Thursday, 12 July 2018

Not ‘the oldest written record of the Odyssey’

The Odyssey is in the news this week. The media are reporting the discovery of ‘perhaps the oldest preserved written piece of the Homeric Epics that has come to light’ (‘ίσως το παλαιότερο σωζόμενο γραπτό απόσπασμα των Ομηρικών Επών που έχει έρθει στο φως’: press statement, Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports, 10 July 2018). It was found at Olympia, one of the most important religious sites of the Greek world, and the original home of the Olympic Games.

An extremely interesting fragment of the Odyssey -- but nowhere near ‘the oldest record’

The discovery is certainly important, and quite unusual. It isn’t written on papyrus, like most literary texts. It isn’t a verse inscription on stone, of which we have many. It’s a clay tablet. This was never a common writing medium in the Greco-Roman world. Its use for this tablet, and for this text, is something quite unique. The research project The Multidimensional Site of Olympia, led by Dr Erofili-Iris Kollia, head of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Ilia, deserve congratulations on their exciting discovery.

But the most widely repeated claim -- that it’s the oldest copy of the Odyssey ever found, or even that it might be the oldest -- is dead wrong. The tablet misses out on being the oldest existing copy by some 700 years.

Dr Kollia, regrettably, has also had her name mangled in the media. (The Washington Post calls her ‘Kolia Erofili-Irida’.) This is partly because the Ministry’s own press release misspelled her name in Greek, and partly because automatic translation tools have difficulty with possessive forms of Greek names.

This was a really sloppy press release, and Reuters was negligent to disseminate it so gullibly.

The most responsible handling of the story by any news outlet in the world, as far as I can see, is by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. They realised that the thing about the date was untrue and contacted the Greek embassy in Rome about it. The response was that the tablet was the earliest copy of the text on a hard material. In a similar vein the Süddeutsche Zeitung casts it as the oldest inscription containing verses from the Odyssey. This might sound plausible, but it’s pretty obviously a case of someone scrambling for an excuse. Because the very earliest copy of any part of the Odyssey is incised on a 5th century BCE potsherd. ‘Potsherd’ means it’s a hard material. ‘Incised’ means it’s an inscription.
Some news sources that have spread the false info from the press release: the BBC; the Frankfurter Allgemeine; The Guardian; Le Monde; The New York Times; The New Zealand Herald; Reuters; Time; The Washington Post. Some outlets that give a report with reduced misinformation: Archaeology.org; La Repubblica; Science Alert; Smithsonian.com; Die Süddeutsche Zeitung.

The text

Since there’s intense interest, here’s a transcription and translation. I’ve made them from the photograph that has been circulated in the press. Underneath is a version of the photo with the letter shapes highlighted. In my transcription the square brackets don’t represent edges of the tablet, as they normally would, but the edges of the photograph.
7    [κ]α[λη τε μεγαλη τε περιδρομοϲ ην ρα ϲυβω]-
      τηϲ
8    αυτοϲ δ’ αμφι ϲυεϲϲιν αποιχομενοιο
      [α]νακτοϲ
9    νοϲφιν δεϲποινηϲ και Λαερταο γ[εροντοϲ]
10  ρυτοιϲιν λαεϲϲι και ετριγκωϲεν αχερ[δωι]
11  ϲταυρουϲ δ’ εκτοϲ ελαϲϲε διαμπερ[εϲ ενθα]
      και ενθα
12  π̣υκνουϲ και θαμεαϲ το μελαν δ[ρυοϲ]
      [α]μφικεαϲϲαϲ
13  [ε]ντοϲθεν δ’ αυληϲ ϲυφεουϲ δυοκ[αιδεκα]
      ποιει ...

      [There was a f]i[ne and large enclosure which the swineh]erd
      and he himself, around the pigs during his lord’s absence,
      independently of his mistress and the o[ld man] Laertes,
10  surrounded (them) with quarried stones and pear (wood);
      and on the outside he drove stakes [this way] and that in a mesh,
      densely and close-spaced, [s]plitting the core (or: the bark?) of the t[ree];
      and on the [i]nside of the yard he made twe[lve] pigsties ...
-- Odyssey 14.7-13


The tablet doesn’t require any changes to the standard text of the passage. It does have a couple of differences from the standard text, but they’re clearly errors:
  • The tablet omits a verb in line 8, making lines 7-10 a bit of a jumble: it changes δείμαθ’ ὕεσσιν ‘(which) he built for the pigs’ into δ’ ἀμφὶ σύεσσιν ‘and around the pigs’.
  • In line 10 ἐθρίγκωσεν, ‘he surrounded’, the tablet changes the aspirated θ to unaspirated τ. This is uninteresting from a textual point of view, but very interesting phonologically. It shows that either the scribe or the person who dictated the text was aware of the classical pronunciation of theta, as in tin. In the Roman era, when the tablet was written, θ was regularly pronounced as in thin, just like in modern Greek.
But the standard text is secure: we’ve got ancient commentaries and a 3rd-4th century CE papyrus (no. 28 in West’s edition of the Odyssey, P. Rylands 53 fol. 13r) which both favour the standard text over the version in the tablet. Not to mention, the standard text actually makes sense.

The date

A complete list of ancient copies of the Odyssey -- not including this tablet, of course -- can be found in the introductory material to the recent edition of the Odyssey by M. L. West (2017), starting at page xxvii, headed Exemplarium antiquorum fragmenta (‘fragments of ancient copies’). There are something like a hundred that are older than the 3rd century CE, the date of the Olympia tablet.

The very oldest is a potsherd found at the Greek colony of Olbia, modern Ukraine, dating to the 400s BCE, which has Odyssey 9.39 written on it: ‘a wind bearing me from Ilios put me ashore among the Kikones’. Very evocative: to me it suggests someone who feels a long way from home. (Catalogue details for the potsherd: Trismegistos.org; SEG 30: 933.)

Some news outlets realised the claim was dubious and softened it.
“If this date is confirmed, the tablet could be the oldest written record of Homer’s work ever discovered in Greece,” the culture ministry said.
... notwithstanding the fact that the softer claim is contradicted by the article’s title. Greece is not a good source of ancient papyri: too damp. The vast majority of our ancient copies of the Odyssey have come from Egypt, which has much better conditions for preservation.

Even an expert might well think the tablet is the oldest copy discovered in Greece -- I did at first. But then I am no expert on papyri. Even that would be an error, though. One of the two oldest papyri found in Greece, the Derveni papyrus, found in Thessaly Macedonia and dating to ca. 340-320 BCE, quotes a line with a variant of Odyssey 8.335 (P. Derv. col. xxvi line 4). It’s possible that isn’t meant to be an Odyssey line: it could be from an Orphic poem that happens to resemble the Odyssey line closely. Even aside from that, we’ve got a bunch of Hellenistic vases that quote lines from Homer, collected in a 2013 dissertation by Dr Maria Nasioula -- as Prof. Vayos Liapis has pointed out in a reply to his own post on Facebook. (I owe thanks to Dimitri Nakassis, again, for alerting me to Vayos Liapis’ post and Maria Nasioula’s dissertation.)

The tablet

What about the purpose of the tablet? Why clay? ‘The Philological Crocodile’ has posted a suggestion that it’s a votive offering made by a rhapsode. That seems very plausible, given the find location at the temple of Olympian Zeus.

It still poses some mysteries. Votive offerings with verse inscriptions are normally stone, or some object of personal significance. Also, the writing on this tablet is frankly sloppy: the lines are uneven, the line divisions and many letters are scrawled. If I had paid a scribe to make a votive offering for me and this was the result, I would not be happy. The choice of passage is also curious: why should the description of Eumaeus’ stockyard be apt, regardless of what kind of offering it is? I’m interested to see what ideas anyone has about these questions.

Miscellaneous misinformation

There’s a fair amount of other misinformation floating around in the news reports on this tablet -- some coming from the press release, some from Wikipedia, some from other half-remembered sources. Briefly:
  • In the passage on the tablet Odysseus does not address ‘his lifelong friend Eumaeus’, as the BBC and some other sources have put it. It’s a description of Eumaeus’ farm, and Eumaeus is Odysseus’ slave.
  • The Odyssey does not date to the 11th century, and even the 8th century is a push. ‘The eighth century date is more often stated than argued for’, as Barbara Graziosi has memorably put it. The mid-7th century is a more likely date.
  • While there was an oral epic tradition, that does not mean that a fluid Odyssean narrative was floating around waiting for someone to write it down and turn it into a canonical form. First, we can’t be sure when it was written down: there’s no guarantee that the seventh century date involved a transcription event. Second, the Odyssey feeds on many legendary narratives, including an Oresteia narrative and an Argonautica narrative, of which either, or more probably neither, may have existed in epic form. We can’t know that the story of Odysseus’ homecoming would have been at all recognisable in a hypothetical period prior to those influences.
  • There is no evidence that the Greek alphabet was invented to write down Homer: that’s a fringe theory, and scarcely any Homer scholar outside the University of Wisconsin believes it.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

The not-so-cryptic oracle of Delphi

The most famous story about an ancient oracle comes from Herodotus’ tale of Croesus, king of Lydia. First, he tested various oracles to see which ones were reliable. He narrowed his choices down to two, then asked both of them whether he should invade Persia. The answer was:
They foretold to Croesus that if he campaigned against the Persians, he would destroy a great empire.
-- Herodotus 1.53
Croesus decides that yes, he will go to war against the Persians. And he does indeed end up destroying a great empire ... his own. The Persian king wins, he takes Croesus prisoner, and Lydia (in what is now western Turkey) becomes part of the Persian empire.

