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

On A Document Signed by Cleopatra

Jennifer Cromwell

On 23 February 33 BCE, the Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra VII, issued a royal ordinance granting financial privileges to a Roman absentee landlord. These privileges include tax exemptions and protection of his workers and other property from various impositions. More than the economic implications of this document, and the role of absentee Roman landlords in late Ptolemaic Egypt, this papyrus document has gained most renown over the past two decades because of a single word at the end of the text, which may have been written in Cleopatra’s own hand.

Unfortunately, the name of the landlord in question is mostly damaged and there is some disagreement regarding his identity. Peter van Minnen reads here the name of a Roman general, Publius Canidius Crassus, a well-known figure connected with Antony. However, Klaus Zimmermann reads the name Quintus Cascellius, an otherwise unattested member of a known family. This issue highlights some of the problems inherent in dealing with papyri: ink traces can be read in different ways, by different scholars, resulting in considerably different interpretations in texts. Here, I follow van Minnen’s reading, but in the understanding that multiple stories can – and have – been told about this document. 

P.Bingen 45 (c) Berlin, Papyrus Collection of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (P.25239)

The document grants Canidius and his heirs (no minor point, this reference to his successors indicates that his involvement with Egypt was intended for the long-term) exemptions from export and import taxes for wheat and wine. Per annum, he can export from Egypt 10,000 artabas of wheat (ca. 300 tonnes) tax-free, and import 5,000 amphorae of wine from Cos. Additionally, he also won’t pay taxes on any of the land he owns in Egypt. 

“We have granted to Publius Canidius (Crassus) and his heirs the annual exportation of 10,000 artabas of wheat and the annual importation of 5,000 Coan amphoras of wine without anyone exacting anything in taxes from him or any other expense whatsoever. We have also granted tax exemption on all the land he owns in Egypt on the understanding that he shall not pay any taxes, either to the state account or to the special account of us and others, in any way in perpetuity.” 

Translation: van Minnen 2000 and 2003 (for slightly different translations, see Jones 2006 and Bagnall and Derow 2004)

The tenants working Canidius’ land were also protected. They were not liable to corvées or additional levies, including expenses directed towards the army. The beasts of burden on his farms, both for ploughing and transportation, could not be commandeered by the army, nor could his boats.

“We have also granted that all his tenants are exempt from personal liabilities (such as the corvée) and from paying taxes without anyone exacting anything from them, that they do not even contribute to the extraordinary assessments in the nomes or pay for expenses of soldiers or officers. We have also granted that the animals used for ploughing and sowing as well as the beasts of burden and the boats used for the transportation (down the Nile) of the wheat are likewise exempt from ‘personal’ liabilities and from taxes and cannot be commandeered (by the army). Let it be written to whom it may concern, so that knowing it they can act accordingly.”

This mention of the army is a reminder of bigger events happening in the Mediterranean world: the escalating conflict between Octavian (the future Augustus) and Mark Antony. And Canadius was no small player in these events. As long as this identification is the correct one, this papyrus is a rare example in which the individuals involved also occur in Roman sources. Our main evidence for Canidius comes from the 1st/2nd century CE biographer Plutarch. In his Life of Antony, Plutarch describes Canidius as “a man of the greatest influence with Antony” (Ant. 42.4). He was in charge of Antony’s land forces and Cleopatra persuaded him to convince Antony that she should accompany him to war, against the advice of Antony’s other confidents (Ant. 56.2–3). 

“Cleopatra … persuaded Canidius by large bribes to plead her clause with Antony, and to say that it was neither just to drive away from the war a woman whose contributions to it were so large, [3] nor was it for the interest of Antony to dispirit the Egyptians, who formed a large part of his naval force; and besides, it was not easy to see how Cleopatra was inferior in intelligence to anyone of the princes who took part in the expedition, she who for a long time had governed so large a kingdom by herself, and by long association with Antony had learned to manage large affairs.”

Translation: Bernadotte Perin, 1920 (available on Perseus)

The ‘large bribes’ that Plutarch mentions are probably not the fiscal favours that are reported in this document, which predates the events in question, and probably were not of sufficient size to convince Canidius to support her. What we see instead in our document is direct evidence, from the Egyptian side, of the effect of Cleopatra’s relationship with Rome, which extended beyond high politics and had a real impact on economic life in Egypt, through landownership and trade. Cleopatra used fiscal incentives to help keep influential Romans on her side. In contrast to later presentations of Cleopatra, sex wasn’t the only thing she had to offer important Roman men.

Beyond the connection with the Roman world, this papyrus has become best known for its last word, Greek ginestho, “Make it happen!” 

Close up of Cleopatra’s subscription.

In several articles since 2000, Peter van Minnen has argumed that this must be Cleopatra’s own note. In its original edition, this identification was not made – and there is no universal agreement that she really did write it (Bagnall and Derow 2004 and Sarri 2018 are unconvinced the word is in a different hand to the rest of the text). It must be stressed, we don’t actually have her signature in terms of her actual name – that would be too easy. Van Minnen’s identification of this directive as in her hand comes from context: after dictating the contents of the edict, only she had the authority to sign the text into law. Her handwriting would have been recognised by officials in the highest levels of the administration, who would be responsible for copying and disseminating this ordinance.

To date, this is the only text that we have that may contain her subscription, and in many respects it’s a stroke of luck that this document has survived at all. Rather than come from an archive of official paperwork, this papyrus was recovered from mummy cartonnage. Wastepaper was regularly reused at this time as a form of papier-mâché to pad out funerary masks. While this ordinance was written in Alexandria, it was found further south in the cemetery at Abusir el-Melek, and the other papyri in this particular cartonnage date to the Augustan period. It is not impossible that other texts bearing her subscription have simply yet to be found and studied. If and when such texts are identified, it may be a double-edged sword. If the writing is the same, we will have a bundle of texts providing evidence for Cleopatra signing off a range of edicts. However, if the writing is different, we may have lost this (already uncertain) connection to the queen herself. Papyri can give great gifts, but also take them away. Our understanding of history and evidence is not static; new discoveries mean being open and willing to modify our own interpretations.

