ALEXANDRIA: Religious crucible and La tentation de sainte Antione

To me, Flaubert's  The Temptation of Saint Anthony early on opened the doors to an aspect of History of Religions that I only had suspected, but which now interests me more and more, i.e. the religious, often violent, clashes between various sectarians that repeatedly exploded during the third century when Saint Anthony was active in Egypt. An impressive syncretism paired with an unbound fanaticism which repeatedly heated the minds of Christians, Jews, adherents of a multitude of mystery cults, ancient philosophers, confused agnostics, as well as believers in a wide variety of ancient and new religions from all corners of the world. The absolute focal point of all these brawls and riots was the cosmopolitan, affluent and cultural melting pot constituted by ancient Alexandria. A metropolis that maybe could be glimpsed from Anthony’s solitary cave dwelling.

What first struck me as I read The Temptation of Saint Anthony was Flaubert’s account of how heavily armed monks from the monastery of Nistra repeatedly rushed into the vast city, spreading terror and devastation among its non-Christian and Jewish population. How distant such a brutal behaviour was from Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek. Far from the adorable depictions served by my childhood’s Sunday School about the soothing effect Christianity had on the minds of men and women and how it eventually defeated the anti-human paganism through no other weapons than its all-forgiving gentleness.


In Flaubert’s novel I discovered how religion actually is a reflection of humanity's unfortunate dichotomy of love/compassion and fanatical bullying/unrestrained violence. A discrepancy which, according to Flaubert, during a moonlit night one thousand and seven hundred years ago, was revealed to a tormented hermit, who under the thin shell of his skull housed a universe of urges and multifaceted knowledge, spiced with and boiling through influences from a life of travel, experience, unbridled lust and desire, paralysing egocentricity, and above all an incessant reading and writing. An limitless universe of words. A literary cosmos within which Flaubert had been on a constant look-out for Le mot just – The Right Word.


The Temptation of Saint Anthony followed me when I began to study theology and history of religions at Lund University. Particularly obvious was the religious fanaticism of some of my companions among the theology students, whom we used to call Black Rockers (Swedish has the same word for “coat” and “rock”) due to their predilection for the black robes of the priesthood. Most often they were pale-looking sons of conservative high-church Lutheran pastors and accordingly fervent opponents to women priests.Most of these pimply youngsters nested at the Laurentii Foundation, a privately financed hostel for young men aspiring for the priesthood.



These Black Rockers nurtured an exaggerated fanaticism and a selfishly blissful perception of themselves as martyrs for the true Christian faith, due to their opposition to the state-induced acceptance of women priests. They were the last proponents of true Lutheranism, heroic guardians of the Word of the Scripture. An even more vulgar reflection of such fanaticism could recently be found among the lunatics who stormed the Washington Capitol in the belief that they “defended democracy”, or among ISIS-fighters who imagine that by slaughtering Christians and Yazidis they will after death be rewarded with eternal bliss in Paradise, the Jannah.


Literalists have caused a lot of misery. The Black Rockers based their entire “martyrdom for the true faith” on their stubbornly rabid opposition to women priests on Saint Paul’s words in his First Letter to the Corinthians:


Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. If they have any questions, they should ask their husbands at home, for it is improper for women to speak in church meetings.



Nevertheless, the Black Rockers ignored, or explained away, other Bible passages like Jesus’ command that “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or his statement “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” Similarly, fundamentalist Muslims have taken the words of The Qur'an’s thirty-third surah, Al-Ahzab, as a pretext for punishing women who do not cover their faces:


O Prophet! Enjoin your wives, your daughters, and the wives of true believers that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): That is most convenient, that they may be distinguished and not be harassed.



While they overlook what is written a few lines further down:


Surely, Muslim men and Muslim women, believing men and believing women, devout men and devout women, truthful men and truthful women, patient men and patient women, humble men and humble women, and the men who give Sadaqah and the women who give Sadaqah, and the men who fast and the women who fast, and the men who guard their private parts and the women who guard theirs, and the men who remember Allah much and the women who remember – for them, Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward.


Christianity and Islam are scriptural religions. Written words carry their messages. Most of us have a laid back attitude when it comes to words, after using them we forget their purpose – if we don’t consider them to be so significant that we decide to write them down. When such writings are considered as being “sacred” are endowed with an existence and meaning far beyond what one person has happened to say to another at any given moment. Such sacred words become law and religion, solid foundations for a community’s existence and endurance, obtaining a decisive significance for an individual’s thinking and acting.



The Bible and the Qur'an have much in common. Millions firmly believe that they are the words of God and include the truth about the entire purpose and meaning of life. Like anations’s laws and constitution, holy scriptures are guidelines which by believers are assumed to be valid for each and everyone. History indicates that those who do not follow what has been interpreted by authorities as divine statements may suffer horrible consequences. The Bible and the Qur'an were revealed in the same part of the world and their monotheistic manner of perceiving divine forces and the traditions they are based upon have resulted in unity as well as division, feelings of community as well as blatant intolerance, peace and war, life and death.


Recently, I read a quite a lot about pictures, spells, and ritual instructions found on the walls, in coffins and among papyrus scrolls in Egyptian tombs. Like many other peoples, the ancient Egyptians believed that if their rites were to be effective they had to be accompanied by the utterance of powerful and transformative words. The Greeks called the Egyptian characters hieroglyphs, sacred letters. Scribes were considered as craftsmen who had learned the language of the gods and through their writing they were able to convey divine messages and instructions to the people.



Thoth, the god of wisdom and maintainer of the universe, was believed to own a book that included the entire set of rules of the Cosmos and it could thus also be used to bring about changes – comprehensive, as well was quite insignificant ones. Words transmitted power to objects and deeds integrated in the ancient Egyptians’ exceedingly complicated sacrificial acts, and not the least in their attempts to awaken their dead to a new existence beyond life. Every sacrificed object – water, necessities of life, incense, ornaments and much more – was to the maximum magically charged through words. Ritual actions were guided by recitation of written words allowing the deceased to absorb drink and food, to be clothed and anointed, be able to speak and move, ascend to Heaven, as well as enjoying protection and benevolence of the gods. Such notions characterized the entire ancient Egyptian mindset and in particular the funeral ritual which transformed the deceased into a god – s/he eventually became Osiris.



It was not only objects that by the use of words were filled to the brim with power, individual/single words were also loaded with power, something that was achieved through so-called “word plays” or “puns” that endowed words and entire sentences with a variety of meanings and allusions. A single word could thus allude to objects, the deceased, gods and demons, forces and a large variety of powerful concepts and notions.



