Medieval manuscripts blog

141 posts categorized "Greek"

23 April 2022

A 2000-year-old postcard

Sending greetings to friends and family from places we visit has always been popular. Whether we text, call or just post something on social media, we love to let others know about where we travel and what we see there. Although we may associate tourism with modern or postmodern society, there are some fascinating documents surviving to prove that people were also interested in travel and sightseeing thousands of years ago.

A letter written in Greek on a fragmentary piece of papyrus
Letter from Nearchus to Heliodorus, 1st/2nd century AD, Hermupolis (Egypt), Papyrus 854

The British Library has a fragment of a Greek letter that is the ancient equivalent of a postcard from a sightseeing trip, written on papyrus in the 1st or 2nd century AD in Middle Egypt. A man called Nearchus is writing to his friend Heliodorus to tell him about his trip on the River Nile. After the short greeting, Nearchus tells his friend why he started to travel:

‘As many people embark on ships today to travel and see the excellent works of human hands, I have also decided to follow their example and sailed downstream on the Nile towards Syene'.

An aerial photo of the island of Philae
The Island of Philae near Syene Aswan, after its relocation on the nearby island of Agilkia before the construction of the Aswan Dam in 1960 (Zakaria Rabea / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0)

From what Nearchus tells us, it seems like there was an extensive market for tourism to Upper Egypt. His first destination, Syene, is a town by the Nile near today’s Aswan. It is a picturesque place with an island in the river that has the great temple of Isis, famous for its architecture and miracles, which Nearchus probably visited.

Photo of Siwa Oasis
View of the Siwa Oasis in Egypt (Youssef Alam / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-3.0)

His next stop, the Siwa Oasis, is quite a distance away: it is in the Western Desert near the Libyan border. Siwa had a famous sanctuary where the ram-headed god Amon gave oracles to his visitors, which Nearchus was keen to visit:

‘I went to Libya where Amon chants his oracles to everyone. I have received very promising words and I scratched the names of all my friends on the wall of the sanctuary for eternal memory…’

Just like Alexander the Great, who visited the same site some 500 years earlier and was proclaimed the son of Amon by the oracle there, Nearchus also received good news from the god. He also tells us that he scratched his friends’ names on the temple wall. Although this may sound very alarming today, putting names on the temple wall was considered pious at that time. It was to ensure that the absent friends would be present at the holy place forever – exactly as Nearchus assures his friend.

A photo of an ancient Egyptian monument with hieroglyphics, as well as later graffiti
Graffiti on the wall of the Temple of Isis on Philae, an island in Lake Nasser, Egypt (Irene Soto / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.0)

Unfortunately, the last two lines of Nearchus’s postcard have been washed off the papyrus and are missing, so his story remains unfinished. But there is still hope his graffiti of his friends’ names may survive somewhere in the ruins of Amon’s Temple in Siwa. You can read more fascinating stories from our ancient papyri on our Greek Manuscripts webspace.

Peter Toth
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

11 January 2022

Reach for the stars

Marcus Tullius Cicero (b. 106 BC) is one of the best-known ancient Roman authors. A formidable speaker at court trials and political debates as well as a prolific theorist of rhetoric and philosophy, he influenced generations of scholars and students. It is less known, however, that through his striking and often beautifully illustrated work the Aratea, he was also responsible for introducing many a medieval and early modern reader to the Classical constellations.

Animation of the constellation Sirius, based on a drawing from a medieval copy of Cicero's Aratea
An animation of the constellation Sirius the Dog Star, from a 12th-century copy of Cicero’s Aratea (England, Peterborough, around 1122): Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r

In addition to his many prose works, Cicero was also a poet. However, his reputation as a poet was tarnished somewhat by an infamous work he wrote about his own political genius, The history of my own consulate, which is now lost. Nevertheless, other examples of his poetic texts are preserved, including his translation of an epic poem by the 3rd-century BC Greek poet Aratus.

Portrait of Cicero
'Portrait' of Cicero and his friends from a Renaissance copy of his treatise on friendship (France, Tours, 1460), Harley MS 4329, f. 130r (detail)

Aratus was asked by the Macedonian king Antigonus Gonatas (320 – 239 BC) to compile a handbook on stars and constellations. The resulting work, entitled Phaenomena (Appearances on the Sky) is in hexametric verse and presents an overview of the entire astronomical knowledge of Aratus’s time in polished poetic language. It was highly esteemed, and survives in many copies, often with commentaries. An early example is a fragment of a 4th-century papyrus codex that contained the poem with notes on the right-hand margin.

