Chaldaeans And Syrians

49 A Chaldaean Babylonian revives a snake-bite victim and blasts snakes ii A.D.

Lucian Philopseudes 11-3


11. "Forget him," said Ion. "I'll tell you an amazing story. It took place when I was a lad, just about fourteen years old. Someone came with news for my father that Midas the vine-dresser, a generally strong and hard-working slave, had been bitten by a viper at around noon, and was lying there with his leg already going rotten. For as he had been tying up the vine tendrils and winding them around the props, the creature had crept up on him and bitten him on his big toe. Then it had slipped off again and shot down its hole, while he was left to wail, dying from the pain. This was the news, and then we saw Midas himself being carried in on a stretcher by his fellow slaves, his whole body swollen and livid. He looked clammy, and he was only just still breathing. My father was upset, but a friend who happened to be present said, 'Don't worry. For I'll go after a Babylonian fellow, one of the Chaldaeans, as they say, right away, and he will cure your man.' To make a long story short, the Babylonian came and set Midas back on his feet by driving the poison out of his body with an incantation. Also, he tied a rock he had chipped off a virgin's tombstone to his foot. You may think this a rather ordinary achievement. Even so, Midas himself picked up the stretcher on which he had been brought and went off straight back to the farm. That was the power of the incantation and the piece of tombstone. And the Babylonian did other things too that were truly marvelous. 12. He went out to the farm at dawn, recited seven sacred names from an old book, and purified the place with a torch, encircling it three times. He called out all the reptiles within its boundaries. There came as if drawn to the incantation many snakes, asps, vipers, horned snakes, darting snakes, common toads, and puff-toads. Only one old snake was left behind, unable to crawl out or too deaf to hear the command. The mage said someone was missing, and chose out the youngest snake and sent it with a message, and shortly that snake too arrived. When they were all assembled, the Babylonian blew upon them all. At once they were all burned up by the blast, and we looked on in amazement." 13. "Tell me, Ion," I said, "did the young snake that took the message lead the snake of, as you say, advanced age back by the hand, or did the old snake have a stick with which to support himself?"

In THE PHILOPSEUDES (excerpted ALSO at 51, 54, 115, 244, 275) Lucian presents a series of supposedly incredible tales on the themes of ghosts and magic, ostensibly to be scoffed at, but their entertaining nature suggests a more complex attitude on the author's part. Lucian gives us another Chaldaean Babylonian, this time an expert in necromancy, in the figure of the Mithrobarzanes who escorts his Menippus down into the underworld (148). Theocritus had perhaps had a Chaldaean in mind when he referred to the "Assyrian" who had taught Simaetha the power of evil herbs (89); for Chaldaeans as "Assyrian" see 44. See further 2, 42, 44, 286, 291-2, 294, including some of the copious evidence for the repeated expulsions of "Chaldaeans" from Rome.

The revival of Midas has affinities both with healing (see 13, 256-66) and with reanimation (155-62), since the victim's flesh has already mortified. The fragment of the virgin's tombstone is evidently a mechanism for bringing to bear on the wound the action of a ghost in the key categories of dead-before-her-time and unmarried (see 110, 112, 181). This is a particularly vivid account of the commonplace ancient magical activity of snake-bursting or -blasting (see 3, 35, 47, 55, 66, 68, 69, 90, 96, 220 and, for the snake-bursting Marsi, Pliny 28.28). The seven sacred names were no doubt voces magicae (compare 174). For the purificatory circle see 30 with commentary.

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