THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

77 posts categorized "Ancient"

29 May 2019

Crocodiles rock (never smile at a manuscript)

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Regular readers of our Blog may have noticed that animals are one of our favourite subjects, especially the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit the bestiary. Some of these creatures, like the unicorn or bonnacon, are no longer to be seen; but one of the strangest beasts is still thriving (though please don’t get too close) — the crocodile. The British Library's bestiaries contain a huge variety of images of these creatures, by medieval artists who were compelled to use their imagination  — after all, one rarely encountered a crocodile when fishing for eels in the Essex mud-flats in the 13th century!

A fairly realistic depiction of a crocodile is found in this bestiary, which was in the library of Rochester Priory in the 14th century and may have been made there. This manuscript, as well as two others described in this blogpost (Royal MS 12 C XIX and Harley MS 3244), is currently on display in the exhibition Book of Beasts at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

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A crocodile in the ‘Rochester Bestiary’, 2nd quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 24r

The crocodile is often accompanied by its enemy, a snake-like beast from the Nile, known as the hydrus. The text describes how, when a crocodile is asleep with its mouth open, the hydrus rolls in the mud to become slippery; it slithers into the crocodile’s mouth before being swallowed. It then begins to eat its way out, killing the crocodile in the process. In the bestiary tradition, animal behaviours are seen as moral allegories; in this case the crocodile’s mouth represents the mouth of Hell, while the hydrus is Christ, who enters through the gate of Hell to redeem lost souls. In this manuscript there are two drawings of crocodiles, one with the hydrus and the other eating fish.

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A beaver with a man blowing a horn, a crocodile swallowing a hydrus, a crocodile eating fish, and a winged hyena (England, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Stowe MS 1067, ff. 2v–3r

Guillaume le Clerc, a Norman cleric and early compiler of the bestiary, described crocodiles as being shaped ‘somewhat like an ox’. The artist of one bestiary seems to have followed this trend, as their crocodile has long legs and looks more like a horse.

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Bears and a crocodile (England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Sloane MS 3544, f. 10v

Later in the same volume, a different artist drew a more plausible shape, although this crocodile's ears are rather dog-like.

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Another crocodile in Sloane MS 3544, f. 43r

All the early writers who described crocodiles, from Pliny to Isidore to Mandeville, were agreed that they are ferocious beasts. Some alluded to their taste for humans, while Mandeville and Bartholomaeus Anglicus mentioned the tears that they cried before swallowing their hapless prey. In this image, a crocodile (labelled 'serpens') is shown swallowing a man who is stabbing him, while a hydra emerges from a hole it has bitten in his side.

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A crocodile swallowing a man (England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 3244, f. 43r 

For pure invention, the prize goes to these two artists, whose creatures resemble dinosaurs or prehistoric insects.

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A crocodile swallowing a hydrus (England, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 12v

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A crocodile with a knotted tail (England, early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 62v. This manuscript was digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Bestiaries are not the only manuscripts to contain images of crocodiles. Here are two in the margins of Psalters, one made in Constantinople and the other in England.

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A crocodile in the Bristol Psalter (Constantinople, 11th century): Add MS 40731, f. 92r

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A crocodile in the Queen Mary Psalter (England, between 1310 and 1320): Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 102v

So why blog about crocodiles? They are certainly not cuddly creatures like the dogs, cats, elephants, hedgehogs, beavers or owls that we've blogged about before. The idea came to me while I was writing another blogpost on the works of Homer. What do crocodiles have to do with Homer, one might ask? The missing link is the remarkable survival of two Egyptian papyri containing his writings, known as the ‘Harris Homer’, one in roll-form and one in book-form (Papyrus 107 and Papyrus 126).

