The canons of the African councils – hand me the painkillers now!

I’ve continued to work on the canons of the African councils, and I’m not sure that I am making progress.  What I want to do is to understand those canons which deal with the canon of scripture, and to do so in the context of the full text to which they belong.  Usually these canons are quoted in entire isolation; as stray gobbets of text, ripped out of context, and thereby likely misunderstood.  People often say that these councils “decided” the canon of the scripture.  I can already see that this is quite improbable.

It should not be impossible to work with the full texts.  But it is considerably harder, than I had ever supposed, even to work out what the actual text units are.  Let me give a small example of the difficulties, not as a complaint but in case I come this way again and need a reminder!

There is an edition of the canons of the African councils by the excellent Charles Munier in the Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 249.  But it has no table of contents.  There is a list of contents on the publisher, Brepols, site here.  But this is useless.  Some of the items appear nowhere in the book; the items that do appear are not in that order.  However the website does at least contain the Clavis Patrum Latinorum numbers for the texts, unlike the book itself.  I spent some time today with my PDF of the Munier book, adding as bookmarks whatever I could make out.  The book itself is divided in an impenetrable way.  Is the material for the council of 419 part of the “code of Apiarius”?  Or something separate?

I found a translation of canons of the council of 419 in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, here.  It is subtitled “The Code of Canons of the African Church“, i.e. the Codex Canonum Ecclesiae Africae. Brepols think that this text (CPL 1765) is in the Munier volume.  Well, if it is, I cannot see it!  Looking at the introduction to the NPNF, the canons were translated from the reprint of “Labbe-Cossart”, i.e. Labbe’s Sacrosancta Concilia, in the 1728 edition, volume 2, col. 1251.  I’ve found that online via, with great gratitude.

But when I compare the NPNF to the material from Joannou’s edition and French translation of what seems to be (but is, of course, carefully not labelled as) the Codex Canonum Ecclesiae Africae, I immediately see material missing in the NPNF after canon 33.  It’s in the Labbe volume (col. 1277)  but not in the NPNF.  Labbe indeed carefully gives the impression that a different text is involved to the canons, which resume with canon 34 over the page.  And so it goes on and on.

The editions show a definite tendency to ignore the actual texts that are transmitted to us, and to instead assemble all material relating to council 3, council 6, or whatever, from whatever source.  They show a definite tendency to treat the transmission units as mere raw material, to be used to (re)create hypothetical canons, letters, whatever.  But these things are passed down to us, in manuscripts, on parchment.  What is actually transmitted?  Indeed I have found that the Patrologia Latina editions of texts are more intelligible than any of the others.  So that’s something.

Of course I am entirely new to this genre of literature, and probably if I were more experienced then I would understand better.  But as a newcomer, my impression is simply one of confusion.  We need a simple orientation guide in English which assumes nothing.  Maybe there is one, for all I know.  But it is troubling that sources tend to refer to a 1961 article by F. L. Cross, “History and Fiction in the African Canons”, which was intended for other purposes.

I suspect that I shall have to adopt a more modest approach than I had originally thought.  Maybe I shall come back to the issue one day.

Update.  After posting those words, I went to my shelves.  The Clavis Patrum Latinorum is one of the few handbooks that I possess in hard copy form.  Maybe, I thought, it would give some guidance.  So I turned off my computer, and retired to bed with the CPL.

And … as ever with the CPL, clarity ensues.  The CPL has a section on the canons of the African councils.  This it bases on Munier.  On two pages it indicates clearly exactly which pages of Munier belong to which text, and references them to the Patrologia Latina, any other relevant texts, and also to a guide to the sources (in German!) by someone called Maassen, Geschichte der Quellen und der Literatur des canonischen Rechts, vol. 1 (1870).  Tomorrow I shall look into this.

Update (25/2/21, 15:00): I have just spent some time with my copy of Munier, adding into the bookmarks the CPL information. Blessedly the CPL gives the page numbers of each text, so it is, for the first time, possible to work out what is what.  In this way I learn that the “Codex Canonum Ecclesiae Africanae”, a title for the chunk of material used by every previous edition – but nowhere mentioned in Munier – is the same as what he calls the “Codex Apiarii Causae”.  Dr Munier decided to invent his own title, it seems.

