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“That’s not the way I heard it:” Folkloric Mechanisms in the Creation of Philostratus’s Vita Apollonii

James Henriques

University of Texas Austin

Philostratus, in describing the sources for his biography of the 1st century Neopythagorean sage Apollonius of Tyana, complains that a certain Moeragenes, “does not deserve attention: he wrote four books about Apollonius and yet was greatly ignorant about the master” (VA I.3.2). Given remarks like this, among others, a substantial portion of modern scholarly discussion of Philostratus’s Vita Apollonii has been occupied by the debate about the identity and nature of Philostratus’s sources. Such attention to sources is warranted, as the results of these inquiries bear immediate relevance to the larger scholarly questions regarding the VA, particularly Philostratus’s own motives for composing it (Francis 1998). In regard to Moeragenes, modern scholarship has been divided as to whether he was hostile to Apollonius (i.e., portraying him as a sorcerer or charlatan) (Meyer 1912; Anderson 1986), or sympathetic (Bowie 1978; Raynor 1984). If Moeragenes was hostile, then Philostratus’s motivations for writing a new biography are obvious. The arguments for a Moeragenes who was sympathetic to Apollonius, however, are quite compelling (Abraham 2009); but this route leaves unanswered the question as to why Philostratus would disparage a potentially valuable source. This paper offers a possible solution to this conundrum—as well as to several others that have plagued modern discussion of the VA—by arguing that a drastic change in the religious landscape of the ancient Mediterranean occurred between the 1st and 3rd centuries, resulting in divergent views of Apollonius between Philostratus and his predecessors.

Specifically, this paper argues that the entry of Christianity into the Greco-Roman world introduced several new ideas to an already competitive religious marketplace. Many of these ideas were further disseminated to the non-Christian public through the popular media of the Second Sophistic. Philostratus’s Apollonius, therefore, was the turning point in the development of a new type of literary-historical archetype—the miracle-worker (or “divine man”)—that did not exist prior to the first century. Modern scholars have been led astray by assuming that this character-type was static, universal, and pre-dated Christianity (including both sides in the debate surrounding the theios aner hypothesis (Bieler 1967; Koskenniemi 1991, 1994, 1998; Flinterman 1996; and Du Toit 1997)). This paper suggests, instead, that the popular religious imaginary of the ancient Mediterranean had been significantly altered in the time between the death of the historical Apollonius and the publication of Philostratus’ biography in the 3rd century.

To demonstrate this shift, this paper borrows theoretical models from the field of folklore studies. Given the particular prominence of oral communication, as well as a tenuous relationship with “truth” in the worlds of folklore (Oring 2008) and the Second Sophistic (Bowersock 1997), such models are especially applicable to understanding Philostratus’s biography of Apollonius (Anderson 2009). Diachronic studies demonstrating the reasons and mechanisms behind the growth of legends surrounding historical personages (Fair 1998; Henken 2002), for instance, give significant weight to the likelihood that Philostratus understood Apollonius in a fundamentally different way than his sources. Particularly important for this study is the concept of “ostensive action,” a theoretical model folklore studies borrowed from semiotics (Dégh and Vázsonyi 1983; Ellis 2003). “Ostensive action” highlights the way in which legend inspires certain real-life actions that further contribute to that legend, a kind of anti-mimesis. With such a model in mind, this paper demonstrates that certain aspects of Christianity—particularly a more sharply defined distinction between “magic” and “miracle”—altered the legends surrounding Apollonius, and that, through the media of the Second Sophistic, Christian ideas about the divine and the supernatural affected the way subsequent non-Christian Greco-Roman intellectuals like Philostratus viewed and interpreted past “divine intermediaries.”

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God and Man in the Second Sophistic

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