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The Harris Homer (Egypt, 1st–2nd century): Papyrus 107, f. 1r

The papyrus roll was found in ‘the crocodile pit’ at Ma’abdey, near Monfalat, in Egypt, on 9 December 1849, before being acquired by Mr A. C. Harris. This story has been investigated by Brent Nongbri in his article ‘The Crocodile pit of Maabdeh, Florence Nightingale, and the British Museum's acquisition of the Harris Homers’, Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists, 54 (2017), 207–17. Apparently the pit was a cave on the banks of the Nile containing thousands of crocodile and human mummies, much visited by 19th-century travellers who wished to experience the thrill of being attacked by bats and encountering the spirits of dead crocodiles.

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

25 May 2019

How to name a mummy

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The British Library’s landmark exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, opened recently. Many unique objects are on display, revealing the uses and ways of writing from the ancient to the modern world. Among them is one small piece encapsulating the story of an entire life.

The item in question is one of the numerous mummy labels housed in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London, who have kindly loaned it to our exhibition.

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The mummy label on loan to our Writing exhibition: UC 28078 © Petrie Museum

The tag, written in Ancient Greek between the 1st and 3rd centuries of the current era, reads ‘Bobastous to the gate of Thermouthiakes of the metropolis of the Arsinoite (district)’. It is the name of a person (Bobastous) and an address in Arsinoe, the capital of a district in Graeco-Roman Egypt, which corresponds to the modern Medinet el-Fayum, in Middle Egypt, on the western side of the Nile. This little wooden label was attached to the mummified corpse of Bobastous, in order to identify the body and to ensure that, after mummification, it was delivered to the right address for burial.

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‘View of Medinet El-Fayoum’ (1868-1870) by Jean-Léon Gérôme: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Mummy labels are well known from Roman Egypt. They were usually made out of various types of wood, but other materials like faience and stone were also used. The tags could have different shapes, ranging from a tiny stela to a little tablet with one or two ‘ears’ (‘tabula ansata’). Standard forms such as the rectangle are also attested, such as the tag from the Petrie Museum in our exhibition.

The labels usually had one or more holes, through which a string was passed to append the tag to the mummy's neck or feet: the label on display in Writing: Making Your Mark even preserves the original cord.

The tag could bear writing on one or both sides, and two languages — usually Greek and Egyptian (Demotic) — were often employed on the same object. The text was normally drawn in black ink, but it could also be carved. In some cases, red ink was used.

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This tag from the Petrie Museum (UC 45635), a tabula ansata with one ansa, belonged to a certain Didyme: the text is carved and also drawn with ink © Petrie Museum

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A tag on limestone from the Petrie Museum (UC 34473) in Demotic script, written in red ink © Petrie Museum

Each label recorded details of the deceased for the purpose of identification. Alongside the personal name, additional information such as the names of the father and mother, the deceased's place of origin, their profession, and sometimes the age at the time of the death, could also be recorded. In rare occurrences, even the cause of death is stated. For example, one tag now held in Berlin (SB I 1209) reads: ‘Apollonius, son of Eusebes and Tamis, died because of a scorpion’s bite’.

Mummy labels served an important function. It was essential to be able to identify the embalmed corpse, because the body had to be transported to the cemetery or returned to the home village of the deceased (if they had passed away elsewhere). Papyri sometimes shed further light on how mummies were transported. For example, in the British Library's collection is a letter from a man complaining that the recipients had failed to collect the body of the deceased (possibly their brother), and that they did not pay for the funeral expenses (520 drachmas) (Papyrus 717). However, they did take his belongings …

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A papyrus describing funeral expenses: Papyrus 717 (P.Nekr. 18)

Besides providing identification and instructions as to the transport and shipping of the body, mummy labels sometimes bear drawings such as the dog Anubis (guardian dog of the cemeteries) and symbols like the ankh (life) or, in a Christian environment, the cross. In other cases, wishes for prosperity, phrases of encouragement and condolence, and maxims (such as ‘nobody is immortal’) were added as a means of commemoration and farewell.

