English translation of Michael the Syrian by Matti Moosa now available

A very large and unexpected parcel arrived today.  In it was … the first published English translation of the world history of Michael the Syrian, or Michael Rabo, to give him his proper name.  Matti Moosa, who has translated a number of important Syriac texts, is the translator, and he has kindly sent me a copy, since I learned of his work a couple of years ago.

moosa_michael_raboIt’s a monster volume, not far short of some lectern bibles in size, and 827 pages.  The quality of manufacture of the volume is very high.  Note that the hardback cover is actually black – the picture to the left doesn’t give the correct colour balance – and very, very impressive looking.  The Syrian Orthodox diocese of Antioch have published it, and made a very splendid job of it.

I’ve had no time to read through it.  It is, in the main, the translation, with limited but useful footnotes.

The publisher’s site is here.  You can purchase a copy online here.  The price is $75, and that is actually entirely reasonable for a volume of this size and quality.  (International buyers may need to pay some extra postage – obviously they’re not quite sure what this should be).

This is a very important work indeed.  For a long time scholars have been dependent on Chabot’s French translation, made from an illicit copy of the manuscript.

Michael the Syrian was the patriarch of the monophysite Syrian Orthodox in Syria at the time of the crusades.  His picture of the period is very interesting indeed.  One of the problems that Michael faced was treacherous intrigues by the Byzantines.  The crusader patriarch of Jerusalem had precisely the same problem.  In consequence the two got on extremely well.

But the work is even more valuable to patristics and Syriac scholars.  It begins with a Syriac translation of the Chronicle of Eusebius of Caesarea, then with the continuation by the scholar-bishop, James of Edessa.  It goes on to give verbatim accounts from any number of now lost Syriac histories.

I don’t suppose that the publishers have a lot of contacts with university libraries.  But this book should be in them.  If you do have such a contact, please ask your university library to obtain a copy.


The decay of digital media

This evening I was looking through some PDF’s of a Mithras reference volume, which a correspondent very kindly scanned for me some time back.   I keep a copy on my travelling laptop, and so when I am working away from home, I can work on the site in the evenings in the hotel.  I was, in fact, looking for information on the Nesce Mithraeum, in Latium; and, rather to my surprise, that page was missing.

So I decided to go through the PDF (which I received in parts of a few pages) and check whether any other pages were missing.  A few were, but I can obtain photocopies from a library and patch the PDF’s.

But I came to the end of the directory, and double-clicked on a file and … it wouldn’t open.  Adobe informed me that it was corrupt.

This was a surprise.  I knew the file must have been OK once.  All the files in that directory were emailed to me, and I certainly opened them all at least once, and often many more times.  How could it be corrupt?

Now I carry around with me a back-up of my hard disk, on external hard disk.  It’s kept up to date every weekend.  So I went to that and tried to open the same file.  And … it wouldn’t open.

Somehow the file that I had downloaded to my PC at home had become corrupt, at some point in the past.

In this case there was a happy ending.  I never got around to deleting the email(s) that sent me this book, and so I could just download the piece again.  And, sure enough, that was fine.

But that PDF file has never been anywhere except on my hard disk.  How could it have become corrupt, without any other intervention?

More seriously … I have gigabytes of PDFs of books.  How many of these, I wonder, have silently rotted?

Nor am I the only one.

Today I accessed a website discussing an obscure technical subject.  The article was less than a year old, but the links to samples and bitmaps no longer worked.

It’s not so long ago that I found that the zip files on the Electronic Journal of Mithraic Studies website – which seems pretty much abandoned – no longer unzip.  Somehow, at some point, in their state of neglect, they have rotted.  But how?

We need a way to check the integrity of our collections of electronic books.  There is no manner of use in having them, if they are not there when we need them.

I don’t know how it might be done; but done it needs to be.

Gentlemen … check your files!


Damascius on Orphic mythology

The philosopher Damascius was the last head of the Academy at Athens, at the time when it was closed down by Justinian in 529 AD. His Problems and Solutions concerning first principles[1] has recently been translated by Sara Ahbel-Rappe, and a preview of the book is online. This is a very useful piece of work; because these very late pagan philosophers have undoubtedly been neglected, and Damascius is a fountain of knowledge about Orphic mythology.  The translation itself is a good piece of work also.

“Phanes” in his egg, from Modena. CIMRM 695

Many books on Mithras refer to the lion-headed god, found in the temples of Mithras, as “Aion”, and there is often a reference to “Phanes” as well. I have been attempting to discover which pieces of ancient evidence tell us who Aion was, and what he looked like.

