• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Zoe Porphyrogenita: Theurgical Nightmare or Orthodox Bae



There’s an oft cited passage of Psellos that describes Zoe’s love of perfumes as well as her devotion to the icon of Christ Antiphonetes.[1] This has been hard to assimilate to the fact she was also uninterested in pretty dresses, handiwork or personal adornment. John Duffy probably squared the circle correctly when he argued her concoctions were intended as incense to venerate her icon and not a means of self-beautification.[2]


Using these potions in private devotion for an icon trod a dangerous line. On the one hand, the Church had included incense in its rites since the turn of the fifth century.[3] Though incense had initially suffered rejection (in fact, scorned by figures no less than Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom), the Vita Silvestri of the Liber Pontificalis describes how churches had budgets of spikenard oil for their chandeliers, balsam oil for the baptisteries and enough spice and incense to fill the air on holy days with “holy smoke.”


On the other hand, those who developed their own incense while performing their own rites ran the risk of being accused of theurgy. The reasoning behind this boiled down to the fact Byzantines believed there gnostics were always hiding under the bed ready trap souls in their crypto-paganism.


The matter was made particularly complex by the fact most intellectual Byzantines admitted there was a good form of paganism (Neoplatonism) that could be assimilated to a Christian model – a habit that reaches its apotheosis in Dionysios the Areopagite. Indeed, thinkers such as the patriarch Keroularios were happy to reach outside Chalcedonian thought to demonstrate that other traditions pointed towards its truths. This was famously the case when he took the treatise of Ibn Butlan, a Nestorian physician from Baghdad, to show that other Christians supported the Byzantine position on the Eucharist (a symbolic stance) rather than the papal line.

The line between God-sanctioned gifts and dodgy magic was rarely a clear one. For example, hardliners such as the “Nazireans” (either zealots in general or a group of partisans) hung around the empress Theodora (d. 1057) predicting that she’d live a particularly long life. And even the patriarch Keroularios could be accused of hanging out with “diviners” too much.[4]


In such circumstances Psellos felt compelled to explain that Zoe fell far short of being an imperial witch. No, she was one of God’s most loved daughters:

“Like those who have united with God through theoria, and even more so those who surpassed this and beheld him more precisely, are possessed by their complete desire alone and are suspended from it, a most ardent reverence for the divine similarly united [Zoe] precisely, so to speak, with the First and Purest Light: nothing else but the name of God, which is constantly on her lips.”[5]

This combination of illumination, name and image legitimised Zoe by placing her within the language of Ps.Dionysios’ discourse. Moreover, the phrase “first and purest light” was a direct borrowing from Gregory of Nazianzus who used the phrase to describe the divine in his Homily on the Holy Baptism (Or. 40, 37). In the text Gregory distinguished between (a) a real and (b) a pretended (“dark, deceitful”) light in a manner that Psellos hoped to echo by observing how Zoe had kept away from deceitful theurgy (which, to make matters even more confusing had a justifiable goal, namely to purify the soul by calling on the divine power, but a bad praxis in that it usually ended in calling upon multiple gods/powers and corrupted the person into wanting powers rather than spiritual enlightenment) and kept on the orthodox straight and narrow.

This was a dangerous terrain to negotiate. Less than two centuries had passed since the iconoclastic controversy had grinded to a halt. And where Eastern Christendom stood vis a vis the pagan debate on whether (a) the soul’s ascent to the divine was possible through one or several paths, and (b) whether oracles, statues, images, sacrifices etc. were necessary to that ascent often depended on what company one kept. In this atmosphere Zoe entered, a lady whose icon

“Would give signs on what was asked of it through colours. Indeed, its hue would reveal the future. Through this Zoe divined much of what was going to take place. So when something delightful happened to her, or when some trouble had befallen her, she would immediately go got the icon, in the one case to return thanks and in the other to propitiate it. I myself have often seen her, in her moments of greatest trouble, sometimes embrace and contemplate the sacred icon and talked it it as though it were indeed alive, and string together the most beautiful names… If she saw the image turn pale, she would go away crestfallen, but if it took on a high colour and was all lit up with a visible glow, she would immediately announce it to the emperor and declare beforehand what the future was to bring forth.”



