The girl with the Christian tattoo: Religious-magical practices in late antique Egypt

Images of the tattoo. The British Museum Trustees via The Telegraph

Images of the tattoo. © The British Museum Trustees via The Telegraph

The British Museum will host soon an exhibition of Egyptian mummies, Ancient lives, new discoveries, that is destined to become a blockbuster. Press releases have revealed some details: the exhibition will be a new look at mummies covering a long time span, from the pharaonic to the late antique period, and will show to the public what scan imaging and other technologies can reveal about the mummified person’s terrestrial life. I am usually not so attracted by mummies, the study of diseases and human physical features because it is so depressing to see how boring we are in these matters: we loose teeth, get cancer, eat badly and inexorably die, and have been doing so for millennia now. Besides this, ancient human facial reconstructions remind me of Madame Tussauds’ wax horrors of the kind that I hope nobody will dare to try on my remains: good reason to go for a more elegant incineration. But in this case I was intrigued by the information that the mummies on show will include a woman who lived in ab. 700 AD Sudan and had an interesting, Christian tattoo on her upper inner thigh.

This reminded me how much a ritual, bodily practice Christianity was in antiquity, and how biased is the general, common view of it as all centred on spiritual and intellectual activities. In fact, religion in practice is well attested by some of my favourite pieces in our papyrus collection and others: written amulets from Egypt, dating from the pharaonic to the late antique period. (The magical manuscripts and objects from Egypt in the John Rylands Library go well beyond this period if we consider also items from the Cairo Genizah and the Gaster collections.) These amulets are sparse but fantastic evidence of a body-centred practice: that of writing religious-magical passages and formulas on a strip of papyrus, folding it into a small packet and hanging it around the neck, often as a part of a more complex ritual including praying, chanting and other activities.

These Egyptian sources show us a religious environment very close to that of the tattooed Sudanese woman. Like us, when facing crises of any kind, the ancients tried any possible means to solve or prevent troubles. Among the experts they could consult for help were priests, magicians, sorceresses, and later saints, monks, priests and other specialists in the field. Christianity changed only partially and very slowly beliefs and practices that people living on the Nile shared for millennia, which are hard to define according to modern categories of religion, magic and medicine. In fact the first generations of papyrologists struggled to place these amulet texts under the categories they used in publications. For instance, anything Christian was published by Grenfell and Hunt in the opening section of their papyrus volumes, under the title of ‘Theological fragments’, which ranged from Biblical fragments to liturgical texts, and also amulets with Christian references. In the Rylands catalogues you will see placed under this category, for instance, P.Ryl. III 471, recently studied by Theodore De Bruyn. Here’s his English translation (you can see an image of the papyrus clicking here):

Holy oil of gladness against every hostile power and for the grafting of your good olive tree of the catholic and apostolic church of God. Amen

These words were taken from a baptismal anointing formula, containing reminiscences of Paul’s Romans 11:24. This was a type of amulet of which  Church Fathers would have certainly approved. John Chrysostom, for instance, was pleased to see women and children carrying gospels on their chests, and Augustine recommended the use of gospel books for curing headaches instead of enchantments. However, the Church was aware of the persistence of practices and beliefs of pagan origins including amulet-making, and repeatedly condemned them.

Troubling cases for both the Church at that time, and papyrologists more recently, include items such as P.Oxy. VII 1060, which despite the ‘Oxyrhynchus/Oxford’ abbreviation is in Manchester. It was not placed by Grenfell & Hunt among the ‘Theological fragments’, but inserted into a Byzantine general ‘Prayers’ section and tagged as ‘gnostic’ (everything Christian but bizarre to Victorian eyes was gnostic…). The papyrus is small and written in a tiny, cursive handwriting of the 6th century AD, sometimes hard to decipher. Here it is with a translation from M. Meyer, R. Smith (eds.), Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power, Princeton (1994), n. 25:

P.Oxy.VII 1060 (P. Ryl.452) © The John Rylands Library

P.Oxy.VII 1060 (P.Ryl. 452)
© The John Rylands Library

✝ The door Aphrodite, phrodite, rodite, odite, dite, ite, te, e. Hor, Hor Phor Phor, Iaoh Sabaoth Adonai, I bind you, arte‹m›isian scorpion. Free this house of every evil reptile [and] annoyance, at once, at once. St. Phocas is here. Phamenoth 13 (= March 9), third indiction.

As you can see, it consisted of a mix of Christian formulas and holy names and elements derived from more ancient pagan ritual traditions. The diminishing name of Aphrodite and magic onomatopoeic names are followed by the name of Iaoh Sabaoth Adonai (the Jewish, then Christian God as invoked in magical papyri), formulas of protection of the house from insects, reptiles and evil, and finally the invocation of Saint Phokas. The amulet was perhaps fabricated close to the day of Saint Phokas (March 5, the indiction dating system followed a cycle of 15 years). In this case the tiny sheet of papyrus was more probably deposited in the house than worn, but we cannot be totally sure.

Coming back to the Sudanese woman, there is a late Coptic Rylands amulet (P.Ryl. Copt. 103) that may be connected with the practice of religious tattooing. Despite being defined as a papyrus, this magic text is in fact written on paper, and palaeographically dated to the 9th century. The text inscribed on it is not always easily readable, as you can see from an image available on the Rylands Library database (click here).

