Coptic Magical Papyri on the Road: The 29th International Congress of Papyrology, Università del Salento, Lecce, 28 July-3 August 2019

The opening ceremony of the 29th International Congress of Papyrology. [source]

This year’s summer conference season ended with the International Congress of Papyrology, one of the largest events in our field, with over 400 attendees visiting the city of Lecce in the sunny south of Italy. As usual, we will only discuss the papers touching on ancient magic here, but the range of topics was very diverse, touching on subjects from the economics of Ptolemaic Egypt to newly discovered ancient novels, and the future of the discipline of papyrology, and the abstracts for the other talks can be found on the conference website.

Andrew T. Wilburn (Oberlin College, Ohio) presented a fascinating paper looking at the relationship between magical texts from Egypt and those from other parts of the Roman empire, continuing his previous work on the archaeology of magic in the Roman world. He began by discussing the unique curse tablets found in Amathous in Cyprus – over two hundred of them have been found, written not only on lead, but also on the crystalline rock selenite, dating to the third century CE, and deposited in a well which also contained human remains. The curses are often highly formulaic, demonstrating that they were copied from at least one formulary. Verbal parallels, as well as the use of charaktēres shows that these formularies have some kind of relationship to several manuscripts from Egypt, among them PGM VII, from near Thebes and PGM XXXVI, from the Fayum. The links are even broader than this, though, since further parallels can be found on gemstones and curse tablets from Syria-Palestine, Rome, and Afghanistan. This implies far-flung networks linking practitioners across the Roman world, and Wilburn ended by using actor-network theory to explore the question of how these practices could have been transmitted – either by objects (written texts) or actors (ritual experts, either independent or connected to temples).

BM 1891,0418.50 (3rd century CE, Cyprus), one of a number of binding curses written on selenite, a transitional form of gypsum, and buried in a well.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Michael Zellmann-Rohrer (University of Oxford) presented his ongoing work on the London Hay collection of Coptic magical texts in the British Museum – a group of documents purchased by the Scottish traveller Robert James Hay between 1829 and 1833, and acquired by the museum in 1868. This collection is unusual in being written entirely on pieces of leather, a feature which may suggest Nubian influence, since the use of leather for writing is rare in Egypt itself. Along with the curator of the collection, Elizabeth O’Connell, Zellmann-Rohrer has been working on a new complete edition of these fascinating texts, which has involved producing new infra-red photos, and re-analysis of the artefacts themselves. Preliminary carbon dating suggests that they are slightly later than previously believed, dating probably to the seventh or eighth centuries CE, and analysis of the objects themselves has also shown that there are two more manuscripts than previously realised – until now these were wrongly classified as fragments of other pieces. Zellmann-Rohrer’s work on the texts has uncovered some very interesting details, including another one of the rare mentions of Egyptian deities – Horus – as well as references to Christian myth – the apocryphal story of the Devil infecting Eve with lust by making her drink his sweat, and a reference to Saint George.

Our project was represented by Korshi Dosoo, who presented a joint paper with Sofía Torallas Tovar (University of Chicago) and Raquel Martín Hernández (Universidad Complutense de Madrid) discussing the different formats of magical formularies. Korshi’s part focused on providing an overview of the corpus of 208 formularies in Greek, Demotic and Coptic catalogued by our project, dating to between the first century BCE and the seventh century CE – the period of Roman rule in Egypt. He then provided a discussion of the different forms these took, and the way in which these changed over time – with the early roll format giving way to the codex in the fourth century, and the rotulus, or vertical roll, in the fifth. A summary of this research, as it relates to Coptic manuscripts, will soon appear in our series Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri, so stay tuned to learn more.