As Zoe does all this within rolling clouds of incense, Psellos feels that it needs to be said that he (and by implication Zoe) know


“From my reading of Hellenic literature… that perfumes drive away evil spirits… while others induce apparitions of divinities. I neither accepted that theory when I first read it… indeed, I totally rejected it.”


Furthermore, “[Zoe] worshipped God, not not in a Hellenic or magical way… Instead she displayed the longing of her soul and offered up to God the things we regard as precious and solemn.”

What separated God’s miracles from straight-up magic in Psellos’ mind? Quite simply, he explained in a text on the icon of the Virgin at Blachernae that pagan magic was imperfect or, in layman’s terms, crap. He claimed the spirit presiding pagan rites could be led astray and that the wheel of Hekate (the golden sphere diviners spun to make invocations) therefore delivered only empty names. Humans, too, could tamper with its effects or results. Psellos directly accused Chrysanthios and Maximos of doing as much.[6] A reference to a famous episode in which the (pagan) philosophical pair were called to give omens for Julian’ inauguration. After receiving inauspicious signs, however, Maximos manipulated the results until he saw what he wanted.[7]


The only concession Psellos made to pre-Christian magic was the ephoud of the Old Testament. Josephus [Flavius] explained that when God was present at his sacrifices, one of the two sardonyxes on the archpriest’s shoulders (the one on the right) would shine with splendour. If the stones on the archpriest’s breastplate became bright before the Israelite army marched to battle, it could be inferred that God was with the soldiers and they would be victorious. Josephus further explained that, since it was possible to predict the outcome of a battle through the breastplate, the Greeks who honoured Jewish custom called it “The Oracle.”[8]



For once, Psellos wasn’t showing off his erudition. In fact, the ephoud could be found in quite a bit of Byzantine literature. One of the most widely read chronicles, the Chronicon Syntomon by Giorgios the monk for instance, as well as Anastasius of Sinai’s Erotapokriseis, includes the item. Indeed, Giorgios Kedrenos mentions the ephoud five times in his record on the period between Gedeon and Samuel as judges of Israel (although his narrative rather depressingly aligns to the Old Testament’s in which its use degenerated into idolatry).[9]

Psellos aside, what Zoe’s thoughts were about the veneration of her icon and her use of home-made incense we’ll probably never know. All we have is a recipe titled


“Unguent of Lady Zoe the Empress”


In a collection of medical texts from a manuscript of the Medicea-Laurenziana library, cod. Plut. VII, 19 (fols. 226v-27r). The manuscript was written by two (contemporary) hands that can be dated to the late thirteenth century. Its latest datable texts were written by Symeon Seth (late eleventh century) and its contents are as follows:


“Dates, […] juicy, fatty plums, raisins, fat, dried figs, fat, lilies, the bulbs, boil them with honey and cut them. You add sweet oil, either like this, after you mix the above and likewise pound them, or use as is.”


What’s odd, however, is that this is clearly not a recipe for incense or perfume. Indeed, Zoe’s recipe is surrounded by remedies to help stomach aches, coughing fits and general prognostications. Most of them are rubs of some sort, used to heal dermatological conditions or cosmetic issues. Which would suggest Zoe’s recipe is a beauty mask, meaning the lady who did not care much about her appearance (see intro) left posterity with little more than an alternative to NIVEA.


[1] Psellos, Chronographia 6.65-67.

[2] J. Duffy, “Reactions of Two Byzantine Intellectuals to the Theory and Practice of Magic: Psellos and Italikos,” Byzantine Magic, ed. H. Maguire (1995), 83-98.

[3] S. Ashbrook Harvey, Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination (2006), 83.

[4] Psellos, Or. 1, 106-30, 2635-69.

[5] Chronographia 6.66.

[6] Psellos, Or. 4, 410-416 in Orationes hagioraphicae, ed. Fisher.

[7] Eunapius, Vitae Sophistarum (1849), 475-79; Lives of the Philosophers, trans. W. C. Wright (1989) (LOEB, 134), 432-50 and 542-46. Maximos later became a bigshot under Julian but was tortured and died in disgrace during the reign of Valens.

[8] Jewish Antiquities 3.214-18.

[9] Psellos took the opposite view, arguing that the Ephod was a licit source of divination which was ignored for more illicit forms (as when Saul used the Witch of Endor to summon the ghost of the prophet Samuel) which proved themselves futile.

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