At a quick glance, a Coptic document today in the collection of the Università di Genova (Italy) looks pretty standard. There is some damage at the edges and a few small holes in the middle. But, otherwise, it looks quite well preserved. However, on closer inspection, things aren’t as they seem. While the writing seems to follow the same lines, the text in one area on the left is written upside down and in different handwriting to everything else. And looking at the rest of the document, even though the handwriting is quite similar, it becomes clear that there are three other fragments: one in the top-centre, one in the bottom-centre, and another at the right. In total, this one piece, which has maximum dimensions of 17.2 cm (width) by 8.2 cm (height), is therefore made up of four unrelated smaller fragments.
No names – of places or people – survive on these fragments, labelled a–d (their positions are noted on the image above), so their authors can never be identified, nor where they were written or to where they may have been sent. Only minimal details can be determined. At most, fragment c on the right may be traced to a monastic origin, because it refers to ‘the brother’. Of the four fragments, three are certainly from letters. Despite what little survives, this can be established based on the presence of standard formulae, mainly greetings (frag. a) and farewells (frag. c), and addresses to other people (‘and you (plural) will say it’ in frag. d). Fragment d concerns a tax in grain (the embolé-tax), but too much is lost from the other pieces to determine what they were about. As for fragment b, the only noun that can be read is ‘fruit’, but there is too little writing (and much of it is faint) to figure out if this is a letter or some other type of document.
With so little information about the fragments, their story largely becomes one about their modern history. In particular, why are these four fragments joined together in this way? Given the clear intention of making the manuscript look like a mostly intact document, including substantial upper and lower margins, this must be a modern patchwork. When they were joined together and by whom, before being acquired by the Università di Genova in the mid-20th century, remain unknown. One thing, though, is certain. By gluing the pieces together, four small ancient fragments were made to look like a complete manuscript, and this made them a more attractive and profitable sale item on the antiquities market. On the market, a faked whole is worth more than the sum of its genuine parts.
Technical Details Provenance (findspot): Unknown. Date: 7th/8th century. Language: Coptic. Collection: Università di Genova (Italy), inv. 1330. Designation: Edited by J. Cromwell and L. Prada in P.Genoa V 225a–d (designation according to the Checklist of Editions). Trismegistos numbers: TM 565480 (frag. a); TM 565481 (frag. b); TM 565482 (frag. c); TM 565484 (frag. d). Bibliography: n/a.
When we think of Egypt’s wealth, our mind often wanders to geological riches. Most of this wealth originated in the Eastern Desert: the gold of Tutankhamun’s mask, the famous Egyptian eye-paints of kohl or malachite, or even the majestic purple porphyry columns that today hold up the roof in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, shipped there by the Egypt’s Roman rulers. A cliché of Ancient Egyptian geography is that the deserts were empty wastes, possessing nothing but mineral wealth that the Egyptians were free to exploit. But we need to acknowledge that these regions, despite their aridity, were home to various indigenous peoples – nomads who are largely shrouded from the historic record. Wandering from well to well with herds of goat and sheep, these peoples were the guardians of much of Egypt’s famous mineral wealth, variably escorting or harassing Egyptian mineral and trade expeditions. The ancient Egyptian record of the local affairs of these nomads in the Eastern desert is quite stereotyped, usually narrating encounters between Egyptian expeditions and nameless groups of herders. But there is one tantalizing and informative glimpse from the Ramesside period (late New Kingdom) that illustrates just how complex local desert affairs could be. This source consists of a set of letters recorded on a papyrus written in hieratic (cursive) script, today in the Cairo Museum and labelled “papyrus Cairo ESP”. Unfortunately, its original findspot is unknown and it was found in a tin box in the Cairo Museum as one roll of five glued sheets, without any notes that would tell us anything of the find. The papyrus constitutes a set of administrative letters sent by a well-known High-Priest of Amun called Ramessesnakht and mentions the city of Coptos and a fortress in the nearby desert. It would be reasonable to assume that this set of letters belonged to a group of directives sent to expeditions or perhaps an Egyptian fortress in the Eastern Desert. The city of Coptos was the main gateway to the Eastern Desert and provided easy access to desert mines and Red Sea harbours through which Egyptians facilitated trade with distant lands like Punt. Despite being a religious institution, the Temple of Amun was dedicated to the task of gold and mineral exploitation. Earlier in his life and well-before writing these letters, Ramessesnakht himself travelled to the Eastern Desert, leaving an inscription at the quarries of Wadi Hammamat, so he was well-versed in the local geography. Considering the sender, these letters almost certainly originated in a temple archive. One section of the letter (C-D) concerns a military escort that the Egyptians employed to guard its gold-washers on their expedition to the goldmines. This military escort consisted of people from the land of Akyet, the name for the deserts east of Lower Nubia (modern Wadi Allaqi). These people, related to the Medjay, spoke a language ancestrally related to Beja, a language still spoken in Eastern Sudan today. This escort had left its homeland in the southern deserts and ventured further north near Coptos to help the Egyptian miners. The other group of nomads mentioned in the papyrus are the Shasu. This group is usually encountered in the Sinai and the Levant and are famous amongst historians for their shadowy origins and connections to Pre-Israelite history. Some Shasu may have even worshipped Yahweh, the god of the Hebrew Bible, and spoke a Semitic language. Here, however, a band of Shasu had come south along the Red Sea coast into the Egyptian Eastern Desert and evidently became a nuisance for Egyptian goldminers. Ramessesnakht, the High-Priest of Amun-Re, and the official in charge of desert expeditions, writes:
The first prophet of Amun-Re, king of the gods, Ramessesnakht said to the feathered-Nubian Anytna, the feathered-Nubian Sisenut, and feathered-Nubian Terebdedi, and the Nubian-soldiers of the hill-country of Akyet… I have learned that you went out as a military-escort together with the miners and gold-washers of the House of Amun-Re… The strong arm of the Pharaoh, my lord, has cast to the ground the enemies of the Shasu of Mu-qed who were sitting in Qehqeh, on the shore of the sea. Since it is Amun-Re, king of the gods, the great-god, lord of the earth who went with you in order to give to you a hand. Rejoice two times for the many good things that Amun-Re, king of the gods, did for the Pharaoh (life, prosperity, health!), his child, in casting to the ground the enemies of the Shasu who attacked the land of Egypt… When my letter reaches you, you will establish yourselves in the gold-working-settlement, until the supplies which I sent to you under the responsibility of my scribe and the retainer of mine reach you (the feathered Nubians). And you shall pay-attention to the miners and gold-washers of the house of Amun under my authority so that they will bring this gold for Amun-Re, king of the gods, your lord, to cause that the Shasu may not attack them. And you must not come to transgress in the land of Egypt. As for that which you require, you may send to me a letter and I will cause that it will be brought to you and you will make good servants for Amun-Re, king of the gods, the pharaoh (life, prosperity, health!), your lord, and you will see this:
The list of the supplies which were for the feathered-Nubians and the Nubians of the land of Akyet who went as a military-escort against the enemies of the Shasu of Mu-qed (the Red Sea) so that the strong arm of the pharaoh (life, prosperity, health!) could cast them to the ground:
25 kilts of thin-cloth 25 kilts of round-tunic 25 metal cups 25 metal knives 25 metal axes bound on a shaft 1000 good loaves of kershet-bread100 cut loaves of iped- and kershet-bread 50 herd assorted herd animals 5 carrying-donkeys 1 bag of condiments (?) 1 bag of ingredients
Papyrus Cairo ESP, sections C–D; trans. Julien Cooper
The letters describe a complicated vision of desert politics involving vying nomads, goldminers, and the priests of Amun. Underpinning Egypt’s gold exploitation was conflict and alliances involving two rival nomadic groups, the Nubians of Akyet and the Shasu. They likely spoke different languages and had different customs, and the Egyptians seem to have taken advantage of these differences by employing one group of desert experts to fight against the other and protect its miners. A battle ensued at the place of Qehqeh, somewhere on the Red Sea (Egyptian Mu-qed) coast. With the divine patronage of Amun and the Pharaoh, the Akyet nomads were victorious but were urged to keep vigilant, protecting the gold washers in a gold-working settlement. This arrangement between Ramessesnakht and the Akyet nomads, despite being successful in this instance, was not an altogether comfortable situation for the Egyptians. Ramessesnakht warns Anytna, Sisenut, and Terebdidi not to attack Egypt on their mission, alluding to the fact that that the Akyet people sometimes went rogue and raided Egyptian lands. Egyptian campaign texts from Nubian fortresses speak of these same Akyet-nomads thieving grain from the Egyptians. On this instance, the Akyet nomads were rewarded for their efforts with rations and supplies of clothing, bread, knives, and livestock so that they could continue their conflict against the Shasu, perhaps carving out their own territory in the desert and using Egyptian patronage to further their goals. Just what the phrase “feathered-Nubians” means in this text is unclear and has few parallels in administrative documents. Some consider this phrase as specifically referring to the headmen in charge of nomads, thus making Anytna, Sisenut, and Terebdidi, the chiefs of their tribes. But Egyptian art often depicts Nubians (as well as Libyans) as donning ostrich feathers (as shown in the scene from the tomb of Amenhotep-Huy below). Perhaps in this dossier it is the administrative jargon to specifically mark out ‘allied’ Nubians specifically. Although this text is unique in the politics of the Eastern Desert, the general narrative and pattern here is common in world history and conjures identical ‘divide and conquer’ politics ever-present amongst imperialistic states and colonial encounters. From the Roman invasion of Gaul, to Cortes’ courting of his Tlaxcala allies against the Aztecs, to the British East India companies’ alliances with local princes, empires achieved their objectives by hiring foreigners well-versed in local affairs and pitted them against their foes. For the Egyptians who had little experience in the notoriously dangerous conditions of the Eastern Desert, the hiring of local desert specialists was a necessity.
Technical Details Provenance: Unknown, likely from an archive belonging to the Temple of Amun, but whether this copy was archived at the Temple of Amun at Karnak or Coptos (or the fortress temple) is unknown. Date: Ramesses IX (1129–1111 BC) Language: Late Egyptian (hieratic script) Collection: Cairo Museum. Designation: Various; often “Papyrus Cairo ESP”; “P. Cairo C-D”. Also referred to as KRI VI, 519-522 (Kenneth A. Kitchen (1982), Ramesesside Inscriptions. Vol. 6: Ramesses IV to XI and Contemporaries) Bibliography: Wolfgang Helck (1967), “Eine Briefsammlung aus der Verwaltung des Amuntempels,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 6, pp. 146–151; Edward Wente (1990), Letters from Ancient Egypt (Atlanta), pp. 38–39 [#38]; Julien C. Cooper (2020, Toponymy on the Periphery: Placenames of the Eastern Desert, Red Sea, and South Sinai (Leiden), pp. 198–200, 460–461, 494–495.
Cymbals struck as festival performers wound their way through the village’s streets . But then tragedy struck. Leaning over the balcony to view the players below, a young slave boy Epaphroditos fell and died. Was it an accident? Was it murder? This tragic event took place in year 23 of the reign of the emperor Commodus (182 CE), when Egypt was a province of the Roman Empire. We know of Epaphroditos’ death because a document was drawn up on 3 November (the Egyptian date Hathyr 7) that recorded its aftermath. This document, referred to by the designation P.Oxy. III 475, was written by Hierax, a senior official (strategos) of the Oxyrhynchite nome, to an assistant, Claudius Serenos. In it, Hierax instructs Serenos to go to the village Senepta, together with a public physician, to examine the dead body, following a request by Leonides alias Serenos, the father-in-law of Epaphroditos‘ owner, Ploution son of Aristodemos. The doctor’s verdict is not recorded, nor the actions that subsequently occurred, but appended to Hierax’s note is a copy of Leonides’ original petition.
“… At a late hour of yesterday the sixth while there was a festival in Senepta and cymbal-players were giving the performance as custom has it in front of the house of my son-in-law, Ploution the son of Aristodemos, his slave Epaphroditos aged about 8 years, wishing to lean over from the flat-roof of the said house to see the cymbal-players, fell and was killed. Presenting therefore this request I ask, if it please you, that you dispatch one of your assistants to Senepta so that the body of Epaphroditos may receive the suitable layout out and burial. …”
P.Oxy. III 475; Translation from Jean Straus (2014)
Epaphroditos, as a slave, was legally a ‘thing’ (Latin res) owned by his master, Ploution. So why did the owner’s family petition the district’s senior official to examine the boy’s body, rather than just dispose of it, like any other broken possession? As Jean Straus has proposed in his commentary on this case, this document suggests that there were limits to the power of masters over their slaves. Straus suggests two possible reasons why the petition was sent to Hierax. One reason may be rooted in purely economic concerns, to confirm the slave’s death and so free Ploution from paying taxes concerning him. The second reason could connect this case to a Roman law that imposed penalties on a master who unjustifiably killed his slave. If the doctor determined the boy had been wilfully murdered, Ploution could have been punished. Did Leonides want his son-in-law to be in trouble with the law, regardless of whether he actually expected him of murder? Or was Leonides acting to support Ploution and protect him from somebody else’s accusations?
