Decian Libellus from Luther College

Interesting item:

In January, nine papyri documents almost 2,000 years old were discovered by a student in the Luther College library archives, where they had remained hidden in a cardboard box for decades.

Luther sophomore Brittany Anderson was conducting a routine inventory of the papers of the late Orlando W. Qualley, longtime professor of classics and dean of the college, when she came across the nine ancient documents among Qualley’s letters and journals donated to the college in the 1980s. The papyri-one of which, a libellus, is especially rare-date from the first to the fifth centuries A.D. and were apparently purchased by Qualley from an antiquities dealer when he was part of a University of Michigan archaeological excavation at Karanis, south of Cairo, in 1924-25.

“Luther College is incredibly fortunate to have in its possession the Qualley papyri, especially the libellus, a rare and invaluable find from the early centuries of Christian history,” said Philip Freeman, Qualley Chair of Ancient Languages at Luther. “As soon as they are properly preserved, we hope to display all the papyri in our library for everyone to see. They provide a great opportunity for our students to examine a genuine piece of the ancient world.”

The nine papyri, written in ancient Greek, measure from 5 to 20 centimeters in length and are in remarkably good shape, though all are fragmentary and quite fragile. Papyrus was the primary writing medium of the ancient world and was made from the interwoven fibers of the papyrus plant, which grows along the banks of the Nile River.

Upon finding the documents, Anderson contacted the Luther Classics Department faculty, who examined the papyri and in turn contacted the Papyrus Collection staff at the University of Michigan, one of the leading centers of papyrus study in the world, for help in identifying and analyzing the discoveries. Several are accounting documents, but papyrologist Graham Claytor immediately identified one as a libellus dating from the first great Roman persecution of Christians beginning under Emperor Decius in the year 250.

Decius issued a decree that year ordering all inhabitants of the empire to offer a sacrifice to the gods as a show of loyalty. A libellus was a document given to a Roman citizen to confirm the performance of such a sacrifice. Christians were forbidden by their beliefs from performing these sacrifices and were thus subject to arrest, torture and execution for refusing to obey the emperor’s decree. Pope Fabian was among those who refused to sacrifice and was subsequently killed by the Roman authorities.

The Luther College libellus bears the name of Aurelius Ammon, a servant of the well-attested Aurelius Appianus, a leading citizen of Alexandria, Egypt. It declares that Aurelius Ammon has sacrificed “in accordance with the orders” of the emperor. The papyrus was probably part of a collection made in ancient times from the village of Theadelphia in Egypt’s Fayum region. Only a few of these rare documents have been uncovered, and they are currently housed in research libraries in Hamburg, Berlin, Manchester, Florence, and the University of Michigan. Now Decorah, Iowa, joins the list.

Luther College plans to work with the University of Michigan to preserve all the Qualley papyri and make them available online in digital format to scholars and people around the world.

I wonder if this (specifically the libellus) was from the Heroninos Archive, which is where we get most of our information about Aurelius Appianus … these Decian libelli caused me a bit of confusion when I was doing my MA on legal libelli …

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Ancient Lives Project Update

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:

The World of Ancient Papyri

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:

Another Papyrus ~ Implications for the Ancient Novel?

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.

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.

The Deification of Poppaea Sabina … now in Poem Form

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…”

[...]

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) …