The life of Apollonius of Tyana has been virtually forgotten. Although much about him is lost, some of his correspondence remains, along with the notes and diaries of his disciple, Damis of Nineveh. Julia Domna, an eager student of philosophy and wife of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211 AD), deserves much of the credit for preserving this material. It was she who asked Flavius Philostratus, Greek scholar and author, to restyle the correspondence, preserved by the Emperor Hadrian in Egypt, and the texts she had received from a descendant of Damis' family, into a single piece of literature. Based on these resources and his travels in the footsteps of Apollonius, Philostratus wrote an influential biography about a hundred years after the sage's presumed death.
Apollonius is believed to have been born around 4 BC in southeastern Turkey. Legend holds that the god Proteus appeared in a vision to Apollonius' mother, saying he would be her son. Proteus was
the prophetic old man of the sea, a subject or son of Poseidon. . . . According to legend, he rose from the sea at midday and slept in the shade of the rocks, with sea monsters round him; anyone wishing to consult him must try to seize him at that time. To avoid prophesying, he assumed all sorts of dreadful shapes; if however he saw that his efforts were unavailing, he resumed his usual shape and gave his response. . . .
Human nature likewise is a protean monster; and he who would find his real spiritual self must be prepared to meet its many illusory phantoms and withstand them all, being neither seduced nor terrified. Thus Proteus may be described as ever-changing nature, the child of the waters of space; nature, assuming all forms because of innate impulses, . . . can give to the one who consults and controls it, intimations of the future as well as of the past. — Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary
As with the stories of Jesus and Buddha, the birth of Apollonius has been embellished with mythic events. According to legend, after his mother fell asleep in a meadow, swans encircled her and began to cry at the moment supreme. A bolt of lightning fell from the sky and withdrew. The swans may be equivalent to the Sanskrit bird hamsa, symbolizing the identity of the human with the divine essence. The thunderbolt might reflect the great cosmic power that ushered in the incarnation of a long-awaited messenger.
As a youth Apollonius joined the temple of Aesculapius at Aegae — what we might call a hospital — where he studied healing, saying later: "Pythagoras said that the most divine art was that of healing. And if the healing art is most divine, it must occupy itself with the soul as well as with the body; for no creature can be sound so long as the higher part in it is sickly." (G. R. S. Mead, Apollonius of Tyana, The Philosopher-Explorer and Social Reformer of the First Century A.D., p. 148.) After his elementary training ended and his father died, Apollonius distributed his inheritance and became a philosopher. His teacher once asked him "why so noble a thinker as he and one who was master of a diction so fine and sensitive did not write a book," and he replied: "I have not yet kept silence." From then on he did not say a word for five years, travelling through Pamphilia and Silicia working for the betterment of the people. Afterwards he set out for India to find the sages who lived there.
At Nineveh, in present-day Iraq, he met Damis, his most faithful disciple. Damis was so impressed with Apollonius that he exclaimed: "Let us depart, Apollonius, you following God, and I you; for I think you will find me of considerable value." (Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius, trans. F. C. Conybeare, bk 1, p. 51) On the road Damis learned much about philosophy and the country, but more about his master and his singular way of life. Their visit to the adepts of India is full of magic. Apollonius said of them:
"I saw Indian Brahmans living upon the Earth and yet not on it, and fortified without fortifications, and possessing nothing, yet having the riches of all men." . . . [Damis] said he saw them levitating themselves two cubits high from the ground, not for the sake of miraculous display, for they disdain any such ambition; but they regard any rites they perform, in thus quitting earth and walking with the Sun, as acts of homage acceptable to the God. Moreover, they neither burn upon an altar nor keep in stoves the fire which they extract from the sun's rays, although it is a material fire; but like the rays of sunlight when they are refracted in water, so this fire is seen raised aloft in the air and dancing in the ether. — Philostratus, bk 3, pp. 257, 259