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Anubis holding the key (kleidouchos) to the Underworld and a burning torch in a mummy tag from the Liverpool Museum

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A Petrie Museum label (UC 45656) for Socrate, daughter of Cyrillus, featuring the ankh, the symbol of life © Petrie Museum

The majority of mummy labels published to the present day are collected in a database with the wonderful name Death on the Nile. If you want to see one of them in person, we'd love you to visit our exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, which is open at the British Library until 27 August.

 

Federica Micucci

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

12 May 2019

Homer in London

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Currently on display in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library are these two images of Hercules, one of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology. They are found in manuscripts of the Histoire Universelle, a medieval history in French of the ancient world from Genesis to the Romans. The Histoire also features the legends of Ulysses and the Trojan wars, which were very popular in the Middle Ages and were widely adapted, translated and illustrated for medieval audiences. (You can read more about this subject in our previous blogpost about the legend of Troy.)

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Meeting between Hercules and the Queen of the Amazons, in Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César (Naples, 2nd quarter of the 14th century): Royal MS 20 D I, f. 25v

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Battle between Hercules and Antaeus, in Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César (Acre, 1275–1291): Add MS 15268, f. 104v

Our Greek manuscripts website includes this video of Edith Hall, Professor of Classics at Kings College London, talking about the importance of the Iliad and the Odyssey from Antiquity to the early modern era. The works of Homer are also the focus of two courses being held in London this July, one at the British Library and the other at University College London. Both courses will use digitised manuscripts of Homer’s works to explore how classical works were  transmitted during the Middle Ages.

Writing the Greek Classics at the British Library: 19 June, 26 June and 3 July, 10 July, 17 July (14.00–16.00)

This five-week course will examine the long-documented history of the Greek language and its writing systems, and of Greek classical texts including Homer, which have been part of the education and literary production of the West for centuries.

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A text page with marginal annotations, in the ‘Townley Homer’: Burney MS 86, f. 3r

The British Library has 11 manuscripts of the Iliad (see our previous blogpost, Hooray for Homer). They include the Townley Homer, an 11th-century copy of the Iliad with extensive marginal and interlinear notations or scholia, which show how earlier scholars studied and interpreted the text. The manuscript's former owner, Charles Townley (1737–1805), even had an engraving of a bust of Homer (as well as one of himself) inserted at the beginning of the manuscript.

 

UCL Summer School in Homer 2019: 22–26 July 2019

A palaeography course, introducing the history of Latin scripts from ancient Rome to the invention of printing, will be taught as one of the modules of the University College London’s summer school on Homeric language and literature. Classical texts, especially Homer and related works like Virgil’s Aeneid will be used for transcription.

The British Library has one of only 15 surviving manuscripts of the Ilias Latina, a short Latin summary of the Illiad, attributed to one Publius Baebius Italicus in the time of the emperor Nero. This work, which omits or elaborates many of the Homeric episodes, became part of the medieval school curriculum and had a significant impact on the history and transmission of the Trojan story.  

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A diagram of the Wheel of Fortune illustrating Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, in a collection of works from late Antiquity that includes the Ilias Latina: Add MS 15601, f. 49v 

This copy of the Ilias Latina, from the late 10th or early 11th century, is written in Caroline minuscule. It was owned in the 15th century by the wealthy and prestigious monastery of the Celestines in Avignon.

A much later Greek copy of the Odyssey, the 15th-century Harley MS 5673, has marginal translations and annotations in Latin on some of its pages. This manuscript was bought by Edward Harley, the Georgian collector, for his magnificent library, described by Samuel Johnson as ‘excelling any’, and it entered the British Library as part of the Harley manuscript collection.

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The Odyssey with marginal notes in Greek and Latin: Harley MS 5673, f. 8r

You may also like to know that a variety of ancient scripts, including manuscripts of the classical authors, Aristotle and Cicero, are on display in our new exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, open throughout the summer, until 27 August, 2019.

 

                                                                                                                                                Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

08 May 2019

Keep taking the (wax) tablets

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The British Library's new exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, celebrates all forms of writing over the last 5,000 years. It focuses not only on the very outcome of the act of writing, the written document itself, but more broadly on the various tools used to create the written word.