Michelangelo, the Delphic Sibyl (Sistine Chapel, 1509)

Herodotus’ Delphic Oracle is enigmatic and ambiguous. He depicts the Oracle with its mythological hat on: when mythical figures like Oedipus or Xuthus consult the Oracle, they come away with responses that make no sense at the time and can only be interpreted in hindsight.

That sits very nicely with stories that the Pythia, the priestess who spoke for the god, was intoxicated or drugged, so as to create a kind of artificially induced enthousiasma or ‘divine inspiration’. These stories come from Plutarch, six hundred years later than Herodotus, but they’re such a neat match that the modern popular image treats them as one and the same.

Herodotus’ Oracle often speaks in hexameter verse. That’s the same rhythm as epic poetry, but it’s very different in terms of poetic style:
Pallas cannot appease Olympian Zeus,
even if she beseeches him with many words and dense cunning.
But I shall tell you another word, and bind it with adamant:
for though everything will be ravaged that Cecrops’ border
holds inside, and so will the glens of holy Cithaeron,
wide-browed Zeus grants a wooden wall to Tritogeneia
which alone will be unconquerable, an aid to you and your children.
-- Herodotus 7.141
According to Herodotus, this reponse supposedly means: 1. the gods are grumpy at Athens (represented by the goddess Athena: ‘Pallas’ and ‘Tritogeneia’ are her titles); 2. Athens is going to be sacked by an enemy; 3. a ‘wooden wall’ will save the day, and that’s the Athenian navy.

And, wonder of wonders, this turns out to be an accurate prediction of the naval battle at Salamis in 480 BCE, where the Athenian fleet crushed the Persians.

Some important things to observe here.
  1. The poem Herodotus quotes wasn’t a real prediction. We should take it as given that virtually all stories about foretelling the future are written in hindsight. The prophecies we hear about were either composed after the events they supposedly predicted, or were vague enough that they could be reinterpreted in light of actual events. This is not an authentic oracular pronouncement.
  2. Real-life oracular responses were not normally predictions, but instructions or, alternatively, statements about the will of the gods or what is morally right.
  3. Real-life responses were not typically obscure.
  4. Real-life responses were never in verse until the Roman era (with one exception).
  5. Real-life responses were not ambiguous, but straightforward and transparent: yes or no, this or that. They did not have ‘if’ or ‘when’ conditions. The response that Croesus supposedly got -- ‘if you make war on the Persians’ -- is exactly opposite to the kinds of instructions that we hear about in records kept at the time the responses were actually given.
Our best evidence for actual oracular responses comes from official inscriptions about occasions when a government consulted the Oracle. We don’t have anything approaching a complete record -- even in antiquity these inscriptions were only made occasionally, and they cover governmental decisions rather than historical events. Herodotus couldn’t base his history on that kind of evidence. Still, we have a fair number of them. And they are all, almost without exception, drastically different from the picture that Herodotus paints.

How to test an oracle (source: Oglaf, ‘Double blind’; NB: site is not safe for work)

Here’s the most detailed account we have of a real procedure for consulting the Oracle. It comes from an Athenian inscription dating to 352-351 BCE.
[It is decided] that the Secretary of the Council should write on two sheets of tin, equal and alike: on one,

whether it is more beneficial and better for the People of Athens that the [Archon] Basileus lease out those parts of the Sacred Meadow that are currently under cultivation, the parts outside the boundaries, to pay for the building of the portico and the repair of the sanctuary of the Two Goddesses;

on the other sheet of tin,

or it is more beneficial and better for the People of Athens that the parts of the Sacred Meadow now under cultivation, the parts outside the boundaries, be left untilled for the Two Goddesses.

[There follows an elaborate set of procedures to put the tin sheets randomly into two jugs, one gold and one silver, without anyone being able to find out which sheet is in which jug.]

... the People shall choose three men, one from the Council and two from all Athenians, to go to Delphi and ask the god which of the inscriptions the Athenians should act on concerning the Sacred Meadow: the one from the gold jug, or the one from the silver.
-- Inscriptiones graecae ii3 1.292 = ii2 204, lines 23-47
(trans. Bowden 2005: 88-89, adjusted; Greek)
If you read the full inscription, you’ll see just how carefully the procedure is designed to make sure that there’s no human influence over the Oracle’s decision.

Inscriptions are the most reliable evidence, but we do get some seemingly trustworthy reports from literary sources too. It’s just that they have to be taken with a grain of salt. For example, Thucydides reports how Sparta established a colony in 426 BCE at Heracleia, a few kilometres to the west of Thermopylae. Step one was:
So first they inquired of the god at Delphi, and he gave the command ...
-- Thucydides 3.92.5
This is recent history, not a record of something that happened centuries earlier, so there’s a decent likelihood that this really happened as described. Thucydides doesn’t give us any details, but it’s a simple question with a simple answer, just like in the inscription quoted above.

Conversely, on another occasion when the Spartans consulted Delphi, the Oracle sounds more willing to make speeches:
... and they sent to Delphi and consulted the god as to whether it would be better if they made war. And he ordained, as it is said, that if they fought with all their might they would have victory, and he said that he himself would assist, whether asked or unasked.
-- Thucydides 1.118.3
That’s a lot more than a yes-or-no answer. It’s much more like the responses Herodotus and Pausanias tell us about, even if it is in prose. (An encyclopaedia from nearly 1400 years later claims to give the exact wording of the Oracle’s response: Suda α.899 ἄκλητον. It’s still prose.)

Now, the Spartans may actually have consulted the Oracle. The Oracle may have actually said yes. But unlike the situation with founding Heracleia, there are some solid reasons to be sceptical of the details:
  1. It’s cast as a foretelling, not an instruction. This is atypical for genuine oracular responses, but typical for Herodotean-literary-mythological ones.
  2. It’s effectively got an ‘if’ clause -- you will win if you fight as hard as you can. (There’s no ‘if’ in the Greek: the use of a participle makes the conditional nature of the prophecy implicit.) Again, atypical for real responses, very typical for mythological ones.
  3. The timing is vague. Thucydides doesn’t put it into a linear chronology. Here’s how he frames it: ‘Not many years afterwards, there took place the events I described earlier at Corcyra and Potidaia ... All these events took place in a period of roughly fifty years ... In this period the Athenians consolidated their authority ... At this point, the Spartans regarded the situation as no longer tolerable’ and so they consulted the Oracle (Thuc. 1.118.1-2). Now, the Potidaian affair that he refers to was in 432 BCE, and the war began in 431, so you could argue that the consultation was in between. But this chapter is emphatically not a timeline of events between 432 and 431 BCE. It sounds much more like an anecdote that has been slotted into an appropriate free space.
  4. Thucydides distances himself from the story, inserting the phrase ‘as it is said’. This could be because he wasn’t totally satisfied about the story himself. It’s also possible that he’s reporting a secondary version of the oracle, designed specifically for public dissemination, and not necessarily what the priestess said on the day of the consultation.
Oops ... wrong Oracle
This last point gets us to a core part of the problem. Even if we set aside mythological oracular responses, there’s a sharp distinction between the responses you get if you go to Delphi and go through the process of consulting the Pythia, and the responses that get published in literary texts. And, sometimes at least, the two had nothing to do with each other.

The biggest source of non-Oracular oracles in classical Greece was a group of poets known as ‘oracle collectors’ or chrēsmologoi. Most of them aren’t well-known names: it’s just possible you might have heard of Musaeus and Epimenides, but even trained classical scholars usually won’t know their way around Bacis, Onomacritus, Amphilytus, Abaris, Lysistratus, Lycus, and Euclus. (A few more appear in a list drawn up by Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 1.21.)

