Barry Baldwin ~ Get Stuffed

[Editor’s note: years ago we regularly featured transcriptions of Barry Baldwin’s Classical Corner items from Fortean Times and we are in the process of resuming that practice, More to come, hopefully on a once-a-week schedule (the next two will probably be the ones referenced within this one).  The current offering is reprinted with permission of the author himself, who years ago had to deal with yours truly as a student. Errors in transcription accrue to the latter.]

Or, The Mummy Returns – addenda to my previous embalmy army piece [FT162:19), itself supplementing FT159:45.

Embalming is associated with Egypt, thanks (mummies apart) to Herodotus’s lurid account (Histories, bk2 chs 85–7), especially the morticians’ proclivity for necrophiliac sex with female cadavers, a detail worthy of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One.

Thanks to his Egyptian staff, Joseph had father Jacob embalmed, likewise himself and eleven brothers (Genesis 50.2-3, 25-6; Acts 7.16) – Jewdicious biculturalism.

Herodotus (1.196; 3.24) attributes the practice to Babylonians and Ethiopians – esprit de corpse obviously widespread in the ancient East.

Various passages in Homer (e.g. Iliad, bk7 vv84–6; bk16 vv.456–7; bk18 vv350–3; bk19 vv37-9; Odyssey, bk224 vv67-8) may imply embalming, though not always easy to distinguish between this and pre-cremation unguenting; cf. R Garland, “Geras Thanonton: an Investigation into the claims of the Homeric Dead,” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 28 (1981), p73 n35. Such corporeal preparation is widely attested, not least in Gospel accounts of Christ’s obsequies.

Bodies were similarly treated to preserve ther for long journeys to final resting places. Spartan kings Agesilaus and Agesipolis were coated respectively in wax and honey (Nepos, Agesilaus, ch8 para7; Plutarch, Agesilaus, ch40 para3; Xenophon, Hellenika, bk5 ch3 para 19). The various sources for Alexander the Great don’t all mention the honey, but Quintus Curtius’s biography (bk10 ch 10 paras9-13) says he was perfumed in the Egyptian manner”, and sent for burial to Alexandria, where Augustus (Suetonius’s Life, ch18 paral) saw the mummy before it vanished to make the Shakespearean (Hamlet, act5 sc1 vv224-5) reflection “Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it stopping a bunghole?”

Greek and Roman writers frequently ridicule embalming, Lucretius (On the Nature of Things, bk3 vv888-93) from the philosopher’s view, Varro (Satires, fr81) from the comedian’s. Cicero (Tusculan Disputations, bk1 ch45 para108) calls it “an error of nations”. Dio Cassius (Roman History, bk50 ch 24 para26) has Octavian mock this “Egyptian idiocy” in a pre-Actium speech, ironically balanced by his later account (bk51 ch11 para15) of Cleopatra embalming Antony, the first Roman so prepared for eternity.

Lucian (Funerals, para21) provides the gothic tale (supposedly autoptic) of an Egyptian who placed a mummy at his dinner table, a scene re-created in Peter Fonda’s motorbike picture The Wild Angels.

Pliny expatiates on the preservative power of honey (Natural History, bk22 ch50 para108). The poet Statius (Silvæ, bk5 no1 vv225-31) describes the embalming of his wife Priscilla by Domitian’s courtier Abascantus. Nero typically provides the most spectacular example. Having kicked his pregnant wife Poppæa to death, he atoned by (Tacitus, Annals, bk16 ch6) “having her not cremated Roman-fashion but stuffed with spices and embalmed like a foreign potentate”; cf. Derek Couts, ‘The Nature and Function of Embalming in Rome”, Classical Antiquity 15 (1996), pp189–202.

Not much Byzantine evidence, although Corippus’s poem In Praise of Justin II (bk3 vv20-5) vouchsafes the embalming of Justinian (AD 565), while the famous “sweet odours” emanating from the uncorrupted corpse of Saint Demetrius of Thessalonica hint at chemical preservation.

Archaeological evidence bolsters the literary record. A young woman’s mummified body was discovered (1445) in an Appian Way sarcophagus, R Lanciani (Pagan and Christian Rome, Cambridge, 1892, p296) said it attracted “swarms of bees”. 1964 saw the discovery in (suitably) the so-called “Tomb of Nero’ of a seven-year-old girl datable to C. AD 150, while in 1962 (many electronic sites for these), the mummy of a middle-aged woman was found in a Thessalonican cemetery from c. AD 300. Most recently, again female from Thessalonica, a preserved body dating to c. 1700 BC: C Papageorgopolou & others, ‘Indications of embalming in Roman Greece by physical, chemical and histiological analysis,’Journal of Archaeological Science 36 (2010), pp35-42.

What goes around… The Mycenaean corpse Schliemann romantically thought was Agamemnon was preserved by a local pharmacist drenching it with gum arabic before shipment to Athens (Kathy Gere, Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism, Chicago, 2009, p25). Schliemann’s famous telegram to the King – “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon” – was actually a later re-write (David Traill, Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit, NY, 1995, p163).

Salty cognate Calypso finale provided by this 1953 Oxford theatrical satire:

Oh, you’ve all read in the New Testament How the wife of Lot became a condiment. It was her curiosity started the rot,

She only peeped a little but she had lost her Lot.