The CPL also gives a reference to Maassen.  A google search gives page after page of links to vendors of some modern reprint, but the volume is online and may be found here.  Thankfully Maassen’s publisher used a Roman typeface – I was fully prepared for Fraktur!  So far so good.  I download the book, renumber the PDF pages to match the pages of the book, and add a couple of bookmarks.

But when you enter the reference from the CPL – “139-140” for the Breviarium Hipponense – you find yourself nowhere.  It turns out that Maassen’s book is divided into numbered sections.  The CPL reference is not to the page number, but to the section number.  Of course.  It would be clearer if the CPL used §139-140, I think.

The PDF from Google turns out not to be OCR’ed.  Thanks, guys!  Out with the OCR software.

Update (16:00).  I OCR’d it all with Adobe Acrobat Pro 9.  But the Google download of Massen is defective.  The images slope into the spine on precisely the pages that I want to read.  Joy.  There’s a better  version here.  Time to OCR that instead.

I did copy out section 136, on the Council of Hippo in 393, which reads as follows via Google Translate:

Mit dem Concil von Hippo vom Jahre 393 beginnt die Sammlung des carthagischen Concils vom Jahre 419. Es findet sich aber in der uns ueberlieferten Gestalt dieser Sammlung nur eine kurze historische Erwahnung desselben ohne die Canonen. Rücksichtlich dieser wird auf die unmittelbar vorhergehenden Canonen der ersten Sitzung des Concils vom Jahre 419 verwiesen. Allerdings ist unter diesen eine grössere Zahl von Canonen, die Wiederholungen von Beschlüssen des Concils von Hippo sind. Sie erscheinen hier aber nicht als solche und in veränderter Fassung. Eine ergiebigere Quelle ist das carthagische Concil vom Jahre 397, dem ein Auszug der Canonen von Hippo einverleibt wurde. Von diesem Auszug soll in Verbindung mit dem genannten Concil gehandelt werden. Ferrandus citirt die Canonen von Hippo nur nach dem Auszuge als Canonen des carthagischen Concils vom Jahre 397; ebenso das Concil unter Bonifacius vom Jahre 525, mit Ausnahme von zwei Canonen, die als solche von Hippo und vollständig angeführt werden.

136. The collection of the Carthaginian Council of 419 begins with the Council of Hippo of 393. However, in the form of this collection that has been handed down to us there is only a brief historical mention of it without the canons. Regarding this, reference is made to the immediately preceding canons of the first session of the Council of 419. However, among these are a large number of canons which are repetitions of the decisions of the Council of Hippo. However, they do not appear here as such and in a modified version. A more abundant source is the Carthaginian Council of 397, to which an extract from the canons of Hippo was incorporated. This extract should be dealt with in connection with the aforementioned Council. Ferrandus quotes the canons of Hippo only after the excerpt as canons of the Carthaginian Council of 397; likewise the council under Bonifacius of the year 525, with the exception of two canons which are quoted as such by Hippo and in full.

That’s actually quite useful.  Maassen is saying what the information is, and where it is from.  Now back to the new PDF.

Rats.  I find that the new PDF has some unrecognised pages.  I know what that means.  It means that Google couldn’t OCR those pages and left hidden crud behind in the PDF, so you can’t OCR them.   Luckily I know the solution, thanks to Abbyy Support.  You open the file in PDF Editor, click on Edit> Delete Objects and Data, tick all the options, and click on Apply.  This gets rid of everything except the raw page images, and you can then OCR it all again.  Pity it’s a 1060 page file.  Just deleting the “objects and data” takes a good long while.  Waiting …. packet of crisps time.

OK, it’s done.  I save the new PDF.  Let’s try OCRing it in PDF Editor – not tried that before, so why not.  “20 of 1060 pages processed”….  Urg.