Their poetry survives only in quotations found in other authors. The best represented is Bacis. Herodotus quotes three pieces of Bacis’ poetry, Pausanias quotes four, and there are another two or three of doubtful authorship. Here’s a sample, which Pausanias specifically assigns to Bacis:
But one day, when a Tithorean man pours libations
and offerings of prayer on the earth to Amphion and Zethus;
when Taurus is warmed by the might of the glorious sun;
at that time, beware of disaster for the city, no small one.
For the fruit of the harvest wastes away in it
when people divide the earth and bring it to Phocus’ grave.
-- Pausanias 9.17.5
It’s pretty obvious which kind of Delphic response this corresponds to, isn’t it?
  • Obscure: check. (What’s all this about ‘the harvest’?)
  • Ambiguous: check. (Which city? Where is Phocus’ grave?)
  • In verse: check.
  • Starts with a condition: check. (An indefinite ‘when’ clause with ὁπόταν + subjunctive.)
There’s a pretty good argument to be made that the Herodotean stereotype of the enigmatic Oracle is actually based on the poetry of oracle collectors and other similar concoctions.

Oracle collectors had a mixed reputation. Bacis gets brutally satirised in some of Aristophanes’ plays and by the Roman-era essayist Lucian; but Herodotus was a fan. In the Peloponnesian War, when the Athenians heard of the failure of the Sicilian expedition, they blamed the oracle collectors for misleading them (the Sicilian expedition: Thuc. 8.1.1); but when they lost the battle of Aegospotami, they took that as confirming prophecies made by a Sibyl and Musaeus (Paus. 10.9.11).

Oracle collectors aren’t the only possible source for oracles that are more than just yes-no answers. We don’t know what relationship, if any, existed between oracle collectors and the institutional oracles like that of Delphi. But we have so many responses attributed to the Oracles of Delphi, Dodona, Didyma, and other places, which are an exact match for the style of what we see in the oracle collectors, that it’s hard to avoid thinking there was at least some cross-influence between the Oracles and the oracle collectors.

Remains of the 3rd century BCE temple of Apollo at Didyma

In particular, there is some (sparse) evidence of individuals attached to the institutional Oracles who may have acted as a kind of publishing wing. Two inscriptions from Didyma refer to a building there called the Oracle Writing Office (chrēsmographion: McCabe, Didyma 107, 108 = Did. Inschr. 31, 32), present in the temple complex from around 300 BCE onwards. This sounds awfully like some officials were taking spoken oracular responses and turning them into something more literary -- something closer to what we see in the oracle collectors.

Several inscriptions refer to an official called the hypochrēstēs. This person’s role isn’t made explicit, but the prefix hypo- regularly means someone who does work interpreting something: for example, hypokritēs meant ‘interpreter’ before it meant ‘hypocrite’, and the verb hypokrinomai means ‘to interpret a dream’ in Homer. So hypochrēstēs ought to mean Oracle Interpreter.

We don’t have evidence of an Oracle Writing Office at other oracular sites -- as far as I can find out -- but we do have someone called a hypophētēs at the Oracle of Dodona (Homer, Iliad 16.235-236). If a hypochrēstēs is an oracle (chrēst-) interpreter (hypo-), a hypophētēs ought to be an interpreter (hypo-) of the god’s speech (phēt-). And that’s exactly how an ancient commentary explains it (scholion A on Iliad 16.235).

Now, there’s room for debate over the meanings of these words. The foremost 20th century scholar on the institutional Oracles of ancient Greece, Joseph Fontenrose, thinks the Oracle Interpreter at Didyma was an attendant who was present at consultations. Personally I find it more tempting to link the Oracle Interpreter to the Oracle Writing Office.
Note. See Fontenrose 1988: 78-85 on the process of consulting the Oracle of Didyma and possible roles of the Oracle Interpreter; 1988: 43 on the Oracle Writing Office.

Be that as it may, there appears to be a distinction between a priestess giving an oral response, and an Oracle Writing Office disseminating a written version. It’s not unreasonable to imagine a comparable division of labour at other institutional Oracles, like Delphi and Lebadeia and Dodona.

The point is that if we’ve got an oracular response that is cryptic or ambiguous; if the response is in verse; if it uses conditionals, metaphors, or animal imagery; in other words, if it isn’t a straightforward yes-or-no answer -- then it’s not likely to be an authentic response. But it could come from an oracle collector like Bacis or Euclus. Or it could be produced by a publicity office, like the Oracle Writing Office of Didyma.

Remember the ‘wooden wall’ prophecy I quoted near the start? Herodotus says that came from the Delphic Oracle. It appears in a few other places too. In one, the Historiae written by the 12th century Byzantine scholar Ioannes Tzetzes, it’s attributed to the oracle collector Bacis (Hist. 9.796-805). Now, Tzetzes is very very late, and he’s probably not right ... but it’s still a good example of how the different potential sources for oracular declaration could end up obscuring their real origins.

A consultation of the Delphic Oracle as depicted in the video game Titan Quest (2006), complete with the priestess suspended over Plutarch’s chasms oozing psychoactive gases

What of the stories of chasms with psychoactive gases, inspiring the priestess with a divine ecstasy? Well, these stories are late too. By the 2nd century CE, things had changed a lot at Delphi. To take one metric: throughout the 6th century BCE to the 1st century CE, we hear of exactly one authentic historical response that was given in verse. From the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, we hear of six.
Note. For stories of psychoactive gases, see especially Plutarch On the decline of oracles 432c-438b; also Pliny NH 2.208; ps.-Aristotle On the universe 395b; Pausanias 10.5.7; Strabo 9.3.5; ps.-Longinus On the sublime 13.2; etc. Note that these sources refer to gas emissions at other sites too: the H2CO3 and H2S emissions at Ampsanctus and the CO2 at Hierapolis (Pliny) are real, the gases at Lebadeia (ps.-Aristotle) are not. See Fontenrose 1978: 197-203 for more sources and discussion.

On the seven surviving authentic oracular responses given in verse see Fontenrose 1978: 186-195. The only pre-2nd century CE one, H28 in Fontenrose’s catalogue, dates to the 300s BCE (quoted in Dem. Against Meidias 52). Even there, we are almost certainly looking at the product of an Oracle Writing Office or somesuch, rather than of the Pythia herself.

To judge from the description of the Oracle that we find in Plutarch, it appears that the Oracle had changed the way it worked in order to match the Herodotean stereotype more closely. Life imitated art.

The notion of real chasms and real psychoactive gases still enjoys wide circulation, thanks to the efforts of geologists like Jelle de Boer and Luigi Piccardi. But it’s a solution looking for a problem. The problem is how to explain the obscurity of the Oracle’s utterances. But that problem didn’t exist for the first 800 years of the Oracle’s recorded history.

References

  • Bowden, Hugh 2005. Classical Athens and the Delphic Oracle. Divination and Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Fontenrose, Joseph 1978. The Delphic Oracle. Its Responses and Operations with a Catalogue of Responses. Berkeley, etc.: University of California Press.
  • Fontenrose, Joseph 1988. Didyma. Apollo’s Oracle, Cult, and Companions. Berkeley, etc.: University of California Press.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

The number of the beast

The Christian bible reports ‘the number of the beast’ as follows:
This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred and sixty-six.
-- Revelation 13.18 (NRSV translation)
This number is a tremendously popular icon in modern culture -- and in popular religion, too. Its popularity owes a lot to the repeating sixes: ‘6-6-6’. This snippet from Doctor Who relies on it, for example:

Doctor: To generate that gravity field, and the funnel, you’d need a power source with an inverted self-extrapolating reflex force of 6 to the power of 6 every 6 seconds.
Rose: That’s a lot of sixes.
-- The Doctor, about to encounter the Devil (Doctor Who, ‘The impossible planet’, 2006)

This six-ishness depends on a decimal counting system. And not just that: it has to be a Hindu-Arabic-style decimal system. You have to take a very specific kind of notation for granted.

Not enough of a myth for you? Well, how about this one. A fairly popular story floating around these days is that the number of the beast wasn’t actually 666, but 616. This is supposedly proved by the earliest papyrus of Revelation, which was published in 1999; the idea was popularised in a 2003 BBC documentary.

Well, none of that’s true. Not quite true, anyway. So, yes, there are some catches.
  1. Hindu numerals started to appear in the 7th century in India; Revelation was written about 600 years earlier in the eastern Mediterranean. Now, some ancient Mediterranean cultures did have decimal numerals -- Greek Ionic numerals, and Hebrew numerals -- but they were place-dependent. They had different symbols for 6, 60, and 600. You used different symbols depending on whether you were writing a number in the ones column, the tens column, or the hundreds column. The Greek notation for 666 is χξϛ, not ϛϛϛ; in Hebrew it’s םסו‬, not ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬ו‬ו‬ו‬. Repeating the symbol for ‘6’, ϛϛϛ or ‬‬‬ו‬ו‬ו‬, would be meaningless.
    A spectrogram: the computer game Doom (2016), premised on a demon invasion from hell, has the numerals ‘666’ embedded in part of the soundtrack. This wouldn’t work in any ancient numeral system.
  2. A prophetic interpretation, which sees the text as a genuine prophecy of a specific later time, is never going to have as much staying power as a historical-critical interpretation. This is an ancient Greek text which tells us explicitly that it contains a coded message: you’d need some very powerful and specific reason to imagine that the message should work just as well for, say, a 21st century American (who doesn’t speak ancient Greek) as for a 1st century Christian (who did). That way lies madness. But in a 1st century Greco-Jewish context, as we’ll see, the number is meaningful and based on well-attested practices.
  3. The 616 variant is certainly ancient: Irenaeus knew about it in the late 2nd century, though he strongly preferred 666. As we’ll see below, both readings are based on the same reasoning. But, so far as we can tell, neither number is older than the other. 616 is moderately well supported, but it definitely doesn’t have earlier support than 666.