Papyrus fragment of Aratus’s Phaenomena
Fragment from a papyrus codex containing Aratus’s Phaenomena in Greek with marginal notes (Egypt, 4th/5th century) Papyrus 273 (fragment B)

The popularity of this work is also demonstrated by the fact that the Phaenomena is the only pagan poetic text that is explicitly referred to in the New Testament. In the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul speaks to the Athenians on the Areopagus, his speech begins with a quotation from ‘one of the poets’ of the Greeks. The unnamed poet was in fact Aratus. Paul cites from line 5 of his Phaenomena claiming that ‘we are all offspring’ of a supreme God (Acts 17: 28).

St Paul preaching in Athens
St Paul preaching in Athens, in a Bible historiale (Paris, c. 1350), Royal MS 19 D II, f. 498v (detail)

It was perhaps this wide-reaching popularity of Aratus’s poem that attracted Cicero to translate it into Latin at the very beginning of his career. His translation became known as the Aratea, after the original Greek poet. Unfortunately, Cicero’s translation does not survive in its entirety; the prologue and several other portions of the work are now lost and less than half of the original text has eventually come down to us. However, what the manuscripts did preserve is the illustrative tradition of the text, which may date from Late Antiquity.

Allegories of five planets
Allegories of five planets from a 9th-century copy of Cicero’s Aratea (France, Reims, c. 820), Harley MS 647, f. 13v 

One of the earliest and fullest copies of Cicero’s Latin translation of Aratus’s poem is a manuscript made in the early 9th century (Harley MS 647). The manuscript preserves a carefully edited text: Cicero’s Latin verses are arranged in blocks copied on the lower half of the page in Caroline minuscule. Above, there are lavish coloured illustrations, which contain explanatory notes written in old-fashioned Roman rustic capitals inside the images. The work, therefore, is both useful and beautiful, as is apparent in the section on the constellation Cygnus the swan.

The constellation of Cygnus the swan
The constellation of Cygnus the swan, Cicero, Aratea (France, Reims, ca. 820), Harley MS 647, f. 5v

This early layout comprising text, illustration and commentary proved very successful. It had a long afterlife surviving in a number of later manuscripts, such as a deluxe copy produced at a Benedictine abbey in Peterborough around 1122. This adaptation of Cicero’s Aratea shows a similar layout to the manuscript 300 years earlier but the illustrations are now drawn in pen, without colours except for red dots marking the stars of the constellation.

The constellation of Cygnus the Swan
The constellation of Cygnus the Swan from a 12th-century copy of Cicero’s Aratea (England, Peterborough, around 1122), Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 24r

Manuscript copies of Cicero’s Aratea were produced up until the end of the 15th century when they were replaced by printed copies retaining the illustrative tradition of the earliest manuscripts on the printed pages. This longstanding history of the textual and illustrative tradition of the Aratea shows not only the success of Cicero’s poetical skills in translating Aratus but also the wide-reaching influence of ancient literature and scientific thought on the evolution of science through the manuscripts and their illustrations. You can read more about medieval astronomical manuscripts in our article Medieval science and mathematics on the Polonsky Foundation Medieval England and France, 700–1200 website.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

The Polonsky Foundation logo

16 November 2021

The archive of Zenon

In the 1910s an exceptional lot of more than 1,800 papyri was unearthed by the ‘sebakhin’ (local diggers searching for decayed mudbricks used as a fertilizer) in the ancient site of Philadelphia in the northeast of the Fayum region, in Egypt. This collection of documents constitutes the richest Greek archive on papyrus hitherto unearthed and dates from the mid-3rd century BC. These papers, collected in ancient times and kept together for more than 2000 years, are today held in different collections around the world. While the vast majority were acquired by the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the rest entered European and American collections, from London and Manchester to Florence and Paris, from Ann Arbor to New York.

Map of a district of Egypt including its subdivisions and showing the village of Philadelphia on the north-eastern border.
Map of the Arsinoite nome taken from The Fayum Project. Philadelphia was located on the north-eastern border.

These precious survivals have allowed scholars to reconstruct the phases of the career of the owner of these papers: Zenon, son of Agreophon, born around 285 BC and originally from Caunus (modern Dalyan), in ancient Caria (southwest of modern Turkey). Covering a period of some thirty years (261-229 BC), the archive includes private and official letters, accounts, contracts, petitions as well as a few literary texts. Besides dealing with official and business matters, some correspondence from this archive is more personal in tone, providing details on Zenon’s life, family and friends.

