The Magus in Hell

Recorded: February 19, 2020
Event: Contextualizing Iranian Religions in the Ancient World - 14th Melammu Symposium
Citation: Haubold, Johannes. "The Magus in Hell," Contextualizing Iranian Religions in the Ancient World - 14th Melammu Symposium. February 19, 2020

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.

About the Speaker

After learning Akkadian as a Postdoctoral Fellow in Cambridge, Haubold became interested in Babylonian literature and its relationship to that of Greece: the monograph Greece and Mesopotamia: Dialogues in Literature, CUP 2013 (recipient of the PROSE Award in the category ‘Classics and Ancient History’) and ‘The Achaemenid Empire and the Sea’, an article that investigates how the Persians understood their invasion of Greece under Xerxes (Editor’s Choice in the 30th year edition of Mediterranean Historical Review) stem from that interest. He have also edited The World ofBerossos, with Gianni Lanfranchi, Robert Rollinger and John Steele (Harrassowitz 2013) and Keeping Watch in Babylon: The Astronomical Diaries in Context, with John Steele and Kathryn Stevens (Brill 2019). The Astronomical Diaries from Babylon,  which are still barely known even among specialist scholars, formed the basis of ‘Chaldean’ astrology and thus deeply influenced the way people from across the ancient world lived their lives. He is also a member of the Academy of Europe and have held visiting fellowships at Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies and the University of Leiden, and a visiting professorship at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris.