Monday 27 June 2016

Written in Water #7: Taller than Jesus

I'm not talking about stature. I'm talking about literal height.
What if I were to tell you that there was another Jesus? Another influential teacher, born about the same time, who did miracles and rose again from the dead, who imparted spiritual truths? Whose stories may even have been, although a pagan, the inspiration for some of the stories imputed to Christ? What would you say then? What would you think?

A bit over a hundred years ago, people began to ask those very questions. They had rediscovered Apollonius of Tyana.

Rediscovery is always a weird sort of process. Apollonius had never really been missing, after all; he hadn't gone anywhere. But around the time of the birth of the New Age movement, he suddenly became an attractive figure. In 1901, GRS Mead (formerly Mme Blavatsky's private secretary, and here my obsessions with Theosophy and inchoate history merge) wrote a book about Apollonius that re-assessed him as, an important spiritual teacher outside of any relationship or lack thereof to the Christian story. Apollonius quickly became a go-to figure for post-Christian Westerners interested in the esoteric. He largely still is.

Apollonius was not especially obscure. He was said to have lived in the first century CE, and he was a subject of some controversy, even in the ancient world, without ever meaning to be. He was a follower of Pythagoras (the ancient world's foremost advocate for triangles and vegetarianism); anti-Christian writers would later write books where they made the point that Jesus wasn't anything special because here was Apollonius, and look, he did everything Jesus did.

One of these books, Hierocles' Lover of Truth, no longer exists, but Eusebius's takedown of it does, which goes point by point. Hierocles, who was a prominent advocate of the Great Persecution, had read through the one main source on Apollonius's life, a third century biography by Flavius Philostratus and had used it as the basis of his argument. So Eusebius (Constantine's official historian, remember), in taking down Hierocles, is actually delivering a brutal critique of Philostratus.

Hierocles seems to have gone through Philostratus's biography point by point trying to demonstrate that Apollonius was better than Jesus. The sage had a miraculous birth and a prodigious childhood. He vanished and reappeared. He could make writing appear and vanish on paper at will. He lived in poverty, and travelled as a teacher, further than Jesus had. He was tried in a court. He died, was seen by many after his death, and ascended into the sky.

Hierocles appropriated Philostratus's book as a counterpunch to the Christian narrative, and yeah, reading it, you can see parallels and apparent digs at the Nazarene. For instance:
Neither did he indulge in subtleties, nor spin out his discourses, nor did anyone hear him dissembling to an ironical way... And his sentences were short and crisp and his words were telling and closely fitted to the things he spoke of, and his words had a ring about them as of the dooms delivered by a sceptred king...
Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, I. 17, tr, Conybeare
(I'm using the 1912 Loeb translation by FC Conybeare, because unlike my Latin, my Greek is woeful.)

The first time I read that I thought, "Aha! No parables! Not like that Jesus fella!" But actually in its context this is largely about why Apollonius is better than the other (pagan) philosophers. And actually, in pretty much every place where Apollonius is compared to someone else, it's to other pagans and other philosophers.

In fact, the Life of Apollonius is about something entirely other than scoring points against Jesus. There is no evidence at all that the writer cared anything about Jesus or Christians. What it's about is rehabilitating Apollonius's reputation. Right in the beginning of the book, it starts picking up on charges against him, For instance.
...there are those who accused him falsely of an addiction to venery...
Life of Apollonius, I. 13
That is, the rumour passed around that he was a con-man who did what he did for money.

Worse than that, and this is a concern that repeats itself through the biography, eventually becoming the basis of most of Philostratus's final book, he got accused of being a magician (a charge that many of the Christian writers – not Eusebius – would level), and was eventually (in the biography) tried and acquitted for it before the Emperor Nerva.

Now last week I was having one of my regular lunches with my friend Kite, who is a practising chaos magician of no small experience, and his take on Apollonius is that the degree to which Philostratus tries to rehabilitate the guy suggests to him that something really is going on there. Kite reckons Philostratus is protesting too much. Now, Kite knows a magician when he sees one, and I don't really know to argue, but the important point here is that Jesus isn't on the radar of Apollonius's biography. He has other issues to tackle.

