Julian at the Mysteries

March 5 2011

“But when he found himself in darkness,
in the earth’s dreadful depths,
accompanied by unholy Greeks,
and bodiless figures appeared before him
with haloes and bright lights,
the young Julian momentarily lost his nerve:
an impulse from his pious years came back
and he crossed himself.
The Figures vanished at once;
the haloes faded away, the lights went out.
The Greeks exchanged glances.
The young man said: ‘Did you see the miracle?
Dear companions, I’m frightened.
I’m frightened, friends. I want to leave.
Didn’t you see how the demons vanished
the second they saw me make
the holy sign of the cross?’
The Greeks chuckled scornfully:
‘Shame on you, shame, to talk that way
to us sophists and philosophers!
If you want to say things like that,
say them to the Bishop of Nicomedia
and his priests.
The greatest gods of our glorious Greece
appeared before you.
And if they left, don’t think for a minute
that they were frightened by a gesture.
It was just that when they saw you
making that vile, that crude sign,
their noble nature was disgusted
and they left you in contempt.’
This is what they said to him,
and the fool recovered from
his holy, blessed fear, convinced
by the unholy words of the Greeks.”


Julian at the Mysteries, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at cavafy.com.

That website has an essay by GW Bowersock, The Julian Poems of C.P. Cavafy, from Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 7, 1981. Bowersock tells us that there are twelve Cavafy poems – published, withheld, finished, unfinished – about Julian. I blogged two of them before this post, which are finished: Μεγάλη συνοδεία εξ ιερέων και λαϊκών/A Great Procession of Priests and Laymen and Ο Ιουλιανός εν Νικομηδεία/Julian in Nicomedia.

A Great Procession and Julian at the Mysteries are the two Julian poems known to be early, from the 1890s. A Great Procession appears to have been rewritten in 1917. All the others were written between 1920 and 1933, though Bowersock speculates that Julian in Nicomedia may have dated from the ’90s too.

Five of the twelve were published during Cavafy’s lifetime, including A Great Procession and Julian in Nicomedia, but not Julian at the Mysteries.

“It has long been clear from the previously published poems that Cavafy did not much care for Julian. He shared none of the late romantic admiration for the last of the pagan rulers. Cavafy appears to have been obsessed with removing the glamour and exposing the fraud of this hero of latter-day pagans.”

Toynbee (who played a minor role in the introduction of Cavafy to Bloomsbury circles in the ’20s):

Julian’s state-supported pagan establishment collapsed in a trice at the news of the death of its Imperial architect and patron; and thereafter nothing remained of Iamblichus’s grandiose dream save a pathetically futile coterie of cranks.

Julian at the Mysteries, an early poem, from November 1896, was written at the time in which Cavafy was engaged in his critical reading of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. Bowersock:

“The episode of Julian’s making the sign of the cross when he encountered demons in an underground cavern occurs in Gregory of Nazianzus, whose original text was in all probability familiar to Cavafy. But it was Gibbon [in chapter 23 of the Decline and Fall] who inferred from Gregory that Julian was at Eleusis: ‘He [Julian] [brackets in original] obtained the privilege of a solemn initiation into the mysteries of Eleusis … .’ Hence the [original] title O Iουλιανός εν Eλευσίνι. With the indisputable evidence we now have of Cavafy’s study of Allard in regard to the massacre of Julian’s family, it becomes almost certain that his study of the same author led to his alteration of the title of his earliest Julian poem. Allard argued at length against the supposition that Julian was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries: ‘Les historiens modernes disent presque tous que Julien fut alors initié aux mystères d’Éleusis. Cela ne résulte pas clairement du texte d’Eunape … . Il me semble difficile que Julien ait Allard été initié … . Nulle part il [Julien] [brackets in original] ne laisse entendre qu’il ait reçu l’initiation d’Eleusis … .’ Hence a new title for an old poem.”

Bowersock tells us that Cavafy had a copy of Gregory of Nazianzus in the 1890s, but not later, and that, according to Cavafy, two unspecified poems remained incomplete because he did not have Gregory to hand for checking (he gives us only a secondary source for this statement). He seems to suggest that one of them was Julian at the Mysteries – but that does not seem (and is not classified as) incomplete.

He furthermore speculates that Julian at Nicomedia, although published in 1924, was written in the 1890s, since it depends in part on Gregory. But then why wasn’t Julian at the Mysteries published? Why isn’t Bowersock clearer on this?