Sofía Torallas Tovar then contextualised this within the larger story of book production in Egypt. As she pointed out, the shift from roll to codex is part of a larger trend in papyrus manuscripts over the third and fourth centuries,  which has been well studied, particularly in relation to Christian book production. This focus on Christian manuscripts has often led, however, for small groups of texts to be studied in isolation, leading to bias in the dating and interpretation of manuscripts. Greek Biblical texts tend to be dated as early as possible, while Coptic texts tend to be dated late. Similarly, scholars often assume that rolls must be early, and that Coptic texts are never written on rolls, leading to strange interpretations. Coptic texts on short rolls have been mistakenly described as irregular codex pages, for example. By showing very close parallels in handwriting and format between biblical, literary, and magical texts, Torallas Tovar demonstrated the importance of looking at the larger scribal context of manuscripts, considering the role of professional copyists who might work on several different textual genres over the course of their working lives. A new approach to materiality must also take into account genre specificities, such as the continuing use of the roll in Coptic text production in the festal letters sent by the Patriarch of Alexandria to his deputies, and the possible influence of documentary texts on the development of the format of the rotulus, or vertical roll.

Part of PDM/PGM XII (2nd-3rd century CE, Thebes), a magical text written in Greek and Demotic on the back of a roll containing a copy of the Demotic Myth of the Sun’s Eye.

Raquel Martín Hernández finished this discussion by focusing specifically on the use of rolls in magic, and specifically those written on either side. These are commonly known as opisthographic, but Martín Hernández proposed distinguishing between opisthographic rolls in which the blank verso of an existing document is re-used by a second writer for a separate text, and amphigraphic or true opisthographic rolls, in which a single copyist writes on both sides to create a unitary text. We find both types among the magical papyri – PDM/PGM XII is a good example of a re-used opisthographic roll, in which a roll containing a Demotic mythological text, the Myth of the Sun’s Eye, was turned over to write a series of bilingual, Greek and Demotic, magical recipes. By contrast, PGM VII is an amphigraphic roll, in which the same hand finished writing on the front before continuing to write a series of recipes on the back. Martín Hernández pointed out some interesting features of these two-sided texts, which result from their material qualities – since the text on the back would be exposed, and touched while the manuscript was rolled and unrolled, many of the rolls contain text only in the middle of their backs, so that the text would be protected when it was rolled up, while others, such as PDM xiv, only contain text on the upper half of their backs, so that the text would not be worn away by the user’s fingers as they scrolled through the front columns. She also pointed out that the format of the magical amphigraphic rolls studied is impractical for continuous reading, since they would need to be completely re-rolled to go from the end of the front to the beginning of the back. It would, however, be perfectly suitable for a practical work within which individual recipes were to be consulted.

Giuditta Mirizio (Universität Heidelberg) presented her new project on prayers for justice – a category of text we have discussed a little in the past, consisting of curses in which the user calls upon a god or goddess to act as a judge, and punish someone who has wronged them. In some ways these parallel petitions to more mundane authorities, such as human governors, and Mirizio’s project will try to re-evaluate the category, examining them as material artefacts, and questioning their relationship to other cursing and petitioning practices. This will involve looking at the type of support that the texts are written on, their layout, and how they were used – if they were shown for public display, or deposited in a hidden location like other curse tablets.

Gesa Schenke (University of Oxford) presented a fascinating new Coptic magical text, Cologne 20828, a fragmentary codex consisting of 12 surviving parchment pages dating to the ninth or tenth centuries CE. This codex resembles many others within our corpus, containing a series of invocations to divine beings, including angels, for a variety of purposes, most often healing and protection from various maladies and malevolent supernatural forces, including binding curses, magic, and diarrhoea (!). One interesting detail is that the main being invoked is female – something very rare in Coptic magic. The being, called Balnao or Bamao, is described as a “light power” (tenamis n-ouoein), and the “daughter of the Great Peace” (šeere n-t-noc n-ireinē). Balnao is – so far – unknown from any other text, but, given the usual focus of Coptic magical texts on male beings, she deserves more study.

Panagiota Sarischouli’s (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki) paper introduced a fascinating new theme in magic studies – that of emotion. As she pointed out, emotions are not easy to explore through texts, since there may always be a disjuncture between what is claimed to be felt and what is really felt, and texts lack facial and bodily gestures, key components of emotion in our real lives. Nonetheless, the different Greek magical papyri offer many possibilities for exploring this theme; obvious examples are the spells which aim to create love or hatred between people – love and separation spells – which often draw upon a rich language of relationships which can also be found in Egyptian and Greek literary texts. But we can also see emotions at work in divination procedures which aim to summon gods – although rarely stated explicitly, these would be charged with hopes, fears and expectations, some of which can be recovered when we look at the way that the texts are advertised in descriptions of their power.

