Archive for September, 2011

From my diary

I’ve found some rather good photographs of a fresco in a Mithraeum at Marino in the Alban Hills near Rome on a blog entry here.  The fresco depicts the “tauroctony” — Mithras killing the bull.  This is present in every temple of Mithras, but in this case it is a colour painting on the wall, rather than a stone relief, coloured or otherwise.

The most interesting elements are the side-panels, which depict elements of the myth of Mithras.  Since no literary source explains them, or indeed gives us the details of the mysteries of Mithras, we are forced to guess at their meaning.

These side-panels are not always present in a tauroctony, but I have seen them before.  The content seems to vary a little.  The bottom right panel at Marino shows Mithras drawing a bow.  The blog says this is the “water miracle”; not sure how we know that water is involved.  (You have to be wary around these iconographical people — they tend to state as fact their own theories about what can be seen in an image!)

A very nice post, all the same.  I wonder where the images come from?

Is ambiguity in ancient texts a problem for the translator?

At work today one of my colleagues had received a particularly hasty email from a customer.  The sentence was somewhat difficult to parse, and could be read in two ways.  But we worked out what it meant.  And then — for, unusually, my current colleagues know who I am — he asked me this:

When you’re translating an ancient text, how do you deal with ambiguity?

It’s a very good question, isn’t it? 

The first point that struck me is that mostly ancient authors wanted to be read, and to be understood, and consequently wrote in order to avoid ambiguity.  A word might have two meanings, but the rest of the sentence would be so phrased as to rule out all but one choice.

I think that here is rather less ambiguity in ancient texts than we might suppose, as we translate them.  Isn’t it the case that, in the majority of the situations where we find ourselves with ambiguity, it is because we can’t work out what the thought is, that the author is trying to express? 

I remember wrestling with a translation of the 6th century Syriac scientific author, Severus Sebokht, On the Constellations.  The subject matter — “climates” and stars and so on — was unfamiliar, and I found myself in the dark, sometimes, where a sentence could have more than one meaning, word for word.  But the real problem was that I simply didn’t know enough about the subject to choose the right possible word meaning.

When we find a word that could be translated several ways, we usually find that the context decides which word that should be.  By “context” we mean that the word is part of a sentence, and the sentence part of a paragraph, and the paragraph is devoted to putting forward a train of thought.  All this naturally tends to reduce the possible multiple meanings of a word, or a set of words.  The author probably did not intend to be ambiguous, after all, although, with some of the more allusive Byzantine writers, you do wonder!

When we do find a word which is clearly ambiguous in the original, how do we handle it?  In this case we must consider the possibility that the ambiguity is deliberate, and therefore needs to be conveyed to the reader in English.  The best solution is to use an English word that has the same dual sense.  Habeo in Latin has a considerable range of meanings beyond have, own; and have itself can carry more than one meaning in English.  But in most cases we will not find a convenient equivalent.  In that case we must resort to footnotes; translate the meaning that is most important, and indicate the overloading in a footnote.  Indeed even when a single ambiguous English word can be found, it is probably best to indicate in a footnote that the ambiguity is in the Latin or Greek. 

For footnotes, of course, exist primarily to allow the translator to anticipate the criticisms of the reviewer — “surely any schoolboy would have known that blah blah…” — and prevent such captiousness.  Whether such preventative footnotes are of use to the general reader may sometimes be doubted.

A further element reducing ambiguity in ancient sentences is the language itself.  English is a weakly-typed language, to borrow a computer idiom.  A word may be a noun or a verb, and little or nothing in the form of the word itself indicates its grammatical purpose or position in the sentence.  But Latin and Greek were more strongly typed. 

In English you can reverse the position of words, and it alters the meaning.  “Sextus killed Marcus” and “Marcus killed Sextus” are not equivalent statements, not least from the point of view of Marcus and Sextus. 

But in Latin this is an impossible problem.  “Sextus Marcum occidit” and “Marcum Sextus occidit” are of near identical meaning, differing only in emphasis.   Consequently the scope for ambiguity is reduced. 

