quite weak in their faith, to the point that they were enslaved to the gold that the pagans gave them so that they would not prevent the latter offering sacrifices to idols.  Evening arrived on the day on which we had done these things, and it was necessary to guard the idols, once the inventory had been made, so that they were not stolen, but they (the weak Christians) declared that they believed that they would suffer some kind of diabolical harassment in guarding them (the idols), and took the view that it was for us to guard them.  On their side the pagans living at Menouthis thought and said that we would infallibly die during the night.  The priest, seeing the fear of the Christians and the clergy – he was a good and faithful man, who adorned the virtues of the monastic life, as well as those of old age, and whose way of life was simple – led us, after he had given us a meal, into one of the chambers of the church, where the idols had been placed.  He said to us, “At this point I despise the idols, and trample them underfoot, and inflict every outrage upon them, not thinking in any way that these are anything.”  Then he prayed for us, and invited us to guard the idols throughout the night, without fear.  “He himself,” he said, “would be, as usual, occupied with the service of God.”

We spent the whole night guarding the idols.  We sang, “Let all those be ashamed who love the works of sculpture, and trust in their idols”, (Ps. 96:7) and then, “The gods of the nations are demons; but the Lord is the creator of the heavens,” (Ps. 95:5) and then, “The idols of the nations are of silver and gold, a work of the hands of men. They have a mouth and do not speak ….”,(Ps. 113:12-13)  as well as the words that follow and are like them.

In the morning, when we got up, we found the pagans astonished to see us still alive.  So greatly was the worship of certain demons and the error rooted in them!  We then ran once more with our Tabennesiote monks to the house where the idols had been found and where the sacrifices had taken place and we demolished it from top to bottom.  This was indeed the order of the archbishop.

Sunday arrived, the day when our Lord Jesus Christ rose from the tomb and broke the power of death.  All the people of Alexandria, at the hour of the celebration of the office, made thousands of imprecations against Horapollon, and shouted that he should no longer be called Horapollon but Psychapollon, i.e. “He who loses souls”.  Hesychios, who is admirable for his virtues (it was he that told me these things; at the time he was the leader of the Philoponoi, but now he is a priest), had stirred up everyone to zeal, with the help of Menas, who we mentioned earlier and whom it seemed right to leave in the town.   The patriarch of God in his sermon made known to everyone the description of the idols which we had sent, in which were indicated the material of which they were made and the number of idols that had been found.  Thereupon the people were inflamed, carried all the idols of the gods of the pagans, whether in the baths or in the houses, placed them in a heap and set fire to them.

A few days later we returned to the city (Alexandria).  Together with the idols, we also brought their (the pagans’) priest with us.  In fact it had been possible, with the help of God, to capture him also.  Twenty camels were loaded by us with the various idols, although we had already burned some of them at Menouthis, as we have said.  We brought them into the centre of the city, following the order which we had received from the great Peter.  The latter immediately summoned around him, before the prefect of Egypt, the commanders of the regiments of soldiers, and all those who held senior office, as well as the senate, the important people, and the owners (= the “possessors”) of the city.  When he sat down with them, he had the priest of the idols brought in, and ordered him to stand in a raised place.  Then, after the idols had been uncovered, he began to question him.  He asked him what this idolatry meant, which was exercised on a material without a soul, and ordered him to give the names of all the demons and say what was the cause of the form of each of them.  At this time all the people had rushed in to see what was happening.  He listened to what was said, and then laughed at the disgraceful deeds of the gods of the pagans whom the priest had made known.  When the brazen altar and the wooden dragon had arrived, the priest confessed to the sacrifices which he had dared to carry out, and said that the wooden dragon was the one who deceived Eve.  He believed this, he said, by tradition from the first priests.  He said that the pagans worshipped the dragon.  This was therefore given to the fire at the same time as the other idols.  One could then hear, somehow, all the people shout, “Here is Dionysos, the hermaphrodite god! Here is Kronos who hates infants! Here is Zeus, the adulterer and seducer of young people! This one is Athena, the virgin who loves war; that one Artemis the huntress and enemy of strangers.  Ares, that demon there, makes wars, and Apollo, that’s the one who kills lots of people.  Aphrodite, she presides over prostitution.  There are also some who have taken care to run away.  As for Dionysus, he protects drunkenness.  And see, among these idols the rebel dragon is also found!  Among their number there are again dogs and monkeys, and, in addition, families of cats; for these too were gods of the Egyptians.”  The people also laughed at the other idols.

If some of them had hands and feet, he [someone else is now speaking; presumably there is a lacuna] broke them and cried out jokingly in the language of the country, “Their gods don’t have any karoumtitin (?).  Look at Isis, who has come to wash them!”  Then he overwhelmed the pagans in a host of jokes of this kind, and praised Zeno, of pious end [this phrase seems out of place], who held at that period the sceptre of the empire, he praised Peter, the great patriarch, as well as the notables of the city who were sitting with him.  Then everyone retired, praising God on the subject of the destruction of the error of the demons and the worship of idols.  As for the priest of the pagan turpitude, it was ordered that he should be held for a more detailed investigation.

