The Elixir of Life
The Purple Head
ALTHOUGH in a manner retired from the world during the fifth and sixth
Christian centuries, the banished Gods did not neglect to keep an eye
on human affairs, interesting themselves in any movement which might seem
to afford them a chance of regaining their lost supremacy, or in any person
whose conduct evinced regret at their dethronement. They deeply sympathized
with the efforts of their votary Pamprepius to turn the revolt of Ilus
 to their advantage,
and excused the low magical arts to which he stooped as a necessary concession
to the spirit of a barbarous age. They ministered invisibly to Damascius
and his companions on their flight into Persia, alleviating the hardships under which the frames
of the veteran philosophers might otherwise have sunk. It was not, indeed,
until the burning of the Alexandrian library that they lost all heart
and lapsed into the chrysalis-like condition in which they remained until
tempted forth by the young sunshine of the Renaissance.
Such a phenomenon for the fifth century as the Dionysiaca of Nonnus of Panopolis could not fail to excite their most lively interest. Forty-eight books of verse on the exploits of Bacchus in the age of pugnacious prelates and filthy cœnobites, of imbecile rulers and rampant robbers, of the threatened dissolution of every tie, legal, social, or political; an age of earthquake, war, and famine! Bacchus, who is known from Aristophanes not to have excelled in criticism, protested that his laureate was greater than Homer; and, though Homer could not go quite so far as this, he graciously conceded that if he had himself been an Egyptian of the fifth century, with a faint glimmering of the poetical art, and encumbered with more learning than he knew how to use, he might have written almost as badly as his modern representative. More impartial critics judged Nonnus’s achievement more favourably, and all agreed that his steadfastness in the faith deserved some special mark of distinction. The Muses under Pallas’s direction (being themselves a little awkward in female accomplishments) embroidered him a robe; Hermes made a lyre, and Hephaestus forged a plectrum. Apollo added a chaplet of laurel, and Bacchus one of ivy. Whether from distrust of Hermes’ integrity, or wishing to make the personal acquaintance of his follower, Phœbus volunteered to convey the testimonial in person, and accordingly took his departure for the Egyptian Thebaid.
As Apollo fared through the sandy and rugged wilderness under the blazing sun of an African summer afternoon, he observed with surprise a vast crowd of strange figures clustering at the entrance to a hive. On a nearer approach he identified them as a posse of demons besetting a hermit. Words cannot describe the enormous variety of whatever the universe holds of most heterogeneous. Naked women of surpassing loveliness displayed their charms to the anchorite’s gaze, sturdy porters bent beneath loads of gold which they heaped at his feet, other shapes not alien from humanity allured his appetite with costly dishes or cooling drinks, or smote at him with swords, or made feints at his eyes with spears, or burned sulphur under his nose, or displayed before him scrolls of poetry or learning, or shrieked blasphemies in his ears, or surveyed him from a little distance with glances of leering affection; while a motley crowd of goblins, wearing the heads of boars or lions, or whisking the tails of dragons, winged, or hoofed, or scaled, or feathered, or all at once, incessantly jostled and wrangled with each other and their betters, mopping and mowing, grunting and grinning, snapping, snarling, constantly running away and returning like gnats dancing over a marsh. The holy man sat doggedly at the entrance of his cavern, with an expression of fathomless stupidity, which seemed to defy all the fiends of the Thebaid to get an idea into his head, or make him vary his attitude by a single inch.
“These people did not exist in our time,” said Apollo aloud, “or at least they knew their place, and behaved themselves.”
“Sir,” said a comparatively grave and respectable demon, addressing the stranger, “I should wish your peregrinity to understand that these imps are mere schoolboys—my pupils, in fact. When their education has made further progress they will be more mannerly, and will comprehend the folly of pestering an unintellectual old gentleman like this worthy Pachymius with beauty for which he has no eyes, and gold for which he has no use, and dainties for which he has no palate, and learning for which he has no head. But I’ll wake him up!” And waving his pupils away, the pædagogic fiend placed himself at the anchorite’s ear, and shouted into it:
“Nonnus is to be Bishop of Panopolis!”