This is a recent translation of most part of the amulet from M. Meyer, R. Smith (eds.), Ancient Christian magic: Coptic Texts Of Ritual Power, Princeton (1994), n. 115:

… My mother is Mary. The breast… the breast from which our lord Jesus Christ drank. In the name of the seal that is traced upon the heart of Mary the virgin; in the name of the seven holy vowels which are tattooed on the chest of the father almighty, AEEIOUO; in the name of him who said, “I and my father, we are one,” that is, Jesus Christ; in the name of Abba Abba Abba Ablanatha Nafla Akrama Chamari Ely Temach Achoocha!I adjure you by the sacrifice of your only begotten son, Jesus Christ, Rabboni, in the way that you sealed the cup.

One aspect people tend to forget is that the vowels (AEEIOUO), which in this case are said to be inscribed on the chest of God, were in fact chanted in rituals, as explained in the studies of Sabina Crippa. The seal (σφραγίς) of God – possibly suggested here as traced upon the chest of Mary – has been related by some scholarship to real tattooing, according to a tradition rooted in Revelation and other Christian texts.

Tattoos in late antiquity have been most recently studied by Mark Gustafson. Interestingly, as in the case of the written amulets, Christian attitudes towards tattooing show ambivalence, reflecting how complicated it was for Christians to establish their own practices in relation to the surrounding religious and social system. On the one hand we see tattooing condemned as a barbarian and pagan practice, or used as an infamous mark, according to a longer Graeco-Roman punitive tradition. On the other hand, ancient Christians are recorded bearing symbols and words tattooed on their arms, and, like our Sudanese woman, on their legs, literally following Paul Galatians 6:17: ‘From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks (στίγματα) of Jesus’ – the word στίγμα (pl. στίγματα) was used for tattoos marking slaves, or people condemned to the mines and other penalties. While tattoos were against Jewish laws as established by Leviticus, religious tattooing was common in Egypt and other nearby areas and Christian later practices certainly relate to these longer traditions. Procopius of Gaza (ab. 465-528 AD), for instance, records the use of tattooing the cross or the name of Christ. In Africa, a Manichaean monk is reported to have tattooed on his leg: ‘Manichaean, disciple of Jesus Christ’. Probably this remained hidden since the episode is recalled in the context of Vandal persecution of Manicheans at the end of the 5th century AD.

The Guido Reni version of the Archangel Michael done by William D. on the hand of a woman is my favourite among the hundreds tattoos on the subject you may find on the web.

The Guido Reni version of the Archangel Michael done by William D. at Studio City tattoo (CA) on the hand of a woman is my favourite among the hundreds tattoos on the subject you may find on the web.

The tattoo on the Sudanese woman’s thigh, also hidden from sight, is not only ideologically but also visually linked to the Christian magical papyri. The Telegraph reports the interpretation of the drawing as the name of the Archangel Michael, who was a powerful protector against evil and in fact is often invoked in magical papyri. Similar patterns with elaborate versions of the Christian cross and other symbols do occur in magical texts. The practice of tattooing Christian symbols, such as the cross, on the wrist and other body parts is still alive among Copts in Egypt and worldwide. A simple Google image search will reveal you how common and varied are tattoos with religious themes. Meanings  attributed to the practice may vary, ranging from marking identity to remembering pilgrimages to protection against illness and evil. Contemporary Ethiopian magical scrolls are also deeply rooted in the ancient Egyptian practices here discussed. You can read more about them, and see them, at this excellent website: Online Exhibit: Ethiopic Manuscript Production.


Major studies on tattoos in antiquity are: M. Gustaffson, ‘Inscripta in Fronte: Penal Tattoing in Late Antiquity’, Classical Antiquity, 16/1 (1997), 79-105 and ‘The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond’ in J.Caplan (ed.) Written on the Body. The Tattoo in European and American History, London 2000, 17-31; C.P. Jones, ‘Tattooing and Branding in Graeco-Roman Antiquity’, Journal of Roman Studies 77 (1987), 139-155 and ‘Stigma and Tattoo’ in Caplan, Written on the Body, cit., 1-16.

A brief, interesting overview on tattoos meanings and uses is A. Mayor, ‘People Illustrated: Tattooing in Antiquity’, Archaeology March/April 1999, 55-57.

J. Carswell, Coptic Tattoo Designs, Beirut 1958. A beautiful account with images of the trade of an Egyptian Copt tattooer, Jacob Razzouk, who lived in Jerusalem in the fifties of last century. He owned a tattoo-shop for pilgrims, mostly but not only Copts. He used woodblocks to stamp designs on the skin before using needles, and the designs are reproduced and explained in the book.

Tattoos in modern Egypt are also recalled in Winifred Blackman, The Fellahin of Upper Egypt, (1927).

T. De Bruyn, T., “P.Ryl. III 471: A Baptismal Anointing Formula Used as an Amulet”, Journal of Theological Studies 57 (2006) 94-109.

S. Crippa, 2002. “Voix et magie. Réflexion sur la parole rituelle à partir des Papyrus Grecs Magiques”, in Cahiers de littérature orale 52 (2002) 43-61.

M. Meyer, R. Smith (eds.), Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power, Princeton (1994).

My favourite books on religion in Roman and late antique Egypt are D. Frankfurter, Religions in Roman Egypt. Assimilation and Resistance, Princeton 1998, and J. Dielemann, Priests, Tongues, and Rites: the London-Leiden Magical Manuscripts and Translation in Egyptian Ritual (100-300 CE), Leiden 2005.

