Arete Kelsou (personification of virtue) at the Celsus Library, Ephesus.
Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA, SOSIPATRA of PERGAMON, is an excerpt from Eunapius’ ‘Lives of The Philosophers and Sophists’, translated from the Greek by Wilmer Cave Wright, Loeb Edition of 1921.
Eunapius’ account, is more of an hagiographical device than a factual historical narration of Sosipatra’s life. It was written in the context of the reaction to the growing hegemony of Christian culture taking over the common field with a flood of lives of saints with creative accounts of miracles, conversion, holy deaths and martyr hood. Alike Philostratus’ ‘Life of Apollonius of Tyana’ exemplifying Apollonius as a role model, Eunapius here does the same with Sosipatra, dressing a memorable portrait of her virtues and impact as a Neoplatonist philosopher and theurgist. A rescued voice from the twilight of the classical era.
§ 401 ‘Sosipatra, who by her surpassing wisdom made her own husband seem inferior and insignificant. So far did the fame of this woman travel that it is fitting for me to speak of her at greater length, even in this catalogue of wise men. She was born in Asia, near Ephesus, in that district which the river Cayster traverses and flows through, and hence gives its name to the plain. She came of a prosperous family, blessed with wealth, and while she was still a small child she seemed to bring a blessing on everything, such beauty and decorum illumined her infant years. Now she had just reached the age of five, when two old men (both were past the prime of life, but one was rather older than the other), carrying ample wallets and dressed in garments of skins, made their way to a country estate belonging to Sosipatra’s parents, and persuaded the steward, as they were easily able to do, to entrust to them the care of the vines. When a harvest beyond all expectation was the result — the owner himself was there, and with him was the little girl Sosipatra — men’s amazement was boundless, and they went so far as to suspect the intervention of the gods. The owner of the estate invited them to his table, and treated them with the highest consideration; and he reproached the other labourers on the estate with not obtaining the same results. The old men, on receiving Greek hospitality and a place at a Greek table, were smitten and captivated by the exceeding beauty and charm of the little girl Sosipatra, and they said: Our other powers we keep to ourselves hidden and
§ 403 unrevealed, and this abundant vintage that you so highly approve is laughable and mere child’s-play which takes no account of our superhuman abilities. But if you desire from us a fitting return for this maintenance and hospitality, not in money or perishable and corruptible benefits, but one far above you and your way of life, a gift whereof the fame shall reach the skies and touch the stars, hand over this child Sosipatra to us who are more truly her parents and guardians, and until the fifth year from now fear no disease for the little girl, nor death, but remain calm and steadfast. But take care not to set your feet on this soil till the fifth year come with the annual revolutions of the sun. And of its own accord wealth shall spring up for you and shall blossom forth from the soil. Moreover, your daughter shall have a mind not like a woman’s or a mere human being’s. Nay, you yourself also shall have higher than mortal thoughts concerning the child. Now if you have good courage accept our words with outspread hands, but if any suspicions awake in your mind consider that we have said nothing. Hearing this the father bit his tongue, and humble and awestruck put the child into their hands and gave her over to them. Then he summoned his steward and said to him: Supply the old men with all that they need, and ask no questions. Thus he spoke, and before the light of dawn began to appear he departed as though fleeing from his daughter and his estate.
Then those others — whether they were heroes or demons or of some race still more divine – took
§ 405 charge of the child, and into what mysteries they initiated her no one knew, and with what religious rite they consecrated the girl was not revealed even to those who were most eager to learn. And now approached the appointed time when all the accounts of the revenue of the estate were due. The girl’s father came to the farm and hardly recognized his daughter, so tall was she and her beauty seemed to him to have changed its character; and she too hardly knew her father. He even saluted her reverently, so different did she appear to his eyes. When her teachers were there and the table was spread, they said: Ask the maiden whatever you please. But she interposed: Nay, father, ask me what happened to you on your journey. He agreed that she should tell him. Now since he was so wealthy he travelled in a four-wheeled carriage, and with this sort of carriage many accidents are liable to happen. But she related every event, not only what had been said, but his very threats and fears, as though she had been driving with him. Her father was roused to such a pitch of admiration that he did not merely admire her but was dumb with amazement, and was convinced that his daughter was a goddess. Then he fell on his knees before those men and implored them to tell him who they were. Slowly and reluctantly, for such was perhaps the will of heaven, they revealed to him that they were initiates in the lore called Chaldean, and even this they told enigmatically and with bent heads. And when Sosipatra’s father clung to their knees and supplicated them, adjuring them to become masters of the estate and to keep his daughter under their influence and initiate her into
§ 407 still more sacred things, they nodded their assent to this, but spoke no word more. Then he took courage as though he had received some sacred promise or oracle, but could not grasp its meaning. In his heart he applauded Homer above all poets for having sung of such a manifestation as this, so marvellous and divine:
Yea, and the gods in the likeness of strangers from far countries put on all manner of shapes and wander through the cities.
He did indeed believe that he had fallen in with gods in the likeness of strangers. While his mind was full of this lie was overcome by sleep, and the others left the table, and taking the girl with them they very tenderly and scrupulously handed over to her the whole array of garments in which she had been initiated, and added certain mystic symbols thereto; and they also put some books into Sosipatra’s chest, and gave orders that she should have it sealed. And she, no less than her father, took the greatest delight in those men. When the day began to break and the doors were opened, and people began to go to their work, the men also, according to their custom, went forth with the rest. Then the girl ran to her father bearing the good news, and one of the servants went with her to carry the chest. Her father asked for all the money belonging to him that happened to be available, and from his stewards all that they had for their necessary expenses, and sent to call those men, but they were nowhere to be seen. Then he said to Sosipatra: What is the meaning of this, my child? After a brief pause she replied: Now at last I understand what they said.
