Category Archives: Ancient ethnography and paradoxography

New research project on Ethnicity, Diaspora, and Ethnographic Culture in the Greco-Roman World

With word that I and my collaborator Maia Kotrosits have received an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (2019-2024), much of my research, teaching, and online efforts will be heading in a somewhat new direction.  (Don’t worry, I won’t forget that associations exist.)  Minorities and immigrants have of course occupied me significantly before, but this will be a new concentration that we hope will help to reshape our understanding of ancient Mediterranean societies.  Maia’s expertise in diaspora, postcolonial and race theory (among many other things) combined with her detailed knowledge of the ancient world will be indispensible for this project.

The title of this ongoing project is: Ethnicity, Diaspora, and Ethnographic Culture in the Greco-Roman World.  It’s aim is to take a new approach to making sense of ethnic interactions, stereotypes, and hierarchies in the ancient Mediterranean, and the research will encompass peoples devoted to the Israelite or Judean god (including Jesus adherents) but without privileging them.  Scythians, Phoenicians, Babylonians, Phrygians, Egyptians and other peoples will also be central.

Online, I also plan to renew attention to this blog and likely a new series of podcast episodes with the study of minorities and subject peoples in antiquity at the centre.  You will notice that the title of my website has changed to reflect this new direction.  I have also retitled my podcast in anticipation of future episodes: Ethnic Relations and Cultural Life in the Ancient Mediterranean Podcast.

More coming soon!

Human sacrifice and cannibalism again — oh, and sexual perversion too

I am in the midst of writing a book on Dynamics of Identity and Early Christianity (for Continuum) which tries to shed some new light on the question by looking to associations, cultural minorities, and ethnic groups in the world of the early Christians.  “Identity” has to do with the way in which individuals and groups answer the questions “who am I” or ‘who are we in relation to others?”  Social scientists emphasize that there are two main processes in identity-construction and re-negotiation: internal self-definitions and external categorizations.  External categorizations involve outsiders’ perspectives on who a group is and stereotypes about that group, and they can play a role in how members of the evaluated group re-negotiate and express their own identities internally.

In previous posts (click here), I have noted a common set of ethnographic stereotypes that were used to categorize other peoples or groups as “barbarous” and dangerous to society, particularly cultural minority groups or ethnic groups.  The early Christians, for instance, were charged with Thyestan feasts (cannibalism) and Oedipean unions (incest), and similar charges went back and forth between social and ethnic groups in antiquity.  Judeans, too, were stereotyped and charged with the same sort of activities when a particular Greek or Roman author disliked them.

Yet, as I said, the charges go both ways.  A good example of this is offered by a passage in the Wisdom of Solomon (first century BCE or CE — in the so called Apocrypha of the Bible) which characterized ‘pagans’ as dangerous and barbarous.  This author describes the ‘detestable’ activities of those who inhabited the ‘holy land’ before the arrival of the Israelites. This gives this Hellenistic Judean author opportunity to critique contemporary associations or ‘societies’ of ‘initiates’ outside of the Judean sphere in the process, calling on the same sort of stereotypes we have seen in Greek or Roman slander against Judeans. God ‘hated them for practicing the most detestable things – deeds of sorcery and unholy rites (τελετὰς ἀνοσίους), merciless slaughters of children, sacrificial feasting on human flesh and blood – those “initiates” from the midst of a “society” (ἐκ μέσου μύστας θιάσου) and parents who murder helpless lives, you willed to destroy. . .‘ (Wis 12:4-5; cf. Wis 14:15-23 [NETS]).

At the same time, personified Wisdom herself is an ‘initiate’ of another, superior kind, an ‘initiate (μύστις) in the knowledge of God’ (Wis 8:4). Elsewhere the author critiques the ‘idolatry’ of Greeks generally, the ‘impious ones’ (άσεβοῦς) who do not know such ‘divine mysteries’ (2:22) and who instead establish their own inferior ‘mysteries and rites’ (μυστήρια καὶ τελετάς; 14:15): ‘For whether performing ritual murders of children or secret mysteries or frenzied revels connected with strange laws, they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either kill one another by treachery or grieve one another by adultery’ (Wis. 14:23-24). Once again, ritual murder and sexual perversion converge in this characterization of the associations of another ethnic group.

The process of defining the ‘other’ as dangerous barbarians who will kill and eat you if they can is in fact the process of defining one’s own group as well.  This is the boundary-constructing process of distinguishing ‘us’ from ‘them’, and virtually all groups in antiquity engaged in such modes of external categorizations and self-definition that are at the heart of identity.

(Sure this post is somewhat long, but at least I’m trying — I’ve lost the knack for short and sweet, it seems, if I ever had it).

The “savage” Marcion: Ethnographic stereotypes in attacking “heretics”

On a number of occasions I have discussed ancient ethnography (posts here), namely the ways in which ancient authors describe the practices and beliefs of other peoples. These descriptions of “foreign” peoples are often heavily laden with stereotypes and, to put it bluntly, nasty characterizations. As minority cultural groups, Judeans and followers of Jesus could be on the receiving end of such ethnographic stereotypes of “barbarous” peoples, as when some Greeks or Romans charged Christians with incest and cannibalism (see a full article on the topic here). I have discussed Tertullian’s defence of Christians against such stereotypes, including the notion that followers of Jesus regularly sacrificed little children: ‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby’: Tertullian’s not-so-subtle retort.

