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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Is That Your Agenda Showing, or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

The Age of Unreason, Redux

Another item from the lovely Richard Carrier in Flynns Pile of Boners. 

I had been making a point about the unruly and riotous behavior and the Late Imperial Egyptians and noted:

In Julian's reign some Christian virgins of Heliopolis refused to surrender themselves for a night of sacred prostitution before their nuptials...."  followed by an account of their gruesome murder.   

Mr. Carrier puts words in my mouth to make me say:

We Should Believe the Bullshit in Martyrologies (NOT!)

The NOT! is his addition.  Come to that, the entire thing is his addition.  (It probably reveals a bit of his personal motivations.)  I made no claim about believing martyrologies, only a claim about the periodic riotousness of the Egyptians of which the deaths both of the virgins of Heliopolis and of the philosopher-mathematician Hypatia were examples.  I also pointed out that, despite such periodic outbreaks, the "tribes" of Alexandria generally got along with one another, or at least co-existed peacefully. 

However, Mr. Carrier produced the following incisive critique:

Since the institution of sacred prostitution has been refuted as a myth (see The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity), Flynn appears to have been duped by the wild myths of Christian hagiography. I doubt any such event occurred under Julian. Historians have long known that Christian martyrdom tales are wildly exaggerated and often complete fiction (the absurdities of the stories Flynn relates really ought to have given him a clue). Ironically, this makes Flynn a victim of the very "confirmation bias" he (rightly) accuses Walker of.


So let's see where the story comes from.  And it's not from some hagiography.

Salminius Hermias Sozomen (c. 375-447) was a classically trained scholar, born near Gaza, who wrote his Ecclesiastical History in Constantinople in the early 400s.  His contemporary the native Constantinopolitan Socrates Scholasticus (c. 379-450) also wrote an Ecclesiastical History, probably a little earlier.  Both historians' works are accounted sober and meticulous, with a careful regard for sources, and both recounted the heresies and heretics of the times they covered without personal attacks, pointing out many of their admirable characteristics.  Sozomen is accounted the better stylist; Socrates the better organized.  Sozomen's work is apparently unfinished.  It is to these two historians that we owe much of what we know of that era. 

Here is what Sozomen wrote:
The inhabitants of Heliopolis, near Mount Libanus ... were guilty of an act of barbarity which could scarcely be credited, had it not been corroborated by the testimony of those who witnessed it. They stripped the holy virgins, who had never been looked upon by the multitude, of their garments, and exposed them in a state of nudity as a public spectacle and objects of insult. After numerous other inflictions they at last shaved them, ripped them open, and concealed in their viscera the food usually given to pigs; and since the swine could not distinguish, but were impelled by the need of their customary food, they also tore in pieces the human flesh.

I am convinced that the citizens of Heliopolis perpetrated this barbarity against the holy virgins on account of the prohibition of the ancient custom of yielding up virgins to prostitution with any chance comer before being united in marriage to their betrothed. This custom was prohibited by a law enacted by Constantine, after he had destroyed the temple of Venus at Heliopolis, and erected a church upon its ruins.
-- Ecclesiastical History, Book V, Chap.10

Sozomen was writing about sixty years after the events.  Now here is an account of a similar murder in Alexandria, recounted by Socrates Scholasticus:

There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia,  daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not unfrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in coming to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more. Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Cæsareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles.  After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril,  but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort. This happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of Cyril's episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius.
-- Ecclesiastical History, Book VII, Chap. 15

Now why one gruesome murder should be accounded as "absurdities" while another gruesome murder is accounted as plain fact I do not know.  Mr. Carrier should read some accounts of white lynchings of black men in the old South for insight on what a mob can do.  Both stories are soberly reported, with none of the "wild exaggeration" Mr. Carrier ascribes generically to hagiographies.  There are no magical survivals of the pyre; no ravenous beasts turning suddenly tame.  No one levitates.  Both accounts are simply matter-of-fact.  Sozomen even expresses some personal incredulity overcome only by the fact that eyewitnesses had given accounts. 

The "sacred prostitution" bit was Sozomen's personal assessment.  Perhaps he was wrong, and it was simply a gang-rape using a religious excuse.  Sozomen clearly believed that there had been such a custom and that Constantine had issued a law against it.  [And being in Constantinople, was in a position to verify the edict in the archives.]  Perhaps the custom obtained only at the Temple of "Venus" at Heliopolis, since it was "prohibited... after he had destroyed the temple of Venus at Heliopolis."  Sozomen does not claim that it was a general practice throughout antiquity, or that the temples had a regular staff of prostitutes.  [As an aside: this may be where the mythos of "The Right of the First Night" arose.  The medievals were convinced it had been common in ancient times.  The moderns were convinced it had been common in medieval times.  Now, in modern times, virgins really do commonly sacrifice their virginity to "any chance comer."  And sometimes get beaten by men when they won't "put out" as expected.  But that is another topic.]

And if Sozomen believed there had been such a custom, his pagan contemporaries may have believed the same thing.  After all, paganism had been moribund and Julian was trying to revive it. 

In any case, Mr. Carrier utterly  missed the point -- the notorious riotousness in that region in that era in the context of which the murder of Hypatia should be seen -- contra Walker [the original poster] who claimed it was some sort of Christian hostility to the deified Scientia she supposedly embodied.  And Carrier's claim that I say that "We Should Believe the Bullshit in Martyrologies" is simply a lie intended for his fellow cultists.
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ADDENDUM

Some comments by folks at the LiveJournal version of this post lead me to add the following:

"I doubt any such event occurred under Julian" and "the absurdities of the stories Flynn relates."  This is a classic argument from incredulity and boils down to: "I find that hard to believe, therefore it can't be true. I have seen creationists give the same sort of argument-from-incredulity regarding proposed evolutionary mechanisms.  Notice that he finds the reported facts to be incredulous because of an a priori theory or world-view.  In science, as she used to be practiced, it was the facts that made the theory credible, not the other way around. 

Note that Sozomen was also personally incredulous.  The difference between a Hellenized rationalist like Sozomen and a modern true-believer is that Sozomen checked the story against eyewitness testimony. In the same manner, many people in later eras could not believe that Southern whites or highly scientific and cultured Germans could do that. Surely, some future Carrier will say, the stories of lynchings or Nazi atrocities are "wild exaggerations" full of "absurdities." And perhaps even point to some actual fabrications, such as those cases of people who have reinvented their own past to garner personal attention, as "proof" that these things never happened.

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