Apollonius of Tyana was a charismatic personality who lived in the second half of the first century CE. He achieved legendary status as a spiritual leader to whom works of magic and natural philosophy were attributed, and his works were known in Greek, Sanskrit, Arabic, and Latin.
Apollonius of Tyana’s fame as a wise man, magician, and spiritual leader was such that he became a legendary personality from the early second century onward, with the result that it is difficult to piece together the facts of his life and writings. It is reasonably certain that he was active in Syria and the neighboring countries in the late first century CE, espoused a kind of Pythagorean philosophy, and, as a self-confessed ‘‘magician,’’ cured people of various illnesses. He is probably the author of books On Astrology and On Sacrifices, to which references are made by later writers, but which have not survived. The details given in the early third-century Life of Apollonius by Philostratus, can sometimes be corroborated by independent evidence, but are embellished by rhetorical flourishes and colored by Philostratus’ evident bias against magic and astrology. The particular mix of divination by the stars, sacrifice to several gods, and magical cures that forms the core of his attested interests suggests that he is a late representative of the Babylonian tradition of omenreading, of which a branch survived in Emesa, a Syriac city with which Apollonius is associated. This may also explain how his brand of Pythagoreanism included the worship of the Sun. Less certain are the accounts of journeys to Spain and India, but a fifth-century CE Sanskrit text refers to him as a sage. A corpus of letters in Greek endorsing his magical powers and promoting pagan Greek culture was written in his name, and he became a cult figure in several cities in Syria, and was worshipped by the Roman Emperor Severus Alexander. He became known as a spokesman for the wisdom of Hermes Trismegistus, in particular in the field of talisman making.
In this last capacity, Apollonius (usually in the form Ballnus) became a prominent figure in Arabic literature, probably as a result of his veneration in Syria. A Greek text (the ‘‘Book of Wisdom addressed to his pupil Soustoumos Thalassos,’’ on talismans of the hours of the day and the night) was translated into Arabic as The Greater Book on Talismans, Ballnus acquired the sobriquet saJiib al-tilasmat (Master of Talismans), and texts on this subject were attributed to him. Among these was a tablet made of emerald (al-lauh al-zumurrudl, Tabula Smaragdina) that purports to have been found by Apollonius in the hands of Hermes in an underground cave, and which gives, in enigmatic language, the creed of the ‘‘masters of talismans.’’ It was, however, adopted by alchemists as a mystical confirmation of their art, and was allegedly accompanied (in the same cave) by a book, which gives the cosmological basis for the practice of alchemy. This text, called the Sirr al-khaltqa (The Secret of Creation) is a kind of popular encyclopedia on natural philosophy, arranged according to the four Aristotelian causes (hence its subtitle: kitab al-‘ilal, The Book of Causes). The first book, entitled On the Creator and the Created, deals with the material and formal causes. This is followed by books dealing with the final and efficient causes: book two on the effects of the higher beings, book three on the causes of metals, book four on the causes of plants, book five on animals, and book six on the creation of man. Included in the Sirr al-khaltqa are questions about nature that continue the ancient Greek genre of problemata, and Nemesius of Emesa’s On the Nature of Man is a significant source for the book on man (a resume of the work is included in an expanded version of the text). Throughout the book there is a concern to point out the underlying unity in all nature and the bonds connecting all things. The approach to nature is biological: the elements are alternately masculine and feminine, and from the mating ofthe masculine elements, fire and air, with the feminine ones, earth and water, everything generated in the universe is born. The description of the production of all metals from sulfur and mercury and the division between the ‘‘bodies’’ and the ‘‘spirits’’ of the metals are distinctly alchemical, and serve to introduce the alchemical recipes in other texts attributed to Apollonius or his pupils, such as the MiftaJt al-Jtikma (Key of Wisdom).
Apollonius’ reputation as a magician and philosopher was known in the West (St. Jerome refers to “Apollonius, sive ille magus, ut vulgus loquitur, sive philosophus, ut Pythagorici tradunt’’), which probably encouraged Latin scholars to seek out texts attributed to him (or to invent such texts). The Sirr al-khaltqa was translated under the title De secretis naturae by Hugo of Santalla in Tarazona in the mid-twelfth century (he correctly recognized the name “Apollonius,” though his place of origin, “Tyana,” became distorted into “Athawaca”), but the Latin diffusion of this work was limited. The texts on alchemy and talismans, however, had a better fortune. The Key of Wisdom was translated as the Clavis Sapientie, but attributed to “Artefius.” Other translations included The Greater Book on Talismans and books on talismans of the planets and the 28 lunar mansions, and corroborated Apollonius’ reputation (often under the name Belenus, Plinus, or even Plinius) as a Hermetic philosopher in the West. Additionally, Apollonius became the authority on a new kind of magic: that of acquiring mastery of the arts and sciences in a miraculously short time, which was popular in university circles, under the title “ars notoria.’’ The talismanic texts were in turn translated into European vernaculars (the book on the lunar mansions can be found in English in a sixteenth-century manuscript, London, British Library, Sloane 3846). Philostratus’ image of Apollonius was restored to the West through a Latin translation of Alamanno Rinuccini in 1473 and the Greek-Latin edition of Aldus Manutius of 1501-1504 (followed by a succession of further translations and adaptations), and from then on the figure of Apollonius became well established in western culture, and emblematic as the obverse to Jesus Christ in an increasingly secular society.