But of course ambiguity does not disappear simply because of grammar!  The second word anyone learns in Latin, amas, has two different meanings — the second person singular indicative active of the verb amo meaning “you love”, as in amo, amas, amat; but it is also the accusative plural of the noun ama, the fireman’s buckets.  “amas amas” is a perfectly legal Latin sentence — “you love the fireman’s buckets”.  It is not clear, perhaps, which amas is which!  But even so, the meaning is unambiguous.

In short, translation does not have a special problem with ambiguity.  The author may be ambiguous; the language he writes in may assist or obstruct him; but surely the real cause of ambiguity is between the ears of the author, not in the mind of the translator?

John the Lydian, September – now online

There is a chapter on the events of September in John the Lydian, On the Roman months, book IV.  The final version of the translation by Andrew Eastbourne has arrived!  I’ve uploaded the raw Word document here.  And, since it is September, it seems rather timely to see what the Romans did and saw in September.  I’ve placed it in the public domain — do whatever you like with it, personal, educational or commercial.

Since it is short, I give the text here.   There are a few gaps in the text in the sole manuscript, indicated with ‘…’  I do wonder whether modern methods might reveal some text here, or whether there are simply holes in the pages.

[158]    SEPTEMBER 

121.  What we said was true, that the Romans set the month of March as the beginning of the year, and this can be grasped from the designation of the current month.  For they named it September, as being the “seventh” from the “spring”—for “seven” is septem and “spring” is ver [1]—that is, from the month of March, on the 24th day of which the sun, entering Aries, allows [159] the nature of spring to begin.  After that, it will not be necessary to go into the names of the following months at length; for October is the eighth from the “Waxing of the Light,”[2] and so forth for November and December. 

122.  The number nine is divine, being composed of three threes, and preserving the perfections of theology according to the Chaldaean philosophy, as Porphyry says. 

123.  Metrodorus says that at the new moon, Andromeda rises, and with the other winds ceasing, the East Wind prevails.   

124.  On the day before the Nones of September,[3] Augustus defeated the Egyptians with Antony and Cleopatra at Leucate.  And for this reason, he introduced the reckoning of the cycle of the so-called “indiction” from the beginning of the month of September.[4]On this day, Democritus says there occurs a change of winds and a predominance of rain.

125.  The various distinctions of flavors are quite numerous, according to Apollonius, but the there are nine principal types:  sweet, bitter, sharp [i.e., acidic], pungent, brinchos [5], harsh / astringent, slimy [?],[6] severe / rugged,[7] and salty.  Hence also in this ninth month the Romans would pray for good
health. [160]

126.  On the Ides of September, [8] Eudoxius indicates that the Horse [i.e., the constellation Pegasus] sets, and the West—or Bright—Wind blows. 

127.  We know that on cabbage a kind of “worm” grows, called “Curvy” [i.e., the caterpillar].  This animal, when the cabbage dries out in the spring, naturally turns into a winged “worm” like an ant, and somewhat larger, supported by white triangular wings; and it flies around in gardens in a way that is low to the ground and makes it easy to catch it.  And it turns out that this sort of “worm” is called “Psychê” [i.e., the butterfly, lit. “soul”].[9] 

128.  Ten days before the Kalends of October,[10] Dositheus indicates that Arcturus rises.  On the 12th day before the Kalends of  October, Caesar says that the swallows leave. 

129.  …of Nicomedes the tyrant of Bithynia. 

130.  When there has been an excess of fire, a fever occurs; when air [has been excessive], a quotidian fever; when water, a tertian fever, when earth, a quartan fever.  And shivering tends to be the first stage of [all] these.  For whenever the aforementioned fluids are made thick by the cold—since this is a characteristic of both water and earth—at that time, as they travel through the pores they are not able to expel the thicker substances, but come into locations of these and produce a compression and crushing action; this of [161] necessity causes turmoil and quaking—which experience is called “trembling and cold.” 

