Monday 27 November 2023

The camel, the rope, and the needle's eye

There’s no good evidence that kamilos — supposedly meaning ‘rope’ — was ever even a real word in ancient Greek.

The myth we’re looking at is to do with the following passage in the Bible.

εὐκοπώτερόν ἐστιν κάμηλον διὰ τῆς τρυμαλιᾶς τῆς ῥαφίδος διελθεῖν ἢ πλούσιον εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ εἰσελθεῖν.

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

Mark 10.25 (~ Matthew 19.24, Luke 18.25)

According to the myth, ‘camel’ is a misreading: originally, it was a ‘rope’ going through a needle. Still impossible, but not surreal like ‘camel’. Supposedly, the text originally had kamilos, but kamēlos ‘camel’ and kamilos ‘rope’ sounded the same in imperial-era Greek, so they got mixed up.

A Roman needle and a camel. Not to scale.

The ‘rope’ theory is one of a couple of tactics for softening Jesus’ condemnation of wealth-hoarding. There’s another one about an imaginary gate in Jerusalem called ‘the eye of the needle’: that one was made up in the 11th century. But some religious groups have a strong motivation for reading this passage as being about something other than a literal camel going through a literal needle’s eye. So fake explanations tend to stick around.

This review is a resource for anyone who’s in doubt about what the evidence for the ‘rope’ interpretation looks like. The executive summary is this: the word supposedly meaning ‘rope’ was made up in the 5th century or shortly beforehand, and it was made up specifically to weaken Jesus’ condemnation of wealth. It’s older than the ‘eye of the needle’ gate, but it’s just as bogus.

Note. This isn’t the first debunking of its kind. My aim is to make the evidence as accessible as possible. Zahn 1922: 601–602 n. 71 cites most of the ancient evidence in German; Khalil 1978 cites much of it in French; Henry 2022 disposes of purported arguments from Aramaic, but without delving into the Greek use of kamilos.

For the origins of the bogus ‘gate’ theory, see Ziemińska 2022. The gate first pops up in a fragment of Anselm of Canterbury quoted in Thomas Aquinas, Catena aurea on on Matthew 19.24. My translation: ‘Gloss. Alternatively: because there was a certain gate in Jerusalem called ‘the eye of the needle’, and a camel could not pass through it unless it laid down its burden and bent its knees. So this means that a rich person cannot travel the confined way to (eternal) life unless they lay down their uncleanness of sin and their wealth, that is, or at least by not loving (wealth).’

A review of κάμιλος

I’ll carry on spelling kamēlos (‘camel’) and kamilos (supposedly ‘rope’) differently, for clarity. Ancient and mediaeval sources often spell them both kamēlos.

The earliest authentic appearance of kamilos is in Cyril of Alexandria (1st half of 5th century). In nearly all cases where it appears in ancient and mediaeval sources, it’s only mentioned because someone is giving it as a textual variant for ‘camel’ in the gospels. In other contexts it appears only twice, and even those are still as annotations to the word ‘camel’, and they repeat Cyril’s exact phrasing.

So there’s no independent evidence to corroborate Cyril’s claim that kamilos was even a real word, let alone that it was the original text in the gospels. There’s just one possible exception: one possible candidate for an independent use of the word — a 5th century inscription from southern Anatolia — but the interpretation of the inscription is very doubtful.

1. Sources that cite kamilos as a textual variant in the gospels

As I said, nearly all uses of kamilos ‘rope’ belong to this category. These are no use at all as corroboration. They don’t show that the word could ever be used in any other context.

Cyril’s definitions (sources a, b) are echoed in most post-Cyril sources.

  1. Cyril of Alexandria, commentary on Matthew fr. 219 Reuss (1957: 226; ~ Patrologia graeca 72 429d–431a)
  2. Cyril of Alexandria, commentary on Luke, Patrologia graeca 72 857c
  3. Cyril of Alexandria, Against Julian the apostate fr. 21 Neumann (Syriac: Neumann 1880: 56; Latin translation: Neumann 1880: 75, fr. 29; French translation: Khalil 1978: 91 n. 1)
  4. Tractatus de divitiis 18.2 (Kessler 1999: 306 = Caspari 1890: 55)
  5. pseudo-Origen, commentary on Matthew fr. 390 Klostermann (1941: 166)
  6. Photios, commentary on Matthew fr. 77 Reuss (Reuss 1957: 318)
  7. Theophylact, Enarratio in Evangelium Matthaei, Patrologia graeca 123 356d

I stop at the 11th century. (Zahn goes on further, to include a 12th century citation of Cyril in Bar Hebraeus: Zahn 1922: 602 n. 71.)

I’ll just quote the first two, sources a and b, from Cyril. They’re both fragments preserved in catena commentaries. First, Cyril on Matthew 19.24:

κάμηλον δὲ ἐνταῦθά φησιν οὐ τὸ ζῷον τὸ ἀχθοφόρον, ἀλλὰ τὸ παχὺ σχοινίον, ἐν ᾧ δεσμεύουσι τὰς ἀγκύρας οἱ ναῦται. οὐκ ἀνήνυτον παντελῶς τοῦτο δείκνυσιν ὄν, τῷ δὲ ἄγαν δυσχερὴ λοιπὸν ἤδη πως ἐγγὺς καὶ ἀγχίθυρον τοῦ ἀδυνάτου τὸ χρῆμα τιθείς.

