mystic, occult


The Story of Apollonius of Tyana - Ancient Wonder Worker

Apollonius of Tyana was a first century Neo Pythagorean, a charismatic philosopher, teacher, vegetarian and miracle worker. He was perhaps the most famous philosopher of the Gr?co-Roman world and a contemporary of Jesus,
with whom he has frequently been compared. Apollonius travelled extensively for his time, visiting Syria, Egypt and India among other places, and was credited with many impossible wonders and great wisdom. During his lifetime and afterwards, he achieved almost mythical fame, and his teachings have been an influence on both scientific and spiritual thought for more than 2000 years.

Apollonius of TyanaApollonius wrote numerous books and treatises on various subjects, including philosophy, science and medicine, but unfortunately none of these survive. There are brief mentions of him in ancient works by Christian authors such as St. Jerome and St. Augustine, but the main source for Apollonius is the Life of Apollonius written by the Athenian author Flavius Philostratus (cAD 170-245). Composed in Greek about AD 216 and consisting of eight books, this is the only surviving biography of the great sage. It is apparently based on a journal kept by Apollonius's companion, Damis, and was commissioned by Julia Domna of Syria, second wife of the Emperor Septimius Severus, and Caracalla's mother. One reason which has been suggested for Julia Domna?s requesting such a work was to counter the influence of Christianity on Roman civilization.

Indeed, some researchers have even seen it as an attempt to construct a miracle-working rival to Jesus Christ, which is a reasonable hypothesis. The work itself is an odd mixture of historical truth and outright romantic fiction, which is one of the reasons why so little is known for certain about Apollonius. In fact, there are so many miraculous occurrences in the book that many people of the time believed Apollonius of Tyana to be a completely fictitious character. Even today there are a few people of this opinion.

LIfe of the Mystic

Apollonius was born around AD 2 in Tyana (modern day Bor, in southern Turkey), in the Roman province of Cappadocia. He was born into a wealthy and respected Cappadocian Greek family, and received the best education available, studying grammar and rhetoric in Tarsus, learning medicine at the temple of Aesculapius at Aegae, and philosophy at the School of Pythagoras. At the age of sixteen he adopted the discipline of the Pythagorean School and pursued its austere lifestyle. He allowed his hair to grow long, abstained from marriage, wine and animal flesh, wore only linen clothing, never shaved, and slept on the bare earth. Before long, Apollonius became well-known for his extreme habits and also for his severe criticism of the pagan practice of sacrificing animals to the gods. He later gave most of his family inheritance to his elder brother, and the remaining to his poor relations, retaining only enough to meet his basic needs. Allegedly, he then began a five year period of complete silence.

This silence seems to have enhanced the deeply spiritual aura surrounding him and increased his reputation as a knowledgeable seer. Some of the less believable parts of Philostratus?s work describe Apollonius as a superhuman, who possessed knowledge of all languages without studying, could read people's minds, understood the language of birds and animals, and had the ability to predict the future.                           

Fascinated by the secret doctrines of the religions of the known world, and devoted to the purification of the numerous cults throughout the Roman Empire, Apollonius embarked on a quest to discover, understand, reform, and teach his own unique brand of neo-Pythagorean philosophy wherever he could. According to Philostratus, he traversed much of Asia Minor
(modern day Turkey), Persia, India, Nineveh, Babylon, and Egypt where he visited the cataracts of the Nile. It was on these travels that he came into contact with and learned from the oriental mysticism of magi, Brahmans and gymnosophists, and also met his scribe and main disciple, Damis, whose records of the events in the life of the philosopher supposedly influenced Philostratus's biography.

For a time the great Sage and his disciple were based at the ancient city of Ephesus (in modern Turkey), where he became well-known for condemning the idleness and materialistic lifestyle of much of the population. One story goes that during his stay at Ephesus Apollonius sought entry into the mysteries of the Ephesian goddess, but was violently rejected by the priests there. Before leaving the city he prophesised that a dreadful plague would infest it and that the priests would soon be begging for his help. At first they ignored this seemingly baseless warning, but soon afterwards, when the deadly disease arrived, the priests had no choice but to send for the great magician. When he came he identified the cause of the problem as an old, filthy beggar, who he instructed the crowd to stone to death immediately.

Naturally they were unwilling to perform such a cruel act, but Apollonius persisted in his accusations and the poor man was pelted with a volley of stones. When the people afterwards removed the pile of stones to extract the body, they apparently found the corpse of a huge black dog lying underneath. Apollonius identified this as the cause of the pestilence, which stopped at that moment. After this performance, a second request for admission into the Ephesian mysteries was immediately granted. Apparently Apollonius was also allowed entrance into the Mysteries of the Temple of Apollo at Antioch in Syria, and became an initiate of the Eleusinian Mysteries, in Eleusina, west of Athens.

The Vampire of Corinth

An odd, folkloric-sounding tale told about Apollonius involves the wedding of a former student of his, a young man called Menippus, who lived in Corinth. Menippus was about to marry a beautiful rich woman, whom he had first glimpsed in a vision. Apollonius was one of the guests at the feast and noticed that something about the bride was not right. After watching her carefully for a while he proclaimed that she was in fact a Lamia (a kind of vampire), and used his powers to make all the false luxuries of the banquet, including  the guests disappear, thus showing them to be an hallucination constructed by the vampire-girl. After this act the disguise faded and the real Lamia was revealed. This bizarre tail was used as the basis for John Keats's 1819 poem Lamia and has the flavour of an allegorical story, illustrating Apollonius's philosophy regarding the dangers of an overly materialistic society.

