Wednesday, 14 December 2022

Santa’s reindeer, Odin’s horse, and Siberian shamanism

Is Santa based on Odin? Is he a Siberian shaman? Well, if a title asks a yes-no question, you know the answer is nearly always ‘no’. At their heart, both arguments revolve around Santa’s flying reindeer.

Left to right: Odin and his horse Sleipnir (Thor, 2011); Santa Claus; shamans in northern Buryatia, Siberia

People who buy into this kind of theory often aren’t interested in probing the details. So that’s the job I’m taking upon myself here. If you don’t buy into the theory, it’ll be redundant. Still, there are several factors involved, and some of them are rather interesting. Here’s a contents listing of what follows:

  1. The core of the argument: the flying reindeer
  2. St Nicholas
  3. St Nicholas’ horse and Santa’s reindeer
  4. Sleipnir can’t fly
  5. Eight-legged horses aren’t ‘typical’

So, in Odin’s case, the central idea is that Santa’s reindeer are derived from Odin’s amazing horse Sleipnir, which has eight legs and — supposedly — can fly.

Odin we know to have been pictured as a restless, wandering god, who ... himself rode to the Land of the Dead through the air on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir ... It has been stated in a number of books on English folklore that the image of Father Christmas travelling through the sky in his sledge drawn by reindeer is based on such traditions of the heathen god.
Davidson 1970: 182

(In Davidson’s defence, she immediately goes on to point out that this is all nonsense.)

The ‘Siberian shaman’ argument isn’t so obvious. The central idea there is that

Santa Claus is a shaman who gives out psychedelic mushrooms as ‘gifts.’
Derek Beres, Psychedelic spotlight, 2020

You can find the ‘Odin’ story repeated by History daily, Wikipedia,, and an American public library; the ‘Siberian shaman’ story by NBC,, LiveScience, NPR, McGill University, and The Atlantic. And every December, naturally, both stories get repeated on every social media channel under the sun.

1. The core of the argument: the flying reindeer

In Odin’s case, it’ll be obvious that the flying reindeer are the central idea. What about the shamans? The shaman argument is about magic mushrooms, right? So how do reindeer come into it?

Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, purportedly used in western Siberia for alleged psychoactive effects. Amanita muscaria is not the same thing as magic mushrooms: it is toxic, and consuming it can have lethal effects if medical care is unavailable. (source:

Actually it’s the other way round. The real question is: how do the mushrooms come into it? Santa isn’t popularly known for his interest in recreational pharmacology. The shaman argument depends on a cluster of more concrete parallels: that Santa (a) flies through the air, (b) has reindeer, (c) brings presents, and (d) wears red clothes. Supposedly, these are all true of Siberian shamans too. Put them together with the fact that shamans in western Siberia supposedly hand out free hallucinogens — that’s what’s claimed — and out pops the shaman argument.

That is, the mushrooms are secondary to the four parallels I mentioned. And those alleged parallels are of variable quality. In reality, Buryat shamans don’t give free samples, they don’t typically dress in red, and mushroom use isn’t standard practice.

‘If you look at the evidence of Siberian shamanism, which I’ve done,’ [Ronald] Hutton said, ‘you find that shamans didn’t travel by sleigh, didn't usually deal with reindeer spirits, very rarely took the mushrooms to get trances, didn't have red and white clothes.’

And they didn't even run around handing out gifts.
NPR, 2010

(Professor Ronald Hutton is a very good scholar: if he says straight out that something is the case, it’s best to take him at his word.)

So in fact it all rests on the first two points: (a) Santa flies; (b) Santa has reindeer. That’s the real backbone of the ‘Siberian shaman’ argument.

The claim is that reindeer are important in Siberian shamanism. Also, in some circles it’s claimed that there’s an additional link via Odin and his amazing horse Sleipnir. Sleipnir has eight legs; and eight-legged horses are claimed to be a typical motif in Siberian shamanism and Indian funeral rites.

Now, our objective here isn’t to disprove things: it’s to follow the chain of evidence, see how far it goes, and what it really says.

Here are the key facts.

  • Santa’s reindeer were invented in New York in the 1820s.
  • Other Anglo-American traditions about Santa Claus are derived from 17th century Dutch customs.
  • Sleipnir isn’t a flying horse. At least, not in 10th–13th century sources.
  • Eight-legged horses aren’t a widespread thing in Eurasian shamanism. They aren’t even spread: there’s only one. It’s in a 20th century report from Buryatia, in eastern Siberia, a millennium later than Odin, nearly two millennia later than St Nicholas, a long way from supposed mushroom use in western Siberia, and over 5,000 km away from Odin and St Nicholas.

These aren’t my conclusions, they’re the evidence. If you want to argue that Santa is derived from Odin or a Siberian shaman, these the facts you have to work with. Do they sustain your argument? The answer to that should be obvious. Let’s plunge into the details now.

2. St Nicholas

St Nicholas or Nikólaos was a historical Christian bishop in Anatolia in the 3rd–4th centuries CE. There are various stories about him — providing young women with dowries; saving children from being pickled by a mad butcher; slapping the heretic Áreios in the face at the Council of Níkaia in 325 CE. The stories are apocryphal, but he did exist, and he was venerated in Constantinople by the 500s.

St Nicholas slaps Áreios: early 18th cent. fresco, Soumelá Monastery, Trabzon Province, Turkey (source:; photo by Marco Prins)
Arius the red-faced heretic
Has a very shiny cheek.
That’s ’cause Saint Nic’las wasn’t
Acting oh-so-very meek.
Credited to ‘Orycteropus’, St Nicholas Center, 2020
Note. For copious details of documentation and evidence for St Nicholas from antiquity to the Modern era, see McDaniel 2019.

His saint’s day, 6 December, became associated with St Nicholas bringing gifts to children. That’s still the case in parts of present-day Europe: in Bavaria and Austria it’s common to see a member of the community dressed as a bishop and handing out small presents at neighbourhood events on St Nicholas’ Day.

Heiliger Niklaus visits a kindergarten in Amlach, Austria, 6 December 2022 (source:

In the Modern era, St Nicholas underwent several transformations. When the Lutherans tried to put an end to the cult of the saints in the 1500s, the baby Jesus — the Heiliger Christ or Christkindl — was introduced as a Protestant replacement for St Nicholas. The Christkindl brings gifts at Christmas, not St Nicholas’ Day, to avoid any whiff of Catholicism. (Some modern German children get presents from both the Niklaus and the Christkindl, on 6 December and 25 24 December respectively.)

St Nicholas, or a blended version — a Christmassy St Nicholas — ended up merging with various bits of local folklore in several regions in the 17th–20th centuries. As a result there are many local variants: the Dutch Sint Nikolaas, the Slavic Ded Moroz, the Finnish Joulupukki, the English Father Christmas, the American Santa Claus, and several more. Some of them have partially merged — Father Christmas isn’t really separate from Santa Claus these days — and some variants they have a companion who attends to naughty children in various ways: Père Fouettard, Krampus, Schmutzli, etc.

It’s possible some of these figures have local pagan precursors. Tracking down good evidence is hard, though. Partly because people like assigning pagan origins to things without going into pesky details like evidence; partly because good evidence is only available if you know the right languages and have physical access to the right archives.

I recommend caution. When people assign ‘pagan’ origins to Anglo-American Christian customs, they routinely turn out to be modern innovations. Father Christmas, for example, started out in 17th century England as a sympathetic allegorical figure in anti-Puritan pamphlets, when the Puritans outlawed Christmas.

Note. For further details on ‘Old Father Christmas’, see Durston 1985; McDaniel 2019.

3. St Nicholas’ horse and Santa’s reindeer

In Dutch tradition, St Nicholas has a horse, not reindeer. He rides on it across rooftops and down chimneys. The earliest surviving appearance of this tradition seems to be in the 1660s, in Jan Steen’s painting The Feast of St Nicholas.

Jan Steen, Het Sint-Nicolaasfeest (1665–1668). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (source: Rijksmuseum)

Steen depicts children delighted at the presents that they have received in a shoe they left out. At the left, one boy is in tears because he has received only birch twigs, representing punishment. And at the right, an older boy is pointing out the chimney to two younger children.

Textual evidence of the custom appears in 1720, in a dictionary of proverbs: ‘St Nicholas enters the chimney with his little horse, to put something in [children’s] shoes’.

Note. Tuinman 1720: 162: ‘Sint Niklaas met zyn paardje ter schoorsteen inkomt, om wat te brengen in de schoenen ...’ For these early references to Dutch traditions about St Nicholas’ Day I am indebted to /u/Iguana_on_a_stick, who kindly pointed them out to me in 2021 on AskHistorians. For a wider range of European references, once again see McDaniel 2019.