But this church father, Tertullian, could also dish it out quite well, even in dealing with others who claimed to follow Jesus. Around the turn of the third century, Tertullian wrote a five-volume work (Against Marcion) in which he put on trial, so to speak, the views and practices of Marcion, a follower of Jesus who had substantially different views from Tertullian’s. Tertullian opens this massive work with a somewhat extensive ethnographic description of the peoples of the Euxine Sea (Black Sea) and Pontus region — this is where Marcion came from. Here Tertullian characterizes these people as barbarians with extremely strange practices, including “deviant” sexual practices he dare not name (“If the wagon’s a-rockin’, don’t come a-knockin'”) and “savage” practices such as carving up their own fathers for a stew. These stereotypical accusations of barbarity are neither here nor there in terms of realities of life around the Black Sea or in terms of what Marcion was like, but it is interesting to see such name-calling techniques used in one Christian’s attack on another. Marcion, it turns out in Tertullian’s not so subtle characterizations of everyone from Pontus, is, no doubt, a savage, father-eating sexually-deviant barbarian. Don’t listen to Marcion’s form of Christianity is the message:

The sea called Euxine, or hospitable, is belied by its nature and put to ridicule by its name. Even its situation would prevent you from reckoning Pontus hospitable: as though ashamed of its own barbarism it has set itself at a distance from our more civilized waters. Strange tribes inhabit it—if indeed living in a wagon can be called inhabiting. These have no certain dwelling-place: their life is uncouth: their sexual activity is promiscuous, and for the most part unhidden even when they hide it: they advertise it by hanging a quiver on the yoke of the wagon, so that none may inadvertently break in [blogger’s note: “If the wagon’s a-rockin’, don’t come a-knockin'”]. So little respect have they for their weapons of war. They carve up their fathers’ corpses along with mutton, to gulp down at banquets. If any die in a condition not good for eating, their death is a disgrace. Women also have lost the gentleness, along with the modesty, of their sex. They display their breasts, they do their house-work with battle-axes, they prefer fighting to matrimonial duty. There is sternness also in the climate—never broad daylight, the sun always niggardly, the only air they have is fog, the whole year is winter, every wind that blows is the north wind. Water becomes water only by heating: rivers are no rivers, only ice: mountains are piled high up with snow: all is torpid, everything stark. Savagery is there the only thing warm—such savagery as has provided the theatre with tales of Tauric sacrifices, Colchian love-affairs, and Caucasian crucifixions.

Even so, the most barbarous and melancholy thing about Pontus is that Marcion was born there, more uncouth than a Scythian, more unsettled than a Wagon-dweller, more uncivilized than a Massagete, with more effrontery than an Amazon, darker than fog, colder than winter, more brittle than ice, more treacherous than the Danube, more precipitous than Caucasus. Evidently so, when by him the true Prometheus, God Almighty, is torn to bits with blasphemies. More ill-conducted also is Marcion than the wild beasts of that barbarous land: for is any beaver more self-castrating than this man who has abolished marriage? What Pontic mouse is more corrosive than the man who has gnawed away the Gospels? Truly the Euxine has given birth to a wild animal more acceptable to philosophers than to Christians (trans. by Ernest Evans, Tertullian: Adversus Marcionem [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972], pp. 4-5).

Oh yes, Tertullian doesn’t like philosophers either.

“The head . . . proclaimed these verses”: Another (ancient) ghoulish story for halloween

Last Hallow’s eve I related an ancient ghost story from Phlegon’s Book of Marvels: A ghost story (from Phlegon): Bouplagos stood up from among the dead (Bou!). Now it’s time for another scary one. (For other “marvels” related by Phlegon also see my posts here and here.)

Once again in relation to battles between Rome and the Hellenistic (Greek) kings, Phlegon relates an ominous story of fateful predictions regarding Rome’s armies. Receiving warning messages from the gods themselves, Publius, a general in the Roman army, “began to rave and behave in a deranged manner, making many utterances in a state of divine possession, of which some were in verse and some in prose” (Book of Marvels 3.8). In essence, again and again these messages are that Rome better watch out! The Greeks, with the assistance of their gods, will make the Romans suffer for their incursions into Greek territories.

These inauspicious warnings to the Romans from one of their own (but really from the Greek gods) culminate in Publius climbing an oak tree and uttering the following: “Romans and other soldiers, it falls to me to die and be devoured by a huge red wolf on this very day. . . take the imminent appearance of the beast and my own destruction as proof that I have spoken by divine intimation”(3.13).