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Image of a writing desk from a Byzantine gospel book (Constantinople, 12th century): Burney MS 19, f. 1v

Besides the various types of pens, quills and pencils, one of the earliest and most popular writing tools, used for more than five millennia, is the stylus. The name comes from the Latin word stilus, meaning 'a stake'. It refers to a small, pointed instrument made of metal, wood or bone, used by the Romans for writing upon wax tablets.

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Tablets of the Ten Commandments in Laurent d'Orléans, La Somme le Roi (Paris, c. 1295): Add MS 54180, f. 5v

The term 'tablet' can cover a variety of writing materials. One perhaps thinks of a stone with writing carved onto it, such as the two tablets of the Ten Commandments said to have been carved by God. However, it was not only iconic pieces of inscribed stones that were employed in this way in Antiquity, since tablets made of wood or wax were more commonly in use.

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Zachariah writing on a tablet in the Benedictional of Æthelwold (England, 963–984): Add MS 49598, f. 92v

The earliest surviving wooden writing tablet was recovered from a 3,500-year-old shipwreck near Kaş, in modern Turkey, in 1986. They were not in common use until about 715BC with the Neo-Assyrians in Mesopotamia. In the 7th century BC, the Greeks set up a community in Egypt from where the next oldest tablet was found, although it does not appear that the Egyptians themselves actually used such tablets. They became more common in the Roman Empire, surviving in considerable quantities from Egypt to Britain. Wooden tablets would have been written on with pen and ink, similar to a sheet of papyrus or a page of parchment.

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The alphabet in a teacher’s notebook (Egypt, 2nd century AD): Add MS 37533 (4)

Documents on wooden tablets were usually ephemeral in nature. Pieces written for or at school are the most common survivors, such as teachers' notebooks, children's homework or private letters (such as the famous Vindolanda tablets excavated from Hadrian’s Wall).

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A student’s Greek shorthand notes in wax (Egypt, 2nd century): Add MS 33270

The earliest documented use of wax tablets dates from Italy in the 7th century BC. The Etruscans used them not only for writing but also as amulets. Their wider use started with the Greeks, who were great beekeepers and had plenty of beeswax at their disposal. For a short period, there was a ban on the export of papyrus from Egypt, meaning that wax tablets were in regular use. Styluses would have been employed to scratch letters in the smooth wax.

Most tablets were made from the sandarac tree (Tetraclinis articulata, a member of the cypress family) or from boxwood. A flat, rectangular block would have been hollowed out and filled with wax, often black or natural or with a sooty coating, so that the lighter colour showed through when written on.

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A Greek writing exercise from Egypt, 2nd century AD: Add MS 34186

Wax tablets were used in similar contexts as their wooden counterparts. Cheap and easy to re-use, wax tablets were ideal for teaching children to write. The item shown here, approximately the size of a modern iPad, is a homework-book used about 1,800 years ago at a Greek school in Egypt. The teacher wrote out two lines of a maxim on the top of the tablet, which were to be copied out by the child at home. The pupil tried their best but made several mistakes: the first letter in the first line ('C') was missed out twice, the last letter of the line ran over the margin, and the last line became compressed.

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(1) A Roman bronze stylus found in the River Fleet; (2) a Roman stylus with a separate greenstone writing point and bronze eraser (the wooden shaft is modern); (3) a Roman bronze stylus with five gold bands found in the Roman Senate in the mid-19th century (photos courtesy of the Museum of Writing Research Collection, University of London)

Thanks to a generous loan from the Museum of Writing Research Collection of the University of London Senate House, Writing: Making Your Mark displays the tools children may have used to do their homework 2,000 years ago. The sharp end of an iron stylus was used to write, while the blunt end was heated over a flame and used to erase mistakes or smooth the wax for reuse. The styluses were often stored with the tablets themselves: the last part of a set of tablets often contained a little groove in which to store the stylus.

