Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persian wisdom: Lactantius and others on the Oracles of Hystaspes the Mede (third century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 22, 2023, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=13089.
Ancient authors: Pseudo-Hystaspes as cited by Justin Martyr, First Apology 20.1 and 44.12, and Lanctantius, Divine Institutes and Epitome of the Divine Institutes, various passages (link to Latin text of Epitome; link to Latin text of Divine Institutes; link to full translation).
Comments: When it comes to the mascots of Persian or Median wisdom (from a Greek or Roman perspective), there are three wise barbarians who stand out: Zoroaster and Ostanes, on the one hand (link), and Hystaspes, on the other. Sometimes these figures may be described by Greeks as “Persians” or “Medes” or “Baktrians” (or sometimes even “Babylonians”), since – from the west – eastern peoples were not easily distinguished. The more important thing was the exotic origin of ideologies or practices deemed authoritative and adaptable to re-application. The focus of this post is Hystaspes, a Greek transliteration of the Persian name Vishtaspa. Remember that the respect and appropriation of “barbarian” or foreign figures was an important part of ethnic relations in the ancient world. In other words, this tells us something about the posture of Greeks towards other peoples, in this case eastern peoples.
It seems that some time in the Hellenistic period, certain Greek-speaking intellectuals (or perhaps a single author) with familiarity with Zoroastrian traditions concerning Ahura Mazda’s righteous plans for the destruction of Angra Mainyu (the evil figure) and the creation of a wonderful world for righteous people wrote a set of oracles (under the pseudonym Hystaspes) that predicted the imminent end of the current regime – originally the Greco-Macedonian or Hellenistic regime was in mind. Scholars have called these the Oracles of Hystaspes. These oracles contain the sort of ideology that scholars have labelled “apocalypticism,” dealing with “revelations” concerning the imminent end-times. As you may or may not know, Judean and Christian apocalyptic ideologies owe much to Persian, Zoroastrian concepts. This is likely via the Judean presence further east during the Babylonian exile from the sixth century BCE and in subsequent centuries, where intercultural encounters could take place.
Since the Jesus movements were primarily apocalyptic movements with Jesus as the central end-time figure, certain Christian authors, like Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria (in the second century) and Lanctantius (in the third century) latched onto this Hystaspes literature (alongside writings attributed to a female Sibyl or prophetic figure). They did this in order to appropriate and update key concepts in the oracles in support of their own worldview, including insertion of the Roman empire (instead of a Hellenistic one) and of Jesus Christ (instead of a Zorastrian end-time figure or saoshyant). This is what you see before you in the passages below, in which Hellenized Zoroastrian (Persian) concepts of the final triumph of Ahura Mazda (good = Jupiter in Latin terms and Zeus in Greek terms) over Angra Mainyu (evil = leader of the demons in other terms) are seen as prophetic in relation to Christian re-interpretations. So this is a clear case in which Christians adopt and engage with a rich ethnographic repertoire of foreign wisdom.
Source of translation: T.B. Falls, Saint Justin Martyr, Fathers of the Church 6 (Washington, D.C: Catholic University of America Press, 1948), adapted by Harland; W. Fletcher, The Works of Lactantius, 2 volumes (Ante-Nicene Christian Library, 21-22; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1871), public domain, adapted and modernized by Harland.
(First Apology 20.1 = Bidez and Cumont F6) Indeed, the Sibyl and Hystaspes predicted that all perishable things are to be destroyed by fire.
(First Apology 44.12 = Bidez and Cumont F7; cf. Clement of Alexandria, Tapestries 43.1) But at the instigation of the wicked lower spirits (daimones; or: demons), the punishment of death has been decreed against those who read the books of Hystaspes, or the Sibyl, or the prophets, in order that the lower spirits may, through fear, stop potential readers from acquiring a knowledge of good things, and keep them as their own slaves. The lower spirits were not completely successful, because not only do we read those books without fear. Instead, as you see, we offer them to you [ostensibly the Roman emperor] to inspect, confident that their contents will please everyone. Even if we persuade only a few, we will obtain very great rewards because, like good workers, we will be rewarded by the master.
(Epitome of the Divine Institutes 73 = Bidez and Cumont F11) Therefore, since all these things are true and certain, in harmony with the predicted announcement of the prophets, since [Hermes] Trismegistos, Hystaspes, and the Sibyls have foretold the same things, it cannot be doubted that all hope of life and salvation is placed in duty (religio) to God alone.
