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Ambiguous Epiphanies in the Novels of the Second Sophistic

Barbara Blythe

Tulane University

            The Second Sophistic gave rise to considerable interest in divine intervention. Despite the decline of certain sanctuaries and cult practices, gods were thought to communicate with devotees regularly by means of dreams, waking visions, and oracular responses. Tales describing and authenticating divine miracles gained popularity. There also arose a tradition of texts expressing skeptical attitudes toward such phenomena.

            Cult practice plays a prominent role in the Greek and Roman novels of the Second Sophistic. The protagonists pray to gods, visit temples, consult priests, offer sacrifices and dedications, undergo incubation rituals, and participate in religious festivals. Divine machinery in these novels often receives an ambiguous treatment, as the narratives overwhelmingly prioritize indirect communication with the gods by means of dreams and oracles over direct divine intervention. Whitmarsh (2011, 193-95) and Cioffi (2014, 34-35) note that direct epiphanies that take place while awake occur only rarely in the novels. Such direct epiphanic experiences are generally set in the past, reported by a potentially unreliable narrator, or removed in some other way from the main narrative. Deities frequently visit the protagonists and other characters in dreams in order to provide information or issue commands, yet, as I argue, the novelists often purposefully obscure the issue of whether we should view these dreams as epiphanies of the divine or as manifestations of psychological phenomena. I suggest that this tension in the ancient novels reflects the Zeitgeist of the Second Sophistic, which produced a diverse and vibrant array of accounts of divine intervention, many of which were met with skepticism.

            I focus on four examples that illustrate the ambiguity that pervades most accounts of divine epiphany in the novels of the Second Sophistic. In Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, an old man named Philetas claims that he witnessed an epiphany of Eros in his garden (2.4-6). Longus offers hints that the reader should consider the possibility that Philetas’ story is a fictional allegory rather than a factual account of an actual encounter with the divine. Later in the same novel, a character named Lycaenion claims that the local nymphs appeared to her in a dream and instructed her to teach Daphnis how to make love to Chloe (3.15-20). Longus treats the episode in an ambiguous manner that allows the reader to interpret the dream either as a genuine command from the nymphs that fits well with Lycaenion’s own desires or as simply a clever fabrication on the part of a scheming seductress. The appearance of a character with the evocative name Dionysophanes (“Dionysus manifest”) brings the novel’s various conflicts to an end as a human deus ex machina (4.13). In Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, Lucius reports that Isis appeared to him in a magnificent epiphany as he slept on a beach (11.3-7). She then continued to appear to him in dreams throughout his later initiations (11.19-22). I argue that Apuleius leaves it up to the reader to decide whether these are actual appearances by the goddess or products of Lucius’ overactive imagination.   

            I conclude by mentioning briefly a few more ways in which the novels offer problematic views of cult practice that are emblematic of attitudes toward religion during the Second Sophistic. These texts are full of characters straddling the line between priest and charlatan, tensions between the universal and the local in cult practice, and attempts to authenticate religious miracles in the face of skepticism. As texts that display marked preoccupations with cult apparatus, epiphany in its various manifestations, and conceptions of divine machinery that vary from the mystic to the mundane, the ancient novels offer unique perspectives on several significant religious trends of the Second Sophistic.

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God and Man in the Second Sophistic

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