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Synesius' Egyptian Tale, 2.6


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

[2.6] [1273] Enough, for we must now take rest lest we parade anything of the unutterable mysteries. First, may the sacred rites be propitious to us, next, to us who have long learned of past and present happenings to a brother, it seems somewhat wonderful and worthy of inquiry, why it is that whensoever some nature is born distinctly better or worse, not in a small degree but very greatly, as for example a virtue unmixed with evil, or evil unmixed with virtue, [1276] there grows up also near at hand, in some way, its undiluted opposite, in such wise that from one home proceed two completely alien things, and at the same time there is one root for the two growths.

Let us inquire then of philosophy, what she will allege as the cause of this incredible thing. She might reply, borrowing a little from poetry:

There are two casks that lie in the antechamber of Zeus,
One of gifts evil such as he gives, but the other of good ones.[1]

He pours in and mingles from each, for the most part equally or a little less, so that the equilibrium of nature may be well established. But whenever by chance he pours in from one of the portions without reserve, and whenever in such a case some father becomes entirely happy or most unfortunate in his first-born, then what is left is inevitably employed for the other one, for the god who is the distributor will compensate for what is lacking, inasmuch as there must be an equal amount from each of the two casks. Else in the beginning there are equal seeds form both casks in the offspring, and both become one by reason of their common nature. And whenever anyone spends beforehand the isolated contents of one cask in any way whatever, he has the remaining portion quite unmixed.

Saying these things, philosophy might persuade us, for we see that the fruit of the fig tree is most sweet, whereas the leaves, the bark, the root and the trunk are only fit for curdling milk. It would seem then that whatever of an inferior sort the nature of the tree possesses, this it has entirely spent on the parts unfit for food, but has left the best part uncontaminated in the fruit of the tree. Thus, too, the husbandman’s son, for we must employ homely illustrations if we are to do more towards the acceptance of truth; thus these men, I say, taught so perhaps by nature, plant evil-smelling flowers next to the fragrant, and sweet plants next to bitter, in order that these last, drawing to themselves by their kinship with it such amount of evil as the earth has entangled with itself, may leave the better taste and odor in the better roots, alone and cleansed. And this process purifies a garden lot.

>> to section 2.7 >>

Note 1:
Homer, Iliad, 24.527-528.
Online 2007
Revision: 23 June 2007
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