A Coptic Remedy Against Sleepless Nights for New Parents

Guest post by Ágnes Mihálykó

There are some problems in human life that are timeless. One of them is sleep deprivation caused by a teething baby. I have had my fair share of it recently, and on one sleepless night when just nothing seemed to work, desperate I remembered a fourth-century Coptic recipe to aid a baby’s teething. This is how it goes:

“For a small child, to make its teeth grow without it feeling pain: put foam of wax on its swellings.”

Translation from Love and Zellmann-Rohrer (2021, 87; §7)

The recipe is contained in a small parchment leaflet inscribed with Greek and Coptic recipes for various, chiefly health-related problems. Inside, purely pharmacological recipes are mixed with incantations and charms, which exemplifies how the distinction between ‘medical’ and ‘magical’ healing was vague, and for practical purposes non-existent, in this period. The small codex belonged to a healing professional in the Fayum, who likely tailored it for his own needs, copying the text from various sources, Greek and Coptic alike. Some of these sources went back to ancient Egyptian incantations and pharmacological lore, others to Greek magical and medical traditions. He passed on his collection to two later owners, who added further recipes in Coptic. The problems they encountered in their practice included some common ailments such as fever, stomach- and headache, earache, sciatica, and constipation, but there are some less familiar problems as well, such as extensive eye-lash growth (§5) or demonic possession (§18). Their collection also included some non-medical recipes: two charms for favour (§12) and supernatural assistance (§15) as well as recipes against pests in the house (§19 and 29).

Pages from the Book of Ritual Spells, University of Michigan Special Collections (Ms. 136)

As for the baby toothing aid, I did not try it. I ended up giving another dose of painkiller instead. But that recipe is certainly more inviting than the following one from the same collection for “a small child that is crying”:

“smear its head with bull’s marrow, or bull’s brain.” 

Translation from Love and Zellmann-Rohrer (2021, 105; §28)

Medicine made of marrow and brain of animals was known in antiquity, especially in its capacity as painkillers. But whether such a medicine succeeded in soothing a crying baby, I am not sure. 

Technical Details
Provenance: Fayum
Date: 4th century?
Language: Coptic (Fayumic) and Greek
Collection: Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Library
Designation: Special Collections Ms 136
Bibliography (edition and translation): Michael W. Zellmann-Rohrer and Edward O. D. Love, Traditions in Transmission: The Medical and Magical Texts of a Fourth-century Greek and Coptic Codex (Michigan Ms. 136) in context (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021). For further bibliography, see the Coptic Magical Papyri Database.

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

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