131.  The Romans, after defeating the Africans, conveyed the wild beasts from there to Rome and slaughtered them in the arena, so that not even the wild beasts from that region would remain unenslaved. 

132.  The column [stêlê] of Tyche which stands in Byzantium was erected by Pompey the Great.  <For> after enclosing Mithridates there with the Goths, and dispersing them, he captured Byzantium.  And this is attested by the epigram in Latin letters on the base of the pillar, which says the following: 

To Tyche Safe-Returner, on account of the defeat of the Goths.[11]

The place later became a tavern.  The Goths are Getae

133. …but the common people call it delphax [“pig”].[12]

134.  And the oracle recommends drinking milk for the sake of good health all through the month of September. 

  1. [1] Transliterated here as βέρ.
  2. [2] Gk. Auxiphôtia.  Elsewhere (De Mensibus 4.135, 158), John Lydus uses this term for the winter solstice (or just afterwards), but here, by inclusive counting, October would be the eighth after March, i.e., perhaps John is intending a reference to the spring equinox?
  3. [3] 4 Sept.
  4. [4]  The “indiction” system of 15-year cycles was used in the Byzantine empire, as well as in medieval Western Europe; the cycles were calculated from the beginning of September in Byzantium, as John Lydus says, but the system was not used until the late Empire.
  5. [5] LSJ:  “between…pungent…and astringent” (citing this passage)
  6. [6] Gk. blennôdês.
  7. [7] Gk. austêros.
  8. [8] 13 Sept.
  9. [9] John Lydus continues to use the term “worm” (skôlêx) in reference to the animal, even though strictly speaking it should only have been used for one stage in its development.  On the development of the butterfly (“Psychê”), cf. Aristotle, Historia Animalium 5.19 (551A); Plutarch, Quaestiones Conviviales 2.3 (636C).  The odd reference to the ant does not appear in either of these. 
  10. [10] 22 Sept.
  11. [11] For the still-extant “Gothic column” and its interpretation, see B. Croke, “Poetry and Propaganda:  Anastasius I as Pompey,” Greek Roman and Byzantine Studies 48 (2008), pp. 462-3; C. Mango, “The Triumphal Way of Constantinople and the Golden Gate,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 54 (2000), p. 177.  It is likely to be connected with 3rd- or 4th-century victories over Goths (Claudius Gothicus or Constantine), not with Pompey the Great.  The Latin inscription on the column base, now barely legible, agrees with John Lydus’ account; it reads:  Fortunae Reduci ob devictos Gothos. 
  12. [12] This may be a reference to a part of the imperial palace at Constantinople; cf. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Cerimoniis 1.86 (p. 391 Reiske), etc. 

Another UK attack on free speech

This report on a “bigot” who is to expect a jail sentence for expressing dislike online of those whom he saw as his enemies should make us all shiver.  There is no pretence that the man did anything except say how much he hated Catholics. 

Apparently that is justification enough for “a substantial jail sentence”.

Who knew?

Bibliography (with links) of Pachomian literature

Alin Suciu has collected a bibliography of publications of works connected with the 4th century founder of Egyptian monasticism, St. Pachomius.  He’s also linked to downloads.  You know, five years ago you just couldn’t have got these books!

The first on the list is a publication by Egyptologist E. Amelineau.  Amelineau is a name that I came across as a boy, when reading Leonard Cottrell’s books about ancient Egypt.  Flinders Petrie, who started scientific archaeology, found that Amelineau was the enemy, and his name was associated with everything bad in my early reading, therefore.

But the truth is that Amelineau wasn’t an archaeologist at all.  He was a coptologist, publishing papyri and other 4th century Christian texts.  His volumes — and they are numerous — are still of value today.  It is unfortunate, therefore, that in getting involved in digging for antiquities, in a period when this was commonplace, he outlived his time and started to do real damage. 

UPDATE: Dr Suciu has continued his Pachomian bibiography here with further excellent material. 

