Carl Sagan once remarked that to read a book is to voyage back in time and listen to the voices of the past. No sooner have we opened its pages than we may journey with the Okies or stand on the deck of a tall ship. For me, there has always been a peculiar fascination in journeying back as far as I am able on the road of history. I love to take the last exit to Athens or Babylon and hear what the ancients have to tell us. And I’ve often found that peoples of the past were very much the same as we are today in their love of a good adventure yarn. Heliodorus’s Ethiopian Story demonstrates this universal truth beautifully.
Little is known of this writer’s life, and his dates are uncertain, ranging from the second to the fourth century of our era. There is even some reason to believe he may have been a Christian bishop who wrote this bestseller before converting. But whoever he was, he proved himself to be a master storyteller, and his tale has been a source of delight to readers for nearly two thousand years.
The Ethiopian Story begins in medias res with a scene of horror. A ship has anchored on an Egyptian beach, and its crew obviously intended to hold a feast there. Yet they have slaughtered each other, and only a young man and woman of extraordinary beauty have survived. As the tale progresses, we learn through various narrators what has transpired to bring about these events. And the convoluted plot worthy of a Quentin Tarantino film is part of this work’s unique charm.
The backstory involves a motif common in ancient literature. When an Ethiopian queen gives birth to a fair-skinned daughter named Chariclea, she is terrified her husband will believe that she has been unfaithful and commits the child to the care of another. Eventually, a Greek priest at the Delphic oracle’s shrine adopts her and raises her as his own daughter.
A modern reader might see racial overtones in this plot point. However, it seems more likely that it is the novelist’s device to bring his heroine into his readers’ common Hellenistic cultural milieu. Throughout the work, Heliodorus treats his Ethiopian and Egyptian characters with a high degree of respect. It is obvious that for his audience, these regions of the world were exotic locales. The princess’s journey back to the land of her birth is a voyage into a region of mystery and even awe.
Chariclea grows up in Delos at the oracle’s shrine and does not know her origin or royal heritage. As she matures, she turns out to be so lovely she might be mistaken for the statue of a goddess and virtuously devotes herself to the virgin Diana. However, when she meets the handsome Theagenes, who claims to be a descendent of Achilles himself, the two fall madly in love at first sight.
A wandering Egyptian priest adopts these star-crossed lovers, and his efforts to bring Chariclea and her fiancé back to the land of her birth form the bulk of the tale. Their journey is full of incident. Our heroes are captured by pirates, become prisoners of war, are separated, reunited, and, at one point, nearly offered as human sacrifices.
The Ethiopian Story is not perhaps a deep book. We miss the true-to-life characters we meet in Homer or the compelling political subtext we find in Virgil. It simply spins us a good yarn to entertain and amuse us. People in the ancient world read it as we today read the latest spy thriller or Stephen King novel. And perhaps that is the lesson this book teaches us, that people in the past were just like us.
To be human is to tell stories. And the act of telling tales itself reveals something profound about us. The fictioneer says to us, “Once upon a time,” and suddenly, we are transported out of our humdrum existence. We see and hear and experience life as though we were someone else. It is a form of conscious dreaming that we have invented. How amazing that we can open a book and be swept into the dream of someone who lived nearly two thousand years ago! If we have books, we need no other magic.
Ancient Greek Pop Culture: copyright 2021 by Jonathan Golding. All rights reserved.
Cover Art: Detail from a red figure painting on a terracotta amphora, attributed to the “Berlin” painter. Circa 490 BC. New Yor Metropolitan Museum. Open Access.