In the early 1800s Washington Irving’s A history of New York (under the pseudonym ‘Diedrich Knickerbocker’) gave a satirical account of the 17th century Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. St Nicholas has a prominent role, as the patron saint of both Amsterdam and New Amsterdam. Irving describes a ship’s figurehead in the form of St Nicholas (1809 edition vol. 1, p. 79) —

... a goodly image of St. Nicholas, equipped with a low, broad brimmed hat, a huge pair of Flemish trunk hose, and a pipe that reached to the end of his bow-sprit.

And refers to the observance of St Nicholas’ Day (1809 edition vol. 2, p. 252) —

... nor was the day of St. Nicholas suffered to pass by, without making presents, hanging the stocking in the chimney, and complying with all its other ceremonies.

St Nicholas’ mode of transport didn’t appear in the original edition: Irving added a chapter for the 1812 revised edition that describes it (1812 edition vol. 1, pp. 106–107):

And the sage Oloffe [van Kortlandt] dreamed a dream — and lo, the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self same waggon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children; and he came and descended ... And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hat band, and laying his finger beside his nose gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look, then mounting his waggon he returned over the tree tops and disappeared.

The wagon may be an American innovation: the Dutch Sint Nikolaas rides a horse, with no wagon, as we saw earlier, and as we see in Jan Schenkman’s Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht (1850).

American and Dutch versions of St Nicholas riding on rooftops next to a chimney. Left: the first ever appearance of Santa’s reindeer and sleigh, in the 1821 New York poem ‘Old Santeclaus with much delight’ (source: Beinecke Library, Yale University). Right: Sint Nikolaas on horseback in a ca. 1880 edition of Schenkman’s Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht (source: Koninklijke Bibliotheek).

Nine years later, also in New York, St Nicholas’ horse became a reindeer, and the wagon became a sleigh. The very earliest reindeer appears in the 1821 book The children’s friend. Number III. A new-year’s present to the little ones from five to twelve, published by William B. Gilley. The book contains an anonymous poem about St Nicholas’ arrival and his gift-giving:

Old SANTECLAUS with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night,
O’er chimney-tops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.

This version of Santeclaus visits at Christmas, not St Nicholas’ Day. That suggests some kind of merger with the German Christkindl — or perhaps with the Weihnachtsmann, another German figure, who resembles Santa Claus; but I haven’t found any pre-20th century evidence of the Weihnachtsmann in Germany.

Addition, two days later: in a comment below, Karlheinz Drescher has kindly pointed out evidence of the Weihnachtsmann going back at least to 1784, with the motif of gift-giving attested from 1797. This certainly clears the way for the possibility of some influence from the Weihnachtsmann on the American Santeclaus/St Nicholas.

The most influential step in Santa’s development took place two years later: A visit from St Nicholas, or ‘’Twas the night before Christmas’. This famous poem first appeared in the newspaper The Troy Sentinel (New York) on 23 December 1823.

We know not to whom we are indebted for the following description of that unwearied patron of children — that homely, but delightful personification of parental kindness — SANTE CLAUS, his costume and his equipage, as he goes about visiting the fire-sides of this happy land, laden with Christmas bounties ...

A visit includes traditional elements that we saw linked to St Nicholas earlier, but which aren’t present in ‘Old Santeclaus with much delight’: (a) St Nicholas and his transport are tiny creatures, as in the 1720 book of proverbs; (b) they swap between riding on the snowy ground and riding on rooftops, as in Irving; (c) St Nicholas smokes a pipe, again as in Irving; (d) the gesture of laying his finger by his nose, as in Irving. It also repeats one element that first appeared in ‘Old Santeclaus with much delight’, that Santa dresses in fur, not as a bishop.

There are also novel elements. The poem multiplies Santa’s reindeer into eight, and gives them the names that are still used today: Dasher, Dancer, and so on. When the team rides from ground level up onto the roof, the poem introduces the key word ‘flew’ —

So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys — and St. Nicholas too.

In the wake of this, Santa had his sleigh, his eight reindeer, the element of flying, and ‘a round little belly / That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly’. From there it’s only a few short steps to the modern Anglo-American Santa.

Odin and Sleipnir as depicted in a fresco shown in Thor Ragnarok (2017)

4. Sleipnir can’t fly

Sleipnir was an amazing horse, to be sure. He had eight legs. His mother was Loki. He was stupendously fast. But his main disqualification as a parallel for Santa’s reindeer, aside from his species, is that he couldn’t fly.

Note. Sleipnir having Loki as his mother may be more startling than the idea that he has something to do with Santa’s reindeer. That bit is absolutely grounded in a mediaeval source, though, albeit a 12th–13th century Christian author: Snorri, Gylfaginning 42 (= 35,14–35 ed. Faulkes).

Or rather, the modern Sleipnir can evidently fly. Because that’s how he’s been reimagined now. But the mediaeval Sleipnir couldn’t fly.

There are two mediaeval sources that have been construed as suggesting the power of flight. First the 12th–13th century Danish author Saxo Grammaticus, reported by Wikipedia as follows:

The old man [i.e. Odin] sings a prophecy, and takes Hadingus back to where he found him on his horse. During the ride back, Hadingus trembles beneath the old man’s mantle, and peers out of its holes. Hadingus realizes that he is flying through the air ...

And second, the 12th–13th century Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson:

Hrungnir asked who it was that wore a golden helmet and rode through the sky and over the sea on such a fine horse.

At first sight, these look like conclusive support for the claim that Sleipnir can fly. However, the first is misreported; and the second, misinterpreted.

Here’s what Saxo Grammaticus actually says (Gesta Danorum 1.6.9, tr. Fisher).

With these words [the old man] set the young man on his horse and brought him back to the place where he had found him. Hadding hid trembling beneath his cloak, but in intense amazement kept casting keen glances through the slits and saw that the sea lay stretched out under the horse’s hoofs [equinis freta patere vestigiis]; being forbidden to gaze, he turned his wondering eyes away ...

No, your eyes don’t deceive you: there’s no reference to flying. A Wikipedia editor made that up. The lack of flying is even clearer in Saxo’s Latin: vestigia doesn’t mean ‘hoofs’, it means ‘tracks’ or ‘hoofprints’. That is, the tracks that Sleipnir is leaving on the surface of the sea. Not above the sea.

Let’s move on to Snorri. Here’s a bit more context (Skáldskaparmál 17 = 20,20-22 ed. Faulkes, trans. Young):

Hrungnir asked who the man was in the golden helmet who was riding through the air and over the sea [lopt ok lǫg], adding that he had a remarkably fine horse. Odin replied that he would wager his head its equal was not to be found in Giantland. Hrungnir said that Sleipnir was a fine horse, but maintained that he possessed one called Gold-mane that could step out much better, ...

Hrungnir and Odin then have a horse race, which Odin wins easily.

There are two catches here. The small catch is that an isolated attestation in a 12th-13th century Christian writer isn’t terrific evidence for a pre-Christian tradition — especially when a much larger argument hangs on the existence of that tradition.

The bigger catch is that lopt ok lǫg is a formulaic phrase. It isn’t a kenning, exactly, but it is a trope, a quasi-poetic image. Literally, lopt does mean ‘sky, in the air, aloft’, and lǫgr means ‘sea, water’ (Gordon and Taylor 1957: 367–368). Here are the other contexts where it appears, all in Snorri (and all given in Young’s translation):

1. Gylfaginning 35 (30,7-9 Faulkes)

The fourteenth [goddess] is Gná; Frigg sends her on her errands. She has a horse that runs through the air and over the sea [lopt ok lǫg] called Hoof-flourisher. Once when she was riding, some Vanir saw her riding in the air [i loptinu] and one said:
What is flying there [Hvat þar flýgr?],
faring there
and gliding through the air [at lopti líðr]?
She answered:
I am not flying [Ne ek flýg],
although I am faring
gliding through the air [at lopti líðk]
on Hoof-flourisher ...

2. Gylfaginning 37 (31,4-6 Faulkes)

... when [a woman] raised her arms to open the door, they illumined the sky and sea [bæði í lopt ok á lǫg], and the whole world grew bright from her.

3. Gylfaginning 51 (50,11-12 Faulkes)

The Miðgarð Serpent will blow so much poison that the whole sky and sea [lopt ǫll ok lǫg] will be spattered with it ...

4. Skáldskaparmál 17 (20,20-22 Faulkes). Odin and Sleipnir: see above.

5. Skáldskaparmál 35 (42,27-29 Faulkes)

To Frey he gave the boar, saying that it could run through the air and over the sea [lopt ok lǫg] day or night faster than any horse ...