The text

Here’s what the number of the beast looks like in two early manuscripts of Revelation:

Left: codex Sinaiticus, quire 90 fol. 6r (4th century). Right: Chester Beatty Library P. Bibl. 3 (= P47 Gregory-Aland, Trismegistos 61628), fol. 7r (3rd century).

The left-hand image is from one of the most important manuscripts of the New Testament, the famous codex Sinaiticus, written in the 4th century. Its version of verse 18 reads:
ὧδε ἡ σοφία ἐστίν· ὁ ἔχων [[ουσ]] 'νοῦν' ψηφισάτω τὸν ἀριθμ'ὸ(ν)' τοῦ θηρίου, ἀριθμ'ὸς' γὰρ ἀν(θρώπ)ου ἐστίν· ἑξακόσιαι ἑξήκ'ο(ν)'τα ἕξ.
(Key: [[...]] = crossed out by the scribe, '...' = inserted above the line, (...) = abbreviation.)

There are a few differences from the modern critical text. The scribe has made one error, crossed it out, and written νοῦν (‘understanding’) in the margin. The phrase ‘and its number is’ (καὶ ὁ ἀριθμὸς αὐτοῦ) is missing here. And most importantly, the number itself is written out as words, ἑξακόσιαι ἑξήκοντα ἕξ (‘six hundred and sixty-six’), not as the numeral χξϛ (‘666’).

The right-hand image is the earliest known copy of the passage: a fragmentary papyrus written in the mid-3rd century and currently held in Dublin, Ireland. Here verse 18 reads:
ὧδε ἡ σοφία ἐστίν· ὁ ἔχων νοῦν ψηφισάτω τὸν ἀριθμὸν τοῦ θηρίου, ἀριθμὸς γὰρ ἀνθρώπου ἐστίν· ἐστὶν δὲ χξϛ.
This is a closer match to the modern text. But again, the words immediately before the number are different -- ἐστὶν δὲ (‘and it is’), rather than the modern critical text καὶ ὁ ἀριθμὸς αὐτοῦ (‘and its number (is)’) --; and this time, the number is written with numerals, χξϛ (‘666’).

‘The number of a person’

It’s fairly widely known that the number was designed as a reference to the Roman emperor Nero.

(1) Isopsephy. The most specific point is that the number 666 is plainly a case of isopsephy. Ancient Greek and Hebrew used letters of the alphabet as numerals: nine letters for 1 to 9, nine for 10 to 90, and nine for 100 to 900, for a total of 27 numerals. In isopsephy, the number of a name or phrase is obtained by treating its letters as numerals and adding up their values. In a Jewish context, this practice is known as gematria.

We have independent evidence of isopsephy in relation to Nero. Suetonius (Nero 39) quotes a Greek epigram where Nero’s name, transliterated into Greek,
Νέρων = Nerōn ‘Nero’
= 50 + 5 + 100 + 800 + 50
= 1005
is equated with
ἰδίαν μητέρα ἀπέκτεινε = idian mētera apekteine ‘killed his own mother’
= 10 + 4 + 10 + 1 + 50 + 40 + 8 + 300 + 5 + 100 + 1 + 1 + 80 + 5 + 20 + 300 + 5 + 10 + 50 + 5
= 1005
The epigram calls this a neopsēphon, a ‘new calculation’ -- the same word as in Revelation 13.18 psēphisatō ‘let (him) calculate’. Isopsephy is attested in Judaeo-Christian contexts too, notably in a set of poems called the Sibylline Oracles; and a 1st-3rd century CE Jewish apocalyptic text known as 3 Baruch uses equations based on Greek words transliterated into the Hebrew script.
  • Sib. Or. 1.324-9 uses the number 888 = Ἰησοῦς, ‘Jesus’ in Greek.
  • Sib. Or. 5.12-44 gives a list of Rome’s rulers numbered from their initials: e.g. 12-13 ‘he will be the very first king, who will sum twice ten / with the start of his name ... he will have his first letter from 10’, that is, 20 = Κ(αῖσαρ), 10 = Ἰ(ούλιος), for Julius Caesar. The text carries on with Augustus = α = 1, Tiberius = τ = 300, Gaius = 3 = γ, Claudius = κ = 20, Nero = ν = 50; then three rulers with short reigns; then Vespasian = ο = 70, Titus = τ = 300, Domitian = δ = 4, and Trajan = τ = 300.
  • 3 Baruch ch. 4 discusses a dragon in connection with 360 rivers, where ‘dragon’ δράκων > דרקון drqwn, which adds up to 360; and a cataclysm involving 409,000 giants, where ‘cataclysm’ κατακλυσμός > קטקליסמס qtqlsms, or 409. (Bear in mind that the Hebrew script doesn’t have vowels.)
  • Koester 2014 has more evidence on the use of isopsephy/gematria in ancient graffiti, inscriptions, and epigrams.

Revelation follows the same procedure as 3 Baruch. It transliterates the Greek Νέρων into the Hebrew script and calculates with Hebrew numerals.
‘Nero Caesar’ = נרונ קסר Nrwn Qsr
= 50 + 200 + 6 + 50 + 100 + 60 + 200
= 666
In favour of this interpretation:
  1. The word ψηφισάτω (‘let him calculate’) plainly implies isopsephy.
  2. The same reasoning explains the variant reading ‘616’. It is based on the Latin form of Nero’s name: Nrw Qsr. (See below.)
  3. A papyrus from Qumran contains Nero’s name in Aramaic in the form Nrwn Qsr, so the orthography inferred here is legitimate, though not common.
  4. Two ancient discussions retain a memory of the link between Revelation and Nero, though neither mentions this isopsephic interpretation. The Liber genealogus (5th cent.; 194-6 ed. Mommsen) is aware that the number of the beast refers to Nero. Victorinus of Pettau (3rd cent.; Commentary on Apocalypse 17: 11) knows of a link between Revelation and Nero, and (at 13.18) knows both the 666 and 616 readings, though he explains the two numbers differently.
  5. The Greek word ‘beast’ can also be transliterated into Hebrew as θηρίον > תריון trywn = 666. The form actually used in Revelation 13.18 is a possessive, θηρίου, which gives תריו tryw = 616. With both 666 and 616, the text is equating ‘Nero’ and ‘beast’ in the same way that Suetonius’ epigram equates ‘Nero’ and ‘killed his own mother’.
Against this interpretation, there really isn’t much to say. One objection might be that Caesar/Καῖσαρ would normally be written in Hebrew as קי‬סר (Qysr), not ק‬סר (Qsr) (for a total of 676). On the other hand, a number of 1st-3rd century documents do attest the spelling ק‬סר (Qsr). Other isopsephies have been suggested, but they’re not strong: an abbreviated form of the emperor Domitian’s name, Α. Και. Δομετ. Σεβ. Γε. (for αὐτοκράτωρ Καῖσαρ Δομετιανὸς Σεβαστὸς Γερμανικός) adds up to 666, while Γάϊος Καῖσαρ adds up to 616. The Domitian one with the abbreviation looks like a stretch, though. And while Gaius was very objectionable to Jews, he wasn’t especially interesting to early Christians. Nero is by far the strongest candidate.

(2) Nero as boogeyman. There is pretty good evidence that Nero was a figure of terror for late 1st century Christians. Early 2nd century sources blame him for the first persecution of Roman Christians, claiming that he made them scapegoats for the great fire of Rome in 64 CE. There is some doubt as to whether the persecution actually happened, but even if it didn’t, the 2nd century sources show that there was an early belief that Nero had persecuted the Christians. The sources are the Roman historian Tacitus (Annals 15.44.5-8; Latin text): he reports that Nero had Christians ‘clothed in the skins of wild beasts, and torn to pieces by dogs’, or ‘set up to be burned, so as to serve the purpose of lamps when daylight failed’. These gruesome tortures are quite likely fictional. Suetonius reports on a persecution under Nero too, though in his version it had nothing to do with the fire (Nero 16).

(3) Nero redivivus. Nero may have been a menacing figure for Christians, but overall he was a tremendously popular figure in the eastern empire. Suetonius claims that after his death some people acted ‘as though he was alive and was soon to return, to the great harm of his enemies’ (Nero 57). In other words, he was to have a second coming. We have reports of at least two, maybe three ‘false Neros’, who pretended that they were Nero, that Nero had never really died, and gained a significant following. (This wasn’t unique to Nero: Tacitus reports on other people being impersonated after their death, most notably Scribonianus in Histories 2.72.)

In 68 or 69 CE, shortly after Nero’s death, one false Nero appeared in Greece and, after landing on the Aegean island of Kithnos because of a storm, turned to piracy until he was captured and killed by Roman forces. (Source: Tacitus, Histories 2.8-9.)

A second false Nero, whose real name was Terentius Maximus, appeared during the reign of emperor Titus in 79-81 CE. He was active in Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and possibly Armenia, and sought refuge with the Parthians, apparently getting as far east as the river Euphrates. (Sources: Cassius Dio epit. 66.19.3 = Zonaras Epit. hist. 11.18; John of Antioch fr. 104 Müller.)

The third one is less well attested. The main evidence for him is Suetonius’ claim that there was a false Nero ‘twenty years after (his death), while I was a young man’ (Nero 57). This would suggest a date around 89 CE, during the reign of Domitian. However, Suetonius mentions the Parthians too: he states (1) that the Parthian king Vologaeses II (fl. ca. 78 CE) asked the Roman senate to honour Nero’s memory; and (2) that the Parthians supported the third false Nero ‘vigourously’ and ‘returned him reluctantly’. This sounds awfully like the second one, above: there could be a confusion of dates. One point in favour of Suetonius’ story is that Tacitus’ report, of the first false Nero above, refers to ‘results and attempts of others’, plural. That implies that he knew of at least three false Neros.

The neighbour of the beast: Pokey (Don McKellar) calls on a wannabe Devil (Earl Pastko) who can’t get his act together. (Highway 61, 1991)

Which number?

Some early copies give a different number. In particular, the Ephrem palimpsest (5th century) gives it as ἑξακόσιαι δέκα ἕξ: ‘six hundred and sixteen’.

This has a pretty strong heritage. As I mentioned above, Irenaeus knew both variants. And 616 works as an isopsephy of Nero’s name just as well as 666 does:
‘Nero Caesar’ = נרו קסר Nrw Qsr
= 50 + 200 + 6 + 100 + 60 + 200
= 616
The Latin form of his name, Nero, gives 616; the Greek form Nerōn (Νέρων) gives 666.

In recent years the 616 variant has enjoyed a lot of prestige, because of an ancient papyrus published in 1999. The papyrus, found at Oxyrhynchus and catalogued as P. Oxy. 4499, dates to the late 3rd or early 4th century. We have 26 fragments of the papyrus, containing bits of Revelation chapters 2 to 15. Fragment p is the relevant one.

P. Oxy. 4499 (= P115 Gregory-Aland, Trismegistos 65898), fragment p (Revelation 13.18-14.2)

This papyrus, all by itself, has generated two modern myths:
  1. This papyrus unambiguously supports the reading 616 (highlighted in yellow above: χιϲ).
  2. This papyrus is the earliest existing copy of the passage, or even the earliest existing copy of Revelation, and therefore its text carries more weight than any other manuscript.
These two myths, taken together, would suggest that 616 was definitely the original reading and 666 is a corruption of the text. However, they are both absolutely completely dead wrong.

First, here’s a transcription. I’ve copied the original editor’s text, with some minor adjustments because I think some of the letters are clearer than the original editor thought. (For technical side of how a papyrus text is represented, you can refer to this post from last month.)

Diplomatic text:
1               ]υ̣νψ̣ηφιϲ̣[
2                ]αρανου[
3                    ]ηχιϲ[
4            ]επ̣ιτοορ[
5              ]εχουϲα[
6               ]α̣υτουγε
7             ]α̣υτωνκαι
8              ]φω̣ν  ̣νϋ
Reading text:
1   [(13.18) ὧδε ἡ ϲοφία ἐϲτίν· ὁ ἔχων νο]ῦ̣ν ψ̣ηφιϲ̣[ά]-
2   [τω τὸν ἀριθμὸν τοῦ θηρίου, ἀριθμὸϲ γ]ὰρ ἀν(θρώπ)ου
3   [ἐϲτίν· καὶ ὁ ἀριθμὸϲ αὐτοῦ χξϛ] ἢ χιϛ. [ ]
4   [(14.1) καὶ εἶδον, καὶ ἰδοὺ τὸ ἀρνίον ἑϲτὸϲ] ἐπ̣ὶ τὸ ὄρ[οϲ]
5   [Ϲιών, καὶ μετ’ αὐτοῦ ρμδ χιλιαδε]ϲ̣ ἔχουϲα[ι]
6   [τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ καὶ τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ π(ατ)ρ(ὸ)ς] α̣ὐτοῦ γε-
7   [γραμμένον ἐπὶ τῶν μετώπων] α̣ὐτῶν. (14.2) καὶ
8   [ἤκουϲα φωνὴν ἐκ τοῦ οὐ(ρα)νοῦ ὡϲ] φω̣νὴ̣ν ὑ-
8a  [δάτων ... ]
Here’s a translation of the standard text. Before we get on to the number, some technical notes (skip over them if you want):
1. In Roman-era papyri, there’s often no visual distinction between the numerals ϛ ‘6’ (the letter stigma) and ϲ ‘200’ (sigma). However, it’s easy to tell which is which by looking at their position.

2. The supplements stick to the standard text fairly rigourously, except for (a) numerals replacing numbers written out as words, in the missing parts of lines 3 and 5; (b) some normal abbreviations in the missing parts of lines 6 and 8. However, the result is that the number of letters per line is erratic, ranging from 28 (line 3) to 35 (lines 2 and 6). These could be evened up if we imagine some textual variants: for example line 2 could omit τοῦ, by analogy with ἀνθρώπου later in the line, bringing the line down to 32 letters; line 5 might have written out πατρὸς in full but omitted the repetition of τὸ ὄνομα, bringing it down to 31. Line 4 is also longer than I’d like, at 34 letters.

OK, on to line 3 and the numeral. Take a look back at the image above, where the number of the beast, χιϲ ‘616’, is highlighted. Notice the letter immediately before the number? It’s the letter eta, η. That letter raises an important question of its own.

The problem is that there is nothing that eta can possibly correspond to in the standard text of Revelation 13.18. What is it doing there?

There are only a few things an eta before a word-break is likely to be:
  • certain forms of a-stem (1st declension) feminine nouns and e-stem (3rd declension contracted) neuter nouns
  • a verb in a specific form (the aorist passive 3rd person singular)
  • ἡ ‘the’, in a specific singular form
  • δή ‘indeed’
  • ἤ ‘or’
Revelation 13.18 has no occasion for any 1st or 3rd declension nouns or aorist passive verbs, and you can’t have a singular ‘the’ before the number 616. So it’s going to be δή or ἤ. The text is either
[ ... ] indeed 616.
or
[ ... ] or 616.
Now, what do you imagine has happened here? See if you can work out the correct answer before going on. Because there is a clearly correct answer.

The answer: the eta before the number of the beast can only be the word ἤ ‘or’. The papyrus originally quoted both numbers, 666 and 616, as alternatives. Line 3, in translation, had
[ ... and its number is 666] or 616.
So, no more talk of 616 being attested earlier than 666, please. We can be absolutely confident that they were both written in this papyrus.

And one last thing: there’s still that myth that P. Oxy. 4499 is the earliest existing copy of Revelation. Well, it isn’t. It’s the earliest existing copy of some parts of the book. But not this part.

The misunderstanding may be partly due to this phrasing used on the Oxyrhynchus Papyri website:
The newest volume of Oxyrhynchus Papyri contains a fragmentary papyrus of Revelation which is the earliest known witness to some sections (late third / early fourth century).
If you stop paying after the word ‘witness’ you could easily come away thinking this is the earliest copy of Revelation. Even if you carry on reading, you might think it’s implied that it’s the earliest copy of the ‘616’ passage. But it ain’t. That honour goes to P47, above, which is solidly 3rd century, and which has the reading χξϛ ‘666’.

