BMCR 2005.09.25

Priests, Tongues, and Rites: The London-Leiden Magical Manuscripts and Translation in Egyptian Ritual (100-300 CE). Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, 153

Jacco Dieleman, Priests, tongues, and rites : the London-Leiden magical manuscripts and translation in Egyptian ritual (100-300 CE). Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden: Brill, 2005. 1 online resource (xiv, 342 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 9004141855 €65.00.

In this book, a revised version of the author’s 2003 dissertation (Leiden University), Jacco Dieleman presents a scribal and linguistic study of two bilingual Greek and Demotic magical formularies, Papyrus Leiden I 384 verso (= PGM XII and PDM xii) and Papyrus London-Leiden ((P.BM 10070 and P.Leiden I 383) = PGM XIV and PDM xiv). This is an important book that contributes a great deal to the study of the Greco-Egyptian magical formularies through focus upon the languages and physical features of the manuscripts, as well as the way these reflect the exemplars the scribes used, the audiences for which they intended their works, and the ways their language environment affected their self-presentation to and negotiations with the larger world.

The pursuit of this basic set of questions proceeds through several chapters of detailed analysis. Ch. 2 introduces and describes the two manuscripts, providing an extremely clear account of their physical features, scripts, hands, and content. This overview is followed in Ch. 3 by studies of the way the various scripts of the mss. are used and what this can tell us about the social location of these texts. Not surprisingly, the use of Demotic and the frequent use of Hieratic and Old Coptic suggest an Egyptian priestly education for both scribe and intended audience. This chapter considers every combination of language, script and gloss found in the mss. and, though somewhat technical, is an extremely important analysis that is well worth serious consideration.

One fascinating feature of this section is that within the Demotic sections of Papyrus London-Leiden (= PG/DM XIV) there is occasional use of a cipher alphabet using Old Coptic letters within a running sentence in Demotic.1 Dieleman studies these instances exhaustively and determines that, while the script is not consistently applied, in general the verb forms that are encoded usually conceal acts of harm, such as “HE DIES” (94), and noun forms are generally ingredients or praxis directions. Though Dieleman ultimately does regard these cipher words as being meant to conceal, the discussion is accompanied by a fascinating excursus on the use of cipher or difficult script in other forms of Egyptian literature where, when the ciphers are inscribed in public places or when they represent hymns or invocations, they are actually calling attention to themselves by their uniqueness and strangeness (80-87).

In Ch. 4, Dieleman turns to the bilingualism of the manuscripts and what this may reveal about the scribes’ attitudes toward non-Egyptian languages and their power. To summarize, the evidence from outside the Demotic magical papyri suggests that, even though colloquial speech was being affected by Greek, scribes usually attempted to translate where possible,rather than borrow. Within the two texts studied here, however, that is not the pattern. Papyrus London-Leiden (= πγ for example, contains a higher proportion of Greek loanwords than any other Demotic document now known (110). The Greek loanwords, usually lemmata and ingredient names, are spelled out in alphabetic Demotic, sometimes glossed with Greek. There are also several Greek invocations that are traditionally Egyptian in content and accompanied by Demotic recipes, or in one case by a translation into Demotic. Dieleman also presents strong arguments that a Greek source, fully Egyptian in content, has been translated and included here. This analysis makes clear that the Greek and Demotic sections in individual spells mesh well and belong together, reflecting a true bilingualism and easy alternation between languages, without the value judgment against Greek that is found in Corpus Hermeticum XVI.

Papyrus Leiden I 384 verso (= PG/DM XII) presents an additional pattern of language alternation, since it contains 13 columns of continuous Greek with Demotic columns on either side and on the verso. In those Greek columns, there is much less Demotic than the Demotic columns have Greek, and, unlike the Greek invocations of Papyrus London-Leiden (= πγ the imagery of some of these spells reaches beyond Egypt, including a wide range of names and so forth, as are familiar from most of the Greek papyri. This more diverse imagery is the subject of Ch. 5. Based on the presence of three Demotic lemmata, Dieleman presumes that the scribe of the Greek section was also an Egyptian priest (146) and asks how such a reader would have understood the less Egyptian and more international elements of ritual and invocation in some of the spells from this section, which these alternate with spells of more clearly Egyptian content. This question is pursued through analysis of two Greek ring consecrations with Demotic lemmata (PGM XII 201-269 and 270-350). The bulk of the chapter is actually a detailed running commentary on these two spells, linking them to various elements of Egyptian literature and theology, including the ritual of Opening the Mouth; some linkage to Greek or other texts also appears, but this is not pursued at the same level of intensity as the Egyptian elements. These commentaries are extremely useful, but since the selected examples are, in fact, largely Egyptian in content, the ambitious goal of seeing non-Egyptian religious elements through Egyptian priestly eyes is not fully realized. It might have provided more of a contrast had Dieleman considered, e.g., PGM XII 1-13 or 14-95, even though these lack Demotic lemmata.