16:44 – “563 of 1060 pages processed”.  So it’s going to take a while.  I’d forgotten that, while Adobe Acrobat Pro 9 essentially single-threads any use of PDFs, I’m here using Abbyy Finereader.  So I can still look at PDF’s.  I’ve just been looking back at Munier’s proemium, which makes more sense now I have read the CPL, and now that I know that the “Apiarius” material is the “Codex Canonum Ecclesiae Africanae”.  On p.vii we find what is, to all intents and purposes, the list of contents.  He says (translation mine):

For this reason the documents of this sort, as they exist today, I have edited here, in chronological order to the extent that they have been preserved in it, so that the knowledge and use of canon law in the African churches may appear.  For although much remains obscure about the author, sources, origin and scope of this collection, the succession of documents is not in doubt, namely:

a) the Breviarium Hipponense (p.22-53), assembled in August 397, and expanded a little after 401.

b) the Gesta de nomine Apiarii (p. 79-172) exists in two recensions, the first issued at Rome at the end of May 419, the other in November in the same year, and completed in 424 AD.

c) the excerpts from the Register ecclesiae Carthaginensis assembled by a private individual at the end of the 5th century in Carthage itself (p. 173-247).

d) the Breviatio canonum of Fulgentius Ferrandus (p. 283-311) deacon of the church of Carthage, abbreviated before 546, with the text of Cresconius in the preface of his book (cf. Maassen, “Geschichte”, p.800).

So far so good.  But he continues over the page, and brevity vanishes!

e) Cresconius, Concordia canonum (Maassen, n. 842) … [rambles at length about the possibly date of Cresconius, who is an African refugee drawing on Dionysius Exiguus; but no mention of page numbers]

f) the Brevatio canonum, “From a synod of Carthage in Africa”, … [long ramble, but seems to be from a Spanish epitome of canons]

g) the Sylloge africanorum concliorum…. [maddening rambling … another collection of canons of Spanish origin]

Humpf.  But most of this won’t matter to us, interested as we are in the canon of scripture.

“989 pf 1060 pages processed”…


From my diary – working on the acts of the “council of Carthage”

A few days ago I discovered the existence of Ioannou’s French translation of the “Acts of the Council of Carthage”.  Since then I have opened up Finereader 15, and started the process of preparing a Word document with it in.  It has been very pleasant to do something mindless but useful, and something that I know so well how to do, after more than twenty years of working with OCR.

Today I started wondering just what this text actually was.  Ioannou does not say.  In fact his Latin text is cobbled together from two different sources, while his Greek text turns out to be a reprint of “Pedalion”, the editor of an early edition with different numbering of the canons.  It really is quite obscure.

Luckily for me, I bethought me of F. L. Cross’ “History and Fiction in the African Canons”, and this gave me some references to the Patrologia Latina editions of the text.  This made everything much clearer.  How much we owe to the Patrologia Latina and the work of J.-P. Migne!!!  So often he is the silent point of departure for modern work.

Looking at the PL made clear that Ioannou’s text was in fact from Dionysius Exiguus, the 6th century monk who created AD and BC, and also made a collection of the canons.  This text was effectively a new edition of Dionysius’ collection of material.  It relates to the Council of Carthage of 419, but contains in the middle a “Register” of material from earlier synods, as far back as Hippo in 393.  This text could be found in the PL 67, col. 131 onwards.  Dionysius had the odd idea that there was only one council of Carthage, but in fact they happened almost annually under bishop Aurelius and his sidekick, a certain Augustine of Hippo.  (By a curious coincidence, my local parish church is dedicated to St Augustine of Hippo.  The children’s group is known as the “Happy Hippos”.)

Our other source for the Council of Hippo is a “breviarium” of its decisions, transmitted separately, and amid the works of Leo the Great.  It can be found as chapter 2 in PL 56, column 418 onwards.

These are the two sources for what happened at Hippo.

At the moment I have the French of Ioannou into a Word document, and I am going through it, removing page breaks and the like.  This also means that I am reading a lot of headings to the canons of the councils, mostly that of 419.