‘camel’: he doesn’t mean the pack animal here, but the thick rope, with which sailors bind anchors. He shows that the situation isn’t absolutely permanent, but makes the matter extremely difficult for him in future, and for the present, close to and neighbouring on impossibility.

Note. Reuss’ text fills in a chunk that’s missing in the Patrologia text, based on a manuscript at Mt Athos, Great Lavra cod. B 113 (11th cent.), fol. 97r. Reuss silently alters δυσχερή to δυσχερεῖ: I restore the manuscript reading here.

And Cyril on Luke 18.25. This one is very bald-faced, selecting the contrived word for the express purpose of allowing rich people to go to heaven.

κάμηλον· οὐ τὸ ζῶον, ἀλλὰ τὸ ἐν τοῖς πλοίοις παχὺ σχοινίον. ἔξεστι γὰρ αὐτοῖς, εἰ μὴ εἰσάπαν ἕλοιντο τὸ τῶν ὅλων ὄντων ἀπολισθεῖν, ἑτέρως εὐδοκιμεῖν, ποιῆσαι φίλους ἐκ τοῦ ἀδίκου μαμωνᾶ, ἵνα ὅταν ἐπιλίπωσε, δέξωνται αὐτοὺς εἰς τὰς αἰωνίους σκηνάς.

‘camel’: not the animal, but the thick rope used on ships. For it is possible for them to arrive at blessedness in a different way, even if they don’t choose to lose all their property completely, if they use their unjust Mammon to make friends, so that when it runs out, the friends invite them into the eternal tabernacles.

Note (added some time later). Cyril’s line about buying friends is based on Luke 16.9: ‘make friends for yourselves by means of the Mammon of injustice so that when it is gone they may invite you into the eternal tabernacles.’

If you’re thinking of investigating all the sources listed here, take notice of Cyril’s phrasing: τὸ παχὺ σχοινίον (‘the thick rope’), and the bit about binding anchors. You’ll see these pop up routinely in later sources, including the sources in category 3, below. That shows that they aren’t independent.

The only post-Cyril source worth noticing is source e, the spurious Origen fragment. If authentic, it would put kamilos back to the 3rd century. But as Theodor Zahn points out, Origen’s authentic discussions of the gospel passages are entirely unaware of the ‘rope’ interpretation (Zahn 1922: 601 n. 71).

2. Manuscripts of the New Testament with kamilos

A handful of the thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament — none earlier than the 9th century — give the variant reading kamilos in one or more of the three gospel passages. Like the sources in category 1, these have no corroborative value, because they do not show the word being used in any other context.

Even when New Testament manuscripts include the kamilos variant, they don’t use it consistently. Top: minuscule 13 ( 50, 13th cent.), ff. 26r and 59v (Matthew 19.24, Mark 10.25); bottom: uncial S ( 354, 949 CE), ff. 55r and 162r (Matthew 19.24, Luke 18.25). The readings in the left column have kamēlos, the ones on the right have kamilos.

Many of the kamilos manuscripts belong to ‘family 13’, a group of 10th–15th century manuscripts with affinities to minuscule 13, that is, 50 (11th cent.). Even in ‘family 13’, kamilos only appears in Mark 10.25 and Luke 18.25; in Matthew 19.24, it’s always kamēlos.

Note. On ‘family 13’ see Metzger and Ehrman 2005: 87. On the Armenian and Georgian translations that have affinities to ‘family 13’, and which translate using a word meaning ‘rope’, see Metzger and Ehrman 2005: 117–119; McCollum 2015; Pirtea 2021: 331. McCollum shows that ‘camel’ is standard in the Greek, Syriac, and Athonite Georgian versions, while ‘rope’ is standard in the Armenian and pre-Athonite Georgian evidence. (He doesn’t notice that the pseudo-Origen, here source e, is spurious — but it’s no discredit to miss something so obscure.)

Here are the manuscripts that are not in ‘family 13’ but which have the kamilos variant.

  • Mark 10.25: minuscules 28 and 579 ( 379, 11th cent.; 59, 13th cent.).
  • Matthew 19.24: minuscules 579 and 1424 ( 97, 13th cent.; Chicago Gruber 152, 9th/10th cent.).
  • Luke 18.25: uncial S ( 354, 949 CE); minuscule 1424 (Chicago Gruber 152, 9th/10th cent.); possibly minuscule 579 ( 97; illegible).

All older manuscripts — including the ancient ones, like the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus manuscripts — invariably use kamēlos.

3. Sources that cite kamilos as an annotation to ‘camel’

There are two sources in this category:

  1. Scholion on Aristophanes, Wasps 1035
  2. Souda κ.282 κάμηλος (Suda on line)

These are both mediaeval. The Aristophanes scholia may go back to the early Byzantine period; the Souda encyclopaedia is 10th century.

I’ll quote the first one in full. The background is that in 422 BCE, the comic playwright Aristophanes made a joke about camels, describing a contemporary politician as having the smell of a seal, the testicles of a bogeyman, and the arsehole of a camel. About a millennium later, an anonymous scholar explains the joke as follows:

πρωκτὸν δὲ καμήλου· θερμόπρωκτος γὰρ ἡ κάμηλος καὶ λάγνος. κάμιλος δὲ τὸ παχὺ σχοινίον διὰ τοῦ ι.

‘(and he had) a camel’s arsehole’: the joke is that camels are hot-arsed and lewd. And a kamilos is the thick rope, with an i.

