Apollonius of Tyana
The Philosopher Explorer
Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia
In the Shrines of the Temples and the Retreats of Religion
The temple of Æsculapius at Ægæ, where Apollonius spent the most impressionable years of his life, was one of innumerable hospitals of Greece, where the healing art was practised on lines totally different to our present methods. We are at once introduced to an atmosphere laden with psychic influences, to a centre whither for centuries patients had flocked to “consult the God.” In order to do so, it was necessary for them to go through certain preliminary purifications and follow certain rules given by the priests; they then passed the night in the shrine and in their sleep instructions were given them for their healing. This method, no doubt, was only resorted to when the skill of the priest was exhausted; in any case, the priests must have been deeply versed in the interpretation of these dreams and in their rationale. It is also evident that as Apollonius loved to pass his time in the temple, he must have found there satisfaction for his spiritual needs, and instruction in the inner science; though doubtless his own innate powers soon carried him beyond his instructors and marked him out as the “favourite of the God.” The many cases on record in our own day of patients in trance or some other psychic condition prescribing for themselves, will help the student to understand the innumerable possibilities of healing which were in Greece summed up in the personification Æsculapius.
Later on the chief of the Indian sages has a disquisition on Æsculapius and the healing art put into his mouth (iii 44), where the whole of medicine is said to be dependent upon psychic diagnosis and prescience ( ?? ).
Finally it may be noticed that it was the invariable custom of patients on their recovery to record the fact on an ex-voto tablet in the temple, precisely as is done today in Roman Catholic countries. [For the most recent study in English on the subject of Æsculapius see The Cult of Asclepios, by Alice Walton, Ph.D., in No III of the Cornell Studies in Classical Philology (Ithaca N.Y; 1894]
On his way to India Apollonius saw a good deal of the Magi at Babylon. He used to visit them at midday and midnight, but of what transpired Damis knew nothing, for Apollonius would not permit him to accompany him, and in answer to his direct questions would only answer: “They are wise, but not in all things” (i 26).
The description of a certain hall, however, to which Apollonius had access, seems to be a garbled version of the interior of the temple. The roof was dome-shaped, and the ceiling was covered with “saphire”; in this blue heaven were models of the heavenly bodies (“those whom they regard as Gods”) fashioned in gold, as though moving in the ether. Moreover from the roof were suspended four golden “Iygges” which the Magi call the “Tongues of the Gods.” These were winged-wheels or spheres connected with the idea of Adrasteia (or Fate). Their prototypes are described imperfectly in the Vision of Ezekiel, and the so-called Hecatine strophali or spherulæ used in magical practices. may have been degenerate descendants of these “living wheels” or spheres of the vital elements. The subject is one of intense interest, but hopelessly incapable of treatment in our present age of scepticism and profound ignorance of the past. The “Gods” who taught our infant humanity higher than that at present evolving on our earth. They gave the impulse, and, when the earth-children were old enough to stand on their own feet, they withdrew. But the memory of their deeds and a corrupt and degenerate form of the mysteries they established has ever lingered in the memory of myth and legend. Seers have caught obscure glimpses of what they taught and how they taught it, and the tradition of the Mysteries preserved some memory of it in its symbols and instruments or engines. The Iygges of the Magi are said to be a relic of this memory.
With regard to the Indian sages it is impossible to make out any consistent story from the fantastic jumble of the Damis-Philostratus romance. Damis seems to have confused together a mixture of memories and scraps of gossip without any attempt to distinguish one community or sect from another, and so produced a blurred daub which Philostratus would have us regard as a picture of the “hill” and a description of its “sages.” Damis’ confused memories, [He evidently wrote the notes of the Indian travels long after the time at which they were made.] however, have little to do with the actual monastery of its ascetic inhabitants, who were the goal of Apollonius’ long journey. What Apollonius heard and saw there, following his invariable custom in such circumstances, he told no one, not even Damis, except what could be derived from the following enigmatical sentence: “I saw men dwelling on the earth and yet not on it, defended on all sides, yet without any defence, and yet possessed of nothing but what all possess.” These words occur in two passages (iii 15 and vi II), and in both Philostratus adds that Apollonius wrote [This shows that Philostratus came across them in some work or letter of Apollonius, and is therefore independent of Damis account for this particular.] and spoke them enigmatically. The meaning of this saying is not difficult to divine. They were on the earth, but not of the earth, for their minds were set on things above. They were protected by their innate spiritual power, of which we have so many instances in Indian literature; and yet they possessed nothing but what all men possess if they would but develop the spiritual part of their being. But this explanation is not simple enough for Philostratus, and so he presses into service all the memories of Damis, or rather travellers’ tales, about levitation, magical illusions and the rest.
