Modern concerns echoed in ancient papyrus

Miracle medical cures, religious confusion and monetary safeguards. These were the topics that weighed on the minds of ancient Egyptians, according to the annual Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists, published by the University of Cincinnati. The new translations on a number of topics show that in some ways not much has changed over the centuries.

Papyrology is a notoriously difficult research area as it was common among antiquities dealers of the early 20th century to tear papyri pages apart in order to increase the number of pieces they could sell. Thus, piecing together complete works is nigh on impossible.

Some of the papers from this year’s volume include:

  • Cabbage currency
    Katherine Blouin (University of Toronto) details a papyrus text regarding a Greek loan of money with interest, the interest being paid in cabbages. Such in-kind interest protected the lender from currency inflation, which was rampant after 275 AD.
  • Hippo worshipper seeks proto-Paypal
    Cavan Concannon (Harvard University) translates a Greek letter in which a priest of the hippopotamus goddess, Thoeris, asks for a money transfer between two banks in different places in the hope that they had sufficient trust between them to accept one another’s promissory notes.
  • A beta Chuck Norris
    Sofie Remijsen (Leuven University, Belgium) discusses a Greek letter in which the author details his visit to Alexandria in Egypt, at a time (ca. 300 AD) when the Roman Emperor Diocletian was visiting the city and demanding entertainment. The letter’s author, an amateur athlete, was selected to entertain the emperor in “pankration” (Greco-Roman wrestling with very few rules). He did poorly in this event and so challenged five others to do “pammachon,” which literally translates to “all-out fight,” with even fewer rules. The letter’s author fought five “pammachon” rounds, and it appears he won first prize.
  • A cure for epilepsy
    Magali de Haro Sanchez (Li�ge University, Belgium) discusses magical texts for treating fevers, wounds, scorpion bites and epilepsy. An amulet to prevent epilepsy contained the following invocation:

    God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, our God, deliver Aurelia from every evil spirit and from every attack of epilepsy, I beg you, Lord Iao Sabaoth Eloai, Ouriel, Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, Sarael, Rasochel, Ablanathanalba, Abrasax, xxxxxx nnnnnn oaa iiiiiiiiii x ouuuuuuu aoooooooo ono e (cross) e (cross) Sesengenbarpharanges, protect, Ippho io Erbeth (magical symbols), protect Aurelia from every attack, from every attack, Iao, Ieou, Ieo, Iammo, Iao, charakoopou, Sesengenbarpharanges, Iao aeeuuai, Ieou, Iao, Sabaoth, Adonai, Eleleth, Iako.”

  • Orthodoxy and orthography in early Christianity
    An essay by William Shandruk (University of Chicago) examines the ways in which Christ and Christian are spelled in Greek papyri. Chrestos, which was pronounced the same way as Christos, was a common slave name meaning “good” or “useful.” Confused by this, representatives of the Roman government often misspelled Christ’s name “Chrestos” instead of “Christos” meaning “anointed” or “messiah.” They also called the early followers of Christ “Chrestianoi” rather than “Christianoi.” The early Christians themselves went with the Romans here and often spelled their own name “Chrestianoi,” but they stuck to the correct spelling “Christos” for Christ’s name.

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Source: University of Cincinnati

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