More from Mango on ancient statues in Byzantium

I’m still looking at Cyril Mango’s marvellous paper on the fate of ancient statues in medieval Byzantium[1], and looking up references from it.  I learn something from every one of these.

The last few posts concerned references to Christians smashing pagan statues:

The deliberate assembling of ancient statues in Constantinople constitutes something of a paradox. We must not forget that paganism was very much of a live issue, not only in the fourth century, but until about the year 600.  Statues of pagan divinities were, of course, an essential part in the celebration of pagan rites. The lives of the saints are full of references to the destruction of pagan statues. A few examples must suffice.

After which Mango (my first post is here) gives the three examples we have already looked at: the Life of S. Porphyry of Gaza, the Life of Severus of Antioch, the Acts of S. Abramius, and the Life of S. Symeon Stylites the Younger (on which I shall have more to say in a future post).

Mango then goes on to say:

These are a few examples chosen at random. We must also remember that, whereas some Christian thinkers rightly believed that the idols were inanimate, the general opinion prevalent at the time-as we have seen from the incident at Gaza-was that they were inhabited by maleficent demons.[7]

7. Conversely, in the eyes of fourth-century Neoplatonists, idols were animated with divine presence: see E. R. Dodds, “Theurgy and its Relationship to Neoplatonism,” Journal of Roman Studies, XXXVII (1947), p.63 f.

The Dodds article is in JSTOR and is itself a fascinating work, although full of untranslated Greek.  I’m not quite certain that it entirely endorses Mango’s view: for, rather than the “general opinion”, Dodds discusses magical statues and statuettes.  The context of this is theurgy — magic designed to compel the gods to grant favours by rituals — so some of the statues are indeed of pagan deities.  But we’re not really discussing the same thing.

The details given about the infection of Neo-Platonism by theurgy are fascinating, all the same.  Plotinus may have stoutly rejected all the hocus-pocus of magic and theurgy; but his disciple, Porphyry, admitted some of it, and Iamblichus far more, to the point of rejecting reason.  Dodds quotes a fascinating passage from the latter’s De mysteriis, introducing it thus:

The de mysteriis is a manifesto of irrationalism, an assertion that the road to salvation is found not in reason but in ritual:

‘It is not thought that links the theurgists with the gods: else what should hinder theoretical philosophers from enjoying theurgic union with them? The case is not so. Theurgic union is attained only by the efficacy of the unspeakable acts performed in the appropriate manner, acts which are beyond all comprehension, and by the potency of the unutterable symbols which are comprehended only by the gods . . . Without intellectual effort on our part the tokens by their own virtue accomplish their proper work.’ (de myst. 96, 13 Parthey).

To the discouraged minds of fourth-century pagans such a message offered a seductive comfort. The ‘theoretical philosophers’ had now been arguing for some nine centuries, and what had come of it? Only a visibly declining culture, and the creeping growth of that Christian atheotes which was too plainly sucking the life-blood of Hellenism.

Such an attitude among such pagans would explain much of the fate of the later Neo-Platonists in Athens.  In the 5th century Proclus himself saw ‘Hecatic’ visions and was “great at rain-making”.  No wonder Justinian felt a strong urge to close down the philosophical schools, if they were training magicians!

But let’s return to what Dodds says about statues.

Of these two branches of theurgy, the first appears to have been known as telestikh/, and to have been concerned mainly with the consecrating (telei=n, Procl. in Tim. III, 6, 13), and animating of magic statues in order to obtain oracles from them.

Then follows a quote from Proclus’ commentary on the Timaeus III, 155, 18, referencing symbola; and further references given but not quoted from the Theol. Plat. I, 28, p.70; and In Tim. I, 51, 25; III, 6, 12 f.; In Crat. 19, 12.

Proclus gives a list of magical herbs, stones, animals and scents which are usable for various purposes.  Each god has  a “sympathetic” representative in the animal, vegetable and mineral world, which either is or contains a symbolon of its divine cause, and is therefore connected to it by sympatheia (references to Proclus in the CMAG VI, 148 f. and 151 f. is given).  Indeed the same idea underlies the practice of making effigies of people as a way to cast spells upon them, or indeed to stick pins in them, in voodoo.  The symbola were placed inside the hollow statue, so that they were known only to the spell-caster.

The 3rd century theurgists do not originate this idea, of course.  The idea is instead based on Egyptian religion, diffusing ideas into the syncretic Graeco-Roman world.

This contained the idea of producing statues, inside which the souls of demons might be trapped by means of these kinds of gems, herbs, etc.

The late Hermetic dialogue, To Asclepius III, 24, may be referenced here:

Trismegistos: [I mean their] statues, O Asclepius, … statues, ensouled with sense, and filled with spirit, which work such mighty and such [strange] results,—statues which can foresee what is to come, and which perchance can prophesy, foretelling things by dreams and many other ways,—[statues] that take their strength away from men, or cure their sorrow, if they do so deserve.

And 37:

2. Since, then, our earliest progenitors were in great error,—seeing they had no rational faith about the Gods, and that they paid no heed unto their cult and holy worship,—they chanced upon an art whereby they made Gods [for themselves].