Regardless of what the future may hold, the importance of this subscription and the possibilities that it raises cannot be understated. It shows Cleopatra as a ruler involved in the day-to-day operations of her country, including the mundane realities of governing. This papyrus, today in Berlin, is just one of thousands of texts that she must have dictated and quite possibly signed during the daily running of Egypt. It is also a reminder that the Egyptian evidence reveals Cleopatra as an independent figure in her own right, and not one who existed purely in connection to famous men.

Technical Details 
Provenance: Written in Alexandria; found in Abusir el-Melek.
Date: 23 February 33 BCE (26 Mechir, year 19 of Cleopatra’s reign)
Language: Greek
Collection: Berlin, Papyrus Collection of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (P.25239)
Designation: P.Bingen 45 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: Roger S. Bagnall and Peter Derow (2005), The Hellenistic Period: Historical Sources in Translation (Oxford: Blackwell), pp. 109–110 [#63]; Prudence J. Jones (2006), Cleopatra: A Sourcebook (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press), pp. 202–204; Peter van Minnen (2000), “An Official Act of Cleopatra (With a Subscription in Her Own Hand),” Ancient Society 30: 29–34; Peter van Minnen (2001), “Further Thoughts on the Cleopatra Papyrus,” Archiv für Papyrusforschung 47: 74–80; Peter van Minnen (2001), “De handtekening van Cleopatra,” Handelingen van de Koninklijke Zuid-Nederlandse Maatschappij 55: 147–159; Peter van Minnen (2003), “A Royal Ordinance of Cleopatra and Related Documents,” in Cleopatra Reassessed, ed. Susan Walker and Sally-Ann Ashton (London: British Museum), pp. 35–44; Peter van Minnen (2018), “P.Bingen 45 Revisited,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 55: 292–293; Antonia Sarri (2018), Material Aspects of Letter Writing in the Graeco-Roman World 500 BC – AD 300 (Berlin), p. 168; Klaus Zimmermann (2002), “P.Bingen 45: eine Steuerbefreiung für Q. Cascellius, adressiert an Kaisarion,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 138: 133–139

Mob Rule and Personal Relations in an Egyptian Village

Jennifer Cromwell

One night, an angry mob marched across the Egyptian village Deir el-Medina with the intention of beating up a woman. The woman’s crime? She had been sleeping with a married man for the past eight months. 

“Your people – their old and their young, both men and women – were on the move at night. They were coming, saying: ‘We are going to beat her and her people’.”

So begins this letter, written in hieratic and today held in the British Museum, which contains the only details we have about this matter.

P.BM EA 10416 (recto)

As is often the case with letters, many of the points are not clear. The events are relayed in a series of reported statements from different individuals and it’s not always easy to determine where one ends and the next begins. To make matters more complicated, ‘your’ refers to different people at different times, depending on the nature of the reported speech. Furthermore, some vital details are simply not included: the name of the woman herself is unknown! This lack of identification may be because the letter was sent to her – there is no address (a messenger delivering the letter would know to whom it was being sent in the village), but the content suggests that this is the case.

Before the crowd reached the woman, a village official (again without a name, just the title ‘overseer of the estate’) intervened, stopping them in their path and asking them about their intentions. He is told:

“It’s eight whole months until today that he’s been having sex with that woman, even though he’s not (the?) husband! If he were the husband, would he not have sworn his oath about your woman?”

The letter recounts how the official asks the woman further questions about the relationship with the married man, who we learn is called Nesamenemope.

As for Nesamenemope, why did you accept him as your lover? Are you looking for adversaries? If only [they had not gone] by dark of night to carry off the things of that sweet boy, saying ‘We are going […] as well’; so they said. If this man wants you, let [him] enter the court with his wife, so he can swear an oath and come to your house. But, if he will not sort this out, sue him – (it’s) your word against his!

After dispensing this advice, the official’s final comment is to say that, while he held back the angry mob this time, he won’t do so again. The message is clear: the grown-ups need to get their relationships in order.

P.BM EA 10416 (verso)

With the broad strokes of this affair clear enough, what about the crowd? Why are they angry and is this generally a comment on village punishment for known adulterers, and is the woman really the one at fault? The gathering crowd is not just made up of any old person in the village. The men and women, both young and old, are connected to Nesamenemope (presumably his kin, but this isn’t explicitly stated), and they intend not only to beat the woman in question, but also other people connected with her. As Leire Olabarria has noted in her recent book, Kinship and Family in Ancient Egypt, we may be seeing here punishment and protection meted out by informal networks, whether networks based on patronage or kinship, or a combination of both. In this light, the group of people do not necessarily reflect broader responses against women in adulterous affairs. Rather, they are acting to protect a member of their own network – Nesamenemope. Later in the text, when the official refers (mockingly) to the ‘sweet boy’, it becomes clear that they were also intending to retrieve Nesamenemope’s belongings from the woman’s house, further severing the ties between them. 

The official’s advice is that, should Nesamenemope want to live with his lover, he needs to leave his wife officially. He refers to a court and an oath, suggesting that there is a legal process for divorce, which belies the seemingly informal nature of marriage in ancient Egypt that we see from other sources. John Gee advocates on the basis of this text that marriage was a more formal arrangement than has been supposed, requiring an oath and being recognized in court. However, why should marriage in Egypt conform with only one of these two options, i.e., a formal, legal status vs an informal living arrangement? In this case, an oath may have been required to acknowledge that Nesamenemope’s current wife would be free from any obligation towards him and would be able to remarry in the future. An oath may also have dealt with any property issues, for example. As the late Jaana Toivari-Viitala observed, there may have been far more ways in which men and women could live together in pharaonic Egypt, and we should avoid imposing modern, Western standards onto ancient situations. 

Technical Details 
Provenance: Deir el-Medina, Egypt.
Date: 1,189–1,077 BCE (late Dynasty 20).
Language: Late Egyptian (script: hieratic).
Collection: British Museum (EA 10416).
Designation: P.BM EA 10416 (also P.Salt 1821/131)
Bibliography: John Gee (2001), “Notes on Egyptian Marriage: P. BM 10416 Reconsidered,” Bulletin of the Egyptological Seminar 15 (2001), pp. 17-25; Jac J. Janssen (1988) “Marriage problems and public reactions (P. BM 10416),” in Pyramid Studies and Other Essays Presented to I. E. S. Edwards, ed. by John Baines et al. (London: EES) pp. 134–137 + pl. 25–28; Jac J. Janssen (1991) Late Ramesside Letters and Communications (London: British Museum Press), pp. 28–31, pls. 15–18; Leire Olabarria (2020) Kinship and Family in Ancient Egypt: Archaeology and Anthropology in Dialogue (Cambridge: CUP), pp. 163–164; Edward Wente (1990) Letters from Ancient Egypt (Atlanta: Scholars Press), p. 203.            