No sooner had he uttered this (apparent) final prophecy before the wolf showed up, “ripped him open and devoured him while everyone looked on. . . [The wolf] consumed his body except for his head”. His head survived for good reason, for there was one more divine message in verse to come from the bodiless head:

“Touch not my head. . . But stop
And listen to the prophecy by means of which I shall declare the truth to you.
To this land there will come a great and powerful Ares [Greek god of war],
Who will dispatch the armed folk to Hades [Greek god of the dead] in the darkness below and
Shatter the stone towers and the long walls.
Seizing our wealth, our infant children, and our wives
He will bring them to Asia, crossing over the waves.
These sure truths Phoibos Apollo [Greek god of oracles] has spoken to you,
The Pythian [Apollo], who sent his powerful servant and
Led me to the abode of the blessed and of Persephone [wife of Hades].”

Time to smarten up and listen to the Greek gods, you Romans! It’s not everyday that a decapitated head talks like this, you know.   (Translations are from W. Hansen, Phlegon of Tralles’ Book of Marvels [Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996]).


The Gospel of Judas and ethnographic stereotypes: The priests “sacrifice their own children”

In ‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby’ I discussed the ways in which ethnographic stereotypes concerning the dangers of foreign ways and peoples also came to be applied by outsiders to Christians as minority cultural groups in the ancient Mediterranean. Some Greek or Roman authors who described the cultural practices of others, including those of both Judeans (Jews) and Jesus-followers, did so in a way that emphasized the “inhuman” or “sub-human” activity of apparent foreigners who were either little known and/or disliked. And there was a common stockpile of accusations that were used in stereotyping “the other” including human sacrifice, cannibalism, and “improper” sexual practices. One reader of that post (Nathan) astutely asked:

“In regards to the allegations of infanticide and cannibalism [in the case of Christians] might the gospel of Judas also allude to such allegations, when it characterizes certain of the proto-Orthodox as ‘slayers of children’ (sec. 40; cf. 38)”

In Judas Iscariot as the “good guy”?, I have discussed other aspects of the Gospel of Judas (for online translations and discussions go here and here). The passage in the Gospel of Judas which Nathan has in mind runs as follows:

The twelve disciples ‘[said, “We have seen] a great [house with a large] altar [in it, and] twelve men—they are the priests, we would say—and a name; and a crowd of people is waiting at that altar, [until] the priests [… and receive] the offerings. [But] we kept waiting.”

[Jesus said], “What are [the priests] like?” They [said, “Some …] two weeks; [some] sacrifice their own children, others their wives, in praise [and] humility with each other; some sleep with men; some are involved in [slaughter]; some commit a multitude of sins and deeds of lawlessness. And the men who stand [before] the altar invoke your [name], [39] and in all the deeds of their deficiency, the sacrifices are brought to completion […].”

After they said this, they were quiet, for they were troubled.

Jesus said to them, “Why are you troubled? Truly I say to you, all the priests who stand before that altar invoke my name. Again I say to you, my name has been written on this […] of the generations of the stars through the human generations. [And they] have planted trees without fruit, in my name, in a shameful manner.”’

(Gospel of Judas 38-39. Translation by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, in collaboration with François Gaudard, cited from the online version on the National Geographic website).

Troubling indeed. Here we are witnessing the use of ethnographic stereotypes (slaughter of children, “improper” homosexual activity, etc.) in order to demonize, or to characterize as “other”, those who consider themselves to be part of the same cultural group, namely followers of Jesus. Notice especially that “all the priests who stand before that altar invoke my (namely, Jesus’s) name.”

Here the author of the Gospel of Judas has Jesus taking sides in the internal debates within Christianity. Jesus, claims the author, is on the side of the author and his group of Jesus-followers and not on the side of others who claim to follow Jesus. This is an internal battle within Christianity itself here.

There is irony in the way that the Gospel of Judas does this, however. For Jesus is here presented as speaking to the “twelve disciples” and the vision of “twelve priests” slaughtering children and generally running amuck that these disciples witness is, it seems, a vision of themselves! They, the twelve disciples of Jesus, are the ones that behave in a shameful manner, and it is the twelve that represent other followers of Jesus with whom the author of the Gospel of Judas has major disagreements. In this writing, Judas is taken as the ideal disciple and follower of Jesus who is set apart from the other shameful twelve disciples. Judas, as I have discussed in my previous post on the subject, is the favourite of Jesus in this writing.

It seems that many combatants in these internal battles within Christianity used similar ammunition, namely the stereotypes which were common in some descriptions of foreign peoples, in ethnographic descriptions. Previously we had known quite a bit about Christian authors like Epiphanius who condemned certain Christian “gnostic” groups and accused them of engaging in heinous crimes of human sacrifice and sexual perversion. Now we have a clear case in which one particular “gnostic” author or group turned the tables.

‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby’: Tertullian’s not-so-subtle retort

On previous occasions I have discussed some common ethnic stereotypes that were at work when a given Greek or Roman author described the worldviews and practices of other peoples, and sometimes these views were reflected in novels as well (go here or here, for instance). Sometimes peoples outside of one’s own cultural group were viewed as inferior, barbarous, and dangerous. In particular, a common accusation against minority cultural groups was the claim that such “dangerous” people engaged in human sacrifice followed by a cannibalistic meal.

