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Synesius' Egyptian Tale, 1.9


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

[1.9] [1225] But his father taking up the discussion, said: ‘You ill comprehend this matter, my son, for the divine part in the universe is given to things of a different order, acting upon most of them through its primordial power, and filled with intelligible beauty, which is mind. In that region of the universe there is another and supercosmic race of gods, one which, while it holds all existing things together even unto the last ones, is unswerving, and is unrelenting towards matter. That race is a happy vision to those who are gods by nature, but still happier it is to behold its fountain head. And moreover that race is more than full of good elements by force of its self-concentration, being more than filled with itself, but for the others it is well to turn towards the God who is there. The efficacy of these good things is not, however, something simple or of one kind; it is to diverse parts of the universe that the gods direct their care. [1228] They must bring down the action generated in their contemplation to the work administered by them, so far as is possible. While therefore, their unsullied element has been drawn up close beneath that great first essence, they themselves marshal those next to them, and the succession of orders descends methodologically to the last of existing things, and all things rejoice in the fatherly care of the first element through the agency of the intermediate elements, but not, however, to an equal extent, for in that case there would be no degrees. The fact is that, as the existing things descend in degree they become weaker, until finally they err and falsify the order, and at that moment the existence of existing thing terminates.

Now something of this sort ensues here below. That which is erring in nature gets as its part the last and most perishable portion of nature in generation and of the bodily destiny, but heaven, the highest, the most imperishable portion, has taken possession of the shape of the soul conformable to it. What the gods do on high,’ Osiris’ father said, pointing to them, ‘that does the demon in these troublous elements, a nature unstable and rash, and in proportion to the greatness of his distance from there, he understands not the good ordering of divine things. Since therefore the foundation of existing things does not suffice to their own salvation (for it slips away itself from beneath them and does not await real being, but merely imitates this by the process of becoming), and since the demons are akin to this earthly nature which has for portion a destructive type of being, it is necessary for the divine power to turn itself hither, and to implant in us certain initial impulses which the world here follows with profit as long as the impulses suffice.

And just as marionettes moved by strings are still agitated even when the man who has given the impulse of motion to the machinery has desisted, but are not agitated forever (for they hold not the source of motion within them, but move only so long as the force communicated to them is strong and is not dissipated by the continuance of the movement), in the same way, my dear Osiris, you must consider that what is well done and divine at once belongs and does not belong to this place, but is sent down from elsewhere. And on this account good souls are hard to find, although such might appear here, and the administrations of the gods, whenever they effect this, are doing things that properly belong to them, but not to the first life. For their happiness is of another sort, inasmuch as the very enjoyment of the first creation brings more happiness than the governance of the inferior, for the one is to turn away from the matter, the other towards to it.

Perchance you have been duly initiated, and have seen the mystic effigy in the which there are two pairs of eyes, and it must needs be that those below should be closed when those which are above are gazing, and when these two are closed, the former proceed to open in their turn. Now, you may consider this as a riddle of contemplation and action, and as signifying that the intermediate deities display their energies in one of these fields at a time, but that in the case of those of those of the more perfect orders, they use the better most of the time, and are conversant with the inferior only of necessity. These labors also belong to the gods, who carry out the works necessary to the universe, but these are not the leading good things. So even men at one moment more or less guard their possessions, at another give themselves up to philosophy, and in that moment become more like the divine.

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Online 2007
Revision: 23 June 2007
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