The Syrian Goddess, by Lucian, tr. by Herbert A. Strong and John Garstang, , at sacred-texts.com
THERE is no ancient biography of Lucian extant excepting an unsatisfactory sketch by Suidas; but we can gather many facts as to his life from his own writings. He expressly tells us that he was a Syrian or Assyrian, and that Samosata was his native place, the capital of Commagene, situated on the right or western bank of the Euphrates. He was probably born about the year 125 A.D., and his career extends over the greater part of the second century after the Christian era. He was of humble extraction; he tells us that his mother's family were hereditary sculptors (λιθοξόοι). This fact is interesting as enabling us to suppose that he would examine with an accurate and critical eye the different statues which he saw and described in his various travels, and especially those in the great temple at Hierapolis. He tells us, however, that he proved but a sorry sculptor, and nothing was left him but to apply himself to the study of literature and to adopt the profession of a sophist. He could not even, according to his own account, speak pure Greek, and with the view of purifying his language he visited successively the rhetorical schools of Ionia and Greece proper, where he made the acquaintance of the Platonic philosopher Nigrinus,
and no doubt contracted much of the admiration for Plato which reveals itself in his writings. We see him next at Antioch practising as a lawyer in the Courts; he enjoyed in this capacity such a reputation for oratory that he felt entitled to gratify his spirit of restlessness and intellectual curiosity by travel, and adopting the career of a travelling sophist. In this capacity he visited Syria, Phœnicia and Egypt, probably in the years 148 and 149 A.D. He tells us in the De Dea Syria that he had been at Hierapolis, Byblus, Libanus, and Sidon; and we know from his own description how carefully he inspected these great seats of Oriental beliefs.
He likewise tells us that he visited Egypt, but that he went to no other part of Libya. He arrived at Rome about 150 A.D., suffering from bad eyesight and anxious to consult a good oculist. After a sojourn of two years in Italy he passed into Gaul, where he had heard that there was a good opening for a public lecturer, and here he stayed for some ten years. He learned so much while among the Gauls that he was able to retire from the profession of lecturer and to devote himself to the study of philosophy. He returned to the East .through Macedonia, staying to lecture at Thessalonica, and travelling through Asia Minor reached Samosata in 164 A.D. There he found his father still living, and removed him and his family to Greece, whither he followed them in the following year. On his way he visited Abonoteichos, afterwards Ionopolis, in Cappadocia, where he visited the false prophet Alexander, and nearly met his end owing to a trick
played upon him by that impostor. He passed by Aegialos and proceeded to Amastris, whence he travelled into Greece with Peregrinus Proteus, and he says that he was present when that most marvellous of charlatans burnt himself alive at Olympia. He then settled down at Athens, devoting himself to the study of philosophy, and he seems to have passed a happy and prosperous life of learned leisure. At the end of the century he found his resources failing and once more betook himself to the employment of his youth; and he was glad to be relieved from this drudgery by a good and lucrative appointment conferred on him by the Emperor Severus in connexion with the Law Courts of Alexandria. Of the date of his death we know nothing.
The tract on "The Syrian Goddess" is thought to have been one of his earliest works, written when he was fresh from the East, as appears among other things from his calling Deucalion by his Syrian name, Σκύθης, meaning Σικύδης, i.e., Xisuthrus. 1 It has been doubted by some scholars whether this tract was really by Lucian, on the ground that it is written in the Ionic dialect, the employment of which Lucian derides in Quomodo Historiam, § 18. But the scholiast on the Nubes of Aristophanes certainly ascribes it to Lucian, and it is quite in keeping with the versatility of his genius to adopt a style at an early period of his literary career, and, at a later period to mock at the affectations of his early productions. In
any case, whether the tract is by Lucian or not, it gives a singular picture of the beliefs and practices in Hierapolis, and is worthy of the attention of archæologists and students of comparative religions.
"Lucian was at one time secretary to the prefect of Egypt, and he boasts that he had a large share in writing the laws and ordering the justice of that province. Here this laughing philosopher found a broad mark for his humour in the religion of the Egyptians, their worship of animals and water-jars, their love of magic, the general mourning through the land on the death of the bull Apis, their funeral ceremonies, their placing their mummies round the dinner table as so many guests, and pawning a father or a brother when in want of money."—Sharpe's History of Egypt, Chap. xv., § 51.
It is especially noteworthy that he wrote this treatise in the Ionic dialect in imitation of Herodotus, who adopted that form of Greek for his great work, and it speaks much for the powers of Lucian as a linguist and as a stylist that he was able to pass from the Ionic dialect to the pure Attic Greek in which the rest of his works are composed.
It is no part of our aim to criticise Lucian fully as an author; it will be plain from the short sketch of his life that he was singularly attracted by the spirit of curiosity to obtain all possible information about the strange Oriental cults among which he had been brought up. He gives us information at first hand on the religion of the Assyrians, and much of this is of extreme interest as tallying with what we read in the Old Testament. The flood
which destroyed all mankind for their wickedness; the salvation of one man and his family; the animals which went into the ark in pairs; the special sanctity ascribed to pigeons among the Syrians, all recall memories of Jewish traditions. Stratonice's guilty love for Combabus and his rejection of her advances recall other passages of the Old Testament; and the consecration of their first beard and their locks by the young men and maidens respectively recalls passages in Catullus and Vergil, and seems to show that this custom was an importation from the East. The tract on the Dea Syria differs from Lucian's other works by its simplicity and freedom from persiflage. It is the work of an intelligent traveller conversant with architecture and with the technique of statuary, and anxious to record the facts that he had been able to ascertain as to the strange Oriental cults practised in his native country. His attitude is that of an interested sceptic, but he confesses himself unable to explain all the miracles which he witnessed at Hierapolis, though he probably deemed that they owed their existence to some tricks of the priests such as he had seen performed on other occasions.