Judeans (Jews) and Christians were among the minority cultural groups accused of such fiendish activity. Thus, for instance, the Roman historian Dio Cassius (writing in the early third century) describes the revolt of Judeans in Cyrene, who were “destroying both the Romans and the Greeks”: he claims that “they would eat the flesh of their victims, make belts for themselves of their entrails, anoint themselves with their blood and wear their skins for clothing” (Roman History, 68.32.1-2 [Loeb translation]).

There were times when Christians, too, were on the receiving end of such ethnographic stereotypes which tried to underline just how dangerous certain peoples were. Minucius Felix‘s second century dialogue presents the view of a critic who claimed that the Christians’ rituals involved the following:

An infant, cased in dough to deceive the unsuspecting, is placed beside the person to be initiated. The novice is thereupon induced to inflict what seems to be harmless blows upon the dough, and unintentionally the infant is killed by his unsuspecting blows; the blood – oh, horrible – they lap up greedily; the limbs they tear to pieces eagerly; and over the victim they make league and covenant, and by complicity in guilt pledge themselves to mutual silence (Octavius 9.5-6 [Loeb translation]).

Tertullian, a second century Christian author from North Africa, responded to similar rumours regarding human sacrifice and cannibalism among Jesus-followers with some sarcasm:

‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby, nobody’s enemy, guilty of nothing, everybody’s child. . . catch the infant blood; steep your bread with it; eat and enjoy it’ (Apology 8.2 [Loeb translation]).

Tertullian tries to defend the reputation of Christians by drawing attention to how ludicrous he thought such accusations were and by striking to the heart of the reasons for such accusations. He gets at the “rationale” behind the accusations, so to speak. Namely, if one feels that some other group of people are dangerous or threatening, what better way to encapsulate that danger than in depicting the minority cultural group as murderers of “nobody’s enemy” and “everybody’s child”. If they’ll do this to an innocent child, goes the thinking, then imagine how dangerous they are to the rest of us as well. The notion of eating the human body, a child no less, is symbolic of destroying humanity or human society itself.

Similar patterns of demonizing “the other” have been at work throughout western cultural history.

Satanic conspiracies of the 1970s and 1980s (Satan 12)

There was a general decline of Satan in the wake of the eighteenth century Enlightenment and modernism (a decline in him being perceived as a real and imminent danger, that is). Nonetheless, he still remained alive and well within certain types of Christianity, particularly within the more conservative forms which do account for a large percentage of modern Christianity. Certainly not all of these conservative Christians subscribed to conspiratorial theories regarding Satan’s dastardly plans to undermine God’s activity. Yet there were — from the 1970s-1990s — a number of somewhat widespread notions of Satan’s evil machinations that are best described as conspiracy theories, two of which I will touch on here.

On the one hand were the very frightening claims of “Satanic ritual abuse”. There was a variety of contextual factors that fed the development of this particular conspiracy theory including the following:

1) There were general fears within some Christian circles regarding the many New Religious Movements (NRMs) — “cults” from this perspective — which were perceived as deceiving and brainwashing their potential members into joining. One of the results was a somewhat organized anti-cult movement, including groups such as the International Cultic Studies Association (a newer organization that follows in the footsteps of earlier groups), that produced substantial amounts of literature. The Church of Satan, or the unintentional worship of Satan via other “cults” generally, could naturally be subsumed within this framework.

2) Added to this was the actual existence and public visibility of an actual Church of Satan (founded by Magus Anton Szandor LaVey in about 1966 but especially visible in the 1970s) , which claimed to be the continuation of the worldwide worship of Satan that had been going on since ancient times.

3) Within certain circles of Christian social workers or therapists who held the view that there was a Satanic conspiracy, certain methods developed (namely suggestive interrogation) which resulted in a high number of cases where children and adults reported or confessed to involvement in Satanic rituals, often as victims. In some cases, the results of such approaches regarding stories of Satanic abuse were published in popularizing books, including Lawrence Pazder’s Michelle Remembers of 1980.

In essence, this conspiracy theory entailed a worldwide, secretive network of Satan worshippers who were systematically exploiting both children and adults to engage in wild and demonic rituals. One of the handbooks for therapists, as cited by the historian David Frankfurter, explains that Satanic abuse usually involves:

“group cult ceremonies in which children engage in sexual acts with adults and other children; the sacrifice and mutilation of animals; threats related to magical or supernatural powers; ingestion of drugs, ‘magic potions,’ blood, and human excrement; and distortion of traditional belief systems” (Susan J. Kelley as cited by Frankfurter, “Ritual as Accusation and Atrocity: Satanic Ritual Abuse, Gnostic Libertinism, and Primal Murders,” History of Religions 40 [2001], p. 356).

Another such handbook for those who believed in the conspiracy states:

“Such abuse may include the actual or simulated killing or mutilation of an animal, the actual or simulated killing or mutilation of a person, forced ingestion of real or simulated human body fluids, excrement or flesh, [and] forced sexual activity” (Noblitt and Perskin as cited by Frankfurter, p. 357).