During the reign of the infamous Emperor Nero (AD 54 - AD 68), Apollonius and eight of his disciples were living in Rome, despite the fact that Nero was known for persecuting philosophers. According to stories, Nero's consul, Telesimus was impressed with the group, who were even allowed to assist in modifying existing temple practices. Whether it was this that incited the fury of Nero is not known, but the group were soon in danger of their lives. In the end they somehow managed to escape, perhaps due to Tigellinus's superstitious fear of Apollonius. During his stay in the city of Alexandria, in Egypt, the sage became friends with Vespasian, who had recently put down the Great Jewish Revolt in Jerusalem, and was to be Emperor of Rome from 69 to 79. Through Vespasian's son Titus, ruler of the Roman Empire from 79 to 81, Apollonius became aquainted with many important Roman officials and seems to have been in favour of a well-run and democratic Empire.

Unfortunately, Titus's successor as Roman Emperor was the paranoid and reckless Titus Flavius Domitianus, who had banished all philosophers from Rome and had a network of spies and informers at work throughout the Empire. These spies soon heard of Apollonius's condemnation of Domitian's methods and he was accused of treason. Apollonius forestalled prosecution by arriving in Rome voluntarily and was immediately arrested and flung into prison. Domitian sent for the famous philosopher with the intention of interviewing him privately and then putting him on public trial. However, the imposing yet reverent steadfastness shown by Apollonius apparently won over the Emperor, either that or he was extremely intimidated by him, and he was allowed to go free.

Another story about Apollonius described him delivering a speech in Ephesus when his voice suddenly dropped and he seemed to be losing concentration. He then fell silent, glanced at the ground then suddenly shouted 'Smite the tyrant, smite him'. The huge crowd of spectators were struck dumb in bewilderment. The sage paused for a moment, and then said: 'Take heart, gentlemen, for the tyrant has been slain this day.' According to the tale it was revealed afterwards that at the very moment Apollonius had spoken his prophetic words, the Emperor Domitian had been murdered in Rome.

Apollonius subsequently set up a school at Ephesus and apparently it was in this city, during the reign of the emperor Nerva, from AD 96 - 98, that he died at an extremely advanced age. However, no-one knows exactly where and when he died, though a shrine was built to honour him in his native town of Tyana, and it remained an object of veneration for many years. Such was his fame as a philosopher that there were also statues of him set up in many other temples throughout the Empire.

The nature of the philosopher's death encouraged much mythology and heresay at the time. In an obvious parallel with Jesus, it was said that he had ascended bodily to heaven, and appeared after his death to certain people who doubted the existence of the afterlife. Philostratus perpetuated the mystery by saying, 'Concerning the manner of his death, if he did die, the accounts are various.' Apollonius enjoyed a reputation of considerable awe in the centuries following his death.

Near the end of the third century, during the final stages of the hostile struggle between Christianity and Paganism, some anti-Christians attempted to establish Apollonius as a rival to Jesus of Nazareth. They were helped in this by the many temples and shrines erected in honour of the sage in Ephesus and other parts of Asia Minor, and also by stories of the miracles he had performed, especially in connection with his renowned influence over evil spirits, like the Lamia. Philostratus's Life was used by a provincial governor in Diocletian's empire called Hierocles as anti-Christian ammunition and thus began a hostile debate between pagans and Christians. The Christian historian Eusebius wrote a discourse in answer to Hierocles, claiming that Apollonius was a charlatan, and that if he possessed any powers at all they must have been achieved with the help of evil spirits.

Apollonius and the Occult Revival

More recently, Apollonius of Tyana was an important influence on the occult revival of the mid to late 19th century. French occultist Eliphas Levi (1810-1875) even tried to conjure up the spirit of the great sage. Apparently when visiting London in 1854, Levi was asked by a mysterious lady in black to attempt to raise Apollonius's phantom, as there were some vital questions she wished to learn the answers to. Levi's preparations for the ritual included two week's without eating meat and a week of fasting and meditation on the subject of Apollonius. The ritual was to take part in a chamber in the lady's house, with four concave mirrors on the walls, and a marble table on which were placed two metal dishes. After the necessary preparations, Levi, wearing a white robe and carrying a sword, lit fires in the dishes and began to invoke the sage. His incantations continued for hours, until the room began to shake beneath him and a vague shape of a man appeared in the smoke, only to quickly dissolve again.

He repeated his incantations and this time the shape turned into an apparition of a beardless man wrapped from head to foot in a grey shroud. As the shape advanced towards him Levi turned cold and was unable to speak. The phantom brushed against his ritual sword and Levi's arm suddenly went numb and he lost consciousness. In his book Transcendental Magic (1865), where he describes this incident in detail, Levi relates that his arm was painful for days afterwards. He does not claim that he actually invoked the shade of Apollonius, but he does mention that he received answers to the lady's questions telepathically, though he never discloses the questions.

Apollonius of Tyana continues to fascinate in the 21st century. Current theories, which are really restatements of old ideas, include that he was actually the Apostle St. Paul or even Jesus of Nazareth, and that the image on the Turin Shroud is actually that of Apollonius. But Apollonius of Tyana should not be remembered merely as a magician or a miracle-worker. If stories of him are true, he was a man with a single-minded devotion to a high and pure ideal, and it was this sense of pupose that gave him the courage to sit face to face with the most powerful and dangerous leaders in the world, and not waver one inch from his true beliefs.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Levi, E. Transcendental Magic: Its Doctrine and Ritual. Rider & Co. 1984 (originally published: 1854).

Philostratus, Bowerstock, G.W. Life of Apollonius of Tyana. Penguin. 1971.

Mead, G.R.S. Apollonius of Tyana: the philosopher-reformer of the First Century AD. Theosophical Publishing Society. 1901.

Shirley, R. Occultists & Mystics of all Ages. University Books. 1972.

Copyright 2007 by Brian Haughton. All Rights Reserved.

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