The following passage from one of a series of lectures to clergy at Cambridge 1 may be added to this brief account:—
"It is the peculiar distinction of Lucian in the history of letters that he was the first to employ the form of dialogue, not on grave themes, but as a
vehicle of comedy and satire. He intimates this claim in the piece entitled The Twice Accused, which is so called because Lucian is there arraigned by personified Rhetoric on the one part and by Dialogue on the other. Rhetoric upbraids him with having forsaken her for the bearded Dialogus, the henchman of philosophy: while Dialogus complained that the Syrian has dragged him from his philosophical heaven to earth, and given him a comic instead of a tragic mask. Lucian's dialogues blend an irony in which Plato had been his master with an Aristophanic mirth and fancy. His satire ranges over the whole life of his time, and he has been an originating source in literature. His true history is the prototype of such works as Gulliver's Travels: his Dialogues of the Dead were the precursors of Landor's Imaginary Conversations."
Müller and Donaldson quote Sir Walter Scott as affirming that "from the True History of Lucian Cyrano de Bergerac took his idea of a Journey to the Moon, and Rabelais derived his yet more famous Voyage of Pantagruel."
As the tract De Dea Syria is mainly descriptive it is unnecessary here to enter fully into Lucian's views of religion and philosophy. It may, however, be remarked that the belief in religion, whether as represented by the ancient and national gods of Rome and Greece, or by the Oriental deities, had lost its hold on both the educated and uneducated classes. The disappearance of religion was succeeded by superstition in various forms, which was exploited to their own advantage by such charlatans and
adventurers as Alexander and Peregrinus Proteus. Lucian's attitude is that of a detached and scornful observer, who, however, in spite of his contempt for the silliness of his fellow men, sees the pathos of human affairs, and would fain make them regard conduct as the standard of life. Professor Dill 1 has remarked that the worldly age in which Lucian's lot was cast was ennobled by a powerful protest against worldliness. This protest was none other than the lives of the best of the philosophers who waged unceasing war against selfishness and superstition in a selfish and superstitious age. Lucian mocks indeed at these philosophers without, however, apparently having thought it worth his while to study any system of philosophy very deeply. "Yet the man who was utterly sceptical as to the value of all philosophic effort, in the last resort approaches very nearly to the view of human life which was preached by the men whom he derides. . . . There are many indications in the dialogues that if Lucian had turned Cynic preacher he would have waged the same war on the pleasures and illusory ambitions of man, he would have outdone the Cynics in brutal frankness of exposure and denunciation, as he would have surpassed them in rhetorical and imaginative charm of style."
Lucian has heard of Christianity, but seems to have regarded it as an ordinary Oriental cult. He refers to it twice; the first passage is in the memoirs of Alexander, in which the false prophet is alleged to
have proclaimed: "If any atheist, Christian, or Epicurean has come to spy out the sacred rites, let him flee"; and in the same tract (§ 25) he couples Christians and atheists. The second passage is in the treatise on the death of Peregrinus the impostor, who, according to Lucian, was a renegade from Christianity and indeed had occupied an important post among that community. The translation is Sir Richard Jebb's.
"He had thoroughly learnt," says Lucian, "the wondrous philosophy of the Christians, having consorted in Palestine with their priests and scribes. What would you expect? He speedily showed that they were mere children in his hands: he was their prophet, the chief of their religious fraternity (θιασιάρχης), the convener of their meetings (συναγωγεύς) —in short, everything to them. Some of their books he interpreted and elucidated; many of them he wrote himself. They regarded him as a god, made him their law-giver, and adopted him as their champion (προστάτην ἐπεγράφοντο)."
Concerning their tenets he says, "They still reverence that great one (τὸν μέγαν ἐκεῖνον), the man who was crucified in Palestine because he brought this new mystery into the world. The poor creatures have persuaded themselves that they will be altogether immortal and live for ever; wherefore they despise death and in many cases give themselves to it voluntarily. Then their first Law-giver (i.e., Christ) persuaded them that they were all brethren, when they should have taken the step of renouncing all the Hellenic gods, and worshipping that crucified
one, their sophist, and living after his laws. So they despise all things alike (i.e., all dangers and sufferings) and hold their goods in common: though they have received such traditions without any certain warrant. If then an artful impostor comes among them, an adroit man of the world, he very soon enriches himself by making these simple folk his dupes."
It is fair to say that by some writers of repute 1 Peregrinus is regarded as a conscientious mystic, and Lucian as unqualified to understand mysticism and religious enthusiasm. In any case it is clear that Lucian for all the scorn with which he regards the various religions and philosophies of his age, showed considerable interest in collecting facts about them, and those which he gives us in the tract on The Syrian Goddess are as instructive as any.
The tract on The Syrian Goddess has been translated at the instance of the Liverpool Institute of Archæology. The text followed is that of Dindorf (Paris, 1884). The memoir on Lucian is mainly based upon the History of the Literature of Ancient Greece (Müller and Donaldson), Sir Richard Jebb's "Lucian" in his Essays and Addresses (Cambridge University Press), Sir Samuel Dill's Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, and Glover's Conflict of Religions in the Early Roman Empire.
H. A. S.
31:1 See the references in Müller and Donaldson, Vol. III., p. 223, from whose work most of these facts have been taken.
33:1 Essays and Addresses (Cambridge University Press, 1907).
35:1 See Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius (Macmillan, 1905), p. 339.
37:1 E.g., Mr. T. R. Glover in The Conflict of Religions in the Early Roman Empire, p. 212.