(Divine Institutes 7.15.14-19 = Bidez and Cumont F13) But if these things [about the decline of the Roman power] are the case, what remains except for death to follow old age? The predictions of the prophets briefly announce that this will happen, but they do so under the cover of other names so that no one can easily understand them. Nevertheless, the Sibyls openly say that Rome is doomed to perish and that, in fact, this is by the judgment of God because Rome hated God’s name. Being the enemy of righteousness, Rome destroyed the people who kept the truth. Furthermore, Hystaspes [i.e. Vishtaspa], who was a very ancient king of the Medes and had the river called “Hydaspes” named after him, recorded for posterity a wonderful dream interpreted by a boy who uttered divinations. Long before the founding of the Trojan people, he announced that the Roman empire and name would be taken away from the world [in the original Oracles of Hystaspes, the Macedonian or Hellenistic empire is most likely the target].
(Version 1: Divine Institutes 7.16.4-14 = Bidez and Cumont F14a) Ultimately, after the name is changed and the seat of government is transferred, confusion and disturbance will follow for humankind. Then, in truth, a detestable and abominable time will come, in which life will be pleasant for none of humanity. Cities will be utterly destroyed and will perish. They were be destroyed not only by fire and the sword, but also by continual earthquakes, floods, frequent diseases, and repeated famines. For the atmosphere will be tainted and become corrupt and pestilential. At one point this will happen by unseasonable rains, at another by barren drought, now by cold and now by excessive heat. Nor will the earth provide its fruit for humanity: no field, tree, or vine will produce anything. Instead, after they have given the greatest hope in the blossom, they will fail to produce fruit. Fountains also will be dried up, together with the rivers so that there will not be any drinking water. Waters will be changed into blood or become bitter. As a result of these things, beasts will die on the land, birds in the air, and fish in the sea. Amazing omens in heaven will also confound peoples’ minds with the greatest terrors, trains of comets, a darkened sun, a moon that changes colour, and plummeting stars. Nor, however, will these things take place in the usual manner. Instead, suddenly unknown and unseen stars will appear. The sun will be perpetually darkened, so that there will be scarcely any distinction between night and day. The moon will now fail, not for three hours only. Continually covered with blood, the moon will go through extraordinary movements so that it will not be easy for people to ascertain the courses of the heavenly bodies or the system of the times. For there will either be summer in the winter, or winter in the summer. Then the year will be shortened, and the month diminished, and the day contracted into a short time. Stars will fall in great numbers, so that all the heaven will appear dark without any lights. The loftiest mountains also will fall, and be levelled with the plains. The sea will not be navigable. . . [omitted saying attributed to the Sibyl with a sentence comment]. Then, through the anger of God against unrighteous men, the sword and fire and famine and disease will dominate. Overall, panic will loom. Then they will call upon God, but he will not hear them. Death will be desired, but it will not come. Not even night will provide rest to their fear, nor will sleep approach to their eyes, but anxiety and watchfulness will consume people’s souls. They will deplore and lament, and gnash their teeth. They will congratulate the dead and mourn the living. . . [omitted saying attributed to the Sibyl]. For the human race will be finished off so that scarcely one-tenth of humanity will remain and hardly one hundred will go out where one thousand had previously. Two thirds of the worshippers of God will also die and one third, which will have been proved worthy, will remain.
(Version 2: Epitome 71 = Bidez and Cumont F14b) The prophets – but as seers – said that these things are about to happen. . . Then there will be a dreadful and detestable time, in which no one would choose to live. To put it briefly, conditions will be such that the living will lament and congratulate the dead. Cities and towns will be destroyed, at one time by fire and the sword, at another by repeated earthquakes. Now by floods, now by pestilence and famine. The earth will produce nothing, being barren either through excessive cold or heat. All water will be partly changed into blood, partly contaminated by bitterness, so that none of it can be useful for food or good for drinking. To these evils will also be added omens from heaven so that there will be no shortage of things that cause fear to people. Comets will frequently appear. The sun will be overshadowed with perpetual paleness. The moon will be stained with blood, nor will it recover its light that was taken away. All the stars will fall, nor will the seasons preserve their regularity, winter and summer being confused. Then the year, month, and day will be shortened. . . [omitted material from Hermes Trismegistos and others].
(Version 1: Divine Institutes, portions of 17-19 = Bidez and Cumont F15a) (17) . . . That will be the time when righteousness will be cast out and innocence be hated, a time when the wicked will prey upon the good as enemies. Neither law, nor order, nor military discipline will be preserved. No one will reverence those with grey hair, nor recognize the duty of piety, nor pity women or infants. Everything will be confounded and mixed together against right, and against the laws of nature. Thus the earth will be destroyed, as though by one common robbery. When these things happen, the righteous and the followers of truth will separate themselves from the wicked, and escape into isolation.
And when he hears of this, the impious king, inflamed with anger, will come with a great army. Bringing up all his forces, he will surround all the mountain in which the righteous will be situated so that he may capture them. But when they realize they are closed in on all sides and besieged, they will call upon God with a loud voice and call on the help of heaven. God will hear them, and send from heaven a great king to rescue and free them, and destroy all the wicked with fire and sword.
