Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Babylonian wisdom: Lucian’s Menippos visits Mithrobarzanes the Chaldean / Magian wise man (late second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified September 19, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=17641.
Ancient author: Lucian of Samosata (mid-second century CE), Menippos, or the Descent into Hades (link).
Comments: A repeating pattern in stories about seeking wisdom is the notion of finding wisdom in foreign places, or at least from foreign sources. And so, Thessalos finds his Egyptian priestly holy man who brings a vision of a god (link), Harpokration finds his Assyrian interpreter who expounds secret knowledge etched on a monument (link), and Plutarch relates a tale about Kleombrotos’ journeys to a man beyond the Persian gulf who dwelled among half-gods and nymphs (link). Jesus adherents could participate as well, as Pseudo-Clement’s autobiographical story has Clement journeying to the Judean sage, Peter (link). Furthermore, Lucian of Samosata in Syria repeatedly develops the theme with characters like Eukrates and Pankrates (link) and, here, Menippos (a favourite character of Lucian’s based on the Cynic satirist Menippos of Gadara).
Lucian humourously pictures Menippos returning from a journey to a far-off place, the realm of Hades itself, in order to gain knowledge about what’s important in life. Lucian’s friend interrogates about how Menippos managed to do this seemingly impossible journey. The answer is, a wise man named Mithrobarzanes who is somewhat confusingly depicted as both a Magian in line with Zoroaster (i.e. Persian wise man) and a Chaldean (i.e. Babylonian wise man). Persian Magians and Babylonian Chaldeans are sometimes blurred elsewhere when evoked as stereotypical, eastern wise figures, and Ammianus Marcellinus, for instance, knows of a tradition (perhaps echoed in Lucian’s conception) that has Magian knowledge as derivative of the Chaldeans’ (link). One of the earlier extant Greek ethnographic accounts of these groups of foreign wise men, by Kleitarchos (fourth-third centuries BCE), places the two groups together (link). As with other stories of journeys in pursuit of true wisdom, Menippos first tries out a variety of local philosophical options before turning to such superior foreign sources.
You can read more about Thessalos and journeys in pursuit of foreign wisdom in the following scholarly articles by Phil:
Source of the translation: A. M. Harmon, Lucian, 8 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961), public domain, adapted and modernized by Harland.
[What led Menippos to journey down to the realm of Hades to find out what the best life is]
[omitted material] . . .
Friend: Don’t quote the motion, my dear fellow, before telling me what I should be especially glad to hear from you. In other words, what was the purpose of your going down [to the realm of Hades], who was your guide for the journey, and then, in due order, what you saw and heard there. For it is to be expected, of course, that as a man of taste you did not overlook anything worth seeing or hearing.
Menippos: I must meet your wishes in that, too, for what is a man to do when a friend constrains him? First, then, I will tell you about my decision, about what impelled me to go down [to the realm of Hades]. While I was a boy, I read in Homer and Hesiod about wars and quarrels, not only of the half-gods but of the gods themselves, and besides about their love affairs, assaults, abductions, lawsuits and banishing fathers and marrying sisters. I thought that all these things were right, and I felt an uncommon impulsion toward them. But when I came of age, I found that the laws contradicted the poets and forbade adultery, quarrelling, and theft. So I was plunged into great uncertainty, not knowing how to deal with my own case. I thought that the gods would never have committed adultery and quarrelled with each other unless they considered these actions right, and the lawgivers would not recommend the opposite course unless they thought it would be advantageous.
Since I was in a dilemma, I resolved to go to the men whom they call “lovers of wisdom” (philosophers) and put myself into their hands, begging them to deal with me as they would, and to show me a plain, solid path in life. That was what I had in mind when I went to them, but I was unconsciously struggling out of the smoke, as the proverb goes, right into the fire! For I found in the course of my investigation that among these men in particular the ignorance and the perplexity was greater than elsewhere, so that they speedily convinced me that the ordinary man’s way of living is as good as gold.
[Consulting Greek wisdom sects in the pursuit of wisdom]
For instance, one of them would recommend that I take my pleasure always and to pursue that under all circumstances, because that was happiness. However, another would on the other hand recommend me to toil and work always and to subdue my body, going dirty and dishevelled, irritating everybody and calling names. To clinch his argument, he was perpetually reciting those trite lines of Hesiod’s about virtue, and talking about “sweat” and the “climb to the summit” [Hesiod, Works and Days, 287ff]. Another would urge me to despise money and think it a matter of indifference whether one has it or not. At the same time, someone else would, on the contrary, demonstrate that even wealth was good. As to the universe, what is the use of talking about that? “Ideas,” “incorporealities,” “atoms,” “voids,” and a multitude of such terms were dinned into my ears by them every day until it made me queasy.
The strangest thing was that when they expressed the most contradictory of opinions, each of them would produce very effective and plausible arguments, so that when the exact thing was called hot by one and cold by another, it was impossible for me to controvert either of them. Nonetheless, I knew very well that nothing could ever be hot and cold at the same time. So in good earnest I acted like a drowsy man, now leaning my head forwards, and then tossing it backwards.
But there was something else, far more unreasonable than that. I found, upon observing these same people, that their practice directly opposed their preaching. For instance, I perceived that those who recommended scorning money held onto it tooth and nail, bickered about interest, taught for pay, and underwent everything for the sake of money. Furthermore, those who were for rejecting public opinion aimed at that very thing not only in all that they did, but in all that they said. Also that while almost all of them inveighed against pleasure, they privately devoted themselves to that alone.