Even if we didn’t have P47, we’d have Irenaeaus’ discussion of the passage -- and he’s earlier than both papyri. He knew both the 616 and 666 variants, though he didn’t know the reason for either number. Both of them are very satisfactorily explained by the equations
Νέρων Καῖσαρ = נרונ קסר Nrwn Qsr = 666 = תריון trywn = θήριον ‘beast’

Nero Caesar = נרו קסר Nrw Qsr = 616 = תריו tryw = θηρίου ‘of the beast’

Further reading

Monday, 28 May 2018

The new papyrus of the gospel of Mark


I give here a copy of the new papyrus of the gospel of Mark: Oxyrhynchus papyrus 5345, or P. Oxy. 5345 for short. This isn’t new work (mostly), but is simply intended to be slightly more accessible than the article that has now appeared in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri 83 (2018). I also give some basic guidance on how to read papyrological notation, and a condensed selection of notes on the text.

The Egypt Exploration Society has made their publication open access: the publicly available PDF copy of the article is here.

Background

In December 2011 Scott Carroll, until 2012 the director of the Green Collection, announced that he knew of a New Testament manuscript older than any other that was publicly known. In February 2012 the papyrologist Daniel Wallace cited the existence of a papyrus of Mark dating to the 1st century, as supporting evidence in a public debate.

These announcements were important because a first-century copy of any New Testament text would be of great intrinsic interest. It wouldn’t have much impact on any argument about the historicity of any aspect of the New Testament: nearly all biblical scholars date Mark to the 1st century anyway. So while the existence of a first-century papyrus would be very exciting, it wouldn’t be shocking.

Still the oldest: P. Rylands 457
In May 2018, this month, Dirk Obbink and Daniela Colomo published the papyrus in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. It is now dated to the late 2nd or early 3rd century. It is definitely not the earliest known New Testament manuscript (that honour still rests with Rylands papyrus 457, mid-100s). But it is the earliest known copy of Mark.

In itself that doesn’t add anything to our state of knowledge: we already had external testimony of the text’s existence before 200. Still, the 2018 publication has again generated intense interest. But misinformation spreads virally where reliable information is difficult to come by. The real news here isn’t the text in the papyrus: there’s nothing very important there. The news is how knowledge about the papyrus has been abused.

On Wednesday last week, on 23 May 2018, Carroll stated that Dirk Obbink tried to sell the papyrus to the Greens in 2011 and 2013; that the papyrus was ‘in his [Obbink’s] possession’; and that Obbink had stated ‘unequivocally’ that it dated to the first century. Also on 23 May, Wallace stated that he had been required to sign a non-disclosure agreement before being allowed to see the papyrus in 2012; that he had been informed that an unnamed organisation had already bought the papyrus; and that he had been told by the same source that ‘a high-ranking papyrologist had confirmed that FCM [the Mark papyrus] was definitely a first-century manuscript.’

And the following day, the Egypt Exploration Society stated that the papyrus was and still is in their collection; that they have never sold it or intended to sell it; that it was excavated by Grenfell and Hunt’s excavations at Oxyrhynchus in the period 1896 to 1906, probably in 1903; and the first-century dating was ‘a provisional dating when the text was catalogued many years ago’.

This talk of the papyrus being for sale, and that it was definitely 1st-century, could in principle be the result of miscommunication. But what the unnamed informant did to Wallace was both deceptive and unethical: lying to Wallace about having bought the papyrus; compelling him to sign a non-disclosure agreement -- these things show a deep, reckless dishonesty. I imagine I share few opinions with Wallace, but I must commiserate with him for the plight he was placed in.

The text: introduction

The text below is designed to be read with the font New Athena Unicode installed. It is likely that the sublinear dots (U+0323) will appear incorrectly aligned in any other font.

The most important conventions for presenting a papyrus text are as follows:
  • A diplomatic text is a letter-by-letter transcription with no modern orthographic marks: so no spaces between words, no punctuation, no capitalisation, and no accents or diacritics except where they appear on the papyrus.
  • A reading text adds modern orthographic conventions and fills in missing text where possible. (Note that the publication in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri 83 combines the diplomatic and reading texts: in my opinion, greater clarity comes from keeping them separate.)
  • Square brackets ] [ represent edges of the papyrus.
  • A dot underneath a letter or space represents places where the papyrus has visible ink, but not enough to be certain (without further evidence) of which letter was there.
  • In the reading text, round brackets ( ) represent where an abbreviation has been filled in.
  • Recto refers to the ‘front’ side of the papyrus, verso to the ‘back’.
Notes specific to this papyrus:
  • On orthography:
    • Lunate sigma ϲ is used throughout, rather than the modern forms σ (medial) and ς (final). The latter variants belong to Byzantine and later orthography; ancient papyri regularly use the lunate variant.
    • Iota adscript is not written in this papyrus: see verso 2.
  • Line numbering follows the edition of Obbink and Colomo, but I add an extra line above recto 1: see my note on recto 1.
  • The papyrus is a fragment of a leaf from a codex. That is to say: the book was in the form of multiple leaves bound at the margin, and not a scroll. That is unsurprising, as even the earliest Christian texts are nearly universally in codex format. Outside Christian texts, the codex was still the minority format before 200 CE.
  • Obbink and Colomo estimate that the leaf held 20 lines per side, and approximately 28 letters per line. These figures are entirely normal. They estimate a total written area of 9.4 × 12 cm, plus margins; the surviving fragment is 4.4 × 4 cm. The fragment comes from the bottom of the leaf. Part of the bottom margin is preserved, with about 1.5 cm space to the text. The layout is consistent with the top of the recto side beginning at Mark 1.1, possibly with a heading.

Abbreviations:
NA28 = Nestle-Aland, Novum testamentum graece, 28th edition
Obbink-Colomo = D. Obbink and D. Colomo (2018), ‘5345. Mark I 7-9, 16-18’, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri 83: 4-7.

Recto:

0                        ]  ̣[
1                        ]μι̣[  ]  ̣[
2                        ]τ̣ω̣ν̣[  ]π̣[
3       ]ωεβαπτ̣ιϲαυμα̣ϲ̣υδ̣[
4        ]ιϲειϋμ̣[  ]ϲ̣π̣ν̣ιαγ̣[
5          ]ιναιϲ̣[  ]ϲημε[

0  ‘[ ... ἔρχεται ὁ ἰϲ]χ̣[υρότερόϲ]
1  [μου ὀπίϲω μου, οὗ οὐκ εἰ]μὶ̣ [ἱ]κ̣[ανὸϲ κύ]-
2  [ψαϲ λῦϲαι τὸν ἱμάντα] τ̣ῶ̣ν̣ [ὑ]π̣[οδημά]-
3  [των αὐτοῦ. ἐγ]ὼ ἐβάπτ̣ιϲα ὑμᾶ̣ϲ̣ ὕδ̣[ατι],
4  [αὐτὸϲ δὲ βαπτ]ίϲει ὑμ̣[ᾶ]ϲ̣ π̣ν̣(εύματ)ι ἁγ̣[ίω.’ καὶ]
5  [ἐγένετο ἐν ἐκε]ίναιϲ̣ [ταῖ]ϲ ἡμέ[ραιϲ ἦλθεν ... ]

Critical apparatus:
1 Obbink-Colomo ]μ̣  ̣[ ]  ̣[
3 prob. orig. ϋμαϲ ϋδατι: tremata not preserved in papyrus
4 NA28 ἐν πνεύματι

Translation:
‘[ ... One stronger than I comes after me, and I a]m [not w]o[rthy to bend down and undo the clasp] of his [s]a[ndals. ]I baptised you with wa[ter, but he will bapt]ise y[o]u with the [holy] spirit.’ [And it happened, in th]ose da[ys (Jesus) came ... ]

Verso:

1                   ]  ̣  ̣[
2         ]τ̣ηθαλ̣α[
3        ]ναυτοιϲδευτ̣ε̣ο̣π̣[
4       ]ϋμαϲγενεϲθαιαλι[
5        ]ϲ̣αφεντε[  ]τ̣αδικ[

1  [ ... τὸν ἀδελφὸ]ν̣ Ϲ̣[ίμωνοϲ ἀμφιβάλλον]-
2  [ταϲ ἐν] τ̣ῆ θαλ̣ά[ϲϲη· ἦϲαν γὰρ ἁλιεῖϲ].
3  [καὶ εἶπε]ν αὐτοῖϲ· δεῦτ̣ε̣ ὀ̣π̣[ίϲω μου, καὶ]
4  [ποιήϲω] ὑμᾶϲ γενέϲθαι ἁλι[εῖϲ ἀνθρώπων].
5  [καὶ εὐθὺ]ϲ̣ ἀφέντε[ϲ] τ̣ὰ δίκ[τυα ... ]

Critical apparatus:
1 Obbink-Colomo suggest ἀ̣δ̣[ελφὸν αὐτοῦ (omitting Ϲίμωνοϲ) or ἀδελϕὸ]ν̣ τ̣[οῦ Ϲιμωνοϲ
2 θαλ̣α[: Obbink-Colomo θαλ̣α̣[
3 NA28 αὐτοὶς ὁ Ἰησοῦς
4 Obbink-Colomo ἁλι̣[εῖϲ or ἁλε̣[εῖϲ

Translation:
[ ... (Jesus saw Simon, and Andrew) the brothe]r of S[imon, fishing on both sides in] the se[a; for they were fishermen. And he sai]d to them, ‘Come aft[er me, and I shall make] you become fish[ers of people.’ And immediate]ly they released the nets [ ... ]

Notes

Recto 1. Obbink-Colomo express uncertainty over , on the grounds that some manuscripts omit κύψαϲ, and that would mean the line-lengths would be off. However, is clearly legible, with the same letter-form as in verso 4.