The documents reveal that from around 261 BC, Zenon served as a business agent and private secretary of Apollonius, the finance minister (dioiketes) of the country, advisor to King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (reigned 285 BC – 246 BC). In the first phase of his career, Zenon was travelling as a representative of Apollonius to Palestine, which at that time was under the control of Ptolemy.

Well preserved papyrus sheet containing a complete letter from 257 BC.
Complete letter from Glaucias to Apollonius, reporting on various business matters and dated 257 BC (British Library, Papyrus 2661)

Apollonius also owned property in Palestine. In a letter from May 257 BC (Papyrus 2661), addressed to the finance minister himself, one of his agents reported that his Palestinian estate was being well cultivated under the management of his local agent, Melas, and the vines amounted to 80,000. The agent even tasted the wine, but could hardly say whether it was Chian wine (one of the most prized wines in classical antiquity) or a local one. He concluded: ‘So your affairs are prospering, and fortune is favouring you in everything’. 

Concluding line from a letter on papyrus.
Conclusion of the letter from Glaucias (British Library, Papyrus 2661).

In the spring of 258 BC, Zenon returned to Egypt and travelled on a few occasions on inspection tours around the Nile Delta. Following a long and apparently serious illness, from which he recovered sometime in 256 BC, Zenon settled down in Philadelphia and became overseer of Apollonius’ large estate (c. 2750 hectars!). Ptolemy II had gifted the estate to Apollonius in the winter of 259 BC, and Zenon succeeded a certain Panacestor as its manager.

Zenon kept this role until 248 BC, when he was discharged from his duties and focused on managing his own businesses in Philadelphia. Having been engaged in various enterprises over the years, such as money-lending, tax farming and renting of animals, he had now become a wealthy and influential businessman. The number of documents relating to Zenon decreases after 240 BC, and the latest dated text mentioning him is from 229 BC. 

With the archive held in various collections worldwide, it is no surprise that even fragments belonging to the same papyrus are now housed at different institutions. However, digitisation and cross-institutional collaboration can help overcome the limits of time and space. For example, a letter from Philinus, a friend of Zenon’s, survives in two fragments, one at the British Library (Papyrus 2351) and one at the papyrus collection of Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library, in New York (P.Col. IV 114d).

Fragmentary papyrus sheet, lacking the bottom and right-hand half
Fragmentary letter from Philinus to Zenon (British Library, Papyrus 2351)

In this letter, Philinus advises Zenon that he has despatched five shields of extraordinary quality: ‘I have sent you the five shields so highly prized by me that not even in Aetolia are there any such.’ The Columbia fragment perfectly joins the British Library portion to the right, containing the ends of the first seven lines of the letter, as shown on the image below.

Two papyrus fragments from different collections now joined.
The two fragments now joined: on the left, British Library Papyrus 2351; on the right, the Columbia portion, P.Col. IV 114d. The image of the Columbia fragment is courtesy of Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

In another interesting case, a receipt written in duplicate form has ended up in the British Library and in the papyrus collection of the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. Nechthembes, apparently a small contractor employing a group of men for the cultivation of an estate, acknowledges that he received money for twenty workmen for the levelling of a vineyard. The British Library holds the upper receipt (Papyrus 2340), representing the inner text, which was originally rolled up and sealed to serve as the authoritative copy. The seal, in this case not preserved, would usually carry the impression of the man acknowledging receipt of payment. The Michigan fragment (P.Mich.inv. 3151), on the other hand, constitutes the outer text that was left open and visible.

Two fragments from the same papyrus, now belonging to different collections.
Two fragments from the same papyrus sheet, the upper being British Library Papyrus 2340 and the lower the Michigan fragment P.Mich.inv. 3151 (© Regents of the University of Michigan)

Our Greek papyri cataloguing project, generously sponsored by the American Trust for the British Library, has focused on fragments shared by the British Library and American collections. You can read about two other examples of such joins in our previous blog posts: A letter of recommendation split between two continents and Defying the Emperor. You can also learn more about the Zenon archive on the Trismegistos dedicated page. All the Zenon papyri from the British Library collections have been digitised and catalogued and will be made available on the British Library new IIIF viewer in the coming months.