“It is with Tα επικίνδυνα, published in November 1911, that Cavafy publicly declared himself a sensualist. Although the poem is not yet explicitly homosexual as later poems were to be, it is nonetheless a striking departure for Cavafy. It is especially notable for the conjunction of his historical interests with his advocacy of sensuality. The speaker is a young Syrian in the reign of Constans and Constantius, therefore precisely between A.D. 340 and 350, the years of Julian’s adolescence. These were the years in which Julian was raised a Christian and became a pagan […]. The young Syrian of this epoch is described as partly pagan and partly christianized: εν μέρει εθνικός, κ’ εν μέρει χριστιανίζων. He proclaims that he will not fear his passions, he will satisfy his most daring erotic proclivities. He repeats that he will not be afraid because he is confident that if he is called upon to be ascetic he will have the power to be so. The appearance of this poem [marks] a new stage in Cavafy’s life and oeuvre. He is moving, with the help of historical analogues, toward a reconciliation of his sexuality and his Christianity. The Syrian in Tα επικίνδυνα was partly Christian but still sensual, just as the Christian Myris in a poem of 1929 set in Alexandria of the year A.D. 340 had rejoiced in the love of a pagan. Inevitably Cavafy would have asked himself what impact Julian would have had on the Greek world of that Syrian youth or of Myris’ lover. This was a world in which pagans and Christians could associate easily with one another in unhindered pursuit of the sensual life. It was the avowed aim of Julian, the ascetic pagan, to put an end to all that.”

“Permissive Christianity, then, appears to be the fundamental interest of Cavafy in handling the various Julian episodes. To be a Christian did not preclude being a pagan in the old sense, like the young Syrian in Tα επικίνδυνα, nor did it preclude a romance with a pagan like Myris’ lover. In Antioch Cavafy found the resolution of the problem he began to solve in 1911 when he started to make his erotic verse public. It was no accident that the historical and sensual categories of his oeuvre tended to merge at times, as the writer of May 1927 observed [he has earlier described him as “the poet or a sympathetic associate”, but does not give a proper reference]; for Cavafy was able to interpret his own eroticism in terms of historical examples that preserved for him what he probably found more important than anything else: his Christianity and his consciousness of being Greek. In the Julian poems he struggled for historical accuracy because it was clearly imperative for him to know that there really had been a world that could accommodate a sensualist, both Christian and Greek.”

Whence the backdrop? Is it Chinese? It looks too heavy to be silk. From cavafyonline.blogspot.com.

A Study of History, Vol V, OUP, 1939

3 Responses to “Julian at the Mysteries”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Ο Iουλιανός εν τοις Mυστηρίοις

    Πλην σαν ευρέθηκε μέσα στο σκότος,
    μέσα στης γης τα φοβερά τα βάθη,
    συντροφευμένος μ’ Έλληνας αθέους,
    κ’ είδε με δόξες και μεγάλα φώτα
    να βγαίνουν άυλες μορφές εμπρός του,
    φοβήθηκε για μια στιγμήν ο νέος,
    κ’ ένα ένστικτον των ευσεβών του χρόνων
    επέστρεψε, κ’ έκαμε τον σταυρό του.
    Aμέσως οι Μορφές αφανισθήκαν·
    οι δόξες χάθηκαν — σβήσαν τα φώτα.
    Οι Έλληνες εκρυφοκοιταχθήκαν.
    Κι ο νέος είπεν· «Είδατε το θαύμα;
    Aγαπητοί μου σύντροφοι, φοβούμαι.
    Φοβούμαι, φίλοι μου, θέλω να φύγω.
    Δεν βλέπετε πώς χάθηκαν αμέσως
    οι δαίμονες σαν μ’ είδανε να κάνω
    το σχήμα του σταυρού το αγιασμένο;»
    Οι Έλληνες εκάγχασαν μεγάλα·
    «Ντροπή, ντροπή να λες αυτά τα λόγια
    σε μας τους σοφιστάς και φιλοσόφους.
    Τέτοια σαν θες, εις τον Νικομηδείας
    και στους παπάδες του μπορείς να λες.
    Της ένδοξης Ελλάδος μας εμπρός σου
    οι μεγαλύτεροι θεοί φανήκαν.
    Κι αν φύγανε, να μη νομίζεις διόλου
    που φοβηθήκαν μια χειρονομία.
    Μονάχα σαν σε είδανε να κάνεις
    το ποταπότατον, αγροίκον σχήμα
    σιχάθηκεν η ευγενής των φύσις,
    και φύγανε και σε περιφρονήσαν».
    Έτσι τον είπανε, κι από τον φόβο
    τον ιερόν και τον ευλογημένον
    συνήλθεν ο ανόητος, κ’ επείσθη
    με των Ελλήνων τ’ άθεα τα λόγια.

  2. […] Julian at the Mysteries […]

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