[Consulting foreign wise men: Magians, Chaldeans]
Disappointed, therefore, in this expectation, I was still more uncomfortable than before. Nonetheless, I consoled myself somewhat with the thought that if I was still foolish and went around in ignorance about the truth, in any event I had the company of many wise men, widely renowned for intelligence.
So one time, while I lay awake over these problems, I resolved to go to Babylon and address myself to one of the Magians, the disciples and successors of Zoroaster [Magians and Zoroaster are usually associated with Persians rather than Babylonians, but not always]. I had heard that with certain charms and ceremonials they could open the gates of Hades, taking down in safety anyone they would and guiding him back again. Consequently, I thought it was best to arrange with one of these men for my going down, and then to call upon Teiresias of Boiotia and find out from him in his capacity of prophet and sage what the best life was, the life that a man of sense would choose.
Well, springing to my feet, I went straight for Babylon as fast as I could go. On my arrival, I conversed with one of the Chaldeans [shifting what is usually expected in Babylonia], a wise man of miraculous skill, with grey hair and a very majestic beard. His name was Mithrobarzanes. Through forceful supplications and requests, I secured his reluctant consent to be my guide on the journey at whatever price he would. So the man took me in charge, and first of all, for twenty-nine days, beginning with the new moon, he took me down to the Euphrates in the early morning, toward sunrise, and bathed me. After that he would make a long address which I could not follow very well for, like an incompetent announcer at the games, he spoke quickly and indistinctly. It is likely, however, that he was invoking certain spirits. Anyhow, after the incantation he would spit in my face three times and then go back again without looking at anyone whom he met. We ate nuts, drank milk, mead, and the water of the Choaspes, and slept out of doors on the grass.
When he considered the preliminary course of dieting satisfactory, taking me to the Tigris river at midnight he purged me, cleansed me, and consecrated me with torches and squills and many other things, murmuring his incantation as he did so. Then after he had charmed me from head to foot and walked all around me, sothat I might not be harmed by the phantoms, he took me home again, just as I was, walking backward. After that, we made ready for the journey. He himself put on a Magian’s gown very like the Median dress, and speedily costumed me in these things which you see: the cap, the lion’s skin, and the lyre besides. He also urged me, if anyone should ask my name, not to say Menippos, but Herakles or Odysseus or Orpheus.
Friend: What was his object in that, Menippus? I do not understand the reason either for the costume or for the names.
Menippus: Why, that, at any rate, is obvious and not at all shrouded in mystery. Since they had been before us in going down to Hades alive, he thought that if he should make me look like them, I might easily slip by the frontier-guard of Aiakos and go in unhindered as something of an old acquaintance. For thanks to my costume they would speed me along on my journey just as they do in the plays. Well, day was just beginning to break when we went down to the river and set about getting under way. He had provided a boat, victims, mead, and everything else that we should need for the ritual. So we shipped all the stores, and at length ourselves “Gloomily hied us aboard, with great tears falling profusely” (Homer, Odyssey 11.5).
For a space we drifted along in the river, and then we sailed into the marsh and the lake in which the Euphrates loses itself. After crossing this, we came to a deserted, woody, sunless place. There at last we landed with Mithrobarzanes leading the way; we dug a pit, we slaughtered the sheep, and we sprinkled their blood about it. Meanwhile the magician held a burning torch and no longer muttered in a low tone but shouted as loudly as he could, invoking the spirits, one and all, at the top of his lungs; also the Tormentors, the Furies,
“Hecate, queen of the night, and eery Persephoneia.”1
With these names he intermingled a number of foreign-sounding, meaningless words of many syllables.
In a trice the whole region began to quake, the ground was rent asunder by the incantation, barking of Cerberus was audible afar off, and things took on a monstrously gloomy and sullen look. “Yes, deep down it scared the king of the dead, Aidoneus” . For by that time we could see almost everything: the Lake, and the River of Burning Fire, and the palace of Ploutos. But in spite of it all, we went down through the chasm, finding Rhadamanthos almost dead of fright. Kerberos barked a bit, to be sure, and stirred slightly, but when I hastily touched my lyre he was at once enchanted by the music. When we reached the lake, however, we came near not getting across, for the ferry was already crowded and full of groaning. Only wounded men were aboard, one injured in the leg, another in the head, and so on. They were there, in my opinion, through some war or other.
However, when good old Charon saw the lion-skin he thought that I was Herakles, so he took me in, and not only ferried me across gladly but pointed out the path for us when we went ashore. Since we were in the dark, Mithrobarzanes led the way and I followed after, keeping hold of him, until we reached a very large meadow overgrown with asphodel, where the shades of the dead flitted squeaking about us. Going ahead little by little, we came to the court of Minos. As it chanced, he himself was sitting on a lofty throne, while beside him stood the Tormentors, the Furies, and the Avengers. From one side a great number of men were being led up in line, bound together with a long chain. They were said to be adulterers, procurers, tax-collectors, toadies, informers, and all that crowd of people who create such confusion in life. In a separate company the millionaires and the money-lenders came up, pale, pot-bellied, and gouty, each of them with a neck-iron and a hundred-pound “crow” upon him. Standing by, we looked at what was going on, and listened to the pleas of the defendants, who were prosecuted by speakers of a novel and surprising sort. . . [omitted remainder of dialogue].