Federica Micucci

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

01 September 2021

Defying the emperor: the ‘Acts of Appian’ in London and New Haven

When a text on papyrus is fragmentary, there is always hope that further portions of it may turn up at some point, perhaps in a collection on the other side of the world. In one of our previous blog posts, we digitally re-united two halves of a papyrus from the collections of the British Library and Columbia University, New York. Today we will share another story of virtual re-unification and collaboration among institutions focusing on the story of Appian, an Alexandrian ambassador who stood up to the Roman Emperor against injustices.

Back of a papyrus roll bearing portions of five columns of Greek writing
Back of a papyrus roll preserving part of the ‘Acts of Appian’ from the early 3rd century: Papyrus 2435 verso, P.Oxy. I 33

Papyrus 2435 is a fragmentary roll bearing a register of contracts from the late 2nd century on the front-side. The roll was later reused and on the back another text was written, known as the ‘Acts of Appian’ (Acta Appiani), assigned to the first half of the 3rd century. This is the latest piece that has come down to us from a collection of texts on papyrus named the ‘Acts of the Alexandrians’ (Acta Alexandrinorum), written by unknown authors over the first three centuries AD. The surviving texts follow the format of the official minutes of legal proceedings (acta), from which their title derives.

The ‘Acta’ promote Alexandrian patriotism and anti-Roman feelings, recounting hearings of some prominent Greek citizens of Alexandria sent as envoys to the court of the emperors in Rome. These hearings usually concern conflicts between Greek and Jewish communities in Alexandria. As the emperors tend to appear hostile to the Greek delegates, the hearings become proper trials, and often end with the execution of the envoys, who are killed as martyrs of the Alexandrian cause. It is difficult to discern what is historical and what is literary fiction in these texts, but the authors of the Acta may have relied on official documents of the hearings.

Marble sculpture of the head of Emperor Commodus
Marble head from a statue of the Emperor Commodus, c. 185-190. British Museum 1864,1021.9 © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The ‘Acts of Appian’ recount the hearing of an Alexandrian ambassador called Appian, trialled before the Emperor Commodus (176-192), although the emperor is never named in the surviving portion. Appian is sentenced to death twice, but is surprisingly recalled on both occasions. He accuses the emperor of making illegal profit from the trade of Egyptian grain, hoarding it with the aim of selling it at high prices. After being called back from execution, Appian continues to defy the emperor, accusing him of avarice, dishonesty and lack of education, contrasting him to his father Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher, who was fit to rule as an emperor. After this attack, Appian is condemned to death once again, though he is granted the right to die in his robes, as a symbol of his noble status. On his way to execution, he invites the citizens of Rome to watch the show of his death. Following the complaints of the crowds in Rome, the emperor recalls him again. At this point, however, when Appian starts another argument, the papyrus suddenly breaks off leaving the narrative fragmentary.

Back of a papyrus fragment with parts of three columns in Greek; only the second is well preserved
The fragment now in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University preserving further parts of the ‘Acts of Appian’. Image courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

In 1933 a fragment entered the papyrus collection of Yale University, and was identified as belonging to the roll containing the ‘Acts of Appian’ now in the British Library. The fragment preserves a few letters from the first column of the British Library papyrus as well as bits of the two preceding columns, providing some missing portions from the earlier part of the account. At this point of the narrative, after having accused the emperor, Appian is being led away to execution for the first time, when he sees a dead body on the way and talks to a certain Heliodorus, who is unable to help but encourages him to face his death: dying for his fatherland will bring him glory.

Thanks to a collaboration between curatorial teams at the British Library and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, high-resolution images of the two portions have been made available and the fragments have now been joined again, virtually.

A papyrus roll consisting of two fragments housed in two collections, now joined
The fragments re-united: on the left, the portion from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library; on the right, the British Library piece

We are also happy to announce that the British Library papyrus is now displayed in the new Universal Viewer, compatible with the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF).

The account of Appian’s trial is still incomplete, and we do not know whether the Alexandrian was eventually sentenced to death, but we hope that new fragments may come to light in the future to reveal the conclusion of the story.

Federica Micucci

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

26 July 2021

A letter of recommendation split between two continents

How many of us have ever needed a letter of recommendation to apply for university or to seek employment, to rent a flat or to consult a special manuscript in a reading room? Well, in using these letters we are following a practice that was already in use thousands of years ago.