See also the text’s entry on the Deir el-Medina Database.

Additional Bibliography:
Jaana Toivari-Viitala (2001) Women at Deir el-Medina: A Study of the Status and Roles of the Female Inhabitants in the Workmen’s Community during the Ramesside Period (Leiden: NINO)
Jaana Toivari-Viitala (2013) ‘Marriage and Divorce’, in Elizabeth Frood and Willeke Wendrich (eds) UCLA Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt(Los Angeles), available open access here (a good source for further bibliography on the topic)

Blessing a Baby Against Every Illness

Ágnes Mihálykó

Christians of Egypt received blessing from the church in many forms: as prayers of inclination at the end of the Eucharist, when the celebrant blessed the congregation before their departure, as private blessings issued by holy monks, or as material blessings (eulogiai), such as oil from a pilgrimage centre. There were blessings for the congregation, but also for the house, for animals, or for children.

A papyrus today in Vienna, P.Vindob. K 70, can be recognized an example of the last of these: a blessing for children. It was written in the Fayumic dialect of Coptic, which ensures its provenance from the semi-oasis, and it can be dated to the ninth century. Its editor, Victor Stegemann described it as a “prayer for the healing of a sick person”, in particular for a sick child, as it requests healing from a number of sicknesses:

…in your presence, increase him and care for him in good, fill him with wisdom and the understanding of wisdom. Open the faculties of his heart so that he may know all things… May his parents rejoice over his growth! Count him among the flock of Christ, for you are the Lord since the beginning, you made man according to your form and your image! Take all sickness and breath from this little child, whether it is … or a fever, or an evil eye, or an evil sickness, take them from him, bless him with health, for you are the Lord, from whom the healing of all sickness come and it is you who heals souls and bodies and spirits through the grace of the love of mankind of your only-begotten son Jesus Christ, our Lord, He through whom glory to you with him and the Holy Spirit, now and in all times, for all ages of ages, amen.

Translation by Edward O.D. Love for the Coptic Magical Papyrus Project’s database Kyprianos with edits.
P.Vindob.K 70 (c) Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

Certain phrases of the prayer sit awkwardly with Stegemann’s interpretation as a prayer for healing. Why does a prayer for healing ask God to “fill [the child] with wisdom,” to “open the faculties of his heart so that he may know all things”, to allow “his parents rejoice over his growth”, or to “count him among the flock of Christ”? The answer to this question comes from parallel prayers in other languages, which help us understand this Coptic papyrus. In a canonical-liturgical collection that stems from late fifth or sixth-century Alexandria, but which is preserved in a thirteenth century Ethiopic codex unicus, there is a “prayer of the infant” which requests similar things (growth and health) for a new-born baby. It also specifies the occasion on which the prayer is recited: the reference to “this one whom they have brought to you” earmarks the prayer as the one recited at the presentation of the baby in the church. This rite, known as ekklesiasmos or churching, happened on the fortieth day after birth. 

For the churching of the child, the printed prayer books of the Byzantine rite present three different prayers, which focus on the imminent baptism of the child. The Byzantines also developed a complex set of other prayers for the first weeks after birth: besides a prayer for name-giving on the eighth day, already attested in the eighth century, later prayer books add a prayer for the purification of the mother on the fortieth day and prayers for the day of birth recited in the home. In the late antique and early medieval Egyptian sources, no corresponding prayers have been identified, but in the contemporary Coptic rite there is an absolution of the mother and a naming ceremony for the baby called the ‘prayer of the basin’.

The prayer on P.Vindob. K 70, though it is probably intended to mark the integration of the child in the Christian community, concerns not so much baptism as the well-being and health of the child. In particular, it asks God to “take away all sickness and all breath from this little child, whether it is […] or a fever, or an evil eye, or an evil sickness.” The expression ‘breath’ is difficult to interpret in this context. The Coptic word also means ‘blow’, ‘wind’; could it refer to the colicky condition that so often plagues new-borns and their parents, and that manifests itself in baby farts? 

The apotropaic and therapeutic character of the text prompted Stegemann to include this prayer in his collection of magical texts, though he duly noted the liturgical character of the text and suggested that it was a liturgical blessing, which the parallels confirm. The inclusion of this prayer among magical texts reminds us of the complicated relationship between liturgical and magical prayers. Whereas the two types of texts present clearly distinguishable textual features, they can relate to similar concerns: healing, exorcism, childbirth, fertility, harvest, ritual purity. In the Byzantine rite, a large number of such so-called ‘occasional prayers’ evolved for a wide variety of concerns, including the first step of the child and the launching of a ship. These rites are currently being studied by the Vienna Euchologia Project, which you can read more about here. The Coptic rite has considerably less such prayers, leaving a larger area exclusively to the ‘magical’ idiom, though as P.Vindob. K 70 shows, there were liturgical solutions as well to the eternal concern of the well-being of a baby. 

Technical Details
Provenance: Fayum
Date: 9th century CE
Language: Coptic (Fayumic)
Collection: Vienna, Austrian National Library, Papyrus Collection (P.Vindob. K 70)
Designation: P.Vindob. K 70
Bibliography: Viktor Stegemann (1934), Die koptischen Zaubertexte der Sammlung Papyrus Erzherzog Rainer in Wien. Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-historische Klasse, 1933-34 n°1(Heidelberg), pp. 26 & 63–67, pl. 3, no. XLIII (106); Viktor Stegemann and Walter Till (1935), “Zu den Wiener koptischen Zaubertexten,” Orientalia 4: 195–221 [pp. 214–215, no. XLII].

