The dialogue of the Saint with the mummy of a Graeco-Egyptian: readings in the Life of St. Pisentius

Dioscorus Boles has sent me a couple of links from his Coptic Literature blog which I think will be of wide interest.  The posts are referenced copiously, and of a very high standard.

The first of these is an article on E. Wallis Budge, who published an immense amount of Coptic and ancient Egyptian material.  It includes a portrait picture – interesting to see! – as well as links to the five great collections of Coptic material that he produced.  These volumes are online, which is fortunate; for I remember how they disappeared off the shelves and into “rare books” rooms in our great libraries, shortly after the millennium.  Once in there, of course, they were effectively inaccessible.

The volumes were based on what he called the “Edfu codices”, after the region in which he obtained them.  They came from churches in the Edfu and Esna region.

He also sent me a link to a series of posts on death and the afterlife in Coptic literature.  I admit when I saw this, that I was not immediately enthralled!  But I clicked on a random post, and found treasure.

The fifth post in the series is on the encounter of St. Pisentius with a Hellene mummy, with whom he had a conversation on these subjects.  It is, of course, taken from the Vita or “saint’s life”.  The article begins by saying who St. Pisentius was — for which of us would know? He was,  in fact, a Coptic saint of the late 6th-early 7th century.  The article then continues by surveying the manuscript tradition for this work.  This also is very useful.  Myself, I always want to know how any text has reached us.  In the case of the Life of St. Pisentius, it has come down in Sahidic, Bohairic, and various Arabic versions.  Wallis Budge translated it.

Well, how interesting could a Coptic saint’s life be?  In this case, very interesting indeed.  The quotation is introduced as follows:

In the recesses of that mountain, Pisentius found a tomb in which he took refuge. It possessed “a large hall about 80 feet square, and its roof was supported by six pillars. This hall was made probably under one of the kings of the New Empire, and had been turned at a much later period, perhaps in one of the early centuries of the Christian era, into a common burial-place for the mummies of people of all classes. At all events, when John was taken there by his master the hall contained many mummified bodies, and the air was heavy with the odour of funerary spices.

Pisentius and his disciple opened some of the coffins, which were very large, with much decorated inner coffins. One mummy was swathed in silk, and must therefore have belonged to the third or fourth century of our era. As John was about to leave Pisentius he noticed on one of the pillars a small roll of parchment, and when Pisentius had opened it he read therein the names of all the people who had been buried in that tomb. The roll was probably written in demotic, and it is quite possible that the bishop could read this easily.”[21]

In that Pharaonic hall, used as little necropolis for some mummified dead from the Roman period, Pisentius had a curious encounter and intriguing conversation with a mummy, which was heard by John when he returned the following Saturday with water and food supply for the week, and later documented it in his book.

We know that the mummy belonged to a man from Erment;[22] and although we are not given his name, his parents’ names we are given as Agricolaos and Eustathia, and that they were Hellenes. Furthermore, we are told that the family worshipped Poseidon, the Greek God of the Sea. That encounter with that mummy reveals a great deal of what Copts of that age thought of death and afterlife.

Then follows the excerpt, and then a discussion of the content.  The post is everything that a scholarly post should be, and the text itself is fascinating!

I haven’t time today to look at the other posts.  But clearly the Coptic Literature blog has reached a high standard indeed.  Well done!


3 thoughts on “The dialogue of the Saint with the mummy of a Graeco-Egyptian: readings in the Life of St. Pisentius

  1. 1. Very enlightening.

    2. Erm… clearly I wasn’t understanding certain bits of the Eastern and Coptic tradition. Not at all. Because holy cow, that station thing’s scary stuff!

    3. Well, now I know what people are going on about, when they compare the Purgatory vision things in Europe to Coptic literature. Except that suddenly Irish Purgatory lit seems all fluffy-bunny.

    4. The Hellenic mummy thing is awesome, because those Hellenic portrait masks look alive already.

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