Mastering all this was not easy. Becoming a writer required a long, hard education that included not only the complicated writing of characters and letters, the difficult grammar and a vast amount of underlying allusions, it furthermore included forgotten language usage, rituals, mythology, accounting, mathematics and geometry. All requirements not only for mastering religious beliefs, but also the sophisticated state administration.

However, rewards were worth the effort. A scribe escaped hard work under a scorching sun, did not pay taxes and most scribes reached high positions. Sometime 3,200 years ago, someone wrote on a papyrus a text he called The Good Scribe:


Be a writer, take it to heart, so that your name will fare likewise. A book is more effective than a carved tombstone or a permanent sepulchre. […] Man perishes; his corpse turns to dust; all his relatives pass away. But writings make him remembered in the mouth of the reader. A book is more effective than a well-built house or a tomb-chapel in the West, better than an established villa or stela in the temple! Is there one here like Hordedef? Is there another like Imhotep? None of our kin is like Neferti or Khety, their leader. May I remind you about Ptahemdjehuty and Khakheperraseneb. Is there another like Ptahhotep or Kairsu? Those wise men who foretold what was to come: what they said came into being; it is found as a maxim, written in their books.



Few Egyptians doubted the power of words and their Greek rulers, members of the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt from 303 BC to 30 AD were well aware of this fact and used Egyptian knowledge and reverence for the word to hold together their multifaceted and quite incomprehensible domain. In few places was the realization of the cohesive power of word/knowledge greater then in the capital of the Ptolemies, the mighty Alexandria.

During the life of Saint Anthony (251-356?), Alexandria was one of the world’s largest and richest cities. Through the fertile fields on the other side of the Lake Mareotis, with their abundance of wheat, grapes and olives, the city was more than well supplied and could export its abundance. The Roman poets Horace and Virgil praised its exquisite wines and Alexandria’s wheat supplied both Rome and Massilia (Marseille), and not only that – according to the geographer and historian Strabo, large merchant fleets sailed with more than 120 ships each year with the monsoon winds from the Red Sea to India and brought back valuable goods that were consumed in Alexandria, as well as passed on to wealthy customers around the Mediterranean. A papyrus text from the second century AD announced that the ship 
Hermapollo to one of Alexandria's three ports from India brought with it 60 chests with “fragrant plants”, five tons of “other spices”, more than a hundred tons of elephant tusks and 135 tons of ebony.


In the well-planned streets of Alexandria, people crowded from all corners of the known world – Egyptians, Greeks, Jews, Nabataeans, Arabs and Indians. However, from such a fact we cannot assume that the inhabitants of the city were equals. The Ptolemies, whose capital was located on a tightly controlled island, kept a close eye on the origin of each an everyone of the city’s more than half a million inhabitants and categorized them according to a strict system.

According to preserved lists, such a division of the Alexandrian city dwellers meant that in order to become a full-fledged citizen you had to be Greek-speaking, as well as born and raised in Alexandria. It was only after careful examination of your information that it was decided whether you, or your sons, could be offered a place in the Greek education system and gain access to the city’s sports facilities. The next category of citizens was composed of Greek-speaking people who had arrived from other areas. People belonging to this specific category enjoyed no other benefit than that they could consider themselves “Greeks”. A third category consisted of Egyptians and Jews.



Alexandria included the world’s largest Jewish congregation and two districts were called “The Jewish Ones”. One of them was denominated Delta and located close to the Royal Palace. However, Delta was not a ghetto, Jews were free to settle wherever they wanted in the Egyptian reign and it has been estimated that the Jews of Egypt at the time of Jesus’ birth constituted one million of the country’s population. To some extent, Jews belonged to a state within the state, with its own administration, a so-called politeuma. They were judged by Jewish judges. If a Jew was to be punished with flogging, or execution, the punishment could only be carried out by Jewish executioners.


Like the Greek presence in Egypt, the privileged position of the Jews had mainly arisen from two activities – war and trade. Few Egyptians were enlisted for military service, their efforts were considered essential for agriculture, construction, handicrafts and administration, which meant that for hundreds of years the country’s defence and conquests largely depended on foreign legionaries, most of whom were Greeks or Jews. Military power provided these population groups with influence, for example, the Nile traffic was monitored by Jewish customs and police. A large part of Mediterranean trade was in the hands of Greeks, while Jewish merchants were of great importance for the land-based foreign trade to the south and east.


To rule their kingdom, the pragmatically minded Ptolemies realized that they could not do so without the knowledge and skills of Jews and Egyptians, especially Egypt's highly educated scribes and clergy were essential for their exercise of power. Over time, both Jews and Egyptians gained increasing influence in the Ptolemaic administration.



The Macedonian general, historian and Alexander’s confidant – Ptolemy I Soter (367-283) became after Alexander’s death uncontested ruler of Egypt and chose the newly founded city of Alexandria as seat for his government. It was Ptolemy I and his son Ptolemy II who organized Alexandria into five locally managed districts, laid out its street systems, organized effective law enforcement, and constructed two large saltwater ports and a port facing Lake Mareotis. A canal was dug to supply the metropolis with Nile water, which filled a huge underground reservoir, to secure Alexandria’s water supply during dry periods. During the reign of these two Ptolemies, the huge lighthouse was also built, one of the “seven wonders” of antiquity, 135 meters high and with a dazzling light source, which fuel and construction remain an unsolved mystery.



The Ptolemies’ awareness of the power of knowledge were manifested through the establishment of two huge libraries, the largest had fifty years after its founding 400,000 carefully registered papyrus scrolls, while its smaller branch contained 42,800. Libraries were nothing new to Egypt, the pharaoes’ offices had for more than a thousand years back extensive archives and several temples had special rooms for “holy scriptures”. In addition, several temples obtained a significant income from their production of precious scrolls, especially the so-called Books of the Dead, which were placed in the tombs.



The Ptolemies knew how to take advantage of all this knowledge. For example, Ptolemy I had the learned priest Manetho compiling extensive books on Egyptian history, traditions, religion, administration, and regent lengths, most of which have now been lost. The interests of Ptolemy I and his son extended far beyond the borders of Egypt, they had Jewish scholars translate their scriptures into Greek, and so did experts in Persian and Indian scriptures. Scholars were active at a “research institute” attached to the large library – Museion, which in addition to scribes included scientists, who exchanged experiences, gave lectures and researched among the libraries’ books and scrolls.

By the end of the Ptolemies’ more than three hundred years of Egyptian rule, Cleopatra's father, Ptolemy XII, was to be able to maintain his power forced to pay large sums to Roman patrons providing him with intelligence and military protection, a situation that worsened under Julius Caesar. It was in connection with his troops invading Alexandria that the library caught fire and was burned to the ground, although it was apparently “only” the branch that was destroyed.

