Ebony and Meretseger: On a New Kingdom Herd of Cows

Jennifer Cromwell

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.
BM EA 9997/1, with column 4 highlighted and cows’ names underline (c) Trustees of the British Museum

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!

Cows in the tomb of Ramose at Deir el-Medina, TT212 (reign of Rameses II). Scene published in Bernard Bruyère, Rapport sur les fouilles de Deir El Médineh (1923-1924), pl. XIX (hieroglyph insert from p. 65), which you can access online here. You can see more from the tomb on Osirisnet here.

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.

Magical text on the recto of P.BM EA 9997 (c) Trustees of the British Museum

A Cow by Any Other Name

Jennifer Cromwell

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. 

Different coloured cows from a much earlier period, the New Kingdom, from the Theban tomb of Nebamun, dated ca. 1350 BCE. Today in the British Museum, EA 37976 (c) Trustees of the British Museum.

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).
DesignationP.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]
.

Left: P.Abinn. 60 (P.Gr.6); Right: P.Abinn. 80 (P.Gr.36v). Both (c) Bibliothèque du Genève

A Woman Doing Business

Jennifer Cromwell

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)
Letter from Tagape to Andreas and his daughter (c) The British Museum, EA 63781

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].

The third volume of Rosario Pintaudi’s edited publication of material and excavation reports from Antinoopolis is available open access here. It includes publication of a wide range of material.

Ancient Same Sex Love Spells

Jennifer Cromwell

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
P.Hawara 312 (c) University College London

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.

PSI I 28, image from Brooten, Love Between Women (pl. 8)

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.
DesignationPSII 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.

Music for the Masses

Mark de Kreij

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:

P.Vindob.Gr. 29248b (c) Papyrussammlung der Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

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.

Bronze bust of Zeus-Serapis, from Alexandria – 19 cm in height! (c) The British Museum (inv. 1970,0216.1)

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).

Jesus Christ before me, Iao Sabaoth Adonai behind me: A Prayer for Good Luck and Protection

Ágnes Mihálykó

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
PGM P21, Prague, National Library, P. Wessely Prag. Gr. 1 (source: Hopfner, Archiv Orientální 7 (1935) pl. XLV.

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.

P.Mich.inv. 6247 (c) University of Michigan Papyrus Collection

Struggling to Provide

Jennifer Cromwell

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. +

P.Mich.Copt. 19
P.Mich.Copt. 19 (c) University of Michigan Papyrus Collection (P.Mich.inv. 777)

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)
DesignationP.Mich.Copt. 19 (according to the Checklist of Editions)

An Army Family at a Time of Revolt

Jennifer Cromwell

In 297 CE, the usurper Lucius Domitius Domitianus led a revolt against the emperor Diocletian, proclaiming himself emperor and ruling Egypt for almost a year. From this same time survives an archive from an army family, consisting of nine letters written on papyrus. All nine texts were found at the village Philadelphia in the Fayum and are now in the papyrus collection of the University of Michigan, which acquired them from the antiquities dealer Maurice Nahman in 1923. This group gives us a remarkable insight into life in a military family in antiquity, with the wife at home in the Fayum and the husband stationed elsewhere. The husband in question is the man Paniskos, writing to his family from almost 600 km to the south in Coptos. The archive includes six letters between him and his wife Ploutogenia and their young daughter Heliodora, one to his brother Aion*, and two other letters written between female members of the family. And so, what was the experience like for this family, so far apart?
Before getting into the letters themselves, a quick note on their dates. None of the letters have dates beyond a month (if any date survives at all). Nevertheless, the texts can be dated relatively to each other based on their contents, at least for the most part (the letters between the female members aren’t anchored and it’s difficult to date them in relation to the letters from Paniskos). The order followed here is that proposed by Jacques Schwartz in his 1968 article on the archive. In terms of dating this group to the major events of 297, the key detail is that Ploutogenia’s brother, Hermias, is described in one of the letters (P.Mich. III 220) as being with the prefect (i.e., Domitius Domitianus), but requested to join the prefect’s deputy Achilleus. The mention of these men and the military content of the letters suggests that Paniskos was involved in the revolt, as part of Domitius’ troops.