The hermit’s features were instantly animated by an expression of envy and hatred.
“Nonnus!” he exclaimed, “the heathen poet, to have the see of Panopolis, of which I was promised the reversion!”
“My dear sir,” suggested Apollo, “it is all very well to enliven the reverend eremite; but don’t you think it is rather a liberty to make such jokes at the expense of my good friend Nonnus?”
“There is no liberty,” said the demon, “for their is no joke. Recanted on Monday. Baptized yesterday. Ordained today. To be consecrated to-morrow.”
The anchorite poured forth a torrent of the choicest ecclesiastical curses, until he became speechless from exhaustion, and Apollo, profiting by the opportunity, addressed the demon:
“Would it be an unpardonable breach of politeness, respected sir, if I ventured to hint that the illusions your pupils have been trying to impose upon this venerable man have in some small measure impaired the confidence with which I was originally inspired by your advantageous personal appearance?”
“Not in the least,” replied the demon, “especially as I can easily make my words good. If you and Pachymius will mount my back I will transport you to Panopolis, where you can verify my assertion for yourselves.”
The Deity and the anchorite promptly consented, and seated themselves on the demon’s shoulders. The shadow of the fiend’s expanded wings fell black and vast on the fiery sand, but diminished and became invisible as he soared to a prodigious height, to escape observation from below. By and by the sun’s glowing ball touched earth at the extremity of the horizon; it disappeared, the fires of sunset burned low in the west, and the figures of the demon and his freight showed like a black dot against a lake of green sky, growing larger as he cautiously stooped to earth. Grazing temples, skimming pyramids, the party came to ground in the precincts of Panopolis, just in time to avoid the rising moon that would have betrayed them. The demon immediately disappeared. Apollo hastened off to demand an explanation from Nonnus, while Pachymius repaired to a neighbouring convent, peopled, as he knew, by a legion of sturdy monks, ever ready to smite and be smitten in the cause of orthodoxy.
Nonnus sat in his study, wrinkling his brow as he polished his verses
by the light of a small lamp. A large scroll lay open on his knees, the contents
of which seemed to afford him little satisfaction. Forty-eight more
scrolls, resplendent with silver knobs and coquettishly tied with purple
cord, reposed in an adjoining bookcase; the forty-eight books, manifestly,
of the Panopolitan bard’s Dionysiaca. Homer, Euripides, and other poets
lay on the floor, having apparently been hurriedly dislodged to make room
for divers liturgies and lives of the saints. A set of episcopal robes
depended from a hook, and on a side-table stood half a dozen mitres, which,
to all appearance, the designated prelate had been trying on.
“Nonnus,” said Phœbus, passing noiselessly through the unresisting wall, “the tale of thy apostasy is then true?”
It would be difficult to determine whether surprise, delight, or dismay preponderated in Nonnus’s expression as he lifted up his eyes and recognized the God of Poetry. He had just presence of mind to shuffle his scroll under an enormous dictionary ere he fell at Apollo’s feet.
“O Phœbus,” he exclaimed, “hadst thou come a week ago!”
“It is true then?” said Apollo. “Thou forsakest me and the Muses. Thou sidest with them who have broken our statues, unroofed our temples, desecrated our altars, and banished us from among mankind. Thou rejectest the glory of standing alone in a barbarous age as the last witness to culture and civilization. Thou despisest the gifts of the Gods and the Muses, of which I am even now the bearer. Thou preferrest the mitre to the laurel chaplet, and the hymns of Gregory to the epics of Homer?”
“O Phœbus,” replied Nonnus, “were it any God but thee, I should bend before him in silence, having nought to reply. But thou art a poet, and thou understandest the temper of a poet. Thou knowest how beyond other men he is devoured by the craving for sympathy. This and not vulgar vanity is his motive of action; his shaft is launched in vain unless he can deem it embedded in the heart of a friend. Thou mayest well judge what scoffings and revilings my Dionysiac epic has brought upon me in this evil age; yet, had this been all, peradventure I might have borne it. But it was not all. The gentle, the good, the affectionate, they who in happier times would have been my audience, came about me, saying, Nonnus, why sing the strains against which we must shut our ears? Sing what we may listen to, and we will love and honour thee. I could not bear the thought of going to my grave without having awakened an echo of sympathy, and weakly but not basely have I yielded, given them what they craved, and suffered them, since the Muses’ garland is not theirs to bestow, to reward me with a mitre.”