Through intelligence and love making, Cleopatra managed to retain her power under both Caesar ad his successor Mark Antony. However, when Augustus finally defeated Mark Antony, Egypt became 31 BC a Roman colony.

After the catastrophic fire during Casear’s interference in the Ptolemies’ internal power struggles, the library was almost immediately restored to its former splendour. Already Marcus Antonius, fascinated by Cleopatra’s alluring personality and apparently planning to move the Empire’s power centre to Alexandria, seized 200,000 books and scrolls from the rival library in Pergamon, donating them all to Cleopatra. Long before that, the Ptolemies had tried to protect their knowledge monopoly by banning papyrus exports to Pergamon, where the much more expensive parchment, made from lamb and calfskins, had to be invented as an alternative writing material.


The Library of Alexandria continued its policy of requiring those who sought admission to deposit a previously unregistered book, or scroll. Furthermore, the Ptolemies rulers generally demanded precious scriptures as a customs duty from foreign merchants. The greatest threat to the library came not from invading conquerors, but from domestic, fanatical Christian sectarians.


In the religious area, the Ptolemies tried to ascertain the support of the Egyptians and a general acceptance of their Greek rule by introducing a “new” deity – Serapis, who eventually became popular among both Egyptians and Greeks.


Probably, the ancient Greeks generally distinguished between philosophy and religion. The latter concept had to do with tradition, community and communal life. Aspects of human existence that made you feel connected with those individuals you shared your life with. Religion was primarily beliefs in and respect of a superhuman power existing above all and everyone, to which the people had certain obligations. Like most other languages, ancient Greek had no specific word for religion, the closest concepts were apparently eusebeia, piety and threskeia, cult.



Philosophy was something else. A human activity involving the gathering knowledge, as well as sharing one’s thoughts and conclusions with others. A means of promoting imagination and critical thinking. An examination of our living conditions and a basis for science and progress. Acceptance of one belief did not have to mean exclusion of another. It was conceivable to be deeply religious and a sceptical philosopher, at the same time


In ancient Egypt, the situation was somewhat different. Ancient Egyptians also lacked words for “religion”, a notion that hardly could cover their extensive and varied system of beliefs and rites which joint focus was to maintain Cosmos, the ordered world, through an interplay between human and divine realms. All indications suggest that during prehistoric times, each Egyptian location had its own specific deity. It is also probable that each such place, tribe or clan was ruled by a powerful man, or woman, considered to be more or less divine, or in any case assumed to be in contact and interaction with deities, who in accordance with human, analogous thinking, often were depicted in animal form.


Egyptian culture developed over thousands of years and during such a long time period local rule was seized by more powerful rulers, linked to other local deities. For example, the king of Nekhen (Hierakonpolis) was identified with a falcon, a symbol of the local god Horus, which in turn symbolized the sky, while one of his eyes was the sun and the other the moon. To prove his special position, the ruler was identified with this Horus, who when other areas were conquered thus became superior to the gods of defeated peoples.


However, this did not mean that the worship of ancient local gods disappeared. Instead, it became common practice a creatie “super-deity” including aspects, and even the “personality” of other gods and thereby came to be worshipped as a new divine “unit”. For example, when Thebes’ Amon was united with Iunus’ (Heliopolis) Ra and came to be venerated as the sun god Amon-Ra. Thus new deities were created, while others disappeared. Nevertheless, nature persisted – the life-giving water of the Nile’s regularly occurring floods irrigated and fertilized the earth; the sun and other celestial bodies moved across the sky, while greenery died and was reborn.


Sun worship was the unifying aspect of the Egyptian religion. A worship filled with joy and gratitude over a world where anxiety and evil were kept away by the benevolent sun and fertilizing Nile water, which force permeated all living things. Under the dominion of the Sun was the mighty Osiris, the deity of fertility; the dying and resurrected god. The sun god Ra was the ruler of everything and everyone. He was immortal, no human being could understand or identify with his omnipotence, though every Egyptian could understand and resort to Osiris. The god who changes between life and death, happiness and misfortune, light and darkness. Like mortal women and men, Osiris was subject to the power of the sun and the shifts of nature, but unlike humans he was immortal.


The myth tells us that Osiris once was the just ruler of the city Busiris. But, he was murdered by his evil and power-hungry brother Seth, who to make sure his brother would never be resurrected, dismembered his body and scattered the parts throughout the land of Egypt. Osiris’ loving wife, Isis, fled to the swamps of the Nile Delta. To defeat the evil Seth and end his power over the world, Isis needed a son. Together with her sister Nephtys, she secretly managed to gather the body parts of her deceased husband and with the help of the god of wisdom, Thoth, who owned the Book of Knowledge, which includes all secrets of life, Isis succeeded in resurrecting her dead husband and trough him conceived the couple’s son, Horus, who grew strong and finally, as Egypt's rightful ruler, succeeded in defeating the usurper Seth.


Horus, and his representative among the humans – the Pharaoh, became the guarantee that humans, through knowledge and cooperation, would be able to hold off those evil forces which constantly threaten nature and humanity. As supporters and protectors Horus count upon the eternal presence of his mother Isis and father Osiris, who from the Underworld made greenery and prosperity sprout. Above them all, Re, the Sun, tries to make the deities governing the earth to work in unison, not the least Seth, who despite having been defeated by Horus, by his powerful nature is forced to keep the powers of evil, which he knows so well, in check. Despite this, Seth has a double nature and it is not possible to fully and firmly trust in him. As little as man is perfectly capable of governing the world. We must therefore live, die and resurrect according to the examples of Osiris, Horus and Isis and in their name and in obedience to their maintain justice, cooperation, compassion, law and order. With the help of that specific triad of gods, and not least with the support of Thoth’s wisdom, we humans can be granted eternal life – an even become identical with Osiris.


With his Greek-educated, practical reasoning, Ptolemy I Soter recognized the importance of religion as a unifying force for Egyptians and Greeks. Instead of, like other foreign rulers had done before him, introducing a deity alien to Egyptians as representative of his power and authority, Ptolemy chose to create a “new” divinity firmly grounded in the Egyptian soil. A creature that included various, multifaceted aspects.


Perhaps by following advice from experts like the Egyptian priest Manetho, Ptolemy I announced that the god Serapis in a dream had revealed himself to him and asked the Greek ruler to establish a cult of Serapis as Egypt's supreme lord. It is probable that this Serapis found his origin in already existing places of worship for the Apis bull. An animal that through its strength and fertility through the ages had been likened to the creator god Ptah, to Osiris, the sun god Atum and not the least – the Pharaoh. Apis bulls were sacrificed/slaughtered and then “resurrected” in their own graves after being mummified and buried during complicated rites. Through its association with Osiris the sacred bull was called Osiris-Apis, wsjr-ḥp in Egyptian, Userhapi in Coptic and Serapis in Greek.