UPDATE: Part 3 is here, and part 4 and last here.

US universities harassing Christian groups

Some years ago a nasty episode of Christian-bashing took place at Exeter university, with the connivance and support of the university authorities.  I read this evening (via Dyspepsia Generation) of similar harassment in US universities.  The university headlining the article is Vanderbilt.

Is Vanderbilt University flirting with the suppression of religion? Yes, according to Carol Swain, a professor at Vanderbilt’s Law School.

Specifically, Swain is referring to four Christian student groups being placed on “provisional status” after a university review found them to be in non-compliance with the school’s nondiscrimination policy.

Vanderbilt says the student organizations cannot require that leaders share the group’s beliefs, goals and values. …

Among the groups threatened with shut down is the Christian Legal Society. It ran afoul with this language from its constitution. “Each officer is expected to lead Bible studies, prayer and worship at chapter meetings.”

What fiends these Christians are.  The article continues:

CLS’s Gunter says his group’s membership is open to anyone, but leaders have a different requirement. “CLS is a Christian organization”, he told me. “That means to preserve our integrity, we need Christian leaders.”

Carol Swain is CLS’s faculty advisor. She insists the university has gone way beyond political correctness with its actions and demands. “It seems reasonable”, she told me, “to require that leaders share the beliefs of the organizations that they seek to lead.” She sees this as part of a larger problem at liberal-leaning universities across the nation. She says, “I see it as part of a larger attack on religious freedom that’s taking place across the country – particularly when it comes to conservative groups.”

This is familiar territory for the Christian Legal Society. Last year the Supreme Court ruled against a lawsuit it filed against Hastings Law School in California. CLS had argued that Hastings’ “all-comers” policy regarding student groups infringed on its right to religious freedom.  …

The Vanderbilt group – and the national CLS organization are worried about “infiltration”, arguing that a person hostile to the group could rise to a leadership position, then attempt to tear it apart through conflict. CLS did have a problem at Washburn University Law School when a student whose religious beliefs were contrary to the group was allowed to lead a Bible study. When CLS stopped him he complained. Washburn put CLS on “provisional status”, but reinstated the group when CLS sued.

I remember, when I was a student, that leftist student activists campaigned for “general meeting sovereignity”.  They wanted the student union meetings to have the power to do everything.  What this meant, however, was something different.

Most students never go to student union meetings, having beer to drink and other things to do.  The few that do quickly get bored and leave.  So what this innocent-sounding demand really meant was the abolition of student democracy and the transference of all power to the activists.  Quel surprise, perhaps.

A similar demand was made at Exeter.  (Rather to my surprise, I can find no blog post here about that event.  An article at Catholic Action is here).  The 50-year old Christian Union allowed any student to attend, but would not allow unbelievers to be officers.  One unbelieving student demanded this, and then organised a campaign to get the CU banned.  Various evil events then occurred.

The point of the demand is simple.  All these groups allow any student to come along, and often to be members.  But once a non-believer can be the leader, all an ill-disposed person has to do, is arrange for a couple of hundred non-Christians to turn up, “as a joke”, and vote him in.  At which point he can do with the CU — and its funds — as he pleases.  Effectively the CU is disbanded. 

But the CU refuses to allow this unreasonable demand, the university can be brought in to disband the CU on grounds of “diversity”.  Whatever they do, the Christians cannot win.  In both cases, it is impossible for the Christians to operate as a recognised student society.

In the Exeter case, the UCCF — the CU parent body — outmaneouvered the haters at Exeter by doing a deal with the National Union of Students, while friends in the media brought the story to national prominence.  There have been some nasty cases of attacks on Catholic student bodies also.

But it is telling that the same tactic is being used in the US.

