Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri

Looking at the Coptic Magical Papyri X: Egyptian Languages

The Rosetta Stone (British Museum EA24), probably the most famous multilingual text from Egypt. Written in 196 BCE, it contains a summary of the decisions of a priestly synod, written in three languages, each in a different script – Traditional Egyptian written in Hieroglyphs, Demotic in Demotic script, and Greek in Greek script. Similar multilingual decrees were fairly common in the Ptolemaic and early Roman Egypt; most inhabitants of Egypt would have been able to understand either the Demotic and Greek text if it was read out to them, while the hieroglyphic Traditional Egyptian text represented a “dead” but prestigious language which would probably have been fully understood by a much smaller proportion of the population.
© The Trustees of the British Museum [source]

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 sphere of their lives. Papyrological sources show us that this situation was also the norm for much of Egyptian history. As well as Egyptian, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic, which we have discussed in past posts, texts from Egypt survive in languages as diverse as Aramaic and Syriac, Pahlavi or Middle Persian, Tamil, Armenian, Meroitic, and Phoenician. Although this project is focused on texts written in a single language – Coptic – the relationship between Coptic and the other languages of Egypt is important for understanding them.

The language we call ‘Egyptian’ is the first written language attested in Egypt, part of the language family we call Afroasiatic, or Hamito-Semitic, because its members are largely spoken in North-East Africa and Western Asia. This means that it is related to modern languages such as Arabic and Hebrew, as well as Hausa, spoken in parts of West Africa, and Amharic, spoken in Ethiopia. Egyptian likely split off from the other languages very early on, perhaps as early as 10,000 BCE or even earlier. Egyptian is usually divided into five historical phases – Old Egyptian, Middle Egyptian, Late Egyptian, Demotic, and Coptic, but in the period we are discussing, only three of these are important. Middle Egyptian was the version of the language written in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2000-1650 BCE), which was later considered the classical form. As late as the Roman period, a version of Middle Egyptian, often called Traditional Egyptian, was still used for religious texts and official inscriptions. This is similar to the way in which Latin was, and still is, used by Europeans despite no longer being spoken – on coins, in monumental inscriptions, and in religious liturgies. 

Demotic is a later form of the language, first written ca. 650 BCE. Its name in English comes from the Greek word for “popular”, while in Egyptian it was called “letter script” (sẖꜣ (n) šꜥ.t/sekha en shat). As these names suggest, Demotic was originally used primarily for writing administrative texts and letters, with hieroglyphs and their cursive form, hieratic, being used for more prestigious literary and religious texts. By the Roman period, however, it had become the main way of writing Egyptian, and texts of any kind, from personal letters to temple liturgies, could be written in Demotic. 

The last phase of Egyptian, Coptic, is the most important for us, and seems to have been written from the third century CE onwards. As we’ve discussed in a previous post, its alphabet was based on Greek, with a few signs added to represent Egyptian sounds not found in Greek. But this alphabet just represents its written form, and, as modern linguists stress, language is almost always performed – spoken or signed – more often than it is written. This raises the interesting question of what ‘spoken Egyptian’ was, which we’ll come back to at the end of this post.

TT 65 07/1.D/06 (6th-8th century CE, Thebes) a Greek-Coptic lexicon, containing a list of Greek words with their Coptic equivalents. This ostracon might have served as a simple dictionary for someone trying to learn Greek, or read a Greek-language text. Containing words such as “desire”, “glorified”, and “without sin”, it was probably used by someone interested in theological texts.
Image from Haznos (2011)

The two other languages which are important for our discussion here are Greek and Arabic. There was probably a stable Greek-speaking population in Egypt from quite early on – the Greek city of Naukratis was established in the Nile Delta by the reign of the Pharaoh Amasis (570-526 BCE), but the Greek language only became a major force in Egypt after the conquest of Alexander the Great (332 BCE) and the rule of the Ptolemies (305-30 BCE), the Macedonian dynasty who succeeded him. While Greek was probably the main spoken language in Naukratis and other ‘Greek cities’ such as Alexandria, it also became important in many other domains of life. The Ptolemaic administration carried out its business in Greek, and this was continued by the Roman and later Umayyad (661-744 CE) rulers in Egypt. This means that, after Demotic ceased to be used for legal texts in the early Roman period, whenever Egyptian-speakers needed to interact with the legal or political system, they entered the domain of Greek. Similar situations exist in many countries colonised in their recent past by European powers, in which the official government language may not be that spoken by most of the population. In Senegal, for example, the official language is French, which is spoken by only about a third of Senegalese people.

