Coptic Magical Papyri on the Road: Concepts of Humans and Nature between Specificity and Universality. Conference, Mainz, 15-17 July, 2019

The Research Training Group 1876 “Early Concepts of Humans and Nature: Universal, Specific, Interchanged” welcomed over 30 speakers and 4 poster-creators to the Johannes Gutenberg-University in Mainz in the middle of July. This research training group, based at the same university, explores concepts of humans and nature intra-culturally and also trans-culturally, with textual, iconic and material sources being their starting point. The group also regularly update their blog, where their activities can be followed. The aim of the conference was to attempt to find universal, cross-cultural basic patterns of humans and nature and their specific implementations in various early societies. The conference was divided into 3 panels: (1) on the relationship between bodily experience and concepts of the body, (2) on human interactions with meteorological and cosmic phenomena, and the (3) on concepts of the dead body. In this blogpost, we will not be discussing all the presentations, only a selected few – our report will be incomplete as our team-member Markéta could participate at only a couple. The program of the conference, as well as the booklet, can be downloaded from the organiser’s website. 

On the first day, Reuven Kiperwasser from the Freie Universität Department of Jewish Studies spoke about the relationship between the order of the universe and the order/disorders of the body, mainly based on rabbinic literature. The speaker explored the relationship between the (almost) untranslatable terms “sidre Bereshit” and “sidre Olam”, which we can attempt to translate as “order of creation”. Kiperwasser gave examples of various debates among rabbis concerning creation – one of the most memorable stories was about a man able to lactate, explained by one of the rabbis as a divine miracle which might occur in case of lack of food, but by others as against the “natural order” given by God.

Han Nijdam from the Fryske Akademy in Leeuwarden presented an interesting paper on the relationship of body parts and their value in Frisian law texts. These law texts enumerate the so-called compensation tariffs – an injury, for example of the ear (double the amount if both ears were injured), should be compensated by a given amount of “blood money” or by the same offence performed on the accused. The concept of “embodied honor” is, according to Nijdam, related to this tradition, explaining how money or other valuables could compensate for a loss of body part or function.

The presentation of Han Nijdam from the Fryske Akademy in Leeuwarden. 

Equally compelling was the presentation of Shahrzad Irannejad and Aleksandar Milenković, PhD students from Mainz, on the relationship between localization of functions to embodiment of concepts in early Greek thought. The presenters discussed the localisation of the mind and its faculties, particularly in the work of the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles, and Nemesius, bishop of Emesa (modern Homs in Syria). Instead of summarising the entire presentation, we can give a few interesting examples: according to Empedocles, the four elements are present in everything, in different portions; bones, for example, are made of two parts water, two parts earth and 4 parts fire. In flesh and blood, on the other hand, the elements are all equally balanced – 1:1:1:1.

The second day’s presentations were concerned with the nature of the universe. Marvin Schreiber of the Excellence Cluster Topoi gave a talk exploring the connection of cosmic structures and other celestial bodies with Mesopotamian temples and cultic activities. A large portion of the talk was concerned with numbers and their relationships to astronomical elements, gods and reproduction. The design of heaven and earth were mirrored in the construction of the temple, for which “sacred measurements” were used.

Princeton’s Tom H. Davies shared the findings of his PhD thesis, centered around theories of the solar journey. Davies highlighted, that sometimes, Classicists tend to overlook the exchanges between the Greeks and other cultures as less important and they even sometimes tend to view the cultures as opposed to one another. In his work, Davies attempts to bridge the gap between cultures and observe similarities in their cosmological and cosmographical concepts. Davies argues, in his upcoming PhD thesis, that Greek and first-millennium BCE eastern Mediterranean traditions of cosmographic inquiry share common traits. Davies draws connections between Greek, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Iranian and other cosmographical contemporary traditions. Another useful observation Davies has made is that when academics are looking for the cultural universal, it is useful to look at the dynamics of evolution in cosmology, claiming that the Greek tradition of cosmography is “editive and expansive”.

A lecture by Matthias Däumer from the University of Vienna slightly differed from the other presentations, as Däumer was working with “the media-mythological interpretation”. Reaching far back to the 3rd century BCE Aramaic Book of Enoch (considered canonical by Ethiopian Jews and the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches), he connected certain aspects of Enoch’s story with Wolfram von Eschenbach’s (c. 1160/80 – c. 1220) Parzifal. Although there are no written sources confirming that Eschenbach could have been familiar with the story of Enoch and especially with The Book of Watchers, Däume still thinks there might be a connection based on certain elements of the story.

The last presentation we will report on is the lecture by Feray Coskun, from Özyeğin University in Istanbul, who truly took us into another world through Ottoman cosmographies and their amazing depictions of the world in manuscripts. Coskun presented several early examples of Ottoman cosmographies written in Turkish in the 14th and 15th centuries CE. One of those is Dür-i Meknun by Ahmed Bican, which “traces the origins of the world back to a green emerald that turned into water upon God’s gaze,” as Coskun writes in her abstract.

Four posters were presented during the poster session – Annika Tjuka from Freie Universität presented a poster on the Universal patterns of mapping body-part terms to object and landscape properties. Mainz’s Benedetta Belluci’s poster explored atmospheric phenomena in the ancient Middle East and Tommaso Scarpelli from Leipzig was also interested in weather, but in Mesopotamia. Lastly, Markéta Preininger Svobodová from our team presented a poster on bodily fluids in Coptic magical texts, which will be discussed in one of our next posts.

As could have been expected, the question of specificity and universality was not fully answered during the conference. Nevertheless, events like this one certainly help bring us closer to some answers, or perhaps to more questions.

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