I published an article on Christian amulets and formularies from Egypt straddling religion, magic and medicine (‘P. Oxy. XI, 1384: medicina, rituali di guarigione e cristianesimi nell’Egitto tardoantico’, in: Annali di Storia dell’Esegesi, monographical issue on ‘Ancient Christianity and “Magic”/ Il cristianesimo antico e la “magia” 24/2 (2007), 437-62) that you can download from here.

Call for papers

Mrs Rylands on a trip to Egypt (Courtesy of the John Rylands Library)

Mrs Enriqueta Rylands, founder of the John Rylands Library, on a trip to Egypt (ca. 1907-1908)
(© The John Rylands Library)

From Egypt to Manchester: unravelling the John Rylands papyrus collection.
This conference aims to bring together scholars who are working or have recently worked on the John Rylands papyri. We welcome papers from any period and perspective based on papyri from our collection in any of the languages and scripts attested from the Ptolemaic to the early Arab period.
Topics are open, and may include, but are not confined to: edition and commentary of texts, historical studies based on the Rylands papyri, connections with other collections, history of the collection, and archives and dossiers of individuals and institutions held or partially held in Manchester.
We are particularly interested in papers offering new insights on the papyri considered and at the same time dealing with methodological questions related to the value of papyrus sources for the study of the past.
Abstracts of about 300 words for papers of 30 minutes must be sent via email to Roberta Mazza ( by 15 February 2013.
The language of the conference is English.
The conference is sponsored by the John Rylands Research Institute and will take place at the John Rylands Library, Manchester, 4-6 September 2014.

‘If your anus twitches, then troubles will follow…’ Human bodies, divination and papyrology

Caroline Checkley-Scott showing us a possible way to stitch pages of a model-codex

Caroline Checkley-Scott showing us a possible way to stitch pages of a model of our small codex

There is a proverb in the Veneto region of Italy, which says that if your right eye has a spasm (actually it says ‘dances’) then you will have troubles in love. If the left eye does the same, you will be heartbroken. Knowing it or not, Veneto-Italians are continuing an ancient divination technique called ‘palmomancy’, the interpretation of the involuntary spasms or twitching of the human body. In the Graeco-Roman world, professional diviners and magicians gave body-based predictions of the future to their clients on the basis of manuals and centuries of experience. This field of knowledge is hard to be defined according to modern categories of religion, magic and medicine, since it often shares features with each of them.

Not many manuals of palmomancy have survived from antiquity, but we do have a fine one in Manchester: P. Ryl. I 28. The Rylands treatise occupies a very special position in the history of such literature, because it is one of the earliest, and one of very few extant copies, and because it was fabricated as a small codex, measuring about 7.5 x 6.6 cm. P. Ryl. I 28 was classified by E. Turner in his ‘group 11’ of codices (‘miniature codices’), a definition that has since been applied to early codices measuring less than 10 cm. Another intriguing feature of Ryl. I 28 is its handwriting, which can be classified as a sample of the so-called ‘Biblical majuscule’, a writing canon that developed from the second to the ninth century AD and was especially but not exclusively adopted for Biblical manuscripts. Dating to the fourth century AD, our papyrus is another proof of how misleading is to separate neatly the interests, readings and writings of people living in late antiquity.

I am conducting some research on this piece as part of my pilot project on the Rylands papyri for the John Rylands Research Institute, with the help of two of the Library conservators, Timothy Higson and Caroline Checkley-Scott, and this week also of one of my most recent MA students, Chris, who wrote a successful dissertation on this papyrus.

Among the many issues we will address, the central one concerns the fabrication of the booklet. I am convinced that the clarification of this point may help us to understand something more about the small book’s history and that of its ancient owner.

My first research question is whether we possess the entire book or if some pages went missing. As it stands, the manuscript is composed of four papyrus sheets, each bearing 4 pages (2 on each side). This became at some point the standard for the fabrication of codices: the group of four sheets (=16 pages) was called quaternio (‘set of four’) in Latin, and later became ‘quire’ in English. The four sheets were put one on top of the other, folded and then stitched together.

Detail of the thread's remains © The John Rylands Library

Detail of the thread’s remains
© The John Rylands Library

P Ryl. I 28 is exceptionally interesting because remains of the binding thread are still in place. It is here that Caroline Checkley-Scott, a renowned expert in bookbinding, is helping me to solve a problem. Palmomancy treatises follow a very schematic pattern: they describe twitches and their significance from top to bottom, i.e. from the head to the feet. Our treatise, however, starts with the abdomen, and ends with the toes. In other words, it seems to consider only the lower half of the body, which led me to suspect that at least another quire of the original codex is missing. The analysis of the threads and little holes on some pages seems to confirm this hypothesis, but more experiments and analysis are due in order to prove the point. Caroline has also noticed that on the sheet that constituted the middle of the quire there are traces of a piece of material, maybe a strip of papyrus or leather, probably inserted to protect and reinforce the binding. We have also some ideas on the rounded form of the page edges. More experiments, multispectral imaging, and some laboratory analysis will help us testing our hypotheses.

For now, I leave you on a funny note. P Ryl. I 28 was first published in 1911 by A.S. Hunt, the famous papyrologist from Oxford who formed a formidable pair with his friend and colleague B.P. Grenfell. Hunt avoided translating the sections of the Rylands treatise describing the twitching of private body parts like the one alluded to in the title of this post, which runs as follows:

‘If the anus, that some also call ‘ring’, twitches, it shows inspections, abuses, and the discovery of secret matters’.