Neither h nor i uses kamilos in a sentence. They only cite it lexicographically — as a footnote to talking about camels. In both sources, the commentator explains what the word means. That is, the word is rare enough that a scholarly reader cannot be expected to know it. And both definitions use Cyril’s exact phrase τὸ παχὺ σχοινίον (‘the thick rope’).

So these sources have no corroborative value either. Kamilos doesn’t get used in its own right, it’s purely an appendage to ‘camel’, and even more importantly, neither source is independent of Cyril.

4. Sources that use kamilos independently

Finally we get to the one category of evidence that could in principle corroborate that kamilos is a real word. However, there’s only one source that might potentially fall into this category, and it’s really shaky:

  1. Inscriptions de Cilicie 108, col. ii line 5 (Dagron and Feissel 1987: 170–185)

This is a 5th or 6th century CE inscription found near Anazarbos (Anavarza) and held at the Adana Archaeology Museum. The inscription is a list of tariffs for various freight goods. Here’s the start of column ii, with my translation:

[ . . . κ'] β
[ ]ι̣ο̣υ̣ γο' κ' α
κρόκου γο' κ' δ
γάρου γο' κ' α
μασσίνων καμηλ( ) κ' αγ'

[ . . . ] 2 keratia
[ ] — per load — 1 keration
saffron — per load — 4 keratia
garum — per load — 1 keration
massinoi — per camel load — 1⅓ keratia

The fifth line is the relevant one. For discussion, see Dagron and Feissel (1987: 176–177). They supplement the text as μασσίνων καμήλ(ων), which they interpret as ‘thick ropes’.

The meaning of both massin- and kamēl- is questionable. Dagron and Feissel think massinos is an adjective relating to ropes, partly because of Cyril’s interpretation of kamilos (source a above); partly because of the Syrian author John Malalas (6th century), who refers to someone being tied up with a σχοῖνος μάσσινος or ‘massinos rope’; and the Life of Symeon Stylites the Younger (7th century?), which has the 6th century Syrian saint winding a μάσ(σ)ινον σχοινίον (‘mas(s)inos rope’) around his body. So in this inscription they regard massinōn as an adjective, modifying kamēl(ōn) ‘ropes’.

Note. Malalas, Chronographia 7.12, p. 142,35 ed. Thurn (= p. 186,19–20 ed. Dindorf); Life of Symeon Stylites the Younger 26 ed. van den Ven. For the latter I rely on Dagron and Feissel’s report.

They might be right. However, first, the context doesn’t favour ‘rope’: lines 3 to 11 of the inscription appear to be foodstuffs — saffron, garum, possibly gourds, possibly fenugreek, garlic, wine, and so on.

Second, every other line gives the freight good in the genitive case, and an indication of quantity. So line 3 gives the tariff for a γόμος of saffron, line 4 for a γόμος of garum, and so on. In lines 16–17, the price is given per unit: the tariff per slave, per bovine. Why, then, is μασσίνων genitive plural? Where’s the indication of quantity? The most intuitive answer is that that’s what καμηλ( ) is doing there. The correct supplement is μασσίνων καμηλ(ικός), ‘a camel load of massinoi’. The camel was the most commonly used beast of burden in Anatolia until the 20th century (Potts 2004; İnal 2020: 71), and Dagron and Feissel themselves point out that γόμος καμηλικός is standard phrasing in the famous Palmyra tariff inscription, alongside γόμος καρρικός ‘wagon load’ and γόμος ὀνικός ‘ass load’, and with a conversion rate of 1 wagon load = 4 camel loads. As for massinoi, its meaning is doubtful. Even if it really is an adjective, it’s completely normal for Greek to use an adjective as a substantive.

The argument for κάμηλος ‘rope’ in the Anarbazos inscription isn’t intuitive, it neglects the format of the tariff list, and it relies on Cyril’s testimony — so it begs the question of whether kamilos is even a real word.

Can we be certain that this isn’t an instance of kamilos ‘rope’? Not 100% certain, no — but this inscription certainly can’t take the weight of being the sole independent use of the word.


The word kamilos ‘rope’ —

  • first appears in the 400s CE, more than three centuries after the gospels
  • is vanishingly rare even after that date
  • is never, ever used in a sentence by any ancient or mediaeval writer
  • appears only in lexicographical contexts
  • is always cited as an annotation either to camels, or to Matthew 19.24
  • is always defined, because no reader can be expected to know its meaning
  • is usually defined using Cyril of Alexandria’s phrasing

The fact that kamilos normally appears in the context of camels or the gospel passages makes it look very much like that is its primary context.

That is: kamilos was coined specifically to contrive a variant interpretaion of the gospels.

And, by the way, that’s exactly what the Liddell & Scott Lexicon suggested all along.

Perh(aps) coined as an emendation of the phrase εὐκοπώτερόν ἐστι κάμηλον διὰ τρυπήματος ῥαφίδος διελθεῖν ... Ev.Matt. 19.24

(The Greek quotation is the ‘eye of a needle’ line in Matthew.)

The upshot is that kamilos is just like the ‘eye of the needle’ gate: it’s a fabrication, contrived specifically to make wealthy people happy about hoarding their wealth.

The only potential corroboration for its existence is source j, the Anarbazos inscription. There it’s part of a collocation where, at best, both words are unclear. I’ve argued above that καμηλ( ) is a quantity, a καμηλ(ικός) or ‘camel load’, not a rope. Even if you disagree, still, the most the inscription can show is that kamilos existed as a hyper-rare word in 5th century Anatolia. Does it show anything about the 1st century? Absolutely not. The inscription is an obscure speculative possibility, not a corroboration for anything.

