The Oracle of Hystaspes

For a project I’m working on, I needed to look up the Joseph Bidez and Franz Cumont classic Les Mages Hellénisés: Zoroastre Ostanès et Hystaspe d’après la tradition grecque (2 vols. Paris: Société d’Édition “Les Belles Letters”, 1938), specifically for the fragments of the lost Oracle of Hystaspes, which are typically referenced according to their arrangement in this very work. Those interested in apocalyptic writings should find interest in these selections, as they are often referred to, but generally inacessible.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, the Oracle of Hystaspes is a lost pseudepigraphal book, with only one direct quote surviving, but with (perhaps extensive) allusions to it found in several ancient writers, primarily Lactantius. While some would argue the Oracle comes from an authentic Persian and Zoroastrian background, others hold that it was not an authentic work of Persian origin, but one of numerous similar syncretistic Hellenistic texts, which seems most likely, or perhaps even a Jewish-adapted pseudepigraph. The book as a whole is unfortunately lost, so speculation on the details of the character of the original is fruitless. Suffice it to say, the work of Bidez and Cumont has been accepted as indicating all the most likely remnants of the Oracle of Hystaspes, and theirs is the standard numeration of the fragments, all of which are found below in English translation, my own and others’. The numeration of fragments begins with number 6 because numbers 1 through 5 were dedicated to ancient testimonies of the author alone, with no reference to the work itself. The English translations below follow precisely the ellipses given in the Greek and Latin texts. I would’ve translated everything from scratch, but I was feeling lazy. Enjoy!

Oracle of Hystaspes Fragments
according to Joseph Bidez and Franz Cumont
Les Mages Hellénisés: Zoroastre Ostanès et Hystaspe d’après la tradition grecque. 2 vols. Paris: Société d’Édition “Les Belles Letters”, 1938.

(Fragments numbers 1-5 are testimonies to the life of Hystaspes)

6. Justin Martyr, Apology I, 20.1:
And Sibyl and Hystaspes stated that there will be a destruction by fire of corruptible things.

7. Justin Martyr, Apology I, 44.12:
But by the working of the wicked demons death has been decreed against those who read the books of Hystaspes or the Sibyl or the prophets, that through fear they may prevent people who read them from receiving the knowledge of good things, and may keep them in slavery to themselves; which however they could not always succeed in doing. For we not only boldly read them, but also, as you see, offer them to you for inspection, knowing that what they declare will be pleasing to all. And if we persuade even a few, this will be a great gain for us; for as good husbandmen we will receive the reward from the Master.

8. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, VI.5; 43, 1 (p. 453, 3 Stählin), quotation of Paul the Apostle, but otherwise unknown:
“Take also the Hellenic books, read the Sibyl, how it is shown that God is one, and how the future is indicated. And taking Hystaspes, read, and you will find much more luminously and distinctly the Son of God described, and how many kings shall draw up their forces against Christ, hating Him and those that bear His name, and His faithful ones, and His patience, and His coming.”

9. John Lydus, De Mensibus, II.4:
For the Chaldean and Egyptian followers of Zoroaster and Hystaspes have taken the seven-day week from the number of the planets.

10. Aristocritus, Theosophy:
In the fourth [book]…he introduces the Oracles of a certain Hystaspes, king of the Persians and Chaldeans, who also being reverent, he says, therefore received the revelation of the Divine mystery of the incarnation of the Saviour. And at the end of the volume, he placed a very short chronicle of the times from Adam to [Emperor] Zeno, in which he also affirms after the completion of six thousand years is to be the end. For since it is written, he says, that a thousand days for the Lord are like one day [Ps 89.4], and in six days God made the universe, ending on the seventh, obviously it is necessary after the passage of the six thousand years, as though counting six days, all things are to end.

11. a.) Lactantius, Epitome, 73:
Wherefore, since all these things are true and certain, in harmony with the predicted announcement of the prophets, since Trismegistus and Hystaspes and the Sibyls have foretold the same things, it cannot be doubted that all hope of life and salvation is placed in the religion of God alone.

b.) Lactantius, Epitome, 71:
These things are said by the prophets, but also seers, to be about to happen. When the last end shall begin to approach to the world, wickedness will increase….

c.) Lactantius, Divine Institutes, 7:14.16:
Utterances by prophets of this world, in agreement with prophets of heaven, announce an end of things, and shortly after, their ruin….

d.) Lactantius, Divine Institutes, 7:25.1:
This is what the prophets said would happen. I have not thought it necessary to set out what they say in evidence … what I would be saying would simply be confirmation drawn from the writings of others, not my own words, and I would be pointing out that the truth is kept recorded not just with us but also with those very people who keep persecuting us—though it is a truth which they refuse to acknowledge.