Ch. 6 is concerned with one of the thornier problems in the study of ancient magic, the so-called “Translated Interpretations” of PGM XII 401-444 which appear at the end of the Greek section of the manuscript. The section appears to equate rare and bizarre substances with ordinary ones that are readily available, and in its introduction claims that this is standard priestly practice for confusing the masses. Dieleman interprets this passage in terms of the grandiose claims made by the introductions to many different spells that 1) claim amazing efficacy for the spell that is about to follow, 2) often link the spell to famous people who were Egyptian priests, philosophers or “magicians;” and 3) sometimes use mystification to emphasize this.

The interpretation is pursued through several linked studies on the following subjects: 1) pharaonic botany and pharmacology; 2) levels and degrees within the Egyptian priesthood in the Greco-Roman period, and the respective functions of each level; 3) representations of Egyptian priests from three types of sources— the official self-presentation of priests in inscriptions and decrees; the role of priests as characters in Egyptian imaginative fiction; and the role of priests as characters in Greco-Roman imaginative fiction— 4) the direct consideration of the various “advertising introductions” throughout PGM. Although by the end of the chapter it is clear how all these pieces are meant to go together, several sections are relevant to the book as a whole and would have served the reader better by coming earlier and by not being linked exclusively to the Translated Interpretations. In particular, the discussion of the levels and degrees within the Egyptian priesthood and the survey of representations of Egyptian priests in three different types of literature bear directly upon very large methodological questions that appear throughout the book, not only here.

Dieleman concludes that, while claims made by the introduction to the Translated Interpretations do not reflect actual Egyptian practice, they do reflect common ways of building prestige for a text in PGM: linkage with high-level priests and claims of secrecy and antiquity. Dieleman also argues that, despite the fiction of the introduction, the list of equivalencies does in fact contain “authentic Egyptian priestly knowledge” (202). In service of this he provides several examples of names of substances in Egyptian medical and botanical texts that are of a similar type (e.g., “head of a donkey,” 196), and he is able to demonstrate that in two cases2 the specific equivalencies of the list are also attested in Pseudo-Dioscorides as the names used by “prophets,” which another section of the chapter links with the highest degree of Egyptian priests. This is very interesting and a welcome increase in our knowledge of Pharaonic and Greco-Egyptian botanical terminology. Not all such names denote plants, however, and in some cases, specifically in Egyptian texts and where deities’ bodies are not involved, Dieleman sees “no reasons to distrust a literal reading of those recipes and assume an ingredient in disguise” (198). Given that, it isn’t clear how Dieleman would have us regard the list of equivalencies in relation to other uncommon ingredients, not from this list, that are called for elsewhere in PGM and PDM. If we should assume a literal interpretation in default of contradictory evidence for Egyptian texts, is the existence of the list of Translated Interpretations enough to exclude this possibility for Greek texts? Dieleman’s ultimate conclusion that the list preserves true priestly terminology (203) does not address this social-historical problem.

The survey of introductions to spells that use high claims of efficacy, secrecy and links to important people (254-80) is extremely valuable. Dieleman notices differences of both kind and degree in the rhetoric used in introductions to Greek and Demotic language spells. In the Greek language spells, the device of uncovering or finding a lost text is much more frequent, and such texts are always claimed to have been found in Egypt and are always presented as being translated from Egyptian to Greek. Greek spells also more frequently present an international list of celebrities to whom their authorship is pseudepigraphically ascribed, whereas ordinarily Demotic language spells are only linked to great Egyptians of the past. Based on this, Dieleman proposes different intended audiences for the Greek and Demotic spells, even though today they appear together in the same bilingual manuscripts. The Greek texts presume an audience that is “acquainted with, and believe[s] in, the exoticised image of Egyptian priests as it is propagated in Hellenistic texts, rather than … readers who are truly versed in Egyptian priestly lore,” despite the fact that the internal evidence of both bilingual mss. suggests a more knowledgeable Egyptian priestly context for their compilation and copying (286).

This paradox is resolved through application of David Frankfurter’s model of “stereotype appropriation.”3 According to Dieleman, Frankfurter argues that, due to the anti-Temple economic policies of Roman rule, Egyptian priests sought to supplement their incomes by marketing themselves to a Hellenistic audience, molding themselves to that group’s fantasies and preconceived notions about exotic Egyptian magic (287). Though conceding that this model might explain features of the Greek-language corpora, Dieleman finds it lacking for the Demotic spells and bilingual texts overall, which he assumes would be inaccessible to anyone outside the priestly circle and thus, in his reading of Frankfurter, immune from stereotype appropriation.

Frankfurter’s position is more carefully nuanced than Dieleman’s summary acknowledges, since stereotype appropriation occurs on both the external level and on the level of internalization — of understanding one’s heritage and potentialities through the lens of the blended or hegemonic outside culture and of conforming behavior to this idea. Frankfurter also argues that the degree to which this occurs is directly related to the intensity of contact with these other cultures, and so the phenomenon is generally more intense in towns and cities. Though the specific Roman economic measures discussed would have had an immediate effect, there is more involved here than the cold-blooded branding or labeling one’s ritual wares to obtain the highest prices in the magical marketplace, though of course that probably did occur. But along with this, comes the phenomenon of the adoption — appropriation — of the stereotypes from the blended culture for internal use, whether the valence is negative or positive; and this is also part of Frankfurter’s basic model.