Avoiding words linked to sexuality and other bodily functions was typical of late Victorian morality, and very far from Greek and Roman direct attitudes to the human body. However, we have been recently amused by the discovery of a naughty photograph of a beautiful naked woman stitched into a page of B.P. Grenfell’s paper archive in Oxford (reported by Viceandvirtueblog). It seems the scholar was interested in human bodies after all. So beware, scholars! Other scholars will later investigate your files and will notice inconsistencies in your behaviour: consider burning after reading…

Further reading: the best edition and discussion of Greek palmomancy treatises is available in Italian, S. Costanza, Corpus Palmomanticum Graecum, Florence 2009. On divination in antiquity I like Sarah Iles Johnston, Ancient Greek Divination. Blackwell Ancient Religions, Oxford 2008; on the development of the codex as a book form,  E.G. Turner, The Typology of the Early Codex, Philadelphia 1977; sensible warnings on the category of ‘miniature codex’ have been recently made by T.J. Kraus, ‘P.Oxy. V 840 – Amulett or Miniature Codex? Principal and Additional Remarks on Two Terms’, in Id., Ad Fontes: Original Manuscripts and Their Significance for the Studying Early Christianity, Leiden 2007.

On proverbs and names: Methuselah of P Herm. Rees 25

P Herm. Rees 25 © The John Rylands Library

P Herm. Rees 25
© The John Rylands Library

Last week at the John Rylands Library we have restored and glazed a Byzantine contract, P Herm. Rees 25. The papyrus has lost the beginning but the bottom is almost complete and the subscriptions of both the parties and the witnesses are legible. These open interesting insight into questions of literacy and writing skills in late antique Egypt. As it is often the case, the witnesses have uncertain handwritings, which look very different from the more accomplished hand that composed the body of the contract, a deed concerning the property of a house. They are barely capable to write their signature and a few other words in big capital letters penned with trembling hands.

Were they almost illiterate? Or did they have eyes problems? Were they old aged and maybe longsighted? Having problems with my eyes, I imagine how miserable life must have been for people like me in antiquity! Devices as glass-lenses were known and used, but they must have been very expensive and therefore available only to a minority. The subscription of the people involved in the deed was penned by Paul, the brother of Victor accountant of Memnoneia, in charge of the writing of the document since they ‘do not know letters’; in the case of the witnesses, however, you realise how bad were their handwriting and Greek grammar only checking the original manuscript.

'I, Methuselah (son) of John, elder, act as a witness'.  Methuselah made a number of mistakes. He wrote his father's name in the wrong case, and without one of the two 'nu' (Ιωάννης). But the abbreviated form for his profession, 'elder' (πρεσβύτερος), and the (mis)use of a diaeresis (double dots on the Ι) show that he was acquainted with document reading and writing.

‘I, Methuselah (son) of John, elder, act as a witness’.
Methuselah made a number of mistakes. He wrote his father’s name in the wrong case, and without one of the two ‘nu’ (Ιωάννης). But the abbreviated form for his profession, ‘elder’ (πρεσβύτερος), and the (mis)use of a diaeresis (double dots on the Ι) show that he was acquainted with document reading and writing.

Methuselah is the witness of P Herm. 25 I was most intrigued by.  His Biblical name has become proverbial for longevity (‘as old as Methuselah’), and in Egypt it does not seem to have been common. The few attestations so far are mainly from late antique Djeme (Greek Memnoneia, Thebes West) where also our document seems to have been drawn. Methuselah is an unskilled writer and makes some grammar mistakes, but at the same time his signature shows that he was familiar with written documents.

Wide questions on alphabetization and degrees of literacy in late antiquity arise when considering papyri like this one, of course, but I must say that my curiosity is all for Methuselah. I imagine him subscribing the deed, writing slowly and uncertainly, with his head very close to the papyrus in order to see, and I wish I knew more about him and his story. Imagine this man, who received such an unusual name: did the parents choose Methuselah for him? What a cruel name for a new born…if nomen est omen I bet Methuselah looked already old as a child! But the choice could also have been a way to wish the son a long life in a world where the infancy mortality rate was incredibly high. He identifies himself as an elder, a presbyter. What did it mean to bear this role in fifth century AD Egypt?

In a time when historians have to spend words to explain why their subject is relevant for society and what their research impact is – all self-evident to me and the general audience up to few years ago –, I plainly confess that I do ancient history and papyrology because through these subjects I am given the possibility to connect with a mass of past normal people in their everyday activities. Whatever big questions I may help answering, the joy comes from the humanity impressed in ink on that papyrus, and the attraction exercised  by that very man, Methuselah.

To me history is, among many other things, a way to overcome the finitude of human life giving a permanent voice to those whose voices were not loud enough when alive: a way to rescue Methuselah of Djeme from oblivion. Is it worth?

Further readings: B.R. Rees, Papyri from Hermopolis and other documents of the Byzantine period, London 1964 has full edition and translation of the papyrus; on questions of (il)literacy and reasons for not being able to write you may read the groundbreaking article of H. Youtie, ‘Bradeos graphon: between literacy and illiteracy’, in Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 12 (1971) pp. 239-261, and the more recent T.J. Kraus, ‘(Il)literacy in non-literary papyri from Graeco-Roman Egypt: further aspects of the educational ideal in literary sources and modern times’, in Mnemosyne 4a s., 53 (2000), pp. 322-342. On late antique Egypt, R.S. Bagnall, Egypt in Late Antiquity, Princeton 1993.