Carmen Sánchez-Mañas (Pompeu Fabra University) presented her work on water and divination in the Greek magical papyri, focusing specifically on parallels with Pausanias’ discussion of Greek shrines and sacred sites in the Roman period. As she discussed, in both magical rituals and the wider folklore of the Greek world, water often served as a medium for revealing the marvellous, but while in Pausanias’ descriptions the power is linked to place, the magical papyri create it through particular ritual practices.

Richard Phillips (Virginia Tech) continued his work on invisibility practices in the Greek magical papyri, exploring the idea that, rather than disappearing, ‘invisibility’ here usually refers to going unnoticed, either by blinding the eyes of the target, or by concealing oneself. He explored this idea by looking at earlier parallels, in both Greek and Egyptian contexts, in particular the writings of Pliny the Elder in his Natural History. This manipulation of sight is often shown by the ritual use of materials relating to the sun, such as the dung-balls of scarab beetles, insects sacred to the Egyptian sun god, or the use of the heliotrope stone, which reflects the sun. Particularly interesting is the use of the aglaophotis, a flower said to be difficult to find, whose natural property of self-concealment could be used in invisibility rituals.

Spanish researchers of ancient Greek magic have done particularly important work on the language of these texts in recent decades, and the paper of Isabel Canzobre Martínez (Universitat Pompeu Fabra) continued this important tradition, focusing on the use of the “I am” (egō eimi) formula in the Greek magical papyri. This formula is recurrent, not only in Greek magical texts from Egypt, but also in Egyptian-language texts, in both Demotic and Coptic, and consists of claims of authority through identification with a deity – “I am Hermes”, for example. Canzobre Martínez analysed all of the instances of this formula in the magical papyri, and demonstrated that, while it appears with Greek gods and with voces magicae, it is used most often with Egyptian and Jewish/Christian deities. But while the phrase “I am” appears in the Jewish Bible, it fulfils a different theological function, and so Canzobre Martínez suggested that the origin of the phrase should instead be located in the Egyptian ritual tradition, in which divine identification has a long history in magical spells.

The last, but by no means least, of the speakers on magical topics was Ágnes T. Mihálykó (Eötvös Loránd University), who presented a paper of particular importance for our project, looking at the appearances of the saints and angels in liturgy and magic in Egyptian Christianity. As she pointed out, God the Father and Jesus could sometimes seem remote, and so the angels, and even more so the saints, offered an alternative pantheon of more accessible powers. Saints and angels are almost completely absent, however, from early liturgical texts, with the sixth century marking a turning point. From this period onwards, they begin to appear in prayers for intercession, as well as in hymns of praise; particularly important among the saints is the Virgin Mary, while Michael and Gabriel are the only angels to receive attention in the liturgy until a fairly late period. By the fourteenth century, however, Raphael, the Four Living Creatures and the 24 Presbyters of Revelation may appear as angelic figures in Egyptian liturgies. Interestingly, angels and saints seem to appear earlier in magical texts, and in more diverse contexts. Practitioners identify as Mary (“I am Mary”) in the common spell known as Mary in Bartos, while lists of saints are common in amulets, and angels appear regularly in all types of magical practices, with Michael and Gabriel the most prominent, but by no means the only angelic beings. Magical and liturgical texts ‘use’ saints and angels in different ways, but their appearances offer an interesting case study for our understanding of the relationship between the two categories of text. While we know that liturgical texts often influenced magical texts, in this case liturgy seems rather to imitate magic. The increasing importance of saints and angels in the Egyptian liturgy may be an example of the influence of ‘magical’ practices on normative cult, or else of some other factor – vernacular religion, or literary texts – which influenced both in different ways and at different rates.

Although not directly related to magic, we should also mention the great panel on Public-Facing Scholarship and the Reception of Papyrology; our project’s blog got a mention during the paper by Rachel Mairs and Katherine Blouin, whose online companion, Public-Facing Papyrology: from the News to the Classroom, can be read here on their excellent blog, Everyday Orientalism.

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