6. Skáldskaparmál 35 (43,2-3 Faulkes)

Loki had shoes in which he could run through the air and over the sea [á lopt ok lǫg]. Then the dwarf asked Thór to catch him and he did so.

Passage 1 is the most substantial, and at first sight is the clearest in indicating a flying horse. However, it must give pause for thought that Gná expressly states that she is not flying. The translator’s choice of words for ek liðk, ‘I am gliding’, is tendentious — líða means ‘go’ in a general sense, not ‘glide’ — but even if we change it to ‘I am not flying, I am going aloft’, it still seems a strange distinction for Gná to draw.

Put a pin in that for now. Move on. Passages 2 and 3 are quite different from the others, and suggest a meaning ‘all over the place, everywhere’. That’s how Kate Heslop puts it in her commentary on Hallfreðr’s Erfidrápa, stanza 4 (2012: 407):

lopt ok lǫg is a common phrase in prose, with the connotation ‘everywhere’.

Passages 2 and 3 don’t help us much, then. But the passages in the Skáldskaparmál do. In all three, the common theme is not location, but speed. Sleipnir beats Gold-mane in a race; Frey’s boar is faster than any horse; no matter how fast Loki runs, Thor can catch him.

With these — and therefore also with passage 1 about Gná’s horse — the phrase lopt ok lǫg isn’t a definite claim that flying is taking place. Instead, it’s a claim that Sleipnir, Frey’s boar, and Loki are incredibly fast. The underlying flavour of the expression is probably that someone is running so fast that their feet don’t touch the ground, like a cartoon Roadrunner.

Hann rann á lopt ok lǫg: Dash Parr, The Incredibles (2004)

The cartoon-speedster image would be a reasonable fit for the general style of Old Norse imagery. It would also have the benefit of making sense of Gná’s distinction, ‘I am not flying; I am going aloft.’ You wouldn’t say that Dash, above, can ‘fly’ — but you could say that he’s almost as fast as Sleipnir. You can say that he runs á lopt ok lǫg.

Whatever the precise connotations, we can’t say Odin is ‘flying’ on Sleipnir, any more than the Vanir can say Gná is ‘flying’ on her horse. Anyway, Sleipnir is still phenomenal: I mean, he can run on the surface of water. That should be miraculous enough for any supernatural horse.

5. Eight-legged horses aren’t ‘typical’

Now, we know that the octopod horse is typically shamanic.
Eliade 1964: 469

No, we do not. Eight-legged shamanic horses owe much more to Mircea Eliade’s imagination than to real shamans. It’s wildly wishful thinking to imagine Sleipnir is ‘the typical steed of a shaman’, or that he’s ‘one of several eight-legged horses of the ancient world’.

Eliade is a cherry-picker. He scours material worldwide, selects minor parallels out of context, and then claims that they demonstrate a deep causal relation. It’s very like when someone hears about pyramids in Mexico and Sudan and decides that they’re related — without stopping to consider that that’s the single simplest way of stacking rocks. Or someone who looks at any circular architectural layout anywhere and declares that it’s Atlantean.

Eliade has a grand total of three eight-legged horses. They aren’t ‘typical’, they aren’t ‘several’, and only one of them is shamanic.

The first is Sleipnir. No problem here ... though it is painfully conspicuous that Eliade chooses to cite two books written by card-carrying Nazis (1964: 469 n. 13), instead of the actual source, Snorri.

The second horse is from a Buryat story, in south-eastern Siberia, about a shaman spirit named Höhme (Sanžeev 1927: 607–608, my translation):

Höhme ... awaited the appearance of her shaman-spirit-ancestor, so that she could marry him. A sign of this event was supposed to be the birth of an eight-footed foal in the herd. Höhme’s (earthly) husband saw this, and he cut off four legs — superfluous, as he supposed. On her husband’s return from the steppe, Höhme asked him: ‘Hasn’t an eight-footed foal been born to our herd?’ Her husband said he had found one and had already cut off the four extra legs. ‘Oh, woe! Look, that was my foal that I would have ridden to become a shaman!’

And the last is from a Muria funeral song, in central India (Elwin 1947: 150):

Let us take the Raja home.
Twelve times have the folk been called.
Come, brothers, come.
A thousand men have gathered.
What horse is this?
It is the horse Bagri Maro.
What should we say of its legs?
This horse has eight legs.
What should we say of its heads?
This horse has four heads.
There are men before and behind.
There are police on either side.
The horse begins to run.
What is this palace?

Let’s deal with the last one first. Eliade purposely misrepresents the Muria funeral song. I say ‘purposely’ because his source, the English anthropologist Verrier Elwin, makes it perfectly clear what’s really going on.

[T]he horse Bagri Maro is, of course, the bier and its four bearers. The men and police on every side are the escorting chelik. The palace is the grave and the tomb that is usually built above it for for an important man.

That is, the funeral procession is described in lyrical terms as if it’s transporting a living wealthy man. There are no ‘police’, there is no ‘palace’, and there is no ‘horse’ — let alone a shamanic horse. Anyway, this is in central India. What on earth does it have to do with Siberia?

That leaves us with just one eight-legged shamanic horse, the Buryat one, in Garma Sanžeev’s report. Is it related to Odin’s horse? Well, no, of course it isn’t.

  • It’s an isolated report: it isn’t ‘typical’ in any sense.
  • It’s a 20th century story.
  • It’s from Buryatia, over 5,000 km from Scandinavia.
  • There’s no resemblance between Odin and Höhme.
  • For Höhme the horse represents access to mystic knowledge; Odin already has his mystic knowledge and his leadership of the Æsir before Sleipnir is born.
  • Höhme’s foal is born into an ordinary herd; Sleipnir is the offspring of Loki and a supernaturally strong stallion.
  • Höhme’s horse has four legs amputated as a foal; Sleipnir keeps his eight legs and grows to maturity.

Enough: this is nonsense. Sleipnir and the Buryat story have nothing to do with each other. Add Santa’s reindeer are an ocean further removed still.

One final resort might be to ignore legs and just focus on the number eight. In that case you could suggest some kind of link to the eight-winged horse of Mir-Susne-Hum, an Ugrian mythological figure in the Urals, attested in two 21st century Russian sources (Uliashev 2019: 21). But that really would be desperate — especially if you recall that Sleipnir isn’t a flying horse.

Note. Thanks to Joseph A. P. Wilson for pointing out Mir-Susne-Hum’s horse to me in 2021 on Twitter.

The long-and-short of it is that people really want to be able to explain where ideas like Santa’s reindeer come from. Coming up with a new explanation is intrinsically appealing. And second-option bias is a powerful force.

That has the effect of making real explanations — that the flying reindeer were invented in America in the 1820s — unappealing. Falsehoods and speculations get disseminated at the expense of evidence. And that’s unfortunate.

But fortunately, falsehoods don’t spontaneously generate fake evidence out of thin air: all they can do is repeat themselves. The real evidence doesn’t go away. And if we look hard enough, as we’ve tried to do here, we can still find the real stuff.

Note, 17 Dec. 2022: I originally quoted Snorri as being a 14th century author; the date is now corrected above. Thanks to the anonymous comment below for suggesting the correction.


  • Davidson, H. R. E. 1970. ‘Scandinavian folklore in Britain.’ Journal of the Folklore Institute 7.2/3: 177–186. [JSTOR]
  • Durston, C. 1985. ‘Lords of misrule. The Puritan war on Christmas 1642–60.’ History today 35.12: 7-14. [ProQuest |]
  • Eliade, M. 1964. Shamanism. Archaic techniques of ecstasy. Tr. W. R. Trask. Princeton. (Orig. La chamanisme et les techniques archaïques de l’extase, Paris, 1951.)
  • Elwin, M. 1947. The Muria and their ghotul. Mumbai (‘Bombay’). [Government of India]
  • Faulkes, A. 1998. Snorri Sturluson. Edda. Skáldskaparmál, vol. 1. London.
  • —— 2005. Snorri Sturluson. Edda. Prologue and Gylfaginning, 2nd ed. London.
  • Fisher, P. (tr.) 2015. Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta Danorum: the history of the Danes, vol. 1. Ed. K. Friis-Jensen. Oxford.
  • Heslop, K. 2012. ‘Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld Óttarsson, Erfidrápa Óláfs Tryggvasonar.’ In: Whaley, D. (ed.), Poetry from the kings’ sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Turnhout.
  • McDaniel, S. 2019. ‘The long, strange, fascinating history of Santa Claus.’ Tales of times forgotten, Dec. 2019. [online]
  • Sanžeev (‘Sandschejew’), G. 1927. ‘Weltanschauung und Schamanismus der Ālaren-Burjaten.’ Anthropos 22.3/4: 576–613. [JSTOR]
  • Tuinman, C. 1720. De oorsprong en uitlegging van dagelyks gebruikte Nederduitsche spreekwoorden, vol. 1. Middelburg (Netherlands). [DBNL (1727 printing) | Bayerische Staatsbibliothek]
  • Uliashev, O. 2019. ‘Perm and Ob-Ugric relations in terms of folklore data.’ Folklore (Tartu) 76: 15–28. [DOI]

Saturday, 10 December 2022

Hades II

The sequel has been announced! Hades II, a follow-up to the smash hit Hades (2020), by video game studio Supergiant.