The answer to this is two mosaics and a red bit of pottery, in all of which the figure is almost obliterated; a long discussion in Damascius’ Dubitationes et solutiones; plus some other bits and pieces in the literary tradition which I have not yet fathomed.

Both Aion and Phanes appear to be part of Orphic mythology.

The word “Aion”, indeed, means “time”; not the days of our lives, like Chronos, but endless, ageless time, eternity even. So the depictions are of a personification of a concept.

References to Aion begin in classical times; and of course Damascius lived a thousand years later. It is perhaps unlikely, therefore, that these ideas remained unchanged through all that time, through the classical period, its collapse and the birth of the Hellenistic world, the collapse of that and the birth of the Roman world, and the collapse of that and the creation of Byzantium. But we have so little to work with, and any identifications in mosaics must be tentative.

Quite by chance this evening, while looking at the Wikipedia article on Phanes, I learned of an old translation of precisely the portion of Damascius that interests us. It is to be found in the preface to a translation of the Orphic Hymns, made by the English Platonist, Thomas Taylor, in the 19th century.[2] Interestingly Taylor had to self-publish his translation, and had to work, not from a critical text, but from some excerpts by Wolfius. In some ways, however, it is easier to understand than the modern (2010) translation.

I give the relevant portion here:

    *    *    *    *

Time [as we have already observed] is symbolically said to be the one principle of the universe; but ether and chaos[3] are celebrated as the two principles immediately posterior to this one. And being, simply considered, is represented under the symbol of an egg [4]. And this is the first triad of the intelligible Gods. But for the perfection of the second triad they establish either a conceiving and a conceived egg as a God, or a white garment, or a cloud: because from these Phanes leaps forth into light. For indeed they philosophize variously concerning the middle triad. But Phanes here represents intellect. To conceive him however besides this, as father and power, contributes nothing to Orpheus. But they call the third triad Metis as intellect, Ericapaeus as power, and Phanes as father. But sometimes the middle triad is considered according to the three-shaped God, while conceived in the egg: for the middle always represents each of the extremes; as in this instance, where the egg and the three-shaped God subsist together. And here you may perceive that the egg is that which is united; but that the three-shaped and really multiform God is the separating and discriminating cause of that which is intelligible. Likewise the middle triad subsists according to the egg, as yet united; but the third according to the God who separates and distributes the whole intelligible order. And this is the common and familiar Orphic theology. But that delivered by Hieronymus and Hellanicus is as follows. According to them water and matter were the first productions, from which earth was secretly drawn forth: so that water and earth are established as the two first principles; the latter of these having a dispersed subsistence; but the former conglutinating and connecting the latter. They are silent however concerning the principle prior to these two, as being ineffable: for as there are no illuminations about him, his arcane and ineffable nature is from hence sufficiently evinced. But the third principle posterior to these two, water and earth, and which is generated from them, is a dragon, naturally endued with the heads of a bull and a lion, but in the middle having the countenance of the God himself. They add likewise that he has wings on his shoulders, and that he is called undecaying Time, and Hercules; that Necessity resides with him, which is the same as Nature, and incorporeal Adrastia, which is extended throughout the universe, whose limits she binds in amicable conjunction. But as it appears to me, they denominate this third principle as established according to essence; and assert, besides this, that it subsists as male and female, for the purpose of exhibiting the generative causes of all things.

I likewise find in the Orphic rhapsodies, that neglecting the two first principles, together with the one principle who is delivered in silence, the third principle, posterior to the two, is established by the theology as the original; because this first of all possesses something effable and commensurate to human discourse. For in the former hypothesis, the highly reverenced and undecaying Time, the father of aether and chaos, was the principle : but in this Time is neglected, and the principle becomes a dragon. It likewise calls triple aether, moist; and chaos, infinite; and Erebus, cloudy and dark; delivering this second triad analogous to the first: this being potential, as that was paternal. Hence the third procession of this triad is dark Erebus: its paternal and summit aether, not according to a simple but intellectual subsistence: but its middle infinite chaos, considered as a progeny or procession, and among these parturient, because from these the third intelligible triad proceeds. What then is the third intelligible triad? I answer, the egg; the duad of the natures of male and female which it contains, and the multitude of all-various seeds, residing in the middle of this triad: And the third among these is an incorporeal God, bearing golden wings on his shoulders; but in his inward parts naturally possessing the heads of bulls, upon which heads a mighty dragon appears, invested with the all-various forms of wild beasts. This last then must be considered as the intellect of the triad; but the middle progeny, which are many as well as two, correspond to power, and the egg itself is the paternal principle of the third triad: but the third God of this third triad, this theology celebrates as Protogonus, and calls him Jupiter, the disposer of all things and of the whole world; and on this account denominates him Pan. And such is the information which this theology affords us, concerning the genealogy of the intelligible principles of things.