Gold coin of Domitius Domitianus, 297 CE, minted in Alexandria (c) British Museum, BNK,R.212

In Paniskos’ first letter, we find little info about the family, except that he is away and writes to ask how they are doing. He sends wool and money to buy jewellery for his daughter and clothes for his wife. In amidst the talk of gifts, he also slips in a brief note to remind Ploutogenia of certain responsibilities, in this case seeing to matters concerning their cattle.

I wish to know if you have need of anything. … I have also sent you wool for yourself in order that if you wish you may use it for yourself. And attend also to your cattle. And as for the three holokottina(=gold coins), make anklets of them for my daughter, and prepare the accessories of your chiton and himation (=items of clothing).

P.Mich. III 218; translation from Winter 1927

In the second letter, we discover more information. Paniskos is in Coptos (modern Qift) and he instructs Ploutogenia to prepare herself to travel south should he ask her to, softening the request through mention of her siblings who live in the area. When he does send for her, he has a list of requests for her to bring along: various provisions, as well as his armour (his new shield and his helmet) and weapons (lances). And here we can infer that Paniskos is a soldier – the reference to multiple lances may suggest he’s supplying equipment rather than using them himself, but it seems more likely that the kit is for his own use. We also get a hint of the potential dangers faced by women travelling down the Nile, with Paniskos cautioning Ploutogenia not to wear her jewellery on the journey – or is this the concern of an anxious spouse, rather than a reflection of the threat of robbery?

So when you have received this letter of mine make your necessary preparations to come quickly if I send for you. And when you come bring ten shearings of wool, six jars of olives, four jars of distilled honey, and my shield, only my new one, (and) my helmet. Bring also my lances. … Bring all our clothes when you come. When you come bring your gold ornaments, but do not wear them on the boat.

P.Mich. III 214; translation from Winter 1927

Ploutogenia, however, was seemingly disinclined to leave her home, or even reply to her husband about the matter, a fact that he bemoans in a follow up message: “I am now writing you a second letter that you may come to me, and you have not come. If, then, you do not wish to come, write me a reply. Bring my shield, the new one, and my helmet, and my five lances.” (P.Mich. III 216; translation from Winter 1927). But, this entreaty also fails to receive a reply, leading Paniskos to pen the most strongly-worded letter in the group.

I enjoined you when I left, ‘do not go off to your home’, and yet you went. If you wish anything you do it, without taking account of me. … See, I have sent you three letters and you have not written me one! If you do not wish to come up to me, no one compels you. These letters I have written to you because your sister compels me to write from here. But since you do not wish (?) to write about this, at least write about yourself. I have heard things that do not become you! Send me my helmet and my shield and my five lances and my breastplate and my belt. … The letter-carrier said to me when he came to me: “when I was on the point of departing, I said to your wife and her mother, ‘give me a letter to take Paniskos,’ and they did not give it.” I have sent you one talent by Antonius from Psinestes. I pray for your welfare. 

P.Mich. III 217; translation from Winter 1927

P.Mich. III 217 (c) University of Michigan, P.Mich. inv. 1364

Paniskos’ emotions sway from reprimanding his wife for neglecting him, to saying he’s only made the request because of her sister, to concern for her – but is this concern about her or her reputation? Does hearing things not becoming of her mean slanderous gossip, or has she run into difficulties that affect her life and lifestyle – he sends her money with the letter, on top of the provisions he’s sent previously. We have no other evidence on this matter, but not replying to letters seems to be a family trait. In the letter from Ploutogenia to her mother, which may be considerably later or earlier than those from Paniskos, Ploutogenia notes that she has been in Alexandria for eight months and her mother has not written to her once: “You again consider me then not as your daughter but as your enemy!” (P.Mich. III 221). Maybe some people just aren’t good at replying to letters … 
These letters give us a peak into the life of a military family in Roman Egypt – here at a period of upheaval in the country, but separation is a common experience for soldiers and their wives and children even in quieter times. As we read one letter to the next, we see Paniskos’ changing emotions – from the messengers, he knows that his wife is alive, but aside from possible gossip he has no clue what’s happening with her and why she won’t reply or travel south. Is he overbearing and she uncaring? Or is he anxious and concerned, while she has no time – while caring for her family and their property – to find a scribe to dictate her letter to? While Ploutogenia did not send her husband a letter, we should at least remember that she saved those that she received, and that may tell us something, even without her words. 