We need to face up to the reality, that all of this harassment indicates a shift in attitudes towards Christianity.  It indicates that the amused contempt of the last few decades is giving way to real hatred.  The establishment has adopted a path of institutional vice, as it did in the Restoration period.  Those determined to follow vice do not care to be reminded that what they are doing is wrong, and are not scrupulous about how they deal with anything they dislike.  The government of Charles II created almost all the legislation for religious discrimination that stained this country for the next two centuries, and forced half the country into “non-conformity”, i.e. exclusion from state service or participation in the nation.  I remember seeing a gloating article in The Guardian, welcoming the possibility of recreating non-conformity.  I think we may expect to see more such harassment of Christians in the next few years, both here and in the US.

These are sad times.  Let us remember, however, that “they hated Me, and they will hate you.”

The image of Christ-Helios in the mosaics of Vatican tomb M

Quite by accident I came across the daunting opus by Steven Hijmans, Sol: the sun in the art and religions of Rome, 2009, in which he attempts to classify all the material about “Sol” in the historical record.  I must say at once that the book is partially impenetrable to those not deeply involved in iconography.

But it seems that Dr Hijmans’ interest originally was sparked by the controversial 2nd century mosaic[1], which is often supposed to show Christ as Helios.  I found an image online, which I include below on a useful site about St. Peters.

Christ as Helios? The mosaic from Vatican tomb M

When the basilica of St. Peter in Rome, built in the 4th century by Constantine, was demolished in the 16th century prior to building the current church, the workmen discovered that a pagan cemetery lay under part of the site.  This included a street of tombs, as Roman tombs were often built outside the city beside roads, which must have been inaccessible after the basilica was built.  Construction for St Peters began around 320 AD. 

The mausolea were largely forgotten until the 1940’s when new excavations under St. Peters rediscovered them.  It is possible, in fact, to visit the tombs, although only by pre-arrangement.

One of the tombs, the smallest, given the letter ‘M’ contains an interesting mosaic.  The tomb was first entered in 1574, through a hole in the ceiling.  An inscription over the doorway — and overtly pagan –, which has since been lost[2], recorded that the tomb was that of Julius Tarpeianus and his family.  But it became famous from the 1940’s because of the mosaics, and in particular because of the charioteer.  The mausoleum itself was built in the 2nd century, in the space left between tombs L and N, and so is only 1.98 x 1.63m in size, and 2m high.  But the ceiling is covered with the mosaic, which also covers the upper parts of the walls, and there is fresco below.  The mosaic and the fresco seems to be later than two cremation burials, but before four inhumation burials, and all of this must be before ca. 320 AD when the tomb became buried under the basilica.  Likewise in some of the other tombs there is overtly pagan imagery, but also the burials of Christians.[3]

The images of the walls of M are as follows: on the west wall, a man carrying a sheep on his shoulders; on the north wall, facing the entrance, an angler is catching a fish, while another fish swims away; on the east wall is a ship with two men on board, each with upraised right arm, but outside the ship another man is being swallowed head first by a sea monster.  On the ceiling is a man on a chariot, drawn by what were once four horses, but only two remain.  The hole in the ceiling, made in 1574 as a way in, obliterated the other two.  The charioteer is dressed in a long chiton and chlamys, has raised his right hand, and is holding a blue globe in his left.  His head has a crown of rays.

When the tomb was rediscovered in the 40’s, the images were immediately identified as Christian; the good shepherd (W), the angler (N), and Jonah (E).  All these are well-known in early Christian art.  Scholars therefore identified the tomb as Christian, rather than pagan; making it the only Christian tomb in the vicinity.

But the charioteer is Sol.  The iconography is definitely that of the Roman sun god.[4]  So what is it doing in a Christian mausoleum?