Philostratus's biography has a lot more space for this sort of thing too – it's eight times as long as any of the Gospels, and has lengthy digressions about a trip to India, lengthy philosophical discussions, and more than any ancient biography ever needs about elephants – pages and pages and pages of stuff on elephants, I swear, just endless pontificating about what elephants are like, why they behave that way, how they're domesticated, what their tusks are for... Seriously, Philostratus really likes elephants.

And there are elephants in India. The trip to India takes up fully two and a half books out of the eight books of the Life. There Apollonius and his sidekick Damis the Ninevite (whose diaries are supposed to have been Philostratus's main source) hang out with the philosopher king Phraotes, and see the wonders of the East.

This part of the book is all about the orientalism (before orientalism was even invented). It makes sense. India was far away, separated from Rome throughout its history by one Persian Empire or another and by the third century the borders of the uncanny had closed in on the Roman world. The weird was nearby, as we'll continue to see; far away lived the truly strange.
For they were travelling by bright moonlight, when the figure of an empusa or a hobgoblin appeared to them, that changed from one form into another, and sometimes vanished into nothing. And Apollonius realised what it was, and himself heaped abuse on the hobgoblin and instructed his party to do the same, saying that this was the right remedy for such a visitation. And the phantasm fled away shrieking even as ghosts do.
Life of Apollonius, I. 13
The elephants are actually the least of the marvels Apollonius sees.
And they say that wild asses are also to be captured in these marshes, and these creatures have a horn upon the forehead, with which they butt like a bull and make a noble fight of it; the Indians make this horn into a cup, for they declare that no one can ever fall sick on the day on which he has drunk out of it, nor will any one who has done so be the worse for being wounded, and he will be able to pass through fire unscathed, and he is even immune from poisonous draughts which others would drink to their harm. Accordingly, this goblet is reserved for kings, and the king alone may indulge in the chase of this creature.
Life of Apollonius, III. 2
Unicorns! Apollonius doesn't buy the story about the magic properties of the horn, by the way.
Now the dragons of the mountains have scales of a golden color, and in length excel those of the plain, and they have bushy beards, which also are of a golden hue; and their eyebrows are more prominent than those of the plain, and their eye is sunk deep under the eyebrow, and emits a terrible and ruthless glance. And they give off a noise like the clashing of brass whenever they are burrowing under the earth, and from their crests, which are all fiery red, there flashes a fire brighter than a torch. They also can catch the elephants... 
Life of Apollonius, III. 8
Dragons! There's a lot about dragons, much of it pretty obviously based on exaggerated accounts of crocodiles and crested and bearded lizards ("that's a small one, but in the wild they grow to ten times that size!")

Not everything gets treated with credulity though:
Accordingly Apollonius asked the question, whether there was there an animal called the man-eater (martichoras); and Iarchas replied: "And what have you heard about the make of this animal? For it is probable that there is some account given of its shape."

"There are," replied Apollonius, "tall stories current which I cannot believe; for they say that the creature has four feet, and that his head resembles that of a man, but that in size it is comparable to a lion; while the tail of this animal puts out hairs a cubit (45cm) long and sharp as thorns, which it shoots like arrows at those who hunt it."

And he further asked about the golden water which they say bubbles up from a spring, and about the stone which behaves like a magnet, and about the men who live underground and the pygmies also and the shadow-footed men; and Iarchas answered his questions thus: "What have I to tell you about animals or plants or fountains which you have seen yourself on coming here? For by this time you are as competent to describe these to other people as I am; but I never yet heard in this country of an animal that shoots arrows or of springs of golden water."
Life of Apollonius, III. 45
The martichoras or manticore is a mainstay of ancient and medieval bestiary.

The "shadow-footed men" are of course the skiapodes: each of these creatures has one leg, with an enormous foot that, when the afternoon is hot, they lie under, using as shade. Philostratus mentions them again in Book VI as living in Ethiopia.

A medieval picture of a skiapus.
The New Testament canon doesn't have much in the way of earthly mythical monsters like this, but there are apocryphal monsters aplenty and once you get into the stories of the hermits and saints, they are eveywhere (and keep that in mind for when I tell the story of the Acts of Andrew and Matthias Among the Man-Eaters). Between the canonical and apocryphal accounts of the life of Jesus there's nothing any more or less outlandish than anything Apollonius does or sees.

But they are not the same. They're not really even comparable.

