Livius.Org Anatolia Carthage Egypt Germ. Inf. Greece Judaea Mesopotamia Persia Rome Other

Synesius' Egyptian Tale, 2.7


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

[2.7] [1276] From this argument it follows, in the fashion of one geometrical corollary emerging together with another, that the older sons in families are born quite worthless. And this becomes a purifier of seeds in relationship, when a god is preparing to generate virtue pure and undefiled. And then it turns out in this way, that precisely what seems to be most closely related, is the most alien of all things. Now while this is not very apt to take place amongst those who develop in the normal course of nature, namely those who are half evil and half good, it is found among those who look down upon nature, and occupy separate parts of it, parts which nature keeps and bestows intertwined with each other, and herein it would have been extraordinary [1277] if this had not happened.

Enough has now been said about this, but another question wrapped up in it seems to demand further consideration. That in various places and in various periods of time the same events should have often taken place, that old men should have become spectators of the very things which they heard about when they were boys, either from books or from their grandfathers’ tales, this seems to me the most incredible thing, and if it is not to remain incredible, it is worth while that a cause should be found for it.

Let us speak then, when we have found the proper cause, for perhaps a philosophic truth is neither small nor very easy. We must regard the universe as a single whole completed in its parts; we shall then think of it as confluent, and animated by the same breath, for in this way only could it save its unity, and we shall not represent its parts as devoid of fellow-feeling for one another, for how can they be one unless they are knit together by nature? They will act on each other, and be acted upon by each other; some parts will only act and other will only be acted upon.

Proceeding therefore on this hypothesis to the subject of our examination, we should logically make the happy body moving in a circle the cause of what happens here below. Both are parts of it and they have some relation with each other, and if generation functions in the things about us, the cause of the generation is in those things above us, and from thence the seeds of what takes place come here. Now if anyone were to advance this view, astronomy guiding his convictions, namely that there are recurrent orbits of stars and spheres, the simple and the composite alike, that man would at one moment speak Egyptian and at another Greek, and would from both languages attain perfect wisdom, combining intelligence with knowledge. Such a man would not fail to recognize that when the same movements come again, effects return together with causes, and lives now on the earth are the same as those of olden times, also births, upbringings, opinions, and fortunes. We should not therefore be surprised that we see quite ancient history renascent now, and that indeed we have seen it, inasmuch as things that have blossomed already, and blossomed for whole months at a time, agree completely with those thing which have been revealed to us in history, and inasmuch as the ideas hidden in matter harmonize with the unutterable mysteries of story.

Whatever manner of things these are, it is not yet lawful, for me at least, to divulge, though one man will make one guess, another man another: and men eager for knowledge of the future, in whose ears my story may have sounded a clarion note, will bend over this Egyptian history, drawing from thence a likeness to the present time enigmatically concealed in it. But in regard to truth, these things do not sound in unison; and let men know that they are not even pious in their attempts, when they heap up before them what should long have been kept buried,

[1280] For the high gods hold the life of mortals but keep it close hidden.[1]

>> to section 2.8 >>

Note 1:
Quote from an unknown poet.
Online 2007
Revision: 23 June 2007
Livius.Org Anatolia Carthage Egypt Germ. Inf. Greece Judaea Mesopotamia Persia Rome Other