What is it about camels, anyway?

A rope through the eye of a needle would have been a striking choice of image. A camel is ... surreal.

As Zahn and many others have pointed out, it isn’t unique. It’s not a common expression, and the Christian gospels are its earliest appearance, but there are parallels in Rabbinic sources and in the Quran. The Rabbinic sources involve elephants, not camels, but still.

These parallels are late, like Cyril’s made-up word, so they’re not exactly overwhelming evidence. But they have one thing going for them that kamilos doesn’t: they use the expression in the same way as the gospels, not as an annotation to the gospels.

How will you know the thoughts of your heart? By their being revealed to you in a dream. Rava said: Know that this is the case, for one is neither shown a golden palm tree nor an elephant going through the eye of a needle in a dream. In other words, dreams only contain images that enter a person’s mind.

Berakhot 55b.21

Rav Sheshet said mockingly to him, employing a similar style: Perhaps you are from Pumbedita, where people pass an elephant through the eye of a needle, i.e., they engage in specious reasoning.

Bava Metzia 38b.16

Surely those who receive our revelations with denial and arrogance, the gates of heaven will not be opened for them, nor will they enter Paradise until a camel passes through the eye of a needle.

Quran 7.40

Of these, the Rabbinic texts look like decent candidates for independent testimony. The Quran, less so: its version of the aphorism is almost identical to that in the gospels. The word used in Quran 7.40 is جمل jamal (‘camel’).

Arabic dictionaries do record an alternate reading, with the word jummal, ‘rope’. But don’t get excited. The only locus for jummal in the Arabic corpus is ... this exact verse in Sura 7.

Some lexicographers wondered if jummal is a genuine Arabic word, and indeed it is used principally in speculation around Q 7:40. It is possible that Christian exegetical speculation surrounding the Greek word kamēlos influenced Muslim exegetical speculation surrounding the Arabic word jamal and led lexicographers to develop jummal, an equivalent of kamilos, as an alternative reading of jamal. What seems to confirm [this] ... is that, like Christian commentators, Muslim commentators report that the rope (jummal) in question is the sort used for seafaring.
Reynolds 2020: 49–50

Cyril strikes again. Everything to do with ropes in this context — Greek *kamilos, Aramaic *gml, and Arabic *jummal — goes back to Cyril inventing a fake word to keep rich people happy.


  • Caspari, C. P. 1890. Briefe, Abhandlungen und Predigten aus den zwei letzten Jahrhunderten des kirchlichen Alterthums und dem Anfang des Mittelalters. Oslo [‘Christiania’]. [Internet Archive: 1 2 3]
  • Dagron, G.; Feissel, D. 1987. Inscriptions de Cilicie. Paris.
  • Henry, A. M. 2022. ‘The camel and needle: did scholars mistranslate Jesus’s famous saying?’ ReligionForBreakfast. [YouTube]
  • İnal, O. 2020. ‘One-humped history: the camel as historical actor in the late Ottoman Empire.’ International Jounal of Middle East Studies 53: 57–73. [DOI]
  • Kessler, A. 1999. Reichtumskritik und Pelagianismus. Die pelagianische Diatribe de divitiis: Situierung, Lesetext, Übersetzung, Kommentar. Freiburg/Fribourg (Switzerland).
  • Khalil, S. 1978. ‘Note sur le fonds sémitique commun de l’expression “un chameau passant par le trou d’une aiguille”.’ Arabica 25: 89–94. [JSTOR]
  • Klostermann, E. 1941. Origenes Werke. Zwölfter Band. Origenes Matthäuserklärung iii. Fragmente und Indices. Erste Hälfte. (Griechischen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte). Leipzig. [Internet Archive]
  • McCollum, A. C. 2015. ‘A camel or a rope in the eye of a needle? The Old Georgian witness.’ hmmlorientalia (23 Jul 2015).
  • Metzger, B. M.; Ehrman, B. D. 2005. The text of the New Testament. Its transmission, corruption, and restoration, 4th ed. Oxford.
  • Neumann, K. J. 1880. Iuliani imperatoris librorum contra Christianos quae supersunt. Leipzig. [Internet Archive]
  • Pirtea, A. C. 2021. ‘To pass a rope through the eye of a needle: the influence of Byzantine catenae and homiliaries on the Greek, Church Slavonic, and Old Romanian readings of Matthew 19,24.’ In: Jouravel, A.; Mathys, A. (eds.) Wort- und Formenvielfalt. Festschrift für Christoph Koch zum 80. Geburtstag. Berlin. 327–352. []
  • Potts, D. T. 2004. ‘Camel hybridization and the role of Camelus bactrianus in the ancient Near East.’ Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 47.2: 143–165. [JSTOR]
  • Reuss, J. 1957. Matthäus-Kommentare aus der griechischen Kirche. Berlin. [Internet Archive]
  • Reynolds, G. S. 2020. ‘Biblical turns of phrase in the Quran.’ In: Elias, J. J.; Orfali, B. (eds.) Light upon light. Essays in Islamic thought and history in honor of Gerhard Böwering. Leiden/Boston. 45–69.
  • Zahn, Th. 1922. Kommentar zur Neuen Testament. Band I: das Evangelium des Matthäus, 4th ed. Leipzig/Erlangen. [Internet Archive]
  • Ziemińska, A. 2022. ‘The origin of the “Needle’s Eye Gate” myth: Theophylact or Anselm?’ New Testament Studies 68: 358–361. [DOI]

Image sources: camel, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0; needle,; facsimiles of 50, CSNTM; 354, Apostolic Library.