“For in accordance with a constitution of the Divine Antoninus Pius anyone who kills his slave without cause must not be punished less than one who kills another’s slave.”
Justinian, Institutes 1.8.2; Translation from Jean Straus (2014)
Other questions also arise. There is no mention of Epaphroditos’ parents. Were they also owned by the family, and could have accused Ploution of murdering their son? Or was the boy a foundling, a child abandoned by his parents? Examples of such exposed children becoming slaves are recorded in other documents, as discussed by Katherine Blouin in her post ‘Baby Exposed, Baby Snatched’. With only snippets of this family’s life, it’s impossible to determine whether this was in fact a tragic accident, or a cover-up of a master disposing of his unwanted slave.
Notes on the papyrus This papyrus was excavated by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt at Oxyrhynchus in 1897 (a time when they removed vast amounts of papyri from the site). In 1902, the Egypt Exploration Fund (now the Egypt Exploration Society) presented this document among others to the Charterhouse School in Surrey. In 2002, the Charterhouse Collection was sold at Sotherby’s, and this papyrus (together with a small fragment of another document) was sold at a Bonham’s auction on 28 November 2018 to a private collector for over £40,000. Its current location is not known to the public.
Technical Details Provenance: Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Date: 3 November 182 CE. Language: Greek. Collection: Private collection; previously Charterhouse School, Godalming, Surrey. Last sold, together with a small fragment from Oxyrhynchus, on 28 November 2018 at Bonhams (London) for £43,750. Designation: P.Oxy. III 475 (according to the Checklist of Editions). Trismegistos TM 20611. Bibliography: Heinz Heinen, “Amtsärztliche Untersuchung eines toten Sklaven. Überlegungen zu P. Oxy. III 475,” in A. Marcone (ed.), Medicina e società nel mondo antico (Florence, 2006), pp. 194–202; Naphtali Lewis, Life in Egypt under Roman Rule (Ann Arbor, 1983), p. 106; Jean A. Straus, L’esclave: Recueil de documents papyrologiques (Liège, 2004), pp. 18–20 [text 11] – available online here; Jean A. Straus, ‘9.2.1. Investigation into the death of a slave’, in James G. Keenan, Joe G. Manning, and Uri Yiftach-Firanko (eds), Law and Legal Practice in Egypt (Cambridge, 2014), pp. 455–6; John G. Winter, Life and Letters in the Papyri (Ann Arbor, 1933), p. 133.
A sale document from the Fayum showed us that Roman soldiers living here named their cows, as discussed in a previous post. But, they were not the first people in Egypt to do so – Egyptians had been naming their cows for millennia beforehand!
On the back of a magical text from New Kingdom Thebes, which contains incantations against snakebites, are a series of columns containing texts of a more mundane nature. One group of columns deals with harvesting, collection, and distribution of grain, while another group contains an inventory of items in a storeroom. Between these two groups is a column that stands alone. It contains a list of cows and their calves, and the cows are named. While the magical text has been published (by Christian Leitz in his 1999 book Magical and Medical Papyri of the New Kingdom), these unconnected accounts and lists have not been fully published. What little there is on the text is noted in the bibliography below, while the Deir el-Medina database contains some more data. The image below shows part of this document, British Museum EA 9997/1, with our column of cows highlighted by a red box. The names of five cows are underlined and they are both varied and idiosyncratic in nature. Their calves are also mentioned, but without names. While it may not be surprising that cows had names, a different question is why the names of some are recorded but not others? Does this mean that only some cows had names, and as for the calves, did they not have names at a young age and were only named when they were weened or put to work? As this list doesn’t have a heading, it’s difficult to know if these cows all formed part of a single herd or not – perhaps they belonged to a temple rather than a single farmer, but we can’t be sure.
Line 4.1: The Full Temple (or The Full Estate) Line 4.2: Meretseger Line 4.5: Ebony Line 4.7: Dove (or Pigeon) Line 4.9: The Wind in the City
BM EA 9997/1; note that the first number refers to the assigned column number, the second is to the line number.
These names have everything: other animals (dove), colours (ebony from the exotic wood), more descriptive names (does the Full Temple refer to a large cow, and the Wind in the City a particularly flatulent one? or are these just connotations to an anglophone reader?), and even the name of the local Theban goddess, Meretseger. Naming animals after other animals is quite common, as a list of named donkeys also from New Kingdom Thebes shows us (you can read about them here). Some of the cows are also described, with descriptions including ‘red-coloured’ and ‘dappled’/‘mottled’ (the word in question is only used of cows and snakes).
This list is not the only evidence that survives of named cows from New Kingdom Thebes. In the tomb of Ramose at Deir el-Medina (referred to by the designation Theban Tomb – or TT – 212), one of the broken scenes shows two cows followed by their herder or ploughman. The photo below is a century old, but you can see the cows’ horns, which helps you make out the rest of the animals. Above their backs is a line of hieroglyphs, recording a speech that the servant Ptahsankh (the man shown) says to his master Ramose (the tomb owner). Ptahsankh confirms that he is watching the cows, who are called West and Beautiful Flood. Just as no two cows are the same, seemingly neither were their names!
An Aside: Modern stories – descriptions and digital lives When you read descriptions of papyrus documents, you frequently see the terms ‘recto’ and ‘verso’. In practice, these refer to the front and back of the papyrus, which is determined by the direction of the papyrus fibres themselves. Depending on the period and type of document, the front could be the side with horizontal fibres, and the horizontal text is written along these fibres, or it could be the side with vertical fibres, with the text written across the fibres. In the case of this papyrus, the text on the front – and so the first use of the papyrus – was the magical text. At some point in the New Kingdom, these incantations stopped being used and the papyrus was turned over and used for recording the agricultural, administrative texts described above, which remain unpublished. Such reuse of papyrus in the ancient world is not uncommon. It may have been because the original was damaged rather than no longer being of use – another papyrus fragment in the British Museum (EA 10309) is part of the same original text, but doesn’t directly join the section discussed here (and so something is missing between them). As part of the modern lives of ancient material, there is also the digital presence to deal with, which is how many people today interact with them. And this digital presence can sometimes be confusing, regardless of how much experience you have in working with online records. In putting together the story of this herd of cows, navigating the different records was something that confused me and is also worth narrating (in all fairness, some confusion comes from the fact that my hieratic is particularly rusty). First, the British Museum entry for EA 9997/1 notes that it contains columns 1–3 of an agricultural text, but it actually contains columns 4–7 (the other three columns are on EA 9997/2, which is similarly mislabelled). Instead, those column numbers refer to the magical text on the front. When we turn to the papyrological database Trismegistos, the magical text (TM755130) is described as the verso of the papyrus, and as a reuse of the blank side of the agricultural account (TM139326). Furthermore, the magical text is dated extraordinarily broadly to 3350 BC–799 AD while the agricultural text is dated to the New Kingdom (1539–1077 BC). The latter text contains dates that almost certainly belong to the reign of Rameses XI, and so the very end of the New Kingdom, and so the magical text must predate it (perhaps to the 19th dynasty). The modern digital life of this papyrus is therefore inconsistent and confusing, and a reminder that such online records are not infallible. Highlighting these errors is not meant to be a criticism – these online catalogues and databases are a great service and rely on the dedication of numerous people, often on top of their jobs (and, seriously, research would be so much harder without them). Digital errors can be corrected. And by the time you read this, the records may be different. But this raises another point in the study of such material, and that is how easy it is to erase and replace digital information, thereby modifying the story of the modern digital history of these documents. After all, it’s not just the writing itself that has a story to tell.
Acknowledgement After reading my post on Roman soldiers naming their cows, several people got in touch to say that cows were named in other times and places. I’d like here to thank Matthias Müller for telling me about the existence of this unpublished list of cows in the British Museum.
Technical Details Provenance: Western Thebes (perhaps Deir el-Medina). Date: Late Ramesside Period (preserved dates in part of the text suggest the reign of Rameses XI, ca. 1107–1077 BC). Language: Late Egyptian, written in the hieratic script. Collection: British Museum, EA 9997 (EA 10309 is also part of the same original document). Designation: P.BM EA 9997 verso. Bibliography: There is no full edition of the text. A hieroglyphic transcription of the text is included in Kenneth Kitchen (1989), Ramesside Inscriptions VII, pp. 389–394 (available online here). The text is referred to in Jaroslav Černý (1973), A Community of Workmen at Thebes in the Ramesside Period, pp. 263, 268, 270. A preliminary description and discussion of the text is provided by Robert Demarée (2015), “A Late New Kingdom Administrative Miscellany on the verso of a Magical Papyrus in the British Museum: Preliminary notes,” in Ursula Verhoeven (ed.), Ägyptologische ‘Binsen’ – Weiheiten I–II. Neue Forschungen und Methoden der Hieratistik, pp. 335–340.
An archive from the Fayum dated to the 340s CE opens a window onto the life of a Roman garrison commander in Egypt. Flavius Abinnaeus was appointed to the command of the cavalry unit (ala) at Dionysias in the western part of the Fayum, and his professional and private activities are known from a number of papyrus documents that have survived. As important as this archive is and as much as it has been studied for Roman military history, a sale contract from this group catches the eye for a completely different reason. Soldiers named their cows. One document from the archive is a sale contract dated 28 July 346 – it can be dated absolutely because the emperors Constantius II and Constans are named within the dating formula. This contract records that Abinnaeus purchased two cows from a soldier, Flavius Elias, who was seconded to the camp at Dionysias. As is standard with legal documents, much of the text itself is legalise introducing the parties and confirming the sale. The sale itself is noted in a few lines:
“… he has sold to Flavius Abinnaeus the cows hereafter mentioned, two in number, perfect, one black, Sale[..]u by name, the other dirty-coloured (?), Teeiaei by name, and I have received from you the price agreed between us, the capital sum of twelve hundred talents, tal. 1200, of silver of the imperial currency, in full, hand down. And I warrant the sale with full warranty against any person who questions it or lays claims against it. The purchaser Abinnaeus has taken the cows away from here such as they are, irrevocably.”
P.Abinn. 60 (translation from the edition by Harold Bell et al.)
Not only are the two cows described, but they are named! The first cow’s name is partially lost, Sale[..]u, but that of the second cow survives in full: Teeiaei (a variation of the Egyptian female name Teeiaeis). Sale[..] is black, Teeiaei is maybe a dark brown (the editors provide the translation ‘dirty-coloured’ as a guess). And both are perfect. Together, they are sold for 1,200 silver talents. This is the equivalent of approximately 40 artabas of grain, a volume that equates to a bit over 1,000 litres.
But Elias, their original owner, was not alone in naming his cows, that is, if he was even the one to name them. On the back of a grain account is a list of sales for the village Andromachis, as well as other villages in the Fayum, including Theadelphia. The list includes sales of sheep, goats, horses, and cows, sometimes with descriptions, but not always. A soldier called Elias is mentioned with two cows, perhaps the Elias mentioned above who sold Sale[..]u and Teeiaei, but the cows aren’t given names here. However, two entries later in the list do include names:
Heron son of Ation, a full-grown cow named Taepis: 600 silver talents … P[…]aeis from Theoxenis, one heifer, named Pipaeis: 800 silver talents
P.Abinn. 80 (translation from the edition by H. I. Bell et al.)
What’s particularly notable from this whole list is that only the cows are named. While it would be impractical to name all ten sheep that appear in one of the entries (sold by Sakaon son of Stabous, from Theadelphia), many of the entries in this list are for a single animal. So why are only these cows named? Is it because only some cows were named, or only some owners thought the names were a distinguishing point and should be noted? Or were these particular animals special? Whatever the reason, small details like this are easily overlooked – or not thought worthy of discussion – but are important for understanding the relationship of people to the world and the animals that lived alongside us.
If you’re interested in other evidence for animal naming from the ancient world, check out this post about A Donkey Called Rameses.
Technical Details Provenance: Dionysias, a village in the western Fayum. Date: 340s CE (P.Abinn. 60 = 28 July 346). Language: Greek. Collection: Bibliothèque de Genève (P.Abinn. 60 = P.Gr. 6; P.Abinn. 80 = P.Gr. 36 verso). Designation: P.Abinn. 60 (=P.Gen. I 48); P.Abinn. 80 (=P.Sakaon 54; SB VIII 9697 verso); according to the Checklist of Editions. Bibliography (on Abinnaeus more generally): Richard Alston (1995), Soldier and Society in Roman Egypt: A Social History (London: Routledge) – see especially pp. 148 onwards [accessible in part on GoogleBooks]; Roger S. Bagnall (1992), “Military Officers as Landowners in Fourth Century Egypt”, in Chiron 22, pp. 47–54 [read online here]; Timothy D. Barnes (1985), “The Career of Abinnaeus”, Phoenix 39, pp. 368–374 [available on JStor for those with access]; Roger Rémondon (1965), “Militaires et civils dans une campagne égyptienne au temps de Constance II,” in Journal des Savants 1965, pp. 132–143 [read online here].
