Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen": PERSONAL PIETY IN ROME


(Apuleius, 'Apologia,' 55-6)

Apuleius is defending himself against the charge of practicing magic, and especially of carrying magical objects wrapped in a handkerchief.

You ask, Aemilianus [the prosecutor], what I had in that handkerchief? Although I might deny that I had deposited any handkerchief whatsoever of mine in Pontianus' library-or even supposing I were to admit, at the most, that I did so deposit it-I can still deny that there was anything wrapped up in it. And if I should take this line, you have no evidence or argument by which to refute me; for there is no one who has ever touched it, and there is only one freedman, according to your own statement, who has ever seen it. Nevertheless, for all that, let me say that the cloth was jammed full. Imagine yourself now, if you please, to be on the verge of a great discovery-as when the comrades of Ulysses thought they had found a great treasure when they ran off with the bag full of all the winds ! Would you like to have me tell you what it was I had wrapped up in that handkerchief and committed to the care of Pontianus' household gods? You shall have your wish.

I have been initiated into almost all of the Greek mysteries, and I have preserved with the greatest care certain of the emblems and tokens (signa et monumenta) of my initiations, which were presented to me by the priests. I am not talking now about anything strange or unheard of. Even a single initiate (mystes) of the mysteries of Liber Pater who is present here knows what he keeps hidden away at home, safe from all profane touch, the object of his silent veneration. But I, as I have said, moved by religious zeal and a desire to know the truth, have devoted myself to many different mysteries (sacra), numerous rites, and various ceremonies relating to the gods. I am not making this up on the spur of the moment. Nearly three years ago, during the first days of my residence at Oea, in a public discourse which I delivered on the majesty of Aesculapius, I made the same statement and recounted the number of the mysteries with which I was familiar. That discourse was thronged, has been read far and wide, is in everyone's hands, and has won the approval of the pious inhabitants of Oea not so much through any eloquence of mine as because it speaks of Aesculapius. Will anyone who happens to remember it repeat the beginning of that particular passage in my discourse?-Do you not hear, Maximus [the presiding magistrate], how many voices are supplying the words? Indeed, they are freely reciting it! Let me now order this same passage to be read aloud, since you show by the gracious expression on your face that you will not be displeased to hear it. [The passage is then read aloud.]
Can anyone who has the slightest recollection of religious rites be surprised that a man who has been a partaker of so many divine mysteries should preserve in his home certain mementos of these sacred ceremonies, or that he should wrap them in a linen cloth, which is the purest covering for holy things? For wool, produced by the most lethargic of animals and stripped off the sheep's back, was accordingly recognized by the followers of Orpheus and Pythagoras as a profane vesture. But flax, the purest of all plants and among the best of the fruits of the earth, is used by the most holy priests of Egypt, not only for clothing and raiment but as a veil to hide sacred things.

And yet I know that some persons, and chiefly this fellow Aemillianus, think it a good joke to deride things divine. For I learn, from certain men in Oea who know him, that up to the present he never has prayed to any god or frequented any temple; if he happens to pass by any shrine, he thinks it wrong to raise his hand to his lips as an act of reverence. He has never given the first fruits of his crops or vines or flocks to any of the rural gods who feed and clothe him; there is no shrine at his villa, no holy place nor sacred grove. But why should I speak of sacred groves or shrines? Those who have been at his place say they never have seen there even one stone where an offering of oil has been made or one bough where wreaths have been hung (ramum coronattum). As a result, two nicknames have been given him: He is called Charon, as I already have said, on account of his truculence of tongue and manner, but he is also-and this is the name he prefers-called Mezentius, because he despises the gods. For this reason I can easily understand why he should regard my list of so many initiations as something to jest about. It is even possible that, because of his contumacy for things divine, it may never enter his head that what I say is the truth, viz., that I guard most sacredly the emblems and mementos of so many holy rites. But 1-for what 'Mezentius' thinks of me I would not turn a hand; but to others I would announce in the clearest voice: if any of you who happen to be present have been partakers with me in these same solemn rites, give the sign and you shall bear what it is that I am preserving. For no consideration of personal safety will compel me to declare to the uninitiated (ad profanos) what things I have accepted to be kept in secret.

Translation by Frederick C. Grant, in his Ancient Roman Religion, Library of Religion paperbook series (New York, 1957), pp. 226-8

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