Above a dot of ink is visible at the edge of the papyrus which could be part of almost any letter near the start of recto 0 ἰϲχυρότερόϲ.

Recto 4. ἐν is missing in many later manuscripts as well. It makes little difference to the meaning. βαπτίσει ὑμᾶς πνεύματι ἁγίωι (‘he will baptise you with the holy spirit’), with a plain instrumental dative, means much the same as βαπτίσει ὑμᾶς ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίωι, with instrumental ἐν.

The abbreviation of πνεύματι (‘spirit’ in ‘holy spirit’) is a nomen sacrum (‘sacred name’). This is a feature of many Jewish texts and ancient Christian texts: the idea is to avoid writing the name of God in full, or even the word ‘god’, and instead use an abbreviation. A nomen sacrum regularly appears with overlining, as it does here.

Verso 1. The ink over the second α of 2 θαλ̣ά[ϲϲη looks to me like it makes most of a circle, which would indicate ε, ο, or ϲ. If it is Ϲ̣[ίμωνοϲ, that makes verso 3 a little short at 27 letters: I guess that is why Obbink-Colomo try to read the letter as δ or τ.

Verso 2. The second α of θαλ̣ά[ϲϲη looks clear to me.

Verso 3. Jesus’ name is omitted. This does not significantly change the meaning, and it is not necessarily another case of a nomen sacrum (see note on recto 4, above). That would be the situation if the papyrus had replaced ‘Jesus’ with an abbreviation. Instead, the name is simply absent, so that the meaning is ‘he said’ rather than ‘Jesus said’.

However, Obbink-Colomo suggest a possibility that the omission may be an error resulting from an earlier copy with a nomen sacrum for Jesus. If so, the earlier copy would have read ειπεν αυτοιϲ ο Ιϲ. Without spaces and capitalisation this would appear as ειπεναυτοιϲοιϲ. -οιϲοιϲ could have seemed to be an erroneous repetition, and the scribe of this papyrus might have ‘corrected’ it by omitting the second -οιϲ. Wallace also points out this possibility.

Verso 4. The ink after λ looks like a perfectly vertical stroke, and the blob of ink at the bottom of the stroke is similar to that in verso 3 αὐτοῖϲ, so it looks to me that ἁλι[εῖϲ can safely be read.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

The authoress of the Odyssey

In the 1890s Samuel Butler argued that the Odyssey was composed by a young unmarried girl living in Trapani, western Sicily, in the 11th century BCE.

The basic idea is that the character of Nausicaa, in Odyssey books 6 to 8, is an authorial self-insertion. Nausicaa is a woman, young, single, and doesn’t live in mainland Greece or Ionia. Therefore the author of the Odyssey must be all those things too. (Demodocus the blind bard represents Homer, boring the author’s socks off with his interminable recitations of the Iliad.)

Trapani, Sicily (Source: Google Streetview)

Butler first presented the idea in a lecture on 30 January 1892, at the Working Men’s College in London; then in a series of magazine articles and pamphlets (1892a-e, 1893); and a few years later in a book, The authoress of the Odyssey (1897).

The reception of Butler’s idea

Butler’s argument has had great longevity, and at the same time, has persuaded almost no one. Butler himself predicted that he’d encounter an entrenched opposition (‘How can I expect Homeric scholars to tolerate theories so subversive’, etc., 1897: 3). He imagined he’d find academics insisting that epic poets must have been men. A much more serious problem is that he starts with a complete absence of evidence, and concludes something incredibly specific.

And, in regard to Trapani, something impossible. Butler was infuriated when he was told that Trapani didn’t exist when the Odyssey was composed. He insisted that his argument proved the archaeologists wrong, so their ‘views must be reconsidered’ (1893: 13)! Just to be clear: Greeks didn’t start to colonise Sicily until the late 700s BCE, and they never held western Sicily. The west belonged to the non-Greek Elymi until Roman times.

Still, the idea gets trotted out every generation or so. First by the classicist Benjamin Farrington (1929); then in one of Robert Graves’ less-known novels, Homer’s daughter (1955); then by Andrew Dalby (2006). Its longevity probably owes a lot to Butler’s translations of Homer, which were the first English translations of Homer to use a modern prose style. Plus, Butler has celebrity status: he’s still famous for his classic satirical novel Erewhon (1872). Dalby’s version, too, has become better known than you might expect, thanks to his very successful publicity campaign.

Excursus: the authoress of the ‘Rediscovering Homer’ and ‘Andrew Dalby’ articles on Wikipedia
Dalby and his book Rediscovering Homer (2006) both have substantial Wikipedia articles devoted to them. At the time of writing Dalby’s is the only non-fiction book about Homer to have a Wikipedia article. So you might imagine this indicates that Dalby and his book have had a major impact.

And that would be wrong. Dalby is a prolific Wikipedia-editor. He created the book article himself. It’s strictly self-promotion. Outside the ‘Rediscovering Homer’ article, Wikipedia has fifteen citations of the book -- but fourteen of them were inserted by Dalby (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14, between May 2006 and May 2007; no. 15 is someone else’s doing, and dates to 2010).

So these articles and citations don’t in any way indicate acceptance of Butler’s (or Dalby’s) ideas. Look to the reviews instead. Here’s what they say about Dalby: ‘inventive’ but ‘weak’ and unproveable (Kelly); ‘speculations ... inadequate argument and dicey assertions’ (Lateiner); ‘lively’ but ‘thinly grounded’ (Lentini, Classical Bulletin 82.2 [2006]: 221-3); ‘enjoyable’ but ‘unconvincing’ (Loney).

But wait, there’s more. The ‘Andrew Dalby’ article is self-promotion too. For that one, Dalby tried to be sneaky: he used a sockpuppet account called ‘Charles David Douglas’ to create it. The entire Wikipedia career of ‘Charles David Douglas’ lasted just over two hours, and in the surrounding five days Dalby’s main account edited most of the articles that ‘Douglas’ worked on, 1 2 3 4, including the ‘Andrew Dalby’ article, ten minutes after ‘Douglas’ created it; ‘Douglas’ displayed an intimate knowledge of Dalby’s employment history in the 1970s and 1980s, his unpublished essays, and even ‘informal’ work; and more than half the article was (and still is) publicity for Dalby’s books.

Incidentally, Wikipedia does have policies on conflicts of interest, spam, and sockpuppet accounts which look like they ought to prohibit all of this (links are to 2006-2007 versions of the policies). Not very effective policies, maybe?

Even setting Butler aside, gender in the Odyssey continues to be a hot topic. For lots of reasons. In the 1990s, literary criticism was popping with ideas about the topic, and that excitement hasn’t quite worn off yet. In 2017 Emily Wilson published a new high-profile translation of the Odyssey, its first translation into English by a woman (not the first into any modern language: a French one by Anne Dacier appeared in 1716). Also in 2017, Mary Beard’s Women & power: a manifesto opened by citing Odyssey book 1 as a classic example of women’s speech being suppressed.
I want to start very near the beginning of the tradition of Western literature, and its first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’; telling her that her voice was not to be heard in public. I’m thinking of a moment immortalised at the start of Homer’s Odyssey ... Penelope ... [finds a bard] singing about the difficulties the Greek heroes are having in reaching home. She isn’t amused, and front of everyone she asks him to choose another, happier number. At which point young Telemachus intervenes: ‘Mother,’ he says, ‘go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff ... speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.’ And off she goes, back upstairs.
-- Beard 2017: 1
(= London review of books, March 2014)
Some people will want to make excuses for the Odyssey, arguing that its misogyny is a product of its time. While true, that doesn’t mean the misogyny isn’t there. Whether or not that damages the quality of the Odyssey is in the eye of the reader.