A short letter from Antinoopolis (Sheikh Ibada) in central Egypt gives a glimpse into the life of a woman living in a major city sometime around the 7th century CE. In this letter, Tagape the daughter of Tromres (or possibly Tagape the woman from the south, as her mother’s name here could be read this way) writes to a man, Andreas, and his daughter, who is unnamed. She may have written the letter herself – there is no explicit reference to this, but some women at this time certainly were literate and capable of such things. The letter foregoes any niceties and gets right down to business.
“Give it (to) Andre(as) and his daughter. I, Tagape (daughter of) Tromres, write to Andreas. I set for you and your children three gold holokottinoi and three artabas of seed. You (fem.) urged me and I exempted your (fem.) brother Andron. Shenoute wants Susanna to write south [..] to him about you (fem.) […]”
British Museum EA 63781 (SB Kopt. V 2181)
The first point is to notify Andreas that she has set for him an amount of three gold coins (holokottinoi) and three artbas of seed (around 75–80 litres). Tagape doesn’t state what this money is for, but from what follows – the exemption of a family member – indicates that this is what Andreas and his family owe her, presumably as repayment for a loan. Women as moneylenders in Egypt at this time are well-attested, with the business activities of the woman Koloje from Djeme (the village at Medinet Habu in western Thebes) being especially well-known. You can read about Koloje in Terry Wilfong’s, Women of Jeme (2002), which is available online here.
In the second part, Tagape turns her attention from Andreas to his daughter. She still does not mention her name, but the Coptic itself makes the change clear by a shift from masculine to feminine pronouns – a fact that English translations obscure with ‘you/your’ being gender neutral (I’ve used ‘fem.’ to note the Coptic gender in the above translation). Tagape assures her that her brother Andron won’t be liable for repaying the money and seed, and also passes on a message that a man, Shenoute, wants another woman, Susanna, to write to him about our unnamed daughter of Andreas. So much is contained in such a brief letter – but only essential details that cut out any superfluous information, which would be known to everybody involved. This brevity is why letters can sometimes be frustrating for the modern reader. They give us hints about relationships and events in people’s lives, but leave us wanting more.
For Antinoopolis, this letter is especially significant. Despite being a major city, surprisingly few Coptic non-literary texts (letters, legal documents, receipts, etc.) have survived from there, or at least have been identified as being from there. And so, while it may seem like a rather innocuous little letter, it adds to our knowledge of women, and their economic role, as well as the language of Coptic texts from Antinoopolis during this period.
An Editor’s Journey I originally edited and published this letter a decade ago, after Elisabeth O’Connell asked me if I was interested in it, as part of the work she was doing on the material from Antinoopolis in the British Museum. You can read about the this material in her article noted in the bibliography below. As with a lot of editing work, it consumed me for a short time, its publication made the text available to the wider community, and I then largely didn’t think about it again. That is, until a recent social media post brought it back to my attention (thank you, Sarah Bond!). Apart from revisiting the text, reading through my commentary made it clear how philological discussion can be impenetrable to non-specialists – I myself had to read through some of my points a couple of times to get back into my old mindset. Could I have phrased some things differently? Were there things that I didn’t discuss that would have been useful? The answer to both points is probably yes. Text editions are not definitive – they reflect the understanding of a single editor (or perhaps editors) and we shouldn’t be precious about admitting that our work can be improved, especially with time, better (or newer) understandings, and fresh eyes.
Technical Details Provenance: Antinoopolis (Sheikh Ibada). Date: 6–8 century CE. Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect). Collection: British Museum, EA 63781. Designation: SB Kopt. V 2181 (designation according to the Checklist of Editions). Bibliography: Jennifer Cromwell, “A Coptic Letter from Antinoopolis in the British Museum,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 183 (2012), pp. 222–226; Elisabeth O’Connell, “John de Monins Johnson 1913/14 Egypt Exploration Fund Expedition to Antinoupolis (Antinoë), with Appendix of Objects,” in Rosario Pintaudi (ed.), Antinoupolis II (Florence, 2014), pp415–504 [p. 484, #42].
Magic in the ancient world provided one means to help people deal with what life threw at them, whether health, money, or love, among the whole gambit of human day-to-day experiences. In some cases, spells were written for certain people, with the object of the spell as well as the spell’s user named within the text. Other spells were less specific, with places holders (‘so-and-so’) instead of the name, meaning they could be used by whoever had need. An example of such a spell is this one to attract a woman. Here, we’ll never know who used this spell or the identity of the woman who was the focus of their desire. However, with spells that name both parties, we get a rare glimpse into individual lives and – in the case of love spells – individual desire. And, in a small number of instances, love spells with names provide clear evidence for same-sex desire.
Love Spells between Women
In 1889, a relatively small piece of papyrus, torn at the bottom, was found in the cemetery at Hawara, located at the entrance to the Fayum depression. Dating to the 2nd century CE and written in Greek, the text itself is a love spell in which Herais daughter of Thermoutharin adjures a deceased spirit (Euangelos) and the gods to attract and bind to her Sarapias daughter of Helen. The wandering, restless souls of deceased spirits were frequently called upon in spells, with the promise of eternal rest in store for carrying out such demands. Note how the combination of Egyptian and Greek gods (Anubis and Hermes respectively) reflects the multicultural world of Egypt during this time. In total, the refrain ‘to attract and bind’ is repeated three times and a series of magical words, or voces magicae, imbue the spell with added power – they would have been understandable to the beings invoked.
“I adjure you, Euangelos, by Anubis and Hermes and all the rest down below; attract and bind Sarapias, whom Helen bore, to this Herais, whom Thermoutharin bore, now, now; quickly, quickly. By her soul and heart attract Sarapias herself, whom <Helen> bore from her own womb. [magical words: MAEI OTE ELBOSATOK ALAOUBETO OEIO […] AEN]. …”
P.Hawara 312 = PGM 32; translation from Brooten, Love Between Women, p. 78
Jumping ahead a bit in time to the 3rd or 4th century, a lead tablet found in el-Ashmunein (Greek Hermopolis) bears 62 lines of Greek text in a small hand. As with the previous spell, he user of this one, Sophia daughter of Isara, invokes the spirit of a deceased male – “a fire-breathing daemon”, a “corpse-daemon” – to inflame the heart of her intended target, Gorgonia daughter of Nilogenia. Gorgonia will be targeted at the bathhouse, where her flushed, naked skin would be washed by an attendant – the daemon in disguise who will work its erotic magic, setting a burning desire within her.