But in the writings of the Peripatetic Eudemus, containing the theology of Orpheus, the whole intelligible order is passed over in silence, as being every way ineffable and unknown, and incapable of verbal enunciation. Eudemus therefore commences his genealogy from Night, from which also Homer begins: though Eudemus is far from making the Homeric genealogy consistent and connected, for he asserts that Homer begins from Ocean and Tethys. It is however apparent, that Night is according to Homer the greatest divinity, since she is reverenced even by Jupiter himself. For the poet says of Jupiter, that he feared lest he should act in a manner displeasing to swift Night.” So that Homer begins his genealogy of the Gods from Night. But it appears to me that Hesiod, when he asserts that Chaos was first generated, signifies by Chaos the incomprehensible and perfectly united nature of that which is intelligible: but that he produces Earth the first from thence, as a certain principle of the whole procession of the Gods. Unless perhaps Chaos is the second of the two principles: but Earth, Tartarus, and Love form the triple intelligible. So that Love is to be placed for the third monad of the intelligible order, considered according to its convertive nature; for it is thus denominated by Orpheus in his rhapsodies. But Earth for the first, as being first established in a certain firm and essential station. But Tartarus for the middle, as in a certain respect exciting and moving forms into distribution. But Acusilaus appears to me to establish Chaos for the first principle, as entirely unknown; and after this, two principles, Erebus as male, and Night as female; placing the latter for infinity, but the former for bound. But from the mixture of these, he says that Aether, Love, and Counsel are generated, forming three intelligible hypostases. And he places Aether as the summit; but Love in the middle, according to its naturally middle subsistence; but Metis or Counsel as the third, and the same as highly reverenced intellect. And, according to the history of Eudemus, from these he produces a great number of other Gods.

  1. [1]Damascius, Dubitationes et solutiones de primis principiis, 1889, vol 1, p.381. Eng. tr. Sara Ahbel-Rappe, Damascius’ Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles, Oxford University Press, 2010, p.416.
  2. [2]Thomas Taylor, The mystical hymns of Orpheus, 2nd ed. (1824). Online here. Our section begins on p.xiv.
  3. [3]These two principles are called by Plato, in the Philebus, bound and infinity.
  4. [4]This Orphic egg is the same with the mixture from bound and infinity, mentioned by Plato in the Philebus. See the third book of my translation of Proclus on the Theology of Plato. (T.Taylor)

From my diary

I’m still working away on the Mithras site.  This week I’ve been dealing with the find of statues and inscriptions at Merida in 1902-3, when a bull ring was constructed.  No archaeological investigation was undertaken, and details are very hazy.

Meanwhile I have discovered some time-consuming problems with the footnotes in the Origen book, in the section devoted to the Greek fragments.  Whenever the text goes into two columns the footnote numbering in the text goes wrong.

This is fiddly and I need to give a very specific list of corrections to the typesetter.  But I have no time!  Not enough hours in the day!

So … too busy to blog!

UPDATE: I wrote that post through the WordPress Android app.  Well that was a disaster, wasn’t it?  And posted twice for good measure.


From my diary

I’m very busy with the Mithras site, uploading more data about monuments.  Last night I worked on the page on the Caernarvon Mithraeum, adding information from the excavation report.  It was discovered in 1959, during preparatory work by a jerry-builder developer, and is now a set of rather dreary-looking 50’s houses.  Today I’ve been looking for images of the finds, and failing.

On my last visit to Wales – to Swansea – I stopped at Caerleon, and was very sad at the obvious poverty there.  Judging from Google Street View, north Wales is the same.  There used to be a purpose-built museum at the site of Segontium, the Roman fort at Caernarvon.  The council handed over responsibility for running it to a local trust, and then, a few years later, removed the council funding.  The museum is now closed.

I have been trying to find out what became of the finds from the dig.  This itself is not easy.  That the council anticipated the final outcome seems obvious to me; the trust was merely a patsy, to take the blame for the inevitable council-driven closure.  It is very sad to find a town with so little civic pride that it closes its museums.  Shame on the town council.  I doubt the cost was much.  Other councils are playing the same game and closing down public libraries.

I wonder how long the one in my own town will survive such maneouverings?  The running of the library has already been outsourced.  How long before the council funding is chopped?  A volume on Roman Koln awaits me there this weekend.