Letters of recommendation are well attested in the Classical world. They feature as one of the twenty-one types of letters recorded in a letter-writing manual mistakenly attributed in the manuscript tradition to the 4th-century BC orator and statesman Demetrius of Phalerum. 

Page from a manuscript dating from 1712, containing the beginning of a letter-writing treatise attributed to Demetrius of Phalerum
Beginning of the treatise entitled ‘Epistolikoi Typoi’ (‘Types of Letters’) attributed to Demetrius of Phalerum, preserved in a manuscript of 1712: Add MS 39619, f. 116r

A passage from the sixth book of Homer’s Iliad testifies to a rather treacherous use of a letter of ‘recommendation’, quite the opposite of what is expected. King Proetus writes a letter for Bellerophon asking his father-in-law, the king of Lycia, to kill Bellerophon, who is bearing the folded tablet containing the message.

St Paul also mentions recommendation letters, commenting: ‘Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or need we, as some others, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You are our epistle written in our hearts, which is known and read by all men’ (2 Corinthians 3:1-2).

The Greek papyri from Greco-Roman Egypt offer several examples of recommendations, dating from the 3rd century BC onwards. The letters usually display a consistent format: the author greets the recipient and recommends the bearer of the message, asking the addressee to offer whatever help the recommended person may need. Sometimes letters request even more, asking for loans, job offers, and assistance with taxes or legal issues. The person recommended would usually be introduced as someone close to the writer, often a friend or relative, whose preferential treatment would be considered as a personal favour to the writer.

Among the British Library holdings is a letter of recommendation forming half of a papyrus sheet (Papyrus 2553).

Left-hand portion of a papyrus sheet
Left half of a letter of recommendation on papyrus: Papyrus 2553

Many details about this letter would have been unclear had the right-hand half of the papyrus not been identified in a fragment (P. Col. VIII 211) now held in the papyrus collection of Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library, in New York. The two papyrus halves join perfectly, as Antonia Sarri recognised in an article published in 2014 in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies

The full letter, dated 16 February 6, concerns a dispute between Isidorus, a farmer from the village of Psophthis, in the Memphite district, and Tryphon, governor (strategus) of a different district, the Arsinoite. 

Two perfectly joining papyrus fragments preserve a full letter of 6 CE
Full papyrus sheet, consisting of the British Library fragment on the left and the Columbia fragment on the right

Isidorus appears to have been detained and compelled by the governor’s agents to swear that he would cultivate a plot of land located on the estate of the empress Livia, wife of Augustus, in the village of Philadelphia, in the Arsinoite district. However, because Isidorus was formally registered in another district, he shouldn’t have been obliged to perform this work. Several influential people took Isidorus’s side in this affair, one of whom is Proclus, author of another letter from the archive.

In this letter, Proclus instructs Asclepiades, a local official, to investigate the matter and cooperate with Isidorus, a member of his household. Moreover, Asclepiades is reminded not to forget in the future that Isidorus is recommended by Proclus. From the tone of the letter, it can be surmised that Proclus’s social standing was rather high.

In the postscript, Proclus adds ‘… do everything for Isidorus, for I am concerned about him.’

Conclusion of a letter on papyrus, containing the postscript in a different hand
Postscript in a second hand added at the end of the letter, after the date

Despite being thousands of miles apart, the two fragments can now be joined virtually thanks to the advanced technologies and the combined efforts of the curatorial teams at the British Library and Columbia University. The British Library fragment has now been displayed in the new IIIF Univeral Viewer, and the Columbia portion will made available on their current platform for IIIF, Columbia's Digital Library Collections (DLC), in the coming months. We’ll be sharing further examples of fragments that can be reunited in the coming weeks, so look out for further updates. 

Federica Micucci

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

16 March 2021

Fascinating beasts (and where to find them)

The British Library's papyri are full of surprises. We've often described how our Greek papyri provide insights into the lives of women, children, teachers and even magicians, but even we were astonished, while cataloguing the collection, to come across a number of fragments containing fascinating descriptions of extraordinary creatures.

A fragmentary papyrus containing a school composition about the phoenix

A fragmentary school composition about the phoenix, written on the back of a tax register (Egypt, 2nd century AD): Papyrus 2239, fragment 1 verso

The first fragment probably dates from the 2nd century, is written on the back of a tax document, and describes a wondrous bird in Greek prose. According to the text, 'This bird can be seen flying through the air with its plumage gleaming, gold and light blue all over, being wondrously similar to the sea. The plumage of its wings seems to imitate the echo of the storming wind. It lives alone even as an adult, rich in wisdom, peaceful not carnivorous.'