To attract Greek worship of Serapis, Ptolemy had a huge sculpture of the god made by sycamore wood and placed it in a temple on Alexandria’s highest, though nevertheless rather insignificant hill. The Greeks did not understand the Egyptians’ worship of animals, let alone their animal-headed gods. Accordingly, Ptolemy had Serapis portrayed as a bearded figure with features combining Zeus, Dionysus and Hades. On top of his head of the god carried the fertility goddess Demeter’s calathos, wheat measure, as a crown. This was not at all particularly shocking to the Egyptians, accustomed as they were to worship human beings, in addition to their animal-headed deities. They willingly accepted the god of a foreign ruler, insofar as he did not disclaim any Egyptian gods, but united his worship with theirs and assisted the deities of Egypt in their main task – to watch over and maintain the life-giving floods of the Nile, support the order of Cosmos and maintain the Egyptian mindset. Several Greeks living in Egypt submitted to the same rites as the Egyptians and worshipped their traditional gods, adapting some of the Egyptian cultic behaviour and religious iconography to Greek fashion.



Cerberus rested by the feet of Serapis’ effigy. He was the three-headed watchdog of Hades and could thus be equated with the Egyptian shakal-headed Anubis, who guarded Egypt’s cemeteries.


Other renderings presented Serapis as a crowned pillar. The god then had, like the sun god, luminous rays surrounding his head. His pillar-body was adorned with the signs of the zodiac and surrounded by a serpent, the symbol of rebirth. In Pharaonic Egypt the cobra, Naja haje, was called  Uraeus by the Greeks and by the Egyptians j’rt, Rearing Cobra. The ancient Egyptians incorporated it, in its upright shape, in the royal diadem of the Pharaohs. Snakes were associated with the Greek god Hermes, who accompanied the deceased to Hades, the Kingdom of the Dead and he was then depicted with a cadeceus. In Egypt, Hermes was equated with Thoth and the cadeceus could then be connected to a pillar, a symbol of stability and thus also with Osiris’ spine, djed, symbol of life, stability, strength, resurrection and dominion. The djed was occasionally depicted as wrapped by a snake.  



Egyptian priests declared that Serapis was Osiris in his Greek manifestation and thus equated with the Greek ruling house’s intention to rule in collaboration with the Egyptian clergy to ensure the order of the Universe – the annual floods of the Nile and the divinely established laws of society, as expressed in the holy scriptures of ancient Egypt. The Egyptians were still free to continue worshipping their traditional deities, and the Ptolemies constructed new temples and restored ancient ones. Egyptian clergy and scribes were supported and allowed to retain their former functions and privileges. Thus the Ptolemies won the full support of the theological establishment and Serapis was served by both Greek and Egyptian priests.



By establishing the Museion, Ptolemy I furthermore secured the support of philosophers and he and his heirs to the throne favoured research that affirmed both religion and science, supporting a far-reaching openness to other religious beliefs, and the preservation/exploration of sacred scriptures. When Christianity made its entrance to Alexandria’s multicultural sphere, it turned out that the tolerance of the Ptolemies had nourished a snake at its breast. The Ptolemies’ Roman successors admitted a Christian-oriented group of philosophers within the framework of the Museion’s activities and allowed them to establish a Christian department – Didascalium. However, this philosophy seminary was soon subjected to sectarian riots and in 381 its library was burned down by opponents who disagreed with the Didascalium philosophers’ view of the true nature of Christ.



Over the centuries, Serapion grew larger, the hill were it was located was raised even further, a wide staircase with one hundred steps led up to its courtyards and the central building with Serapis’ huge wooden sculpture. The hill was hollowed out and housed, in addition to embalmed Apis bulls, Serapion’s constantly enlarged library. This book- and papyri collection was initially called the Daughter’s Library, since it mainly contained copies made from the most important documents preserved in the huge central library. Gradually, more and more documents were transferred to Serapion, which increasingly resembled a fort with its own guard force. A bastion protecting the remnants of ancient philosophy against the intolerant, Christian mob. Sometime by the beginning of the fourth century, the central library was finally looted and burned down to the ground. The preservation and protection of Serapion’s invaluable papyri and books thus became increasingly important to the few philosophers and scientists who cared for their preservation.



During the first century of our era, Christianity had entered the Jewish circles of Egypt. Most Alexandrian Jews had gradually become more “secularized” and liberal forces among them had increasingly accepted proselytes attracted by Judaism’s denial of images of gods and, more and more, the bloody sacrifices of the temples. Philosophically minded people who converted to Judaism also appreciated its intellectual approach, the reverence for sacred scriptures, and the worship of an immaterial, almighty deity. An attitude favoured by complex Jewish, Persian and Neoplatonic speculations which, in the wake of Alexandria's cosmopolitan syncretism, had become more and more common among Museion’s philosophers.



From this thicket of theological speculations developed the intricate and multifaceted reasoning that came to be known as Gnosticism. The Gnostics who were attracted by Judaism, and later joined the emerging Christianity, seem to have believed in an unimaginable power, incomprehensible to us humans, and infinitely exalted above its own creation. According to them, the Universe consisted of a number of spheres, which for lack of better comparisons were equated with divine beings, so-called eons. These eons appear to have been personified qualities such as Pleroma, the Complete, Sophia, Wisdom, Dynamis, Power, Logos, the Word, or Nous, Consciousness. The lowest of these eons was the Demiurge, who created our imperfect world and was by several Gnostics identified with the Yahweh of the Jews.



Humans were considered to be composed of divine and material elements and should free their souls from their material imprisonment, something that could only be achieved through a profound knowledge, gnosis, of humanity’s actual situation. Christian Gnostics generally identified gnosis with Jesus, a Saviour who had come down to humanity from a sphere of divine light to liberate our souls, which have been trapped in the darkness of matter.


Gnosticism appealed to the most talented thinkers of the time, but eventually also became a popular movement, splitting up Judeo-Christian congregations. Different Gnostic belief systems created a variety of scriptures often taking the form of “gospels”. Leading Christian authorities soon considered it as one of their primary tasks to sort out and analyse these scriptures to determine which of them were truly “genuine” in the sense that they could be considered as reiable descriptions of Jesus’ actual life and message.