*Addendum: or possibly Ploutogenia’s brother; see Smolders (2013) overview of the archive on Trismegistos, noted below.

Technical Details 
Provenance: Found in Philadelphia (Fayum), but written in Coptos (letters from Paniskos) and Alexandria (letter from Ploutogenia).
Date: 297 CE (most likely for the letters from Paniskos).
Language: Greek
Collection: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (the letters have inventory numbers ranging from 1362 to 1371, with some additional small fragments; records and images for all texts can be found via the papyrus collection’s online catalogue).
Designation: P.Mich. III 214–221; SB XVI 12326; P.Mich.inv. 1371+1368a (published in Heilporn 2012) (sigla according to the Checklist of Editions).
Bibliography: Roger S. Bagnall and Raffaella Cribiore (2006), Women’s Letters from Ancient Egypt, 300 BC – AD 800 (Ann Arbor), pp. 285–286 and 294–295; Paul Heilporn (2012), “Une nouvelles des Paniskos,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists49, pp. 119–138; Jane Rowlandson (ed.) (1998), Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook (Cambridge), pp. 147–151; Jacques Schwartz (1969), “Autour du dossier de Paniskos (P.Mich. 214–221),” Aegyptus 48, pp. 110–115; John G. Winter (1927), “The Family Letters of Paniskos,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 13, pp. 59–74.
See also: Online resource: Ruben Smolders (2013) “Ploutogenia, wife of Paniskos”, Trismegistos Archives (ArchID 167), which gives an overview of the whole archive. See here.

Map of Egypt showing locations of the the Fayum and Coptos, with inset of the Fayum showing the location of Philadelphia. Barrington Atlas, maps 3 and 75

A Confirmed Bachelor Wishes to Marry

Jelly Bruning

“My first words to you are those of a tradition on the authority the Prophet—God bless him and grant him peace—, which relates that …”

With these quite unusual words begins P.Khalili I 18, an Arabic letter written on papyrus in the late ninth century CE. Arabic letters of this time usually start with religious formulae asking God to bless the addressee, but here the author of this letter has good reasons to deviate from standard practice and impress the addressee with his erudition and piety. By way of this letter, he asks for the hand of the recipient’s daughter, a young woman who, a marriage broker had informed him, “seeks flawlessness”. A draft of this letter, written on the back of an account the author no longer needed, has been preserved. Despite its crossed-out passages and transposed words, the draft’s careful organisation shows that the author has almost finalised the letter. Uniquely, it consists of a short but fascinating autobiography, carefully adapted to the author’s aim: convincing the addressee that he, a middle-aged man, makes a very good son-in-law.

After narrating the partially preserved prophetic tradition and briefly indicating his interest in marrying the addressee’s daughter, the author begins his autobiography, about “who I am, my conduct, and what I am up to”. Not less than eight long lines into the letter the author introduces himself:            

“I am Ali, known as Takhshi’s secretary—may God honour you.”

Image from: Geoffrey Khan (1993), Bills, Letters and Deeds: Arabic Papyri of the 7th to 11th Centuries (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 109.

His association with this Takhshi is noteworthy. He refers here to Takhshi ibn Bilaburd, a man originally from Ferghana in Central Asia who had made his career in the army and the administration of Ahmad ibn Tulun. Between 868 and 884, Ibn Tulun ruled Egypt and Syro-Palestine almost independently of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad. In Egypt, Takhshi served Ibn Tulun as Chief of Police. Later, Takhshi commanded Tulunid armies in the border region that separated the Abbasid caliphate from the Byzantine empire around Tarsus, where he died ca. 878.