The fact that this was indeed a conspiracy theory arising out of certain peoples’ worldviews and not reality is now widely recognized. What is particularly interesting is the manner in which stereotypes of the dangerous “other” which have a very long history — including the trio of human sacrifice, cannibalism, and sexual perversion — play a key role in this incident as well. Back in Roman times, for instance, the early Christians were accused by outsiders of engaging in precisely these three activities, as were other marginalized or foreign groups in antiquity (on which see my earlier posts here and here). Similar dynamics of marginalization and demonization were also at work in the late medieval and early modern witch hunts.

A second main conspiracy theory, which is somewhat less frightening or disturbing, involves the accusations against certain rock n’ roll bands regarding their allegiances with the Prince of Darkness (Satan not Ozzy), via backmasking, or backward messaging. The idea was that if you play a record backwards (remember records?) you could potentially hear an alternate message that, it was believed, was placed there intentionally by the artists in order to serve their lord and master, Satan. Among the first to fall prey to this accusation was Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, which, when played backwards, it was imagined, revealed the following message:

Here’s to my sweet Satan,
The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is fake/Satan.
He’ll give those with him 666.
There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
(Page / Plant, “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin IV, ©1971 SuperHype Music Inc.. Lyrics online here)

Many other bands were likewise accused of broadcasting the messages of Satan to the impressionable ears of our youth. The fact is that, if you want to find it, a word that sounds like “Satan” would appear in just about any music played backwards. But soon the idea of putting hidden, backward messages on albums was consciously taken on, particularly in the case of heavy metal bands of the 1980s, who seemed to think that Satan, with his number 666, was “cool”.

UPDATE (March 24): Now see the comments section and “Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion” blog, where there was an earlier post on the Satanic abuse scare focussing primarily on the issue of therapists or psychologists who created the scare, to some degree, particularly in connection with popularizing books on the topic (sadly, there is a Canadian connection). He also includes the cover of a book on Satan (and, yes, it is now available in a new edition with flashy cover to boot) from good ol’ Hal Lindsey of Late Great Planet Earth fame (a fundamentalist, apocalyptic, best-selling book showing the end was near in the 1970s):

Satan is Alive (old)Satan is Alive (new)

Is there another Satanic scare on the horizon?

Rhetorical functions of Satan: From Babylon the whore to devilish super-apostles (Satan 7)

As a Jewish apocalyptic movement, the early Jesus movement (“Christianity”) inherited a worldview in which Satan played an important role as the ultimate adversary or opponent of God and his agents. Plenty could be said of the centrality of Satan’s (or his demons’) opposition to Jesus in the synoptic gospels, for instance, where the temptation in the desert at the start of Jesus’ mission draws clear attention to an ongoing struggle (further illustrated in the many exorcisms) that seemingly threatens to undo that very mission. Jesus is often presented, as in the gospel of Mark, as the beginning of the end for the evil powers that are active in the world. Most early Christians took Satan and his demons seriously and felt evil powers could be active in the real-life settings of Christians and others. So this was more than just thoughts in peoples’ heads, and Satan played an important role in real-life social and political interactions and in polemical discourses.

Here I want briefly to draw attention to two main rhetorical functions of Satan in polemical discourses or discourses of the “other”. Moreover, the ultimate Opponent (Satan) could make his appearance (discursively) in struggles with (1) opponents outside of one’s group and (2) opponents within (or on the fringes of) Judaism or the Jesus movement that were nonetheless categorized as “other”, as demonic outsiders. The “demonization” of either external enemies or internal adversaries continued in various ways throughout the history of Christianity (and was characteristic of earlier polemical discourses within the context of early Judaism as well).

(1) First of all, Satan and the language of evil play an important role in the “demonization” of outsiders or other peoples, including ruling powers. John’s Apocalypse (Revelation) provides an excellent example of this (written some time in the years following Rome’s destruction of the temple in 70 CE, perhaps in the 90s). The author of these visions thinks in terms of an ongoing struggle between God and his Lamb (Jesus), on the one hand, and the dragon, Satan, and his Beast, on the other. More importantly here, the dragon here is quite clearly in league with the Roman imperial power, which is portrayed as a seven-headed, chaotic beast arising from the sea in chapter 13 (with the emperor Nero in particular — as the mortally wounded head who “was, and is not, and is to ascend” [17:7-14] — on the top of the author’s mind). The “dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority” to this beast, and the people worshipped both the dragon (Satan) and the beast (the emperor), according to these visions (13:2). The rhetorical attack on the external Roman imperial power continues in chapters 17-18, where the author speaks of Babylon (= Rome — both had destroyed God’s temple in Jerusalem) as a whore who rides on the seven-headed beast and drinks the blood of the saints. For more on the imperial dimensions of the Apocalypse, see my earlier post on Worshiping the Beast / Honouring the Emperor.

The use of the language of evil and Satan in relating to outsiders or external opponents would continue long after John wrote down these visions. One particularly prominent example is the way in which subsequent Christians (e.g. Justin Martyr) spoke of the gods of the Greeks and Romans as “demons” (compare Paul’s first letter to the Christians at Corinth at 10:14-22).

