Magic and divination were an integral part of ancient society. Even after the rise of Christianity, the luring power of diviners, sorcerers, astrologers and the like were felt in cities around the Mediterranean. Magic (to use a not unproblematic umbrella term) was strongly linked to idolatry, in Christian perspective anyway. No surprise bishops and other Christian teachers were fighting against its influence. The Church Orders forbid the practice of magic from its beginning. The author of the Didache writes (2.2): “you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft”, and the author of the Traditio Apostolica requires that practitioners of magic stop it in order to be taught. (16: “A magus shall not even be brought forward for consideration. An enchanter, or astrologer, or diviner, or interpreter of dreams, or a charlatan, or one who makes amulets, either they shall cease or they shall be rejected.”) The latter text was incorporated in the Apostolic Constitutions, written towards the end of the 4th century, probably in Antioch.
When I looked through the Christian literature of that time, I came across an interesting legend which seems to preach exactly that same claim. The “conversion of Cyprian” (probably early 4th century) tells the story of Justina, a Christian virgin who is hassled by a man who fell in love with her. The lover is rejected again and again, until he takes the services of a magician, Cyprian of Antioch. The magician summons several demons in order to seduce the virgin, unsuccessfully. The prayers and the sign of the cross drive them off. When Cyprian recognizes the power of Christ and the church, he burns his magic books publicly and converts to Christianity.
Now is that story not the true propaganda for what bishops and Church Orders commonly demanded? Cyprian ceases his business, advertised by the destruction of his idols and the burning of the books (cf. Acts 19.19), in order to be granted accession, and baptism. Cyprian later becomes bishop, martyr, and saint, until the Catholic Church renounces his holy status in the 20th century…
The legend is tripartite. The “conversion” is most probably the earliest version of the legend (based inter alia on the story of Thecla and the magician in Lucians Philopseudes). Then comes the “confession”, a first-person narrative of Cyprians youth and infamous deeds as magician and his pact with the devil. The third part is the “martyrium”, it is of later date, but linked more to the conversion than to the confession.
Among the many differences between the conversion and the confession, the picture of the devil in the confession is the most striking to me (5.6): “His form was like a golden flower adorned with precious stones, and he crowned his head with stones that were twined together – the energies of which illuminated that plain, and his garment was no different – and when he enwreathed himself, he shook the land. Great indeed was the display around his throne of different ranks which laid down their forms and energies in subordination to him.” (trans. Bailey). And when Cyprian revolts against Satan, after having learned the true Christian power, the devil attacks him (corporeally) and almost kills him in an epic struggle. Only with the sign of the cross, Cyprian manages to free himself.
What I wonder is whether this description of the devil, his absolute corporeal form and the brawl with Cyprian is as original as the “confessions” imagination of the pact with the devil. I have not found any other instances of such “fights with the devil” in early Christian literature. Or is the scene interpolated and of a later date?
Theodor Zahn, Cyprian von Antiochien und die deutsche Faustsage. Erlangen 1882.
Ludwig Radermacher, Griechische Quellen zur Faustsage: der Zauberer Cyprianus, die Erzählung des Helladius, Theophilus. Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien 4, 1927.
Ryan Bailey, The confession of Cyprian of Antioch: introduction, text, and translation. Montreal 2009.