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Synesius' Egyptian Tale, 1.1


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.

Although The Egyptian Tale looks like a retelling of a part of the myth of Isis and Osiris, it is obvious that the two brothers Osiris and Typho represent good and bad government. The story, however, is not just a myth, because the man called Osiris can be identified as Aurelian, praetorian prefect of the Eastern Empire during the reign of Arcadius, and one of Synesius' benefactors. His counterpart in this ancient roman à clef, however, is less easy to identify. For some speculations, go here.

The text is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald. The green four-digit numbers are page numbers of the Migne edition.

Pr. 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9
1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18
2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8

[1.1] [1209] The legend is Egyptian. The Egyptians are remarkable for their wisdom. Perhaps, therefore, this, which is only a legend, might signify, enigmatically, something more than a legend, for the very reason that it is Egyptian. And if it is not a legend, but sacred history, in that case it would be all the more worthy to be set forth in writing.

Osiris and Typho were brothers, and came of the same parents. Now the relationship of souls and that of bodies is not one thing and the same. It does not belong to souls to be born on earth from the same parents, but rather to flow from the same fountain. And the nature of the universe furnishes two kinds, one luminous, and the other indistinct, this last gushing forth from the ground, since its source is somewhere below, and leaping out of the earth’s cavities, if perchance it might so compel the divine law. But the former is suspended from the back of the Heavens; for it is indeed sent down that it may order the earthly lot, but it is enjoined upon it that when descending it should take great care lest, [1213] while it is arranging and ordering disarrangement and disorder, it should itself by propinquity be infected with dishonor and disorder. Now a law of Themis [1] has been established which announces to souls that, whichever one of them has been acquainted with the furthest confines of existence and has withal kept guard over its nature and remained inviolate, that such a one, I say, should flow back again by way of the selfsame road, and be commingled with its own source, just as it is a necessity of nature that those who have in some way set out from the other part, should be lodged in the abysses that are akin to them.

Envy and Anger there dwell, and there tribes of other misfortunes
wander about through the gloom in the meadow of infatuation.[2]

>> to section 1.2 >>

Note 1:
Goddess of Justice.

Note 2:
Empedocles, fr.121.
Online 2007
Revision: 23 June 2007
Livius.Org Anatolia Carthage Egypt Germ. Inf. Greece Judaea Mesopotamia Persia Rome Other