The head of the community is called Iarchas, a totally un-Indian name. The violence done to all foreign names by the Greeks is notorious, and here we have to reckon with an army of ignorant copyists as well as with Philostratus and Damis. I would suggest that the name may perhaps be a corruption of Arhat. [ I - Âryas, ar?a(t)s, arhat.]
The main burden of Damis’ narrative insists on the psychic and spiritual knowledge of the sages. They know what takes place at a distance, they can tell the past and future, and read the past births of men.
The messenger sent to meet Apollonius carried what Damis calls a golden anchor (iii II 17), and if this is an authentic fact, it would suggest a forerunner of the Tibetan dorje, the present degenerate symbol of the “rod of power,” something like the thunder-bolt wielded by Zeus. This would also point to a Buddhist community, though it must be confessed that other indications point equally strongly to Brâhmanical customs, such as the caste-mark on the forehead of the messenger (iii 7, II), the carrying of (bamboo) staves (danda), letting the hair grow long, and wearing of turbans (iii 13). But indeed the whole account is too confused to permit any hope of extracting historical details.
Of the nature of Apollonius’ visit we may, however, judge from the following mysterious letter to his hosts (iii 51):
“I came to you by land and ye have given me the sea; nay, rather, by sharing with me your wisdom ye have given me power to travel through heaven. These things will I bring back to the mind of the Greeks, and I will hold converse with you as though ye were present, if it be that I have not drunk of the cup of Tantalus in vain.”
It is evident from these cryptic sentences that the “sea” and the “cup of Tantalus” are identical with the “wisdom” which had been imparted to Apollonius - the wisdom which he was to bring back once more to the memory of the Greeks. He thus clearly states that he returned from India with a distinct mission and with the means to accomplish it, for not only had he drunk of the ocean of wisdom in that he has learnt the Brahma-vidyâ from their lips, but he has also learnt how to converse with them though his body be in Greece and their bodies in India.
But such a plain meaning - plain at least to every student of occult nature - was beyond the understanding of Damis or the comprehension of Philostratus. And it is doubtless the mention of the “cup of Tantalus” [Tantalus is fabled to have stolen the cup of nectar from the gods; this was the amrita, the ocean of immortality and wisdom, of the Indians.] in this letter which suggested the inexhaustible loving cup episode in iii 32, and its connection with the mythical fountains of Bacchus. Damis presses it into service to “explain” the last phrase in Apollonius’ saying about the sages, namely, that they were “possessed of nothing but what all possess" - which, however, appears elsewhere in a changed form, as “possessing nothing, they have the possessions of all men” (iii 15). [The words ??de? ?e?t?µe??? ? ta pa?t?? , which Philostratus quotes twice in this form, can certainly not be changed into µ?de? ?e?t?µe??? ta pa?t?? e?e?? without doing unwarrantable violence to their meaning.]
On returning to Greece, one of the first shrines Apollonius visited was that of Aphrodite at Paphos in Cyprus (iii 58). The greatest external peculiarity of the Paphian worship of Venus was the representation of the goddess by a mysterious stone symbol. It seems to have been of the size of a human being, but shaped like a pine-cone, only of course with a smooth surface. Paphos was apparently the oldest shrine dedicated to Venus in Greece. Its mysteries were very ancient, but not indigenous; they were brought over from the mainland, from what was subsequently Cilicia, in times of remote antiquity. The worship or consultation of the Goddess was by means of prayers and the “pure flame of fire,” and the temple was a great centre of divination. [See Tacitus, Historia, ii 3.]
Apollonius spent some time here and instructed the priests at length with regard to their sacred rites.
In Asia Minor he was especially pleased with the temple of Æsculapius at Pergamus; he healed many of the patients there, and gave instruction in the proper method to adopt in order to procure reliable results by means of the prescriptive dreams.