Wednesday 8 November 2023

Textual errors in Lassus' Prophetiae Sibyllarum

It isn’t often that I get to combine my interests as a choral singer and a classicist. Recently I got interested in the Prophetiae Sibyllarum or ‘Sibylline prophecies’ by Roland de Lassus, also known as Orlando di Lasso. These are twelve short pieces for unaccompanied choir, in Latin, composed around 1560.

This story is about how I noticed an error in the text.

Lassus’ pieces are startling, polytonal, chromatic compositions. They’re not often performed. Here’s a selection of scores on the International Music Score Library. And here’s a 1994 recording by the German group Cantus Cölln.

Roland de Lassus

Why Cantus Cölln, rather than one of the more recent recordings by De Labyrintho (2007), Vocalconsort Berlin (2015), or La Main Harmonique (2022)?

Because the Cantus Cölln recording is one of the few to use the correct text. The others all use a faulty text. So does every score hosted by the Choral Public Domain Library. But then, if everyone used the Bärenreiter edition (Schlötter 1990), we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Dactylic hexameter

As I went through the Prophetiae, I slowly realised that the text uses an ancient verse form called dactylic hexameter, the same metre used in ancient epic and oracular verse. The poems that Lassus has set aren’t ancient: the text was written around 1500. Some neo-Latin poets in the modern era have used dactylic hexameter — John Milton, for example — but this was my first time hearing hexameter in Renaissance choral music.

It was in the fourth movement, the ‘Cimmerian Sibyl’, that things went horribly wrong.

In teneris annis facie insignis honore ...

Of tender years, with glorious face, in honour ...

This text is impossible.

Hexameter is supposed to have a steady — ⏑⏑ pulse (or in musical notation, 𝅘𝅥 𝅘𝅥𝅮𝅘𝅥𝅮). The problem is with the words facie insignis. At the place in the line where they sit, they ought to have the rhythm ⏑⏑ — — — ⏑. But they don’t. They can’t.

Latin hexameter has strict rules. One of those rules is that the last syllable of facie has to be abbreviated: faci’ insignis. The text of the Prophetiae Sibyllarum follows that rule rigidly elsewhere. But then facie insignis has the rhythm ⏑⏑ — — ⏑. And that isn’t hexameter.

Is it possible that most of the time the poet had a detailed, skilled knowledge of the intricacies of Latin dactylic hexameter, but when it came to this one line, everything suddenly went pear-shaped?

No, of course not. It’s a textual error. And it isn’t Lassus’ error: he got it right. It’s every edition from 1600 up until 1979 that got it wrong. I find it wild that in that period not a single editor noticed the problem.

The Sibylline oracles

It’d be wise to fill in some background here. There are real ancient poems called the Sibylline oracles, but these are not they. The poems set by Lassus are modern.

The ancient Oracles are a set of Judaeo-Christian poems ranging from the 2nd century BCE to the 4th century CE. They too are in dactylic hexameter, but the ancient poems are in Greek, and they’re hundreds of lines long. They’re fascinating poems in their own right. They present themselves as being prophecies spoken by actual oracles, prophesying Jewish history, the coming of Christ, the end times, and so on.

Michelangelo didn’t include the Cimmerian Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling: here’s the Libyan Sibyl instead, along with her counterpart in the 1505 edition. (sources: Barbieri ca. 1505, ch. 3;

From late antiquity onward, Christian readers sometimes assumed the poems genuinely were oracular pronouncements. As a result, both the poems and the Sybils acquired a lot of Christian street cred. The Sibyls were reckoned among the virtuous heathen because they supposedly foretold the coming of Christ.

Some ancient Christian writers celebrated them, especially Lactantius, so their fame came to be independent of the Greek poems. Long after the ancient poems faded from public consciousness, the Sibyls continued to enjoy celebrity status.

This is why the legendary Sibyls appear among Michelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, alongside prophets of the Hebrew Bible. They all get counted as forerunners to Christianity, preparing the way of the Lord.

In the late 1400s, a tract by the Italian humanist Filippo Barbieri gave a tally of twelve famous Sibyls. Barbieri’s tract was the occasion for the first appearance of the short Latin poems that Lassus ended up using in his choral setting. An article by Peter Bergquist (1979) traces the poems to an edition of Barbieri’s tract published around 1505, titled Quattuor hic compressa opuscula (‘four short works compiled here’). This 1505 edition has engravings of the twelve Sibyls, and adds the poems as captions, on facing pages.

Note. Some online facsimiles: Barberi ca. 1505; Birck 1555, an edition of the ancient Sibylline oracles which includes the Latin poems as an appendix; Lassus ca. 1560, the manuscript of Lassus’ choral settings, soprano alto tenor bass (the Prophetiae are around p. 50, with different pagination in each part); and Lassus 1600, the first publication of Lassus’ choral settings (soprano and bass parts). I haven’t been able to trace an online facsimile of Birck’s 1545 edition of the ancient Oracles, which reportedly contains the neo-Latin poems too: Google Books claims to have copies (1 2), but they’re mislabelled.

The unmetrical hexameter

Here’s the faulty text that is used in every copy on the CPDL website, and on nearly every recording: De Labyrintho (2007), Vocalconsort Berlin (2015), Trinity College Music Society (2021), and La Main Harmonique (2022). They all sing the text that Lassus didn’t write.