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The last part of a set of bound wax tablets with a groove to store the stylus (Egypt, 2nd century): Add MS 33270 (9)

How would words be erased from a wax tablet? Alan Cole, the consultant of the Museum of Writing Research Collection, has experimented as follows: 'I used original, Roman metal styli and an original Roman lamp. I held the stylus in my thumb and forefinger about a centimetre and a quarter from the flat end and held it in the tip of the flame until I began to feel the warmth.  It was then at the optimum temperature to erase a few characters. This worked for iron and bronze. Not advisable for silver, gold, wood or bone! To erase a whole tablet of characters, hold the tablet upside-down, just above the tip of the flame, and gently move the wax over it until the surface is about at melting point and then remove it from the flame and with the tablet wax side up either move the tablet in a slight see-saw movement or gently go over the surface with a warmed stylus. Personally, I use a blow-torch!'

On 20 May the British Library is hosting a one-day conference featuring the latest research on our tablets and the different kinds of things people wrote on wood, wax and metal, from homework to charms and letters. You can register to attend here.

Writing: Making Your Mark is on at the British Library until 27 August.

 

Peter Toth and Alan E. Cole (Hon Consultant, Museum of Writing Research Collection, University of London)

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25 April 2019

Writing the story of writing: a new exhibition

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On 26 April a new landmark exhibition opens at the British Library. Its theme is broad but it is also personal and intimate: Writing: Making Your Mark traces the incredible story of how we write.

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Writing on a page: a portrait of St Luke the Evangelist from a 12th-century Byzantine gospel-book: Add MS 5112/1

Jotting notes, sending texts, typing emails — all are part of our daily lives. Writing surrounds us. It lets us communicate with people we don’t see and may never meet. It allows our great-grandparents to talk to us from the past through their handwritten letters and postcards. Through it, we can leave messages to future generations which they may or may not read. We take all this for granted without necessarily being aware that, with every single letter we put down, we are part of the 5000-year story of writing.

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Hieroglyphs from the back of a 2nd or 3rd-century Greek papyrus: Papyrus 2

Writing: Making your Mark is an opportunity to think about this amazing human invention and the incredible journey made by writing worldwide in the last 5 millennia. From ancient cuneiform tablets, carved hieroglyphs, long papyrus scrolls and gold-blazed parchment leaves to printed and typewritten pages or computer screens, we reflect on how writing has changed they ways we think, feel and see the world.

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One of the oldest attestations of an alphabetic system survives on the base of this sphinx, with the ancestors of our letter 'M' (as water on the right) and 'a' (as the ox-head) next to it (Sinai, 1800 BCE): British Museum EA 41748 (courtesy of the British Museum)

Writing: Making Your Mark is a remarkable opportunity to display some of our ancient and medieval treasures in a new light and in a global context, surrounded by examples from other periods and cultures.

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A Greek wax tablet with a child’s homework, written in Egypt in the 2nd century AD: Add MS 34186(1)

A 2,000-year old Greek homework-book illustrates the humble beginnings of a career in writing. A prosaic document, recording the sale of only a twelfth part of a land and house in Ravenna, is the longest intact papyrus in the British Library. Its script, written at times rather carelessly by a notary called John, shows letter-forms developed by the Roman imperial administration, which mark the beginnings of our lower-case letters and are direct predecessors of the characteristic insular script of early medieval England.

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Detail from the Ravenna Papyrus, AD 572, with the scribe recording his name ('scribsi ego Johannis') using the 'lower-case' letters of the New Roman cursive: Add MS 5412

One of the earliest examples of the new script developed in the court of Charlemagne in the late 8th century shows us the roots of the New Roman typeface, that went on to the printed page in the early 16th century and then on to our screens as Times New Roman.

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An example of Carolingian minuscule from a manuscript of Theodulf of Orléans, De Spiritu Sancto, made between 809 and 816: Harley MS 3024, f. 33r

The exhibition concludes by looking at the future of writing, asking how humankind will make its mark in the coming years. Come and join us on this amazing journey.

