Egyptian wisdom: Thessalos on king Nechepsos and an Egyptian priest (first or second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptian wisdom: Thessalos on king Nechepsos and an Egyptian priest (first or second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified January 27, 2023,

Author: Thessalos, On the Properties of Plants, epistolary preface only (Greek text follows translation below).

Comments: This first or second century letter of Thessalos (rediscovered and published by Charles Graux in 1878), which served as a preface for an astrological guide-book on medical materials, provides an important glimpse into ancient expectations regarding healing materials and astrology. But it is also an instance of the Greek notion of “wise barbarians,” in this case focussed on a Greek physician gaining wisdom as a result of the expertise of an Egyptian priest. The document relates the story of Thessalos’ early life and education in Asia Minor, where he is only disappointed by the knowledge available to him in his native Greek culture. There he demonstrates extraordinary abilities that lead him to pursue a medical education in the Greek city of Alexandria in Egypt, where Thessalos still cannot find the true knowledge he desires. However, towards the end of his education as a physician, Thessalos discovers an ancient book by the Egyptian king Nechepsos which promises twenty-four medical cures according to the signs of the Zodiac. Thessalos rashly believes that the treatments will work and spreads word of the amazing cures to both his family in Asia and his colleagues in Alexandria, only to discover that he cannot make the prescriptions work. This leads him to thoughts of suicide. Thessalos then wanders through Egypt in search of a solution that is only satisfied after meeting an Egyptian priest at Diospolis (Thebes). The priest reluctantly prepares Thessalos to communicate with a god. After attaining purity, the story culminates in Thessalos meeting Asklepios “face to face”. With guidance from the Egyptian priest, Thessalos receives from Asklepios secret knowledge concerning the connections between effective healing, plants, and the stars. The Egyptian book by Nechepsos was on the right track, but this experience brings full understanding beyond what Nechepsos had received.

You can read more about Thessalos and journeys in pursuit of foreign wisdom in the following articles: Harland 2011; Harland 2013.

Source of the translation: Philip A. Harland, “Journeys in Pursuit of Divine Wisdom: Thessalos and Other Seekers,” in Travel and Religion in Antiquity, ed. Philip A. Harland (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2011), 123–40. The translation of Thessalos’ introductory letter here follows manuscript “T” which is Codex Matritensis Bibl. Nat. 4631, a Byzantine manuscript in Madrid first published by Graux (in 1878). The Greek text for “T” (presented further below) is based on the critical edition by Hans-Veit Friedrich, ed., Thessalos von Tralles: Griechisch und lateinisch (Beiträge zur klassischen Philologie, vol. 28; Meisenheim am Glan: Verlag Anton Hain, 1968). Throughout there is a parallel Latin text, M (Codex Montepessulanus Fac. med. 227, a 14th century translation). From line 25 on there is an additional parallel Greek text (= BH) that addresses Hermes Trismegistes rather than Thessalos. The main differences in the versions of the prologue include: Thessalos is identified as the author of the letter in “M”; Harpokration is identified as author at the beginning of “T” but the name Thessalos is preserved in garbled form further on in the story, suggesting Thessalos is the original attribution. Germanicus Claudius is the addressee in “M”; Caesar Augustus is the addressee in “T”.


(1) Thessalos (or: Harpokration in manuscript “T”) to Caesar Augustus, greetings.

While numerous people have attempted to transmit many incredible things in their life, august Caesar, none has been able to bring such plans to completion because of the darkness which is imposed on his thoughts by destiny. Of all those who have lived since eternity, I alone seem to have done anything incredible and known to a precious few. (2) For attempting the deeds, the very deeds which surpass the limits of human nature, I brought them to completion with many trials and dangers.

(3) For as I was being trained in grammatical knowledge in the regions of Asia, I was also being distinguished from all the better students there until I enjoyed the benefits of knowledge. (4) After sailing to highly regarded Alexandria with plenty silver, I was systematically studying with the most accomplished scholars. I was being commended by everyone on account of my love of hard work and my intelligence. (5) I was also continuously studying the teachings of dialectic physicians, for I passionately desired this knowledge in an extraordinary way.

(6) When it was the right time to return home—for I had already achieved medical advancement according to custom—I went around the libraries seeking out the necessary medical materials. When I found a certain book of Nechepsos dealing with twenty-four medical treatments of the whole body and of every condition according to the signs of the Zodiac through both stones and plants, I was astounded by the incredible nature of its promised cures. Yet it was, as it seemed, an empty delusion of royal foolishness. (7) For despite the fact that I had prepared the solar medicine that had astounded me and the remaining prescriptions in all the medical treatments of conditions, I failed to affect a cure. (8) Supposing that this failure was worse than death, I was being consumed by anguish. Indeed, having very rashly believed in the writing of Nechepsos, I had also written to my parents concerning the effectiveness (activity) of the prescriptions as if I had already attempted them, and I was promising to return.

(9) It was not possible, therefore, to remain in Alexandria because of the hysterics of my colleagues — in a peculiar manner, good intentions are resented. (10) I was not willing to return home since I had accomplished very little of what I had promised. Now I wandered around Egypt, driven by a sting in my soul and seeking to deliver on some aspect of my rash promise or, if that did not happen, to commit suicide.

(11) Now my soul was constantly anticipating that I would converse with the gods. Continually stretching out my hands towards the sky, I was praying to the gods to grant me something by a vision in a dream or by a divine spirit so that I could proudly return as a happy person to Alexandria and to my homeland.

(12) Arriving, then, in Diospolis — I mean the most ancient city of Egypt which also has many temples — I was residing there, for there were scholarly high-priests and elders ascribing to various teachings there. (13) Now as time advanced and my friendship with them increased, I was inquiring whether any magical power saves a person from illness. I observed the majority protesting strongly against my rashness concerning such an expectation. (14) Nonetheless, one man, who could be trusted because of his patient manner and the measure of his age, did not throw away the friendship.

Now this man professed to have the ability to perceive divine visions in the activity of a dish of water. (15) So I invited him to walk with me in the most solitary place in the city, revealing nothing about what I wanted him to do. (16) Departing, therefore, into some sacred woods where we were surrounded by the deepest silence, I suddenly fell down crying and was clinging to the feet of the high-priest. (17) As he was struck with amazement at the unexpected nature of what he saw and was inquiring why I was doing this, I declared that the power of my soul was in his hands, for it was necessary for me to converse with a god or else — if I failed to meet this desire — I was about to commit suicide. (18) As he raised me up from the ground and comforted me with the most gentle words, he gladly promised to do these things and commanded me to keep myself pure for three days. (19) After my soul had been soothed by the promises of the high-priest, I was kissing his right hand and expressing thanks as my tears flowed like a gushing spring. For, naturally, unexpected joy brings forth more tears than grief does. (20) Once we returned from the woods, we were attaining the state of purity. The days seemed like years to me because of the expectation. (21) Now at the dawn of the third day, I went to the priest and greeted him humbly.

Now, he had prepared a pure room (oikos) and the other things that were necessary for the visitation (episkepsis). According to the foresight of my soul and without the priest’s knowledge, I brought a papyrus roll and black ink in order to write down what was said, if necessary. (22) The high-priest asked me whether I would want to converse with the soul of some dead person or with a god. I said, ‘Asklepios’, and that it would be the perfection of his favour if he would turn it over to me to converse with the god alone. (23) However, as his facial expressions showed, he did not promise me this gladly.

Now when he had shut me in the room and commanded me to sit opposite the throne upon which the god was about to sit, he led me through the god’s secret names and he shut the door as he left. (24) Once I sat down, I was being released from body and soul by the incredible nature of the spectacle. For neither the facial features of Asklepios nor the beauty of the surrounding decoration can be expressed clearly in human speech. Then, reaching out his right hand, Asklepios began to say: (25) ’Oh blessed Thessalos, attaining honour in the presence of the god. As time passes, when your successes become known, men will worship you as a god. Ask freely, then, about what you want and I will readily grant you everything.’ (26) I scarcely heard anything, for I had been struck with amazement and overwhelmed by seeing the form of the god. Nevertheless, I was inquiring why I had failed when trying the prescriptions of Nechepsos. To this the god said: (27) ‘King Nechepsos, a man of most sound mind and all honourable forms of excellence, did not obtain from an utterance of the gods what you are seeking to learn. Since he had a good natural ability, he observed the sympathy of stones and plants with the stars, but he did not know the correct times and places one must pick the plants. (28) For the produce of every season grows and withers under the influence of the stars. That divine spirit, which is most refined, pervades throughout all substance and most of all throughout those places where the influences of the stars are produced upon the cosmic foundation.’ . . . [Medicinal herbal guide follows.]

Greek Text of Thessalos’ prologue

The Greek text for “T” presented here is based on the critical edition by Hans-Veit Friedrich, ed., Thessalos von Tralles: Griechisch und lateinisch (Beiträge zur klassischen Philologie, vol. 28; Meisenheim am Glan: Verlag Anton Hain, 1968).  The opening address in “T” wrongly attributes authorship to Harpokration but correctly identifies the author as Thessalos in Asklepios’ direct address (line 25). “M” correctly identifies the author as Thessalos in the opening.

(1) Ἁρποκρατίων Καίσαρι Αὐγούστῳ χαίρειν.
Πολλῶν ἐπιχειρησάντων ἐν τῷ βίῳ, Σεβαστὲ Καῖσαρ, παραδοῦναι πολλὰ παράδοξα, μηδενὸς πρὸς τέλος ἀγαγεῖν τὰς ἐπαγγελίας δυνηθέντος διὰ τὸν <ἀπὸ> τῆς εἱμαρμένης ταῖς διανοίαις αὐτῶν ἐπικείμενον ζόφον, μόνος δοκῶ τῶν ἀπ’ αἰῶνος ἀνθρώπων πεποιηκέναι τι παράδοξον <καὶ ὀλίγοις γνωστόν>. (2) ἐπιχειρήσας γὰρ πράγμασιν, ἅπερ θνητῆς μέτρα φύσεως ὑπερβαίνει, τούτοις γε μετὰ πολλῶν βασάνων καὶ κινδύνων τὸ καθῆκον τέλος ἐπέθηκα. (3) ἀσκήσας <γὰρ> γραμματικὴν ἐπιστήμην ἐν τοῖς τῆς Ἀσίας κλίμασι καὶ πάντων τῶν ἐκεῖ βελτίων γενόμενος διέγνων ἕως τινὸς τῆς ἐπιστήμης ἀπολαύειν. (4) καὶ πλεύσας ἐπὶ τὴν περισπούδαστον Ἀλεξάνδρειαν μετὰ συχνοῦ ἀργυρίου τοῖς ἐντελεστάτοις τῶν φιλολόγων παρώδευον καὶ φιλοπονίας ἕνεκα καὶ συνέσεως ὐπὸ πάντων ἐπαινούμενος. (5) ἐφοίτων δὲ συνεχῶς καὶ εἰς τὰς τῶν διαλεκτικῶν ἰατρῶν διατριβάς· ἤρων γὰρ περισσῶς ταύτης τῆς ἐπιστήμης. (6) ἐπεὶ δὲ καιρὸς ἦν εἰς οἶκον ἀπιέναι, κατὰ τρόπον ἤδη μοι καὶ τῆς ἰατρικῆς προιούσης, περιῄειν τὰς βιβλιοθήκας ἐκζητῶν <τὴν ἀναγκαίαν ὕλην>· εὑρὼν δὲ βίβλον τινὰ <τοῦ> Νεχεψὼ κδ’ θεραπείας ὃλου τοῦ σώματος καὶ παντὸς πάθους κατὰ ζῳδι<ακ>ὸν περιέχουσαν διὰ λίθων τε καὶ βοτανῶν τὰ τῆς ἐπαγγελίας παράδοξα ἐξεπληττόμην. ἦν δὲ, ὠς ἔοικε, βασιλικῆς μωρίας κενὸς τῦφος· (7) σκευάσας γὰρ τὸν ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ θαυμαζόμενον τροχίσκον ἡλιακὸν καὶ τὰς λοιπὰς δυνάμεις ἐν πάσαις τῶν παθῶν θεραπείαις ἠστόχησα. (8) θανάτου δὲ τραχυτέραν ὑπολαβὼν εἶναι τὴν πλάνην ὑπὸ τῆς λύπης ἐδαπανώμην· καὶ γὰρ προπετέστερον τῇ γραφῇ πεπιστευκὼς ἔγραψα περὶ τῆς ἐνεργείας αὐτῶν καὶ τοῖς γονεῦσιν ὡς ἤδη πειράσας καὶ ὑποστρέφειν ἐπηγγελλόμην. (9) ἐν μὲν οὖν τῇ Ἀλεξανδρείᾳ μένειν οὐχ οἷόν τε ἦν διὰ τὸν τῶν ὀμοτέχνων γέλωτα· καὶ γὰρ ἰδίως τὰ καλὰ φθονεῖται. (10) εἰς οἶκον δὲ ἀπιέναι πάλιν προθυμίαν οὐκ εἶχον μικρότερος τῶν ἐπαγγελιῶν εὑρημένος, περιῄειν δὲ τὴν Αἴγυπτον οἴστρῳ τῆς ψυχῆς ἐλαστρούμενος καὶ ζητῶν τι <τῆς> προπετοῦς ἐπαγγελίας ἐργάσασθαι ἢ τούτου μὴ τυχὼν θανάτῳ λοιπὸν ἀφιέναι τὸν βίον. (11) ἀεὶ δέ μου τῆς ψυχῆς προμαντευομένης θεοῖς ὁμιλῆσαι, συνεχῶς εἰς οὐρανὸν τὰς χεῖρας ἐκτείνων τοὺς θεοὺς ἐλιτάνευον δι’ ὀνείρου φαντασίας ἢ διὰ πνεύματος θείου χαρίσασθαί μοί τι τοιοῦτο, δι’ οὗ γαυριάσας ἱλαρὸς εἰς τὴν Ἀλεξάνδρειαν καὶ τὴν πατρίδα κατελθεῖν δυνηθῶ.

(12) Γενόμενος οὖν ἐν Διὸς πόλει – ἀρχαιοτάτην <λέγω> τῆς Αἰγύπτου πόλιν καὶ πολλὰ ἰερὰ ἔχουσαν – διέτριβον αὐτόθι· ἦσαν γὰρ <ἐκεῖ> καὶ ἀρχιιερεῖς φιλόλογοι καὶ <γέροντες> ποικίλοις κεκοσμημένοι μαθήμασιν. (13) προβαίνοντος δὲ τοῦ χρόνου καὶ τῆς πρὸς αὐτούς μοι φιλίας μᾶλλον αὐξανομένης, ἐπυνθανόμην, εἴ τι τῆς μαγικῆς ἐνεργείας σῴζεται. καὶ τῶν μὲν πλειόνων ἐπαγγελίας ὁμοίας τῇ προπετείᾳ μου <ἐπι>φερόντων κατέγνων· (14) ἑνὸς δέ τινος διὰ τὸ <οὐ> σοβαρὸν τῶν ἠθῶν καὶ τὸ τῆς ἡλικίας μέτρον πιστευθῆναι δυναμένου οὐκ ἀνεχαιτίσθην τῆς φιλίας. ἐπηγγείλατο δὲ οὗτος αὐτοπτικὴν ἔχειν λεκάνης ἐνέργειαν. (15) παρεκάλεσα οὖν αὐτὸν ἐν τοῖς ἐρημοτάτοις τόποις τῆς πόλεως σὺν ἐμοὶ περιπατῆσαι μηδὲν ὧν ἔχρῃζον ἐκφήνας. (16) ἀπελθόντων οὖν ἡμῶν εἴς τι ἄλσος ἡσυχίᾳ βαθυτάτῃ περιεχόμενον, αἰφνίδιος περιπεσὼν ἐπὶ στόμα καὶ κλαίων τῶν ποδῶν εἰχόμην τοῦ ἀρχιερέως. (17) ἐκπλαγέντος δὲ αὐτοῦ διὰ τὸ ἀπροσδόκητον τῆς θέας καὶ πυνθανομένου, τίνος ἕνεκε τοῦτο ποιήσαιμι, ἔφασκον ἐν αὐτῷ τὴν ἐξουσίαν εἶναι τῆς ἐμῆς ψυχῆς· ἔχειν γὰρ με ἀνάγκην θεῷ ὁμιλῆσαι· ἧς ἐπιθυμίας ἂν ἁμάρτω, μέλλω ἀποτάσσεσθαι τῷ βίῳ. (18) ἀναστήσας δέ με ἀπὸ τῆς γῆς καὶ παρηγορήσας προσηνεστάτοις λόγοις, ἀσμένως ταῦτα ποιεῖν ἐπηγγέλλετο καὶ ἐκέλευσέν <με> ἁγνεύειν ἡμέραις τρισίν. (19) διαχυθείσης δέ μου τῆς ψυχῆς ἐπὶ ταῖς ἐπαγγελίαις τοῦ ἀρχιερέως, ἠσπασάμην αὐτοῦ τὴν δεξιὰν καὶ ηὐχαρίστουν κρουνηδόν μοι τῶν δακρύων φερομένων· φυσικῶς γὰρ ἀπροσδόκητος χαρὰ πλείονα λύπης ἐκκαλεῖται δάκρυα. (20) ἐπανελθόντες δὲ ἐκ τοῦ ἄλσους ἐπὶ τὴν ἁγνείαν ἐγιγνόμεθα ἐμοὶ τῶν ἡμερῶν διὰ τὴν προσδοκίαν <ὡς> ἐνιαυτῶν ἀπαριθμουμένων. (21) ἐπιστάσης δὲ τῆς τρίτης ἡμέρας ὑπὸ τὸν ὄρθρον πορευθεὶς ἠσπασάμην τὸν ἀρχιερέα <ταπεινῶς>.

Εὐτρέπιστο δὲ αὐτῷ οἶκος καθαρὸς καὶ τὰ λοιπὰ τὰ πρὸς τὴν ἐπίσκεψιν· ἐγὼ δὲ κατὰ προμήθειαν τῆς ψυχῆς εἶχον, ἀγνοοῦντος τοῦ ἀρχιερέως, χάρτην καὶ μέλαν ἐπὶ <τῷ> σημειώσασθαι τῶν λεγομένων, <ἃ> ἐὰν δεήσῃ. (22) ἀνακρίνοντος δέ με τοῦ ἀρχιερέως, πότερον ψυχῇ νεκροῦ τινος ἢ θεῷ ὁμιλῆσαι βουλοίμην, ἔφην Ἀσκληπιῷ· εἶναι δὲ τὸ τέλειον τῆς χάριτος, εἰ μόνῳ μοι πρὸς μόνον ὁμιλεῖν ἐπιτρέψειεν. (23) ὅμως οὐχ ἡδέως μέν (τοῦτο γὰρ ἐνέφαινον οἱ τῆς ὄψεως χαρακτῆρες), πλὴν ἐπηγγείλατο. καὶ ἐγκλείσας με εἰς τὸν οἶκον καὶ καθῖσαι κελεύσας ἄντικρυς τοῦ θρόνου, εἰς ὃν ἔμελλεν ὀ θεὸς καθέζεσθαι, προαγαγὼν διὰ τῶν ἀπορρήτων ὀνομάτων τὸν θεὸν καὶ ἐξελθὼν ἔκλεισε τὴν θύραν. (24) καθεζομένου δέ μου καὶ ἐκλυομένου τοῦ σώματος καὶ τῆς ψυχῆς διὰ τὸ παράδοξον τῆς θέας (οὔτε γὰρ τοὺς τῆς ὄψεως χαρακτῆρας οὔτε τὴν τοῦ περικειμένου κόσμου καλλονὴν ἀνθρώπου λόγος διασαφῆσαι δύναιτ’ <ἄν>)· ἀνατείνας οὖν τὴν δεξιὰν ἤρξατο λέγειν·

(25) ὦ μακάριε παρὰ θεῷ τυχὼν τιμῆς θεσσαλέ, προϊόντος δὲ τοῦ χρόνου καὶ γνωσθέντων τῶν σῶν ἐπιτευγμάτων ὡς θεὸν ἄνθρωποί σε θρησκεύ<σ>ουσιν. ἐπερώτα οὖν <ἀδεῶς> περὶ ὧν θέλεις ἀσμένως ἐμοῦ πάντα παρέξοντος. (26) ἐγὼ δὲ μόλις μὲν ἤκουσα· – κατεπεπλήγμην γὰρ καὶ ἐπεπληρώμην τὸν νοῦν εἰς τὴν τοῦ θεοῦ βλέπων μορφήν· – ὅμως <δ’> οὖν ἐπυνθανόμην, δι’ ἣν αἰτίαν ἐπὶ ταῖς τοῦ Νεχεψὼ δυνάμεσιν ἠστόχησα. πρὸς ὃ ὀ θεὸς εἶπεν · (27) ὁ βασιλεὺς Νεχεψώ, ἀνὴρ φρενηρέστατος καὶ πάσαις κεκοσμημένος ἀρεταῖς παρὰ μὲν θείας φωνῆς οὐδὲν ὧν σὺ μαθεῖν ἐπιζητεῖς εὐτύχησε· φύσει δὲ χρησάμενος ἀγαθῇ συμπαθείας λίθων καὶ βοτανῶν ἐπενόησε, τοὺς δὲ καιροὺς καὶ τοὺς τόπους ἐν οἷς δεῖ τὰς βοτάνας λαμβάνειν οὐκ ἔγνω. (28) ὥρια γὰρ πάντα τῇ τῶν ἄστρων ἀπορροίᾳ αὔξεται καὶ μειοῦται· τό τε θεῖον ἐκεῖνο πνεῦμα λεπτομερέστατον ὑπάρχον διὰ πάσης οὐσίας διήκει καὶ μάλιστα κατ’ ἐκείνους τοὺς τόπους, καθ’ οὓς αἱ τῶν ἄστρων ἀπόρροιαι γίνονται {τῆς} ἐπὶ τῆς κοσμικῆς καταβολῆς. ἐξ ἑνὸς δὲ <τοῦ> – το πρὸς πίστιν τῶν λοιπῶν παραστήσω.

[Medicinal herbal guide follows.]

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