Ancient Lives/Future Skills: Discovering Graeco-Roman Egypt at the Manchester Museum

The team of Kim and Katharina working on Artemidora's dossier

The team of Kim and Katharina working on Artemidora’s dossier

Yesterday I led a school day on Graeco-Roman Egypt with a group of colleagues, graduate students and staff of the Manchester Museum. Using artefacts and papyri from the Manchester Museum and the John Rylands Library collections, we asked sixth form students of Runshaw College (Manchester) and Holy Cross College (Bury) to create short I-pad video-biographies of fictitious characters supposed to have lived in Egypt under the Roman rule. The results were impressive in terms of creativity and competence. They made me think a lot about how dramatically different the learning environment has become, and how inadequate some of our teaching still is.

Based on last year experience with schools for the exhibition Faces&Voices, the Graeco-Roman Egypt day at the museum has confirmed some trends:

Pupils do like ancient history and museums. The school day was attended by about 30 enthusiastic and engaged students. In their feedback forms pupils said that they wanted more time to be spent in the galleries where they were asked to find one object to add to their biography dossier. They also liked the object-based approach to ancient history as a more effective way to study history.

Students' feedback with appreciation for Chris, the graduate student team leader

Students’ feedback with appreciation for Chris, the graduate student team leader

Pupils like to be taught by people closer to their age. The pupils were divided into five groups led by a graduate student of our division (Classics & Ancient History, and Religion & Theology), and they enjoyed the experience. I noticed that they chatted a lot with their University peers, but were much less talkative when I interacted with them. Graduate students should be given more seminar teaching by Universities in close collaboration and under the supervision of senior course leaders. This will increase the quality of our courses and the student experience as both undergraduates and graduates.

Pupils like objects better than texts. Being a visual generation this is not surprising and it is positive because material culture should be much more integrated into ancient history teaching at all levels. It is nonetheless a point on which educators must find some sort of counter-balance. The ability of critical textual analysis is still a crucial skill. The syntax and grammar of social media communication and the overwhelming quality and quantity of digital and non-digital images that surround us are undermining students’ ability to approach texts critically and to write. (Answers to this? I don’t see many at the moment. May group reading be a strategy?)

Pupils are creative. This actually enhances our experience as teachers and scholars. Our work, especially as scholars, tends to be restricted by academic conventions that do not encourage creativity. I was actually inspired, entertained and intellectually stimulated in ways I am not so often, for instance, while listening at conference papers. Creative intelligence tends to be forgotten and less valued than other intellectual qualities in the education process.

This model of seminar is definitely successful and rewarding for all the people involved, and I am now trying to find ways of integrating aspects of it into my university courses. In the light of this on-going experience, I believe that having closer relationships with college students and teachers is essential for lecturers.

Dion, aged 45, farewell

Gilded mummy case of Dion Manchester Museum 2179, Ancient Worlds Gallery

Gilded mummy case of Dion
Manchester Museum 2179, Ancient Worlds Gallery

The gilded cartonnage upper-body mummy case of Dion is on display in the Manchester Museum Ancient Worlds Gallery. We know the name of the dead and his age at death because of a Greek inscription on the back of the head: ‘Dion, aged 45, farewell’.

As Artemidoros and his family, Dion was a member of the Hellenised elite that administered the Arsinoite nome under the Roman rule. His family wanted him to be buried in Hawara, following traditional Egyptian funerary practices.

The mummy case has been dated to the first century AD. The face mask resembles the traditionally Egyptian, gilded ones but at the same time, following a new Greek and Roman taste, individual features are introduced, such as the black hair and the inlaid eyes. The upper part of the body is protruding from the mummy case. Dion holds an intense pink flower wreath in his right hand and a papyrus roll in the left. Below his bust, on the case, a mummy, possibly that of Dion, is guarded by two mummified rams.

Garlands and wreaths: flowers and their possible meanings

Not differently than in other parts of the ancient world, flower garlands and wreaths were commonly used in Egypt for different celebrations and rituals, as these lines from a 2nd century AD papyrus letter from Oxyrhynchus (P.Oxy. 44 3313) informs:

‘Apollonios and Sarapis to Dionysia, greetings. Your wonderful announcement about the wedding of the most excellent Sarapion has filled us with joy, and we would have come straight away to serve him on a day long-awaited by us and to take part to the celebration; but because of the prefect’s court sessions and because we are just recovering from being sick, we were unable to come. There are not many roses here yet; on the contrary they are few and from all the estates and the garland makers we were barely able to collect the thousand that we sent to you with Sarapas, even by picking those that should have been picked only tomorrow. We had as much narcissus as you wanted, so we have sent four thousand instead of the two thousand…’

Remains of flowers and garlands have been found in many tombs of the Roman period in Hawara and other Egyptian sites. Petrie mentions them often in his notebooks and excavation reports, a well-preserved example of a wreath can be seen at the British Museum and the Manchester Museum have some too (5371.c-d). As many others, the British Museum sample was made by immortelles (Helichrysum stoechas), a perennial flower imported to Egypt from Italy or Greece that now seems to grow especially on canal banks and in cemeteries (S. Walker et al., Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt, London 1997, p. 207).

The shape and colour of the garland’s flowers represented on Dion’s mummy case recall rose buds and may have a connection with Isis and Osiris cult. In Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, a Latin novel written in mid-second century AD, Lucius returns to his human nature thanks to a complex ritual in which a garland of roses carried by a priest in his right hand (the same as our Dion) and later ingested by the protagonist has a central meaning (XI, 6; 13). The ritual has been linked by scholars to the so-called ‘Spell of the Crown Justification’ contained in the Book of the Dead and preserved on papyri and temple walls (P. Derchaine, ‘La couronne de la justification: Essai d’analyse d’un rite ptolémaique’, Chronique d’ Égypte 30 (1955), 225-87). This ritual was transformed and integrated with Greek practices in the Ptolemaic period and linked with Isis and Osiris religious rites. We may wonder then if the papyrus roll in Dion’s left hand was actually a copy of this book or of the spell.