At Troy, we are told, Apollonius spent a night alone at the tomb of Achilles, in former days one of the spots of greatest popular sanctity in Greece (iv II). Why he did so does not transpire, for the fantastic conversation with the shade of the hero reported by Philostratus (iv 16) seems to be devoid of any element of likelihood. As, however, Apollonius made it his business to visit Thessaly shortly afterwards expressly to urge the Thessalians to renew the old accustomed rites to the hero (iv 13), we may suppose that it formed part of his great effort to restore and purify the old institution of Hellas, so that, the accustomed channels being freed, the life might flow more healthily in the national body.
Rumour would also have it that Achilles had told Apollonius where he would find the statue of the hero Palamedes on the coast of Æolia. Apollonius accordingly restored the statue, and Philostratus tells us he had seen it with his own eyes on the spot (iv 13).
Now this would be a matter of very little interest, were it not that a great deal is made of Palamedes elsewhere in Philostratus’ narrative. What it all means is difficult to say with a Damis and Philostratus as interpreters between ourselves and the silent and enigmatical Apollonius.
Palamedes was one of the heroes before Troy, who was fabled to have invented letters, or to have completed the alphabet of Cadmus. [Berwick, Life of Apollonius, p 200 n.]
Now from two obscure sayings (iv 13, 33), we glean that our philosopher looked upon Palamedes as the philosopher-hero of the Trojan period, although Homer says hardly a word about him.
Was this, then, the reasons why Apollonius was so anxious to restore his statue? Not altogether so; there appears to have been a more direct reason. Damis would have it that Apollonius had met Palamedes in India; that he was at the monastery; that Iarchas had one day pointed out a young ascetic who could “write without ever learning letters”; and that this youth had been no other than Palamedes in one of his former births. Doubtless the sceptic will say: “Of course! Pythagoras was a reincarnation of the hero Euphorbus who fought at Troy, according to popular superstition; therefore, naturally, the young Indian was the reincarnation of the hero Palamedes! The one legend simply begat the other.” But on this principle, to be consistent, we should expect to find that it was Apollonius himself and not an unknown Hindu ascetic, who had been once Palamedes.
In any case Apollonius restored the rites to Achilles, and erected a chapel in which he set up the neglected statue of Palamedes. [He also built a precinct round the tomb of Leonidas at Thermopylæ (iv 23). The heroes of the Trojan period, then, it would seem, had still some connection with Greece, according to the science of the invisible world into which Apollonius was initiated. And if the Protestant sceptic can make nothing of it, at least the Roman Catholic reader may be induced to suspend his judgment by changing “hero” into “saint.”
Can it be possible that the attention which Apollonius bestowed upon the graves and funeral monuments of the mighty dead of Greece may have been inspired by the circle of ideas which led to the erection of the innumerable dâgobas and stûpas in Buddhist lands, originally over the relics of the Buddha, and the subsequent preservation of relics of arhats and great teachers?
At Lesbos Apollonius visited the ancient temple of the Orphic mysteries, which in early years had been a great centre of prophecy and divination. Here also he was privileged to enter the inner shrine or adytum (iv 14).
The Tyanean arrived in Athens at the time of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and in spite of the festival and rites not only the people but also the candidates flocked to meet him to the neglect of their religious duties. Apollonius rebuked them, and himself joined in the necessary preliminary rites and presented himself for initiation.
It may, perhaps, surprise the reader to hear that Apollonius, who had already been initiated into higher privileges than Eleusis could afford, should present himself for initiation. But the reason is not far to seek; the Eleusinia constituted one of the intermediate organisations between the popular cults and the genuine inner circles of instruction. They preserved one of the traditions of the inner way, even if their officers for the time being had forgotten what their predecessors had once known. To restore these ancient rites to their purity, or to utilise them for their original object, it was necessary to enter within the precincts of the institution; nothing could be effected from outside. The thing itself was good, and Apollonius desired to support the ancient institution by setting the public example of seeking initiation therein; not that he had anything to gain personally.
But whether it was that the hierophant of that time was only ignorant, or whether he was jealous of the great influence of Apollonius, he refused to admit our philosopher, on the ground that he was a sorcerer (?s??), and that no one could be initiated who was tainted by intercourse with evil entities (da?µs??a). To this charge Apollonius replied with veiled irony: “You have omitted the most serious charge that might have been urged against me: to wit, that though I really know more about the mystic rite than its hierophant, I have come here pretending to desire initiation from men knowing more than myself.” This charge would have been true; he had made a pretence.