To this invention they conjoined a power that suited it, [derived] from cosmic nature; and blending these together, since souls they could not make, [they set about] evoking daimons’ souls or those of angels; [and thus] attached them to their sacred images and holy mysteries, so that the statues should, by means of these, possess the powers of doing good and the reverse.

Apparently receipes for constructing such statues are to be found among the magical papyri.  They appear in the Roman world in the 1st century AD and onwards.

But the real promoter of the idea is Iamblichus, who perhaps saw a way to defuse the Christian argument that idols are merely lumps of wood and stone.  He asserts ‘that idols are divine and filled with divine presence’.  His disciples did more, so Dodds tells us:

His disciples habitually sought omens from the statues, and were not slow to contribute apithana of their own: Maximus makes a statue of Hecate laugh and causes the torches in her hands to light up automatically;[95] Heraiscus has so sensitive an intuition that he can at once distinguish the ‘animate’ from the ‘inanimate’ statue by the sensations it gives him.[96]

95. Eunapius, Vit. Soph. 475.
96. The Suda under that name.

All this degenerate paganism must have shaped the attitude of the Christians of the same period towards statuary.  It is likely enough that a statue by Phidias or Praxiteles could be readily distinguished even by the simplest from a magical statue or talisman.

But then again you didn’t have to be a pagan to create a magical statue.  Magic outlived paganism.  Statues standing in the streets of Antioch and Constantinople in the middle ages were sometimes supposed to be talismans, protecting the city against snakes and the like.  Often they were supposed to be the work of Apollonius of Tyana, or some other ancient magician, by then legendary.

It is in this way, perhaps, through the activities of the theurgists in late antiquity, that statues of the pagan gods can be thought of as containing demons; or of being magical in nature; and eventually of becoming protective talismans, rather than pagan idols.

  1. [1]Cyril Mango, Antique statuary and the Byzantine beholder, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 17, 1963, p.53+55-75.  Online here.

7 thoughts on “More from Mango on ancient statues in Byzantium

  1. Sounds like electronics being put into statues by pagan priests who kept some primitive form of it hidden from the ignorant masses of commoners. I watched some youtube videos once going through citations in the church fathers about magical candles which could burn brightly in the day and not be put out by rain, some citations from Augustine being among them, and the explanation was a crude form of electric light that preceded the incandescent bulb. Remember the ancient battery found in Iraq? Yep, the ancients had electricity. But rather than using it like us, they used it in temples to make people believe in the gods.

  2. See Augustine’s “City of God” Book 21, Chapter 6.

    “there was or is a temple of Venus in which a candelabrum set in the open air holds a lamp, which burns so strongly that no storm or rain extinguishes it, and which is therefore called, like the stone mentioned above, the asbestos or inextinguishable lamp”

    And a little further on:

    “For to this inextinguishable lamp we add a host of marvels wrought by men, or by magic,— that is, by men under the influence of devils, or by the devils directly—for such marvels we cannot deny without impugning the truth of the sacred Scriptures we believe. That lamp, therefore, was either by some mechanical and human device fitted with asbestos, or it was arranged by magical art in order that the worshippers might be astonished, or some devil under the name of Venus so signally manifested himself that this prodigy both began and became permanent.”

    What Augustine calls “asbestos” is apparently the filament of the lamp’s bulb.

    So pagan priests had ‘magic’ — the same magic we have today: electric
    This is what is called an arc lamp. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arc_lamp And you can see depictions of Egyptians holding them here: http://harunyahya.com/en/works/13770

  3. See Augustine’s “City of God” Book 21, Chapter 6.

    “there was or is a temple of Venus in which a candelabrum set in the open air holds a lamp, which burns so strongly that no storm or rain extinguishes it, and which is therefore called, like the stone mentioned above, the asbestos or inextinguishable lamp”

    And a little further on:

    “For to this inextinguishable lamp we add a host of marvels wrought by men, or by magic,— that is, by men under the influence of devils, or by the devils directly—for such marvels we cannot deny without impugning the truth of the sacred Scriptures we believe. That lamp, therefore, was either by some mechanical and human device fitted with asbestos, or it was arranged by magical art in order that the worshippers might be astonished, or some devil under the name of Venus so signally manifested himself that this prodigy both began and became permanent.”

    What Augustine calls “asbestos” is apparently the filament of the lamp’s bulb.

    So pagan priests had “magic” — the same “magic” we have today: electronics and “asbestos”.

    This is what is called an arc lamp. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arc_lamp And you can see depictions of Egyptians holding them here: http://harunyahya.com/en/works/13770

  4. The statues laughing or smiling isn’t impossible, since we know that there were some pagan Greek statues built by Hero of Alexandria that were animatronic (okay, steampowered giant puppets or automata), and this was not seen as trickery but as enhancing the religious mood (and thus invoking the gods).

    And certainly many toy or ceremonial automata were around, including the Emperor of Byzantium’s famous artificial bird, his rising throne, etc.

    But I’m not sure why we have to drag electricity into it, when we have steam automata and primitive geared automata, and when it’s perfectly possible to pump in olive oil into a statue’s lamp with basic machines.

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