We will try to have a look at the back inscription of Dion soon, stay tuned!

Portraits of women

The woman is wearing a purple tunic maybe similar to that of the daughter of Heraklas (P.Ryl. 151) © The Manchester Museum

Manchester Museum inv. 2266 (Hawara, Fayum, 138-160 AD) The woman is wearing a purple tunic maybe similar to that of the daughter of Herakleos (P.Ryl. 151)
© The Manchester Museum

Last week I had a meeting with Campbell Price and Bryan Sitch at the Manchester Museum to discuss a project for enhancing the use of artefacts in the teaching of Roman history. We were looking for objects that enlighten the life of ancient individuals and I complained about the lack of women from our list. In fact, if we turn our attention to papyri, women do appear in surprising ways; papyri offer views on women’s life as no other kind of sources do.

Petitions are intriguing. In these one-sided accounts we would expect to find women as the victims of violence and injustice, but we do actually find them acting on both sides, as victims and perpetrators.

 Herais attacks the daughter of Herakleos

P.Ryl. 151:;2;151/

P.Ryl. 151 recto© The John Rylands Library

P.Ryl. 151 recto
© The John Rylands Library

To Gaius Iulius Pholus, head of the policemen (epistates ton phylakiton), from Herakleos, son of Pathermouthis, from Euemeria in the district of Themistes. Herais, the wife of Heraklas, son of P…., of the same village, having entered into my house in the village and seized my daughter, gave her many blows all over the body, stripped and tore off her purple tunic and carried away 100 drachmas from those of the gymnasiarch[1] which I administer. For this reason write to the chief of the police (archephodos) …

(second hand) To the chief of police (archephodos): send them up!

Year 5 of Gaius Caesar Emperor Augustus Saviour, the 20 of Sebastos (= 17 October 40 AD).

(On the verso the editors read traces of an address ‘ To the chief of police (archephodos) of Euemeria’ and date now disappeared)

Among many other things, the papyrus informs us on the way public order worked in the early Roman period. Herakleos, the father of the woman attacked, petitioned the head of the police at the nome (regional district) level to intervene on the village police highest authority, the archephodos. But isolated as it is, the petition does not allow us knowing if the story is true and how the quarrel ended up. We may wonder about the reasons behind the attack. Herakleos administers the treasure of the local gymnasium: were there shortfalls in the gymnasiarch account that he had to explain, and then he made up a story? Or was Herais mad at the girl for some reasons?

Soueris, a runaway girl

P.Ryl. 128:;2;128/

To Serapion, head of the policemen, from Hatres, son of M…, oil-maker of those who are in Euemeria, in the division of Themistes, of Gaius Iulius Ethenodoros and Tiberius Calpurnius Tryphon. Soueris, daughter of Harsuthmis, olive-carrier that works with me under contract changed her mind, left the mill, and escaped persuaded by her father Arsuthmios as long ago as the 19th of Mecheir of the 16th year of Tiberius Caesar Augustus (= 13 February 30 AD), her father being oblivious of what he with his wife owes me according to a contract of engagement (paramone). And she carried off from my house a cloak worth 4 silver drachmas and 40 silver drachmas, which I was keeping for payment of the rent. Therefore I have suffered not a minor damage. For this reason I ask the accused persons to be brought to you for the ensuing punishment. Farewell.

Hatres, aged 35, with a scar in the middle of the forehead.

Soueris, daughter of Arsuthmios, was due to work as olive-carrier with Hatres at an oil-mill probably for repaying the interests on a debt contracted by her parents. This seems alluded by the mention of a paramone contract (l. 20), usually a contract of service to fulfill the payment of interests (or the capital) of a loan, meaning that a loan was fulfilled by staying at the service of the creditor. But Hatres complains that the girl ran away on suggestion of her father bringing with her a cloak and a sum of money. We can exercise our imagination on the reasons behind the escape, in view of the very weak position the girl must have had at the factory. How was life for a girl at the house of a 35 years old man with whom her family was indebted?

Aplounous, Thermis and Eudemonis, a day at the village baths…

P.Ryl. 124:;2;124/

Through this illiterate petition we enter into the village baths of Euemeria and see women quarrelling and fighting. The text of the petition begins on one side of the papyrus, continues on the back; it has mistakes and corrections, and is incomplete, which indicate that it was a draft.

