BMCR 1994.04.09

1994.04.09, Parca, Ptocheia, or Odysseus in Disguise

, , Ptocheia, or, Odysseus in disguise at Troy : (P. Köln VI 245). American studies in papyrology ; no. 31. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991. xxv, 130 pages : illustrations, folded facsimile ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9781555405700.

Ptocheia is a book which may be of interest to papyrologists, students of ancient Greek tragedy, scholars of late antiquity, those who focus on the overlap of Classical and Egyptian culture in the Roman Empire, and perhaps Homerists. The monograph presents a detailed examination of P. Koln VI 245, which P. dates by letters and writing to the third century A.D. (8). The fragment is clearly literary and poetic in nature; P. ascribes it to the tragic genre, and specifically to the “papyrological corpus of tragic adespota” (98). In addition, “it is probable that the Cologne papyrus is an autograph. If so, the new text, if correctly ascribed to tragedy, may be an original manuscript of that genre preserved from antiquity” (ix). The text seems to refer to a mission to Troy to contact Helen, and perhaps even to the theft of the Palladium. The characters involved seem to be Odysseus, Athena and, depending upon the interpretation of the paragraphi, a third character who P. suggests is the Trojan Antenor.

The most significant textual problems presented by the fragment are the paragraphi and the supralinear additions. The deployment of the paragraphi is directly related to a determination of the number of speakers and changes of speaker. P. introduces the intricacies of these paragraphi and suggests reasonable solutions along with alternatives. The supralinear additions give us some idea of the poetic process and the choices made by the poet, and are of interest because they are by the same hand as the text proper, indicating that the fragment may be an author’s personal manuscript with variants (6). Often the supralinears confound attempts at interpretation, as in lines 29-35, which seem to be relating Helen’s situation after the death of Paris. Helen could be either the subject or object of the sentence, she could choose, or be seized by, either Helenus or Deiphobus (62-70). In other instances, however, it is possible to reconstruct the rationale behind the corrections. In line 8, the poet substitutes ὁπλοφόρε for γοργοφόνε in order to avoid repetition with the last word, γοργοκτόνε (32). At times one can only guess at the reasons for the correction, such as στέφος for θάλος in line 7 describing Athena as Zeus’ offspring. P. suggests that στέφος could be an allegorical description of Athena as the garland of ether around the sky/Zeus, since Athena was considered by the Stoics to be ether, the highest layer of atmosphere (31-32). This would then look forward to the astral imagery employed later for Athena.

The most interesting and best preserved section of the papyrus is the central prayer to Athena spoken presumably by Odysseus. The first part, lines 6-12, emphasizes Athena’s martial attributes and Greek aspects. She is addressed by a series of 9 epithets in three lines, 7 of which are hapax eiremena (25-26) but none of which is particularly brilliant. The direct address of “Pallas” at line 7 may suggest identification between the statue of the Palladium and the goddess, since in Athens “Pallas” designates the Palladium (30). This appellation may also foreshadow the statue’s appearance later (36). In contrast, lines 13-16 seem to represent Athena as the “embodiment of the sun and the moon and as a cosmocrator” (39). The language contains solar and lunar imagery, although the interpretation is far from clear. P. would like to see the solar imagery describing a “radiate crown” which is associated with Helios and syncretistic deities (41), adducing radiate crowns on emperors (42) and around Athena in art (42-46). Although the solar imagery seems fair enough here, P. seems a bit overeager in her attempts to identify it with a “nimbus” (49); it seems to me to emanate directly from Athena’s face and head and not to involve a “crown” or “nimbus”. Similarly, P. seems to be overreaching when she tries to correlate lunar circles on the cheeks of the goddess with the Egyptian symbol of the disc of the moon resting on horns, and then to actual cheek pieces (44-46). P.’s conclusions, however, about the syncretistic nature of this representation are convincing. Much of the imagery suggests the assimilation of Isis-Helios-Selene (45); like Athena in the fragment (line 16), Isis is seen as cosmocrateira (47). “[T]he participation of Isis in the cosmic elements sheds light on Athena’s own associations with these forces and suggests that the Athena invoked in the Cologne papyrus be identified, at least in part, with Isis” (52).

The subsequent lines refer to events at the end of the Trojan war. The papyrus has a number of supralinear additions here, and is also more fragmentary, hence it raises many questions (75). What is the nature of the anger of the gods at line 17? What are the γραφάς which the disguised Odysseus brings to Helen? Do they lead to recognition (78-79)? P. rightly notes that these writings introduce a “radical novelty” into the traditional version of the ptocheia (56). Is this mission the same as the theft of the Palladium or a trial run to make contact with Helen (76, 88-90)? Who speaks after Odysseus and refers to events which culminate in the theft of the Palladium (60)? Athena (60 and 88), whose presence has already been indicated by the first lines of the fragment, or Antenor, as P. suggests (83-85)? A third possibility might be Helenus, who both sees the future and is reputed to have prophecied to the Greeks the conditions of Troy’s fall, whether willingly or not.

P.’s claims for the importance of this fragment—because it “may be one of the few surviving texts to document the living theatre in Upper Egypt in the late Roman period, and if the work is, in fact, an autograph, it may be the rare example of an original dramatic manuscript preserved from antiquity” (112)—may be somewhat undercut by one’s determination of the origin of the fragment. If, like Austin and Kassel, one determines that the fragment is a student’s composition exercise (95), its value as a literary exemplar of “living theatre” might decrease. On the other hand, a student’s exercise might prove even more effectively than a high literary piece the penetration of the Greek canon in Roman Egypt. From this perspective, then, P.’s assertions that the fragment attests to the “continuing vigor of literary life in Upper Egypt in the third century A.D.” (95) and the continuing interest in the Trojan war throughout antiquity (75) ring true.

The only serious criticism I have of this excellent and informative monograph resides in the author’s intensive focus on the fragment’s relationship to Greek literature and on the narrative of the Trojan war (particularly in the lengthy survey of Greek culture in Egypt in the last chapter, 95-112). Her efforts to situate the fragment in a Hellenic context give short shrift to the potential importance of the syncretistic prayer to Athena, even though syncretism between Greek and Egyptian systems of belief is emphasized in the line-by-line commentary. Despite the Trojan war topos, those who like myself turn to this fragment seeking significant reverberations, variations or additions to our understanding of the theme of Odysseus in disguise at Troy will be disappointed (with the exception of the mysterious γραφάς for Helen). In this sense the title is misleading. The fragment and P.’s detailed, balanced analysis of it do, however, reveal to us the juxtaposition and occasional merging of two powerful cultures in third century Roman Egypt.