In teneris annis facie insignis honore
Militiae aeternae regem sacra virgo cibavit
Lacte suo, per quem gaudebunt pectore summo
Omnia, et Eoo lucebit sydus ab ore
Mirificum. Sua dona magi cum laude ferentes
Objicient puero myrrham, aurum, thura Sabaea.

Of tender years, with glorious face, in honour,
the sacred virgin has fed the king of the eternal host
with her milk. All things will rejoice in him
with uplifted heart, and from the eastern face will shine a star
of wonder. The magi will bring their gifts with praise
and offer them to the boy: myrrh, gold, (and) Sabaean incense.

There are actually several textual errors. The simple ones are:

  • Line 2 cibavit: should be future tense cibabit (‘the virgin will feed’, not ‘has fed’).
  • Line 4 ore: should be orbe (‘from the eastern sphere’ or ‘eastern world’, not ‘eastern face’).
  • Line 6 objicient: should be obijcient (same meaning, different pronunciation).

Lassus’ manuscript is held in Vienna at the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Mus.Hs. 18744. All four parts have orbe in line 4 and obijcient in line 6. Cibavit is Lassus’ own error: he correctly wrote cibabit in the tenor part, but cibavit in the soprano, alto, and bass parts.

The variation objicient–obijcient is a philosophical difference. Objicient is more linguistically sound, and it appears in the 1555 edition of the poem and in the Lassus texts of Bergquist (1979) and Schlötter (1990). But in the manuscript it’s clear that obijcient is what Lassus wrote; it also appears (correctly) in the 1600 edition. Most likely Lassus was using an edition that had obiicient, which is how the 1505 edition prints it.

But it’s line 1 facie insignis that set me on this trail. Take a look at the following scansions. Macron and breve marks (— and ⏑) represent long and short syllables in the hexameter (not the rhythms used in Lassus’ setting); the anceps mark at line-end (×) indicates indifferent syllable length.

(a) The rhythm of dactylic hexameter. (b) The first line from Lassus’ prelude movement, scanned, and illustrating elision on quae. (c) The faulty first line from the ‘Sibylla Cimmerica’ movement in two possible interpretations, one with hiatus, the other observing elision.

I also give the first line from Lassus’ prelude movement (‘The songs you hear, modulated with a chromatic tenor ...’) to illustrate how the words should correspond to the hexameter rhythm, and also to illustrate the correct observance of elision. The text of this opening movement is likely by Lassus himself. Notice incidentally that this line is what metrical stylists call a ‘golden line’, in the form noun A adjective B verb adjective A noun B. It’s clearly calculated to show off Lassus’ skill with Latin verse, as well as with music.

The scansion of the line from the fourth movement shows that the rhythm cannot possibly correspond to the hexameter rhythm, whether facie is elided or not.

The correct reading is facie praesignis, which is similar in meaning: ‘with exceptionally glorious face’, as opposed to insignis ‘with glorious face’. It doesn’t suffer from the problems with insignis:

  • Praesignis starts with a consonant, so there’s no need to worry about elision.
  • Another principle of hexameter is that any vowel followed by a consonant cluster is treated as metrically long. So before the pr- of praesignis, facie acquires a long final syllable, and the phrase has the correct metrical rhythm, ⏑⏑ — — — ⏑.
The manuscript of Lassus’ Prophetiae Sibyllarum, 4th movement, tenor part, with the correct readings clearly visible. (Vienna, Mus.Hs.18744 iii, p. 27)

There are other occasional differences between the text in Lassus’ manuscript and the poems as they appear in the 1505 and 1555 editions. Lassus’ title for his fourth movement is Sibylla Cymmeria (not Cimmeria). ‘Cimmerian Sibyl’ would be Sibylla Cimmerica, and that’s how it appears in the 1555 edition of the poem: Lassus’ title is literally just the words ‘Sibyl’ and ‘Cimmeria’, which is an infelicity. (The 1505 edition is worse: it prints Sibylla Chimeria in one place, Sibylla Chimicha in another.)

The best published text for Lassus’ settings is Bergquist’s (1979), which is also used in the Bärenreiter edition (Schlötter 1990). Even that doesn’t agree perfectly with the Lassus manuscript. Lassus uses forms like obijcient and eximij, rather than objicient and eximii, and he doesn’t usually capitalise the first letter of each hexameter line. You aren’t going to hear most of these things in performance, though objicient is audible.

The only recordings I’ve found that use the Bergquist–Bärenreiter text are the ones by Cantus Cölln (2002) and Gallicantus (2018). (The latter puts Lassus’ settings alongside some modern compositions — ‘Sibylla Clevelandiae’, ‘Sibylla Chicagonis’, and so on.) The Hilliard Ensemble recording (1998) does have the correct text, but their consonants are so under-enunciated that it takes some careful listening to tell.