Further bibliography:
On the Ethiopic liturgical collection, see Alessandro Bausi (2006), “La collezione aksumita canonico-liturgica,” Adamantius12: 43–70. The text is currently being edited by Alessandro Bausi, to whom I owe the information on the prayer.
On the current Coptic rite of the absolution of the woman and the name-giving ceremony, see KHS O. H. E. Burmester (1967), The Egyptian or Coptic Church: A Detailed Description of Her Liturgical Services and the Rites and Ceremonies Observed in the Administration of Her Sacraments(Cairo), pp. 112–114.
On Byzantine childbed prayers, see Eirini Afentoulidou, Claudia Rapp, Daniel Galadza, Ilias Nesseris, Giulia Rossetto and Elisabeth Schiffer (2017), “Byzantine Prayer Books as Sources for Social History and Daily Life,” Jahrbuch der österreichischen Byzantinistik 67: 200–203.

Police Brutality in Ptolemaic Egypt

Jennifer Cromwell

On 14 September 194 BCE, the chief of police of the Polemon district and several other men raided the workshop of Petermouthis son of Peteësis. Forcibly removing him from his workshop, they dragged him through his village, Oxyrhyncha, physically abusing him and ultimately taking from him money and even the shirt off his back. After receiving the money (4 silver drachmas and 1,300 bronze drachmas, plus an additional 44 silver drachmas placed in the bank in his name), the officers released Petermouthis. Upon his release, the cobbler wrote a petition to the most senior official of his district, the stratêgos Ptolemaios, recounting his mistreatment and requesting succour.

To Ptolemaios, syngenêsand stratêgos, from Petermouthis son of Peteësis, 7-aroura machimosof those under Chomenis, also a crippled cobbler of those from Tebtynis of the Polemon district, but living in Oxyrhyncha of the same district. 

On the first of the intercalary days of Mesore, year 8, Dionysios, police chief (archiphylakitês) of the district, arriving in the village and, entering my workshop with Demetrios, and Apollonios the eisangeleus, and Teos and Nechthenibis and other ephodoi, seized me and led me through the village, with every form of mistreatment and insolence (hybris) and blows, up to the middle street of the city. And they did not release me before shaking me down for 4 silver drachmas and 1,300 bronze drachmas; and they forced Pnepheros son of Horos, another machimos, to place at the bank in my name for him (i.e., Dionysios) a promissory note payable to Areios, epispoudastês of the district, for 44 silver drachmas; and in addition they forced this same Areios to accept the aforementioned 44 silver drachmas from him (i.e., Dionysios), disdaining me because I am helpless and crippled. And they also carried off the clothes I was wearing. 

I ask that you not overlook me, but if it does not seem improper, please send […]. And if this takes place, I shall receive succour from you. Year 8, Mesore intercalary day 1. Farewell.

(Translation slightly modified from: John Bauschatz (2013) Law and Enforcement, p. 151)
  • Eisangeleus: literally “announcers”, a lower-ranked subordinate of court officials.
  • Ephedos (pl. ephedoi): literally “wayfarer”, an official who probably worked alongside roads and had police duties, often acting as bodyguards for police officers.
  • Epispoudastês: a grain transport official.
  • Machimos: a soldier or guard with a land allotment of 5, 7, or 10 arouras, most often of Egyptian origin.
  • Stratêgos: the highest ranked civil official in the Egyptian provinces. 
  • Syngenês: a court title.
P.Coll. Youtie I 16 (c) Cologne, Papyrussammlung (P1448)

Petermouthis’ account is visceral. It presents excessive force being exerted against him – in addition to the chief of police, Dionysius, four other officials are named, together with an uncounted number of ephedoi, a category of official with policing duties, who often acted as bodyguards for police officers. Petermouthis was heavily outnumbered. Why were such measures taken against Petermouthis, a man who in his own words was a ‘crippled cobbler’?

As is often the case with such petitions, we only have Petermouthis’ side of the story, an account that does not name or draw upon witness testimony. There is no counterpart text from the chief of police stating the charges against Petermouthis or why such force may have been considered necessary. Police at this time had broad powers, including the ability to confiscate goods, collect tax arrears, provide crowd control, and arrest and detain offenders. Given the sums of money involved, it is quite possible that Dionysius was there to collect unpaid debt and, expecting resistance from Petermouthis (perhaps based on previous interactions with him), took along multiple officers in support. However, even without any other statements, whether contradictory or corroborating, it does not seem that the end justified the means.

Is this account typical of policing in Ptolemaic Egypt? A number of texts from this period provide further examples of police brutality, including various types of corruption, as well as instances of police inefficiency, including inaction and slow responses. The surviving evidence, together with that for the effective functioning of the police service, is collected by John Bauschatz in his study of law and enforcement of Ptolemaic Egypt (see ‘Technical Details’). Bauschatz concludes that police misbehaviour overall seems to have been minimal at this time, and that the system in general functioned well, especially in light of the difficulties faced (in particular in terms of communication, as well as the broad powers exercised by officers). 

Yet, while the system may have worked well on many occasions, corrupt officers and police violence were still a part of life and very real threat in villages throughout the Egyptian countryside.

**There is considerable literature on violence and corruption in Ptolemaic and later Roman Egypt; for example, see in addition to Bauschatz’s works the following studies:

  • Richard Alston (1994) “Violence and Social Control in Roman Egypt,” in Proceedings of the 20th International Congress of Papyrologists, Copenhagen, 23 August, 1992, edited by Adam Bülow-Jacobsen (Copenhagen), pp. 517–21.
  • Roger Bagnall (1989) “Official and Private Violence in Roman Egypt,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists26: 201–216.
  • Ari Z. Bryen (2013) Violence in Roman Egypt: A Study in Legal Interpretation(Pennsylvania). 

Technical Details 
Provenance: Fayum, Egypt.
Date: 14 September 109 BCE (note, the year is uncertain).
Language: Greek.
Collection: Cologne Papyrus Collection / Papyrussammlung (P.1448).
Designation: P.Coll.Youtie I 16 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: John Bauschatz (2007), The Strong Arm of the Law? Police Corruption in Ptolemaic Egypt,” The Classical Journal 103/1, pp. 13–39; John Bauschatz (2013), Law and Enforcement in Ptolemaic Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 151–152.

