Academic journal article Ancient Narrative

The Wisdom of Egypt: Base and Heavenly Magic in Heliodoros' Aithiopika

Academic journal article Ancient Narrative

The Wisdom of Egypt: Base and Heavenly Magic in Heliodoros' Aithiopika

Article excerpt


Among the extant ancient Greek novels, the Aithiopika is striking for the quantity of magic it contains, yet there has been a dearth of concerted research on the subject, save for considerations of the ways in which magic contributes to the portrayal of Kalasiris' character. (1) I hope to go some way towards stopping this gap, arguing that Kalasiris' division of wisdom in Book Three into the base and the true evokes Plato's categorisation of love as Pandemic and Heavenly, and provides a framework by which the reader may gauge the characters and events of the novel. I also offer an interpretation of Charikleia's recognition tokens, which proceeds from the understanding that magic fulfils a didactic and characterising function in the work. The study begins with a brief discussion of Kalasiris who, by virtue of his taxonomy of wisdom, stands as a focal point for the magic in the novel; the second section then traces the theme of base magic, and the third of true. (2)

Kalasiris: Charlatan, Pythagorean, and Platonist

   ... there is one kind [of wisdom] that is of low rank and...crawls
   upon the earth; it waits upon ghosts and skulks around dead bodies;
   it is addicted to magic herbs, and spells are its stock-in-trade;
   no good ever comes of it; no benefit ever accrues to its
   practitioners; generally it brings about its own downfall, and its
   occasional successes are paltry and mean-spirited-- the unreal made
   to appear real, hopes brought to nothing; it devises wickedness and
   panders to corrupt pleasures. But there is another kind, my son,
   true wisdom, of which the first sort is but a counterfeit that has
   stolen its title; true wisdom it is that we priests ... practice
   from childhood; its eyes are raised towards heaven; it keeps
   company with the gods and partakes of the nature of the Great Ones;
   it studies the movement of the stars and thus gains knowledge of
   the future; it has no truck with the wicked, earthly concerns of
   the other kind, but all its energies are directed to what is good
   and beneficial to mankind. (3)

So says Kalasiris to Knemon in Book Three. His words are prompted by the assumption of others that all Egyptian magic is of one type and that, because he is an Egyptian, he must be versed in magical practice. Such stereotyping is found widely in ancient sources, (4) although Heliodoros is remarkable for making Kalasiris manipulate the stereotype himself. The above passage suggests that Kalasiris wishes to dissociate himself from low rank magic, yet he has previously, and will again, encourage Charikles and Theagenes to believe that he possesses this 'Egyptian' magical knowledge: at 3,7,2 Kalasiris claims that Charikleia has been afflicted by the evil eye, knowing full well that she is actually lovesick; at 4,5,3ff he embarks on a mock exorcism of the evil eye, and convinces Charikles that he has caused Charikleia to fall in love by the power of his magic. Kalasiris' performance is clearly fraudulent, and Charikles later denounces him as a charlatan,(5) reflecting the accusations levelled at gurus such as Pythagoras and Alexander of Abonouteichos.(6) Kalasiris' modus operandi in these scenes is familiar and only to be expected, particularly of an Egyptian, (7) although we should note that Charikleia is not taken in by Kalasiris in the exorcism scene, which appears to establish a likemindedness between them. Kalasiris manipulates the guru stereotype for a higher purpose: by appearing to advocate the base magic he abhors, he remains faithful to his divinely sanctioned mission to return Charikleia to the land of her birth, and his 'energies are directed to what is good and beneficial to mankind.'(8)

Kalasiris' ascetic and itinerant lifestyle, together with his physical appearance, align him rather more with Pythagoreanism than with the Isis cult of which he was high priest. (9) Sources suggest, however, that Isiacism and Pythagoreanism shared certain features, at least in popular belief: Lucian tells us of an Egyptian sorcerer, Pankrates, who spent twenty-three years underground learning magic from Isis, while Diogenes Laertios asserts that Pythagoras descended into Egyptian crypts to gain his wisdom. …

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