The Magus in Hell

Recorded: February 19, 2020
Event: Contextualizing Iranian Religions in the Ancient World - 14th Melammu Symposium

by Johannes Haubold (Princeton University)

The Magus in Hell

This paper looks at Lucian’s satirical dialogue, Menippus, which prominently features a man called Mithrobarzanes, ‘one of the Magi, Zoroaster’s disciples and successors.’ With the help of this man, the protagonist of the dialogue descends to the underworld and there learns what truly matters in human life. Scholars have long compared this storyline to Iranian visions of hell and the afterlife (notably the vision of Kerdīr) but have not, in my view, sufficiently considered the context of philosophical and religious polemic in Antonine Syria to which Lucian responds. This paper aims to do just that. I first consider the framing account of a young man who despairs of Greek philosophy and turns to non-Greek traditions instead. Similar accounts from elsewhere in the region (e.g., Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho) suggest a veritable crisis of philosophy, which not only challenged intellectual hierarchies between Greek and non-Greek systems of thought, but also internally transformed those systems. Second, I consider Mithrobarzanes’ characterization as a ‘Chaldean’ and ask how his ability to lead Menippus down into a realm of squalid corporeality relates to the theurgic systems for raising the soul to a spiritual realm (anagōgē) that Chaldean thinkers from Syria were developing at around the same time. The picture that emerges from my argument is one of complex (and to Lucian hilarious) entanglements between Iranian, Greek, and Syrian philosophy and religion.