(18) All the prophets who are inspired by God and also the diviners who are instigated by demons have announced that these things will take place in this way. After describing the wrong-doing of these last times, Hystaspes (whom I have named above) says that the pious and faithful, being separated from the wicked, will stretch out their hands to heaven with weeping and mourning, and will implore the protection of Jupiter [= Zeus = Ahura Mazda]: that Jupiter will look to the earth, and hear the voices of men, and will destroy the wicked. All of these things are true except one: he wrongly attributed to Jupiter those things which God will do. However, what was also removed from the account – not without fraud on the part of the demons – was that the Son of God would then be sent, who, having destroyed all the wicked, would set free the pious. . . [omitted discussions of passages attributed to Hermes and to the Sibyl].
(19) There will suddenly fall from heaven a sword, that the righteous may know that the leader of the sacred warfare is about to descend. The leader will descend with a company of angels to the middle of the earth, and there will go before the leader an unquenchable fire, and the power of the angels will deliver into the hands of the just that multitude which has surrounded the mountain. They will be slain from the third hour until the evening, and blood will flow like a torrent. All his forces being destroyed, the wicked one will alone escape, and his power will perish from him. Now this is the one called “Antichrist” [i.e. the force opposed to the god, perhaps Angra Mainyu in a Persian context; modifications here by Lactantius]; but he will falsely call himself Christ, and will fight against the truth. Being overcome, he will flee. He will often renew the war and often be conquered. Then during the fourth battle, all the wicked will be killed, subdued, or captured. He [the ultimate opponent of the god] will finally pay the penalty of his crimes. But other princes also and tyrants who have harassed the world will – together with him – be led in chains to the king. The king will rebuke, reprove, and upbraid them for their crimes, condemn them, and consign them to deserved tortures. Thus, wickedness being extinguished and impiety suppressed, the world will be at rest. Having been subjected to error and wickedness for so many ages, the world endured dreadful slavery. No longer will gods made by the hands be worshipped. Rather, the images being thrown out from their temples and dining rooms will be thrown into the fire and burned, together with their wonderful offerings . . . [omitted saying attributed to the Sibyl].
(Version 2: Epitome 72 = Bidez and Cumont F15b and 17b-c) Then the heaven will be opened in a tempest. Christ will descend with great power, and there will go before him a fiery brightness and a countless angels. The entire multitude of the wicked will be destroyed, and torrents of blood will flow. The leader himself will escape, and having often renewed his army, will for the fourth time engage in battle, in which, being taken with all the other tyrants, he will be delivered up to be burned. But the prince also of the demons himself [i.e. Angra Mainyu in a Persian context], the author and contriver of evils, being bound with fiery chains, will be imprisoned, that the world may receive peace, and the earth, harassed through so many years, may rest. Therefore peace being made, and every evil suppressed, that righteous king and conqueror will institute a great judgment on the earth respecting the living and the dead. He will bring all the peoples into subjection to the righteous who are alive, and will raise the righteous dead to eternal life. He himself will reign with them on the earth and will build the holy city, and this kingdom of the righteous will be for a thousand years.
Throughout that time the stars will be more brilliant, and the brightness of the sun will be increased, and the moon will not be subject to decrease. Then the rain of blessing will descend from God at morning and evening, and the earth will bring forth all her fruit without the labour of men. Honey will drip from rocks, fountains of milk, and wine will be plentiful. The beasts will lay aside their ferocity and become mild, the wolf will roam among the flocks without doing harm, the calf will feed with the lion, the dove will be united with the hawk, the serpent will have no poison. No animal will live by bloodshed. For God will supply to all abundant and harmless food. But when the thousand years will be fulfilled, and the prince of the demons loosed, the peoples will rebel against the righteous, and an innumerable multitude will come to storm the city of the holy ones. Then the last judgment of God will come to pass against the peoples. For he will shake the earth from its foundations, and the cities will be overthrown. He will rain upon the wicked fire with brimstone and hail, and they will be on fire and slay each other. But the righteous will for a short time be concealed under the earth, until the destruction of the peoples is accomplished, and after the third day they will come forth, and see the plains covered with carcasses. Then there will be an earthquake, and the mountains will be rent, and valleys will sink down to a profound depth, and into this the bodies of the dead will be heaped together, and its name will be called Polyandrion.
After these things God will renew the world, and transform the righteous into the forms of angels so that, being presented with the garment of immortality, they may serve God for ever. This will be the kingdom of God, which will have no end. Then also the wicked will rise again, not to life but to punishment. For God will raise these also, when the second resurrection takes place, that, being condemned to eternal torments and delivered to eternal fires, they may suffer the punishments which they deserve for their crimes.