It was probably by the end of 100 AD that the four Gospels of the New Testament were established as being the most reliable depictions of the life and teachings of Jesus. Leading in this process were Ireneaus (130-202 AD) from Smyrna, as well as the Alexandrian philosophers Clement (150-215) and his disciple Origen (184-253). The latter two were well versed in Greek philosophy, especially in the form of Plato’s writings and were assuredly influenced by the earlier Jewish scholar Phil of Alexandria (20-50 AD). Philo tried to harmonize Judaism with Greek philosophy and put forward an abstract conception of God. By searching for the “hidden meaning” of words, Philo interpreted the Jewish Bible in an allegorical manner, for example – he made Adam symbolize “consciousness” and Eve “sensory impressions”. Philo believed that God had created and now ruled the universe through various “mediators”, among them Logos, the Word, an intangible force that Philo called “the Shadow of God” and the Creator’s “firstborn son”. Thoughts adopted by the Gnostics and not the least by Clement and Origen.


The Gospel of John was probably written for a gnostically educated audience, evident from the prologue’s description of how Logos initially existed with God and then became “the light of men”. However, the Christian Church did not go further beyond recognizing gnostic notions than an acknowledgement of the Gospel of John. Below is the first page of the Gospel of John from the Bodmer Papyrus, so called because it together with twenty-two other papyrus sheets in 1952 was excavated from the remains of a Coptic monastery and then smuggled to Switzerland, where they were bought by the Swiss book collector Martin Bodmer. The largely well-preserved papyrus sheets were found to contain the oldest records to date of the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of John, Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians, as well as several fragments of texts from the Old Testament, Christian writings not included in the Bible, copies of Homer and an intact comedy by the Greek playwright Menander (342-390 BC). All these texts had apparently been written down by three different people, probably around 200 AD.



A number of gospels about Jesus were considered too “contaminated” by Gnosticism and thus rejected. As it grew stronger, the Christian establishment attacked Gnosticism. Its followers were mercilessly persecuted, while their writings were destroyed. Until the middle of the 20th century, Gnostic teachings were known only in fragments and by their mentioning of Christian opponents. However, a lot of Gnostic writings have now been found, suggesting how extensive this tradition once was. Although most of these writings are rather abstract speculations, and/or obviously consist of legendary stories, it is possible that there once existed several more “authentic” stories about the life and activities of Jesus. Perhaps some of these had been destroyed since their contents did not appeal to the ancient “Church Fathers”.


Remembering my youth’s adversaries to women priests I am now reminded that the so-called Apocryphal Gospels contain several allusions to women who spoke with and about Jesus. The so-called Gospel of Mary tells us:


Peter said to Mary, “Sister, we know that the Saviour loved you more than the rest of the women. Tell us the words of the Saviour which you remember – which you know (but) we do not, nor have we heard them.


Unfortunately, some of her answer is missing in the papyrus fragment, though the apostle Andrew was upset by her testimony and stated that Mary’s words could not be true since they did not coincide with what Jesus had told his apostles. Peter agreed with Andrew:


Peter also opposed her in regard to these matters and asked them about the Saviour: “Did he then speak secretly with a woman, in preference to us, and not openly? Are we to turn back and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?”


In the Gospel of Thomas, which for the most part consists of detached quotations from Jesus and his apostles, we find the following rather strange passage, which can either be defined as male chauvinist, or possibly as an affirmation of the value of women:


Simon Peter said to them: “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”


It would not surprise me if a book nerd and librarian like Jorge Luis Borges had the library in Alexandria in mind, with its thousands of unexplored and lost texts, not least confusing Gnostic speculations, while writing his fantastic story The Library of Babel. It may be that Origen also got lost in the vast library that the Universe constitutes. At the same time, however, he tried to get the Gnostic texts in order, while he, like his contemporary Christian brothers, pondered about Jesus’ “true nature”. Origen was a strong believer John's assertion:


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.



But, what did it mean? Was John a Gnostic? Was God equal to the Demiurge and Jesus an eon? Was he God? Was he human? Was he perhaps both God and man? Who then was the Father? Who was the Son? What was the Holy Spirit? In his search for answers, Origen may have become lost in the writings contained in Alexandria’s vast library. As a learned philosopher he wanted to affirm the truth of Christianity, without denying all the ancient knowledge he had accumulated.


Origen was Egyptian, his name was derived from “son of Osiris”, i.e. Horus whom several Christian Egyptians equated with Jesus. Origen did of course visit Alexandria’s main library and the papyrus collections in the Serapion. No doubt was he aware that Serapis was equated with God, Isis with the Virgin Mary, and Horus with Jesus.


For an Egyptian believer well versed in the ancient tradition of searching after layer by layer of meanings in every word, every deed, every myth, it was of course not at all difficult for Origen to realize that the words of the Bible, as well as the inscriptions in Egyptian tombs and temples, besides its more or less obvious meanings, did like an iceberg beneath the words hid other truths. It was quite natural for Origen to interpret the Bible “allegorically”, meaning that even if its stories and words might be compatible with reality, they had been written down by people who, like the Egyptian scribes, knew that every word could have several meanings. Although, for example, the story of Adam and Eve might be true, it hid beneath its fabulous surface insights and truths about God and the condition of men and women here on earth.



After a bloody, but short war, Theodosius became in 394 the single ruler of the entire Roman Empire, which now for the last time was subdued under one emperor. He abolished religious freedom and made Christianity the state religion throughout his kingdom, extinguished the eternal fire in Rome’s Vestal Temple, banned the Olympic Games and gave his go-ahead to destroy all “pagan” temples, or turn them into Christian churches. However, in Alexandria, perhaps out of concern that the ancient gods would no longer guarantee the life-giving floods of the Nile and/or in competition with the increasingly powerful Constantinople, the majority of its citizens refused to follow Theodosius’ edict. The defender of the Serapion persisted, but fanatical feelings brewed within the town. The Jews were attacked and they responded to the violence by killing their Christian attackers and any instigator they could lay their hands on. After bloody riots the Jews were expelled from the city. Then it was the Gentiles’ turn to come under fierce attacks from fanatical monks. Violence was met with violence, Christian instigators were tortured to death in Alexandria’s arena and soldiers from the fortified Serapion counter-attacked.



