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Silence as a Sign of Personal Contact with God(s): New Perspectives on a Religious Attitude

Lucia Maddalena Tissi

This paper focuses on the significance of ‘silence’ as a sign of personal contact with god(s) in late antiquity and on its connection with personal and public religious spheres. Effectively, religion was not only based on oral prayers (Pulleyn), but also on silence. Normally requested before a solemn act, dialogue  or divine epiphany mirroring a literary topos (e.g. Mesom. H. II 1-6), silence covered also a ritual function echoing mystery code (OC 132 des Places) or becoming a gnostic entity (CH 13.2). Yet, when and why did silence play such an important role? What is the relation between silence and personal religion? What is the impact of silence on pagan and Christian thought? To answer all these issues this paper first of all draws attention to some noteworthy magical and divinatory practices associated with self-improvement and contact with god(s).

In recent years many works, inspired by the sociology of religion, have contributed significantly to the study on communication between individual and collectivities within religious contexts (Rüpke). Specifically, scholars focused on some religious phenomena, like the diffusion of mystery cults (West; Scarpi), of magic and ritual practices (Faraone–Obbink; Luck; Mirecki–Meyer) and of private divination (Johnston– Struck; Busine). In the so-called Mithrasliturgie (PGM IV 475-750), for example, the initiated ascends from the sunrays to God demanding silence (Dieterich). In this case, silence and magic prescriptions are employed to gain personal interaction with the divine, but they require an outward ceremony. Moreover, as Arthur Nock pointed out, public and political oracles, promoted by poleis, were replaced with  private‘theological’ ones reflecting inner religious doubts of individuals of late antiquity.

In a second part this paper investigates the origin of personal initiation associated with silence as a means to relate to the divine in a private sphere. This doctrine of silence in opposition to ritualism, derived from Pythagorean philosophy, was strongly promoted by Apollonius of Tyana who suggested worshiping god with the best logos: silence (Eus. PE 4.13). Therefore, silence was considered as a signum mysticum of an inner interaction with the divine. Specifically, Neo-platonic philosophers enhanced silence not only as a rhetorical strategy (Poster), but also as a sign of reverence to gods (Porph. Antr. 27.16-19; Iamb. Protr. 21); Proclus himself designated God as more ineffable than any silence (Theol.Plat. II 11 p. 65.5-15 Saffrey–Westerink). Furthermore, silence as inner progress was required before divine epiphanies among Christian writers (e.g. Syn. H. 1.83; Aug. De vera rel. 39.72).

Finally, this paper aims at considering the evolution of the desire to enter into contact with god. In late antiquity personal epiphanies and visions of god(s) had an impressive proliferation: a philosopher like Proclus, for example, was enlightened by a special light for his own perception of the divine (Marin. Procl. 23). Similarly Heraiskus, teacher of philosophy in Alexandria at the end of V c. A.D., has a sort of luminous mystic and miraculous genesis after having been mummified (Dam. Hist.phil. fr. 76A Athanassiadi = fr.172 Zinzten). These personal contacts and assimilations with god, known as ὁµοίωσις θεῷ, denote a new role of personal religion.

In conclusion, this study aims to shed light on the mystic value of silence in late antique texts as a manner of interaction with god(s), providing a broad reconstruction of the evolution of a significant concept in our perception of religion. Moreover, it considers some mystic ‘rebirths’ mirroring contact between ‘holy men’ (Brown) and god as a sign of personal illumination. This research will illustrate how, step by step, the private sphere constituted a mental space separated by public and institutional religion, playing an important role in the formation of our cultural identity.

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Ancient Greek Personal Religion

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