12. Lactantius, Divine Institutes, 7:14.8-10,16-17:
…hence the number seven is a lawful and full number, for there are seven days in whose cycle of revolution the cycle of years are completed, there are seven heavenly bodies which do not set, and there are seven stars called wanderers whose uneven orbits and incompatible movements are thought to account for the variations in seasons and circumstances. …for six periods of time; six thousand years, that is. A great day of God is completed when a cycle of a thousand years is completed…. …his religion and his truth must labour these six thousand years, while evil is prevalent and dominant. Again…it is inevitable that at the end of the year 6000 all evil will be swept off the earth and justice will reign for a thousand years…. Utterances by prophets of this world, in agreement with prophets of heaven, announce an end of things, and shortly after, their ruin; they describe a sort of extreme old age for a world exhausted and collapsing. But as for what the seers and prophets say will happen before that final conclusion supervenes, I will search all sources and present it in its totality.

13. a.) Lactantius, Divine Institutes, 7:15.19:
Hystaspes also, king of the Medes long ago, who gave his name to the river now called Hydaspes, put on record for posterity an extraordinary dream as interpreted by a boy prophesying: long before the founding of the Trojan race, he said that the power and name of Rome would be removed from the world.

b.) Lactantius, Divine Institutes, 7:15.11:
…the cause of the devastation and confusion will be this: the name of Rome, by which the world is presently ruled…will be razed from the earth, power will return to Asia, and once again East will be master and West will be servant.

14. a.) Lactantius, Divine Institutes, 7:16.4-8,10-14:
…he will…move the seat of government, and then the confusion and ruin of the human race will follow. Then there will truly be a time to detest and abominate, when life will be enjoyable for no one. Cities will be wrecked to their roots; they will die not just by fire and sword but by constant earthquakes, floods, chronic disease and frequent famine. The air will grow foul and will become corrupt and pestilent, partly from unseasonable rain and partly from futile drought, partly from great cold and partly from great heat, and men will have no fruits of the earth: cornfield, orchard and vineyard will bear nothing; they will offer great hope in the flower and betray it in the bud. Springs will dry up, together with rivers, so that there is no drink, and water will turn to blood or brackishness. Hence there will be no cattle on earth, no birds in the sky and no fish in the sea. There will also be extraordinary signs in the sky, fretting men’s minds with great panic, comets with tails, a dark sun, the moon changing colour and shooting stars descending. … The year will shorten, the month will lessen, and the day will be squeezed into a small span…. The loftiest mountains will also tumble and be levelled with the plains, and the sea will become unnavigable. …Then, because of God’s anger against the people who do not acknowledge justice, sword, fire, famine and disease will rage, and above them all an ever-looming panic. Then they will pray to God and he will not hear them; death will be their prayer and it will not come…[with them] congratulating the dead and lamenting the living. At these evils, and many more, there will be desolation on earth, and the world will lose shape and population…. Thus the human race will be finished off, and scarce a hundred will go where a thousand once went. Two thirds will die even of God’s worshippers; one third will survive, those that were put to the proof.

b.) Lactantius, Epitome, 71:
Then there will be a dreadful and detestable time, in which no one would choose to live. In short, such will be the condition of things, that lamentation will follow the living, and congratulation the dead. Cities and towns will be destroyed, at one time by fire and the sword, at another by repeated earthquakes; now by inundation of waters, now by pestilence and famine. The earth will produce nothing, being barren either through excessive cold or heat. All water will be partly changed into blood, partly vitiated by bitterness, so that none of it can be useful for food, or wholesome for drinking. To these evils will also be added signs from heaven, that nothing may be lacking to men for causing fear. Comets will frequently appear. The sun will be overshadowed with perpetual paleness. The moon will be stained with blood, nor will it repair the losses of its light taken away. All the stars will fall, nor will the seasons preserve their regularity, winter and summer being confused. Then both the year, and the month, and the day will be shortened.