The city’s livid archbishop, Theophilos, incited the Christian mob against the “God deniers” who had taken refuge in the Serapion. Alexandria’s authorities turned to Theodosius in Constantinople and pending the emperor’s ruling peace reigned in the city. However, when Theodosius’ answer was solemnly announced at Alexandria’s agora, establishing that the pagan cult was abominable and henceforth forbidden, hell broke loose. Theodosius incited his Christian brethren to crush the idols and cleanse the town from godless idolaters. Heading his fanatics Theophilus broke into the Serapion, turned the valuables into scrap metal, looted the library, throwing out all the writings that displeased them, burning papyri and books all over the town. The buildings and Serapis’ statue were demolished. In The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire the always engaging Edward Gibbon described the dramatic events:


 It was confidently affirmed that, if any impious hand should dare to violate the majesty of the god, the heavens and the earth would instantly return to their original chaos. An intrepid soldier, animated by zeal, and armed with a weighty battle-axe, ascended the ladder; and even the Christian multitude expected with some anxiety the event of the combat. He aimed a vigorous stroke against the cheek of Serapis; the cheek fell to the ground; the thunder was still silent, and both the heavens and the earth continued to preserve their accustomed order and tranquillity. The victorious soldier repeated his blows: the huge idol was overthrown and broken in pieces; and the limbs of Serapis were ignominiously dragged through the streets of Alexandria. His mangled carcase was burnt in the amphitheatre, amidst the shouts of the populace; and many persons attributed their conversion to this discovery of the impotence of their tutelar deity. 


However, there was no peace – the pagans remained and the Christian fanatics now included several “Christian heretics” among their enemies. Theophilus’ nephew, Cyril, considered Jesus Christ to be a unified, entirely divine person. The Virgin Mary had thus not given birth to a common man, but God himself and should thus be named Theotókos, the Mother of God. Considering Cyril´s Egyptian roots it is not inconceivable to assume that the source for this opinion might be found in ancient notions about Isis as the mother of the god Horus and, of course, Alexandria’s need to assert herself against the imperial influence of Constantinople.



Cyril’s opponents were numerous, but he had Alexandria’s riches by his side. Cyril’s envoys bribed Constantinople’s officials with expensive gifts; luxurious carpets, ivory carvings, gold coins, and even a living ostrich. In this manner the wealthy bishop was able to in 431 convince the emperor to convene a Church Council in Ephesus, where his opponents were defeated and the majority agreed that Christ has two unadulterated natures joined in a single deity and that Mary thus ought to be worshipped as the Mother of God – Theotókos.



Fifteen years before his triumph in Ephesus, Cyril had secured his influential position in Alexandria. The Roman prefect, Orestes, had in vain tried to alleviate the bloody conflicts between Christian fanatics and increasingly desperate Pagans and Heretics. Even if Orestes was accused of being more willing to punish Pagan perpetrators than Christian ones, this did not hinder Cyril from directing violent, verbal accusations against the Roman prefect. This virulent propaganda caused that Orestes became seriously injured by a stone thrown by one of Cyril’s fanatic followers. When the culprit had been executed, he was by Cyril hailed as martyr for the Christian faith.



It was a well-known fact that Orestes was a student of and still admired the beautiful and intelligent Hypatia, who was active at the Museion, its philosophical seminars had continued to operate, in spite of the fact that its original premises had been set on fire and destroyed. Hypatia was astronomer, mathematician and, above all, a Gnostic philosopher, with a suspiciously vast knowledge of Greek philosophy. She was respected by the philosophers and scientists who still took a stand against the intolerant Christian fanaticism advocated by Cyril. With his consent, or as the always eloquent Gibbon put it “a murderer with clean hands”, Hypatia was torn down from her chariot and dragged into Kasarion, a former temple erected in honour of the Roman emperors that had been converted into Alexandria’s main church and site of the episcopate. There the mob tore off Hypatia’s clothes and discarded her skin with sharpened seashells and potsherds, as well as they stuckout her eyes. Then the killers dragged the dying, horribly flayed Hypatia through the streets to a place called Cinaron, where the remains of her body were burned to the cheers of the jubilant mob.



It was through Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony that I became to realize the bias of Sunday School lessons, films like Ben Hur and Quo Vadis, and even the school’s history lessons, which had served up a harmoniously arranged version of unified, mild and forgiving Christian congregations. For me Flaubert shattered that rosy image, revealing it all as a myth. The time of the birth of Christianity, like most other similar occurrences in the history of humanity, was far more dynamic, cruel, and fragmented. The new doctrine developed and was spiced up in a variety of places, among different people during time of intense reflection, great concern, experimentation, debate and external, as well as internal, strife. It was a time of anger, often characterized by bloody clashes, which erupted after absurd exchanges of opinions about whether Jesus was god or man, father or son, or both.


Although Flaubert regarded The Temptation of Saint Anthony as his life’s work, few friends and writers realized its originality. They had a hard time understanding how a writer, who in his lifetime was considered to be a great master, could have been capable to publish such scandalous mishmash, especially after his flawlessly realistic Madame Bovary.



Flaubert wrote three versions of La tentation de Saint Antoine. The first and longest he wrote in 1849, at the age of twenty-seven. Enthusiastic about his work, Flaubert devoutly read his manuscript to two of his best friends, Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet. He asked them not to interrupt his reading aloud. The friends promised to keep quiet, kept their word and listened to Flaubert during four days, without interrupting or commenting the reading. He read to them from noon to four o’clock in the afternoon, after a break for dinner and rest he continued reading aloud from eight o’clock in the evening until midnight. After the last session, Flaubert waited with excitement for what he assumed would be his friends’ enthusiastic praise.



To Flaubert’s great dismay, Maxim and Louis were in complete agreement: “Burn the misery and never mention it again.” Flaubert was speechless, he could not understand what they meant. As in all his writing, Flaubert had been extremely careful with the language. He was pleased with the novel’s rhythm and composition. It could not get any better and he found it impossible to put all this work aside. After travelling with Du Camp through Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Turkey for more than a year and a half, writing Madame Bovary, which was a great success, Flaubert once again took up The Temptations of St. Anthony, shortened and honed his original version, and 1856-1857 he published parts of the novel in the literature magazine L'Artiste – Scandal! The criticism was harsh, derogatory and struck above all at what hed been found to be obscene and distasteful. Few realized that the novel was a fresco composed of different parts and actually was engaged in the description cosmic visions and sumptuous frescoes, than in describing their opposite – base desire and filth, which are also a part of human existence and even religion. The worst, according to the critics, was Flaubert’s deliberately distasteful depiction of how St. Anthony finds himself transformed into a pig wallowing in shameful uncleanness:


A whole world’s rotting filth was spread around me to satisfy my appetite, I caught sight of clots of blood through the fumes, blue intestines and every kind of animal excrement, and the vomit of orgies, and like slicks of oil the greenish pus that runs from wounds; it all thickened about me, so I was walking with my four trotters almost sinking into this sticky slime, and on my back there fell a continuous drizzle of hot rain, sweet and sickly …. all this gurgled inside my body, all this lapped against my ears, I was grasping, I was howling, I was eating and swallowing it all. Ugh! Ugh …



Although Flaubert, upon the earnest request of his friends, deleted the repulsive filth from the novel’s last and final edition, the image of the wallowing pig had forever stuck with him. For example, the following caricature makes fun of Flauberty when he was releasing of the last version of La Tentation de sainte Antoine: “M. Flaubert publishes his Temptation of St. Anthony at same time as the great Ham Fair. What arrogance.”