In the original you played the role of Zagreus, son of Hades, struggling to escape the Underworld. Hades II gives the central role to Melinoë (Judy Alice Lee), who, like Zagreus, is mentioned in ancient Orphic traditions but is a relatively obscure figure. Melinoë has Hecate (Amelia Tyler) as a mentor, and her goal is apparently to defeat the Titan Kronos.

Or rather, Chronos. The spelling ‘Chronos’ is confirmed on the Supergiant website. The distinction is significant. But how significant?

At one point in the trailer, released 9 December 2022, we see Hades himself (Logan Cunningham) in shackles, and he says,

[Chronos] is no mere Titan. He is Time itself — and Time cannot be stopped.
Hades, Hades II (forthcoming)

In ancient mythology Kronos is the name of the chaos-entity that is the father of Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon. ‘Chronos’, ancient Greek χρόνος, is a common word which means ‘time’.

Kronos the titan and Chronos the personification of Time are separate figures in the mythology but it looks like they’ve combined them in the game.
/u/pb1115, Reddit, 10 Dec. 2022

To be precise, there isn’t exactly a personification of Time in Greek mythology. Not a standard one, anyway. ‘Chronos’ as a personification does appear in some Orphic sources, dating to the late Hellenistic period and later —

And to Chronos, ageless and immortal-minded, Aither
was born. Also great and monstrous Chasm, this side and that side,
who has neither boundary above, nor bottom, nor seat.
Hieros logos (ca. 2nd cent. BCE?), Orphica fr. 111 ed. Bernabé

This (or a similar passage) is paraphrased by later interpreters:

This is what Orpheus stated. He said that at the beginning Aither was revealed to Time [Chronos], having been created by God, and there was Chaos on this side of Aither and on that, while dark Night [Nyx] held everything and covered what was under Aither, signifying that Night came first.
John Malalas, Chronographia 4.7 ed. Thurn (tr. Jeffreys et al.)

But we can’t properly separate Kronos and Chronos. A similar kind of wordplay appears in a Orphic treatise dating to the late 400s BCE, preserved in the fragmentary Derveni papyrus, which treats ‘Kronos’ as interchangeable with another similarly-sounding Greek word, krou- ‘collide’.

So (Orpheus) says that Kronos was born of Earth to the Sun, since it is because of the Sun that the elements collide (kroúesthai) against each other. ...

The next line: ‘Sky son of Night, he who ruled first of all’: the mind that Collides (kroúonta) elements against each other, [Orpheus] names ‘Kronos’. And [the poet] says that he committed a great crime against Sky, for [Sky] had his kingship taken from him. It is because of this activity that he calls him ‘Kronos’; and he follows the same practice for the other principles too.
Derveni papyrus, col. 14 lines 2–10

Wordplay of this kind was a vogue throughout antiquity. One early interpreter of Homer, Theagenes of Rhegion (6th cent. BCE), explained a battle between the gods in the Homeric Iliad by giving an allegorical interpretation of each match-up. Some of them involve wordplays (schol. Il. 20.67):

  • Apollo vs. Poseidon = 'partial fire' (i.e. the sun) vs. 'all wetness' (i.e. the Mediterranean sea)
  • Athena vs. Ares = ‘thoughtfulness’ vs. ‘thoughtlessness’
  • Hera vs. Artemis = ‘mist around the earth’ (perígeios aér) vs. ‘the moon’
  • Hermes vs. Leto = ‘reason, rationality’ vs. ‘forgetfulness’ (léthe)

and so on.

In Theagenes, the wordplay comes in the fact that Héra and aér are anagrams of each other in ancient Greek (Ἥρα ~ ἀήρ; Greek dosn’t have a separate letter for /h/); and Letó and léthe ‘forgetfulness’ are also very close (Λητώ ~ λήθη). In the Orphic Derveni theogony, the wordplay is on Kronos ~ krou- ‘collide’.

In that context, we absolutely shouldn’t be surprised when both ancient and modern interpreters see Kronos as related to chrónos ‘time’. It’s still possible that Kronos and Chronos were treated as separate entities, but the sources we have don’t fully support that.

One more thing. When Hades says,

[Chronos] is no mere Titan.

that is a bit of a distortion. It’s not just that Kronos wasn’t a ‘mere’ Titan. Kronos was the Titan.

Modern perception of the Titans tends to think of them as all the members of generation of divinities before the Olympians: not just Kronos, but Okeanos (the ocean), Hyperion (the sun), Mnemosyne (‘memory’), Iapetos, Phoibe, and so on. Wikipedia even has a standardised sidebar listing ‘The Twelve Titans’, as if that’s an established canon.

It isn’t. Plenty of members of this ‘canonical’ twelve never got imprisoned in Tartaros. They’re still bouncing around free in Homer and Hesiod. Hyperion is still acting as the sun, and Phoibe as the moon; Dione is wandering around on Mt Olympos in Iliad book 5; Mnemosyne regularly gets invoked by poets; Hekate gets to keep her divine prerogatives.

Hesiod makes all the divinities in this generation ‘Titans’ (Theogony 205–206). But usually, it’s the trio of Kronos, Iapetos, and Okeanos that are grouped together as the ones who are opposed to the Olympians in the Titanomachy.

... the nethermost extremes
of earth and sea, where Iapetos and Kronos
sit and never enjoy the rays of Hyperion the Sun,
nor the winds, and deep Tartaros is around them.
Iliad 8.478-481

So it is a bit of a solecism for Hades to say that Kronos (or Chronos) ‘is no mere Titan’.

Like I said. Kronos is the Titan.

Tuesday, 6 December 2022


I’ve made various resources available online over the years: the following is a static record of them. (There are disadvantages to announcing these things somewhere like Twitter: (a) the announcement will only be visible for a week or so; (b) if the Twitter account should happen to be closed the announcement will be deleted altogether.)

A searchable corpus of early Greek hexameter poetry

  • Iliad and Odyssey, edited by Helmut van Thiel (1991–2010; plain text, Beta Code, no diacritics or punctuation)
  • Non-Homeric hexameter, compiled by P. Gainsford (2015; plain text, Beta Code, no diacritics or punctuation)

Back in the 2000s the late Professor Dr Helmut van Thiel hosted the text of his editions of Homer on his homepage at the Universität Köln, making them freely available. He gave them as PDF files containing plain text versions of his edited texts, under the titles iliaspur, odysspur, and a combined version in one file, homerpur. Van Thiel’s homepage is long since gone. Following his death in 2014 it seems unlikely that the university will make these files available again. I have exported the text from the PDF files, and today I uploaded it to

A long time ago I realised that this format — plain text Beta Code, with no diacritics or punctuation, and with a text reference at the start of every line — was ideal for searching for metrical formulas, or indeed any kind of phrasing. But the absence of a comparable edition of other extant hexameter poetry was troubling. So in 2015 I released a plain text compilation of my own, using van Thiel’s Homer as a model.

In van Thiel’s Homer, each line is annotated from A1 to W804 (Iliad) and a1 to w548 (Odyssey).

My ‘non-Homeric hexameter’ has abbreviations listed at the start. It contains: the Hesiodic poems and fragments; the Homeric hymns; the contents of Bernabé’s PEG; Xenophanes; Parmenides; Terpander; epigraphic hexameters from Hansen’s CEG, Wachter’s Non-Attic Greek vase inscriptions, and other editions; early hexameters reported in Herodotos, the Lives of Homer, Pausanias, and Clement of Alexandria; oracles attributed to the Delphic Pythia; textual variants, where practical; and variants with and without standardised orthography. Spaces are added before and after every line to simplify use of regular expressions. Digamma and qoppa are encoded as additions to Beta Code (v and j respectively).

A feature-rich text editor such as Notepad++ is a powerful tool for analysing repeated phrases such as formulas. Notepad++ has commands for ‘Find All in current Doucment’ and ‘Find All in All Opened Documents’ which will produce a list of results in context, including the line reference. Each result is clickable and takes you to the full context. See the image below for an example. Notepad++ supports regular expressions. It is much faster than using the TLG, and far more powerful.