§ 409 For when they wept and put these things into my hands, they said: ‘Child, take care of them; for we are travelling to the Western Ocean, but presently we shall return.’ This proved very clearly that they who had appeared were blessed spirits. They then departed and went whithersoever it was; but her father took charge of the girl, now fully initiated, and though without pride, filled with divine breath, and he permitted her to live as she pleased and did not interfere in any of her affairs, except that sometimes he was ill pleased with her silence. And as she grew to the full measure of her youthful vigour, she had no other teachers, but ever on her lips were the works of the poets, philosophers, and orators; and those works that others comprehend but incompletely and dimly, and then only by hard work and painful drudgery, she could expound with careless ease, serenely and painlessly, and with her light swift touch would make their meaning clear. Then she decided to marry. Now beyond dispute Eustathius of all living men was alone worthy to wed her. So she said to him and to those who were present: Do you listen to me, Eustathius, and let those who are here bear me witness: I shall bear you three children, and all of them will fail to win what is considered to be human happiness, but as to the happiness that the gods bestow, not one of them will fail therein. But you will go hence before me, and be allotted a fair and fitting place of abode, though I perhaps shall attain to one even higher. For your station will be in the orbit of the moon, and only five years longer will you devote your services to philosophy –
§ 411 for so your phantom tells me — but you shall traverse the region below the moon with a blessed and easily guided motion. Fain would I tell you my own fate also. Then after keeping silence for a short time, she cried aloud: No, my god prevents me! Immediately after this prophecy — for such was the will of the Fates — she married Eustathius, and her words had the same force as an immutable oracle, so absolutely did it come to pass and transpire as had been foretold by her.
I must relate also what happened after these events. After the passing of Eustathius, Sosipatra returned to her own estate, and dwelt in Asia in the ancient city of Pergamon, and the famous Aedesius loved and cared for her and educated her sons. In her own home Sosipatra held a chair of philosophy that rivalled his, and after attending the lectures of Aedesius, the students would go to hear hers; and though there was none that did not greatly appreciate and admire the accurate learning of Aedesius, they positively adored and revered the woman’s inspired teaching.
Now there was one Philometor, a kinsman of hers, who, overcome by her beauty and eloquence, and recognizing the divinity of her nature, fell in love with her; and his passion possessed him and completely overmastered him. Not. only was he completely conquered by it but she also felt its onslaught. So she said to Maximus, who was one of the most distinguished pupils of Aedesius and was moreover his kinsman: Maximus, pray find out what ailment I have, that I may not be troubled by it.
§ 413 When he inquired: Why what ails you? she replied: When Philometor is with me he is simply Philometor, and in no way different from the crowd. But when I see that he is going away my heart within me is wounded and tortured till it tries to escape from my breast. Do you exert yourself on my behalf, she added, and so display your piety. When he had heard this, Maximus went away puffed up with pride as though he were now associating with the gods, because so wonderful a woman had put such faith in him. Meanwhile Philometor pursued his purpose, but Maximus having discovered by his sacrificial lore what was the power that Philometor possessed, strove to counteract and nullify the weaker spell by one more potent and efficacious. When Maximus had completed this rite he hastened to Sosipatra, and bade her observe carefully whether she had the same sensations in future. But she replied that she no longer felt them, and described to Maximus his own prayer and the whole ceremony; she also told him the hour at which it took place, as though she had been present, and revealed to him the omens that had appeared. And when he fell to the earth in amazement and proclaimed Sosipatra visibly a goddess, she said: Rise, my son. The gods love you if you raise your eyes to them and do not lean towards earthly and perishable riches. On hearing this he went away more uplifted than before with pride, seeing that he now had clear and certain proof of the woman’s divine nature. Near the door he was met by Philometor who was coming in in
§ 415 high spirits with many of his friends, and with a loud voice Maximus called out to him from some distance: Friend Philometor, I adjure you in Heaven’s name, cease to burn wood to no purpose. Perhaps he said this with some inner knowledge of the malpractices in which the other was engaged. Thereupon Philometor was overawed by Maximus, believed him to be divine, and ceased his plotting, even ridiculing the course of action that he had entered on before. And for the future Sosipatra beheld Philometor with pure and changed eyes, though she admired him for so greatly admiring herself. Once, for example, when they were all met at her house — Philometor however was not present but was staying in the country — the theme under discussion and their inquiry was concerning the soul. Several theories were propounded, and then Sosipatra began to speak, and gradually by her proofs disposed of their arguments; then she fell to discoursing on the descent of the soul, and what part of it is subject to punishment, what part immortal, when in the midst of her bacchie and frenzied flow of speech she became silent, as though her voice had been cut off, and after letting a short interval pass she cried aloud in their midst: What is this? Behold my kinsman Philometor riding in a carriage! The carriage has been overturned in a rough place in the road and both his legs are in danger! However, his servants have dragged him out unharmed, except that he has received wounds on his elbows and hands, though even these are not dangerous. He is being carried home on a stretcher, groaning loudly. These were her words, and they were the truth, for so it actually was. By this all were convinced that Sosipatra was
§ 417 omnipresent, and that, even as the philosophers assert concerning the gods, nothing happened without her being there to see. She died leaving the three sons of whom she had spoken. The names of two of them I need not record. But Antoninus was worthy of his parents, for he settled at the Canobic mouth of the Nile and devoted himself wholly to the religious rites of that place, and strove with all his powers to fulfil his mother’s prophecy.’ …/…