On his arrival Apollonius was welcomed warmly but not questioned about the purpose of his visit, nor where he came from, which filled him with wonder. The ascetics slept and sat on cushions of grass, and helped everyone who came to them. On one occasion Iarchas, head of the twenty-four adepts, gave Apollonius the opportunity to ask whatever he wished to know, "for you find yourself among people who know everything." Apollonius then asked whether they knew themselves, thinking that they, like the Greeks, would regard self-knowledge as a difficult matter. But Iarchas said: "We know everything, just because we begin by knowing ourselves; for no one of us would be admitted to this philosophy unless he first knew himself." Iarchas also gave Apollonius seven rings named after the seven stars, advising Apollonius each day to wear the ring that bore the name of that specific day. Interestingly, we find the same advice in Blavatsky's writings:
There is one piece of advice to be given to beginners who cannot help going into crowds — one which may appear superstitious, but which in the absence of occult knowledge will be found efficacious. . . . The fact is that the ancient Hindus and Egyptians divided the day into four parts, each day being under the protection . . . of a planet; and every day . . . received the name of the planet which ruled and protected its first portion. Let the student protect himself from the "Powers of the Air" (elementals) which throng public places by wearing either a ring containing some jewel of the colour of the presiding planet, or else of the metal sacred to it. But the best protection is a clear conscience and a firm desire of benefiting Humanity. — Collected Writings 12:535
The training Apollonius received among the Indian adepts prepared him for his great mission: trying to guide or check conditions in the quickly degenerating Roman Empire. He and eight disciples lived in Rome under Nero, reforming temple practices until accused of prophesying, then a crime. At his trial, the voluminous scroll of charges was opened and found miraculously blank, so that the charges had to be dismissed. Apollonius then traveled throughout the Empire, continuing his work of religious reform. From some of his comments we can gather his opinion of ritual sacrifice, so central to religions throughout the ancient world:
'Tis best to make no sacrifice to God at all, no lighting of a fire, no calling Him by any name that men employ for things of sense. For God is over all, the first; and only after Him do come the other Gods. For He doth stand in need of naught e'en from the Gods, much less from us small men — naught that the earth brings forth, nor any life she nurseth, or even any thing the stainless air contains. The only fitting sacrifice to God is man's best reason, and not the word [logos] that comes from out his mouth. — G. R. S. Mead, pp. 153-4
On his travels he visited kings and other high dignitaries, and as a result was often invited to join in the sacrificing of an animal to a deity. Apollonius resented these cruel ceremonies and would not attend them, saying in one case:
"Do you, O king, go on with your sacrifice, in your own way, but permit me to sacrifice in mine." And he took up a handful of frankincense and said: "O thou Sun, send me as far over the earth as is my pleasure and thine, and may I make the acquaintance of good men, but never hear anything of bad ones, nor they of me." — Philostratus, bk 1, p. 89
Apollonius later survived a dangerous meeting with the Emperor Domitian. Domitian was very anxious to remain in power and his courts were filled with agents who reported any activities that could endanger his rule. The sage had spoken publicly to a statue of the Emperor, saying: "Thou fool, how little thou understandest the decrees of Fate and Necessity [karma]. For he whom they appoint to reign will reign; though he should be put to death by you, he will again come to life to fulfill their laws." (P. A. Malpas, True Messiah: The Story and Wisdom of Apollonius of Tyana 3 BC-AD 96, pp. 133-4) Domitian was determined to execute Apollonius, but according to Roman law could do so only after an official tribunal. When he ordered Apollonius' arrest, the sage knew it immediately and decided to go to Rome of his own accord. He told his companions his resolve, and their courage was tested in the fire. He made it clear that he who lives to please the gods has nothing to fear, so why not go into the lion's den? To the amazement of many, he appeared in Rome within ten days.
Before the trial Damis visited his teacher in jail. Inconsolable, he asked if Apollonius would be set free. Apollonius replied:
"Tomorrow, if it depended on the judge. But if it depended on me, this very minute!" So saying, he drew his leg out of its heavy fetters and said: "You see how free I am! So cheer up!" . . . The next day, Apollonius called Damis and told him to go to Puteoli and salute Demetrius. "Better walk instead of going by boat . . . you will find it the best way of traveling. Then when you have seen Demetrius, go down to the shore by Calypso's Isle and you will see me." . . .
