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Pilgrimage as Biography in Antiquity: Travel, Process, and Liminality in Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana

Carson Bay

Florida State University

Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana shares with many ancient biographies the penchant to present its subject as a paragon of virtue. What it does not share with many of these biographies is its method. Philostratus’s Life reads like one long pilgrimage account. This paper applies the most common anthropological framework associated with pilgrimage accounts to this Life as a heuristic for understanding the dynamics of Philostratus’s rhetorical strategy.

Philostratus’s Life casts Apollonius of Tyana as “the man” (ἀνὴρ) or, as Christopher Jones translates this, “the master” (2005: 37, 39), a miraculous and godlike figure (Berner 1990: 130). The literary strategy that Philostratus’s biography uses to demonstrate this identification involves a long travel narrative, resembling in many ways a quintessential pilgrimage account. Apollonius decides to undertake a journey longer than any he has taken heretofore, to “the country of India and the wise men there called Brahmans and Hyrcanians” (1.18). This journey contains the fundamental constituent features of a pilgrimage: 1) leaving ‘life as usual;’ 2) travelling to a distant, defined destination; 3) undergoing a religiously-moded existential transformation; 4) returning, changed, to ‘life as usual.’ Apollonius’s journey also contains another fundamental component of pilgrimage: social dynamics. Reading Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius as a pilgrimage illuminates numerous narrative features of the work and a novel component of what Hägg has called “the Art of biography” (Hägg 2012).

The anthropologist Victor Turner, following the groundbreaking work of Arnold van Gennep, became the definitive voice in understanding pilgrimages as rites de passages in the late twentieth century. Both scholars stressed the underlying foundation of pilgrimages qua rituals, which is to understand such journeys as “liminal phenomena” (Turner 1975: 166) wherein the “ritual subject … becomes ambiguous” while passing through the phases of “separation, limen or margin, and aggregation” (van Gennep 1960: 11). This processual perspective is immediately applicable to Philostratus’s Life. The Life’s narrative portrays its subject Apollonius undergoing a long journey that looks like an extended ritual process and ends up changing Apollonius in the eyes of the reader. This paper explores the narrative features of the Life and shows how consistently and markedly they bear affinity to the several features of ‘pilgrimages as liminal experiences’ as described by Turner and van Gennep. Such correspondence is not surprising. Philostratus inhabited a world where ritual procession was ubiquitously understood as a means of existential change; indeed, features of Philostratus’s story resonate with well-known pilgrimage centers for ritual of the ancient world: the mountain on which Apollonius encounters the Brahmins is explicitly likened to the Athenian Acropolis, site of the world-famous Eleusinion.

Overall, this paper presents a novel hermeneutic by which to read Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius: as a literary analogy to the anthropological phenomenon of pilgrimage as ritual process. This rhetorical strategy allows Philostratus to extol at length a character to whom he wants to credit extraordinary virtue and wisdom via a ritualized travel narrative that mirrors in many ways the actual dynamics by which people change or are thought to change during pilgrimages. More broadly, this paper seeks to contribute to the study of biography in antiquity generally by noting how numerous ancient biographies play on the theme of ritualized travel narratives to illustrate fundamental change in their biographical objects. The Gospel of Luke, portions of Plutarch’s Lives, Josephus’s autobiography (The Life), and Jerome’s Lives of Illustrious Men all proffer, at different levels, fruitful comparanda. In closing, this paper makes of its central argument a broader point: namely that, at various levels, ancient biography made use of the pilgrimage—the travel narrative understood as ritual process—to shape its characters. Such narratives, both as literary tropes and embodied processes, were widely acknowledged in antiquity, and their proximity to anthropological theory of pilgrimage gives them a realism which, even if unintended and unconscious, lends them the natural credibility of being realistic. 

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The Art of Biography in Antiquity

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