(2) Second, in the internal debates and struggles within Christianity, Satan was frequently called on to combat those within or on the margins of one’s own cultural group who held different views on what following Jesus meant. Thus, for instance, when Paul attempted to convince some Christians at Corinth that they should take him as authoritative rather than some other eloquent “super-apostles”, he employed the language of evil and Satan to describe these (Jewish-Christian) opponents:

“For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds” (2 Corinthians 11:12-15 [RSV]).

These leaders of the Jesus movement with whom Paul strongly disagrees become servants of Satan who will share the evil one’s fate, in this discourse.

One more example will suffice here. The Johannine epistles (1-3 John) reflect a particular group of Jesus-followers (likely living in western Asia Minor) which had recently had difficulties that led to a schism. The author portrays those that had left the group, who held differing views on Jesus, as “antichrists” in the service of the devil:

“Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come . . . They went out from us, but they were not of us . . . Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:18-23 [RSV]; compare 2 John 7-11).

This is the earliest known occurence of the term “antichrist”, by the way, which would soon develop its own history in reference to a primary earthly assistant of Satan that would precede the final battle between evil and good. Among later interpreters, the beasts in John’s Apocalypse, or in the book of Daniel before it, were sometimes identified with this developing antichrist figure.

Regional rivalries and humour in the Greco-Roman world (Jokes 2)

Greco-Roman culture was marked by a competitive atmosphere in which individuals, groups, and communities sought to gain honour and reputation, sometimes at the expense of someone else’s shame. Cities, too, were often among the competitors for honour and, as Dio Chrysostom’s speeches to Greek cities in Asia Minor and elsewhere show (late first century CE), rivalries between particular cities could get quite heated, ranging from ongoing name-calling to violent clashes and war. Thus, for instance, Dio addressed the citizens of Nicomedia about their discord and strife with Nicaea, which involved each city claiming it was the greatest over against the other, and there were some concrete negative interchanges as a result (Oration 38). Dio, like Paul writing to the Christian group at Corinth (1 Corinthians), sought to alleviate the competitive atmosphere and tried to promote the values of concord and unity.

As in modern regional rivalries or region-centric thinking (in Canada it was once common to hear jokes about people from Newfoundland), sometimes negativity towards another area or people could take the form of ethnic stereotypes, including jokes. The ancient joke-book which I discussed in the previous post, The Laughter-Lover, contains a number of jokes of this kind, with the primary targets being inhabitants from Sidon (in Syria), Abdera (in Thrace), and Kyme (in Asia Minor). No doubt, some such jokes and caricatures originally emerged within the context of local civic rivalries. Here are a few that poke fun at — or stereotype as less than brilliant — people from Kyme (Cyme):(Again, all translations are from Baldwin, Philogelos, as cited in no. 1 of this ancient jokes series).

“A man from Kyme who was looking for a friend was in front of his house calling his name. ‘Shout louder, so that he’ll hear you,’ advised a passer-by. So he started calling, ‘Louder!'” (no.160).

“A man from Kyme was riding by a garden on a donkey. Catching sight of an overhanging branch full of ripe figs, he made a grab for it. But the donkey bolted and left him hanging. Up came the gardener and demanded to know what he thought he was doing hanging there. ‘I had an asinine accident'” (no. 166).

“A man from Kyme was so ill that his doctor despaired of him. However, he recovered. But he kept avoiding the doctor. Finally, the [doctor] managed to corner him and ask why. ‘Well, I’m embarrassed to be seen alive after you said I was going to die'” (no. 174).

“[There was a] doctor from Kyme who switched to a blunt scalpel because the patient on whom he was operating was screaming so much from the pain” (no. 177).

A ghost story (from Phlegon): Bouplagos stood up from among the dead (Bou!)

Earlier I have discussed paradoxography and the second century author Phlegon, who wrote a Book of Marvels (see other entries in the ethnography sub-category ). What better day to share one of his ghost stories — with a message from beyond the grave — than today (in between giving out candy to little ghouls):

“There was a certain Bouplagos, a cavalry commander from Syria who had been held in high esteem by King Antiochos and had fallen after fighting nobly. At midday while the Romans were gathering all the enemy’s arms, Bouplagos stood up from among the dead, though he had twelve wounds, and went to the Roman camp where he proclaimed in a soft voice the following verses:

‘Stop despoiling an army gone to the land of Hades,
For already Zeus Kronides is angry beholding your ill deeds,
Wrothful at the slaughter of an army and at your doings, and
Will send a bold-hearted tribe against your land
That will put an end to your rule, and you will pay for what you have wrought’

Shaken by this utterance the [Roman] generals quickly convened the multitude and deliberated about the ghost. They decided to cremate and bury Bouplagos (who had expired immediately after his utterance), purify the camp, perform a sacrifice to Zeus Apotropaios and send a delegation to [the oracle at] Delphi to ask the god what they should do.”

Apollo’s oracle at Delphi, it is said, replied as follows:

“Restrain yourself now, Roman, and let justice abide with you,
Lest Pallas [Athena] stir up a much greater Ares [god of war] against you,
And make desolate your market-places, and you, fool, for all your effort,
Lose much wealth before reaching your land”
(Book of Marvels 3.4-6; trans. by Hansen, pp.32-33, as cited in full here).