Some scholars, including Martin Wallraff[5], have supposed that Christ is here depicted using the imagery for the sun, as the “Sun of Justice”, so named in Augustine and other writers.  But Hijmans points out that nothing in the image suggests that this is Christ; and, since the image is clearly that of Sol, we should question instead our identification of the other characters, and look for pagan versions of the sheep-bearer, angler, and man being swallowed by a fish.  The first two, apparently, would be quite at home in a pagan context.[6]

If the two images belong to the same context, then there is a problem.  Hijmans states bluntly that there are no known images where Jonah is not Christian, or where Sol is.[7]  Instead he prefers to see the whole mausoleum as pagan, arguing as follows:

It is time reenter the mausoleum with Roman eyes, if possible, avoiding premature and possibly anachronistic assumptions about the nature and identity of the figures in the mosaic. If we look again at the mausoleum as a whole, without labeling the figures, a different, quite obvious, and very Roman pattern reveals itself. To begin with, the vine and the lack of borders emphasize the interconnectedness of the scenes. Clearly the images combine to form a single theme, and it is quickly apparent which. On the East wall, with its ship and the sea-monster, we have the ocean. On the West wall, opposite the sea, we have the sheep-bearer signifying land. On the North wall the angler occupies the area of transition from sea to land. The vault, with Sol, represents the sky and light, while darkness and the underworld are below, represented by the lower parts of the mausoleum and the tombs therein. In short, the imagery defines mausoleum M as a “cosmos”, or at least as a “world”, and endows it with a basic visual rhythm for which there are many parallels in Roman art.

That rhythm is one of land, sea, and sky articulating the image, and we find it both in Roman art in general and, more specifically, in Roman funerary art. In the third century AD the sheep-bearer and the angler were particularly common as antithetical figures denoting land and sea reaspectively.28 Sometimes Oceanus replaces the angler and the basic pattern may be expanded to include other figures.29 Such scenes do not provide parallels in a strict sense for mausoleum M, but show that the basic pattern we have identified in the mosaic is one which would not take a Roman viewer by surprise.

With this basic pattern we sidestep the question whether the mausoleum is pagan or Christian. Sol is the sun and represents the heavens, and the man-devouring ketos represents the sea.[8]

Do we agree?  I suspect that we must decline to decide.  It seems clear that the religious context of the tomb is uncertain.  The meaning of all the figures is less than certain, and to some degree contradictory.  It would seem safest, where scholars disagree, to refrain from confident assertions of either kind.

  1. [1] p.v: “I first became interested in Sol over twenty years ago, when I planned to study the iconography of Sol in the transition from Roman to Christian art in late antiquity for my doctoral thesis. My aim was to study the broader context of the famous image Christ-Helios in mausoleum M in the Vatican Necropolis, but I soon realized that there was no parallel for this image of a solar Christ, or at least not one that was recognizably Christian. I decided to focus instead on the Roman iconography of Sol …”
  2. [2] CIL. VI, 20293
  3. [3] John Evangelist Walsh, The Bones of St. Peter, 1982, p.11-12.
  4. [4] Hijmans, p.570: “Iconographically this is Sol, the Roman sun, in every respect. To explain the presence of Sol in a Christian mausoleum, scholars suggested that in this case he was not Sol, but Christ depicted in the guise of Sol as the New Light and the Sun of Justice.”
  5. [5] Unfortunately Hijmans only references “Wallraff, 2001″ — the copy I have does not contain a bibliography.
  6. [6] Hijmans, p.571: “It is beyond dispute that the sheepbearer and angler would be perfectly at home in a pagan environment.[12] Whether that was also the case with Jonah is less certain. Most scholars consider the Jonah scene to be invariably Christian, but we should bear two things in mind. The first is that at the time of the decoration of the mausoleum the depiction of Jonah was still relatively new in Rome. The second is that there are indications of pagan interaction with, or perhaps even pagan precursors for the Jonah story. … There are parallels for the Jonah story in Greek myths of the ketos, the maiden-devouring sea monster, because in certain versions either Perseus (rescuing Andromeda) or Hercules (rescuing Hesione) is swallowed by the monster before killing it from inside.[13]” referencing “12 Cf. Engemann 1983, 257.”, and “13 Perseus: Lycoph. Alex. 834-840; Plin. NH 5, 128. Hercules: Hellan. frgmt. 136-137; Lyc. Alex. 33-37 (cf. 476-478). Weicker (RE VIII, 1241 s.v. Hesione 5) believes this to be the oldest surviving version of the myth.”
  7. [7] Hijmans, p.572: “Are there other more or less contemporary instances in which Sol is Christ or Jonah is not Christian? Is “Christ” one of the standard meanings the image type [sol] could acquire in the third century AD under specific circumstances? In both cases the answer appears to be no. As far as Jonah is concerned I am not aware of any clear “pagan” parallels. As for Sol, we can state with a significant degree of certainty that there are no instances in which the image type [sol] is used to depict Christ. Nonetheless, proponents of the notion that this is how we should identify Sol in mausoleum M cite a number of images that they believe are parallels….”
  8. [8] p.575-6.