Deep Purple: Dyeing Egyptian Textiles

Daniel Soliman

The oldest preserved textiles from Egypt, woven in linen, date back to around 2900 BCE. Because it is difficult to dye linen, the Egyptians preferred their linen clothing bright white and sometimes translucent. Colours were used sparsely to decorate clothes, mostly with black, blue, red, yellow and green dyes. Influenced by Greek and Roman traditions, Egyptian weavers adopted new weaving techniques and decorative motifs from ca. the fourth century BCE and onwards. They began to weave woollen decorations into linen garments. The woollen threads were dyed, and fabrics became more colourful.

In imperial Rome, the colour purple had a special significance in clothing. It was restricted by law to the social elite and it indicated particular ranks. Only senators could wear tunics decorated with broad vertical bands of purple wool, while members of the equestrian class were allowed to wear narrow purple bands. The exclusivity of the colour, also known as Tyrian purple, was connected with the highly expensive production process of this imperial dye. The colour was obtained from the secretion of a species of sea snails – Murex brandaris– that lives in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Several thousands of sea snails were required to create just one gram of pure dye!

It is, therefore, not surprising that textile workers turned to cheaper alternatives for purple dye. So did the Egyptians, who had taken a fancy to textiles with purple decorations. In Roman Egypt, the colour was not strictly worn by the elite: garments of men, women and children alike could be decorated with purple wool. The colour remained popular during the Byzantine Period and the Medieval Period. But how to obtain affordable purple dye…

Detail of a large textile with rectangular, tapestry woven decoration in purple wool (forth–fifth century CE). © National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden, AES 158

The ancient Mediterranean textile industry developed several solutions. Some are written down in a codex from Egypt, dating to the late third–early fourth century CE. The codex, now in Leiden, consists of ten papyrus sheets folded double that were originally bound together in a book. The pages are inscribed in Greek using black ink. The Greek is teeming with bad spelling and grammatical errors, which may indicate that it is a poor copy of another manuscript. The codex is a collection of short recipes, the majority of which deal with the preparation of metal alloys and the purification of metals, and the creation of imitation gold or silver for the manufacture of jewellery. Five recipes on pages 12–14 deal with procedures to create purple dye without sea snails.

Page 13 of the Leiden codex (late third–early fourth century CE). © National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden, AMS 66

One method reads as follows:

Grind lime with water and let it stand overnight. After having decanted it, place the wool in the liquid for one day. Remove it and dry it, having sprinkled the alkanet with some vinegar. Boil it and throw the wool in it, and it will emerge dyed in purple. 

The recipe makes use of the alkanet plant, whose dark red roots were used to create dye. Another procedure in the codex combines alkanet with the bark of a pomegranate tree:

Grind some walnuts with some alkanet of good quality. Having done so, place them in strong vinegar. Grind again. Add some pomegranate bark to the mixture. Lay aside for three days, and after this, submerge the wool in it and it will be dyed once cold. […]

Page 14 of the Leiden codex (late third–early fourth century CE). © National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden, AMS 66

Because several recipes deal with the “manufacture” of gold and silver, earlier scholars who studied the codex had interpreted the text as an alchemistic treatise. The inclusion of recipes dealing with dyes clearly show that these texts are, in fact, instructions for craftsmen working in the metal industry and textile industry. This goes to show that, in the year 400, imitation materials were just as common as they are today. 

Technical Details 
Provenance: Probably from a tomb in Thebes.
Date: Late 3rd–early 4th century CE.
Language: Greek.
Collection: National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden, The Netherlands (AMS 66; also known as cat. I 397)
Designation: Papyrus Leiden X (=Papyrus Leyden X or Papyrus Leidensis X).
Select Bibliography: Adriano Caffaro & Giuseppe Falanga (2004) Il papiro di Leida. Un document di tecnica artistica e artigianele del IV secolo d. C., (Salerno); Robert Halleux (1981) Papyrus de Leyden, papyrus de Stockholm, fragments de recettes. Texte éstabli et traduction (Paris); William B. Jensen & Earle Radcliffe Caley (2008) The Leyden and Stockholm Papyri. Greco-Egyptian Chemical Documents From the Early 4th Century AD. An English Translation with Brief Notes. Edited, with a New General Introduction, A Note on techniques and a Materials Index (Cincinnati), pp. 6–9, 17–46; Conrad Leemans (1985) Papyri graeci Musei antiquarii publici Lugduni-Batavi, vol. II (Leiden), pp. 204–209; Vera Trost (1991) Gold- und Silbertinten. Technologische Untersuchungen zur abendländischen Chrysographie und Argyrographie von der Spätantike bis zum hohen Mittelalter (Wiesbaden), pp. 58–102.

Caring for Cows in Ancient Egypt

Jennifer Cromwell

Tomb scenes and models show how important cattle were in ancient Egypt. From birthing to butchery, we see the experiences and uses of cattle. Not only did they provide food (for the living and the dead, as well as the gods) and leather, they were also essential for agriculture. We see them depicted in a range of activities, including ploughing and threshing wheat (e.g., the tomb of Menna, Theban Tomb 69). One aspect of life that we don’t see in these scenes is what happens when animals get sick: tombs show healthy animals, fulfilling their duties without catching and succumbing to disease.

Model of Cow Giving Birth, ca. 2030-1640 BCE. (c) Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto (MK.160)

Evidence for the treatment of sick animals is rare, but one papyrus demonstrates that the ancient Egyptians did have a knowledge of various conditions and treatments. Our most important source comes from the Middle Kingdom town of Kahun (or Lahun/Illahun): the Kahun Veterinary Papyrus. Kahun has yielded the largest body of papyri from the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2025–1700 BCE), which were discovered between 1889 and 1899. One group concerns the cult of pharaoh Senwosret II and was found in a rubbish mound north of the Valley Temple of his pyramid complex. The Veterinary Papyrus is part of a second, miscellaneous group of texts found across Kahun during the work of Flinders Petrie in 1889 and now in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. 

The Veterinary Papyrus is badly damaged and incomplete. Small fragments show that various animals were dealt with in the text, e.g., one piece that concerns the disease of some bird. The largest surviving section deals with cattle, preserving three case studies, the most complete of which is entitled “Eye examination of a bull with an airborne disease”:

If I see a bull with an airborne disease, its eyes running, its tears heavy, the roots of its teeth reddened, and its neck taut, it should be read as follows:

It should be lain on its side, and sprinkled with fresh (or cool) water

And its eyes should be rubbed, along with its flanks and all its limbs

With khenesh-plants or shu-plants, and fumigated by (?)