The first edition – two thousand copies – was immediately sold out. A second and larger one also disappeared after a week or so. However, the initial enthusiasm waned after a devastating critique, which that for the most part was directed more at the author than the work, although the novel was also condemned in harsh terms. Flaubert consoled himself by stating: “I’m rolled in dirt by the hacks, but that only means that the novel will sell even better.” Though he was proven wrong – the novel was full-fledged disaster.


The renown historian of religions, Ernest Renan, whose controversial Vie de Jésus, Life of Jesus, from 1863 had become a bestseller and one important source for The Temptation of Saint Anthony, wrote in 1875, by the publication of the last revised version of the unfortunate novel, to Princess Julie, cousin of Napoleon III and an influential personality among Paris’ literati:


Flaubert is a somewhat saddened by the lack of enthusiasm for his temptation of St. Anthony. He had dreamed of success for this bizarre work, which he should have reserved it for a few scholars who might have appreciated it, he hoped for the success he had had with his Madame Bovary. Have you read the novel, dear Princess? It's unhealthy, often bad, but at times filled with an astonishing historical flair and high poetry. However, the bourgeoisie may justly be excused for its disinterest.


Even if most writers and literary critics did not appreciate the novel, it was soon discovered by artists who were immediately inspired by it. Admittedly, it was generally the quite few erotically charged scenes that attracted the attention of most of them. Not least the wallowing pig. An example of this is the somewhat too vulgar Felicien Rops, who in several of his works alluded to La tentation de sainte Antoine.



It is only natural that artists should be captivated by Flaubert's pictorially vivid descriptions of Anthony’s temptations. Flaubert’s fantasies about the hermit’s tribulations were triggered after he in a palace in Genoa became fascinated by one a Pieter Breughel’s at least seven different versions of St. Anthony’s temptations.



While writing his novel, Flaubert always had Jacques Callot’s etching presenting the temptations in the form of a depiction of Hell, lying on the desk in front of him.



Ever since a damaged fresco from the eight century in Santa Maria Antigua here in Rome depicted Anthony’s temptations, the motif has been common in European art and then generally connected with beautiful ladies, the Devil and horrendous demons.

One of exception to that rule is Mathias Grünewald’s depiction in which both the Devil and the alluring ladies are missing, but where there are plenty of malformed demons, some of whom seem to be affected by malignant diseases, perhaps even of a venereal nature, something that undeniably tormented Flaubert.

The motif continues to be fairly common in modern art, not the least inspired by Flaubert's novel and paired with inner and outer and outer torments, like Otto Dix’s versions created during the Nazi tyranny.

Of course, there are also hints to Anthony´s temptations in the movie world. First was the magician Georges Mèlié’s short and delightfully comic La tentation de Saint Antoine from 1898.

Incidentally, Mèlié’s world was portrayed in a quite excellent manner in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo Cabret from 2011. The only really successful 3D movie I’ve seen. It managed to take full advantage of all the possibilities of that technology and evidenced Scorsese as a magician of the same film genre as the none of the great Mèliés.

It would not surprise me the imaginative, but flawed American director Abel Ferrara, who lives in Rome, also has been inspired by La tentation de sainte Antoine. In any case, this seems to be the case of his film Siberia from 2020, which depicts visions and hallucinations of a lone American who has retreated to the isolation of a wintry Siberia, where he owns a primitive bar serving the surrounding Samoyeds. This film could have been a masterpiece, but unfortunately it isn’t. It was saved by the Willem Dafoe’s skilled acting, something that unfortunately could not save Ferrara’s earlier failure – Pasolino, a big disappointment.

A somewhat strange guest appearance in the world of film was when La tentation de sainte Antoine appeared in a rather unsuccessful film adaptation of the Flaubert disciple Maupassant’s novel Bel Ami, in which a painting by Max Ernst in colour is included in a key scene within the otherwise black-and-white movie.

In his film, The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, the director Albert Lewin wanted to repeat an effect he successfully had used two years earlier in his 1945 film adaptation of Dorian Gray’s Portrait, in which the main character’s portrait was gradually transformed into an abominable image of his inner moral decay. The portrait had then been shown as a colour image in this otherwise black-and-white horror film.

As part of the marketing for the lavish production of Bel Ami, twelve of the current foremost representatives of an art genre which the director and producer described as “surrealistic, magical realism” were asked to submit their interpretations of The Temptation of Saint Anthony. All but one of the invited artists submitted their entries, probably attracted by the generous conditions – five hundred dollars for each submitted entry, which, along with the accepted works, would be exhibited in various locations in the United States and Europe. A USD 3,000 award would be presented to the artist whose work would be included in the film.

The jury members gave prestige and weight to the prize – the controversial and well-known artist Marcel Duchamp, Alfred H Barr, director of The New York Museum of Modern Art, and Sidney Janis, New York’s most respected gallery owner. The winner was Max Ernst who described his work as:

Shrieking for help and light across the stagnant water of his dark sick soul, Saint Anthony receives as an answer the echo of his fear, the laughter of the monsters created by his visions.

Not all critics were happy with the verdict. New York Times’ film critic Bosley Crowther displayed no enthusiasm whatsoever for neither the film nor Max Ernst’s artwork, which he described as “downright nauseous, looking like a bad boiled lobster.”

Ernst's depiction of Antony’s temptations lacked the usual naked women. However, they appeared in most of the other contributions. Of course, they were present by Paul Delvaux, whose painting does not seem to have anything at all to do with Anthony’s temptations. He probably submitted an uninspired work that he had previously been unable to sell, in order to get the easily earned five hundred dollars.

Delvaux could just as well have been submitting any of his much better and mysterious works depicting temptation and exclusion.

Mysterious was, as might have been expected, Leonora Carrington’s contribution, which lacked the naked ladies, but depicted the saint’s pig.

Demonic female characters, on the other hand, were present in the painting of another of Max Ernst’s talented mistresses, Dorothea Tanning, who was certainly less unhappy in her relation with the ingenious Ernst than Carrington had been.

An abundance of naked female flesh was found in the Englishman Stanley Spencer, who placed his Saint Antonius in an open tomb.

Fear, claustrophobia, decay and outright threatening eroticism were all present in Ivan Albright’s repulsive version of the temptations, through which he seemed to have tried to repeat the shocking effect he had achieved with his contribution to Lewin’s earlier film about Dorian Gray.