Quite a few of them relate to the Donatists.  These were not heretics, but rather rigorists, people who felt that the mainstream church had gone soft on people who had betrayed Christ during the persection a century earlier.  These canons make grim reading.  They are stuffed full of penalties and demonisation.  Nobody shall make a “heretic” their heir, nor accept a legacy from one – i.e. a family member – reads one horrid canon.  Others record that people overseas had asked the church to at least try to reconcile with the Donatists; so you get a couple of canons full of humbug about the virtue of peace and reconciliation, followed by another demanding that the bishops write to the emperor to get him to crack down on the Donatists.

A couple of canons talk about pagans.  It was only about twenty years earlier that paganism had been banned, so of course there must have been loads of pagans around.  The canons take the predictable line: chase up any temples that are open, and punish people for being pagan.

But all this is not taking place in a vacuum, although you might think so.  I’ve just read one canon, which is about what to do when you don’t know if a child has been baptised or not.  The canon states that they should be baptised, and explains that one reason why this is happening is that the “barbarians” in Mauretania are selling children.

Who are these barbarians anyway?  Well, they are the Vandals, a lazy low-grade bunch of German barbarians, who have idly plundered their way all across Gaul, all across Spain, and crossed the Straights of Gibraltar into Africa with the connivance of a corrupt Roman official.  In a few years they will advance on Carthage and seize it, and create their own kingdom.  Augustine, as he lies dying, will be able to hear the sounds of his parishioners being tortured to reveal where they  hid their gold.  In the meantime they are making money by selling children back to their families.

Roman Africa is a rich, populous province.  It is full of able-bodied men.  In classical times the rulers would have raised a couple of legions and driven these scum into the sea in a month.

But classical times were no more, nor Roman manhood.  Nobody lifts a finger.  The people are sitting there, breathing hatred against their neighbours, with the enemy almost at the door.  It is incredible to witness.

Is the truth, perhaps, that the people have lost any connection with the government.  That they don’t see it as “their” society any more?  The emperors have cracked down on any kind of organised political activity, so everyone feels that it’s not their business.   How else do we explain such utter indifference to the imminent disaster?

The churchmen are indifferent, totally so.  Any rational group of people would be focused on this problem.  Not they.  Any rational group would suspend factional quarrels, to focus on the threat to all.  Not they!  Was now the only possible time to alienate all the pagans in the province?  Was this quite the moment to demand troops seize Donatist churches?  Couldn’t they just leave it?  Not they!

It gets worse, if you follow the statements in Cross’ article.  He suggests that the “Catholics” were a minority, in a mainly Donatist province.  Their complaints are those of a group who count for nothing.  It really is not their country.  Yet here they are, aggravating all the problems in the province.  Even in Italy their attitude has attracted incredulity, and appeals to calm.

People sometimes deride the study of history.  The study of canon law is definitely an area of history that is for specialists only.  Yet it reveals, more clearly than anything else, why the Roman empire fell.

The Vandals were not strong.  They were little more than a gang of louts.  Africa fell, not because of Vandal strength, but because of Roman moral weakness.  Rotted by long peace, wealth and prosperity, and despotism, they had no idea how to defend themselves, or any reason to try.

It’s grim reading, as I say.


Périclès-Pierre Joannou (1904-1972) and French translations of canons of ancient councils

I opened up a stray word document on my desktop, and found in it the beginnings of a translation of the letter of Bishops Aurelius and Mizzonius, prefixed to the Breviarium Hipponense.  The latter document is a summary of the decisions of the council of Hippo in 393.  I soon discovered why I had stalled – the sentence structures are awful.  Inevitably I wondered whether some other poor soul had made his way through it, and started to google.  This produced few useful results, but led me to a preview of something by Hartmann, The History of Byzantine and Eastern Canon Law to 1500 (2012).  Hartmann discussed the Council of Carthage in 419; and from it I learned that there was a translation in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series (series 2, vol. 14); and also a French translation in “Joannou, CSP 197-436”.  Maybe these dealt with Hippo?

But “Joannou” rang no bells at all.  The preview did not indicate the meaning of this abbreviation. Nor did Google reveal much.