A Notepad++ window showing tabs for van Thiel’s Homer and my ‘non-Homeric hexameter’ compilation. In this screenshot, I have done a search of ‘all opened documents’ for the phrase Poseidawni anakti, Beta Code for Ποσειδάωνι ἄνακτι. The lower panel shows the search results: the search-term Poseidawni anakti is highlighted in its immediate context in each line; line-references are at the left. The upper panel shows the full context for the currently selected search result: Catalogue of women, Hesiodica fr. 136 Merkelbach-West, line 17. Note that the search results from ‘NAGVI’ (Wachter’s Non-Attic Greek vase inscriptions) are annotated as using standardised orthography: the original orthography (Π̣ο̣τ̣[ε?]ι̣δάνι ϝ[άνακτι], Ποτιδάϝονι ϝάνατ(τ)ι, etc.) is also in the file, given in Beta Code.

Early Greek hexameter inscriptions

While I was writing Early Greek hexameter poetry (Cambridge, 2015) I realised that there was no straightforward index of early hexameter inscriptions. Editions such as Hansen’s CEG do not normally have a metrical index.

I therefore realised it was necessary to create an index myself. The result appears on pp. 31–32 of the book. As part of the indexing process, I also made a full-text compilation of all available hexameter inscriptions. I uploaded this compilation to in July 2019.

Unlike CEG, my compilation indicates long vowels with a macron (except where they already possess a circumflex). Cross-references are given between Hansen’s CEG; Wachter’s Non-Attic Greek vase inscriptions; Peek’s Griechische Vers-Inschriften; Pfohl’s Greek poems on stones; Inscriptiones graecae; Supplementum epigraphicum graecum; and versions with ionicised orthography in Friedländer’s Epigrammata.

The inscriptions are ordered roughly chronologically in fifty-year blocks, and are numbered 1 to 218.


Work in progress. A simple list of links to online copies of published editions of Greek papyri. Most links are to The internet archive.

The list includes 84 volumes of The Oxyrhynchus papyri (1898–2019), three volumes of The Tebtunis papyri, and assorted volumes of papyri held at Hamburg, Michigan, and elsewhere. Suggestions for additions to the list would be welcome.


Work in progress. A simple list of links to online copies of published editions of Greek inscriptions. Most links are to The internet archive.

The list includes 47 volumes of MDAI(A) (1876–1925), and assorted other volumes. As pointed out in the list, lists many volumes that I do not: that is because many of their links are not publicly available (Google Books, HathiTrust). Suggestions for additions to the list would be welcome.

Tuesday, 22 November 2022

The library of Alexandria and its reputation

Many people are aware that the library of Alexandria is hugely overblown. Sure, there’ll always be people insisting that it was a magical place that held the secrets of Göbekli Tepe, Doggerland, and blond blue-eyed Europeans building pyramids in Mexico and Bolivia: there’s no point engaging with people like that. The thing is, pretty much everyone has heard of it.

Last week the History subreddit paid some attention to a piece I wrote in 2015 dispelling some myths about the Alexandrian library. Which is nice. Some people misread it and thought I was claiming it was true that ‘the burning of the library of Alexandria was “the most destructive fire in the history of human culture”’. That’s a pity, but understandable. (One reader was angry at my claiming to be a Kiwi and a hellenist: that was entertaining.)

On a more serious note, several readers pointed out that there were other library losses in history that were far more destructive. And that’s absolutely correct. Any time books are destroyed that don’t exist in other copies in other libraries, that’s a catastrophic and irreversible loss.

You can argue about whether specific incidents belong in this category. The destruction of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad in 1258 didn’t exactly put an end to the Abbasid knowledge economy and book culture, any more than the Alexandrian fire did in hellenised Egypt.

A genuine candidate for ‘most destructive fire in the history of human culture’: the Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro, 2 September 2018. (Photo: CBS News)

But some tragedies really are catastrophically destructive. The fire at the National Museum of Brazil in 2018 destroyed mountains of unique recordings of indigenous languages, irreplaceable archives of extinct languages, and physical artefacts. When a copy of a book gets burned, it can always be replaced if people care. But much of what was lost that day was lost for good. The fire of Rio de Janeiro was far more destructive than the incidents at Baghdad or Alexandria.

So why does the fire in Alexandria have such a vastly overinflated reputation? Why is it such a well known symbol?

Phase 1. Ancient book culture

Let’s revisit a papyrus I mentioned in the 2015 piece: one of Aristotle’s books, the Constitution of the Athenians. This text wasn’t transmitted via the mediaeval manuscript tradition. It survives only in a single papyrus copy, found in Egypt, and now held at the British Library (P. Lond. 131). Here are two interesting facts about the papyrus:

  1. It comes from Hermopolis.
  2. It was made on recycled papyrus (the papyrus was previously used for farming records).

The first fact is interesting because Hermopolis is about 400 km from Alexandria. The second fact is interesting because it shows that it was made on the cheap.

In other words, no one was making an 800 km round trip to Alexandria, on foot, to make this copy. It was made locally.

Hellenised Egypt had a thriving book trade. There were libraries all over the place. And the loss of one big library didn’t suddenly change that.

P. Lond. 131 f. 2r, one of four scrolls that comprise the Aristotle papyrus. The papyrus was originally used for accounts for a farm near Hermopolis in the 70s CE; the blank side was later used to make a copy of the Aristotle, around 80–100 CE.

Similarly, when scholars in Rome wanted to do research, they didn’t travel all the way to Egypt. After all there were libraries in Rome: the Palatine library, the Atrium Libertatis, the Portico of Octavia, the Ulpian library, the library by the temple of Peace, the libraries at the baths of Trajan, the baths of Caracalla, the baths of Diocletian, and more. Outside Rome, there were major libraries in cities like Athens, Pergamon, Ephesos. And we know about plenty of large privately built libraries in lower-profile centres too, like Como in northern Italy, Timgad in Algeria, Prusa in Turkey.

The books that survive today via the mediaeval tradition aren’t ones that were whisked out of a burning library in Alexandria. They’re ones that got copied and so survived the format shifts over the millennia: the shift from manuscript to print in the 15th century, from uncial script to minuscule script in the 9th–10th centuries, from scroll to codex in the 2nd–4th centuries. All of these, especially the transition from scroll to codex, had a far greater impact than any one library could. A library fire affects one copy of a book: a format shift affects all copies everywhere.

Phase 2. ‘The vanity of learning’

Even in antiquity the fire of 48/47 BCE was a potent symbol. But it didn’t symbolise what it does today. Here’s how Seneca the Younger talks about it, writing in the mid-1st century CE (On tranquility of mind 9.5):

Forty thousand books burned at Alexandria. Let someone else praise that as a beautiful monument of royal elegance [elegantia]; like Livy, who says it was a tribute to the elegance of kings and the nobility of curation [cura]. It wasn’t elegance and it wasn’t curation. It was scholarly extravagance. Or rather, no, not even scholarly: since they didn't collect books for scholarship, but for show.

(The number of books varies a great deal in different sources: Seneca’s figure of ‘forty thousand’ is by far the lowest.)

The harbour fire of 48/47 BCE as depicted in Assassin’s creed origins (2017), with the Pharos lighthouse in the background. In the game, the library remains undamaged and can still be visited after the fire. Even more inaccurately, the library makes a cameo appearance in the follow-up Assassin’s creed odyssey (2018) — set a full century before either Alexandria or the library existed.

The subsequent history of the library’s reputation was mixed. The most famous fable about the library, about Caliph Omar burning the library during the Rashidun conquest around 640 CE, is in a similar vein:

And [‘Amr] received a letter from ‘Umar telling him: ‘As for the books you mention, if there is in it what complies with the Book of God, then it is already there and is not needed and if what is in these books contradict the Book of God there is no need for it. And you can then proceed in destroying them.’
Note. Al-Qifṭī, Ta‘rikh al-Ḥukama, trans. Emily Cottrell; published on Roger Pearse’s website, Sep. 2010.

This is pure morality fable, without an iota of credibility to it. Demetrios of Phaleron’s library went up in flames centuries earlier: the libraries that existed in Alexandria in the 600s CE were entirely new institutions. Still, in the Enlightenment period this fable became the single most influential story about the library of Alexandria.

It’d be easy to make the fable of Caliph Omar the basis for an islamophobic screed, slamming him for anti-intellectualism. That would be ignoring the fact that the Caliph has had plenty of western sympathisers. If Seneca could have lived to the 13th century — when the fable was invented — he would certainly have been among them.