An example of why abolishing AD and BC causes problems

A report in the Daily Mail at the weekend highlighted a fresh stage in the step-by-step campaign by the establishment to replace AD and BC with the Jewish-originated CE and BCE. 

The BBC’s religious and ethics department says the changes are necessary to avoid offending non-Christians.

It states: ‘As the BBC is committed to impartiality it is appropriate that we use terms that do not offend or alienate non-Christians.

In line with modern practice, BCE/CE (Before Common Era/Common Era) are used as a religiously neutral alternative to BC/AD.’

The report has been attacked for being “untrue”, although the authenticity of the statement does not appear to be in dispute.  Nor is the creeping introduction of this novelty denied either — indeed it has been apparent to most of us for years.  The attacks, therefore, are merely an attempt to quiet media criticism.

But today I came across an example of how this nonsense is causing confusion.

In  Laina Farhat-Holzman, Strange Birds from Zoroaster’s Nest: An Overview of Revealed Religions, (2003), p.201, there is a summary of Mary Boyce’s discussion of Zoroastrian sources.  In this I read:

None of this [the Zoroastrian scripture] was committed to writing until the Avestan alphabet was designed for this purpose in the 5th century B.C.

Fortunately I had just been reading a useful book on modern research on Zoroastrianism, and this felt wrong.  And I found Mary Boyce, Textual Sources for the study of Zoroastrianism, University of Chicago Press (1990) p.1, which stated:

All their religious works were handed down orally: it was not until probably the fifth century A.C. that they were at last committed to writing, in the ‘Avestan’ alphabet, especially invented for the purpose.

Had Dr Boyce stuck to AD and BC, this error could hardly have arisen.  Thank you, University of Chicago Press, for causing an unnecessary confusion.

Forthcoming: an English translation of Michael the Syrian

The World Chronicle of the 12th century Syrian monophysite (or Syrian Orthodox) patriarch, Michael Rabo — aka Michael the Syrian — is the longest medieval chronicle that has survived.  It was composed in Syriac, making use of extensive earlier chronicle material, reaching all the way back to a now-lost Syriac translation of the Chronicle of Eusebius.  It is a major source for Syriac historical materials. 

It also is a major source for the crusader period.  For Michael the Syrian lived when the crusader kingdom of Outremer and the principality of Antioch were at their height. 

One problem is that no English translation exists.  A French translation was published by Chabot together with an awful transcription of the Syriac (unreadable, at least by me), back in 1906.[1]

Now Matti Mousa, the translator of various Syriac texts, and of The Scattered Pearls by Aphram Barsoum, has taken up the challenge.  The translation is complete, I understand, and he is revising it now.  Working mostly from the Syriac text, he is nevertheless comparing it with the Arabic translation, and also with some Garshuni versions.  He modestly says that this is to ensure that he hasn’t made any terrible mistake.  Dr. Mousa is himself a member of the Syrian Orthodox church, and the text will be published by his bishop, probably through Gorgias Press.

Let us hope that this is made available at a reasonable price.  It is such an important, and interesting work!

