Apollonius of Tyana
The Philosopher Explorer
Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia
The Gymnosophists of Upper Egypt
Had Philostratus devoted a chapter or two to the nature of the practices, discipline, and doctrines of the innumerable ascetic and mystic communities that honeycombed Egypt and adjacent lands in those days, he would have earned the boundless gratitude of students of the origins. But of all this he has no word; and yet he would have us believe that Damis’ reminiscences were an orderly series of notes of what actually happened. But in all things it is very apparent that Damis was rather a compagnon de voyage than an initiated pupil.
Who then were these mysterious “Gymnosophists,” as they are usually called, and whence their name? Damis calls them simply the “Naked” (??µ???), and it is very clear that the term is not to be understood as merely physically naked; indeed, neither to the Indians nor to these ascetics of uppermost Egypt can the term be applied with appropriateness in its purely physical meaning, as is apparent from the descriptions of Damis and Philostratus. A chance sentence that falls from the lips of one of these ascetics, in giving the story of his life, affords us a clue to the real meaning of the term. “At the age of fourteen,” he tells Apollonius, “I resigned my patrimony to those who desired such things, and naked I sought the Naked” (vi 16). [The word ??µ??? (naked), however, usually means lightly clad, as, for instance, when a man is said to plough “naked,” that is with only one garment, and this is evident from the comparison made between the costume of the Gymnosophists and that of people in the hot weather at Athens (vi 6).
This is the very same diction that Philo uses about the Therapeut communities, which he declares were very numerous in every province of Egypt and scattered in all lands. We are not, however, to suppose that these communities were all of the same nature. It is true that Philo tries to make out that the most pious and the chief of all of them was his particular community on the southern shore of Lake Mśris, which was strongly Semitic if not orthodoxly Jewish; and for Philo any community with a Jewish atmosphere must naturally have been the best. The peculiarity and main interest of our community, which was at the other end of the land above the cataracts, was that it had had some remote connection with India.
The community is called a f???t?st????? , in the sense of a place for meditation, a term used by ecclesiastical writers for a monastery, but best known to classical students from the humorous use made of it by Aristophanes, who in The Clouds calls the school of Socrates, a phrontistęrion or “thinking shop.” The collection of monasteria (?e?a), presumably caves, shrines, or cells, [For they had neither huts nor houses, but lived in the open air.] was situated on a hill or rising ground not far from the Nile. They were all separated from one another, dotted about the hill, and ingeniously arranged. There was hardly a tree in the place, with the exception of a single group of palms, under whose shade they held their general meetings (vi 6).
It is difficult to gather from the set speeches, put into the mouths of the head of the community and Apollonius (vi 10-13, 18-22), any precise details as to the mode of life of these ascetics, beyond the general indications of an existence of great toil and physical hardship, which they considered the only means of gaining wisdom. What the nature of their cult was, if they had one, we are not told, except that at midday the Naked retired to their monasteria (vi 14).
The whole tendency of Apollonius’ arguments, however, is to remind the community of its Eastern origin and its former connection with India, which it seems to have forgotten. The communities of this particular kind in southern Egypt and northern Ethiopia dated back presumably some centuries, and some of them may have been remotely Buddhist, for one of the younger members of our community who left it to follow Apollonius, says that he came to join it from the enthusiastic account of the wisdom of the Indians brought back by his father, who has been certain of a vessel trading to the East. It was his father who told him that these “Ethiopians” were from India, and so he had joined them instead of making the long and perilous journey to the Indus itself (vi 16).
If there be any truth in this story it follows that the founders of this way of life had been Indian ascetics, and if so they must have belonged to the only propagandising form of Indian religion, namely, the Buddhist.
After the impulse had been given, the communities, which were presumably recruited from generations of Egyptians, Arabs, and Ethiopians, were probably left entirely to themselves, and so in course of time forgot their origin, and even perhaps their original rule. Such speculations are permissible, owing to the repeated assertion of the original connection between these Gymnosophists and India. The whole burden of the story is that they were Indians who had forgotten their origin and fallen away from the wisdom.
The last incident that Philostratus records with regard to Apollonius among the shrines and temples is a visit to the famous and very ancient oracle of Trophonius, near Lebadea, in Bśotia. Apollonius is said to have spent seven days alone in this mysterious “cave,” and to have returned with a book full of questions and answers on the subject of “philosophy” (viii 19). This book was still, in the time of Philostratus, in the palace of Hadrian at Antium, together with a number of letters of Apollonius, and many people used to visit Antium for the special purpose of seeing it (viii 19, 29).
In the hay-bundle of legendary rigmarole solemnly set down by Philostratus concerning the cave of Trophonius, a small needle of truth may perhaps be discovered. The “cave” seems to have been a very ancient temple or shrine, cut in the heart of a hill, to which a number of underground passages of considerable length led. It had probably been in ancient times one of the most holy centres of the archaic cult of Hellas, perhaps even a relic of that Greece of thousands of years B.C., the only tradition of which, as Plato tell us, was obtained by Solon from the priests of Saďs. Or it may have been a subterranean shrine of the same nature as the famous Dictćan cave in Crete which only last year (1901 or so) was brought back to light by the indefatigable labours of Messrs, Evans and Hogarth.
As in the case of the travels of Apollonious, so with regard to the temples and communities which he visited, Philostratus is a most disappointing cicerone. But perhaps he is not to be blamed on this account, for the most important and most interesting part of Apollonius’ work was of so intimate a nature, prosecuted as it was among associations of such jealously-guarded secrecy, that no one outside their ranks could know anything of it, and those who shared in their initiation would say nothing.
It is, therefore, only when Apollonius comes forward to do some public act that we can get any precise historical trace of him; in every other case he passes into the sanctuary of a temple or enters the privacy of a community and is lost to view.
It may perhaps surprise us that Apollonius after sacrificing his private fortune, could nevertheless undertake such long and expensive travels, but it would seem that he was occasionally supplied with the necessary monies from the treasuries of the temples (cf viii 17), and that everywhere he was freely offered the hospitality of the temple or community in the place where he happened to be staying.
In conclusion of the present part of our subject, we may mention the good service done by Apollonius in driving away certain Chaldćan and Egyptian charlatans who were making capital out of the fears of the cities on the left shores of the Hellespont. These cities had suffered severely from shocks of earthquake, and in their panic placed large sums of money in the hands of these adventurers (who “trafficked in the misfortune of others”), in order that they perform propitiatory rites (vi 41). This taking money for the giving instruction in the sacred science or for the performance of sacred rites was the most detestable of crimes to all the true philosophers.