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October 2, 2019

10 Facts About the Story of Saint Cyprian of Antioch

(1) The literary tradition of Cyprian and Justina is originally based on three different versions of the story by three different authors. The first one tells Cyprian’s conversion to Christianity and is mainly focused on Justina and her immense spiritual powers granted to her due to her strict piety. The second story centers on Cyprian’s repentance; it begins as a speech of the remorseful mage and later turns into a first-person account of his tale. The third one focuses on the famous martyrdom that both the Cyprian and Justina had to undergo, which is not mentioned in either the first or second version of the legend.

(2) Around the middle of the 5th century the Empress Eudocia brought all three versions together, had them translated into a metric paraphrase and published them in three books. Large fragments of the first two books are still available today; we also hold an abstract of all three books from the 9th century Bibliotheca of Photios, who read the whole thing. Based upon the vast archive of subsequent retellings of the legend it was possible to re-construct the original text of the first book; for the second and third book we no longer have access to the entire original source texts.

(3) In addition to these source texts one of the earliest references to St. Cyprian stems from the 4th century Church Father Gregory of Nazianus. In September 379 in Constantinople he delivered a sermon in honor of Cyprian on the saint’s feast day. While this sermon mentions little about the historic person of Cyprian of Antioch it already mixes aspects of his biography with the one of Cyprian of Carthage. It is Nazianus’ early blending of these two stories - the one of St. Cyprian of Antioch and the Bishop of Carthage - that might have led to all the subsequent confusion in the Greek textual tradition. Finally, it’s important to call out that the martyrdom of Sts. Cyprian and Justina does not yet feature in Nazianus’ sermon. Thus it is likely that it was either not known at the time yet or simply added as a literary fiction later on.

(4) Due to its strong resemblance to other, older legends it is assumed by some scholars that the story of Sts. Cyprian and Justina is not based upon historic events as it is written. More likely it is utilizing narrative plot elements that were familiar at the time to mock pagan philosophers, theurgists in particular and to promote the power of the Christian faith over all ancient gods. Two main sources of the legend are both from the second century and indicated as the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla as well as Lucian of Samosata’s Philopseudes (Lover of Lies).

(5) While the initial plot of Lucian’s novel is almost interchangeable with the later story of Cyprian and Justina, the legend of our Saint was turned from a satire into a seemingly more authentic and realistic story. Here is an example: in Lucian’s story a nameless Hyperborean mage during a new moon night summons both Hecate as well as Selene for his client Glaukias. Hecate appears in the company of Kerberos, Selene in many shifting forms such as a bull and a dog. Both goddesses stay bound for the entire length of the ritual - during which the mage creates a clay figure, breathes life into it and sends it out to bring the desired virgin. After Glaukias and the young woman finally have made love for the entire night - under the interested gaze of a philosopher, a mage, two goddesses and a love-demon made from clay - both Selene and Hecate are finally released back into their celestial and chthonic realms. — In other words, the mage is literally moving heaven and hell just to offer the young lad a sexual adventure. The whole story becomes even more ludicrous considering the name of the young lady is a Greek name that was known to belong to hetaerae, i.e. prostitutes. This is precisely the humor Lucian leverages in his other satires as well.

(6) All three authors agree on the fact that Sts. Cyprian and Justina’s legend is not a tale against magic as such, but it is a tale meant to illustrate the supreme power of Christianity over the old pagan cults and demons. Only through the direct divine intervention of Christ is it possible for the faithful ascetic (Justina) to overthrow the classical theurgist and the attack of his pagan demons.

(7) Especially the second source text aims to introduce similarities between Cyprian and the life of Apollonius of Tyana: Where Apollonius was introduced to the service of Asclepius early on in his childhood, Cyprian was introduced to Apollo. Just like the former the latter is initiated into many and diverse mystery cults later on in his life. We hear about distant journeys into foreign lands, long years of study and the deepest wisdom about the natural forces as well as the old gods. During the last years of public paganism in the Greek-Roman world Apollonius of Tyana had turned into the ideal of the classical philosopher as well as the ancient theurgist ruling celestial as well as chthonic powers. His stories were many and well known. Thus stylizing Cyprian as a similarly powerful mage who converted to Christianity free willingly was meant to contrast and break the fascination and appeal that Apollonius still held at the time.

(8) In a similar light, the entire appearance of Cyprian as a pagan as well as his relationship to the demons he calls for is aligned to some themes that can be found in the Greek Magical Papyri. Here is the central parallel in Radermacher’s own words:

‘The mage appears as the ruler of demons, as a theurgist. He commands their coming and leaving, provides them with orders according to his free will and reprimands them when they return unsuccessfully. That is the relationship a master has to his servant; it even holds true with regards to his relationship to the highest of all demons, the ‘father’ who needs to take quite a lot of scolding himself. In short it is the same view we find it in the Greek Magical Papyri when the mage is forcing his will onto the demons.’ (Radermacher, ‘Cyprian the Mage’, 1917, p.30)

A few pages further on the author clarifies in more detail:

‘The Papyrus Harris, the safest witness of ancient Egyptian magic, does not invoke divine assistance as mercy. Instead one commands the gods to help with reference to one own’s divinity; even more so, in some cases one does not turn to the gods at all but to the imminent danger itself and commands it to stay away with reference to one self as a god.’ (Radermacher, p.45)

(9) It is certain that no Bishop of Antioch bore the name of Cyprian. The attempt has been made to find in Cyprian a mystical prototype of the Faust legend. Calderon took the story as the basis of a drama: "El magico prodigioso".

(10) The oldest known portrayal of Sts. Cyprian and Justina dates to the ninth century, bringing together key elements of all three books, and this is older than any known manuscript we have of the legend. Radermacher describes it is as follows:

The miniature we are inserting here is taken from the Parisinus gr. 150 and belongs to the end of the 9th century: therefore it is older than all of the known manuscripts of the legend and yet clearly influenced by the legend. In the upper right we see Cyprian in his home, still wearing his pagan dress and, as it is ought to be, without the halo of a saint.

To the right of his feet we see a vessel containing magical scrolls, grimoires, behind him the spirit statue, and to his left a basin from which two figures are arising. Cyprian is occupied with a λεχανομαντεια. The globe on the table generally indicates scholarship.

The image in the upper left depicts Justina praying; above the altar the powerful image of Christ is revealing itself to her, meanwhile to her right, cowering, a black demon with an animal face and horrent feathers escapes.

In the lower right we witness Cyprian’s baptism, which still belongs to our legend. Whereas his martyrdom depicted on the lower left is part of a different tradition.