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