“… Listen and do everything quickly, in no way opposing me in the performance of this action; for you are the governors of the earth. [section of magical language] By means of this corpse-daemon, inflame the heart, the liver, the spirit of Gorgonia, whom Nilogenia bore, with love and affection for Sophia, whom Isara bore. Constrain Gorgonia, whom Nilogenia bore, to cast herself into the bathhouse for the sake of Sophia, whom Isara bore; and you [=the king of the underworld deities], become a bath-woman. Burn, set on fire, inflame her soul, heart, liver, spirit with love for Sophia, whom Isara bore. Drive Gorgonia, whom Nilogenia bore, drive her, torment her body night and day, force her to rush forth from every place and every house, loving Sophia, whom Isara bore, she, surrendered like a slave, giving herself and all her possessions to her, because this is the will and command of the great god [section of magical language] …”
PSI I 28 = Suppl.Mag. I 42; translation Brooten, Love Between Women, pp. 84–86
The remaining lines (two-thirds of the whole text) repeat the same point and invoke multiple deities. The repetition and use of formulary and magical words, in both texts we’ve seen, remind us that the power of the language and invocations don’t come from the women themselves, but the (male) professional who wrote this piece. How Herais and Sophia expressed their desire will never be known.
Love Spells between Men
Moving still further in time, a Coptic text on a square of parchment provides the only example in that language (rather than Greek) of a love spell between men. Unfortunately, the provenance of the spell is unknown, but the dialect suggests somewhere in middle Egypt, and the date is broadly 6th/7th century. A man Apapolo son of Nooe uses a powerful invocation to bind another man, Phlo son of Maure. Phlo will be unable to rest until he finds Apapolo and his desire is satisfied.
[magical words: Celtatalbabal. Karašneife Nnas Kneife, by the power of Iao Sabaoth! Rous Rous Rous Rous Rous Rous Rous Rous] “I adjure you by your powers and your phylacteries and the places upon which you dwell and your names that in the way that I will take you and place you at the door and the path of Phlo the son of Maure, you will take his heart, his mind (?), you will master his whole body! If he stands you will not let him stand, if he sits you will not let him sit, if he sleeps you will not let him sleep! He will seek after me from village to village, from city to city, from field to field, from land to land, until he comes to me and he subjects himself beneath my feet – me, Apapolo, the son of Nooe – his hands filled with all good things, until I fulfil with him the desire of my heart and the request of my soul in a good desire and an unbreakable affection, now, now, quickly, quickly, do my work!”
Ashmolean 1981.940; translation from the Kyprianos Database of Ancient Ritual Texts and Objects (KYP T19; by Love, Dosoo, Markéta)
The original edition of this text, and so also subsequent translations, rendered the name of the spell wielder as Papapolo, but the revised reading follows work on the original parchment that Ed Love and I undertook several years ago. This revised reading with accompanying notes is available on the Kyprianos Database (links below).
A Final Note
A final note on the stories that these spells tell brings us to their modern history and the responses they received from the scholars who published them or wrote soon after their publication. Richard Wünsch argued that Herais, far from trying to attract Sarapias, was in fact cursing her (and more, that she herself was actually dead, having also been the victim of a curse spell). In the case of Apapolo’s spell to attract Phlo, the original editor Paul Smither, writing in 1939, referred to “The embarrassing identity of the sex charmer and charmed …” In other spells, not included here, the gender of one party had been modified by editors to create heterosexual situations – a century ago, it was sometimes easier to assume a grammatical error and unintentional pronouns (often connected with unusual names) than it was to understand the situation involved. But, this is no longer the accepted position, and what these love spells show us is that same-sex attraction was a very real thing in the ancient world.
*For further information about all the texts, and generally for magic from late Roman and early Islamic Egypt, check out the excellent Kyrianos Database, provided as part of the project Coptic Magical Papyri: Vernacular Religion in Late Roman and Early Islamic Egypt at Würzburg (links for specific texts are provided below). As general bibliography, Bernadette J. Brooten, Love between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism(Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996) is a great starting point for discussion on the topic and can be read online here.
Technical Details: Text 1 (Herais and Sarapias) Provenance: Hawara, Egypt Date: 2nd century CE Language: Greek Collection: University College London, P. Hawara inv. 312. Designation: PGM 32 (Papyri Graecae Magicae = Greek Magical Papyri) Bibliography: Joseph G. Milne (1913), “The Hawara Papyri,” Archiv für Papyrusforschung und verwandte Gebiete, 5 (1913), p. 393; Richard Wünsch (1913), “Zusatz zu Nr. 312”, Archiv für Papyrusforschung und verwandte Gebiete, 5 (1913), p. 397; Karl Preisendanz (1931), Papyri Graecae Magicae. Die griechischen Zauberpapyri, Vol. 2 (Leipzig/Berlin: Teubner), p. 157–8 [no. 32]; Hans D. Betz (1992), The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. Including the Demotic Spells(Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 266; Korshi Dosoo, Edward O.D. Love, and Markéta Preininger (chief editors), “KYP M483,” Kyprianos Database of Ancient Ritual Texts and Objects: accessed here.
Technical Details: Text 2 (Sophia and Gorgonia) Provenance: el-Ashmunein, Egypt (Greek Hermopolis) Date: 3rd/4th century CE Language: Greek Collection: Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, inv. 14487. Designation: PSII 28 (siglum according to the Checklist of Editions); Suppl.Mag.I 42. Bibliography: Medea Norsa (1911), “Editio princeps de PSI I 28 (ll. 1-62),” in Omaggio al IV convegno dei classicisti tenuto a Firence dal 18 al 20 aprile del 1911 (Florence), pp. 20–6 [no. 5]; Robert W. Daniel and Franco Maltomini (1990), Supplementum Magicum. Vol. 1 (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag), pp. 132–53 [no. 42] Korshi Dosoo, Edward O.D. Love, and Markéta Preininger (chief editors), “KYP M486,” Kyprianos Database of Ancient Ritual Texts and Objects: accessed here.
Technical Details: Text 3 Provenance: Egypt (unprovenanced) Date: 6th/7th century CE Language: Coptic (Hermopolitan dialect) Collection: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, inv. AN 1981.940. Bibliography: Paul C. Smither (1939), “A Coptic Love-Charm,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology25, pp. 173–4; Marvin W. Meyer and Richard Smith (1999), Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power(Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 177–8 [no. 84]; Korshi Dosoo, Edward O.D. Love & Markéta Preininger (chief editors), “KYP T19: Applied love spell for Apa Apollo against Phlo,” Kyprianos Database of Ancient Ritual Texts and Objects: accessed here.