For a medieval story appropriate to the season (about a demon), go here.

Bandits and their wild banquets: Lapiths and Centaurs

Bandits or pirates play an important role within many of the ancient Greek novels. In essence, these thugs come to embody just about every improper social and religious activity you can imagine, including human sacrifice and cannibalism (as I discussed in earlier entries on ethnography. They are also depicted as engaging in improper banqueting activity in other respects.

Apuleius’ Golden Ass (aka Metamorphoses) relates the story of a man who is turned into an ass through magic and goes on adventures towards his ultimate salvation from the goddess Isis. In the mean time, his adventures include capture by a guild (collegium) of bandits (6.31), whose meal etiquette is characterized thus:

They ate and drank in utter disorder, swallowing meat by the heap, bread by the stack, and cups by the legion. They played raucously, sang deafeningly, and joked abusively, and in every other respect behaved just like those half-beasts, the Lapiths and Centaurs (Metamorphoses 4.8, trans LCL).

According to Greek mythology, the wedding celebration of Peirithous, a Lapith, ended in utter violence between the two peoples due to the drunken behaviour of a Centaur (cf. Homer, Od. 21.285-304). So these mythical figures became the epitome of terrible and violent banqueting behaviour ever since, as evidenced in the title of Lucian’s satirical Symposium, or The Lapiths, and in many artistic representations (cf. Pausanias, Guide to Greece 1.17.2; 1.28.2; 5.10.8).

(A Lapith struggles with a Centaur, Parthenon metope, now in the British Museum).

The brigands in Apuleius’ novel have “principles,” by the way, which are manifest in their (foiled) plan to punish the girl and the ass in the most humiliating manner: by having the living girl sewn inside the executed animal and leaving them both in the hot sun for dogs and vultures to devour.

“Marvels” yet again: Long-lost fountain of viagra

The Apollonios (second century BCE) mentioned in the previous post cites the work of an “historian” who reports the following “marvel” (avert your eyes, if you prefer, since it’s a little racy):

Phylarchos says in the eighth book of his historical treatise that in the Arabian Gulf there is a spring of water and if a man rubs his feet with it his genitals immediately become extremely erect. Some persons’ genitals do not contract again at all, whereas others’ do return to normal size but only after great suffering and treatment (Hansen, p. 6).

History can get a little “racy” at times.

A Hellenistic Twilight Zone episode (and a Jewish parallel story)

Further to my earlier post on Greco-Roman paradoxography, there is another that I thought may be of interest. (See the earlier post two entries below). I talked about the second century author Phlegon. Another was Apollonios, who may have written in the second century BCE. One of his “marvels” (drawing on an author named Theopompos) comes across like a Twilight Zone episode:

It is said that Epimenides of Crete was sent by his father and uncles to their farm to bring a sheep back to town. When night overtook him he left the path and slept for fifty-seven years. . . In the meantime the members of Epimenides’s household died, and when he awoke from his sleep he looked for the sheep he had been sent to bring. . . he assumed that he had awoken on the same day on which he had fallen asleep–but he found that the farm was sold and the equipment was changed(Hansen, p. 6).

Now that’s a good long nap.

UPDATE: Ken Penner (McMaster U.) comments that there is an interesting parallel story in the OT Pseudepigrapha in 4 Baruch, chapter 5. There Abimelech, a contemporary of Jeremiah, gets tired while carrying figs, lies down for a nap, and doesn’t wake up for 66 years. He similarly is confused by all the changes when he returns to Jerusalem. In this case, God sent this “stupor” upon Abimelech so that he would not have to witness the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem and the exile of its people. After the 66 year nap, Abimelech wakes up and (with humorous effect) says, “I would like to nap a little longer, because my head is weighed down, but I’m afraid I might fall fast asleep and be late waking up” (trans. by S.E. Robinson in James H. Charlesworth, ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1983-85). The Greek text is available at the Online Critical Pseudepigrapha (OCP) site.

Phlegon’s Believe It or Not: Man undergoes sex change only to reverse it

Previously I’ve commented on ancient descriptions of far away peoples and their customs (ethnography), which sometimes had a penchant for describing others in bizarre and often negative terms. (For a bibliography on ancient ethnography, go here). Somewhat related to ethnography with its attention to the “astonishing” practices of foreign peoples are the writings that catalogued various “wonders” or “marvels”, commonly called paradoxography by modern scholars. You might call these writings the Greco-Roman National Enquirer (tabloid).

Among these ancient Ripleys is Phlegon of Tralles (c. 117-138), whose Book of Marvels collects together a series of items that were considered astonishing or grotesque, including reports of ghost appearances, sex changes, monstrous or multiple births, and discoveries of giant bones. Among the unusual births reported by Phlegon, for instance, is one which involves an Egyptian deity: “The wife of Cornelius Gallicanus gave birth near Rome to a child having the head of Anubis” (23; trans. Hansen), namely, the head of a dog.