Based on parallels in other texts, this miraculous bird can be identified as the phoenix. The bird in question was said to have lived in Egypt and, after living for 1,000 years, to have burned itself alive before resurrecting again from its ashes. Our papyrus provides new information about the colour of the bird, as well as the fascinating information that it could sing in an extraordinary voice which 'had an eternal quality, one with the entire universe'.

A manuscript illustration of a phoenix rising from the ashes and surrounded by flames

The phoenix in a bestiary (England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 45r (detail)

Our second fragment comes from a 4th-century codex and contains a text in verse, probably from a play. The first legible portion of this papyrus describes another mythical creature, a female beast 'with tresses of long hair. Her tail she curls up under her lion’s feet and sits down carrying back her wings. Exposed to sunshine, the monster’s back glistens with gold, if a cloud comes, a sombre splendour, like a rainbow, is reflected on it. It is murderous and chants magical verses of a riddle: "One thing there is that has sense that walks on four feet, then on two and three — what’s that?"'

Two papyrus fragments of a Greek play

Two fragments from a play, probably the Oedipus of Euripides (Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, 4th century AD): Papyrus 3042, fragments 1-2 recto

It is this riddle about a creature that first walks on four legs, then on two and finally on three that helps us identify this beast. It is the Sphinx of Greek mythology, whose riddle refers to a man, who as a boy crawls on four legs, as an adult walks on two, and finally in old age leans on a stick as its third foot. The Sphinx was said to have a female head, a lion's body and wings; but the colour of its plumage is described uniquely in this papyrus.

A page of a manuscript with a coloured illustration of a Sphinx leaving her cave and confronting a knight on horseback

The Sphinx from the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à Cesar (France, 2nd quarter of the 14th century): Royal MS 20 D I, f. 2v (detail)

Our third example dates from around 1,900 years ago. It is found on a papyrus roll containing Greek verses, presumably from a tragedy. The first readable portion of the text describes an horrific monster, 'a compound, with double nature: bull and man, it bears a bull’s head square set on its shoulders, it walks on two legs with a black shaggy tail, it has a look of horror and a tail and strength of …' The rest of the text is missing.

A fragmentary Greek papyrus

Fragment from a play, presumably The Cretans by Euripides (Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, 2nd century AD): Papyrus 3044, fragment 2 recto

Despite the fragmentary condition of this papyrus, the two-fold nature of the bull-man makes it obvious that this is a description of the Minotaur. This creature was born from the love of the Cretan queen Pasiphae and a bull. Imprisoned in the mazes of the king’s palace, it was fed with the human flesh of slaves until Theseus, a young prince from Athens, helped by Pasiphae’s daughter Ariadne, chopped off its head with his sword.

A coloured manuscript illustration showing Theseus, on the left, facing the horned Minotaur, on the right

Theseus combatting the Minotaur from the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à Cesar (France, 2nd half of the 13th century): Add MS 19669, f. 96v (detail)

Although this papyrus provides no new details about the Minotaur's appearance , it's an interesting witness to the long-lived tradition of the monster of Crete. Seeing these exciting fragments, one cannot help wondering what other mysteries remain to be revealed among the British Library’s Greek papyri.

 

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

13 February 2021

Love spells in the Greek Magical Papyri

As it’s nearly Valentine’s Day, we have collected some ‘charming’ love spells preserved in the Greek magical papyri of the British Library. Such spells were believed to rouse love and passion, but more worryingly they were also intended to bind and attract the loved one to the user. Some spells even went so far as to cause suffering to the victim, which was to end after the lovers were united. Most of the spells presented below are preserved in Papyrus 121, a magical handbook presumably from 4th-century Egypt, originally a roll over two metres long, containing spells for various purposes, from healing and binding to obtaining protection and success.

A ‘fetching’ love spell

Love spells often have titles that define their nature in more detail. One of the most frequent types are the love spells ‘that lead’, named agōgē and agōgimon in Ancient Greek (from the verb agō, ‘to lead’). This type of spell had the aim of bringing the victim to the person performing the magic. One of these spells instructs the user to take a seashell, write holy names with the blood of a black donkey, and recite a formula to attract the victim. The user should select the time to perform the ritual very carefully, as the spell had immediate effect.