A couple of the participating artists were new acquaintances to me, especially the now relatively unknown Louis Gugliemi, who was born in Cairo, grew up in Italy and became an interesting painter of New York, in a style reminiscent of the German New Objectivity. Unfortunately, I have only seen his contribution to Bel Ami reproduced in black and white.

Accordingly, the competition attracted several skilled artists and left behind at least one painting I believe to be an original and truly fascinating work of art, which also comes close to the mood of Flaubert's novel – Salvador Dali’s naked Antonius, who in a desert landscape with the help of the cross in vain tries to protect himself from baroque, bizarre visions. By placing elephant bodies on spider legs, Dali combines compact, menacing weight with an insect-like, emotionally cold and treacherous fragility. Certainly an absurd and nightmarish logic which reminds me of hallucinations I once had during a high fever caused by a meningitis.

A cat among the ermines was the self-taught naivist painter Horace Pippin, who died the year before Bel Ami premiered. His contribution, through its obvious naivete, aroused a certain superior cheerfulness when compared to the works of the other, more skilful and better-educated artists. However when I now study Pippin’s contribution, I find it to be in harmony with Flaubert’s Anthony, with its depiction of the lonely, isolated and emaciated saint finding himself in an inhospitable, darkly shaded valley, filled with skeletons. He is viewed from above by two white-clad figures, a god or devil, and a goddess or seducer, as dawn is approaching after Anthony’s horrible tribulations.

However, none of these artists came close to Odilon Redon’s congenial interpretations of Flaubert's work. From the primordial soup of ancient embryos:

The Fall of the Ancient Gods:

Jesus’ suffering and Christian martyrs:

Isis and the immobile, enigmatic sphinx’s encounter with the unbound, flying chimera:

Antonius’ student Hilarion, who is doubling a Satan in his guise as tempter and accuser making the obviously pious hermit doubting the purpose and meaning of life.

The Buddha’s sermon about the infinity of the Universe.

Redon’s interpretations come close to the literary critic and journalist Jules Lemaître, who in 1879 wrote that Flaubert’s La tentation de sainte Antoine was much more subtle than its prosaically single-track critics had claimed:

This journey through religions depicts the various manners in which man has perceived the world, it moves in the same sphere where stars are travelling; and thus also within the confusion of our minds. “What is the point of all this?” asks Antoine. “There is no meaning, no goal” answers the Devil. “Things are happening in your mind. Like a concave mirror it distorts objects and you lack the ability to confirm their true nature. You will never perceive the Universe in its entirety, you cannot grasp its origin, neither understand who God is, nor realize that the universe is infinite. Form and shapes might be fallacies of the mind, unknown substance and imagination. The world is a constant flow of things and phenomena, its appearance is all that is true. Illusion, the only reality!



This is possibly one reason to why image makers, visionaries and lunatics, more than writers and logicians, have been attracted by La tentation de sainte Antoine. By the end of his novel, Flaubert lets a new day dawn outside Antonius’ cave and within the solar disc, Egypt’s all-superior Lord and Master, Antonius seems to discern the face of Christ. This has been regarded as a late admission by Flaubert that Christianity is, after all, the source of all religions and life itself. However, after re-reading the novel, I assume that Flaubert, who within it paid homage to Buddha, has more than Christianity approached the philosophical religiosity of the Indian subcontinent. A doctrine that encompasses all aspects of life, positive as well as negative and considers the energy of the sun and the universe as sources of existence.


Flaubert managed to capture an aspect of the lives of the early hermits that I found long after I had read his novel. Derwas Chitty’s fascinating book The Desert a City mentions the Desert Fathers’ reverence for and interaction with the harsh nature that surrounded them. Athanasius, who was contemporary with Anthony, wrote the biography that constitutes the basis for the legends about the temptations the pious hermit suffered. Athanasius quotes in several places of his tale about Anthony’s wondrous life what his hero had to say about his desert dwellings. When Anthony, a he former farmer, saw the desert for the first time, he “fell in love with it,” fascinated by its pristine “purity” and he told hermits who sought him out: “My children. Let us not defile this place, because the fathers who preceded us here have cleansed it.” It seems as if Anthony believed that if you learn to live in harmony with your surroundings, even if they might be the desolate and barren desert, you will eventually learn to respect the living beings with whom you share the habitat: “If we reverence everything with moderation it will allow us humans to become stewards even over wild animals.”



In La tentation de sainte Antoine we notice a permanent presence of nature, as if it is a living being. Desert animals occasionally appear, like the jackals, which not at are presented as threatening as the imaginary beings that harass Saint Anthony. And it is perhaps not so strange that Antonius out there in the solitude of the desert strongly felt that he was an integrated a part of heaven and earth, at the same time as he was tormented and amazed by the dazzling presence of the sun.


The life-giving power of light and warmth as part of the inconceivable, immense, living universe is a thought expressed in the Bhagavad Gita, Song of the High, written sometime during the sixth century BC. Like several other well-meaning religious writings, the Bhagavad Gita preaches what is called Bhakti, an unconditional love for one’s neighbour and an acceptance of the incomprehensible power of the Supreme God as man’s only path to inner peace. Of course, that idea has also been abused, distorted and misunderstood.


He is the source of light in all luminous objects. He is beyond the darkness of matter and is unmanifested. He is knowledge, He is the object of knowledge, and He is the goal of knowledge. He exists in the heart of everyone.

Suddenly within the skies – a burst of a thousand suns all at once flooding the earth with rays, though not even that could resemble the splendour of the majesty and glory of the Holy One. So did Arjuna see the entire Universe unfold, divided in all its huge diversity, but in one great shape, visible and viewed in one body and one in all – subtle, splendid, nameless – all comprehending, God of gods, the Never Ending Deity!

Assmann, Jan (2005) Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press.  Biasi, Pierre-Marc de (2002) Flaubert: L’homme-plume. Paris: Gallimard. Cannuyer, Christian (2000) L´Égypte copte: Les chrétiens du Nil. Paris: Gallimard. Chitty, Derwas J. (1966) The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestinian Monasticism under the Christian Empire. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir´s Seminary Press. Empereur, Jean-Yves (2002) Alexandria: Past, Present and Future. London: Thames & Hudson. Flaubert, Gustave (1980) The Temptation of St Anthony. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Classics. Gibbon, Edward (2005) The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Abridged Edition. London: Penguin Classics. Mascaró, Juan (1972) The Bhagavad Gita. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Classics. Mori, Luca (2020) Ipazia: Un fatale catena di eventi. Milano: RCS Media Group. Pagels, Elaine (1989) The Gnostic Gospels. London: Vintage. Wilkinson, Toby (2017) Writings from Ancient Egypt. London: Penguin Classics.


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