In this time of social distancing, enjoying music in public seems a distant memory, and since social get-togethers and musical events are all currently off the table, the study of song and festival in the ancient world can at least provide us with vicarious cultural experiences! The following texts all offer glimpses into the soundscape of Graeco-Roman Egypt, a topic that the current literature pays little to no attention to (a fact that I hope to soon rectify!). The first text contains the minutes of the meeting of a social club in Philadelphia, a village in the Fayum. There is much of interest in this little text, a fragment of a longer document containing the minutes of multiple meetings, which took place at least once a month. To start with, the meeting took place in the tack room, where saddles, bridles, and other riding accoutrements are kept. In combination with the peculiar names of the attendants, this location for a meeting suggests that this was a dining club consisting of slaves.
[.] Choiak. In the tack room. Dikaios to perform the rites. Present: Hermias, Bakchos, Demas, Karpos, Kamax, Psammetichos, Dikaios. Free entry: Hermias. Money spent on: Memphite wine 2̣[ ̣] Hellanicus the flute-player [ ] And the cinaedus [ ]
Edgar 1925 = C.Ptol.Sklav. I 91
Hermias presided over the club for this year, and was therefore exempt from contribution. Not so for Dikaios, whose turn it was to be the hieropoios for this meeting – probably the one to (provide and?) perform a small sacrifice or libation at the start of the meeting. As the final entries show, this was to be an evening (or afternoon) of drinks and entertainment. The participants shared wine from Memphis as they enjoyed the song and dance of a cinaedus (a male performer in effeminate dress) to the accompaniment of the flute-player’s music. Even among these least wealthy of people, entertainment was enough of a priority to spend money on at least once a month. During the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, when these texts were written, Egypt had an intricate multi-faceted society, where layers of Egyptian tradition, imported Greek culture, and superimposed Roman bureaucracy clashed and interwove in complex ways. One could witness this phenomenon especially clearly in the religious enclosures in villages and towns all over Egypt. The very fragmentary hymn preserved on a papyrus in the Vienna collection gives us a tantalising glimpse:
In the annual […] of Bacchus [ where blessed Sarap[is of great hymns [ (…)
MPER III 28 (= P.Vindob.Gr. 29248b)
Bacchus is a designation of Dionysus, but also the Roman name for said god. Here he is mentioned in concert with Sarapis, an Egyptian name (syncretism of the gods Osiris and Apis) given to the hybrid Egyptian-Greek god whose worship emerged in the Ptolemaic period. Unlike Egyptian gods, the image of Sarapis was completely anthropomorphic (that is, only ever shown in human form), under the influence of the Ptolemaic rulers who pushed the cult. The papyrus that preserves these scanty verses is written in a hasty hand, illustrating the ephemeral nature of such texts. Unlike the classics of literature and song, occasional hymns rarely made it into any form of manuscript tradition, so the papyrological record is our only hope for any evidence of such performance events. We can only speculate where and when such a song may have been performed: perhaps during an annual festival of Bacchus, or in one of the many of the smaller sanctuaries of Sarapis spread throughout Egypt.
The performances we read about are all lost, but we can get an idea about their effect on the audience by an unusual and evocative document from Oxyrhynchus. Contained in it are a letter and its response (in reverse order), dated 3rd November 182 AD, concerning a tragic accident in the village Senepta.
Hierax, strategus of the Oxyrhynchite nome, to Claudius Serenus, assistant. A copy of the application which has been presented to me by Leonides also called Serenus is herewith sent to you. Take a public physician and view the dead body referred to, and having delivered it over for burial make a report in writing. Signed by me. The 23rd year of Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Caesar the lord, Athyr 7. To Hierax, strategus, from Leonides also called Serenus, whose mother is stated as Tauris, of Senepta. At a late hour of yesterday the 6th, while a festival was taking place at Senepta and the castanet-players were giving their customary performance at the house of Plution my son-in-law…, his slave Epaphroditus, aged about 8 years, wishing to lean out from the bed-chamber of said house and see the castanet-players, fell and was killed…
P.Oxy. III 475
From the flute-player and mime performing at an informal symposium, to priests singing hymns to Greek and Egyptian gods alike, and castanet-players dancing in a village courtyard, music was an integral part of the culture of Graeco-Roman Egypt. The ephemeral nature of musical performance makes it easily forgotten, but it is worth exploring the traces it has left in the papyrological record. We learn about this lost song culture from documents as varied as village club minutes, rough copies of religious hymns, and official correspondence. Despite its virtual absence in the handbooks, we would be wise to assume that song was no less important to the people of Graeco-Roman Egypt than it is to us.
*Editor’s note: for the survival of musical instruments from Roman Egypt, see the work taken as part of the project ‘Roman and Late Antique Artefacts from Egypt’, which included an exhibition on instruments in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (‘Sounds of Roman Egypt’), which you can read about here.
Technical Details Provenance: Egypt: Philadelphia (texts 1), Soknopaiou Nesos(?text 2), and Oxyrhynchus (text 3) Date: 2nd century BCE – 2nd century CE Language: Greek Collection: Text 1: Istituto Papirologico ‘Vitelli’ (?); Text 2: Papyrussammlung der Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (P.Vindob.Gr. 29248b); Text 3: Charterhouse School Designation: Text 1: C.Ptol.Sklav. I 91 (=SB 3 7182); Text 2: MPER III 28; Text 3: P.Oxy. III 475 (according to the Checklist of Editions) Bibliography: C.C. Edgar, ‘Records of a village club,’ in Raccolta di scritti in onore di Giacomo Lumbroso, ed. by A.E.R. Boak (Milan, 1925) pp. 369-377 [text 1]. Note that Text 3 has received attention for reasons other than music and song, and you can see the bibliography connected to these aspects in the Trismegistos database (TM 20611).
What would you ask from God in a morning prayer? Success for your business? No fights with your husband/wife/children/boss? Or, quite simply having God in front of you, behind you, by your left and by your right, to guide you and protect you throughout the day? A Christian by the name of Besodoros, writing in the fourth or fifth century, asked for all of this. The papyrus that preserves his prayer, Pap.Graec.Mag. P21 (now kept in the papyrus collection of the Czech National Library in Prague), has been considered by scholars a magical text, a so-called charitesion,a good-luck charm. This type of charm goes back to pre-Christian traditions and was popular among Christian Coptic magical papyri as well. This text indeed stands in this tradition, as it asks God to send the petitioner
your [holy] archangels, who stand opposite your holy altar, and are appointed for your holy services, Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Saruel, Raguel, Nuriel, Anael. And let them accompany me today, during all the hours of day and night, and grant me victories, favour, good luck with N., success with all people, small and great, whom I may encounter today, during all the hours of day and night.
