BMCR 2016.04.20

Holy Men and Charlatans in the Ancient Novel. Ancient Narrative. Supplementum, 19

, , , Holy Men and Charlatans in the Ancient Novel. Ancient Narrative. Supplementum, 19. Eelde; Groningen: Barkhuis; Groningen University Library, 2015. xii, 211. ISBN 9789491431906. €85.00.


[Authors and titles are listed at the end.]1

Is there an objective difference between the two categories of the title, or was the mordant Morton Smith right when, in Jesus the Magician (rev. New York 1981), he asked why some, many, or most of Jesus’ contemporaries considered this eastern miracle worker (thaumaturge) a magician, or a charlatan, rather than ‘son of god’?

Although the title of the book reads “the ancient novel,” not all eleven contributions concern that genre of Greek prose fiction, plasmata. Some texts are paranovelistic, at best, such as the studies of Lucian, Philostratus, Aesop’s Life and Pseudo-Nilus. But then, the varieties of prophetic holy men in ancient literature (ToC below) overlap with alleged or admitted charlatans. Schmeling acknowledges issues of sources in his brief introduction—in an overly generous way—a “spectrum from reliable sources to voodoo artists” (ix). Who would be that reliable source of prophecy, of the gods’ will, of the revelations of a cow’s liver or ripples in a bowl? Seers, omens, and oracles, accurate if opaque in fictional narratives, fulfill important functions of literary foreshadowing, prolepsis, or setting up (sometimes false or misleading) expectations.

Since admission of true sign-readers implies recognition of false ones (accusations found at the Hellenic fountainhead, Homer’s Hector [ Il. 12.235-40]), does it follow that exposure of false prophets implies admission of true ones? No. After examining Sophocles’ Teiresias, a blind seer who sees the future, Dowden looks for differences between Calasiris and Apollonius of Tyana. Traces of the latter figure oscillate among genres, but no one lately thinks him bona fide holy man. Which source or reported holy man is reliable? “Kalasiris is the Apollonios of Heliodoros” (9). Dowden considers his admittedly wicked sophistry for miracle-craving audiences to be “in some way philosophical” (11). Calasiris “lives in a sort of cognitive disjunction,” because he is both the author in the text stage-managing deceits and disguises and a participant-victim in the story’s escapes and pratfalls. He stages minor “miracles,” such as the Liebespaar’s escape from Delphi or their survival of pirate rapine and massacre. He spins preposterous fictions that delude and deceive human obstacles, e.g., the population of Delphi, piratical Trachinus, and even his young admirers, his charges. Dowden creditably locates Calisiris in his taxonomy of holy men as more gamesman than charlatan.

Costas Panayotakis reveals how Encolpius at Croton is both a gullible and vulnerable swindler (31), here as well as elsewhere. Half-eloquent imposter, the credulous sophomore is fooled more than he fools. Panayotakis establishes parallels between Encolpius as victim of Quartilla near the start of our fragments, and later victim again of another dominatrix, Oenothea, when the extant text ends. Gesturing with elaborate head-wagging, Oenothea (134.10) claims to be an extraordinary priestess (134.12, 137.3: sacerdos), but the witch is probably a sex-starved fraud (40). She is boastful like Trimalchio, alleging that she can cure Encolpius’ impotence. This charmingly sinister and religiose Quartilla wanna-be is now a hag ( anus), but one who can still intimidate her naive customer to satisfy her lust. Panayotakis’ argument convinces.

Achilles Tatius’ Cleitophon is a charlatan throughout, Repath claims, and proves it by his defective, self-unaware interpretations of paintings and his unperspicuous, first-person, melodramatic narration. Butting into the primary narrator’s ecphrasis of a Europa painting (1.2), near-by Cleitophon laments his own erotic misfortune, reminding us of Herodotus’ local exegetes, Ps.-Lucian’s ( Amores 8), or Longus’ local Lesbian interpreter (50). He shares Encolpius’ mythomaniac impulse (cf. 1.2.2) to comprehend his own experiences by comparing himself and others to fabulous beings, and thereby to miss obvious interpretations (e.g., his Leukippe as the kidnapped Europa of the painting). His self-centered, self-sabotaging narration reveals Cleitophon to be clueless, despite listening to Menelaos’ sophistic explanation of the significance of encountering a painting when starting a journey (5.4, quoted at 57). Repath concludes that Cleitophon misreads all clues and remains “stuck in his story” (58, 65). This smooth-talking, educated bourgeois manages to obscure his clueless unreliability. Repath, however, should observe that Cleitophon’s credentials as charlatan are defective, because he is not one who persuasively and for profit pretends to know something that he does not know.