Michael was the head of the Syrian monophysites.  The Latin church — still united with the Greek orthodox — was Chalcedonian, and the rejection of the formula of Chalcedon (451AD) was the key demand of the monophysite party.  So Michael and his coreligionists were heretics, at least in theory.  But in practice Michael enjoyed excellent relations with the crusader clergy, and speaks of the tolerant attitude of the crusaders, who treated as Christians all who claimed to be so.   He even wrote an official letter, contributing to a Council in Rome, and supporting the Papal position.

One reason for this mutual good-feeling was the existence of a common enemy.  This was not the moslems, in this context, but rather the plottings of the Greek orthodox church, then firmly under the control of the Byzantine emperor. 

The crusader clergy got on rather badly with the Greeks, despite their supposed common doctrine.  The crusaders had liberated the churches of Palestine from Moslem rule, and naturally appointed their own clergy to the bishoprics and other posts.  But the Greek orthodox demanded to appoint Greeks to these posts, and schemed at Rome to get the Pope to override the appointments made by the crusader lords.  The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem found himself in a strange land, being stabbed in the back at home.

The monophysites, likewise, had a history.  A century earlier, Syria had fallen back under the control of a renascent Byzantine power, and the cities and churches had once again to deal with edicts made in Constantinople.  The Greek clergy had conducted a witchhunt, complete with heresy trials.  This was not politically very clever, and was long remembered even after the Moslems returned.  The Greeks then attempted to organise “reunion” conferences with the monophysites, and Michael himself was invited to one such.  Knowing that he was unlikely to return, whatever “safe-conduct” was promised, he wrote a letter declining in firm tones.

There is a reason why the phrase “Byzantine intrigues” has a very negative flavour, even today.  Faced with such plotting, by a weak and permanently treacherous power — described as “these European Chinese” in one pre-political correctness volume –, Michael and Amaury, the Latin patriarch, found that their mutual interest was far in excess of a minor doctrinal quibble.

In consequence Michael provides an interesting independent witness to the impact of the crusades on the local inhabitants of Syria and Palestine.  The Coptic source, the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, is generally negative, probably out of fear of Moslem reprisals; Michael feels no such hesitation to endorse the incomers.

I hope one day to read what he has to say!

  1. [1] The three volumes of the French translation are accessible on Archive.org, here.  I did hope to do the fourth volume also, containing the Syriac, but never had the time.

Writing a page or pages on Mithras

I want to write an article on the Roman cult of Mithras for my website, using the material that I originally contributed to Wikipedia, since I am reluctant for that to disappear.  But of course I also want to add to it as I learn more on the subject.  

The article will be what the Wikipedia article should be, if that place were not today overrun by trolls intent on forcing any contributor to spend more time on edit wars than on contributing.  It must be balanced, objective, informed, and contain nothing of my own opinion.  As an amateur, my opinion has no value, of course.  But the opinions of scholars can be quoted, provided that they specialise in the subject.  If they make a statement of fact, that statement must be tied to the primary data, and if it is not, then it too must be treated as suspect.  There is so much nonsense in circulation, that a very sceptical approach is necessary.

So how to do it, physically?  The Wikipedia mechanism is very easy to use, and indeed is designed to be compelling and addictive.  But using Mediawiki is not really an option.  I always feel that the also-Wiki’s look rather forlorn.  But the footnoting mechanism of Wikipedia is very convenient, and I need to make sure that I can do something similar with this.  I don’t want to manually renumber footnotes, nor generate a table of contents.

I have a text file with the last reliable version of the Wikipedia article, back from February, and I started knocking together a Visual Basic utility to turn it into HTML, as an experiment.  It is trivial enough to convert the headers, for instance.  But anything that goes over a single line is harder to do.

But ideally we would retain the text version as the master, and just regenerate the HTML as required.  VB is not a good choice for this — something in PHP would be better.  But little by little.

I also want to have a page for each image I use, which I can reference properly itself.

Finally there needs to be the equivalent of a “talk” page, where I can express some kind of opinions about the material, or an explanation of how it is put together or what is not there and why.



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