It is saved from damp … to be kept away from water

It is rubbed with khenesh parts of qadet-plants.

Then you should cut it at its nostrils and its tail and say of it:

It is under treatment – it will die from it or it will live from it.

If it does not recover, and is heavy under your fingers and its eyes are blocked

You should wrap its eyes with fine linen, heated at a fire, for the bleariness.

(translation from Collier and Quirke 2004, 55)
Kahun Veterinary Papyrus (c) Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (UC32036)

Based on the thick discharge from the eyes, the reddened gums, and swollen neck, the symptoms suggest that the bovine in question was suffering from an infection resulting in fever. After forcing the animal onto its side, the main course of treatment was to lower its temperature, cooling it with water and rubbing its body with several plants. Unfortunately, the identities of the plants named aren’t known, but they must have had cooling properties. To further help reduce its temperature, bloodletting is prescribed, which was a common treatment for fever in the ancient world. Finally, if its condition still has not improved, a heated piece of linen is to be placed over the eyes. 

Who was responsible for administering these treatments? No word for vet is known from ancient Egypt. It is possible that doctors (Egyptian swnw) may also have fulfilled this role, applying their medical knowledge to the animal world, but there is no conclusive evidence to support this possibility. For herders and farmers, their wealth of experience, gained by spending all their days with their animals, may have been enough to recognise common illnesses and carry out such treatments, without the need for consulting specialists. 

Regardless of who carried out the treatments, not only is it clear that ancient Egyptians cared for the health of their livestock, such knowledge was also important enough to be written down.

Ploughing Model, Dynasty 12 (ca. 1981–1885 BCE) (c) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (inv. 36.5)

Technical Details 
Provenance: Kahun/Lahun, Egypt.
Date: Late Middle Kingdom (late 12th/13thdynasty); ca. 1850–1700 BCE.
Language: Middle Egyptian (cursive hieroglyphs).
Collection: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (UC32036). 
Designation: Kahun Veterinary Papyrus.
Bibliography: Francis Ll. Griffith (1897), The Petrie Papyri: Hieratic Papyri from Kahun and Gurob, principally of the Middle Kingdom (London) [available online here]; Mark Collier and Stephen Quirke (2004) The UCL Lahun Papyri: Religious, Literary, Legal, Mathematical and Medical (Oxford); Sian Lewis and Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones (2017) The Culture of Animals in Antiquity: A Sourcebook with Commentary (London); Connie Lord (2016), “One and the Same? An investigation into the connection between veterinary and medical practice in ancient Egypt,” in Campbell Price et al. (eds) Mummies, Magic, and Medicine in Ancient Egypt: Multidisciplinary Essays for Rosalie David (Manchester), pp. 140–154.

A Brief Account of Marriage

Jennifer Cromwell

Marriage in Egyptian villages was a pretty informal affair. Few legal documents were written concerning marriage, and few texts discuss particulars – unless something goes wrong. The most important aspect of marriage was cohabitation. Early periods of Egyptian history refer to the entering and leaving of houses, while Coptic texts typically refer to spouses ‘sitting’ together.
A particularly unusual document concerning marriage survives from western Thebes, dated probably to the 7th century (it has a date of year 10, which is in reference to a 15-year tax cycle, but no information that allows it to be dated more firmly). It’s not unusual because it mentions marriage, but because of its nature and sheer brevity.

Shenetom, the fisherman, the son of Pcale in Pashme. He divorced (=cast out) his wife, Tegoshe. He married (=took) Teret, the daughter of Comes of Pare. Moreover, he gave his daughter to her son. Indiction year 10.

P.Mon.Epiph. 270
pMonEpiph 270.jpg
P.Mon.Epiph. 270 (c) Metropolitan Museum of Art (14.1.510)

The text is clear, recording the divorce and marriage of the fisherman Shenetom, together with the betrothal of his unnamed daughter to the unnamed son of his new wife, Teret. No further details are provided, so why was this note written? It is not a marriage contract, it doesn’t concern a dowry, and it’s not a letter asking for relationship advice. Can we learn anything else about Shenetom’s motives for writing it?
This note is written on the back of another letter, penned by somebody else. That original letter (which has not been properly published) concerns a man and woman. Despite how well-preserved the writing is, only half of the letter survives and so we only get hints about its original nature. A woman is mentioned going to Djeme, the village built within Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple of Rameses III, and there is mention of ‘his house’, a monastery, and a statement that the writer ‘will not hide him’ (or ‘it’). Are the two texts connected?


recto of pMonEpiph 270.jpg
Unpublished letter on the other side of P.Mon.Epiph. 270 (c) Metropolitan Museum of Art (14.1.510)

The papyrus was found at a hermitage in Thebes, now referred to by the name of its most famous occupant, the monk Apa Epiphanius. Epiphanius – and other senior and well-known monks across Thebes – were often called upon to sort out a range of issues among villagers in the region (including marriage problems and paternity issues). Could the original letter, perhaps issued by Epiphanius himself, have been sent out to discover an issue between a couple? If so, could Shenetom’s note, written on the back of the original letter after it had been torn in half, be the response to the original enquiry? Perhaps Shenetom – originally from north of Thebes (Pashme, in the nome of Coptos) – is the unknown man in the original letter, and the woman his original wife, Tegoshe. In reply to the monk’s letter, Shenetom makes the current situation with his new wife clear. But why mention his children as well? It’s possible that the children were also mentioned in the first letter, in the section that is now lost. This marriage would serve practical concerns, strengthening property ties, for example, even if the situation seems odd to a modern reader.
While we can’t get firm answers to all the questions that this small note throws up, this example shows that looking at more than just a single text in isolation can help bring us closer to reality – and also highlights how much potential even short notes hold!