But Greek was not only an administrative language; it was the lingua franca, or common language, of the entire eastern Mediterranean. Just as today, two speakers of different languages – say a Japanese speaker and a Spanish speaker – may use a third language, usually English, to talk to one another, subjects of the Roman empire whose first languages were Egyptian or Aramaic would probably have used Greek to communicate. But its importance went still further than this; Greek literature and philosophy played an important role in the cultural life of the Roman empire, and mastering Greek was a way for many Egyptians to try to improve their lives by climbing the ranks of the Ptolemaic, and later Roman, administration. The most lasting impact of Greek on Egypt, however, has been in religion; the New Testament was written in Greek, and so Christianity was a Greek-language religion in Egypt for the first few centuries of its existence. Parts of the liturgy of the Coptic Church are still in Greek.

While Greek never seems to have replaced Egyptian as a spoken language, the situation is different with Arabic. Like Greek, it arrived in Egypt as the language of a ruling class with the Islamic conquest of 642 CE, and it too became important as the main language of power, culture, and a religion – in this case, Islam. But the Muslim rulers of Egypt continued to use Greek as the main language of administration until the eighth century, and, as discussed in an earlier post, it probably wasn’t until the ninth that Islam began to replace Christianity as the dominant religion in Egypt, and it seems that Arabic began to replace spoken Egyptian at the same time.

n=273 (magical formularies from Egypt dating between the 2nd and 12th centuries CE)

So how do magical texts reflect these linguistic changes? Because our database contains all published magical formularies from Egypt in Coptic, Greek, and Demotic we can look at the way in which the use of these languages changed over time; as always, we should note that these figures may change as our dating of Coptic texts improves. Nonetheless, we can see, for example, that the third century is the date of both the earliest Coptic magical texts, and the latest examples in Demotic. Here we see one written phase of Egyptian being replaced by another. At the same time, we may note that in the third and fourth centuries Greek is still the main language of magic, just as it was the main language used in most written texts. But we see an interesting shift in the fifth-century – at the same time as Christianity is becoming the predominant religion, Coptic seems to replace Greek as the preferred language of magic, with Greek declining rapidly. We have almost no texts later than the seventh century – the period in which the Greek-speaking administration was replaced by an Arabic-speaking one. Still later, around the tenth century, we see the use of Coptic in magic drop rapidly, as Arabic takes over as the main written and spoken language. If our database contained a comprehensive list of Arabic magical texts from Egypt – as we hope it one day will – it might show a related rise in the use of the Arabic language. Broadly speaking, then, the use of different languages in magic mirrors the use of language in other written domains.

There are some interesting details, though, which are worth discussing in a little more detail. The first is the way in which the languages interact, especially in moments of change, and this will be the subject of our next post. The second is the sudden rise of Coptic in the fifth century. Greek seems to have remained the main language of administration and literature until the seventh century, so the fact that Coptic is already more important than Greek among magical texts two centuries earlier is very interesting. 

PGM XXIIb (4th century CE), a Greek magical papyrus which begins with a ritual for protection and favour called the ‘Prayer of Jacob’. Close parallels to this text survive in at least two Coptic copies, providing one piece of evidence that many Coptic magical texts were translated from Greek. [source]

There are a few ways we could explain this. It could be, for example, that new magical techniques were developed by individuals writing in Coptic in the fourth and fifth centuries, which quickly became more popular than Greek magic. But while Coptic-language magic does show some differences from earlier Greek and Demotic magic, we know that at least some important Coptic magical texts were translated from Greek, so that this does not seem to be a complete explanation.

A second possibility is that Coptic had a specific social position which led to its sudden increase in importance shortly after its development. Ewa Zakrzewska, a specialist in Coptic socio-linguistics, has suggested that Coptic was adopted early on by influential Christian monks in Egypt. The importance of monasticism in Egyptian Christianity would have led to it being widely adopted by Christians who accepted the authority of monks. Yet, while we know that monks did sometimes practice Coptic magic, I don’t think this is a full explanation either. Greek continues to be an important language in Egyptian Christianity to the present day, and the work of Ágnes Mihálykó, who has compiled a checklist of Egyptian liturgical texts, shows that even though the number of Coptic manuscripts shows a major increase in the seventh century, Greek remained the predominant language until at least the tenth century CE.

The third explanation, which is, to me, the most convincing, is that the closeness of Coptic to the spoken language of most Egyptians meant that it was preferred in the intensely private sphere to which most language belonged, a sphere which included life-threatening and embarrassing diseases and emotionally-charged relationships of love and hatred. It is certainly true, as Zakrzewska points out, that the only evidence we have is for written Coptic, and that this was probably not exactly the same as the spoken language. But this is very normal – even in English, where the written language is fairly close to the spoken standard, we can easily tell the difference between someone reading a prepared text and speaking ad lib. Nonetheless, we can see that in mixed-language archives from the fourth to sixth centuries, Egyptians often used Greek for business, but wrote to family members in Coptic. Likewise, in many magical texts, as in documentary texts, we often find strange spellings and non-standard constructions which imply that the writer was writing phonetically rather than strictly following grammatical and spelling rules that they had memorised.

