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Synesius' Egyptian Tale, 1.6


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

[1.6] [1221] Now the king is appointed by the Egyptians in the following way. There is a sacred mountain near the great city of Thebes, and just opposite to it another. The Nile flows between the two. Of these mountains the one described as ‘opposite’ is the Libyan, and on this it is the custom that the candidates for the royal dignity should take their abode during the preparatory period, to the end that they may perceive nothing of the choice.

But the ‘sacred mountain’ is the Egyptian one. On the summit is a tent for the king, and by him are collected as many of the priests as are versed in the great wisdom. This arrangement extends to all that have precedence, for it distributes the positions at the ceremonies according to merit. A first circle is composed of these of which the king is as it were the heart. The soldiers occupy another circle next to this. These then still surround the peak, which on the widely extending mountain is another mount; it is like a nipple standing up, thus keeping the king in full view even of those encircling him at the farthest distance. And they to whom it is permitted to be present at the spectacle, surround him, taking possession of the ground at the base of the nipple. These are they who only applaud what they perceive; the others have authority over the election.

As soon as the king has been invoked, and those also to whose office this belongs, have moved the whole assembly of priests, as if the divinity were present and were assisting in the proceedings of the election, the name of one of the candidates for the kingdom then being announced, the soldiers raise their hands, while the priests, the acolytes of the temple, and the interpreters of the oracles register their votes. This is a smaller body of men, but it is far more powerful, for one of the interpreter’s vote is equivalent to one hundred hands, one priest’s is equivalent to twenty hands, and the acolyte counts as ten.
Then a second name of the candidates for the kingship comes up, and hands and votes are taken for him accordingly. Even if the number on each side is nearly equal, the king, by supporting one side, gives it a much greater majority, and if he throws his weight on the losing side, he equalizes the vote. Hence the necessity arises of suspending the election, and depending on the gods, both by watching patiently a still longer time, and by performing the sacred rites with greater precision, until such moment as not through any veil nor by any of the usual signs, but face to face they appoint the king himself, and the people hear the proclamation from the gods themselves.

The whole ceremony takes place at one time in one of these ways, and at another time in another, as the case may be. But in regard to Typho and Osiris, the gods were clearly seen from the first, without any action on the part of the priests, and took part themselves, arranging their own procedure; [1224] and each one marshaled his own votaries, so that it was evident to all with what intent they were present. Even if they had not been there, every hand and every vote would have awaited the name of the younger of the king’s sons. But great events here below are announced beforehand by greater preludes, and the divine element is clearly shown in things that are to turn out contrary to all probability, whether they be good or whether they be evil.

>> to section 1.7 >>

Online 2007
Revision: 23 June 2007
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