Takhshi’s fame and esteem may explain why Ali chooses to identify himself by his nickname, “Takhshi’s secretary”, rather than by giving his genealogy. For similar reasons, the twelfth-century historian al-Sam‘ani thought it important to indicate that someone had been “Takhshi’s nephew”. But Ali may also mention his famous employer in order to quickly pass over his lack of a genealogy. The nickname may conceal that he had entered Muslim society as a convert, as had his employer’s family. Perhaps he uses his nickname to show his affiliation to the person at whose hands he had converted without explicitly referring to his non-Muslim origins. Alternatively, the nickname may conceal that he is a freed slave. As a sign of their dependent status, slaves usually had no patronymic. In order to secure a place for themselves in Muslim society, manumitted slaves often did not use a patronymic after gaining their freedom but referred to their patron instead (usually in the form of “the freedman of so-and-so”). Converts and (ex-)slaves did not enjoy the same social standing as freeborn Arab Muslims. Explicit reference to a second-rate membership of Muslim society is surely something Ali wishes to avoid in his letter. Seemingly unable to boast about a prestigious lineage, Ali instead emphasizes his association with Takhshi ibn Bilaburd:

“I do not believe that any of the city’s (i.e., Fustat’s) notable merchants and important inhabitants fail to know me and my conduct. I was Takhshi’s secretary for fourteen years or more until he died in Tarsus—may God have mercy upon him.” 

Having indicated that his former employer is no longer alive, Ali feels that he has to mention his current sources of income. After all, the addressee needs to know that he can provide for his daughter. Ali writes that his employer’s death did not sever his ties with the deceased’s family. He manages the estates of Takhshi’s heirs for which he receives remunerations. The account he had written at an earlier occasion on the other side of the papyrus may well have been an obsolete record concerning these estates. Ali further writes that after Takhshi’s death he became a merchant and stopped working as a secretary, “seeking spiritual and material health”. His business surely was lucrative. He amassed enough wealth to buy property in various locations in Fustat, including buildings near the addressee’s house. He now lives off the rents of this property, supplemented by the money he receives from Takhshi’s family.

At this point, the letter touches upon more sensitive subjects:

“I never married. Never has a child been born to me, nor was one born still. I do not have relatives, neither a father, nor a mother, nor a sister.” 

Those who did not know him will have raised their eyebrows. Why did a well-off and respected man like him not marry? He explains that he spent his life in the happy company of his parents and siblings and that the situation has now changed.

“But after (my) father, mother, sister and brother had died—may God have mercy upon them—I remained, alone; (a situation) I never experienced before.” 

He is aware that this explanation does not suffice. Despite the presence of loved ones around him, his long unwedded life may give the impression that he did not want to engage in a more intimate relationship with a woman because he wished to hide his homosexuality or impotence. After all, a man’s unwillingness or inability to reproduce is a possible source of disgrace: it is one of the few grounds on which an Abbasid-era woman can divorce her husband. Our author therefore quickly indicates that, while his parents and siblings were still alive, he “bought one slave-girl after the other, without marriage ever being on my mind”. Whatever other tasks he assigned to these girls, here he implies that they served him as concubines who satisfied his heterosexual desires. 

The addressee will have understood the legal implications of these words, especially Ali’s statement “never was a child born to me, nor was one born still”. Concubinage could lead to a slave-girl’s pregnancy. A female slave became a so-called umm walad, “mother of a child”, when her master impregnated her, even when a miscarriage followed or when the child was stillborn. This new legal status gave a female slave many more rights than the average slave enjoyed and fully integrated her into her master’s household. For example, he could no longer sell her or remove her from him in any other way. Like the division of attention in polygamous households, a married man’s intimate relationship with an enslaved woman could cause tensions between him and his wife. Tellingly, Abbasid-era marriage contracts often stipulate that the husband cannot take a concubine or that the wife has the right to sell any of the concubines her husband buys. His addressee, Ali seems to imply, needs not to worry about the relationship between him and the woman he wants to marry. There is nothing serious that ties him to his slave-girls. With these words Ali also indicates that his children with the addressee’s daughter will enjoy the first right to his inheritance. After all, he produced no offspring with his slaves, who would have been entitled to a share in his inheritance, and has no other direct relatives.

To make sure his suitable candidacy for becoming the addressee’s son-in-law comes across, he ends his autobiographical account with the following emphatic passage:

“If I had agreed to marry into a family of those merchants in the city who […] on the condition that the bride-price be paid (for me) and my wishes be fulfilled, I could have given my word many times. They desired that, because of their knowledge of our (i.e., my) beautiful way of living and good conduct.”

