Classicist Peter Gainsford made an interesting case on his blog that the humorous ancient Greek science fiction satire of Lucian called The True History includes a close parody of the New Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation. I can definitely see Gainsford’s point, but my gut instinct is that Lucian wasn’t directly drawing on the Christian text in imagining the fantastical paradise on the Isle of the Blessed where the heroic dead reside. Let’s take a quick look at what Gainsford says in order to puzzle out whether he’s right and whether Lucian had it in for Christianity’s most psychedelic text.
First, it is beyond doubt that Lucian, a second-century Syrian, knew about Christianity and didn’t think much of it. His Death of Peregrinus mocked Christians for purposely living miserable lives because of an unevidenced belief in immortality, and he scoffed at their primitive communism in which they scorned personal property without any objective guarantee of divine recompense after death.
However, Gainsford’s arguments rest on a comparison between True History 2.11-13 and Revelation 21-22, which he presents in brief excerpts but might better be compared in longer form:
Truthfully, I just don’t see the similarities as being all that close. Gainsford claims that their sequence proves similarity: The cities are both of gold, have gates (pearl and cinnamon, respectively), have foundations (twelve of jewels for Revelation and one of ivory for Lucian), either no temple or all the temples, a river of life or of myrrh, and magic fruit (the tree of life with twelve fruits or grape vines with twelve wines, respectively). Both exist in a twilight world with no sun or moon.
It’s not really all that close, truthfully, any more so than one might imagine any holy city. Lucian’s description of the city of the blessed dead would seem to draw more directly on Greek ideas about the afterlife, in their late form. The Isle of the Blessed existed in the farthest west, as Hesiod testifies, beyond where the sun and moon shine on the normal world. Its perpetual spring is merely symbolic of eternal rebirth and was known long before Lucian, or Revelation, as Plutarch testifies in Life of Sertorius 8. The formless dead conform to Homeric ideas about the loved dead existing as disembodied shades, a deeply contrary idea to Christians’ insistence that the New Jerusalem would exist on Earth, filled with the resurrected bodies of the dead.
Gainsford says Lucian’s account is a satire, so his substitution of a plank of cinnamon for a pearl is humorous. I guess one could make that case, since Revelation imagines a pearl as big as a gate and Lucian imagines the tiny cinnamon shrub growing equally large. But is cinnamon a funny plant? More likely he meant to tie cinnamon gates to the river of myrrh, both of which Philostratus the Elder in Imagines 2.1 and Theophrastus in On Odors 6 identify as components of unguents and perfumes used in sacred rites.
If the two cities share a connection, I don’t think it was a terribly direct one. Reading Lucian’s description, I can’t help but think of the Near Eastern descriptions of the underground city of the dead where the sun retires at night. A hymn to the sun-god Shamash describes his passage into the Underworld, believed to be locked within seven gates, surrounded by a river. Shamash passes through the Garden of the Sun, where the trees bear gems as fruit, and both the lapis lazuli palace of the goddess of the Underworld and the mansion of the golden sun exist there, in what they called “the Great City.” While it was a much gloomier place that Lucian imagines, the point is that similar motifs were long in circulation.
We similarly see echoes of magical cities with the same collections of gates, rivers, and magic trees in Arabic literature, which preserved Late Antique Greek accounts not otherwise preserved. The infamous case of Adocentyn from the Picatrix, a late corruption of an earlier Hermetic account of the city of Outiratis, contained (in the older version) four gates, a magic pond, and wonders established by a great king; “He planted a tree that bore all kinds of fruit, and he built a lighthouse whose height was eighty cubits; at the top he put a dome that changed color every day; it assumed seven colors over the seven days of the week, and then it returned to its first color” (Akhbar al-zaman 2.1, my trans.). This story is first attested around 900 CE or so, but it is obviously drawn on an older Hermetic original.
It should go without saying that the description Lucian gives is not exactly miles away from Plato’s Atlantis or Euhemerus’s Panchaea, also mythical, divine cities of wealth and majesty. Similarly, the fragments of Mimnertus speak of a city of the sun called Aea, at the gates of the underworld, where the solar rays are kept in a chamber made of gold. It is hardly a stretch to move from there to a city of gold, without St. John’s help. The later version of that same city, eventually reduced to the capital of Colchis in the Argonautica over the passage of time, still describes it as a miracle in stone and bronze, possessed of wondrous fountains from which flowed various liquids, and constructed by the god Hephaestus. This story derives from a Homeric account of the palace of Alcinous (itself taken over from an earlier Argonautica), and both in turn reflect a generalized set of descriptive boasts about royal and divine palaces found across Indo-European poetic traditions, according to M. L. West in Indo-European Poetry and Myth. The city of the beloved dead is merely a palace writ large and can be explained entirely on these grounds without the need for Revelation.
So, basically, I’m not fully comfortable with assuming that Lucian was specifically parodying a few paragraphs from Revelation without any other Christian satire in his yarn.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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