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Apollonius of Tyana as a Divine Mediator


by Andrew G. Home-Cook>

The extant sources we have concerning Apollonius of Tyana are not only sparse but somewhat historically unreliable. The most important biographical work written about him is "The Life of Apollonius" by Philostratus. Bowie has shown that, although this work is composed of a great deal of fictional material, there is also convincing evidence to suggest that Philostratus had access to reliable oral tradition. But those aspects of Philostratus' story which probably have no basis in historical reality are still of great worth in our attempt to illustrate the ways in which historical figures came to be conceptualised as various kinds of divine mediator figure.

There is considerable evidence to suggest that Apollonius was seen as an "exalted patriarch" in some sense. Emperor Alexander Severus was said to have divinised Apollonius, along with other examples of famous divine men including Abraham and Jesus, in one of his temples. Philostratus also depicts Apollonius as a man who after his death was said by his followers to be immortal.

Apollonius also resembles Davila's "charismatic prophet" type. He performs miracles, exorcisms, prophecies and healing and there is evidence that he had a considerable following (or at least there is some evidence that there was a cult of Apollonius in existence after his death). In addition, factors such as Apollonius' attitude towards the Roman empire as recorded by accounts such as Dio of Prusa give us good evidence that Apollonius was a political agitator who operated as a peripheral intermediary (I.M. Lewis's typology). I argue that within Davila's type of a charismatic prophet we must further forge classificatory categories such as shamans, magicians, spirit-possessed healers, mediums and exorcists.

Apollonius fits Davis's legacy pattern very convincingly. His reputation for having manufactured magical effects, talismans, spells and the like flourished in Antioch, Ephesus, Cilicia and Byzantium and continued right through to the medieval period. He was thought in magical tradition to have employed a powerful demon to assist him in his trickery. Lucian wrote that a certain Alexander was the heir to Apollonius' medical and magical legacy since he had been taught by one of Apollonius' original followers. Apollonius' legacy is embodied by Philostratus' biography of him which portrays him as a tremendous sage whose wisdom was something more than human and who by and through his life revealed to all humankind the true purpose of existence.

However there is also proof that Apollonius was seen to mediate in the present - and thus follows Davis' "Intervention Pattern." Philostratus mentions a young man who claims to have been visited by the sage in a dream. Apollonius in this example takes on the definite persona of a divine omniscient being who can intervene of our space-time continuum at any moment. The real question is whether this story actually is only a microcosm of some real form of Apollonian worship. Did the disciples of a so-called Apollonius cult really worship him in a day-to-day sense of man-God relationship or was Apollonius merely their past hero and founder? There is certainly evidence of there having been a shrine to Apollonius at Tyana (which was financed by Caraculla) as well as references by Lactantius to the cults of Apollonius.

Since Apollonius in his own lifetime functioned as a Man > God intermediary he strongly can be seen to fit what the class has coined as the "intercession pattern". Throughout Philostratus' account there is mention of Apollonius' mediatorial role, which most certainly contains some truth. But what kind of intercessor was Apollonius? The anthropological material I have used in my paper attempts to answer such questions.

I have examined Apollonius through the interpretative lens of the typologies of Stevan Davies, I.M. Lewis and Winkleman. I concluded that he possesses some shamanistic traits, but as Jim Davila points out we have to establish to what extent these traits are purely coincidental or have a more structuralised basis. Certainly Apollonius was an exorcist who operated on the periphery of society despite Philostratus' watering down of Apollonius' anti-Roman polemic. As regards spirit-possession, Apollonius was seen at several points to have been the incarnation of a series of Gods. Winkleman's shaman/healer seems to fit Apollonius at this point, since this is a figure who is seen to be sporadically spirit-possessed but most of the time performs his feats through his own means. However, as with Jesus, an attempt to paint a clear picture of the historical Apollonius lies within the realms of near impossible tasks since we cannot formulate conclusions on the basis of what our sources don't mention concerning his characteristics and likewise we cannot take what our sources do say about him as the complete and encompassing facts about the man without considering the possibilities of what the author may have omitted or ignored.

The similarities between Jesus and Apollonius of Tyana are significant and don't warrant Evans's scornful dismissal. Although both men came from different religious, economic and social backgrounds, the fact of such startling similarities in how they came to be conceptualised as divine mediator figures cannot be put down to coincidence or conceptual plagiarism. Since both men were contemporaneous with one another it is likely that the ways in which both figures came to be perceived was consistent with an underlying subconscious schema imbedded within the first century East Mediterranean mind set. The quest for the historical Jesus should not neglect to compare and contrast Jesus and his traditions with enigmatic and fascinating figure of Apollonius of Tyana.

(c) 1998
Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the author.

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