  • Barbieri, F. circa 1505. Quattuor hic compressa opuscula. ... Venice. [Internet Archive]
  • Bergquist, P. 1979. ‘The poems of Orlando di Lasso’s Prophetiae Sibyllarum and their sources.’ Journal of the American Musicological Society 32.3: 516–538. [DOI | JSTOR]
  • Castellion, S. 1555. Σιβυλλιακῶν χρησμῶν λόγοι ὀκτώ. Sibyllinorum oraculorum libri viii. Ed. Sixt Birck (alias Xystus Betuleius), Sébastien Castellion (alias Sebastianus Castalio). Basel. [Internet Archive]
  • Lassus, R. circa 1560. Prophetiae Sibyllarum. Manuscript. Vienna Mus.Hs.18744. [Österreichische Nationalbibliothek]
  • Lassus, R. 1600. Prophetiae Sibyllarum. Ab Orlando de Lasso, piae memoriae (Cantus, Bassus). Munich. []
  • Schlötter, R. (ed.) 1990. Orlando di Lasso. Sämtliche Werke (Neue Reihe) 21. Prophetiae Sibyllarum. Kassel. [IMSLP (PDF)]

Thursday 2 November 2023

Who has the highest K/D in the Iliad?

You’d imagine the answer would be Achilleus, right? Actually he’s only number three. Remember, he’s out of combat for most of the epic.

Now, I do have to apply some constraints, otherwise this won’t make sense.

First, people don’t get to respawn in the Iliad. (Well, mostly. I’ll come back to this.) So we’re not really talking about K/D, it’s really just K. Only a handful of characters get combat kills and also die: Patroklos, Sarpedon, Hektor, and a few minor characters (Antiphos, Peiros, possibly Akamas). For everyone else, the K/D involves a divide-by-zero error. But many online games calculate K/D as if everyone died at least once, so that’s the principle I’ll adopt.

Second, only named kills count. Unnamed characters don’t get reported individually: it’s impossible to keep a tally when the narrator says something like ‘And then Achilleus killed a countless throng’.

My tally is different from others that I’ve seen, by C. B. Armstrong (1969) and an anonymous user on the ‘ancient Greek’ subreddit (2021) — Armstrong and I have the same count for the top two people on the league table, but our counts differ for number three. Alas, there’s little prospect of reconciling the numbers without everyone sharing their data. So to that end, my own tally is online here. It probably contains errors. I’m sure you’ll tell me.

Here’s the overall kill count by book. Throughout this write-up, green represents Greeks killing Trojans, tan represents Trojans killing Greeks. (Do let me know if this is a poor choice for colour blindness: they were meant to be paler versions of the colours used on Loeb editions.)

Deaths of named characters in the Iliad

Most named deaths are Greeks killing Trojans. The highest densities of Trojans killing Greeks are in book 5 (Diomedes’ aristeia), 11 (Agamemnon’s aristeia), and 15 (the battle by the ships).

In the aristeiai, I get the general sense that the high Greek death counts are there for narrative balance. In book 5, Diomedes starts strong, but while his rampage continues throughout the book, the narrative focus moves around after the first 300 lines. From lines 541 to 659 there’s a mess of deaths on both sides, then Odysseus slaughters seven Trojans in two lines, then Hektor kills seven Greeks. Book 11 also adjusts its focus as it goes: Agamemnon gets a bunch of kills, then Hektor, then Diomedes and Odysseus, then Aias.

That balancing principle doesn’t apply in the aristeiai of Patroklos (book 16) and Achilleus (books 20–21). There, the whole point is that the fighting is not balanced. The vast majority of kills in those books are by Greeks, mostly Patroklos and Achilleus. The only Trojan kills are in book 16, where Hektor and Glaucus get one kill each at lines 569–600; and of course Hektor kills Patroklos at the end of the book.

The standings

Here are the top twenty.

Rank Player Team Kills
1 Hektor Trojan 28
2 Patroklos Achaian 27
3 Achilleus Achilleus 24
4 Diomedes Achaian 21
5 Odysseus Achaian 18
6= Aias Telamonios Achaian 15
6= Teukros Achaian 15
8 Agamemnon Achaian 12
9= Antilochos Achaian 8
9= Menelaos Achaian 8
11= Aineias Trojan 6
11= Idomeneus Achaian 6
11= Meriones Achaian 6
14 Leonteus Achaian 5
15= Euryalos Achaian 4
15= Polypoites Achaian 4
17= Eurypylos Achaian 3
17= Meges Achaian 3
17= Paris Trojan 3
17= Poulydamas Trojan 3

Two Achaians and four Trojans have 2 kills each. Five Achaians and six Trojans have 1 kill — including the god Ares, who gets a kill of his own at 5.842–844 (unless you want to count that as just teabagging). The lesser Aias, Sarpedon, and Glaukos get 2 each; Helenos gets 1. Nestor is the only major combatant with no kills.


But I also get irritated whenever good Homer nods.
Horace, Art of poetry 358–359

The classic example of the ‘Homeric nod’ is when a character gets killed and then pops up alive later on. Wikipedia, in its article on continuity in narrative, gives the example of the Paphlagonian leader Pylaimenes. He dies in Iliad 5, then respawns in book 13 to witness his son’s death.