Portion of a magical handbook on papyrus, containing a love spell with immediate effect.
‘Love charm which acts in the same hour’: Papyrus 121(2), col. 6

Securing eternal love

Magical words (voces magicae) recur constantly in the magical papyri. These are unintelligible sequences of words or syllables thought to have magical power. This spell, believed to obtain the eternal love of a woman on the spot by invoking the god Iabo, displays some magical words at the end.

Magical text on papyrus to secure the eternal love of a woman.
A love spell to secure the eternal love of a woman: Papyrus 148

An ‘excellent love charm’

Magical signs, known as charaktēres, were another powerful tool. These symbols often had the shape of asterisks or lines ending in small circles. The following love spell makes use of such signs. The spell is described as an ‘excellent love charm’, literally ‘potion’ (philtron). It explains that a tin lamella should be engraved with some magical signs and names, rolled up with some magical material (perhaps a lock of hair or a piece of clothing) and thrown into the sea. The practitioner should also remember to use a copper nail from a wrecked ship for writing!

Love spell on papyrus using magical signs
An ‘excellent love charm’, reminding the user to ‘write with a copper nail from a shipwrecked vessel’: Papyrus 121(2), column 10

Invoking deities

Invoking deities for help is another common feature of love spells. A special invocation to Selene, the Moon, is contained in the following spell. Addressing Selene as the ‘mistress of the entire world’, the user was instructed to make offerings to her by moulding a mixture of clay, sulphur, and blood of a dappled goat into a figurine of the goddess, and by consecrating a shrine made of olive wood, which should never face the sun. As a result, Selene would send a holy angel, who would drag the victim by their feet and hair to the user. The victims would be fearful and sleepless because of their love for the individual performing the magic. Success is guaranteed, as the ‘power of the spell is strong’, according to the papyrus.

Portion of a lunar spell on papyrus, invoking the Moon.
Portions of a lunar spell to bind and attract the victim and obtain their eternal love: Papyrus 121(2)verso, columns 8-9 (numbered 25-6)

Over a cup…

Among the objects featuring in magical rituals are also those of daily use. The following spell is ‘a good drinking cup’ spell: over a cup, the user ought to repeat magical words seven times. These were believed to be ‘holy names of Cypris’, that is, Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Users of the spell hoped that the loved ones’ heart could be reached, and their love would be returned.

A love spell on papyrus to be said over a cup.
A good cup spell, with a formula to be recited over a cup: Papyrus 121(2), column 8

Magical drawings

Spells may have been accompanied by drawings to serve as a model for performing the ritual. For example, a picture is mentioned in the following spell, although the papyrus itself does not preserve it:

‘Take a shell from the sea and draw on it with myrrh ink the figure of Typhon given below, and in a circle write his names, and throw it into the heating of a bath. But when you throw it, keep reciting these words engraved in a circle and attract to me her, NN, whom NN bore, on this very day from this very hour on, with her soul and heart aflame, quickly, quickly; immediately, immediately’.

Love spell on papyrus
Instructions for attracting the victim straightaway: Papyrus 121(2) column 10

‘Unmanageable’ targets

This ‘fetching’ spell (agōgē) was believed to work with ‘unmanageable’ targets. The names of seven ‘great gods’ should be written with myrrh on seven wicks of a lamp, which ought not to be red. The lamp was lit and had wormwood seeds on top. A formula should then be recited. The victim would be sleepless until they reached the practitioner’s house: this would happen by the time the seventh wick flickered.

Part of a love spell on papyrus for an unmanageable woman.
Love spell that could fetch someone even from across the sea: Papyrus 121(2) verso, column 1 (numbered 18)

After reading these ancient love spells, we definitely prefer our Valentine's Day celebrations to be ‘charmless’.

The development of erotic magic continued in the following centuries: you can discover more in our previous blogpost on medieval love spells.

Federica Micucci

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Translations are from The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, ed. by Hans D. Betz (London-Chicago 1986).

13 January 2021

Over 4,500 manuscripts now online

Long-term readers of our blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts, the last of which was published in July 2020. With the arrival of the New Year and the beginning of a new lockdown in the UK, we are releasing an update to our lists of manuscript hyperlinks. We hope this makes it easier for readers and researchers to explore our amazing digitised treasures online.