15. a.) Lactantius, Divine Institutes 7:17.9-11;18.1-3;19.5-9:
In that time justice will be in exile and innocence will be hated, and the evil in their hatred will plunder the good like foes. Neither law nor order nor military discipline will survive, none will respect grey hairs or acknowledge the duty of piety, or show pity to women or children; everything will be confounded and confused, contrary to right, contrary to the laws of nature. The whole earth will be wasted as if in a single act of communal depredation. When this happens, the just and those who pursue truth will separate themselves from the evil and will flee to deserts, and when the impious man hears that, he will flare up in anger and will come with a great army, and he will bring up all his forces to surround the mountain where the just are living in order to seize them. When they see themselves hemmed in on every side and under siege, they will cry to God with a loud voice and beg for help from heaven, and God will hear them and will send them a great king from heaven to rescue them and to free them, and to destroy all the impious with fire and sword. It is the common claim of all prophets who act on God’s inspiration and of all seers who act at the instigation of demons that this will be so. Hystaspes, whom I mentioned earlier, in describing the iniquity of this final generation says “The pious and the faithful will separate themselves from the evil and will stretch out their hands to heaven with weeping and wailing, begging for Jupiter’s promise; Jupiter will look upon the earth, hear the voices of men and destroy the impious.” All that is true except for one thing: he said Jupiter would do what God will do. Yet even the sending of God’s son by his father to destroy all the evil and to liberate the pious has not been omitted without some devilish deception…. A sword will suddenly fall from the sky, so that the just may know that the leader of the holy army is about to descend, and he will come with angels accompanying him to the centre of the earth, and in front of him will go an inextinguishable flame, and the virtue of the angels will put into the hand of the just all that host which besieged their mountain, and the host will be killed from the third hour till evening, and blood will flow in torrents. When all his forces have been destroyed, only the impious one will escape, and he will be the destroyer of his own virtue. He is the one called Antichrist, but he himself will claim that he is Christ, and he will fight against the true Christ. When he is beaten, he will flee; he will often renew the fight and he will as often be beaten, until in the fourth war, when all the impious have been finished off, he will be beaten down and taken, and at last will pay the penalty of his wickedness. At the same time the other princes and tyrants who have devastated the world will be made prisoners with him and will be brought before the king, and the king will assail them and rebuke them, proving their own crimes against them, and he will condemn them and deliver them to well earned punishment. When evil is thus wiped out and impiety suppressed, the world will have peace again; for so many years it has been subject to error and crime, and has endured a wicked servitude. There will be no more worship of gods made by hand; their images will be turned out of their temples and off their couches and burnt, and they will burn together with their extraordinary offerings.

b.) Lactantius, Epitome 71-72:
These things are said by the prophets, but also by seers, to be about to happen. When the last end shall begin to approach to the world, wickedness will increase; all kinds of vices and frauds will become frequent…. If there shall be any good men, they will be esteemed as a prey and a laughing-stock. No one will exhibit filial affection to parents, no one will pity an infant or an old man; avarice and lust will corrupt all things. But he, frantic and raging with implacable anger, will lead an army and besiege the mountain to which the righteous shall have fled. And when they shall see themselves besieged, they will implore the aid of God with a loud voice, and God shall hear them, and shall send to them a deliverer. Then the heaven shall be opened in a tempest, and Christ shall descend with great power, and there shall go before Him a fiery brightness and a countless host of angels, and all that multitude of the wicked shall be destroyed, and torrents of blood shall flow, and the leader himself shall escape, and having often renewed his army, shall for the fourth time engage in battle, in which, being taken, with all the other tyrants, he shall be delivered up to be burnt. But the prince also of the demons himself, the author and contriver of evils, being bound with fiery chains, shall be imprisoned, that the world may receive peace, and the earth may rest through as many years as it was harassed.

16. Lactantius, Divine Institutes 7:21.3-7:
…eternal fire (the nature of this fire is different from that of the fire we use for the necessities of life, which dies unless kept fed with fuel of some sort). The divine fire lives all the time by its own means and thrives without any feeding; it has no contamination of smoke, but is pure and liquid, fluid like water; it is not forced upwards by something as our fire is, which is compelled by the stain of the earthly body that holds it and by its own admixture of smoke to leap up and fly upwards, fluttering and quivering to attain its heavenly nature. It is therefore the same divine fire, with one and the same power of effect, which will both burn the impious and remake them, and what it takes away from their bodies it will replace in full, and so keep itself supplied with constant sustenance (this is what the poets mean by the vulture of Tityus). Without any loss to their self-renewing bodies it will thus simply burn them and make them feel the pain. Yet when God judges the pious, he will test them too with fire. Those whose sins are excessive in weight or number will be scorched and burnt by the fire, but those who are fully imbued with justice and are ripe in virtue will not feel it, since they have in them an element of God to repel the effect of the flame and to reject it. The power of innocence is so great that the fire retreats before it with no harm done because it has received its mission, of burning the impious and respecting the just, from God.