Among the sex-changes is the myth of Teiresias, who, it is said, changed from a man to a woman after injuring a snake that was mating. The god Apollo’s oracular advice was that Teiresias should once again injure the other snake while they were mating in order to change back into a man, which s/he succeeded in doing. The story goes that “Zeus and Hera had a quarrel, he claiming that in sexual intercourse the woman had a larger share of the pleasure than the man did, and she claiming the opposite” (4). Teiresis, of course, was brought in as the expert in this situation. When his answer was not in favour of Hera (women enjoyed 9/10ths of the pleasure while the men 1/10th), Teiresis’ eyes were gouged out, but Zeus at least gave him the gift of prophecy.

Less “sexist” and a little less unbelievable is Phlegon’s report of an Alexandrian “woman who gave birth to twenty children in the course of four deliveries. . . most of them were reared” (28).

See William Hansen’s Phlegon of Tralles’ Book of Marvels (Exeter: University of Exeter, 1996), which is the source of the translations used here.

“Going beyond all bounds to the realm of myth” in describing the “other”

Further to my previous post on descriptions of the “other” in antiquity, there are a number of ancient authors who devote considerable attention to describing the customs of foreign peoples, with Herodotus (The Histories) being the most well-known. When describing peoples at or beyond the edges of the known world such ethnographers sometimes engaged in the sort of scurrilous accusations we have just noted in relation to the Christians.

The first century geographer, Strabo, expresses his disdain for those ethnographers who describe peoples of distant lands as extremely unclean with an equally condemnable way of life (e.g. cannibalism), a position reflecting an ethnocentric view of concentric circles of lessening civilization. Strabo claims that his approach is more in line with Ephorus of Kyme (fourth century BCE), who, in a way, inverted this approach to foreign peoples. Ephorus’ idealizing approach described those far from the current cultural centre in positive terms as examples to follow:

Now the other writers, he says, tell only about [the Scythians’] savagery, because they know that the terrible and the marvellous are startling, but one should tell the opposite facts too and make them patterns of conduct, and he himself, therefore, will tell only about those who follow “most just” habits, for there are some of the Scythian Nomads who feed only on mare’s milk and excel all men in justice (Strabo, Geography 7.3.9 [trans. LCL]).

Despite Strabo’s observations, however, he himself sometimes engages in the approach to other peoples and lands which he criticizes, “going beyond all bounds to the realm of myth,” as Strabo calls it (15.1.57). James S. Romm (The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought) provides an excellent survey of how Greeks and Romans viewed those real or imagined peoples at and beyond the edges of the known world.

Banquets of the anti-associations: “They sacrificed a human being and partook of the flesh”

Quite well-known are the accusations of cannibalism (Thyestan feasts) and incest (Oedipean unions) made by some Greeks, Romans, and others against Christians in the second century (as reflected in the letter written by Christians at Lyons in Gaul [France] to those in Asia Minor [Turkey] in 177 CE). Yet such allegations were part of a common set of stereotypes for describing the “other” (that is, foreign or “barbarian” peoples and groups) that were also used by ancient writers of history and fiction concerning “foreign” religious associations or criminal “lowlife” guilds.

Some Christian authors in later years would draw on the same stockpile of accusations in their fight with other Christians that they considered “heretics” (e.g. Epiphanius on the Phibionites). The same “rituals of atrocity” would be leveled against supposed heretics and “witches” in the middle ages, and most recently recurred in stories about the supposed ritual murders performed among Satanist groups in the 1980s. I am now in the midst of writing a paper that explores such accusations of wildly transgressive rituals and banquets in antiquity (for the Society of Biblical Literature Greco-Roman meals seminar).

Among the more interesting and deliberately shocking accounts in ancient Greek novels is the episode from Lollianos’ (or Lollianus’) A Phoenician Story (Phoenikika – second century CE), which describes a criminal guild of initiates engaging in ritual murder:

Meanwhile another man, who was naked, walked by, wearing a crimson loincloth, and throwing the body of the pais (child or servant) on its back, he cut it up, and tore out its heart and placed it upon the fire. Then, he took up [the cooked heart] and sliced it up to the middle. And on the surface [of the slices] he sprinkled [barley groats] and wet it with oil; and when he had sufficiently prepared them, [he gave them to the] initiates, and those who held (a slice?) [he ordered] to swear in the blood of the heart that they would neither give up nor betray [——–], not [even if they are led off to prison], nor yet if they be tortured
PColon 3328, B 1 Recto, lines 9-16. Translation from Susan A. Stephens and John J. Winkler, Ancient Greek Novels: The Fragments (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), pp. 338-341.

What might be missed by a modern reader is just how normal this episode would be if not for the fact that the sacrificial victim is human. Greeks and Romans regularly engaged in sacrifices of animals in order to honour their gods, and the procedure described here would not be considered out of the ordinary. The sacrifice was accompanied by a communal meal sharing in portions of the sacrificed animal (including the innards, which were somewhat of a delicacy). Greeks and Romans alike would be utterly shocked and outraged, however, at the idea of a human victim. (The quotation in this post’s title comes from Plutarch’s Life of Cicero 10.4 and speaks of Cicero’s political opponent Cataline and his supposed co-conspirators in the 60s BCE.)

Perhaps this is less bland than my introductory post.