From Hippalos, son of Archis, farmer of public land inhabitant of the village of Euemeria in the division of Themistes. On the 6th of Tubi (1 January), as my wife Aplounous and her mother Thermis (were bathing?), Eudemonis, daughter of Protarchos, Etthutais, daughter of Pees, Dius, son of Ammonios, and Heraclous attacked them and gave my wife Aplounous and her mother in the bath of the village many blows all over the body, so that she is laid up in bed, and in the struggle she lost a golden ear-ring weighing three quarters, a bracelet of unstamped metal weighing sixteen drachmae, and a bronze bowl worth twelve drachmae, and Thermis her mother lost a golden ear-ring weighing two and a half quarters, and … (here the text stops)

The three papyri here discussed belong to a larger group of petitions, all dated to the first half of the first century AD, acquired on the antiquity market by B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt and then assigned to the John Rylands Library. The documents (P.Ryl. 124-152) were published in the second volume of the Catalogue of the Greek Papyri in the John Rylands Library at Manchester (1915). Few other papyri belonging to the same lot are now dispersed in other collection. These petitions concern people from the village of Euemeria (Fayum), but are addressed to the head of the police or other officers in the nome capital, Arsinoe. Through them we can observe the early Roman administration at work in Egypt. The distance between the two localities was of about 40 km. The first petition here reported reveals details of the process. It was endorsed and addressed on the verso to the archephodos in Euemeria, therefore it seems reasonable to think that the document was written in or sent to the capital of the nome, Arsinoe, presented successfully to the head of the police there, and then sent back to the village police authority in order to bring the people involved to the capital.

If you want to know more about petitions in Roman Egypt I recommend B. Kelly, Petitions, Litigation and Social Control in Roman Egypt, Oxford 2011.

[1] The head of the gymnasium. The gymnasium was a cultural and educative institution where boys were admitted at the age of fourteen. It was also a center for the promotion of the Greek culture, and a sort of a gentlemen club. The gymnasium had a political dimension since only the Hellenised elite was admitted in.

“Peter you’ve always been hot-tempered…” The Gospel of Mary in Manchester (P.Ryl. 463)

The case with the Gospel of Mary fragment in the Crawford room

P.Ryl. 463: The Gospel of Mary

I’ve recently realised that few people in Manchester know that one of the two extant Greek fragments of the Gospel of Mary is in the John Rylands Library, and now on exhibition. The gospel in question is an apocryphal (a writing that has not been included later in the Church canon of the Bible) where a Mary – possibly Mary of Magdala, but this is uncertain since other Christian women brought this name – has a central role in the inner circle of Jesus’ first disciples.

There’s no surviving extant copy of this book, but only three fragmentary manuscripts are preserved from antiquity (P.Ryl. 463, P.Oxy 3525 and P.Berol. 8502). On the basis of these, scholars have reconstructed the Gospel main content as follows. It started with Jesus, the Saviour, appearing to the disciples after the resurrection. He gives a speech and instructs them on how to preach the gospel, and then leaves. The disciples, however, feel discomforted and are afraid to go out. At this point Mary stands up and reassures the others. Under Peter’s invitation she reports some hidden teachings that the Saviour in a vision reserved only to her. At the end of her speech, Andrew and Peter react with disbelief, while Levi trusts Mary and goes out to preach her Gospel.

A closer look at the Rylands fragment

The Rylands fragment was purchased with others in Egypt on behalf of the library by J. Rendel Harris in 1917, but was recognised as “The Gospel of Mary” only later by C. Roberts when he published the third volume of the Catalogue (ed. 1938, pp. 18-23).

It came from Oxyrhynchus as some notes on the envelope where it was kept before edition and conservation revealed. It is tiny (ab. 8.9 x 9.9 cm) and written on both sides. This shows that it was originally part of a codex, a book composed by sheets of papyrus folded and then stitched together in a way to obtain an artefact very similar to our paper books. In fact the numbers of the pages, κα (21) and κβ (22), are still visible on top of each side. We have no idea of what the entire ancient codex-book contained originally. The Coptic version of the Gospel of Mary now in Berlin comes from a codex collecting also other three apocryphal works, the Apocryphon of John, the Sophia of Jesus Christ and the Act of Peter (P. Berol. 8502). In the Berlin papyrus the title “Gospel of Mary” is added at the end of the last page as it sometimes happens in ancient manuscripts (colophon), our fragment unfortunately breaks at the end and the line reporting the title is supplied by scholars, but actually lost.

Thanks to the Coptic more extensive version, we now know that what is preserved in Manchester seems to be the final part of the gospel. On the basis of the Coptic text Roberts estimated that the writing on the Manchester pages should have occupied an area of about 7.5 x 12 cm therefore we may roughly estimate an original leaf measuring with margins just a little bit more than this. The Rylands papyrus and P.Oxy. 3525 have been dated to the early 3rd century, while the Berlin Coptic codex to the 5th century. All the copies are dated on palaeographical ground (i.e. analysing features of the handwriting and comparing it with that of firmly dated papyri, not an infallible method but the best we have…).

I played a little with the tiny fragment, making my own translation of it. I put in square brackets words that are not clearly preserved on the papyrus. I tried to respect the line division as much as possible. If you compare my translation with that of the Catalogue you’ll see that some words were more legible at the time of the first publication. In fact the ink seemed to have deteriorated or even faded away in some part of the papyrus.

When only three fragmentary copies of a work (of which the most extensive one is in a different language) are available it is a challenge to establish ‘the text’ as it should have been. To complicate the situation further, as noticed in an excellent book on the scribes who transmitted the first copies of early Christian literature, early Christian manuscripts show a very high rate of variations and differences.[1] We should bear in mind that texts were extremely fluid in antiquity, and what we have are fragmentary texts survived by chance, even thrown away at some point as it was the case of this fragment that comes from the ancient rubbish heaps of Oxyrhynchus.

On the right top of the first line of the text on the recto (p. 21) there are some traces of ink that will be investigated next year with the help of new imaging technologies.

English translation of P.Ryl. 463, images from the John Rylands Library database: page 21 (recto) and page 22 (verso).


for the remaining of the course of time

of the aeon, [I will find] rest in silence.”

When she had told these things, Mary went silent

as the saviour had spoken thus far.

