Wow … it’s hard to believe that the Ancient Lives Project has been around for almost two years now (see our initial coverage: Help Transcribe the Oxyrhynchus Papyri) … according to this interesting video from the Guardian, as of last October they’ve had well over a million transcriptions done in this crowd-sourcing project … check the video out:
Long-time blogger Ben Witherington has been running an interesting little series summarizing William Johnson’s Bookrolls and Scribes in Oxyrhynchus which folks might want to spend some time with:
- The Fascinating World of Ancient Papyri— Part One (on some assumption made by scholars)
- The Fascinating World of Ancient Papyri— Part Two (on the numbers of and various types of texts)
- The Fascinating World of Ancient Papyri– Part Three (on the scribes, professional and otherwise)
- The Fascinating World of Ancient Papyri— Part Four (on the process)
So last night my spiders drag bag something from Fox News, which originally came from LiveScience. Given all the Gospel of Jesus hype of late, I was immediately skeptical as it was making claims about a translation of a papyrus and, well, had been picked up by Fox, which doesn’t exactly have a great track record in picking up things which end up in rogueclassicism. The piece, however, turned out to be by Owen Jarus (probably the best ‘ancient stuff’ writer out there right now) and was interesting:
A recently deciphered Egyptian papyrus from around 1,900 years ago tells a fictional story that includes drinking, singing, feasting and ritual sex, all in the name of the goddess Mut.
Researchers believe that a priest wrote the blush-worthy tale, as a way to discuss controversial ritual sex acts with other priests.
“Our text may represent a new and hitherto unrecognized Egyptian literary genre: ‘cult’ fiction, the purpose of which was to allow controversial or contentious matters pertaining to the divine cult to be scrutinized in this way,” wrote professors Richard Jasnow and Mark Smith, who published their translation and analysis of the papyrus in the most recent edition of the journal Enchoria.
Jasnow, from Johns Hopkins University, and Smith, from Oxford, write that evidence of ritual sex is rare in ancient Egypt and the act probably would have been controversial. “There is surprisingly little unequivocal Egyptian evidence for the performance of the sex act as such in ritual contexts,” Jasnow and Smith wrote. [The Sex Quiz: Myths, Taboos & Bizarre Facts]
They added that the Egyptians were known to discuss other controversial matters using fictional stories.
Containing writing in a form of ancient Egyptian known as Demotic, the papyrus is likely to have originated in the Fayum village of Tebtunis at a time when the Romans controlled Egypt. It is currently in Florence, Italy, in the Istituto Papirologico “G. Vitelli.”
The newly deciphered tale refers several times to having sex. At one point a speaker implores a person to “drink truly. Eat truly. Sing” and to “don clothing, anoint (yourself), adorn the eyes, and enjoy sexual bliss.” The speaker adds that Mut will not let you “be distant from drunkenness on any day. She will not allow you to be lacking in any (manner).”
The speaker defends his views by saying, “As for those who have called me evil, Mut will ‘call’ them evil.”
Researchers know the story is fictional because it employs an Egyptian noun used only in fiction to mark separate sections of a story.
The full story
Reconstructing the overall plot narrative of the papyrus is tricky. The text is fragmentary, and researchers cannot be certain how the full story unfolded.
“Conceivably, we have here the remains of an account of how an adherent of the goddess Mut persuaded another individual to devote himself to her worship or join in her rites,” the researchers write.
This “cult fiction” interpretation of the papyrus is backed up by the Greek writer Herodotus, who lived more than 2,400 years ago. He wrote that “it was the Egyptians who first made it a matter of religious observance not to have intercourse with women in temples, nor enter a temple after such intercourse without washing.” (That translation is from “Herodotus Volume 1,” Harvard University Press, 1990.)
For some ancient Egyptians, the idea of mixing sex and religion may have been extreme, a problem priests discussed by way of a fictional story.
Smith declined an interview request, telling LiveScience that everything the researchers wanted to say is in the journal article. He did add that new fragments of the papyrus recently were discovered, and they may allow for more of the story to be deciphered.
- via: ‘Cult Fiction’ Traced to Ancient Egypt Priest (Live Science)
So I griped on facebook that I have developed a knee-jerk skepticism to claims involving ‘deciphering’ of things and was happily going to file this for the ANE section of my Explorator newsletter. Then a number of facebook friends — Jean Alvares, Hugh Mason, and Lyn Green — pointed out that this actually comes from the place where the Ancient Novel had its beginnings and that many of the themes from this papyrus can be found in what remains of the ancient novel for us (a branch of Classics which I really never studied before). As such, folks will probably want to track down the Enchoria article … not sure which volume … the journal website seems a bit behind.
LiveScience’s Owen Jarus has put a good one out there … from the latest volume of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, it’s a recently-translated poem all about Nero and Poppaea Sabina, and the latter’s ‘deification’ … here are some excerpts from Jarus’ piece:
A just-deciphered ancient Greek poem discovered in Egypt, deifies Poppaea Sabina, the wife of the infamous Roman emperor Nero, showing her ascending to the stars.
Based on the lettering styles and other factors, scholars think the poem was written nearly 200 years after Nero died (about 1,800 years ago), leaving them puzzled as to why someone so far away from Rome, would bother composing or copying it at such a late date.
In the poem, Poppaea ascends to heaven and becomes a goddess. The ancient goddess Aphrodite says to Poppaea, “my child, stop crying and hurry up: with all their heart Zeus’ stars welcome you and establish you on the moon…”
Headed for the heavens
The newly deciphered poem, however, shows a very different side to this ancient couple. In the poem, Poppaea is depicted being taken away by Aphrodite and told “your children for Nero [both deceased] you will guard them for eternity.”
Poppaea does not want this, wishing to stay with Nero. “[S]he was downcast and did not rejoice in the offered (favor). For she was leaving her husband, (a man) equal to the gods, and she moaned loudly from her longing…” part of the poem reads.
“The poet is trying to tell you [that] Poppaea loves her husband and what it implies is this story about the kick in the belly cannot be true,” said Paul Schubert, a professor at the University of Geneva and the lead researcher who worked on the text, in an interview with LiveScience. “She wouldn’t love him if she had been killed by a kick in the belly.”
The poem records her ascending to heaven, mentioning all the planets known to the ancients including “the Cyllenaean star” (Mercury), “belt of the Aegis-bearer” (Jupiter) and “Rhea’s bedfellow” (Saturn).
Her arrival among the stars is also triumphant, “under a clear (moon), the dance of the blessed (gods) she viewed…” with her then going to the northern pole to watch over Nero “looking around for her husband under the darkness…”
- via: Ancient Poem Praises Murderous Roman Emperor Nero (LiveScience)
The original article has some other details and a photo of the papyrus, which has been around for quite a while (why did the Dead Sea Scrolls get published so quickly and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri seem to require centuries of work? Oh … right) …