Writing: Making Your Mark will be open at the British Library from 26 April to 27 August 2019. Tickets can be purchased here.

 

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

20 April 2019

Fortune-telling the ancient way

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Will I have a long life? Am I going to find the person I want? Am I to become successful? If you’ve asked these questions about your future, keep on reading, as we might have the answer for you, from ancient times.

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The ‘Oracles of Astrampsychus’ (Sortes Astrampsychi): Papyrus 2461 verso

The British Library's collections include a papyrus from Oxyrhynchus, in Egypt, that contains part of the so-called ‘Oracles of Astrampsychus’ (Sortes Astrampsychi) (Papyrus 2461 verso). This is an oracle book that provides answers to a fixed set of questions of a personal nature. Among the questions preserved in our papyrus are the following:

‘Am I to find what is lost?’

‘Am I to recover from my illness?’

‘Will I come to terms with my masters?’

‘Shall I have a baby?’

‘Am I to profit from the affair?’

‘Will I become a senator?’

‘Have I been poisoned?’

‘Shall I be a fugitive?’ (and, if so) ‘Will my flight be undetected?’

‘Am I to be separated from my wife?’

This text originated in the 2nd century AD and comprises 92 questions (numbered from 12 to 103) and 103 sets of ten answers (decades). By adding the number of the chosen question to a number between one and ten, randomly given by the customer — clearly divinely inspired — the fortune-teller would look up a table of correspondences. This would lead to a specific decade, and the random number provided by the inquirer would then identify the final response. This papyrus does not preserve any of the decades of responses, but other papyri do, such as P.Oxy. LXVII 4581.

Another fortune-telling practice attested in Roman Egypt relied on the so-called Homeromanteion (‘Homer oracle’) or ‘Scimitar’, a name attested in another papyrus from Oxyrhynchus (P.Oxy. LVI 3831). This same papyrus also provides instructions on how to use the oracle.

‘First, you must know the days on which to use the Oracle; second, you must pray and speak the incantation of the god and pray inwardly for what you want; third, you must take the dice and throw it three times.’ (translated by P. J. Parsons)

The sequence of the three numbers obtained allows one to identify a corresponding Homeric verse, which would be introduced by the same sequence. For example, if one gets 4, 6, 3, the sequence 463 corresponds to Odyssey XX 18:

Have courage, heart. You have endured far worse.

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Broken line from Papyrus 121, with Od. XX 18 introduced by the sequence 463

The British Library holds one of the three papyri that preserve this text: Papyrus 121 is a magical handbook written on a roll over two metres long, with the Homeromanteion placed at the beginning.

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Last column of the Homeromanteion from Papyrus 121

If you want to dispel your doubts, we suggest you either do it the old-fashioned way — by casting the dice three times, identifying the sequence of numbers, and reading the corresponding Homeric verse in Papyrus 121 — or, if you have no dice ready to hand, check out this website.

If you are eager to learn more about the use of writing in relation to divination, don’t miss the British Library's major exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, which opens on 26 April.

 

Federica Micucci

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

08 March 2019

Tales of ancient women

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For International Women’s Day, we have decided to celebrate women across the world in our own distinctive way. Greek papyri recount many stories of the past, shedding light on everyday life in Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine Egypt, told through the voices of the ancient people themselves. Here we have selected a few texts on papyrus from the British Library collections, where women are the protagonists. These mini-stories offer a varied picture of the ancient woman: from the independent to the weak, from the one seeking justice to another asking for compassion, from the bride to the divorced.

 

Independent woman

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Papyrus 2458 (P.Oxy. XII 1467), 3rd century

In this 3rd-century papyrus from Oxyrhynchus, Aurelia Thaisous, also called Lolliane, states that she qualifies for the right to act independently in her legal transactions, without any male guardians, on the grounds of her having three children (ius trium liberorum). She seems proud of being able to write with a high degree of ease. This is the petition she presented to the prefect, which was to be kept in his office.