Translation from Meyer and Smith 1999
However, there are elements in the text that imply that the text might not be a simple good-luck charm, recited whenever an excess of good luck was needed – just as Harry Potter takes the lucky potion when he needs to obtain an important memory. Here the luck and victory are asked for the entire day, for all of its hours, day and night. This may suggest that the text is conceived as a text to be recited on a regular, perhaps daily basis, to secure good luck for every day. Moreover, the prayer asks for more than just good luck. Its second half focuses on protection:
“For I have before me Jesus Christ, who attends me and accompanies me; behind me Iao Sabaoth Ado[nai]; on my right and [left] the god of Ab[raham, Isaac, and Jacob]; over [my] face [and] my heart Ga[briel, Michael],Raphael, Saruel, [Raguel], Nuriel, Anael: [Protect] me from every [demon, male or female, and from] every stratagem and from every name, for I am sheltered under the wings of the cherubim.”
Translation from Meyer and Smith 1999
The statement that Jesus, God and the archangels surround the petitioner finds a parallel in a fragmented test from the same period, P.Mich. inv. 6427 (image below), which after a long sequence of praise asks God to stand before, behind, to the right and the left of the petitioner, as well as to give him his daily bread, and grant him salvation and the fulfilment all his requests. The papyrus contains on the other side the Canticle of the Three Children from the biblical Book of Daniel (Dan. 3:52ff), a morning chant that, according to the church father Rufinus of Aquileia towards the end of the fourth century, Christians sung in all churches of the world. Thus its presence on the papyrus implies that this prayer might also have been destined for the morning prayer of a Christian individual. The pattern of invoking the archangels and God to surround the petitioner in prayer is furthermore attested in some variants of the Jewish bedtime ‘Shema’, the prayer to be recited before going to bed; similar requests for angelic protection also appears in Aramaic incantation bowls and was extended in Coptic magical rituals to include all seven archangels. Furthermore, Irish protective prayers from the early middle ages, such as the so-called Lorica of St Patrick, also ask God to be present by the four sides of the petitioner. The geographical distance of the attestations suggests that this formula, derived from Jewish piety, may have been employed widely in Christian prayers for protection. Though its requests are unusual, in its structure the text relies on the conventional structure of Christian prayer that starts with the praise of God, includes requests, and finishes with glorification in the form of a doxology. The opening praise is conventional; it cites the Eucharistic prayers that Christians in Egypt heard every week. The final doxology, however, is once again unorthodox. It invokes Jesus Christ, “king of all the aeons, almighty, inexpressible creator, nurturer, Lord almighty, noble child, kindly son, my unutterable and inexpressible name, truly true form, unseen [for] ever and ever.” These expressions can be compared to those found in books of the Valentinians, a Christian group that, by the fourth century, was universally denounced by the official church as heretic, though their ideas continued to circulate. If Besodoros’ bishop would have heard what he was praying in the morning, he would probably have reproached him and recommended the Psalms or the Canticles instead. But, as long as this prayer brought him success with the people and God by his side to protect him, Besodoros likely did not care.
Technical details Provenance: Fayum? Date: 4th or 5th century? Language: Greek (with one line in Coptic) Collection: Prague, National Library, Wessely Collection Designation: Pap.Graec.Mag. P21 Bibliography: Theodor Hopfner (1935), “Ein neuer Griechischer Zauberpapyrus (Pap. Wessely Pragens Graec. No. 1). Mit Tafeln,” Archiv Orientální7: 355–366 [first complete edition of the text]; Karl Preisendanz (1974), Papyri Graecae Magicae: Die Griechischen Zauberpapyri(Stuttgart: Teubner), vol. 2, pp. 229–230 [no. 21 Christliches]; Marvin W. Meyer and Richard Smith (1999), Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power(Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 55–56 [no. 36]; Theodore de Bruyn (2013), “A Late Witness to Valentinian Devotion in Egypt?” Zeitschrift für Antikes Christentum18.1: 120–133; Dan Levene, Dalia Marx, and Siam Bhayro (2014), “‘Gabriel is on their Right’: Angelic Protection in Jewish Magic and Babylonian Lore,” Studia Mesopotamica 1: 185–198.
In early December, one year in the seventh century, a man called Damianos from the Fayum asked for a cash loan and was given it from another man, Shenoute. Short loan contracts such as this one are pretty common, although the amount and type of details provided vary from case to case. What is unusual in Damianos’ text is that he explicitly states that the money (half a gold coin) will be spent on food for his children.
In the name of God. First, I, Damianos son of Cosma from Pagi in the Fayum, have written to Shenoute son of Elias from Fayum City. Look, I begged you and you promised me and got half a holokottinos for me as the loan. I spent it on grain (for) my children. I am ready to repay you it by Parmoute 1. Since you have done a kind thing for me – you acknowledged the cry (of) my children – I will repay it (lit. return it to its place), with my gratitude and without disagreement. Written Choiak 6, indiction year 13. + I, Apater the leitourgos of Pagi, bear witness. + I, papa Ale, bear witness. + Written by me, Paul son of Theodore. +
Should this text and Damianos’ reason for the loan be taken at face value – was the loan intended to buy food to feed his family or is this hyperbole to secure the loan? Often in Coptic texts, people requesting loans simply state that it is for their need, without giving any more details. At times, the debtors are more explicit. In an unprovenanced text, SB Kopt. IV 1793, a man called Pamphilos asks for a substantial loan of 12 gold coins, adding that it is for the needs of the poor in his village. Other reasons include paying taxes, as is the case of the brethren of the monastery of Apa Apollo at Bala’izah who asked the local tax official (Abū ‘Amr) for 8 gold coins that they will repay in kind (P.Bal. II 102; early 8th century). As it is so uncommon in Coptic loan contracts for the debtor to be so explicit about why they need the loan, Damianos’ request – and his desperation – stands out all the more starkly. We know nothing else about Damianos and his children. But, this short contract gives a brief glimpse into the challenges faced by some families. In hard financial times, the only option available to some parents to enable them to provide for – to feed – their children was to take out loans. Parmoute 1, Damianos’ repayment date, equates to 1 March, meaning that he had three months to repay this loan. Whether he was able to meet this deadline, and whether or not the hardship he faced was temporary or more long-term, is lost to us. We are left with but a brief picture of a difficult winter ahead for this family.
Technical Details Provenance: Fayum, Egypt Date: 2/3 December (unknown year, probably 7th century) Language: Coptic (Fayumic) Collection: University of Michigan Papyrus Collection, Ann Arbor (P.Mich. inv. 777) Designation: P.Mich.Copt. 19 (according to the Checklist of Editions)