Some later western writers did actively take the Caliph’s side, most notably Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Edward Gibbon. Here’s Rousseau’s Discourse on the sciences and arts (1750):

It is related that the Caliph Omar, being asked what should be done with the library at Alexandria, answered in these words. ‘If the books in the library contain anything contrary to the Alcoran, they are evil and ought to be burnt; if they contain only what the Alcoran teaches, they are superfluous.’ This reasoning has been cited by our men of letters as the height of absurdity; but if Gregory the Great had been in the place of Omar, and the Gospel in the place of the Alcoran, the library would still have been burnt, and it would have been perhaps the finest action of his life.

And here’s Gibbon’s Decline and fall of the Roman empire, volume 9 (1788):

... if the ponderous mass of Arian and Monophysite controversy were indeed consumed in the public baths, a philosopher may allow, with a smile, that [Caliph Omar's burning] was ultimately devoted to the benefit of mankind. I sincerely regret the more valuable libraries which have been involved in the ruin of the Roman empire ...

An important 1979 article by Jon Thiem calls this the ‘vanity of learning’ tradition. Up to the early 20th century, people’s opinions of the library’s destruction were fairly evenly divided between regret for its loss, and smug Schadenfreude that some ancient snobs got their comeuppance.

Gibbon had previously cast the library’s supposed destruction in 391 CE (how many times did he think the same books can get destroyed, exactly?) as evil Christians destroying ‘compositions of ancient genius’, in volume 5 of Decline and fall. Then when it comes to Caliph Omar, suddenly destroying libraries is a good thing. (In his case it’s perhaps more about christianophobia than anything else.)

Rousseau and Gibbon are the most famous voices for ‘vanity of learning’, but they’re not alone. Thiem also points at Louis LeRoy’s De la vicissitude ou variété des choses (1575), and Thomas Browne’s Religio medici (1643) and Vulgar errors (1646); the utopian fictions of Sebastien Mercier’s L’an 2440 (1770) and Étienne Cabet’s Voyage en Icarie (1839), where making a better world depends on burning old books; and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, writers like Jacob Burckhardt and George Bernard Shaw, who took the view that the library’s destruction allowed space for a better future, which could not otherwise have happened.

Phase 3. ‘The loss was incalculable’

Thiem’s article came out in 1979. This was a fortuitous time for an article on the library’s reputation, because the big reversal came the very next year. In late 1980 Carl Sagan released Cosmos, and reinvented the library’s reputation almost out of thin air.

To be sure, there had been voices in the intervening millennia that regarded the fire of 48/47 BCE — or alternatively Caliph Omar’s fictional deeds — as a bad thing. John Lydgate, for one, knew his Seneca and sharply disagreed with him (Fall of princes book 6, written in the 1430s):

Alle the vesselis wer dryue up with a flood
To gret damage of seide Tholome;
Iulius brente hem euene ther thei stood,
And a gret part beside of the cite.
And ther was brent, which was previous hit ful gret pite,
The famous librarie in Egipt of the kyng,
Ful fourti thousande volumys ther liggyng.

Richard de Bury wrote of how ‘the devouring flames consumed so many thousands of innocents’ (Philobiblon, 1345). Boccaccio very sensibly regards it as one library among thousands that were lost (Genealogy of the gentile gods, preface; 1360). And in modern times, the Hollywood blockbuster Cleopatra (1963) has the queen’s advisor Sosigenes lamenting the loss of

Aristotle’s manuscripts! The Platonic commentaries, the plays, the histories! The testament of the Hebrew god! The book of books!

(It shouldn’t need pointing out, but maybe it does, that Aristotle, Plato, and the Hebrew Bible do in fact survive. The script writers evidently switched off their brains when they wrote this line.)

Cleopatra (1963): left, the city burns; right, Sosigenes of Alexandria (Hume Cronyn) laments the loss of books that survived safe and sound in hundreds of other libraries and private collections. By the way, so far as we know the real Sosigenes was neither Alexandrian nor Egyptian.

But the library’s reputation as a magical irreplaceable repository of unique items only became solidified after Carl Sagan said on a TV programme that was broadcast worldwide,

It’s as if an entire civilization had undergone a sort of self-inflicted radical brain surgery so that most of its memories, discoveries, ideas, and passions were irrevocably wiped out. The loss was incalculable. In some cases, we know only the tantalizing titles of books that had been destroyed. In most cases, we know neither the titles nor the authors.

(To be clear, where we do know titles of books that existed in the Alexandrian collection but do not survive today, it’s because they get mentioned by people who read them in lots of places, not just Alexandria, and usually later than the fire of 48/47 BCE. It is the sheerest folly to imagine that only one copy of any given book existed anywhere in the world. Or if this was the case, then the book was already doomed, because no ancient library has survived to the present.)

In eight minutes of television, Sagan invented out of thin air the myths

  • that the library was a unique institution, with no parallels;
  • that lots of knowledge was lost along with the library;
  • that Hypatia’s death had something to do with the library’s destruction;
  • for that matter, that Hypatia had anything at all to do with the library.

All of these are pure fiction, without any basis of any kind. Sagan also repeats a bunch of myths that he didn’t invent: that religion caused the onset of a ‘Dark Age’ and centuries of superstitious ignorance; even the idea that there was still a library in the temple of Serapis when it was destroyed in 391 CE, which is doubtful.

How influential is Cosmos? Insanely influential. I talked about this a little back in 2016, but it bears repeating. Many articles, books, documentaries, and videos about the history of science still have no hesitation over citing Cosmos as the only authority they need. This is crazy, because at least half of what Sagan says about history is outright false, but his authority is still seemingly unimpeachable today, forty-two years after the programme first aired.

This credit screen (right) shows the entirety of the historical research for an influential 2016 video about ancient science (left). As of November 2022, the video has been viewed nearly 25 million times on Facebook and YouTube combined. At least half of it is outright false, and every one of the falsehoods comes from Cosmos.

If you look at an Ngram analysis of the frequency of ‘library of Alexandria’ and related terms in English-language books, it’s easy to see the impact of Cosmos. Previously, the most common title for the institution had been ‘Alexandrian library’. Sagan made ‘Library of Alexandria’ a formal title. ‘Library of Alexandria’, with a capital L, took over as the most common title from 1984 onwards. Sagan also caused the rise of the phrasing 'Great Library of Alexandria', capital G and capital L, which hadn’t been a thing previously.

Google Books Ngram analysis of ‘Library of Alexandria’ and related phrases for the period 1965–2019: link. The Cosmos effect is obvious in other languages too: French, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish.

I’ve often suspected that the library’s popularity has had additional boosts from the Sid Meier’s Civilization games from the 1990s onwards, which have sold many millions of copies, and which feature ‘The Great Library’ as a wonder that a historical civilisation can build. But it isn’t possible to filter out the effects of Civilization among all the noise that Sagan created. Then again, the effect is far more pronounced after the year 2000 if you look at an Ngram analysis of just fiction books, so maybe there are good grounds for seeing the Civilization effect as a real thing too.

Addendum, 8 days later: On checking further into the Ngram of fiction books mentioned in the last paragraph, I see I was probably wrong to see the peak in the 2000s as caused by a Civilization effect. That peak apparently owes a lot to a ‘publisher’ called Library of Alexandria, which at the time was swiping as many out-of-copyright novels off Google Books as it could, and reprinting them, thereby taking them out of the public domain. For the record, publishers like that are harmful to the public good: please avoid them. In any case they do no actual editing, and their production values are atrocious.


  • Thiem, J. 1979. ‘The great library of Alexandria burnt: towards the history of a symbol.’ Journal of the history of ideas 40: 507–526. [JSTOR]

Thursday, 18 August 2022

Can we trust mediaeval copies of ancient books?

When you open up a modern copy of Plutarch’s Lives or Tacitus’ Annals, what you’re reading is based on a mediaeval manuscript. It’s a copy of a copy of a copy. Each time a text is copied, there’s a risk of transmission errors. So how much faith can we have in the texts we have? And what kind of faith?

Take Petronius’ bawdy novel, the Satyrica. We don’t have copies written by Petronius’ own hand — we don’t have that kind of thing for any ancient author. Our text for the episode of ‘Trimalchio’s dinner’ comes from a single copy made in 1423, known as codex Parisinus latinus 7989, starting at page 206. That’s over 1300 years after the novel was written. Suppose the text had to be copied every 200 years to survive that long: that means six layers of copying.

So, what should we think of mediaeval copies? Do we trust them, distrust them, or somewhere in between?

The answer isn’t binary, so strictly speaking it’s ‘somewhere in between’ — but it’s very close to ‘trust’. Here’s the standard position:

  1. It is presumed that the manuscript tradition is reliable.
  2. There are good reasons for this presumption.
  3. But it doesn’t take much to qualify or overrule the presumption, in a given passage of text.