I’ve also been looking at an entry in the CIMRM, on a tauroctony from Fala castle, in what is now Slovenia.  No trace of this item, or of any museum in the area, to be found online!  It is remarkable how archaeology just disappears!

The National Library of Wales is digitising Welsh publications – well done.  Among these, according to Wikipedia, is Archaeologia Cambrensis, in which the Segontium Mithraeum was published.  But … it is not on the website.  I do hope that journal owners are not being obscurantist.

I have been impressed again today with how easy it is to find older publications online.  Despite the barriers of copyright!

The Origen book has a load of formatting errors, and needs rework.  I shall print it off on sheets of A4, and mark up the sheets in red ink, very precisely.  Otherwise we will be at this in a year’s time!


Origen’s Homilies on the Psalms – in English in a dissertation

A correspondent has drawn my attention to the existence of an English translation of Origen’s nine surviving homilies on the psalms.  It is to be found in a dissertation by Michael Heintz, The pedagogy of the soul: Origen’s “Homilies on the Psalms“, Notre Dame, 2008.  It can be accessed via the commercial ProQuest database – some may have subscriptions at their university – as UMI Number: 3309539.

Of course this does not include the recent discovery of a whole mass of Origen’s homilies.  These are those on Ps.36-38 (37-39 in the other numbering).  The prologue by Rufinus, the translator (into Latin), is also included.


Mithras scholar Vermaseren on the Mithras cranks

wynne-tyson_mithras_the_fellow_in_the_capThere are endless crank books about Mithras, usually with an anti-Christian twist.  They go unnoticed by scholars, as a rule.

A correspondent drew my attention to some remarks made by Maarten Vermaseren on one of them.  The title is Mithras: the fellow in the cap, by a certain Mrs Wynne-Tyson, back in 1958 (but reprinted since).

The title is a reference to a curious passage in St. Augustine, in his  Tractatus in Joh. Evang. VII, 6.  This reads, in the ANF translation, thus:

“And this is a great thing to see in the whole world, the lion vanquished by  the blood of the Lamb: members of Christ delivered from the teeth of the  lions, and joined to the body of Christ.

“Therefore some spirit or other  contrived the counterfeit that His image should be bought for blood, because  he knew that the human race was at some time to be redeemed by the precious  blood.

“For evil spirits counterfeit certain shadows of honor to themselves,  that they may deceive those who follow Christ. So much so, my brethren, that  those who seduce by means of amulets, by incantations, by the devices of the  enemy, mingle the name of Christ with their incantations: because they are not  now able to seduce Christians, so as to give them poison they add some honey,  that by means of the sweet the bitter may be concealed, and be drunk to ruin.

“So much so, that I know that the priest of that Pilleatus was sometimes in the  habit of saying, ‘Pilleatus himself also is a Christian’. Why so, brethren,  unless that they were not able otherwise to seduce Christians?”

The word “pilleatus” is of less than certain meaning – it means the “god wearing a mitre” or wearing a peaked cap.  It could mean Mithras, but also Attis, and apparently a number of other gods accustomed to appear with a cap.[1]

Mrs Wynne-Tyson has chosen to render “pilleatus” as “the fellow in the cap”, which is fair enough.  But let us now see what professional Mithras scholar and archaeologist M. Vermaseren says, after himself referring to Mithras as “the fellow in the cap”[2].  (I will split this footnote into sections for easier reading).

4.  This is the dreadful title of a book by Mrs Wynne-Tyson published in 1972. The Times Literary Supplement said of this work : “The argument of this book, showing that the facts about Mithras reveal the basic pattern of Western civilisation and throw light into many of the darker comers of history, points disturbing conclusions for Christian orthodoxy”.

But reading the astonishing lines “To the Christian and others outside the Mithraic fold, Mithraism, with its bull-slaying God who was also identifiable as the Bull, in whose regenerative blood the Faithful bathed; with its animal masks of Lion and Bull, Horse, Eagle and Gryphon, and its eschatological teachings of metempsychosis, evidently seemed to be the worship of the Beast, even as Pure Christianity has always been the worship of the Perfect Man” etc., one would be tempted to think that Franz Cumont and his successors had all written in vain. I wonder what Stevie Smith in the Observer really meant when writing about this book “Most fascinating and apt to our times.”

Mithraism as the introduction to the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner is preached by Alfred Schütze, Mithras, Mysterien und Urchristentum, Stuttgart 1972(2). The petitio principii already is wrong.