17. a.) Lactantius, Divine Institutes 7:24.7-9
The earth will disclose its fertility and breed rich fruit of its own accord, the rocks of the hills will ooze with honey, and the rivers will swell with milk; the world itself will rejoice and all nature will be glad at being plucked into freedom from the dominion of evil, impiety, wickedness and error. Wild beasts will not feed on blood in this period, nor birds on prey; everything will instead be peaceful and quiet. Lions and calves will stand together at the stall, wolf will not seize lamb, dog will not hunt, hawk and eagle will do no harm, and children will play with snakes. This will be the time for all those things to happen that the poets claimed for the golden age when Saturn was king.

b.) Lactantius, Epitome 72:
… and this kingdom of the righteous shall be for a thousand years. … Then the rain of blessing shall descend from God at morning and evening, and the earth shall bring forth all her fruit without the labour of men. Honey shall drop from rocks, fountains of milk and wine shall abound. The beasts shall lay aside their ferocity and become mild, the wolf shall roam among the flocks without doing harm, the calf shall feed with the lion, the dove shall be united with the hawk, the serpent shall have no poison; no animal shall live by bloodshed. For God shall supply to all abundant and harmless food.

18. a.) Lactantius, Divine Institutes 7:24.5:
At the same time even the prince of demons, who is the fabricator of all evils, will be put in chains and kept under guard for the thousand years of heaven’s control, when justice will reign on earth….

b.) Lactantius, Divine Institutes 7:26.1:
We said a little earlier that at the beginning of the holy reign the prince of demons would be put in chains by God. When the thousand years of the reign (which is seven thousand years of ours) begin to end, he will be set free again, and once released from custody he will go forth and gather all the nations then under the control of the just to make war upon the holy city. A countless host of people will gather from all over the world, and they will surround the city and lay siege to it.

c.) Lactantius, Epitome, 72:
But the prince also of the demons himself, the author and contriver of evils, being bound with fiery chains, shall be imprisoned, that the world may receive peace…. But when the thousand years shall be fulfilled, and the prince of the demons loosed, the nations will rebel against the righteous, and an innumerable multitude will come to storm the city of the saints.

Justin Martyr: translation by Leslie William Barnard (St Justin Martyr: The First and Second Apologies. Ancient Christian Writers no. 56, Paulist Press, 1997)
Clement of Alexandria: translation from NPNF
John Lydus: translation my own.
Aristocritus: translation my own.
Lactantius, Divine Institutes: translation by Anthony Bowen and Peter Garnsey (The Divine Institutes of Lactantius. Translated Texts for Historians no. 40, Liverpool University Press, 2003)
Lactantius, Epitome (of Divine Institutes): translation from NPNF, adjusted by myself in spots.

12 Replies to “The Oracle of Hystaspes”

  1. Thank you very much for writing this. I’m in the process of trying to track down a copy of this book right now for some research on Zoroaster actually. I’m trying to figure out if the reprint that Les Belles Letters just published in 2007 includes both volumes or just one. Just out of curiosity, did you use the original text, or do you happen to have the more recent reprint?

  2. You’re very welcome, Chris. I used an original copy. UC Berkeley had it, so I was lucky. It’s an amazing collection, as you’ll see. Most of the excerpts are related to Zoroaster, as I recall, so you’ll have a whole lotta fun with that!

    One thing that I didn’t know about was the standing of these selections in current scholarship, and their attribution to this Oracle of Hystaspes. I see the Cumont-Bidez conclusions repeated, but haven’t seen much interaction with them. That’s kind of odd for work that’s seventy years old. Also, some of the Lactantius selections being attributed to the Oracle seem questionable, as there’s really no difference between the text as is and the flow of Lactantius’ thought in the given passages. I’d look more into it, but for the project I’m working on (checking and correcting citations in Charlesworth’s OTP volumes, for both a standalone index/concordance and eventual publication of a corrected/second edition), I simply needed the texts of the citations used by the translators/commentators of those works. It’s a slow and rather tedious process to check every reference, but fortunately I have the resources of Berkeley at hand!