After these events, the great Stephen, remembering the fable of the sterile woman and the supposed child, and thinking what a great liar Asclepiodotos was, was worried in case the latter deceived people in Asia with his nonsense.  Also the great Salomon secretly advised the archbishop to order that a court record of the depositions be drawn up by the defensor of the city, so that he could ask that the priest be interrogated on the subject of the child.  This was done, and the priest confessed to all the things we have mentioned, because it is from him that we learned this.  When the imposture of Asclepiotodos was known to everyone, the illustrious Stephen decided along with the great Peter to address a synodal letter to Nonnos, the bishop of Aphrodisias, in which he made known to him all the machinations of the pagans that the priest, during his interrogation, had put in writing (?) on the subject of the supposed child, and in which he was exhorted to reveal to all the history of this fable.  But this synodal letter was never received.  He who was charged to carry it, at been, on his arrival in Caria, corrupted by a bribe, as we learned later.  In consequence the pagans of Aphrodisias believed for some time that the history of this fable was true, until the judge Adrastos took an interest – he was a pious man, who was the scholasticos of the country – and took care to bring from Alexandria to Caria, with the help of the prefect of Egypt at that time, a copy of the court record concerning this fable.

After he had offered an exploit of this kind to God, Paralios received the baptism of redemption, when Easter arrived, at the same time as many pagans, who had been full of zeal for idolatry until their old age, and had served the perverse demons for a long time.  With them also was baptised the admirable Urbanus, who today in this imperial city is a teacher of Latin grammar, and Isidore of Lesbos, brother of Zenodotos whom I mentioned earlier, as well as many others.  …

UPDATE: I find that Google Translate makes a very decent effort at translating the French text.  Have a look at it here.  You have to use your mind a bit, but you will still get a lot out of it.

UPDATE2: There is a complete English translation of this work available: The Life of Severus by Zachariah of Mytilene, tr. Lena Ambjörn, Gorgias (2008), 134p.  Amazon here.  It seems that the text itself was first published by J.Spanuth (ed.): Zacharias Rhetor: Das Leben des Severus von Antiochen in syrischer Uebersetzung, Gottingen (1893); and edited again and translated into French by F. Nau in ROC4 (1899), p.343-353, 544-571, and ROC 5 (1900), p.74-98.  The text is preserved only in Ms. Sachau 321, no. 26 in the catalogue of the Berlin mss., p.94.  The ms. dates from 741 AD, as a scribal note on fol. 173v tells us; the ms. was written by the priest and stylite Theudas (? Theodosius?) of the monastery of Psilta at the time when Stephanus was Abbot, i.e. A. Gr. 1052, which is 741 AD.

  1. [1]Edited by M.-A. Kugener.  The PO2 volume is online here; the French translation in it has been digitised by Marc Szwajcer at here.  There are emendations by E.W.Brooks in the JTS 5 (1904) p.369 f.  An English translation of portions of the Life, with commentary, can be found in R. A. Darling Young, “Zacharias: The Life of Severus” in Ascetic behavior in Greco-Roman Antiquity: a sourcebook, ed. V. L. Wimbush, Fortress Press (1990), p.312-28.  For an overview of the social context see Frank R. Trombley’s excellent work, Hellenic Religion and Christianization c.370-529, 2 vols, Brill (2001), Vol. 2, p.1 f. Preview here.  Also Peter Brown, Power and persuasion in late antiquity: Towards a Christian empire, Wisconsin (1992), p.130. See also Christopher Haas, Alexandria in Late Antiquity: Topography and Social Conflict, JHU (2006), p.187, who makes the interesting point (p.188) that, judging from the rise of biblical names in tax rolls, only 10% of the countryside remained pagan by 400 AD. There is an article, Elżbieta Szabat, The ‘great persecutions’ of pagans in 5th century Alexandria. Palamedes 7 (2012), 155-176.  Here if you have a subscription.

5 thoughts on “Ancient Egyptian idols destroyed in the life of Severus of Antioch

  1. Glad to see that you have discovered the Life of Severus, Roger. I only discovered it myself a couple of months ago, and devoured the Gorgias Press translation in a couple of days flat. I found its evocation of life in late 5th-century Egypt absolutely fascinating, not least because it was very pleasant to come across people who described themselves as ‘fond of work’. All the same, by modern standards, Severus and his Christian friends struck me as depressingly priggish and cocksure: fundamentalist Christians in the worst sense of the word. I couldn’t help being reminded of the zealot (played by John Cleese, naturally) in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’: ‘Persecute! Persecute!’

    It is worth trying to stand outside our Western culture, with its default sympathy for Christianity, for a few minutes, and asking the question: How did these Christian zealots differ from the Taliban in Afghanistan, who destroyed the Buddhist statues at Bamiyan a few years back? Because their faith was the right one?

    Of course, we should never forget that the pagans were just as arrogant in their dealings with the Christians when they were on top. Power seems to make no distinctions in its ability to corrupt …

  2. I agree – it is a fascinating document. If I were not chained to a desk I would make a complete translation from the French, just so there was *something* online to drive people towards the text.

    It does give a marvellous picture of life in Egypt at that period.

    I do know what you mean about Severus and his friends and their arrogance. It always reminds me of modern political correctness, and the insufferable arrogance of people wrecking some institution of our society for no better reason, sometimes, than some trumped-up objection. As you say, power tends to corrupt.

    But I have grave doubts about the real Christianity of many of these people. The Syriac chronicles are full of examples on monophysite and chalcedonian sides of behaviour which is not faintly in accordance with our Lord’s teaching, recounted with pride. The salt has lost its savour indeed.

    I have a feeling that what we’re looking at is a version of Alexandrian politics. Instead of the old mob politics – Greeks versus Jews — you now have a three-way split; the pagan mob, the “Christian” mob, and the Jewish mob. The identity politics involved may well have similarities to modern identity politics.

    We must never allow the use of Christianese to mislead us. Underneath it may be a heart that is unregenerate.

  3. Thanks for your efforts it helped me in my study about late roman Alexandria intellectual life, it’s really interesting to know about my city’s history. an Archaeologist works at Kom El-Dikka Site where 22 lecture halls were discovered by the polish archaeological mission.

Leave a Reply