Arrived at Puteoli he found there had been a fearful storm and many ships were wrecked. Then he knew why he had been bidden to walk. — Malpas, pp. 157-8
The tribunal was a wash-out for Domitian. Apollonius, who always wore linen clothes and bark shoes, was ordered to explain publicly to the Emperor why he was not wearing the same type of clothing as other people. He answered:
Oh, the crime of being unfashionable, the turpitude of an old suit, the iniquity of a last year's frock!
Because the earth which supplies me with food, supplies me also with raiment, and by wearing garments derived from it, I offer no injury to miserable animals.
Next he was asked why he was called a God:
Because every good man is entitled to be so called!
The third question related to how he had predicted a plague at Ephesus — the Emperor was anxious to uncover forbidden magic practices:
By living on a lighter diet than other men, O Emperor, I was the first to see its approach.
The last question was:
"Apollonius, tell me on whose account you sacrificed a boy on the day you left your house and went into the country?" . . .
Apollonius spoke as to a naughty little child: "Speak nicely, please. If it can be proved I left the house on the day named, I will grant my being in the country and offering the sacrifice in question; more than that, if I did so sacrifice, I will allow that I committed the atrocity of eating the flesh on that occasion. Now while I admit this, I shall demand that persons both of credit and character substantiate the fact."
The court applauded wildly, despite the Emperor's presence. Domitian was forced to acquit Apollonius, but insisted that the sage have a private talk with him afterwards. Apollonius, however, refused:
O King! I thank you for this. . . But on account of the wicked informers who infest your court, I must tell you your cities are in ruins, the islands are full of exiles, the mainland echoes with groans, the army is shaken with fears and the senate undermined with suspicions. Listen to me, I beg you, and if you will not, send persons to take my body, for it is impossible to take my soul. I will say more, you cannot even take my body, for as Homer says, "not even thy deadly spear can slay me, because I am not mortal." — Ibid., pp. 163-5
He then vanished from the court and reappeared immediately in Puteoli, three days from Rome, to meet with Damis and Demetrius. Clearly he had not been bodily present at the tribunal.
Apart from the notes of Damis, Philostratus had access to letters which bear witness to both the great wisdom of the adept of Tyana and his existence. One was addressed to Valerius (probably Valerius Asiaticus, consul in 70 AD) on the loss of his son:
There is no death of anyone, but only in appearance, even as there is no birth of any, save only in seeming. The change from being to becoming seems to be birth, and the change from becoming to being seems to be death, but in reality no one is ever born, nor does one ever die. It is simply a being visible and then invisible; the former through the density of matter, and the latter because of the subtlety of being — being which is ever the same, its only change being motion and rest. For being has this necessary peculiarity, that its change is brought about by nothing external to itself; but whole becomes parts and parts become whole in the oneness of the all. . . .
But why has this false notion [of birth and death] remained so long without a refutation? Some think that what has happened through them, they have themselves brought about. They are ignorant that the individual is brought to birth through parents, not by parents, just as a thing produced through earth is not produced from it. The change which comes to the individual is nothing that is caused by his visible surroundings, but rather a change in the one thing which is in every individual. — G. R. S. Mead, pp. 149-50
Apollonius resented hypocrisy, idolatry, and all abuse of power. The story Damis wrote under the supervision of his master, later reworked by Philostratus, is also a Mystery-story of training, quest, and initiation, full of charity, wise sayings, and miracles. No wonder the early authorities of the Christian Church put so much effort into deriding his story. The life of the enigmatic Apollonius must have been disturbing to them, particularly as they wished the Church to have a monopoly on miracles. A vicious treatise by Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, written in the early fourth century AD, effectively discredited Apollonius. There is much authentic historical material on Apollonius, however, who unlike Jesus is mentioned by contemporary emperors, officials, and philosophers. Let us then remember and share the great achievements of Apollonius of Tyana so that perhaps one day we may become as capable and worthy as he.
(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2003; copyright © 2003 Theosophical University Press)