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The Ancient Edge


Research on Papyri Reveals Modern Concerns of Ancient Writers

November 1st 2010

Archaeology Topics - Papyrus

Research conducted on papyri sheds light on an ancient world with surprisingly modern concerns: including hoped-for medical cures, religious confusion and the need for financial safeguards. The field of study known as papyrology is the study of texts on papyrus and other materials, mainly from ancient Egypt and from the period of Greek and Roman rule. Both Biblical and Classical scholars avidly study scrolls written on papyrus to reveal answers to questions about ancient texts. The recent research revealed fascinating details about daily life, including banking and the charging of interest on loans.

Katherine Blouin from the University of Toronto, for example, conducted research on a papyrus text regarding a Greek loan of money with interest in kind, the interest being paid in cabbages. Such in-kind interest protected the lender from currency inflation, which was rampant after 275 AD – and no doubt also provided a convenient way to get groceries. 

Cavan Concannon of Harvard University edited a Greek letter in which a priest of the hippopotamus goddess, Thoeris, asks for a money transfer he is waiting for. Such money transfers were for large amounts and required mutual cooperation between two banks in different places that had sufficient trust between them to accept one another’s “checks.”

Sofie Remijsen of Leuven University in Belgium has written about 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 also 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.
Magali de Haro Sanchez from Liège University in Belgium discusses magical texts from Greco-Roman Egypt that use technical terms for over 20 kinds of fevers, wounds, including scorpion bites and epilepsy. The “prescriptions” (magical spells) were as difficult to decipher as any written in modern medical scrawl. Here is a translation of a prayer, written on gold leafe, found on an amulet purported to cure epilepsy, “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.”

A soon to be published essay by William Shandruk of the 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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