Coptic Museum Inv. 4061 (566 CE; Aphrodito), one of the texts from the famous Archive of Dioscoros of Aphrodito, which contains nearly approximately 700 manuscripts, most in Greek ranging from legal texts to poetry to medical and magical recipes; about 80 texts, mostly letters, are in Coptic. This one is a letter from a civil servant attempting to mediate a dispute between a group of shepherds and the family of Dioscoros.
Image courtesy of Loreleï Vanderheyden.

More research on our corpus is required to confirm or refute this hypothesis, but if it is correct, Coptic magical texts might represent an instance of vernacularisation – the process by which written texts change from being written in an elite language to the vernacular* language spoken by the broader population. This is a phenomenon which has been studied in contexts ranging from India – where newspapers in Hindi and other regional languages have outpaced those in English in the 21st century, to Mediaeval and Renaissance Europe, where literatures in languages such as English, German, and French gradually replaced the elite international language of Latin.

Language is a very complex subject, an important part of our individual and collective identities. The Coptic magical papyri represent one small part of the much bigger picture of linguistic change in Egypt, but one which may have some interesting things to tell us about the relationship between language and life.

*Note that “vernacular religion” and “vernacular language” are two different things. In the title of our project we use “vernacular religion” in the sense proposed by Leonard Norman Primiano, to mean religion as it is lived and experienced by specific people in specific places, as opposed to an idealised or abstract idea of religion.

References and Further Reading

Allen, James P. The Ancient Egyptian Language: An Historical Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
An overview of Egyptian and its different phases.

Edwards, John. “Multilingualism”, in The International Encyclopedia of Linguistics (2nd Edition), edited by William J. Frawley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

Hasznos, Andrea. ” A Greek-Coptic Glossary at Theban Tomb 65″, in From Illahun to Djeme. Studies in Honour of Ulrich Luft, edited by E. Bechtold, A. Gulyás, and A. Hasznos (London: BAR International Series 2311, 2011), 81-85. URL
Publication of the Greek-Coptic lexicon shown above.

Mihálykó, Ágnes T. The Christian Liturgical Papyri: An Introduction. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2019.

Neyazi, Taberez Ahmed. “Politics after Vernacularisation: Hindi Media and Indian Democracy”, Economic and Political Weekly 46.10 (2011): 75-82.

Primiano, Leonard Norman. “Vernacular Religion and the Search for Method in Religious Folklife”, Western Folklore 54.1 (1995): 37-56. URL
One of the most important discussions of the concept of “vernacular religion”.

Richter, Tonio Sebastian. “Greek, Coptic, and the ‘Language of the Hijra’. Rise and Decline of the Coptic Language in Late Antique and Medieval Egypt,” in From Hellenism to Islam: Cultural and Linguistic Change in the Roman Near East edited by H. Cotton, R. Hoyland, J. Price, & D.J. Wasserstein (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009), 401-446. URL
A very useful discussion of the rise and decline of the Coptic language.

Rizzi, Andrea and Eva Del Soldato, “Latin and Vernacular in Quattrocento Florence and Beyond: An Introduction”, I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance 16.1/2 (2013): 231-242.

Rutherford, Iain C. “Bilingualism in Roman Egypt? Exploring the Archive of Phatres of Narmuthis”, in The Language of the Papyri edited by T. V. Evans and D. D. Obbink (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 198–207.

Satzinger, Helmut. “The Old Coptic Schmidt Papyrus.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 12 (1975): 37-51.

Torallas Tovar, Sofía. “Greek in the Extremities: The Wandering Language” (2019). [URL]
A thought-provoking reflection on the range and history of the Greek language by a friend of the project.

Vanderheyden, Loreleï. “Les lettres coptes des archives de Dioscore d’Aphrodité”, in Actes du 26e Congrès international de papyrologie. Genève, 12-21 août 2010, edited by Paul Schubert (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 2012), 793-799. URL
The most recent published discussion of the Coptic texts from the sixth-century Archive of Dioscoros of Aphrodito, including the letter shown above.

Zakrzewska, Ewa D.”‘A Bilingual Language Variety’ or ‘the Language of the Pharaohs’? Coptic from the Perspective of Contact Linguistics”, in Greek Influence on Egyptian-Coptic : Contact-induced Change in an Ancient African Language, edited by Eitan Grossman, Peter Dils, Tonio Sebastian Richter , & Wolfgang Schenkel (Hamburg: Widmaier Verlag, 2017), 115–161.

Zakrzewska, Ewa D. “L* as a Secret Language: Social Functions of Early Coptic”, in Christianity and Monasticism in Middle Egypt: Al-Minya and Asyut, edited by G. Gabra and H. N. Takla (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2015), 185-198. URL

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