“And what demanded they?” asked Apollo.
“Oh, a mere romance! Something entirely fabulous.”
“I must see it,” persisted Apollo; and Nonnus reluctantly disinterred his scroll from under the big dictionary, and handed it up, trembling like a schoolboy who anticipates a castigation for a bad exercise.
“What trash have we here?” cried PhÏbus:
êxronow ∑n, ék€xhtow, §n érrÆtƒ LÒgow érxª,
ÉIsofuØw Genet∞row ımÆlikow UﬂÚw émÆtvr,
Ka‹ LÒgow aÈtofÊtoio YeoË, f«w, §k fãeow f«w.
“If it isn’t the beginning of the Gospel of John! Thy impiety is worse than thy poetry!”
Apollo cast the scroll indignantly to the ground. His countenance wore an expression so similar to that with which he is represented in act to smite the Python, that Nonnus judged it prudent to catch up his manuscript and hold it shieldwise before his face.
“Thou doest well,” said Apollo, laughing bitterly; “that rampart is indeed impenetrable to my arrows.”
Nonnus seemed about to fall prostrate, when a sharp rap came to the door.
“That is the Governor’s knock,” he exclaimed. “Do not forsake me utterly, O Phœbus!” But as he turned to open the door, Apollo vanished. The Governor entered, a sagacious, good-humoured looking man in middle life.
“Who was with thee just now?” he asked. “Methought I heard voices.”
“Merely the Muse,” explained Nonnus, “with whom I am wont to hold nocturnal communings.”
“Indeed!” replied the Governor. “Then the Muse has done well to take herself off, and will do even better not to return. Bishops must have no flirtations with Muses, heavenly or earthly—not that I am now altogether certain that thou wilt be a bishop.”
“How so?” asked Nonnus, not without a feeling of relief.
“Imagine, my dear friend,” returned the Governor, “who should turn up this evening but that sordid anchorite Pachymius, to whom the see was promised indeed, but who was reported to have been devoured by vermin in the desert. The rumour seemed so highly plausible that it must be feared that sufficient pains were not taken to verify it—cannot have been, in fact; for, as I said, here he comes, having been brought, as he affirms, through the air by an angel. Little would it have signified if he had come by himself, but he is accompanied by three hundred monks carrying cudgels, who threaten an insurrection if he is not consecrated on the spot. My friend the Archbishop and I are at our wits’ end: we have set out hearts on having a gentleman over the diocese, but we cannot afford to have tumults reported at Constantinople. At last, mainly through the mediation of a sable personage whom no one seems to know, but who approves himself most intelligent and obliging, the matter is put off till to-morrow, when thou and Pachymius are to compete for the bishopric in public on conditions not yet settled, but which our swarthy friend undertakes to arrange to every one’s satisfaction. So keep up a good heart, and don’t run away in any case. I know thou art timid, but remember that there is no safety for thee but in victory. If thou yieldest thou wilt be beheaded by me, and if thou are defeated thou wilt certainly be burned by Pachymius.”
With this incentive to intrepidity the Governor withdrew, leaving the poor poet in a pitiable state between remorse and terror. One thing alone somewhat comforted him: the mitres had vanished, and the gifts of the Gods lay on the table in their place, whence he concluded that a friendly power might yet be watching over him.
