• Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri XII: Coptic Dialects

    There is a famous story told by the English printer William Caxton in the introduction to his 1490 edition of the Aeneid, about a group of merchants headed from London to Denmark who stopped along the way at a woman’s house to see if they could get something to eat. One of them, from the North of England, asked if she had any eggs, and she replied that she didn’t speak French, something that must have confused them both, until one of his companions stepped in and told the woman that he wanted eyren. The woman was as English as the merchant, but the problem was caused by a difference…

  • Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri XI: Magic between Languages

    The previous post in this series introduced the different languages used to write magical texts in Egypt from the second to twelfth centuries CE – Demotic, Greek, Coptic – and discussed their changing usage. In the second and third centuries most magical texts were written in Greek or Demotic, while Greek alone dominated in the fourth century. Greek was then replaced by Coptic from the fifth century, and Coptic itself began to decline in the tenth, as Egyptians increasingly began to speak and write Arabic instead of Coptic. But throughout this period, many Egyptians would have been able to speak, and even read, more than one language, and this is…

  • Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri X: Egyptian Languages

    One of the most interesting, and most studied, aspects of life in Graeco-Roman and Mediaeval Egypt is the phenomenon of multilingualism. In the 21st century, the vast majority of nation states have a single official or dominant language, and so many of us expect that the same language will be used in almost every context – in the home and at work, in places of worship, and when dealing with the government and legal system. But from a historical, and cross-cultural perspective, this is an unusual situation. More than half of the world’s present inhabitants speak more than one language, which they may use every day in at least one…

  • Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri IX: Magical Archives

    In the past posts in this series, we’ve looked at individual manuscripts – how to classify them, where and when they come from, what they were made from, and the forms that they took. But individual manuscripts are only part of the story, so this week we’ll introduce the concept of archives, groups of manuscripts which give us more information than individual manuscripts would on their own. In papyrology an “archive” is a group of documents which were brought together by a historical individual for a specific purpose. Sometimes these are libraries – books which someone might have collected and purchased because they wanted to read them; sometimes they are…

  • Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri VIII: Changes in Manuscript Formats

    In last week’s post we discussed the four major formats used in Coptic magical formularies – the roll, the codex, the rotulus, and the sheet. As we noted, the roll was the original form of the book, a long horizontal sheet of papyrus written with a series of vertical columns, while the smaller sheet was a smaller piece of papyrus with a single column used for short texts, such as notes. But the period which saw the appearance of Coptic-language magic – the fourth to fifth centuries – was also a period of transformation in writing technology, as the predominant format shifted from roll to codex. This change is an…

  • Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri VII: Manuscript Formats

    In the last blog post in this series, we looked at the different materials upon which magical texts might be written – from papyrus sheets to lead tablets, and from parchment to animal bones. In this post we’ll look at the different ways that these raw materials could be turned into manuscripts which could be written upon, while in the next we’ll look at the ways in which the use of these formats changed over time. These two posts will discuss some of the material presented by Korshi Dosoo and Sofía Torallas Tovar at the 29th International Congress of Papyrology in July of this year, but it will leave aside…

  • Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri VI: Writing Materials

    Our previous posts in this series have defined and problematised magical texts, and the difference between applied texts and formularies, before looking at their spread over time and space. This week we’re going to look at them as physical objects, focusing on the materials or “supports” on which they are written.  These can tell us a great deal about the production and function of their texts, and their place in the history of writing. Although our project is called “Coptic Magical Papyri”, a more accurate, if less catchy title, would be “Coptic Magical Manuscripts”. Alongside papyrus, Coptic-language magical texts were written on a wide range of other materials, including parchment…

  • Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri V: …and Space

    Our project is tied up with the land of Egypt, and not only because the texts we’re studying are written in Coptic. Egypt has a unique place in the study of the ancient Mediterranean because of its proverbial “dry sands”. Most of the population has always lived along the narrow stretch of the Nile valley – extending nearly 1200 km from Aswan in the south to Alexandria in the north, but only 3-20 km wide at any point along its course. On each side of the valley stretches the mountainous desert, filled over the centuries with towns, tombs, temples, churches, and monasteries. While elsewhere ancient texts often rotted away, the…

  • Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri IV: Time…

    Now that most of our corpus has been entered into our database, we can begin to visualise it in various interesting ways. In the next few posts of this series we’ll examine some of the statistical features of the manuscripts containing Coptic magical texts, beginning with their distribution over time. In our project description, we say that the texts which we study date to between the third and twelfth centuries CE. This coincides with the period that Coptic was used as a written form of the Egyptian language; the earliest texts in standard Coptic probably date to the third century. By the twelfth century it had largely been replaced by…

  • Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri

    Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri III: Boundary-Crossing Texts

    Our last post in this series established two categories of magical manuscripts – formularies, which contain magical recipes, and applied texts, created in the process of magical rituals and embodying their power. We deliberately chose a very clear example to illustrate this division, but in many cases the line between the two is not so obvious. This week we’ll look at a few confusing examples of magical objects which show features of both formularies and applied texts. In most cases, these texts are ambiguous because they show features that we would consider typical of both categories of manuscript. P. mag. copt. Saqqara hypogees F17.10, a small piece of paper with…