The main thing that struck me about reading the biography of Apollonius, and in my opinion the main difference between him and Jesus in terms of life is not the miracles – anyone can have a miracle story attached to them – but it's to whom the teaching is directed. Apollonius of Tyana talks to kings and nobles, the great and the good. He has no time for the social outcast, or the poor. If poor people appear at all, they are an indiscriminate mass. On the rare occasions he talks to people who aren't rich or powerful, they are never named.

He does not prophesy to power. He does not challenge social structures (in fact, more than once his explicit teaching is, "I'm going to live like this, but you do what's fine for you,") and he does not once pose any kind of threat to the structures of oppression.

Christ, although he would be eventually co-opted by the very structures he existed without, associated with social outcasts, poor people, sex workers, foreigners. By the time of Philostratus, the Christian religion was identified by its critics with the urban poor, rightly or wrongly; the fact that it didn't start at the top of society, that its founder was tortured to death in a way only decreed for those without rights was a real problem for the pagans so appalled by it.

Philostratus's biography gives us, on the other hand, this:
...when the plague began to rage in Ephesus, and no remedy sufficed to check it, they sent a deputation to Apollonius... (he) called together the Ephesians, and said: "Take courage, for I will today put a stop to the course of the disease." ...he saw what seemed an old mendicant artfully blinking his eyes as if blind, as he carried a wallet and a crust of bread in it; and he was clad in rags and was very squalid of countenance. Apollonius therefore ranged the Ephesians around him and said: "Pick up as many stones as you can and hurl them at this enemy of the gods." Now the Ephesians wondered what he meant, and were shocked at the idea of murdering a stranger so manifestly miserable; for he was begging and praying them to take mercy upon him. Nevertheless Apollonius insisted and egged on the Ephesians to launch themselves on him and not let him go. And as soon as some of them began to take shots and hit him with their stones, the beggar who had seemed to blink and be blind, gave them all a sudden glance and his eyes were full of fire. Then the Ephesians recognized that he was a demon, and they stoned him so thoroughly that their stones were heaped into a great cairn around him.
Life of Apollonius, IV. 10
In this account, the writer personifies the plague as a homeless beggar. You can't understate the symbolic weight of that. The story of Apollonius reveres the powerful and ascribes the trappings of poverty and powerlessness to the forces of darkness.

Apollonius is not on the side of the little guy. He is a rich person's messiah. He's also, in my opinion, a bit of a jerk.
And on occasion when a tragic actor visited Ephesus and came forward in the play called the Ino, and when the governor of Asia was one of the audience, a man who was though still young and of very distinguished rank among the consuls, was nevertheless very nervous about such matters, just as the actor finished the speech in which Euripides describes in his iambics how tyrants after long growth of their power are destroyed by little causes, Apollonius leapt up and said: ""But yonder coward understands neither Euripides nor myself!"
Life of Apollonius, VII. 5
Seriously, that is no way to behave at the theatre. Or anywhere, really. I'll grant you that this is my 21st century prejudice, but honestly? Half the time I read the words of Apollonius and I just think, where do you get off behaving like that?

The thing is, while the rediscovery of Apollonius is primarily the work of educated Westerners with esoteric leanings wanting to find an alternative to a Jesus compromised, as they saw it, by centuries of institutional Western religion, that wasn't the only point of attraction.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Theosophical movement, although forced into catastrophic splits by its horribly compromised leadership, was still going strong. And it was a movement that wanted esoteric miracles, eschewed Christianity, appropriated India, and was still largely populated by people who, although they saw themselves as liberals and internationalists, were comfortable with the structures of power and empire and (mostly) didn't want that metaphorical boat rocked. And here, appearing as if brand-new, is an ancient sage who travelled to India as Blavatsky did and saw it with Western eyes, who fought for respectability in the face of accusations of witchcraft as the Theosophists did, and who never once challenged the structures of power. Apollonius worked inside the system and won his point inside the system.

He is a socially acceptable spiritual teacher, a philosopher whose adventures, like Christ's, were romanticised and retold, appropriated and used to further agendas. He's the messiah of a comfortable religion. He doesn't ask you to take up your cross – he says the opposite, in fact. Just do what's right for you. Apollonius of Tyana poses no challenge. Apollonius of Tyana poses no threat to anyone.

But then his story was never meant to! It was written to show that he wasn't a threat. It was written to show that he was a respectable philosopher... and that's all he ever was. Respectable.