Technical Details
Provenance: ‘Monastery’ of Apa Epiphanius (Theban Tomb 103).
Date: 7th century (?) CE.
Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect).
Collection: Metropolitan Museum of Art (inv. 14.1.510).
Designation: P.Mon.Epiph. 270 (according to the Checklist of Editions).
Bibliography: N/A


Kittens for Bastet

Jennifer Cromwell and Luigi Prada

 Detail of a relief Bastet – Kom Ombo.jpg
Relief of Bastet, Kom Ombo

On 20th April, either 202 or 178 BCE, an embalmer named Onnophris wrote to Machatas, an official (epistates) in the village of Tanis in the Fayum semi-oasis, concerning kittens he had donated to the cat-goddess Bastet (also known by her Greek name of Boubastis), or at least had intended to donate!

“Since some kittens were born in my house and their mother did not attend to them, I went to the temple of Bastet and asked the dancers [i.e., priests] to come and to carry them back to the temple of Bastet. After they did not arrive, but went elsewhere, it happened that the kittens, while they were being weaned by me with milk at home, were snatched by a tomcat and carried down out of the house into the street. I rushed down and called for help to those who were present and heard. Thus, we stood about and with difficulty removed one kitten, those who had joined to help including Phasis, the village scribe, to whom I gave an official testimony of all that had happened.” (Based on the translation by R. W. Daniel)

The tomcat killed some of the kittens – even though this is not explicitly stated (perhaps intentionally so, out of religious propriety regarding such an unholy happening), the loss of sacred animals is why Onnophris sounds so panicky in this petition.

Onnophris then collected the surviving kitten and took it to the temple of Bastet, handing it over to some of its priests – the same people who had neglected to collect the kittens from his house before the incident took place. To protect himself from future accusations that he acted improperly in this situation, he asked the village scribe Phasis – an eyewitness to the tomcat’s attack – to write down Onnophris’ account of events. Additionally, as an added level of protection, Onnophris also had this plea written:

“So that I am not later denounced in an unseemly way, certain persons having acted maliciously, I beg and request you that, having subscribed regarding each of these statements … [text lost].”

But why did Onnophris have to go to such lengths?

pKöln XV 594.png
P.Köln XV 594 (c) Cologne Papyrus Collection (inv. 21358)

The reason lies in the importance that animal cults had in ancient Egypt, especially in the later phases of the country’s history, including the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods. Overall, animals could play a twofold role in Egyptian religion: some were actual divine animals, physical incarnations on earth of a deity; others, instead, were sacred only in that they were associated with a deity in a ritual fashion. The best example of a proper divine animal is the Apis bull worshipped in the ancient capital of Memphis: honoured even by Alexander the Great on the occasion of his Memphite visit, the Apis was reborn and had to be identified each generation into another bull – almost like a bovine counterpart to the Dalai Lama – and his cult thrived for centuries on end.

As for the other kind of animal cults, its premise lay in the fact that many deities of the Egyptian pantheon had animal associations. Their zoomorphic appearance, and their representation in Egyptian art as animals or as animal-headed humans, is what comes first to mind: think of the god Horus, with his falcon head, or of the aforementioned Bastet, often pictured as a cat, or a cat-headed woman. It is thus no surprise that Egyptian deities could also be worshipped by ritually dedicating animals to them. This applies both to living animals, as in the case of the kittens that Onnophris planned to present to the local temple of Bastet, but it was also true with dead (often, ritually euthanised) animals, whose mummified remains were dedicated in their thousands by pious visitors as ex-votos and buried in sometimes huge catacombs, which archaeologists are still exploring to this day.

Tuna el-Gebel catacombs.jpg
Catacombs at Tuna el-Gebel (the necropolis of Hermopolis), where thousands of mummified ibises and baboons have been found

Once dedicated, these animals were the sacred property of the relevant deity. It is thus understandable why Onnophris sounds so worried in his petition, fearing not so much the goddess’ punishment – as the kittens were killed through no direct fault of his – but rather legal problems. Indeed, the special status of sacred animals was sanctioned in a number of Egyptian texts: legal texts from this time discuss the abuse of sacred animals and the resulting penalties, and people are warned against hurting them in wisdom texts too, compositions that contained moral instructions as to how a rightful person ought to behave. Thus, the demotic papyrus P. Ashmolean Dem. 1984.77 verso, from approximately the 2nd century CE, says:

“Do not beat any (sacred) animals with a stick, stone, or any (piece of) wood. Be careful with regard to the animals which are sacred.” (Translation by R. Jasnow)

pAshm 1984-77.png
P.Ashmolean Dem. 1984.77 (c) Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

And even Herodotus, the Greek writer who visited Egypt in the mid-5th century BCE, makes the following remark, in Histories 2.65.5:

“Whoever kills one of these creatures intentionally is punished with death; if he kills accidentally, he pays whatever penalty the priests appoint. Whoever kills an ibis or a hawk, intentionally or not, must die for it.” (translationby A. D. Godley)

Indeed, the cult of animals was one of the aspects of ancient Egyptian religion that most struck the imagination of contemporary classical writers, for better or for worse. As an egregious example of the latter, the poet Juvenal, active in the late 1st and early 2nd century CE, thus began his Fifteenth Satire:

“Who knows not (…) what monsters demented Egypt worships? One district adores the crocodile, another venerates the ibis that gorges itself with snakes. In the place where (…) ancient hundred-gated Thebes lies in ruins, men worship the glittering golden image of the long-tailed ape. In one part cats are worshipped, in another a river fish, in another whole townships venerate a dog; none adore [the goddess] Diana, but it is an impious outrage to crunch leeks and onions with the teeth. What a holy race to have such divinities springing up in their gardens! No animal that grows wool may appear upon the dinner-table (…) but it is lawful to feed on the flesh of man!” (translation by G. G. Ramsey)

Perhaps as a poetic licence, Juvenal lets his imagination – and his invective against Egyptian cults – run amuck, ridiculing Egyptian beliefs to the point of even making up accusation of vegetable-worship and cannibalism!

In the context of millennia of history of Egyptian religion, the misadventure of Onnophris and of his kittens in the small village of Tanis is perhaps a minor incident – yet, it powerfully and colourfully conveys the worries, hopes, and beliefs of a whole civilisation.

Technical Details (Greek text)
Provenance: Near Tanis in the Fayum; Egypt
Date: 20th April 202 or 178 BCE
Language: Greek
Collection: Cologne, Papyrus Collection (inv. 21358)
Designation: P.Köln XV 594 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: Robert W. Daniel (2017), “594: Petition concerning Kittens” in P.Köln XV, pp. 1–11.