Bowie examines the absence of institutional religion in Longos’ eccentric novel. Rural cults “virtually ran themselves” (70). The narrator says nothing of Daphnis’ father Dionysophanes’ possible priestly roles—and Dionysus hardly figures among Longus’ named, mostly rustic, deities. He prefers dream apparitions in crisis-situations (Nymphs, Pan) and an epiphany of Eros. Philetas, who has seen and chased Eros, could claim “holy man” status, earned by his theophanic experience rather than by any preaching. Bowie views Lycaenion, the frustrated and adulterous wife, as Eros’ “missionary,” but her lies serve her lust although coincidentally the divine plan. She certainly defrauds Daphnis of his virginity under dubious pretences. The mantic woman had “divined” Daphnis’ love without needing the supernatural aid that she claims to possess (3.15.3: καταμαντευομένη; cf. 16.2: interpreting the Nymphs of her heaven-sent dream). Bowie claims that the unnamed narrator presents his interpreter of the Preface’s picture as “a holy man” (80-82), but he is only a local exegete (see Repath’s exposé of these tourist-trapping cicerones). Charlatancy/charlatanry (derived from Italian ciarlare, prattle) is everywhere, then and now. Literary charlatans often come with a back-story, such as Diophanes in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses. Thus, Bowie queries the reliability of even the internal narrator of Daphnis and Chloe, the ‘shadowy’ exegete who may be ‘shady’ too. Bowie concludes that the dreams of the enthusiastically erotic narrator may produce his ultra-interventionist gods. Yet when ancient authors authorize or de-authorize their characters’ speech, motives, actions, and nonverbal behaviors, one usually finds clues to that intention.

Lucian’s satirical Death of Peregrinus provides the foundational text for any volume hoping to distinguish ancient holy men ( theioi) from charlatans ( alazones). Ramelli points out that the protagonist Peregrinus Proteus possessed a profit-making shrewdness for fleecing the “suckers” including Christians ( kakodaimones). Christians once thought him “divine” ( Per. 11-12), and the pagan literary miscellanist Gellius bizarrely admired this Proteus as a vir constans ( NA 12.11, 19.1). Ramelli (citing 25 of her publications) speculates that Lucian might have conflated the bogus, Pythagoreanish wonderworker with the Christian Montanists for their shared enthusiasms, such as theatricalized and welcomed martyrdoms. The kakodaimon exhibitionist Peregrinus immolated himself (41, 36). Ramelli unexpectedly suggests that Lucian was hostile neither to Jesus nor to the “philosophy” of Christianity (110), although he termed Jesus a “sophist” and Christianity a crime—legally, a superstitio illicita. Ramelli’s Peregrinus was simultaneously once a holy man for Christians and a charlatan for many non-Christians (117). She is kinder to the mad Proteus than Lucian and most current readers. Ramelli then compares the Peregrinus to the unsurprisingly different, apologetic Syriac in the Acts of Mar Mari. This revered Christian Apostle to Mesopotamia performs miracles that prove his holiness (113), actions patterned on the earlier Apostle Paul. Mari converts “pagan” priests—after unmasking them as mere charlatans or “magicians”—to Christianity, and the converts become believers in, and proselytizers for, the one “true faith.” Ramelli does not report the nature of the saint’s demise.

Billault’s paper investigates the oscillating status of the esteemed sage and liar Calasiris, one of three priests in the Aithiopika. Calasiris never asserts holy man status, just that of a priest, and retired at that (124), in Memphis and Delphi. True, Billault confesses, the Egyptian claims that the gods warn, help, guide, and threaten him. Since they treat him well (in his report), however, he cannot be a charlatan. But, when he claims that he can easily identify Apollo and Artemis when they visit earthlings (3.12.13; cf. Iliad 13.71-2), I argue that he is either a Homeric hero, a charlatan, or another persona of the author winking at the reader about over-allegorization—covertly criticizing Calasiris’ neo-Platonic, high-falutin’ interpretations of Homer. Some would argue he oscillates among these roles. Since Homer’s characters insist on the difficulty of recognizing a god ( Il. 22.8-10; Ody. 13.299-315, etc.), unless Olympians want to out themselves, the last two suggestions best recommend themselves. Billault admits that Calasiris flamboyantly cheats his interlocutors, employing their expectations of Egyptian priests. As the author’s proxy, he provides a “staged performance … “acting the fool,” for example, when beguiling Charicles as his friend and savior (10.36). His duplicitous mini-dramas serve ends to which readers are sympathetic, but they are charlatans’ devices for personal advantage. Billault states that he is “a priest who behaves like a charlatan” (131), but, if so, the defense does not flatter religious personnel. Sage Calasiris’ admittedly mumbo-jumbo words and hocus-pocus performances impress and befuddle young and old, male and female, priest and lay-person with threats of the evil eye, prophetic interpretations, and the gangly movements and facial expressions of possession. The Memphis celibate’s antics imitate holy men and hoodwinking tricksters. They testify to literary types’ continuing pleasures in exposing and celebrating human gullibility.