    Regarding the reprint, it looks like it’s the two volumes in one, judging from the description, which mentions the commentary as well as the texts. If I recall correctly, in the original, the commentary was all in one volume and the texts in the other. But 421 pages doesn’t seem enough. So that’s odd. You may as well write them and ask, rather than shelling out that much money for something that might be missing half of the book!

    Good luck with your work!

  3. Hi!

    Congratulations on your blog! I am also working on the Oracle of Hystaspes and would like to know if there is any edition for Kindle of Les Mages Hellenisées for download. Let’s keep in touch and see what we can share!



  4. Kevin, this is fine… It happens :-) In any case, would let put a link to your blog in our website? It would be very nice!



  5. Thank you for this. I have been researching Darius the Mede, which the bible refers to in Daniel and other historical books as the successor of the Babylonian empire established by Nebuchadnezzar. Here he is called the son of Ahasuerus (Dan 9), Esthers King. In the Behistun inscription, written by Darius, he calls himself the son of Hystaspes, and by following up on the Zoroastrian God of creation, I found mention of the Oracles of Hystaspes, who I discover above is mentioned as a King of the Medes. It is interesting that Daniel and Esther, both mighty prophets were so closely associated with these kings.

  6. I’m only a few years behind, but in trying to finish an article on the Hystaspes stuff for Jim Davila’s More OT Pseudepigrapha, I tripped over this blog tread. Wish I’d seen it earlier. A cooperative study of these materials would make sense — in addition to yourself, Kevin, and Vicente Dobroruka, there has been very useful recent work by John Reeves. I need to check out the reference to Roger Beck, now.

    My own “take” on this material is that there was no single “book” attributed to Hystaspes, but that the name and its association with Zoroaster served as a magnet for a variety of traditions of Persian origin (apocalyptic, “predictive,” useful in “political” confrontation) similar to the Sibylline stuff on the Greek (and Greco-Roman) side of things, and possibly at some points produced collections similar to what happened with the Sibyllines (of which the same sort of history can be constructed). When the Persian materials became “Greek,” and in what forms, is impossible to say, but certainly “something” is there and being transmitted by the 2nd century (Justin, Clement Alex.), and probably much earlier than that (the “Magi” tradition, Roman unrest with “Chaldean” stuff). And as Vincente suggests, this needn’t be happening only in a “Jewish” context. The analogy to the Sibylline materials, which go through verious filters including Jewish and Christian — and others — is instructive.

    Anyhow, thanks, and regrets for jumping in so late. Now to finish the article!

    1. It’s a pleasure to have been of assistance, Bob! Your thinking mirrors mine. The Sibylline comparison is apt, and I wonder at the hearsay nature of most of the witnesses. Something so widespread would, one would think, have left a more substantial footprint were it a coherent work. A Hystaspic-Zoroastrian cloud seems more fitting, one remote from Persian works, more along the lines of the Hermetic works, or even the magical papyri. I’ll have to read those you’ve mentioned! Thank you for the references! I trust your work is going well. I have been eagerly awaiting Jim Davila’s MOTP for years now. Thank you for your work!

  7. This is a wonderful work you’ve done here, Kevin, collecting and translating all the (alleged) hystaspes-materials. going through the comments I don’t have much to add, except for one reference:
    Werman, Cana. “A Messiah in Heaven? A Re-Evaluation of Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic Traditions.” In Text, Thought, and Practice in Qumran and Early Christianity: Proceedings of the Ninth International Symposium of the Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Associated Literature, Jointly Sponsored by the Hebrew University Center for the Study of Christianity, 11-13 January, 2004. Ed. by Clements, Ruth A., Schwartz, Daniel R. Pages 281-299. Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah 84. Leiden: Brill, 2009.
    though this isn’t apparent from the title, this article deals primarily with the Oracle of Hystaspes and its possible use by the author of Revelation (esp. in ch. 12). If she’s right, we have another chunk of hystaspic material not included in the “traditional” fragments. IF. Anyhow, those interested in Hystaspes may find this article worth reading.

    Best, and thanks again for all your work,

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