Be careful with point 3: it’s easy to get bogged down in caveats. Transmission errors come in all shapes and sizes, and there are many reasons why they happen, so cataloguing them takes a while. That tends to create a false impression. So it’s important to emphasise that reliability is the norm.

We can always distrust a given reading in a given manuscript, but there always has to be some reason for doing so. You don’t ask, ‘How do we know this text is correct?’ You ask, ‘Is there any reason to think this text is incorrect?’

That is, the claim that a textual reading is wrong bears the burden of evidence. The evidence doesn’t have to be strong. But it does have to exist.

Addendum, written a day later: I have come to realise I have overstated my case, and I should have given a much more qualified statement of what ‘reliable’ means. Please also refer to my postscript I have added at the end. The examples I discuss below aren’t representative of all ancient texts: they’re indicative of certain types of texts, in certain genres, after a certain date. And even then, not all of them. The devil is in the details.

So yes, we do trust mediaeval manuscripts, and as I said there are good reasons for this. What remains is to explain the reasons.

  1. Copying, by definition, is a faithful process. The entire point of making a new copy of a manuscript is to produce reliable and conscientious copies. If you copied a computer file from one place to another six times, you’d be disappointed if the final copy turned out to be one bit different from the original. Same thing with manuscripts.
  2. Copying includes error-correction. It’s true that copying manuscripts by hand has a lower accuracy rate than many forms of automated copying. But first, that’s a matter of degree, not a different kind of process. Second, ancient and mediaeval scribes took pains to correct errors when they saw them. Mediaeval scribes corrected obvious errors. Often they copied from multiple manuscripts, so as to compare them. There are cases where a copyist made major alterations — for example, some prudish scribe bowdlerised Herodotos, Histories 1.199, resulting in the chapter being omitted in three manuscripts — but big alterations aren’t normally able to propagate throughout the entire manuscript tradition. Big alterations that did propagate successfully are phenomenally rare. On the scale of an entire chapter, there’s only one known example: the so-called ‘Testimonium Flavianum’, in Josephus’ Jewish antiquities 18.63–64, where a Christian altered or added two chapters about Jesus.
    Note. For discussions with bibliography see for example Olson 1999, 2013, arguing that the passage was added in the 3rd century CE; Goldberg 2021, arguing — implausibly — that the passage is authentic, and that Josephus himself adapted it from a Christian source. I’ve written about it briefly here.
  3. Modern editors have the explicit goals of gauging manuscripts’ reliability and amending errors, and they have a powerful arsenal of techniques for doing so. A short summary of these techniques would do them injustice, because of their complexity and their sensitivity to historical and linguistic context. For a more nuanced picture, below we’ll take a look at how they can work in practice. For a mid-length summary, see Reynolds and Wilson 1991: 207–241; for full book-length descriptions of the methodologies, see West 1973; Maas 1950, 1958.
  4. Where there are doubts over a text, modern editions give full documentation of those doubts. I don’t mean popular translations: the Penguin Classics series won’t tell you about manuscript errors. I mean critical editions. The entire point of a critical edition is to expose flaws, disagreements, and doubts in the manuscript tradition to the reader’s view, to maximise the reader’s understanding of the manuscripts and their genetic relationship to one another. See here for my own guide on how to read these annotations; video tutorial here.
  5. Where it is possible to check the accuracy of the manuscript tradition, its accuracy is high. Accuracy can’t be quantified, because transmission errors are very diverse. (For a taxonomy see Reynolds and Wilson 1991: 222–233.) What we can do is take an illustrative approach. We can check mediaeval manuscripts against ancient copies if we have either (a) an ancient copy of the text, or (b) a quotation in another surviving ancient text. These are always fragmentary, so even though we have thousands of each, they only account for a tiny proportion of the material. Still, that’s plenty to illustrate that mediaeval copies are overwhelmingly very reliable. The expected level of divergence is on the order of spelling variations; the occasional rare word being mistaken for a more familiar word; words being swapped around; and the like.

Points 1 and 2 here are obvious; for point 3 I’ve referred to multiple published expert accounts; and for point 4 I’ve referred to critical editions and my own tutorials on how to use them. So the point that still needs expansion is point 5, checking accuracy against ancient copies.

As I said, the best approach is illustrative. So let’s illustrate. We’ll look at some texts that survived intact via the manuscript tradition, which have also turned up in fragmentary ancient papyri found at Oxyrhynchus, in Egypt.

Example 1. A 3rd century copy of Lucian

The satirist Lucian (or Loukianós) was active in Syria in the 2nd century CE. Here’s a 1961 edition of his Dialogues of the gods, dialogue 10, with the text as transmitted by the mediaeval manuscript tradition, and an English translation.

And here’s a 3rd century papyrus with a fragment of the same dialogue: Oxyrhynchus papyrus 4738, first published in 2005.

Here’s the 2005 publication of the papyrus with a transcription. The papyrus preserves only 18 lines, and only the right hand edge of each line. But this is plenty to see that it’s the same as the mediaeval text, aside from certain standard conventions.

Mediaeval texts and ancient papyri have different orthographic conventions. The conventions used in modern editions were standardised in the Byzantine era, and standardised further in the modern era: punctuation; word-divisions; capitalisation; diacritics; and iota subscript (used in the 1961 edition linked above; ancient copies normally use iota adscript).

Note. Punctuation and diacritics do sometimes appear in ancient copies too, but not consistently, and not as thoroughly. For example, line 3 of this papyrus uses an interpunct to separate the end of Zeus’ speech from the start of Ganymede’s, between [δ]οκῶν and Ἄνθρω[πε].

Setting these aside, there are four differences between the papyrus and the 1961 edition:

  • line 5: papyrus [ε]ξ[ε]ρυηκε; transmitted text ἐξερρύηκε
  • line 6: papyrus μι[ρακιον]; transmitted text μειράκιον
  • line 10: papyrus [εϲτ]ηκει; transmitted text ἕστηκε
  • line 14: papyrus [φ]ηϲ; transmitted text φῄς (elsewhere the papyrus uses iota adscript)

Three of these — ἐξερρύηκε, μειράκιον, and φῄς — are still about orthographic conventions. The mediaeval text uses standardised Byzantine-era spelling, and the papyrus text uses the looser conventions of ancient Koine. They’re phonetically identical to one another. Modern editions normally follow the Byzantine standards.

The remaining difference is in line 10, where the papyrus has [εϲτ]ηκει, and the modern reading is ἕστηκε. There is a subtle distinction in meaning here: one is pluperfect (‘where the statue was placed’), the other is perfect (‘where the statue is placed’). But it turns out [εϲτ]ηκει also appears in one branch of the mediaeval tradition as ἕστηκει: branch γ of the manuscript tradition uses the pluperfect form, while branch β uses the perfect tense. In the 2005 publication of the papyrus, the editor recognises that the perfect form makes more sense, since the rest of the sentence uses present aspect.

So even though [εϲτ]ηκει is attested in antiquity, ἕστηκε is judged to be more authentic. ‘Older’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘more reliable’. The implication is that the split in the manuscript tradition between branches β and γ occurred in antiquity, before this papyrus was made, within a century of Lucian composing the dialogue.

And that accounts for all the divergences. The result is that in its essentials the papyrus contains the same text that we already had. The mediaeval text stands as a reliable indication of what Lucian actually wrote. There is a question over which conventions to follow — should we really use Byzantine conventions for spelling and diacritics, when it’s likely that Lucian used looser Koine spelling and no diacritics? — but that’s a matter of policy, not accuracy.

Example 2. A 1st century BCE/CE copy of Meleager

The poet Meleager (or Meléagros), from Gadara in what is now Jordan, was active in the 1st century BCE. He compiled an anthology of short poems called the Garland. The Garland itself doesn’t survive, but it formed the basis of an expanded collection that survives in a 9th–10th century manuscript, now held in Heidelberg, known as codex Palatinus graecus 23. The collection is known as the Palatine anthology.

Here’s an edition from the 1910s with four epigrams by Meleagros about love: Palatine anthology 9.16, 5.190, 12.157, and 5.152.

And here’s Oxyrhynchus papyrus 3324, first published in 1980. It contains parts of 17 lines. The first line comes from an unknown poem; the rest are the four poems mentioned above. It may be that this is a copy of the Garland itself, but that can’t be certain (see the introduction to the 1980 publication for details).