A detail from a 16th-century grant of arms, showing a portrait of Sir Gilbert Dethick within a letter O.
A historiated initial ‘O’(mnibus) containing a portrait of Sir Gilbert Dethick (b. c. 1510, d. 1584), Officer of Arms of the College of Arms, London: Add MS 89166, f. 1r detail

There are now over 4,500 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Here is a full list of all the items currently available, as of January 2021:

PDF: Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2021
Excel: Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2021 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

The upper cover of the Basikilon Doron, an autograph manuscript of the text with a purple velvet binding.
The velvet binding of the autograph manuscript of the Basilikon Doron, handwritten by King James I: Royal MS 18 B XV, upper cover.

During this period of terrible uncertainty, the Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been busy as ever, working to make more manuscripts available for our readers online. Over the last 6 months alone, we have published over 850 items, from medieval and early modern codices and rolls to Greek papyri and ostraca. All the images featured in this blogpost are from collection items that we have digitised since June 2020. Here is a list of our most recent additions:

PDF: Digitised_mss_july2020_jan_2021
Excel: Digitised_mss_july2020_jan_2021(this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

A text page from a 14th-century book of hours, with marginal decoration including a dog with a bone, a hybrid and a coat of arms
A text page from a 14th-century book of hours, with marginal decoration including a dog with a bone, a hybrid and a coat of arms: Harley MS 6563, f. 53v

Over the last months, some 620 Greek papyri have been published online, spanning from the 3rd century BC to the early 8th century. These include pieces of Greek literature, such as the famous ‘Harris Homer Codex’, an 1800-year-old manuscript preserving portions of Homer’s Iliad, as well as hundreds of fascinating documents, such as letters of parents to their children, managers and employees, magical charms and shopping lists. You can view this video for a short introduction to cataloguing the Greek papyri.

Thanks to a collaboration with the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung of the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, more than 250 inscribed pottery sherds (ostraca) from the 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD are now available online for the first time. A short overview is presented in our previous blogpost on ostraca.

A framed papyrus, featuring the text of Book II of Homer's Iliad.
The first frame of the ‘Harris Homer Codex’, containing Homer’s Iliad, Bk. II, ll. 101-149: Papyrus 126 (1) recto.

In September, we reported on the progress of a major digitisation programme, Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts. This collaborative project, involving teams across the British Library, intends to publish approximately 600 Tudor and Stuart manuscripts online. The selection encompasses original letters by members of the Elizabethan court; literary manuscripts of the works of important Elizabeth and Jacobean poets such as John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney; notes by the alchemist and astronomer John Dee; and collections of state papers that highlight numerous aspects of the political and social history of this period, particularly the relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. As of the start of this year, over a quarter of these manuscripts have now been published.

A letter from Queen Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, bearing her signature.
An original letter from Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, her ambassador in Scotland, concerning the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots, dated 27 July 1567: Add MS 88966, f. 1r

Since this summer, two particularly significant manuscripts have been digitised, both of which can be explored in their entirety on the British Library’s new Universal Viewer. The Sherborne Missal, acquired by the British Library in 1998, has been called the ‘unrivalled masterpiece of English book production in the fifteenth century' (Kathleen Scott), with each of its hundreds of pages replete with astonishing illumination. Readers can learn more about the Sherborne Missal in our previous blogpost. The volume was also recently featured on BBC Radio 4’s Moving Pictures programme.

A miniature of the Crucifixion from the Sherborne Missal
The Crucifixion, from the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 380

Meanwhile in November, the British Library acquired and digitised the most important surviving manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon, a highly influential mathematician, theologian and astronomer, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London towards the end of the reign of Richard III (r. 1483-1485). The volume contains the most complete collection of his astronomical and mathematical works, including texts that are unattested elsewhere, as well as its original medieval binding and an unparalleled series of astronomical tables and diagrams. Learn more in our earlier blogpost on the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript.

Astronomical tables and diagrams from the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript
Astronomical tables and diagrams from an autograph manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon: Add MS 89442, pp. 30-31.

Many images of our manuscripts are also available to view and download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages.

A map of China and the southern half of Japan, from an atlas of sea charts made by the Italian cartographer Joan Martines
A map of China and the southern half of Japan, from an atlas of sea charts made by the Italian cartographer Joan Martines: Harley MS 3450, ff. 5v-6r

Enormous thanks to all the members of staff across the Library whose hard work has made these achievements possible despite the difficult circumstances this year.

We wish all our readers a Happy New Year and hope you enjoy exploring our digitised collections!

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Medieval manuscripts blog recent posts

Archives

Tags

Other British Library blogs