Technical Details (Demotic text)
Provenance: Thebes (probably), Egypt
Date: Late 2nd century – early 3rd century CE
Language: Demotic
Collection: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (P. Ashm. 1984.77)
Designation: P. Ashmolean Dem. 1984.77 verso
Bibliography: RichardJasnow, “A Demotic Wisdom Papyrus in the Ashmolean Museum (P. Ashm. 1984.77 Verso)”, in Enchoria 18 (1991), pp. 43–54, pls. 9–11.

BM Cat mummy case (EA25298).jpg
Cat mummy case, Ptolemaic period (c) British Museum, EA25298



Facing the Dead? Framing Mummy Panels from Hawara

Campbell Price

Among the most popular objects in many museum archaeology displays, the lifelike mummy panel portraits from Graeco-Roman Egypt hold a special place in the history of representing the human face. Manchester Museum’s first international touring exhibition, ‘Golden Mummies of Egypt’, offers a chance to re-examine the museum’s important collection of 10 mummy panel paintings as part of The Getty’s APPEAR project, and to consider how these objects were viewed in ancient – as well as modern – times.

A glint of light in these ancient eyes is a key element of their seductiveness; a sparkle of life not present in Pharaonic representations. Undoubtedly, a glimmer of recognition is prompted in the human brain – inviting you to wonder if you might know this person.  These painted images apparently give a face to the voices of contemporary papyri; they actively invite speculation about their identities.

Most of the portrait panel mummies are not identified by name; a primary concern in Pharaonic times which is less clearly marked in Graeco-Roman Period Egypt. The accounts of Classical commentators, along with some archaeological evidence, suggests the initial installation of mummies wasin (funerary) chapels, where regular visits and rituals might occur; final deposition was made in groups. As part of an active, living tradition of ritual,perhaps it was felt that most mummies did not require individual written identification.

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Mummy Portrait (c) Manchester Museum, inv. 11306

The subject in the above paintingis shown in a typical three-quarter view, as if turning to look at us. The anonymous man in this painting has curly hair and a beard. Hairstyles may suggest a particular Emperor’s reign, although precise dating is notoriously difficult with the panel paintings. Here,suggestions range from around the time of Marcus Aurelius (161–180 CE) and Commodus (180–192 CE). The man bears a sword belt (balteus), which may imply something of his status –  although the families of all those depicted were no doubt wealthy – or an actual association with the military.

Although the technique of encaustic painting (pigment mixed with hot wax) was foreign to Egypt, the tradition of representing the deceased was not. Pharaonic representations are not ‘true to life’ in any simple way. ‘Lifelike’ sculptures placed in temples apparently show elites with the details of a real face; yet, the aim of these objects was to attract attention in scared spaces crowded with sculpture, and need not reflect anything of a person’s actual appearance.

Looking at the mummy panel paintings – saturated as we are by modern photographic reproduction and the prevalence of glazed and mirrored surfaces – we expect them to reflect a truth about ancient people as they really were. Yet, just because these are plausiblefaces does not imply that these are true, mimetic portraits in the modern sense. We desperately want them to be – that is why facial reconstruction techniques are so popular in museums and in the popular media. This modern conceit has been used as a means of testing the ‘accuracy’ of panel paintings, yet this practice has a sinister background in ‘race’ science. British archaeologist Flinders Petrie, whose Egyptian workmen found many of the panels attached to mummies at the Fayum site of Hawara (hence the common designation ‘Fayum Portrait’), was a keen believer in eugenics and regularly kept the skulls of portrait mummies to compare the two.

But, to me, these (re)constructions are subjective and contingent – they are mirages, fantasises that privilege ‘science’ and view it as a ‘magic wand’ to gain insights into ancient life. The fact that some portraits, such as this one, much resemble others – like portraits now at Eton College and sold recently at Sothebys – does not imply the existence of a group of similar-looking people, but rather indicate the production of panels that depend more on each other (or a stock type) than they refer back to the appearance of real people. Whether the panels were painted during life or posthumously is a major point of scholarly debate. The latter seems more likely to me. Regardless, they fulfilled a very ancient function by giving the deceased a visage with which to face eternity.

Too Classical for Egyptologists and too Egyptian for Classicists, the portraits have been a scholarly bone of contention for some time – yet have been a major attraction for popular audiences since Flinders Petrie exhibited those he was permitted to export in Summer 1888 at the Egyptian Hall in London, where artists like Lawrence Alma-Tadema drew inspiration for their works.                            

Alma-Tadema detail.jpg
Alma-Tadema detail from ‘Love’s Jewelled Fetter’ (1895)

There’s decent circumstantial evidence that the show was seen by Oscar Wilde – his novella The Picture of Dorian Grayappeared three years later. Such has been the impact of these haunting images on popular culture. Yet, despite repeated attempts to characterise their individual backgrounds – in terms of age, ‘race’, status – these faces resist categorisation; their inscrutability only adds to their allure.

**Addendum 22/10/21: This blog post has subsequently appeared (by permission of the author) in Shemu: The Egyptian Society of South Africa’s Quarterly Newsletter 25/4 (October 2021).

Technical Details
Provenance: Hawara(?), Egypt
Date: Second half of second century CE
Technique: Encaustic pigment on lime(?)wood panel
Collection: Manchester Museum, inv. 11306, University of Manchester, UK. From the collection of Max Emil Robinow (1845-1900), a German émigré who settled in Manchester in the 1870s and travelled in Egypt in 1896. This piece likely derived from Flinders Petrie’s purchasing of antiquities in the Fayum region. Its rounded top suggests that it most probably comes from the site of Hawara, where Petrie worked for three seasons. Robinow was likely introduced to Petrie through a major sponsor of his excavations, the Manchester cotton magnate Jesse Haworth.
Bibliography: Barbara Borg, Mumienporträts: Chronologie und kultureller Kontext(Mainz: Philipp von Zabern., 1996), pp. 16, 80, 156–7; Campbell Price, 2020. Golden Mummies of Egypt. Interpreting Identities from the Graeco-Roman Period (Nomad Exhibitions/Manchester Museum, 2020), pp. 160-195.

Max Emil Robinow