This time we’ve got more than just orthographic variations. The papyrus shows that there are two actual errors in the mediaeval text. But the papyrus contains an error too. Here are the divergences:

  • line 3 (Anthology 9.16.2): papyrus οι]ϲτροβολουϲι = transmitted text οἰστροβολοῦσι; in the 1800s the editor C. J. Blomfield suggested altering to οἰστοβολοῦσι
  • line 4 (Anthology 9.16.3): papyrus κα]τηρτικεν; transmitted text κατήρισεν; Maximus Planudes reports κατήρυσεν; in the 1500s Scaliger suggested altering to κατήρτισεν
  • line 8 (Anthology 5.190.3): papyrus ανεινται; transmitted text ἀφεῖνται 
  • line 9 (Anthology 5.190.4): papyrus εϲοψομεθα; transmitted text and Planudes ἀποψόμεθα
  • line 16 (Anthology 5.152.3): papyrus ϲο; transmitted text σὺ

In line 3, it’s a modern editor who is at fault. The papyrus confirms that the mediaeval text, Desire ‘striking with a sting’, is correct; Blomfield’s alteration ‘strike with an arrow’ is wrong.

In line 4, the mediaeval text is wrong. In a sense this isn’t news: the mediaeval reading κατήρισεν isn’t a meaningful word. Scaliger suggested correcting it to ‘Desire equipped three bows’, using an aorist verb form. The papyrus confirms Scaliger’s choice of verb, but uses the perfect form, ‘Desire has equipped’.

In line 8, we can’t be certain which is correct. The line is ‘the rudders of my thoughts are set loose every which way’. The variation is between two compound verbs, both meaning ‘are set loose’. Perhaps at some point a scribe changed ἀνεῖνται to ἀφεῖνται to improve the euphony with φρενῶν (‘thoughts’) in the same line.

In line 9, the mediaeval text is wrong. Again we have two compounds of the same verb. The line is supposed to mean ‘Shall we ever again set eyes on tender Skylla?’, but the mediaeval reading ἀποψόμεθα means ‘look away from’; some modern editions already improved this to ἐποψόμεθα ‘set eyes on’. The papyrus appears to correct the text to ἐσοψόμεθα ‘look towards’.

In line 16 it’s the papyrus that is wrong: ϲο isn’t any kind of standard spelling. Perhaps the ancient scribe mistakenly started writing the word σοί (‘for you’) rather than σύ (‘you’).

This papyrus alerts us to a couple of errors in the mediaeval tradition, but it also illustrates the reliability of the mediaeval tradition in other respects. Moreover, the papyrus contains one clear error. Once again, older isn’t necessarily better — but more information always is better.

Example 3. A 2nd century copy of Strabo

The geographer Strabo (or Strábon), from Amaseia in Anatolia, was active in the late 1st century BCE and early 1st century CE. Book 9 of his Geography gives a description of Attica, Boiotia, and Thessaly: here’s an edition published in 1927 along with an English translation. The best mediaeval copy for this part of Strabo is a 10th century manuscript held at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, known as codex Parisinus graecus 1397.

Oxyrhynchus papyrus 3447 is a copy of book 9 dating to the early 2nd century CE. Like the ones discussed above, it’s fragmentary. Unlike them, it’s a collection of many fragments: there are 103 fragments in total. It was first published in 1982.

We can’t discuss every variant reading individually here. Instead, here’s the editor of the papyrus counting the different categories of variants:

  • a number of variations in the spelling of proper names
  • three textual errors in the papyrus (all minor)
  • seven variants ‘of uncertain value’
  • four variants where the previously known text appears to be wrong
  • five places where ‘the reading of the papyrus is uncertain, but probably different from that of the [manuscripts]’
  • ten places where the papyrus agrees with the mediaeval text, and disagrees with another ancient copy, the Vatican palimpsest (Vaticanus graecus 2306 + 2061A).
  • two places where the papyrus agrees with the Vatican palimpsest, and disagrees with the mediaeval text

The four variants where the papyrus is right, and the previously known text is wrong, are as follows:

  • fr. 14.i.9 = Geography 9.2.35: a quotation from Homer, Iliad 2.507, given correctly in the papyrus as οἵ τε; incorrectly in the mediaeval text of Strabo as οἱ δέ; in Homer the correct text was always known to be οἵ τε; both variants have the same meaning, ‘and they who’
  • fr. 14.i.20 = Geography 9.2.35: papyrus οὐδ’ (‘nor’); transmitted text οὔτε (‘neither’; a 19th century editor had already corrected this to οὐδὲ)
  • fr. 14.ii + 15.i.7 = Geography 9.2.36: papyrus μὲν τοίνυν (‘well then, in the first place’); transmitted text τοίνυν (‘well then’)
  • fr. 38.9 = Geography 9.5.17: papyrus καὶ ταύτην (‘both this’); transmitted text καὶ (‘both’) + lacuna (it was always known that there is a gap in the text)

In regard to the disagreements between the papyrus and the 5th century Vatican palimpsest, the papyrus editor warns against the idea that they reflect a split between branches of the manuscript tradition. Rather, it’s that the Vatican palimpsest has more inaccuracies than other copies. This was something that had already been noticed by the modern editors of the palimpsest, which was first published in 1956.

In summary

It can be a bit overwhelming when you look into the nitty-gritty of ancient copies and their variations from mediaeval texts. The upshot is:

  1. Modern editors really know what they’re doing, and their expertise in sorting out the correct text deserves a huge amount of respect.
  2. Mediaeval copies are very accurate, with only minor discrepancies from their ancient counterparts.

Now, having said that, there are situations — or rather, literary genres — where we do expect much more discrepancies. Some ancient texts weren’t copied as such, but instead went through recensions and reworkings.

This is the case with, for example, the Aesopic fables. We don’t have any of the Fables as originally composed by Aesop in the 6th century BCE. No modern edition pretends that we do. What we do have is reworkings, reframings, retellings, by a variety of people in different periods: Greek and Latin prose versions attributed to Dositheos, Libanios, and Phaedrus; poetic versions by Babrios and Phaedrus. Sokrates himself is reported to have composed a verse version of one of the Fables. And there are several mediaeval fable compilations, which are different again.

Another example is the Alexander romance, a heavily fictionalised version of Alexander’s life, which exists in numerous recensions. There are four recensions in Greek ranging from 3rd to the 9th centuries; two in Latin; two in Armenian; and others in Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, and Ethiopic. Some of them are closely related to one another, others less so.

In cases like these, it genuinely is futile to expect a mediaeval copy to be a close replica of an ancient text. But there’s an important difference between these and the examples we looked at above. When we look at a literary text attributed to a specific author, the text turns out to be very stable. It’s when a text gets excerpted, reorganised, or fully recomposed: that’s where the process of copying breaks down, and it becomes something quite different.

Postscript, a day later

I’ve realised that I greatly overstated my case. The three examples given here aren’t representative of all ancient texts: they’re indicative of certain types of texts, in certain languages, and certain genres, after a certain date — and even then, not all of them.

For balance, the closing discussion of literary genres where there’s more variance should have been much longer, and should have had more emphasis.

For example, our texts of Attic drama are significantly further away from the original plays. There are several reasons for this:

  1. There’s a much bigger time gap between the surviving papyri and the original texts.
  2. We know that the ongoing tradition of theatrical performance led to increased interpolations and substitutions in the text (actors adding their own lines, reorganising scenes, etc.).
  3. Orthographic and editorial conventions make a much more significant difference than in the case of Roman-era texts. The pre-Hellenistic classics suffered much more intrusive editorial practices in antiquity, and we don’t know all the details.
  4. Aischylos didn’t use the Ionic alphabet. That’s an alteration probably dating to the 4th century BCE. Aristophanes’ late plays, by contrast, possibly did.

So there are many intermediate situations — in between reliable replicas of the original texts, on the one hand, and the extreme variance I described at the end. In these intermediate situations, we can’t talk in terms of having ‘replicas’ of the originals. At the same time, it’s still reasonable to say that there’s a pretty good degree of resemblance with the lost originals.

All pre-Hellenistic literature goes into this intermediate category. We cannot possibly guess what the earliest written texts of Homer looked like. Even in Roman-era texts, there are cases where there’s more substantial variance than I talked about above. For example, the extant papyri of Josephus show a substantially higher degree of variance. Then there are texts that underwent ongoing remodelling, such as the Bible.

In short, I should have been much clearer about what the three examples I looked at above are representative of. There are many individual cases where much greater caution is needed.


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  • Olson, K. A. 1999. ‘Eusebius and the Testimonium Flavianum.’ Catholic Biblical quarterly 61.2: 305–322. [JSTOR]
  • —— 2013. ‘A Eusebian reading of the Testimonium Flavianum.’ In: Johnson, A.; Schott, J. (eds.) Eusebius of Caesarea: tradition and innovations. Washington, DC. [Center for Hellenic studies]
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