Paschalis asks whether Apollonius of Tyana was a theios aner or a master of deceit. His hagiographer Philostratus supplies evidence for antithetical views. Philostratus starts from Apollonius’ mother’s vision ( phasma) of him as another Proteus. Does this mean he was shifty and sophistic (as the Homeric Proteus, and also Plato’s) or supple like Socrates and Plato himself ( VA 1.2-4)? Philostratus denies that his hero was either goes or magos, but he nonetheless attributes miraculous, if not “goetic,” talents to his “philosopher” Apollonius. The sage knows what happens in distant Rome by second sight (5.30, 8.25-6) and teleports himself to Ephesus (4.10: “let’s go,” ἴωμεν).2 Paschalis needs to define their place in Philostratus’ account—are these feats credited by the slippery Sophist or falsely attributed by sources or contemporaries needing a thaumaturge more than a philosopher. Emperor Domitian himself accuses or merely insults Apollonius as being a goes while still doubting whether Apollonius can escape shackles (7.33-4). The Pythagorean thaumaturge then supernaturally escapes his shackle but only in private, and only to hearten his discouraged disciple Damis (7.38, cf. 4.44). He can wake and resurrect the dead (4.16, 45). The sage finally ascends heavenward, while a choir of maidens sings (8.29-31), but witnesses can find no corpse, no tomb—Apollonius vanished. All these are “signs and wonders” of the standard holy man’s career. Paschalis contends that Philostratus’ Apollonius differs from his acolyte Peregrinus, the mythic Proteus of the Odyssey, and later Imperial sorcerers. The literary Apollonius had trumped the first Proteus’ shape-shifting by the “transforming power of philosophical persuasion” (149). Paschalis must classify one-by-one Apollonius’ alleged supernatural manipulations of nature.

Morgan’s long essay introduces Pseudo-St. Neilos of Ankyra’s intricate Narrations relating his (first-person narrative) life. The drama concerns his loss and reunion with his colorless (but Leukippe-like) son, Theodoulos.3 The author knew the texts of Fourth Maccabees and Achilles Tatius (parallels in vocabulary, structure, and themes). Morgan dissects this pseudo-hagiography (179) with his usual wit, and he discovers “romantic intertextuality and “extraordinary narratology.” This eccentric Christian tale mentions Jesus but once. The first-person narrator (author?) falls captive to barbarian bedouins and the mishap justifies a long ethnographic excursus describing the exotic Sinai Morning Star cult. Perhaps the sanitized, theological romance offers an eccentric conversion narrative, where alien hermit-wanderers become priests—like Lucius in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (190). Aithiopika need not yet cede, however, its status as the “last great example of the ancient novel” (quoting the Narrationes ’ translator Daniel Caner).

This volume in the “Ancient Narrative” Supplement series explores delightful current controversies about a historical character-type, the holy man, a medium of divine will to some, an object of satire for others, non-believers. The scholarship is current, the contributors expert in this field, the topic important for students of religion and prose-fiction. Their elegant proposals offer controversial and not always persuasive answers to tricky questions. No student of ancient character and social thought can safely ignore the issues and responses that they present.

Table of Contents

Gareth Schmeling, Introduction ix-xii
Ken Dowden, Kalasiris, Apollonios of Tyana, and the Lies of Teiresias 1-16
Gareth Schmeling, The Small World of the Holy Man: a Small Beginning in the Satyrica 17-30
Costas Panayotakis, Encolpius and the Charlatans 31-46
Ian Repath, Cleitophon the Charlatan 47-66
Ewen Bowie, A Land without Priests? Religious Authority in Longus, Daphnis and Chloe 67-84
Ulrike Egelhaaf-Gaiser, Fickle Coloured Religion: Charlatans and Exegetes in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses 85-104
Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, Lucian’s Peregrinus as Holy Man and Charlatan and the Construction of the Contrast between Holy Men and Charlatans in the Acts of Mari 105-120
Alain Billault, Holy Man or Charlatan? The Case of Kalasiris in Heliodorus’ Aithiopika 121-132
Michael Paschalis, Apollonius of Tyana as Proteus: theios anēr or Master of Deceit? 133-150
Mario Andreassi, The Life of Aesop and the Gospels: Literary motifs and narrative mechanisms 151-166
John Morgan, The Monk’s Story: the Narrationes of pseudo-Neilos of Ankyra 167-193


1. The “unjust literalism of the BMCR editors” (R. Hamilton) required me to eliminate with regret comments on several contributors (Schmeling, Andreassi, and Egelhaaf-Gaiser). These have been moved to the BMCR blog here.

2. Lucian had derisively mentioned Apollonius of Tyana’s teleportation “tricks” ( Alexander 5: tragôdia) when introducing his exposure of the toupéed Alexander of Abonuteichus. This evangelist for the Snake Divinity, Glycon, studied with Apollonius’ own protégé. The essays under review curiously neglect Lucian’s broad-brush satire of self-proclaimed numinous creatures.

3. The desert father-son story suggests the genre of Szepessy’s “family romance” (e.g., one like the other Apollonius, King of Tyre), in which family bonding trumps two heterosexual ’teen strangers falling in lust. See T. Szepessy, “The Ancient Family Novel (A Typological Approach),” AAASHung 31 (1985) 357-65.