 

A wedding poem

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Papyrus 1728 (P.Aphrod.Lit. IV 35), 6th century

Patricia must have been extremely flattered when she read this acrostic poem (an epithalamion or wedding poem), composed by Dioscorus of Aphrodito on the occasion of her marriage to Paul. According to Disocorus, Patricia was more skilled than the Graces themselves, and her numerous virtues proved her relation to the gods. Paul was a very lucky man …

 

Managing a beer-shop

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Papyrus 2660 (P.Lond. VII 1976), 3rd century BCE

It was hard for Haynchis to manage a beer-shop all by herself, and at her age. Her daughter was the only help she had. A vine-dresser, Demetrius, had carried her daughter away, promising her the Moon. But guess what? He already had a family! He took her without Haynchis’ s consent, leaving her on her own and without life's necessities of life. In this petition, Haynchis made appeal to Zenon, manager of the estate of Apollonius, trusting that justice would be served and that her daughter would return.

 

A lonely widow

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Papyrus 755 col.ii (P.Oxy. I 71 col.ii), 4th century

A wealthy widowed landowner, whose sons were serving in the army, hired two managers, Secundus and Tyrannus, to manage her estates. She trusted in their good faith but they turned out to be crooked, and they even robbed her of some of her possessions. Seeking justice, she appealed to Clodius Culcianus, prefect of Egypt, noting that women in particular should be helped because of their ‘natural weakness’. This is her petition, found at Oxyrhynchus.

 

A daughter’s marriage

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Papyrus 2217 (SB IV 7449), 5th century

This papyrus tells an incredible story. It must have been difficult for Aurelia Nonna to rid her mind of these memories: the blows she had received, her dress being torn … Her nephew, Alypius, a monk, had wanted her little daughter to marry a relative, Apaion, whom she did not want to marry. When Nonna refused, he grew angry and started to beat her. But Nonna did not keep silent; she wrote to the bishop of Oxyrhynchus, as preserved in this petitition, denouncing these outrages and asking for the bishop's compassion. She was happy to accept whatever decision he made.

 

Divorce by mutual agreement

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Papyrus 716 (P.Nekr. 34), 4th century

Senpsais and Aurelius Soulis would have promised to share a common life in mutual affection and respect, and it was neither’s fault that their marriage eventually ended. Their union was ruined by an evil spirit, and they agreed mutually to divorce. Senpsais returned all the wedding gifts to Soulis, as well as her dowry, and both were free one day to remarry. This papyrus contains the deed of divorce.

 

Healing through prayers

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Papyrus 2494 (P.Lond. VI 1926), 4th century

Valeria was afflicted by a grievous shortness of breath. Although she must have felt ill and weak, she had hope and faith. She sought healing through the prayers of father, Papnuthius, most valued and adorned with every virtue. This papyrus contains her letter to him.

 

A financial dispute

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Papyrus 1800 (P.Lond. V 1731), dated 20 September 585

When Aurelia Tsone of Syene was a young girl, her parents divorced. Her mother, Tapia, had received money from her former husband for the maintenance of their daughter; instead, she seems to have thrown Tsone out of the house and started a new life. Once Tsone reached the legal age, she continued to claim the money owed to her. This papyrus acknowledges receipt of the money, proving that Tsone won the dispute.

These are just a few of the stories preserved in the British Library's papyri. For similar tales, we recommend that you read our blogpost The Voices of Ancient Women.

 

Federica Micucci

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

17 February 2019

When love comes knockin’ at your door

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To the joy and relief of some, the magic of Valentine’s Day has now vanished, taking heart-shaped chocolates and romantic cards with it. A different perspective of love is offered by a motif popular in the Classical world: the so-called paraclausithyron.

This term, used by Plutarch (Moralia 753B), refers to a song of lament and despair sung by an ‘excluded lover’ (amator exclusus) at the firmly shut door of their beloved. The lover usually carries a garland and has walked at night by torchlight to reach their beloved’s house, where they plead to be admitted without success.