Dismayed at these words, frightened at the indignation of the people aroused by the insult offered to their distinguished guest, and overawed by the presence of a knowledge which he could no longer deny, the hierophant begged our philosopher to accept the initiation. But Apollonius refused. “I will be initiated later on, “ he replied; “he will initiate me.” This is said to have referred to the succeeding hierophant, who presided when Apollonius was initiated four years later (iv 18; v 19).
While at Athens Apollonius spoke strongly against the effeminacy of the Bacchanalia and the barbarities of the gladiatorial combats (iv 21, 22).
The temples, mentioned by Philostratus, which Apollonius visited in Greece, have all the peculiarity of being very ancient; for instance, Dodona, Dephi, the ancient shrine of Apollo at Abæ in Phocis, the “caves” of Amphiaraus [A great centre of divination by means of dreams (see ii 37).] and Trophonius, and the temple of the Muses on Helicon.
When he entered the adyta of these temples for the purpose of “restoring” the rites, he was accompanied only by the priests, and certain of his immediate disciples (?????µ??). This suggests an extension to the meaning of the word “restoring” or “reforming,” and when we read elsewhere of the many spots consecrated by Apollonius, we cannot but think that part of his work was the reconsecration, and hence psychic purification, of many of these ancient centres. His main external work, however, was the giving of instruction, and, as Philostratus rhetorically phrases it, “bowls of his words were set up everywhere for the thirsty to drink from” (iv 24).
But not only did our philosopher restore the ancient rites of religion, he also paid much attention to the ancient polities and instructions. Thus we find him urging with success the Spartans to return to their ancient mode of life, their athletic exercises, frugal living, and the discipline of the old Dorian tradition (iv 27, 31-34); he, moreover, specially praised the institution of the Olympic Games, the high standard of which was still maintained (iv 29), while he recalled the ancient Amphictionic Council to its duty (iv 23), and corrected the abuses of the Panionian assembly (iv 5).
In the spring of 66 A.D. he left Greece for Crete, where he seems to have bestowed most of his time on the sanctuaries of Mount Ida and the temple of Æsculapius at Lebene (“for as all Asia visits Pergamus so does all Crete visit Lebene”); but curiously enough he refused to visit the famous Labyrinth at Gnossus, the ruins of which have just been uncovered for a sceptical generation, most probably (if it is lawful to speculate) because it has once been a centre of human sacrifice, and thus pertained to one of the ancient cults of the left hand.
In Rome Apollonius continued his work of reforming the temples, and this with the full sanction of the Pontifex Maximus Telesinus, one of the consuls for the year 66 A.D., who was also a philosopher and a deep student of religion (iv 40). But his stay in the imperial city was speedily cut short, for in October Nero crowned his persecution of the philosophers by publishing a decree of banishment against them from Rome, and both Telesinus (vii II) and Apollonius had to leave Italy.
We next find him in Spain, making his headquarters in the temple of Hercules at Cadiz.
On his return to Greece by way of Africa and Sicily (where he spent some time and visited Ætna), he passed the winter (? of 67 A.D.) at Eleusis, living in the temple, and in the spring of the following year sailed for Alexandria, spending some time on the way at Rhodes. The city of philosophy and eclecticism par excellence received him with open arms as an old friend. But to reform the public cults of Egypt was a far more difficult task than any he had previously attempted. His presence in the temple (? the temple of Serapis) commanded universal respect, everything about him and every world he uttered seemed to breathe an atmosphere of wisdom and of “something divine.” The high priest of the temple looked on in proud disdain. “Who is wise enough,” he mockingly asked, “to reform the religion of the Egyptians?—only to be met with the confident retort of Apollonius: “Any sage who comes from the Indians.” Here as elsewhere Apollonius set his face against blood-sacrifice, and tried to substitute instead, as he had attempted elsewhere, the offering of frankincense modelled in the form of the victim (v 25). Many abuses he tried to reform in the manners of the Alexandrians, but upon none was he more severe than on their wild excitement over horse-racing, which frequently led to bloodshed (v 26).
Apollonius seems to have spent most of the remaining twenty years of his life in Egypt, but of what he did in the secret shrines of that land of mystery we can learn nothing from Philostratus, except that on the protracted journey to Ethiopia up the Nile no city or temple or community was unvisited, and everywhere there was an interchange of advice and instruction in sacred things (v 43).