Mt Sunday (foreground right), upper Rangitata River valley, a stone’s throw from ‘Erewhon Station’. Butler spent the first part of the 1860s farming sheep here, and the opening section of Erewhon is based on it. More recently, Mt Sunday served as the set for Edoras in The Lord of the Rings films. (Source: Wikimedia.org)

Butler on Penelope

Excuses or no excuses, Butler’s Authoress of the Odyssey makes a weird contrast with this Penelope scene. Because the core of Butler’s argument is that the epic has a firmly and exclusively feminine sensibility.
What, let me ask, is the most unerring test of female authorship? Surely a preponderance of female interest ... Hence if in any work the women are found to be well and sympathetically drawn, while the men are mechanical and by comparison perfunctorily treated, it is, I imagine, safe to infer that the writer is a woman.
-- Butler 1897: 105
‘The Odyssey takes more interest in women than the Iliad, therefore the Odyssey was written by a woman.’ No, that doesn’t make a lick of sense. Can he really have meant to say something that daft? Yes, yes he did. Here’s the next page.
Men seem unable to draw women at all without either laughing at them or caricaturing them ... I doubt whether any writer in the whole range of literature (excepting, I suppose, Shakespeare) has succeeded in drawing a full length, life-sized, serious portrait of a member of the sex opposite to one’s own.
-- Butler 1897: 106
Make no mistake: even though this is halfway through the book, it’s the foundation for the whole thing. His argument is this: in any literary work the characters, physical settings, and interests necessarily represent people, settings, and interests in the author’s everyday life. Nausicaa may be Butler’s motivation, but this is his rationale.

Butler in 1858, two years before he laid claim to farmland in inland Canterbury. (Source: Wikimedia.org)
Let’s imagine his logic somehow worked, and follow up his line of thought. If the Odyssey really had ‘a preponderance of female interest’, with women ‘well and sympathetically drawn’, you’d assume the poet would be keenly interested in exploring what it is that makes Penelope tick. For example: after the incident with Penelope and Telemachus, you’d expect the narrator to track Penelope a bit, maybe follow her upstairs to her private quarters, maybe spend some time describing how she copes with her plight, and her efforts to keep peace with the army of violent suitors inside her house.

Nope. We don’t get any glimpse of Penelope’s inner life until she talks about it in book 19. Even there, many readers doubt she means anything she says. After the incident in book 1, the narrator stays by Telemachus’ side until near the end of book 4; book 2 focuses entirely on Telemachus, the suitors, and the male population of Ithaca, and the motivations driving each of them. (Men are ‘perfunctorily treated’? Hah!) Penelope only reappears briefly at the end of book 4. When we’re told about the problems caused by the suitors, it’s Telemachus talking to Nestor or Menelaus, or Eumaeus talking to the disguised Odysseus.

Butler’s argument also revolves around how he thinks the ideal Victorian lady -- personified as Nausicaa -- ought to feel about the world. At page 107 he invites his reader to ask any single woman that ‘he’ knows whether they like having men about the house. Chapter 4 is about the poet’s ‘jealousy for the honour and dignity of women’. Chapters 5 and 6 argue that the poet has ‘whitewashed’ Penelope out of feminine sympathy, and that in reality Penelope was ‘scandalous’, ‘an artful heartless flirt’. At page 136 he states, ‘The authoress of the Odyssey is never severe about theft’, with the assumption that that’s a feminine perspective. Chapter 7 is about ‘Further indications that the writer is a woman -- young -- headstrong -- and unmarried.’

Butler argues his point with a classic case of victim-blaming. If Penelope really wanted to get rid of the suitors, he says, ‘[o]ne would have thought all she had to do was to bolt the doors as soon as the suitors had left for the night’ (page 126). Or again: ‘The reader will have noted that on this occasion the suitors seem to have been in the house after nightfall’ (page 129).
A man ... would not have made the suitors a band of lovers at all. He would have seen at once that this was out of the question, and would have made them mere marauders, who overawed Penelope by their threats ...
-- Butler 1897: 128
The weird thing is that the suitors are mere marauders. Very very obviously so. They try to assassinate Telemachus. They threaten violence constantly. They commit actual violence throughout books 17 and 18. They force unwilling people into a fist-fight, with promises of torture and mutilation for the loser. They’re brutal monsters.

But no. For Butler, the suitors are romantic lovers: their morals are imperfect, but their love is pure.

And Penelope is leading them on. Butler doesn’t use the word ‘slut’, but if he did, it would be completely in place. He’s an archetypal ‘nice guy’. If Penelope had been able to keep out the suitors with a bolted door, Butler would be the first to complain that she was ghosting her former lovers.

I find it gobsmacking that a noted feminist writer has characterised Butler’s book as ‘[t]he most elegant, ingenious, imaginative and imagination-respecting of feminist gestures’ (Brophy 1985: 814). It’s worrying to see any critic regarding him as a ‘careful reader’ (Kendal 2016: 1). The Odyssey has loads of misogyny, as Mary Beard points out -- but maybe not quite as much as Butler has.

Penelope’s perspective, and that of the slaughtered maids: Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, from a trailer for the 2013 stage production by the Nightwood Theatre, Toronto. (Source: YouTube)

Penelope’s perspective

In the real Odyssey, we only get occasional fragmentary glimpses of what it is that drives the women of the poem. Often that’s exactly the point: we’re not supposed to see what makes Penelope tick. People tell stories about her, they describe her, they interpret her: everything is from someone else’s viewpoint.
‘A night will come when a hateful marriage meets me,’ (says Penelope,)
‘my end, when Zeus takes away my joy.
But ... this isn’t how suitors do things -- it never has been --
when they want to court a noble woman, a wealthy man’s
daughter, and compete with one another.
They bring oxen and fat sheep,
as a feast for the girl’s family. They give fine gifts.
They don’t devour someone else’s livelihood for free!’
    So she spoke. And long-suffering noble Odysseus laughed
because she coaxed gifts out of them, and she charmed their hearts
with soft words while her mind intended something quite different.
-- Odyssey 19.274-283
Penelope flatly declares that she’s going to give in and marry one of the suitors. Is it really a trick? Can we be sure? If we can, it isn‘t because of anything she says. It’s only because Odysseus is there to explain that she didn’t really mean what she said.

So this is a little more involved than your everyday misogyny: it’s essential to her character. In the Odyssey there’s no such thing as Penelope’s perspective, only perspectives on her. Entire books have been written about how there is no inner psychology there, and how her character is created by what other characters think about her motives, and by her role in the plot. (It’s a pity some of those books are notoriously difficult to read: the underlying idea is really solid.)

If Butler had really been a careful reader, he might have argued that this characterisation of Penelope, with her character as a kind of blind spot in the story, shows a more powerful insight into gender relations than any supposed whitewashing could. (More powerful than any of his actual arguments, anyway.)

When the poet keeps Penelope’s inner life obscure, it isn’t easy to tell if it’s because the poet is being misogynistic -- a creature of his time, if you prefer --, or because the whole point of Penelope is that her inner life is inscrutable.

It’s a bit of both. Take the ‘soul-summoning’ scene in book 11: Agamemnon’s ghost advises Odysseus as follows. (a) You must never under any circumstances trust Penelope; (b) Penelope is a really good egg and she’ll always stand by you; and (c) you must never ever trust Penelope ever. Mixed messages much?
‘Never be nice to your wife!
Don’t tell her everything you know.
Say some things, keep some hidden.
But your wife won’t kill you, Odysseus ...
Still ... arrive in your home country secretly, not openly.
Because there’s no trusting women these days.’
-- Odyssey 11.441-456
What a testimony to the Odyssey’s ‘female interest’; what a great benchmark for virtue. ‘Your wife is so virtuous that she isn’t actually going to murder you.’ Well ... yay, I guess? Here we’ve got someone telling us how to think about Penelope, while at the same time stressing that women are scary.

Agamemnon’s words, and other similar passages, tend to suggest the obscurity of Penelope’s inner life isn’t just an insight into the feminine condition in a patriarchal society: it’s also a refusal to engage with the feminine condition.

I don’t think that says anything about the author, though. That would be the same kind of fallacy as when Butler insists that the epic is transparent and the author’s identity is plainly visible through it. Butler’s argument says a lot more about Butler than it does about Homer.
He seems to have rewritten an ancient epic as a Victorian novel ... Along with other Victorians, he is skeptical of Homer worship, but he resents the German classical scholars who deny the great poet his identity. His ‘authoress,’ an inventive restoration of that identity, has the appearance of an exotic, but she is very much at home in the Victorian tradition. ... Butler regenerates a classic as the offspring of a modern temperament: the artist as a young Victorian lady.
-- Booth 1985: 865-867
Butler’s modern critics seem to sway between regarding him as a crackpot (Whitmarsh 2002 -- but maybe I’m interpreting Whitmarsh uncharitably) and an iconoclast (Beard 2007). I think Booth, above, is closer to the mark: Butler wasn’t just an iconoclast, he was a Victorian gentleman’s image of what an iconoclast ought to look like.

That’s not to say he didn’t mean his argument seriously. His dedication to it over several years strongly suggests he was entirely serious. But that doesn’t mean we have to go re-writing the history of Sicily at the drop of Butler’s stovepipe hat.

References