Andrew said: “Brothers,

what do you think about these discourses? As [for myself]

I do not believe that [the sa-]

viour said these words, for it seems [to contra-]

dict his thoughts. When the saviour was asked about these matters, he [2]

spoke to a woman in secret and [not open-]

ly so that all of us would have lis[ten]

[at something] more worthy of mention[…]

(papyrus breaks off here)


of the savior.” Levi said to Peter:

“Peter you’ve always been hot-tempered

and so now you question this

woman [as] if we were her adversaries.

If the saviour deemed her worthy,

who are you to set her at naught?

For knowing her thoroughly, he

loved her steadily. Rather let us

be ashamed and having put on

the perfect man, we will accomplish

what has been ordered to us, to preach

the gospel without divisions or rules as

[the saviour said.”] Having said this, Le-

[vi left and] began pr[eaching]

[the Gospel according to Mary]

(the papyrus breaks off here)

If you want to know more about this Gospel and the other copies, I recommend C. Tuckett, The Gospel of Mary, Oxford 2007 (with some differences in the reading and translations from what you have here and in the Catalogue) and K.L. King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala. Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, Santa Rosa Ca. 2003.

As you may already know, professor Karen King of Harvard University has recently announced the discovery of a Coptic papyrus fragment dating to the 4th century where according to her interpretation Jesus mentions his wife (you can read a pre-edition and interpretation of the fragment here). This gospel, if not a forgery as some scholars think, would belong to the same group of early Christian gospels as the Rylands fragment that gives us images of Jesus and his inner circle and family different from those later established as ‘normal’, ‘canonical’. Texts like the Gospel of Mary and many others did not find their way into the New Testament canon, were later declared deviant and therefore went lost till when they reappeared from the sands of Egypt. We are now more aware about diversities in the early Christian movement thanks to these discoveries.

You can have an overview on the current, lively debate on the so-called Jesus wife papyrus fragment in the excellent summary published on Rogueclassicism Blog. Challenges to the authenticity have been moved, among others, by Alin Suciu on his blog, that I recommend following.

[1] K. Haines-Eitzen, Guardians of Letters. Literacy, Power, and the Transmission of Early Christian Literature, Oxford 2000, p. 106: ‘Among the 5,400 Greek manuscripts of New Testament texts, for example, no two are identical; more relevant, perhaps, is the fact that 52 extant manuscripts that can be dated to the period from the second century to the fourth exhibit more differences and variations than the thousands of later manuscripts.’

[2] The text here differs from the Coptic version. The Berlin papyrus reports Peter as the one who moves the following points while Peter is mentioned in our fragment only on the other side of the papyrus.  Some scholars solve this passage this way: Being asked, <Peter said>: “The saviour etc. …” However ‘Peter said’ is not in the text: was this a slip of the scribe while copying or are the two versions depending on different traditions? Maybe Peter appeared in the lines that now are lost, but this is not certain.

A Roman Letter of Recommendation

P.Ryl. 608 © The John Rylands Library

P.Ryl. 608 verso © The John Rylands Library

A letter of recommendation written in Latin, P.Ryl. 608, found its way into the exhibition since it is luckily glazed with the Latin contract of marriage P.Ryl. 612 (see Getting married in a multicultural society).

It was common in the Roman world to recommend friends or acquaintances in many occasions and for different reasons, a job, a deal or just because of travelling. Our letter was written for recommending an imperial slave, whose name is lost in a lacuna, to a Roman imperial procurator, Tiberius Claudius Hermeros.

…ius Celer to his Hermeros, greetings.

Allow me, sir, to commend to your notice …on, a slave of our lord the emperor, a member of my household and dear to me. He is most deserving of advancement and of your favour, and I do not disguise that any service you can render him in his career will be most welcome to me.


(Address on the verso)

To Tiberius Claudius Hermeros imperial procurator

Given in Panopolis by Celer the architect

The Latin text is available through

The letter has received the attention of many scholars. The handwriting has been defined as an example of a standard type of script in use in the Roman Empire at the end of the 1st and beginning of the 2nd century AD, and has been compared to those of some texts coming from other parts of the Empire, first of all the Roman fort of Vindolanda on the Hadrian wall. This confirms the view that Egypt was part of a wider world, and what we observe happening there is not confined to the life of that province, but give insights in the history and culture of the Roman Empire as whole. An elegant hand penned the letter with words separated by points, as it happened also in inscriptions, and marking some long syllables with accents. The Latin is elegant although at some extent formulaic, but this is connected with the nature of the text.  The same hand has written some scribbles that we are unable to restore in the left margin of the letter.

The addressee was a very high status Roman citizen, a Tiberius Claudius Hermeros, imperial procurator (a Roman knight with administrative, financial duties in the provinces, appointed by the emperor), and the writer belonged to the Roman elite as well. The name is only partially preserved at the beginning: ‘…ius Celer’, but the address on the verso says his profession, that of architect. A hypothetical identification with the homonymous architect of Nero’s domus aurea has been proposed, but as a matter of fact we cannot be sure about the identity of any of the two correspondents.

If you want to know more about Roman letters of recommendation you can read H. Cotton, Documentary Letters of Recommendation in Latin from the Roman Empire (1981). Examples of this kind of letters came to us through the epistolary of many ancient authors from Cicero, to Pliny, and the late antique collections of Symmachus and Gregory the Great. Paul’s letter to Philemon in the New Testament could be read as a letter of recommendation, since in it the apostle recommends the man to forgive the slave Onesimos.