In Greek literature, the motif occurs in different genres. An illustrious example is found in Theocritus’ Idyll 3, where the lover, a goatherd, begs his mistress Amaryllis to let him come into her cave. He laments in despair:

Just look: there’s such pain in my heart. If only I could turn into a buzzing bee and come into your cave through the ivy and fern that hide you! Now I know what love is: he’s a cruel god. Truly he was suckled by a lioness, and his mother gave birth to him in a thicket: he’s making me smoulder with love and torturing me deep in my bone. (translated by N. Hopkinson)

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The beginning of Theocritus, Idyll 3 (15th century): Add MS 11885, f. 12r

A number of surviving epigrams relate to the scene of the closed door. This one, by the poet Asclepiades of Samos from the 3rd century BC, emphasises the lover's sorrow at not being admitted into the house:

Abide here, my garlands, where I hang ye by this door, nor shake off your leaves in haste, for I have watered you with my tears — rainy are the eyes of lovers. But when the door opens and ye see him, shed my rain on his head, that at least his fair hair may drink my tears. (translated by W. R. Paton)

Another poem by Meleager of Gadara, written roughly 2,100 years ago, contains several elements typical of the motif:

O stars, and Moon, lighting well the way for those disposed to love, and Night, and you, my instrument that accompanies my revels — will I gaze upon my wanton one, still awake on her bed, singed often by her lamp? Or does someone share her bed? I will take off my suppliant garland, douse it with tears, and fix it on her porch, inscribing on it just this: “Cypris, to you Meleager, the initiate in your revels, hung up these spoils of love. (translated by Paton)

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Detail of a heart (15th century): King's MS 322, f. 1r

It is not only male lovers who might be excluded. The ‘Alexandrian Erotic Fragment’ (Papyrus 605 verso) relates the lament of an ‘excluded woman’.  The motif of the ‘abandoned woman’ is well-known in Classical mythology: one thinks immediately of poor Ariadne, deserted by Theseus, or Medea who, left by Jason for another woman, killed her own children to punish him.

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Medea killing her children (c. 1450–1460): Harley MS 1766, f. 33r

The text of this papyrus was copied by Dryton, a cavalry-man, after 10 October 174 BC. His family archive is now dispersed across the world. A small fragment in the Sackler Library, Oxford, supplies a few more words of the second column of the British Library papyrus.

The poem has a complex metrical scheme, although its language is simple. It starts abruptly, with the woman remembering the old promise of love, having Aphrodite as a security (all translations by P. Bing):

Our feelings were mutual, we bound ourselves together. (ll. 1–2)

The tender memories of the past torture her, because her lover has proven to be an ‘inventor of confusion’ (l. 7). An invocation to the stars and night begins her journey to the house:

O beloved starts and lady Night, companions in my desire, take me even now to him. (ll. 11–12)

The trip is lightened not by a torch, but by the fire that enkindles her soul:

My guide is the potent torch that’s ablaze in my soul. (ll. 15–16)

The woman pleads to be admitted in a vortex of feelings, being mad, jealous and ready to submit to her beloved. After all, ‘if you devote yourself to just one, you will just go crazy’ (l. 31), she explains. She has a ‘stubborn temper’ when she gets in a fight (ll. 33–34), yet she now seeks reconciliation. Unfortunately, the second column of the papyrus is fragmentary.

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The ‘Alexandrian Erotic Fragment’: Papyrus 605 verso

Ancient authors had different views on these lovers’ practices. Plato considered that imploring one's beloved and sleeping on doorsteps was a form of slavery (Symposium 183A), whereas Plutarch thought that serenading and decorating the beloved’s threshold with garlands might bring some ‘alleviation that is not without charm or grace’ (De cohibenda ira 455B–C).

We should add a word of warning. Should you plan to serenade your lover, make sure that the right person is listening. In Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, two young lovers exchange love songs. One of them invokes his beloved to open the door, but the person who opens it is not exactly whom the young man was hoping for …

 

Federica Micucci

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval