Egyptian wisdom: Lucian’s story about Eukrates and Pankrates (late second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptian wisdom: Lucian’s story about Eukrates and Pankrates (late second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 27, 2024,

Ancient authors: Lucian of Samosata, Lover of Lies 33-39, narrating a discussion between Tychiades and Philokles about an earlier meeting at Eukrates’ house (link).

Comments: Motifs regarding travel in pursuit of wisdom from barbarians were common enough for Lucian (ca. 160s CE) to incorporate them into his satires, to quite humorous effect. The case of Eukrates’ adventures leading him to Egypt in Lover of Lies could well be considered a spoof on the sort of story we encounter in the opening letter of Thessalos’ medicinal  book (link). In Lucian’s satire, Tychiades (representing Lucian’s skeptical perspective) challenges belief in stories about Magian powers, visions, and oracles. Tychiades recounts the autobiographical claims of a philosopher named Eukrates, who catalogues all the amazing things he experienced in his educational journeys, including time with an Egyptian sacred scribe and wise man. Eukrates’ education is not problem-free, however, as Eucrates at first fails to replicate the Magian feats of his teacher. Eucrates is about to go on relating his journey home from Egypt, including the oracle he heard at Amphilochus in Mallos (Cilicia). But Tychiades, the main character, cannot take any more and leaves mid-sentence.


[Eukrates’ story about learning from an Egyptian wise man]

[Tychiades continues to relate to his friend, Philokles, about the stories he heard at the house of Eukrates]  . . . (33) “But I [Eukrates] will tell you another incident derived from my own experience, not from hearsay. Perhaps even you, Tychiades, when you have heard it, may be convinced of the truth of the story.  When I [Eukrates] was living in Egypt during my youth (my father had sent me travelling for the purpose of completing my education), I decided to sail up to Koptos and go from there to the statue of Memnon in order to hear it make that amazing sound when the sun rises. Well, what I heard from it was not a meaningless voice, as is usually the case with common people. Memnon himself actually opened his mouth and delivered me an oracle in seven verses. If it was not too much of a digression, I would have repeated the very verses to you. (34) There happened to be a man from Memphis with us on the voyage up, a man who was one of the sacred scribes of the temple who knew all of the wisdom and learning of the Egyptians. It is said that he had lived underground for twenty-three years in their sanctuaries, learning Magian skills (mageuein) from Isis.”

Arignotos said: “You mean Pankrates, my own teacher, a holy man, clean shaven, in white linen, always deep in thought, speaking imperfect Greek, tall, flat-nosed, with protruding lips and thinnish legs.” “That same Pankrates,” he replied, “and at first I did not know who he was. But when I saw him working all sorts of wonders whenever we anchored the boat, particularly riding on crocodiles and swimming in company with the beasts, while they fawned and wagged their tails, I recognised that Pankrates was a holy man. By degrees, through my friendly behaviour, I became his companion and associate, so that he shared all his secrets with me.”

“At last Pankrates persuaded me to leave all my servants behind in Memphis and to go with him all alone, for we would not lack people to serve us. And so we proceeded like this. (35) But whenever we came to a stopping-place, the Pankrates would take either the bar of the door or the broom or even the pestle, put clothes upon it, say a certain spell (epōdē) over it, and make it walk, appearing to everyone else to be a man. It would go off and draw water and buy provisions and prepare meals and in every way deftly serve and wait upon us. Then, when he was through with its services, he would again make the broom a broom or the pestle a pestle by saying another spell over it.”

“Though I was very eager to learn this from him, I could not do so, for Pankrates was jealous, although most ready to oblige in everything else. But one day I secretly overheard the spell – it was just three syllables – by taking my stand in a dark place. He went off to the square after telling the pestle what it had to do. On the next day, while he was transacting some business in the market, I took the pestle, dressed it up in the same way, said the syllables over it, and told it to carry water. (36) When it had filled and brought in the jar, I said, ‘Stop!’ don’t carry any more water; be a pestle again!’ But it would not obey me now: it kept straight on carrying until it filled the house with water for us by pouring it in! I was worried about this because I was afraid that Pankrates might come back and be angry, as was indeed the case. So I took an axe and cut the pestle in two; but each part took a jar and began to carry water, with the result that instead of one servant I had now two. Meanwhile, Pankrates appeared on the scene, and comprehending what had happened, turned them into wood again, just as they were before the spell. Then he left me to my own devices without warning, leaving to go some place I could not see.”

“So you still know how to turn the pestle into a man,” said Deinomachos. “Yes,” said Eukrates: “only half way, however, for I cannot bring it back to its original form if it once becomes a water-carrier, but we shall be obliged to let the house be flooded with the water that is poured in!” (37) “Will you never stop telling incredible tales, you old men?” I [Tychiades] said. “If you will not, at least put your amazing and fearful tales off to some other time for the sake of these young men, so that they may not be filled up with terrors and strange mythological narratives before we realize it. You should take it easy with them and not get them used to hearing things like this which will stay with them and annoy them their entire lives and will make them afraid of every sound by filling them with all sorts of superstition.”

(38) “Thank you,” said Eukrates, “for reminding me about superstition by mentioning it. What is your opinion, Tychiades, about that sort of thing: I mean oracles, prophecies, shouts by men under divine possession, voices heard from inner shrines, or verses uttered by a maiden who predicts the future? Of course you doubt that sort of thing also? For my own part, I say nothing of the fact that I have a holy ring with an image of Pythian Apollo engraved on the seal, and that this Apollo speaks to me: you might think that I was bragging about myself beyond belief. I should like, however, to tell you all what I heard from Amphilochos in Mallos [in Cilicia], when the hero conversed with me in broad daylight and advised me about my affairs, and what I myself saw, and then in due order what I saw at Pergamon and what I heard at Patara.”

“When I was on my way home from Egypt I heard that this shrine in Mallos was very famous and very truthful, and that it responded clearly, answering word for word whatever someone wrote on a tablet and handed over to the prophet. So I thought that it would be a good idea to test the oracle and ask the god for some advice about the future –– .”

(39) While Eukrates was still speaking these words, I [Tychiades] left him sailing from Egypt to Mallos, since I could see how the whole thing was going to turn out and that the tragic story about oracles would not be short and since I did not want to oppose everyone all alone. I was also aware of their awkwardness at me being there to criticize their lies. “I am going away,” I [Tychiades] said, “to look up Leontichos, for I want to speak to him about something. As for you, since you do not think that human experiences give you sufficient things to talk about, go ahead and call in the gods themselves to help you out in your romancing.” With that I went out. They were glad to have a free hand and they continued, of course, to feast and to gorge themselves with lies. There you have it, Philokles! After hearing all that at the house of Eukrates, I am going around with a swollen stomach like a man who has drunk too much sweet juice, looking for something to help me throw it up. I would be glad if I could buy a dose of forgetfulness – even for a high price somewhere – so that the memory of what I heard doesn’t stay with me and cause me some harm. In fact, I think I see apparitions, spirits, and Hekates!


Source of translation: A. M. Harmon, Lucian, volumes 1-5, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1913-1936), public domain (passed away in 1950), adapted and modernized by Harland.

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