Fire in the sky: a piece of ancient sorcery explained in Hippolytus

The article by Dodds on theurgy and Neoplatonism mentions[1]

Compare … Hippolytus’ receipe for simulating a fiery apparition of Hecate by natural if somewhat dangerous means (Ref. Haer. 4, 36).

The magician casts his spell, and … suddenly a flame is seen ascending in the sky nearby!

The Refutation of Heresies IV, chapters 35-6 is online in English here:

And that a fiery Hecate seems to career through air, he contrives in the mode following.

Concealing a certain accomplice in a place which he wishes, (and) taking aside his dupes, he persuades them (to believe himself), alleging that he will exhibit a flaming demon riding through the air. Now he exhorts them immediately to keep their eyes fixed until they see the flame in the air, and that (then), veiling themselves, they should fall on their face until he himself should call them; and after having given them these instructions, he, on a moonless night, in verses speaks thus:-

“Infernal, and earthy, and supernal Bombo, come!
Saint of streets, and brilliant one, that strays by night;
Foe of radiance, but friend and mate of gloom;
In howl of dogs rejoicing, and in crimson gore,
Wading ‘mid corpses through tombs of lifeless dust,
Panting for blood; with fear convulsing men.
Gorgo, and Mormo, and Luna, and of many shapes,
Come, propitious, to our sacrificial rites!”

And while speaking these words, fire is seen borne through the air; but the (spectators) being horrified at the strange apparition, (and) covering their eyes, fling themselves speechless to earth.

But the success of the artifice is enhanced by the following contrivance.

The accomplice whom I have spoken of as being concealed [underneath a cauldron], when he hears the incantation ceasing, holding a kite or hawk enveloped with tow, sets fire to it and releases it. The bird, however, frightened by the flame, is borne aloft, and makes a (proportionably) quicker flight, which these deluded persons beholding, conceal themselves, as if they had seen something divine.

The winged creature, however, being whirled round by the fire, is borne whithersoever chance may have it, and burns now the houses, and now the courtyards.

Such is the divination of the sorcerers.

I wonder from where Hippolytus obtained these details?  In particular the verse chanted?

 

  1. [1]E. R. Dodds, “Theurgy and its relationship to Neoplatonism”, Journal of Roman Studies 37 (1947), 55-69; p.68.  On JSTOR.

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.

Mithras in the Greek Magical Papyri

A chance query led me to Betz’ English translation of the Greek magical papyri.  This is a collection of magical texts in multiple volumes discovered at Thebes in the early 19th century.  The best known of these is the so-called Mithras liturgy, which is in reality just a spell like the rest.  The reason it is called the Mithras liturgy is that it contains a mention of “Helios Mithras”.

Anyway, I got the PDF of Betz’ translations and did a search on “Mithr”.  To my astonishment, I started getting results in some of the other magical texts in the collection.  Here are some excerpts from the spells:

From PGM III, 1-164; lines 71-85:

“I conjure you, the powerful and mighty angel of this animal in this place; rouse yourself for me, and perform the NN [deed] both on this very day and in every hour and day; rouse yourself for me against my enemies, NN, and perform NN deed” (add the usual), “for I conjure you by IAO SABAOTH ADONAI ABRASAX, and by the great god, IAEO” (formula), “AEEIOYW WYOIEEA CHABRAX PHNESKER PHIKO PHNYRO PHWCHW BWCH / ABLANATHANALBA ARRAMMACHAMARI SESENGENBARPHARANGES MITHRA NAMAZAR ANAMARIA DAMNAMENEU CHEU CHTHO[NIE] THORTOEI, holy king, the Sailor, [who steers] the tiller of the lord god, rouse [yourself] for me, great cat-faced one, steerer of the tiller [of God], perform the NN deed (add the usual), from this very day, immediately, immediately; quickly, quickly. …

The footnote indicates that the portion that I have placed in italics, which is repeated on line 100, may be garbled Greek for Damnameneu, Zeu cthonie, identifying Helios-Mithras with Hades.  Note the Jewish names of power somewhat earlier, and the invocation of the Greek vowels, first in one direction, then the other.

And lines 99-104 of the same:

“Halt, halt the sacred boat,” steersman of the sacred boat! Even you, Meliouchos, / I will bind to your moorings, until I hold converse with sacred Helios. Yea, greatest Mithra, NAMAZAR ANAMARIA DAMNAMENEU CHEU CHTHONIE THONTOEI, holy king, the sailor, he who controls the tiller of the lord god,”

In PGM III, 424-466, a spell for knowledge, on line 439 we find the following interesting remark, mentioning the historian Manetho who helped create the Serapis cult:

[For] the lord [god] speaks. A procedure greater than this one does not exist. It has been tested by Manetho, [who] received [it] as a gift from god Osiris the greatest. Perform it, perform it successfully and silently.

Followed by:

pray to him. But . . I . but a swallow of this comes . . . this your formula repeat seven times . . . formula, which you say: “Hail, Helios, Mithras. . . .”

Then there is the passage in PGM IV 475-829:

… for an only child I request immortality, O initiates of this our power (furthermore, it is necessary for you, O daughter, to take / the juices of herbs and spices, which will [be made known] to you at the end of my holy treatise), which the great god Helios Mithras ordered to be revealed to me by his archangel, so that I alone may ascend into heaven as an inquirer / and behold the universe.

Again, this is surely a spell, not a liturgy?

PGM V. 1-53 begins:

“Oracle of Sarapis, [by means of] a boy, by means of a lamp, saucer and bench: “I call upon you, Zeus, Helios, Mithra, Sarapis, / unconquered one, Meliouchos, Melikertes, Meligenetor, ABRAAL BACHAMBECHI BAIBEIZOTH (EBAI BEBOTH)…

Finally in the glossary on pp.336-7 I found this note:

Mithras: The Persian god is mentioned only a few times in PGM (note III. 100, 462; IV. 482) and each time as being identical with Helios or with Zeus-Helios-Sarapis (see PGM V. 4). See Nilsson, GGR II,668-72; Dieterich, Mithrasliturgie 67ff. Vermaseren,”Mithras in der Romerzeit,” in M. J. Vermaseren, ed., Die orientalischen Religionen in Romerreich, EPRO 93 (Leiden: Brill, 1981) 96-120, with bibliography.

It’s permissible to wonder why Mithras appears at all, except that plainly it was a “name of power”, just like the others with which the texts are studded.   This led me to a review of Betz, The Mithras Liturgy: Text, Translation and Commentary (2003), by John Gee in the RBL here.  Gee points out that the papyri are all often in the same hand, an Egyptian who writes both Greek and Demotic, and evidently is part of a temple.  He adds:

 

Egyptian deities, whether under Greek or Egyptian names, appear sixteen times more frequently in the text than deities from any other pantheon. It is probably significant that the only mention of Mithras is of Helios-Mithras, where Mithras is syncretized with the Egyptian deity Re under the Greek name Helios. Betz himself notes that usually Mithras was identified with Saturn rather than the sun (p. 137). If we consider that there is evidence of the Egyptian co-opting Iao as early as the Persian period, then we have the strange situation where all the deities mentioned in the so-called “Mithras Liturgy” are Egyptian.

Interesting indeed.  The references to Iao and Adonai and Sabaoth are also telling.

I suspect that the “Mithras liturgy” is about as much a Mithraic liturgy as it is a Psalm of David.

UPDATE: I also went through Preisendanz’ two volume collection of all the texts with German translation.  I didn’t find any more instances, except for an ostracon at the end of vol. 2, which had a series of names such as Baal, Mithreu, Mithra, etc.