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Synesius, A Eulogy of Baldness 10


Mosaic depicting an angel. Museum of Ptolemais. Photo Marco Prins.
Mosaic depicting an angel. Museum of Ptolemais
Synesius of Cyrene (c.370-c.413) was a Neo-Platonic philosopher who became bishop of Ptolemais in the Cyrenaica. He left behind a small corpus of texts that offer much information about daily life in Late Antiquity, about the christianization of the Roman world, and the military crisis at the beginning of the fifth century.

The Eulogy of Baldness shows a lighter side of Synesius, who had a reputation as a sophist. In this text, he defends his baldness against the speech In Praise of Hair by the sophist-philosopher
Dio Chrysostom. The text is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald. The green four-digit numbers are page numbers of the Migne edition.

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[1184] Now the Egyptians are wise in this way also, that amongst them the race of prophets do not allow the vulgar and the artisans to make images of the gods. This is in order that they may not infringe the laws in any such matter, and while they mock at the masses with those beaks of hawks and ibises, which they carve in the precincts of their temples, they themselves, descending to their sacred crypts, watch over whatever works they may have completed, and they have at their reunions little chests, which conceal, so they say, those spheres, which will enrage the mob if it sees them, and the frivolous will laugh to scorn, for the mob will have jugglery. How else can they behave, being a mob?

For this reason, I think, beaks of ibises have been placed on all the statues. There is one deity, however, which they do not conceal, but openly exhibit; that is Asclepius, and you may see him much balder than a pestle.[1] Yet this god at Epidaurus is adorned with hair; the reason of this being that, amongst the Greeks, zeal for truth is languid, and it is for that defect that a historian has justly blamed our race.[2] But the Egyptians see Asclepius daily, and converse with him, not merely the man whose hearth he frequents, nor in such manner nor as often as he may prefer.

[1185] Now I hear it said that the Egyptian man has an art for working upon the gods, as also certain enchantments, and that by pronouncing a few foreign words he can, when he pleases, draw all the divine nature to follow such spells. From foreigners therefore, and not from the Greeks, we must obtain the truer images of the divine nature.

And yet, as I said a little while ago, the man who has examined the sun and the stars is satisfied not to inquire curiously into anything else; and admitting that there is any star with long hair, yet it is no star at all (for the body carried around in a circle marks the place of stars, in which nothing new ever takes place): but the space underneath the moon is the very frontier of generation and contains the combustible matter of the stars falsely so called. In the one place they move together and are in succession subject to the others, in the other, being inharmonious in movement, they do not partake of the same nature. One had come all the way from the Altar to the sign of the equinox, and from there it will be carried on to the North Pole if it is not first destroyed. Of these you may see some of immense length, and today, if chance favors, one extending over the length of the zodiac, on the third day it will be not even a third of that size and on the tenth and the thirteenth it has rightly disappeared, dying out little by little, and becoming nothing at all.

It is not even pious, in my opinion, to call these stars, but if you wish to call them so, this much at least is clear, that hair is an evil, inasmuch as even in a star it produces a perishable form. And whenever these comets appear, they are an evil portent, which the diviners and the soothsayers appease. They assuredly foretell public disasters, enslavements of nations, desolations of cities, deaths of kings, nothing small or moderate, but everything that exceeds the disastrous.

Nowise has perished as yet an unknown star from high heaven,
e'en from what time we were borne and listened...[3]

Whatever it be that has perished, it is not a star, for all the happy bodies are spherical.

Let this good then be with me and mine, one that maketh me like to the gods. For there are no other forms except those of this sort like to the gods, nor any other which it is more befitting to describe as divine in form and in image, and to endow with all the other epithets of divine beauty. And this is not that which should be, but which happens otherwise; nay, you may hear people using a nickname and calling bald men 'little moons' to their faces.

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Note 1:
A reference to Imhotep, a deified doctor like Asclepius.

Note 2:
Thucydides, 1.20.1.

Note 3:
Aratus, Phaenomena, 259-260.
Online 2006
Revision: 4 December 2006
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