Next morning all Panopolis was in an uproar. It was generally known that
the pretensions of the candidates for the episcopate would be decided
by public competition, and it was rumoured that this would partake of the
nature of an ordeal by fire and water. Nothing further had transpired
except that the arrangements had been settled by the Governor and Archbishop
in concert with two strangers, a dingy Libyan and a handsome young Greek,
neither of whom were known in the city, but in both of whom the authorities
seemed to repose entire confidence. At the appointed time the people flocked
into the theatre, and found the stage already occupied by the parties chiefly
concerned. The Governor and the Archbishop sat in the centre on their tribunals:
the competitors stood on each side, Pachymius backed by the demon, Nonnus
by Apollo; both these supporters, of course, appearing to the assembly in
the light of ordinary mortals. Nonnus recognized Apollo perfectly, but
Pachymius’s limited powers of intelligence seemed entirely engrossed by
the discomfort visibly occasioned him by the proximity of an enormous
brass vessel of water, close to which burned a bright fire. Nonnus was
also ill at ease, and continually directed his attention to a large package,
of the contents of which he seemed instinctively cognizant.
All being ready, the Governor rose from his seat, and announced that, with he sanction of his Grace the Archbishop, the invidious task of determining between the claims of two such highly qualified competitors had been delegated to two gentlemen in the enjoyment of his full confidence, who would proceed to apply fitting tests to the respective candidates. Should one fail and the other succeed, the victor would of course be instituted; should both undergo the probation successfully, new criterions of merit would be devised; should both fall short, both would be set aside, and the disputed mitre would be conferred elsewhere. He would first summon Nonnus, long their fellow-citizen, and now their fellow-Christian, to submit himself to the test proposed.
Apollo now rose, and proclaimed in an audible voice, “By virtue of the authority committed to me, I call upon Nonnus of Panopolis, candidate for the bishopric of his native city, to demonstrate his fitness for the same by consigning to the flames with his own hands the forty-eight execrable books of heathen poetry composed by him in the days of his darkness and blindness, but now without doubt as detestable to him as to the universal body of the faithful.” So saying, he made a sign to an attendant, the wrapping of the package fell away, and the forty-eight scrolls of the Dionysiaca, silver knobs, purple cords, and all, came to view.
“Burn my poem!” exclaimed Nonnus. “Destroy the labours of twenty-four years! Bereave Egypt of its Homer! Erase the name of Nonnus from the tablet of Time!”
“How so, while thou hast the Paraphrase of St. John?” demanded Apollo maliciously.
“Indeed, good youth,” said the Governor, who wished to favour Nonnus, “methinks the condition is somewhat exorbitant. A single book might suffice, surely!”
“I am quite content,” replied Apollo. “If he consents to burn any of his books he is no poet, and I wash my hands of him.”
“Come, Nonnus,” cried the Governor, “make haste; one book will do as well as another. Hand them up here.”
“It must be with his own hands, please your Excellency,” said Apollo.
“Then,” cried the Governor, pitching to the poet the first scroll brought to him, “the thirteenth book. Who cares about the thirteenth book? Pop it in!”
“The thirteenth book!” exclaimed Nonnus, “containing the contest between wine and honey, without which my epic becomes totally and entirely unintelligible!”
“This, then,” said the Governor, picking out another, which chanced to be the seventeenth.
“In my seventeenth book,” objected Nonnus, “Bacchus plants vines in India, and the superiority of wine to milk is convincingly demonstrated.”
“Well,” rejoined the Governor, “what can you say to the twenty-second?”
“With my Hamadryad! I can never give up my Hamadryad!”
“Then,” said the Governor, contemptuously hurling the whole set in the direction of Nonnus, “burn which you will, only burn!”
The wretched poet sat among his scrolls looking for a victim. All his forty-eight children were equally dear to his parental heart. The cries of applause and derision from the spectators, and the formidable bellowings of the exasperated monks who surrounded Pachymius, did not tend to steady his nerves, of render the task of critical discrimination the easier.
“I won’t! I won’t!” he exclaimed at last, starting up defiantly. “Let the bishopric go to the devil! Any one of my similes is worth all the bishoprics in Egypt!”
“Out on the vanity of these poets!” exclaimed the disappointed Governor.
“It is not vanity,” said Apollo, “it is parental affection; and being myself a sufferer from the same infirmity, I rejoice to find him my true son after all.”
“Well,” said the Governor, turning to the demon: “it is thy man’s turn now. Trot him out!”