This passage also serves as a bridge to the letter’s last lines, in which Ali expresses his esteem for the addressee. That he declined earlier proposals and wishes to marry the addressee’s daughter shows that he regards the addressee highly. In fact, he claims it is the latter’s reputation, his “quest for manliness and valour and what has been described to me of (his) beautiful conduct”, that led him to asking for his daughter’s hand—not the woman herself or the marriage broker’s description of her! After some pious phrases he rounds this unique letter off with a polite request:

“I wait for your answer. So, inform me—may God honour you—about your opinion so that I may become familiar with it, God willing.” 

Technical details 
Provenance: Egypt, probably Fustat
Date: After early 276 AH/889 CE (based on the dates on the account on the recto).
Language: Arabic
Collection: Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, London, UK
DesignationP.Khalili I 18; P.Khalili II 54 verso (see The Checklist of Arabic Documents)
Bibliography: Werner Diem (1993), “Philologisches zu den Khalili-Papyri”, Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 83, pp. 47–48; Werner Diem (1994), “Philologisches zu den Khalili-Papyri II”, Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 84, pp. 59–82; Geoffrey Khan (1993), Bills, Letters and Deeds: Arabic Papyri of the 7th to 11th Centuries (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 107–109 [#54 verso]; ‘Abd al-Karim ibn Muhammad al-Sam‘ani (1988), al-Ansab, ed. ‘Abdallah ‘U. al-Barudi (5 vols., Beirut: Dar al-Jinan), vol. 1, p. 435.

Ahmed ibn Tulun Mosque.. Rare Gem of Islamic Architecture
Mosque of Ibn Tulun (consecrated 884 CE), ruler at the time P.Khalili I 18 was written

A Coptic Mother-in-Law’s Curse

Ágnes Mihálykó

Adam and Eve were the luckiest couple in the world: neither of them had a mother-in-law! Many of us would heartily agree with this joke – not just in our times, but also in antiquity. Yet, among the many harpies of mother-in-laws, few are as mean as the unnamed Coptic woman who cast a particularly malevolent curse against Tnoute, the girl who (according to her) ‘separated my son from me so that he scorns me.’

The person at fault is of course Tnoute. The mother-in-law presents herself as the grieved party, a ‘miserable wretched sinner’, and applies for justice to the Christian ‘Lord God Almighty’, ‘who performs judgment for the mistreated’, as well as to His angels, Michael, Gabriel, and others. This request for divine retribution falls in the established tradition of the so-called ‘prayers of justice’, requests made to divine agents so that they avenge alleged wrongdoings. Tnoute’s wrongdoing, in the eyes of the woman who cast this curse, is separating her son from her – the eternal complaint of mother-in-laws. 

What role Tnoute really had in the deterioration of the mother-son relationship is of course impossible to determine now, but the burning hatred of the mother-in-law survived the centuries that passed. As a punishment for her grievances she begs God to bring a series of misfortunes on her son’s companion: 

You must make her without hope in this world. You must strike her womb and make her barren. You must make her consume the fruit of her womb. You must make a demon descend upon her, [who will cast] her into troublesome illness and great affliction. You must bring a fever upon her, and a [… and a] chill and a numbness of heart and an itching. Bring upon her the twelve […] a worm and blood flow out of her all the days of her life […] She must not live; she comes to death

Translation from Meyer and Smith 1993, #93

Certainly, Coptic curses were not restrained when asking for divine retribution. Two surviving curses ask for the death of the opponents by means of an ulcerous tumor that God, the angels, and the Virgin Mary should bring upon them, and another curse attempts to force the angel serving the holy altar to bring seventy different illnesses upon the victim. The Christian ideals of charity and forgiveness did not stop them from demanding specific and rather vicious means of divine retribution for the perceived injustice. Yet, the mother-in-law’s curses are among the most malicious in the corpus, aiming not only at her daughter-in-law’s health and life but also against her reproductive capacities, in the hope that her son will leave her if they won’t have any offspring. 

The more unfortunate of us only think that our mother-in-law is a wicked witch – poor Tnoute’s was one indeed!

Technical Details
Provenance: Thebes?
Date: 7th to 11th century?
Language: Coptic (Achmimic dialect)
Collection: London, British Library; Or. 6172
Designation: P.Lond.Copt. I 1223 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: Marvin W. Meyer and Richard Smith (1999), Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 196–197 (#93).

In lieu of an image of the text itself (which hasn’t been photographed), here’s an image of a 2nd century AD lady from a Fayum mummy portrait