The wildest opinions as well as unadulterated twaddle about the revealing excavations in the Mithraeum of Sa Prisca (M. J. Vermaseren – C. C. van Essen, The Excavations in the Mithraeum of the Church of Santa Prisca in Rome, Leiden 1965) can be found in the book by Father Geremia Sangiorgi O.S.A., S. Prisca e it suo Mitreo (Le Chiese di Roma illustrate 101), Roma 1968, which is now the official guide for visitors!

It becomes each year more necessary for scholars to waste their precious time in refuting the many pseudo-scholars = anti- scholars: read, for example, the exemplary review by Theodor Klauser in JAC 11/12, 1968/1969, 215-224 who rightly emphasizes:

“Wer die Wissenschaft wirklich fördern will, darf sich nicht damit begnügen, Einfälle und Lesefrüchte unkontrolliert zu einer verführerischen Synthese zu vereinigen und diese in gefälliger Form vorzutragen, die leiseste kritische Berührung bringt solche Konstruktionen zum Einsturz. Die bewährten Regeln der wissenschaftlichen Methode lassen sich nicht ungestraft ignorieren; auch der Begabteste kann langwierige Arbeitsprozesse, wenn sie nötig sind, nicht nach Belieben überspringen”.

A rough translation of Klauser’s words:

“Anyone who really wants to promote scholarship may not content themselves with uniting uncontrolled ideas and research into a seductive synthesis, written in an attractive form, for the slightest critical touch causes such constructs to collapse.  The established rules of scholarly method cannot be ignored with impunity; even the most gifted may not skip over the necessarily lengthy process.”

I think perhaps those words sound more impressive in German!

  1. [1]A.S. Geden states that Cumont believes this refers to Attis, and the blood to the criobolium.
  2. [2]M. Vermaseren, The Mithraeum at Ponza, Brill, 1974, p.12-13.  Google books preview here.

Finding archaeology online about Mithras

I’m extremely busy at the moment adding material to the Mithras site.  At the moment this is driven by a list of Mithraeums discovered since 1960.  I am attempting to research each of these online, grab some text, some images, and create a page for it.  This is, inevitably, a very time-consuming business.

Several things have struck me while doing this.

It’s often really hard to work out what is the formal publication of an excavation.  You can search the web as much as you like; you will only find the printed sources most commonly referred to.  In the case of an obscure site, you may not find this, and will have to be content with webpages.

It’s very hard to get even a site plan of the excavation.

It’s very hard to get a list of “finds”, never mind a list of minor finds which may be of critical importance.

It’s also very difficult to physically obtain publications, in many cases.  The Vulci Mithraeum (il Mitreo di Vulci, for the benefit of the search engines, since nearly everything is in Italian) seems to be documented in an exhibition catalogue published by a certain Dr. Anna M. Moretti Sgubini.  The exhibition was ephemeral, and no copies of it are present in any Anglophone country.  I am considering writing to the author, on the off-chance that she has a PDF of her own work.  More and more people do, these days, but it’s not satisfactory.

I have also found that material placed online, in the “Electronic Journal of Mithraic Studies”, in zip files, has gradually become corrupt over the last 10 years and will not open any more.  Being in zip format, it isn’t archived anywhere.

All of this seems remarkably unsatisfactory.  Archaeology is considered a scientific discipline; yet these are fundamental problems.

Of course it may be that the problem is with me.  Perhaps all the archaeologists are “in the know”.  Some may read this and say, “What? You mean you didn’t know that it’s all at www.xyz.edu?  Haw haw!”  Well, if so, I don’t know.  Nor has such a resource come my way.

So I suspect that archaeologists need to consider how they use the web.  Indexes, catalogues, ways to find data — these are what the web is for.

There’s room for improvement here, chaps!


A quotation from Libanius

I found the following quotation online (on a tee-shirt!), attributed to Libanius:

Men are neither suddenly rich, nor suddenly good.

As an aphorism it is rather like Libanius himself; a bit trite.  But did he say it?

I find the saying attributed already in A handbook of proverbs by a certain John Ray, published by Bohn, in 1855, p.451.  But of course there is no reference.  It seems an uncommon quote, judging from a Google search.

In 1831 a Moral Encyclopaedia, Or, Varlé’s Self-instructor appears, which has the same saying on p.199, attributed to “Laborius” (!).

In 1824 Thomas Fielding’s Select proverbs of all Nations p.207 has it by “Laberius”.  This is, presumably, D. Laberius, the Roman knight and writer of mimes who was famously forced to appear on the stage by Julius Caesar in a contest with the actor Publilius Syrus.  This seems a more probable source; but how to access his fragments?  He is quoted, I believe, by Aulus Gellius; and that is probably the place to start.