“Brethren,” said the demon to the assembly, “it is meet that he who aspires to the office of bishop should be prepared to give evidence of extraordinary self-denial. Ye have seen even our weak brother Nonnus adoring what he hath burned, albeit as yet unwilling to burn what he hath adored. How much more may be reasonably expected of our brother Pachymius, so eminent for sanctity! I therefore call upon him to demonstrate his humility and self-renunciation, and effectually mortify the natural man, by washing himself in this ample vessel provided for the purpose.”
“Wash myself!” exclaimed Pachymius, with a vivacity of which he had previously shown no token. “Destroy at one splash the sanctity of fifty-seven years! Avaunt! Thou subtle enemy of my salvation! I know thee who thou art, the demon who brought me hither on his back yesterday.”
“I thought it had been an angel,” said the Governor.
“A demon in the disguise of an angel of light,” said Pachymius.
A tumultuous discussion arose among Pachymius’s supporters, some extolling his fortitude, others blaming his wrongheadedness.
“What!” said he to the latter, “would ye rob me of my reputation? Shall it be written of me, The holy Pachymius abode in the precepts of the eremites so long as he dwelt in the desert where no water was, but as soon as he came within sight of a bath, he stumbled and fell?”
“O father,” urged they, “savoureth not this of vaingloriousness? The demon in the guise of an angel of light, as thou so well saidest even now. Be strong. Quit thyself valiantly. Think of the sufferings of the primitive confessors.”
“St. John was cast into a caldron of boiling oil,” said one.
“St. Apocryphus was actually drowned,” said another.
“I have reason to believe,” said a third, “that the loathsomeness of ablution hath been greatly exaggerated by the heretics.”
“I know it has,” said another. “I have washed myself once, though ye might not think it, and can assert that it is by no means as disagreeable as one supposes.”
“That is just what I dread,” said Pachymius. “Little by little, one might positively come to like it! We should resist the beginnings of evil.”
All this time the crowd of his supporters had been pressing upon the anchorite, and had imperceptibly forced him nearer the edge of the vessel, purposing at a convenient season to thrown him in. He was now near enough to catch a glimpse of the limpid element. Recoiling in horror, he collected all his energies, and with head depressed towards his chest, and hands thrust forth as if to ward off pollution—butting, kicking, biting the air—he rushed forwards, and with a preternatural force deserving to be enumerated among his miracles, fairly overthrew the enormous vase, the contents streaming on the crowd in front of the stage.
“Take me to my hermitage!” he screamed. “I renounce the bishopric. Take me to my hermitage!”
“Amen,” responded the demon, and, assuming his proper shape, he took Pachymius upon his back and flew away with him amid the cheers of the multitude.
Pachymius was speedily deposited at the mouth of his cavern, where he received the visits of the neighbouring anchorites, who came to congratulate him on the constancy with which he had maintained his fiery, or rather watery trial. He spent most of his remaining days in the society of the devil, on which account he was canonized at his death.
“O Phœbus,” said Nonnus, when they were alone, “impose upon me any penance thou wilt, so I may but regain thy favour and that of the Muses! But before all things let me destroy my paraphrase.”
“Thou shalt not destroy it,” said Phœbus. “Thou shalt publish it. That shall be thy penance.”
And so it is that the epic on the exploits of Bacchus and the paraphrase of St. John’s Gospel have alike come down to us as the work of Nonnus, whose authorship of both learned men have never been able to deny, having regard to the similarity of style, but never could explain until the facts above narrated came to light in one of the Fayoum papyri recently acquired by the Archduke Rainier.
P. 133. Bacchus, who is known from Aristophanes not to have excelled
DiÒnuse, p€neiw oÈk ényosm€an.
Arist. Ran., 1150.
[“Dionysus, you're drinking a wine with no bouquet.” Aristophanes, Frogs, line 1150.]
 For the revolt of
Ilus and Pamprepius’s part in it, see Constantine VII (Emperor of Byzantium
913-959 A.D.) De Insidiis, chap. 165ff.
 The story of migration
of the last pagan philosophers is told by Agathias Scholasticus (6th c.
A.D.) in his Historiae, p. 80ff.
The Elixir of Life
The Purple Head