There the two of them killed Pylaimenes, equal of Ares,
leader of the Paphlagonians, great-hearted and shield-wearing.
Atreus’ son, spear-famous Menelaos, got him
as he stood there, hitting him at the collarbone with his spear.
Iliad 5.576–579
Then noble Pylaimenes’ son sprang upon him,
Harpalion, who followed his own father into to make war
at Troy — but he didn’t come back home to his ancestral land.
. . .
... he breathed out his life, like an earthworm along the ground
lying down; his dark blood flowed out and soaked the earth.
The great-hearted Paphlagonians tended to him,
placed him in a chariot, and led him to holy Ilion
grieving. And with them walked his father, dripping tears.
There was no blood price for his dead son.
Iliad 13.643–645, 654–659

We can be sure it’s the same Pylaimenes both times, thanks to the references to the Paphlagonians. It shows it isn’t a stock name. Many names in Iliad death scenes are stock names, like the names in these lines —

Which of the Trojans did blameless Teukros slay first?
First Orsilochos, and Ormenos, and Ophelestes,
Daitor, Chromios and godlike Lykophantes,
and Polyaimonides, Amopaon, and Melanippos.
Iliad 8.273–276

Most of these names get repeated elsewhere. Orsilochos had already been killed at 5.541–553, Ormenos dies again at 12.187, Ophelestes at 21.210. Chromios has many appearances, at 4.295 as an Achaian, at 5.160 as a son of Priam killed by Diomedes, at 5.677 as a Trojan slain by Odysseus, here as a Trojan, and in book 17 as another (living) Trojan mentioned at lines 218, 494, and 534. Various Melanipposes appear elsewhere too.

I suppose you could say that Chromios doesn’t just respawn. He also team-hops.

But really, they’re stock names of course. One way of telling that a name is a stock name is if it also crops up in the ‘pair of brothers killed’ trope. What I mean by that is a common trope where the narrator gives a death scene pathos by telling us about what a tragedy it is that both brothers die, to the grief of their dear old father.

Here are the examples of the ‘pairs of brothers killed’ trope. They account for 9.9% of all named kills in the Iliad.

Passage Killer(s) Two brothers
5.148–151 Diomedes Abas, Polyidos Eurydamas
5.152–158 Diomedes Xanthos, Thoon Phainops
5.159–165 Diomedes Echemnon, Chromios Priam
5.541–560 Aineias Krethon, Orsilochos Diokles
6.21–28 Euryalos Aisepos, Pedasos Abarbare,
11.101–121 Agamemnon Isos, Antiphos Priam
11.122–147 Agamemnon Peisandros,
11.221–263 Agamemnon Iphidamas, Koon Antenor
11.328–334 Diomedes Adrestos, Amphios
(named at 2.830–834)
11.426–455 Odysseus Charops, Sokos Hippasos
16.317–329 Antilochos,
Atymnios, Maris Amisodaros
20.460–462 Achilleus Dardanos, Laogonos Bias

Most of these must be stock names. So there’s no good reason to see a continuity error when people with one of these names get killed and reappear later.

Still, for the record, here’s the list of names that get killed multiple times. Note that these aren’t necessarily Homeric nods: there’s no in-universe reason to suppose that it’s the same character each time. Rather, these are typical names for death scenes.

Name First death Second death Third death
Adrestos 6.65 (major scene) 16.694
Agelaos 8.259 11.302
Akamas 6.8 16.343
Apisaon 11.578 17.349
Autonoos 11.301 16.694
Chromios 5.160 5.677 8.275
Dolops 11.302 15.543
Echeklos 16.694 10.477
Echios 15.339 16.416
Erymas 16.349 16.415
Hippodamas 11.335 20.402
Hypsenor 5.81 13.412
Koiranos 5.677 17.618
Laogonos 16.606 20.462
Melanippos 8.276 15.577 16.695
Moulios 16.696 20.473
Mydon 5.588 21.209
Oinomaos 5.706 13.508
Ophelestes 8.274 21.210
Opheltios 6.20 11.302
Orestes 5.705 12.193
Ormenos 8.274 12.187
Orsilochos 5.560 8.274
Peisandros 11.144 13.617
Periphetes 14.515 15.650
Schedios 15.515 17.310
Thoon 5.155 11.422 13.547
Tlepolemos 5.658 (major scene) 16.416

A few of these show notable patterns in the identity of the killers. Echeklos’ and Moulios’ deaths are both at the hands of Patroklos first, and Achilleus second; Peisandros gets killed first by Agamemnon, later by Menelaos; Hippodamas is killed by Odysseus, then Achilleus, maybe hinting at OdysseyIliad parallels. Schedios is killed by Hektor both times.

Perhaps the most suggestive ones are the ones that have non-Greek names. Apisaon’s two death scenes are formulaic (11.578–579 = 17.348–349), with the result that he dies the same way twice, with a spear in the liver. Erymas’ two death scenes are in quick succession. But I wonder if fact that their names are non-Greek suggests that they’re less formulaic. Are they meant to be more memorable than the typical Greek names? If so, what would that imply?

Is Chromios a respawning Orc nemesis? (Middle Earth: shadow of Mordor, 2014)

Armstrong highlights the characters that die three times: Chromios, Melanippos, and Thoon. The many appearances of Chromios, in particular, make me wonder if the Iliad has a Nemesis System, where a character who dies may reappear stronger and buffed up, ready to take vengeance (Magnusson et al. 2022). Or maybe they’re the ones who acquire a new Nemesis each time they respawn. As Armstrong puts it,

With such adversaries it is scarcely surprising that they were finally disposed of.
Armstrong 1969: 31


  • Armstrong, C. B. 1969. ‘The casualty lists in the Trojan War.’ Greece & Rome 16.1: 30–31. [DOI | JSTOR]
  • Gainsford, P. 2023. ‘Iliad deaths.’ Online dataset. [Google Sheets]
  • Magnusson, S.; Hage, E.; Parosu, I. 2022. ‘The Nemesis System. How games create stories.’ Diss. Uppsala. [Digitala Vetenskapliga Arkivet]
  • /u/rebelzephyr 2021. ‘Iliad K/D ratio.’ Online forum post. [Reddit]