This in fact is exactly the dynamic that Dieleman ultimately suggests for the creation of the bilingual papyri, though he does not use these terms (293-4). Dieleman concludes that the composition and compilation of materials of this kind began in the culturally blended but Greek-language environment of Alexandria, where Egyptian priests were seeking “Greek” customers and modified traditional materials to meet the needs and expectations of that group. Though he does not link the two, Dieleman himself, in his discussion of the Ptolemaic pseudo-ciphers that actually call attention to themselves, notes this dynamic long before the specific time of the formularies: the internalization of the Ptolemaic expectation of mystification is externalized and celebrated, and it is used by the priests themselves. Later, Theban priests encountered such materials in their travels and brought some back with them to Thebes, whereupon they began to compose their own ritual texts (in Demotic), rooted in their own training but heavily influenced by these Greek texts, some of which were translated into Demotic, as noted above. Dieleman’s commitment to the idea that Demotic was intelligible only to the priests leads to the conclusion that, while the Greek texts may have had an external marketplace, these Demotic ones were intended for “priestly circles” (294), but what the priests were going to do with the texts is not specified. If the priests in Alexandria needed to market themselves to the Hellenistic environment, did the Theban priests also seek a market, even if it is one that is more exclusively and knowledgeably Egyptian, as the advertising introductions seem to suggest? This is a question to which I hope Dieleman will turn in future work.

I learned a great deal from this book, which is an important contribution to the study of ancient magic, in Egypt as well as the many other regions in which such materials are to be found. The arguments from Demotic, scribal practices and scripts can be technical, but are tremendously rewarding, and have major implications for several areas of the social history of ancient magic and religion. It is well worth the time of scholars and graduate students in these areas, as well as Egyptology and papyrology.4


1. These are not marked in the translation of this text by Janet Johnson, that appears in Hans Dieter Betz (ed.), The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells, v. 1, 2nd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 1992). Some, though not all, are mentioned in the footnotes.

2. I am grateful to Dieleman for correcting my earlier oversight of the two exact equivalencies. They are “Hairs of a Baboon” and “Semen of Hermes,” both of which are equated with dill in Ps.Dsc. III.58. It is surely significant that these two list items are consecutive, and appear in the same passage of Ps. Dsc. (but “Semen of Hermes” also appears in Ps.Dsc. III.139, under “ox-eye,” which appears nowhere in the interpreted lists). Dieleman also assembles many other instances of the terms from the list (or similar terms) that are equated with different substances, that the list does not use. The point of my article, however, was not that PGM spells do not use names of this type, but that they do not use these exact names — with, however, now the two exceptions listed above. The article is “Beans, Fleawort, and the Blood of a Hamadryas Baboon: Recipe Ingredients in Greco-Roman Magical Materials,” in Paul Mirecki and Marvin Meyer, eds., Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World; Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, 141. Leiden: Brill, 2002:359-77. See also “Single-Stemmed Wormwood, Pinecones and Myrrh: Expense and Availability of Recipe Ingredients in the Greek Magical Papyri,” Kernos 14 (May, 2001): 61-91.

3. David Frankfurter, Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance (Princeton University Press, 1998): 224-37.

4. I would like to make a final observation about terminology. Dieleman argues that to regard the Demotic and bilingual texts under the rubric of “Greek Magical Papyri” is part of an improperly Hellenocentric paradigm for their interpretation that has caused scholars to overlook or minimize the importance of their Egyptian content and the extent to which these works are continuous with Egyptian priestly-scribal practices. To avoid the use of this rubric, Dieleman substitutes the umbrella term “Theban Magical Library,” which he uses consistently throughout. While I agree with Dieleman that the Egyptian setting is critical for the understanding of these materials, the use of “Theban Magical Library” to represent the overall corpus that would otherwise be called “PGM” is also misleading. Only a small proportion of the magical formularies (including the two that are the subject of this book) can be convincingly linked to Thebes on linguistic and papyrological grounds, and some scholars would use this term only for these. Sellers on the antiquities market claimed that this group was found together with a few more texts in a tomb in the Theban hills, and other scholars would extend the term “Theban Magical Library” to this somewhat larger though still small group. The use of this title for the other formularies that eventually became the property of the same collector, not to mention all of the other material eventually included in Preisendanz’s PGM, does not create greater accuracy, it simply stresses the Egyptian rather than the Greek. I agree that “Greek Magical Papyri” is a misnomer for the corpus published under that name. Let us, perhaps, begin to substitute “Greco-Egyptian Magical Papyri,” or perhaps “πγ” eliminating the distinction between lower and uppercase Roman numerals introduced for the Demotic sections in the Betz translation volume. I do hesitate to introduce new terms in a field where terminology already sometimes has the effect of the head of Medusa, but our existing terminology is, as Dieleman notes, improperly skewed.