Classical Corner 133: Fortean Times 271 (February 2011), p. 19.


Barry Baldwin ~ Puns in Liddell and Scott

[Editor’s note: years ago we regularly featured transcriptions of Barry Baldwin’s Classical Corner items from Fortean Times, and we are happy to announce we will be resuming this (with the author’s permission). Just to get the ball rolling, here’s a recent piece from Barry Baldwin, reprinted with permission of the author himself, who years ago had to deal with yours truly as a student. Errors in transcription accrue to the latter]

WILLIAM Shepard Walsh opined: ‘A joke might appear to be to be the last thing one would seek in a dictionary’1

However, he did excavate one example of humour from an unexpected quarter: The Greek Lexicon of Liddell & Scott.2

In cause is their entry for Sykophantes (our ‘Sycophant’). This term comported various meanings. The last one listed derives it from people who informed against those who exported figs stolen from the sacred trees of Athens. On this, Liddell (father of Lewis Carroll’s Alice) and Scott observed, ‘ But this explanation is probably a mere figment.’
Shepard Walsh thundered: ‘ Even puns’ and very bad puns, have found their way into the most ponderous lexicons. But, to the credit of Liddell and Scott, this ghastly attempt at a joke appeared only in four editions, when, yielding to public opinion, the word “ figment” was changed to “invention.’

In the current 1968 edition, the conclusion was further altered to read ‘ modern explanations are mere guesses.’

One has to wonder how much actual ‘ public opinion’ was heard on the matter? Greek lexica are not usually the subject of mass concern.

This offending paronomasia did not appear in the first edition of 1844. Could it be more than coincidence that the first recorded use of the phrase ‘ figments of the imagination’ appears to be in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre  (1847)? Or, given his relationships between Alice Liddell and her parents, might we see Lewis Carroll, a notorious punster, as a possible inspiration?

As edition succeeded edition, this famous figment excited various individuals to publicize their thoughts on the matter via a flurry of communications in Notes and Queries.3

One contributor, Dr. V. Paten-Payne, dubbed the pun ‘ unintentional’, referring to the fifth edition (1864). Alfred Ainger (a specialist in Latin Verse Composition) noted that ‘ it undoubtedly occurs’ in this same one. Three other correspondents cited its occurrence in editions 4-6. W. G. Boswell-Stone ‘ vaguely recalls’ an obituary of Scott in the Daily News  which remarked that there are two jokes in the Lexicon, not specifying the other, adding that the figment did not occur in the latest edition. This prompted one E. A. R. Ball to ask where the second one was. One response was to cite Dr. Greenhill, Dean of Christ Church, to the effect that he was unaware of any second one.

It was, in fact, very likely to be their definition of Alochos: ‘ Bedmate, the a  being copulative.’

Apropos of Scott, T. Selby Henrey wrote:
‘ Oxford men have been heard to say that, when Liddell and Scott’s Greek Lexicon was first published, it contained not a few touches of hidden humour, which were deleted in later editions – one explanation of this being that Scott smuggled them in and Liddell was too matter-of-fact to detect them.’4

From this, might one surmise that Liddell never read his daughter’s apotheosis, Alice in Wonderland?

Liddell died in 1898, ten years after Scott. This prompted no less than Thomas Hardy to knock off a droll poem, ‘ Liddell and Scott, On the Completion of their Lexicon.’ Nowhere in it does he allude to it as containing any jokes or puns.

Henrey, who cited the figment, adduced other examples of lexical levity. One was from D. B. Munro’s Homeric Grammar, wherein the middle voice of louomai is elucidated thus: ‘ I wash myself. this is comparatively rare.’ Hervey glosses: ‘ It is current in Oxford that an undergrad first detected the humorous side of this sentence.’

Despite the deleters, it is congenial to conclude by observing how the fig-ment has hung on. In Christine Longford’s novel, Making Conversation (1931), a friend of the heroine Martha, reading Classics at Oxford during The Great War, when told about Liddell and Scott’s ‘ only joke’, responds, ‘ What a perfect Oxford joke!’ The next sentence reads: ‘ The serious student looked hurt.’

Other survivals, drawn at random, range from The Ohio Educational Monthly5 to H. R. Hall’s  A Season’s Work at Ur-‘Ubaid, Abu Sharain-Erdu-and Elsewhere.6
So, we may leave Liddell and Scott in full fig.


1 Handy -Book of Literary Curiosities (London, 1892), 236
2 The full story of Liddell, Scott, and their Lexicon is best recounted by Christopher Stray, Classical Dictionaries: Past, Present and Future  (London, 2010), 94-118.
3  7th Series, vii-viii, June-July, 1889.
4. Good Stories from Oxford and Cambridge: The Saving Grace of Humour (London, 1919), 86-7.
5 Vol. 21, 1873, 49.
6 London, 2014, 139, comparing stories about local shadowy bandits to the lexicon’s figments.

#podcastitas ~ 2: Greg Woolf — Coffee and Circuses

Greg Woolf chats about how he got into studying the ancient world, getting out of the ancient history bubble to talk to people in other disciplines, whether scholarship is a product of its time, diversifying the study of ancient history, and what events the Institute of Classical Studies has got coming up. 71 more words