In fact the work referred to is this:

“Joannou CCO/CSP/CPG” = Périclès‑Pierre Joannou, Discipline génèrale antique (IIe–IXe s.), 1.1: Les canons des conciles oecuméniques (IIe–IXe s.), 1.2: Les canons des synodes particuliers (IVe–IXe s.); 2: Les canons des pères greques, 3: Index.  (4 volumes; Codification canonique orientale, Fonti, Série 1; Rome-Grottaferrata 1962–1964).

It’s a four volume compilation.  In fact some photocopies of the volumes can be found online too, at

The volumes are mingled Latin and Greek, with a French translation at the foot of the page.  They must have involved tremendous labour.

But who was Périclès‑Pierre Joannou?  I found a couple of brief statements:

Perikles-Petros Joannou; Byzantinist and scholar of patristic literature; born November 27, 1904, in Erzingian, Armenia (now Erzincan in Turkey); studied in Athens and in Paris; an ordained priest, he worked in the Catholic diocese of Marseilles and in the Greek Catholic community in Munich, Germany; submitted his Habilitationsschrift to the Universität München in 1952; taught Byzantine studies and Greek philology at Munich; died January 12, 1972, near Mantua, Italy, of injuries sustained in an automobile accident.

The other was briefer:

Iōannu, Periklēs Petros; other data in authority record: Byzantinist, classical philologist, and university professor; scholar of Oriental canon law; born 1904; died 1972.

That’s all that I was able to find.  A Roman Catholic priest and academic of considerable scholarly achievements who wrote at least 8 monographs and died at the age of 68 in a car crash.  Hardly anything about him has survived the transition to the internet.

His work does not seem to contain material about the Breviarium Hipponense, sadly, although I shall go back to this.*  But I’ve learned something tonight; and I hope that others engaged in frantic googling will find this useful.

  • Update – the letter is indeed there, vol. 1.2, p.254!  Phew.

Admin: added more sharing buttons

I’ve added a WordPress plug-in that should allow readers to share a link to each post to a much wider group of websites and social media sites than before.  I’ve kept the old sharing buttons tho.  Most of these sites are unknown to me, but hey, the more the merrier. I’m not endorsing any of them, if anybody cares.

There seems to be a definite trend to enable sharing to sites beyond the Facebook / Twitter etc oligarchy, judging by a Google search.  This is a good thing.  In the last few years we have witnessed too much centralisation of the internet.  With luck this will now go into reverse.

Let me know if the plug-in goes weird on you or anything.


A fragment of De Pythonissa by Methodius of Olympus (d. ca. 300), and more, discovered in Old Slavonic

Every so often I come across a splendid piece of scholarly work; work that makes me want to stand up, and cheer, and shout “look at this!!!”. I’m thinking of work that could only be done by a professional scholar of great skill, great linguistic ability, and massive determination.

Such an experience came my way today with an 2020 article by Alexey A. Morozov, in Russian, who is preparing to edit for the first time the De Resurrectione of Methodius of Olympus, composed in three books and attacking some of the dafter ideas of Origen.  This work is probably the largest ante-Nicene text still unpublished.  Dr Morozov is based at the university of Fribourg in Switzerland, from where some very excellent philological work has emerged in recent years.

The article citation is:

Морозов А. А. Диалог Мефодия Олимпийского «О воскресении» (CPG 1812) и методология критического издания славянских текстов // Библия и христианская древность. 2020. № 3 (7). С. 80–125. DOI: 10.31802/BCA.2020.7.3.003

Morozov, Alexey A. “Dialogue of Methodius of Olympus ‘On the Resurrection’ (CPG 1812) and the Methodology of Critical Edition of the Slavonic Texts”. Bible and Christian Antiquity, № 3 (7), 2020, pp. 80–125 (in Russian). DOI: 10.31802/BCA.2020.7.3.003

The original Russian can be downloaded in PDF from here.  I’m sure everyone realises that I had to pass it through Google translate in order to read it.  To save others having to do the same, I have pasted the raw output into a Word .docx file, which is here.

Only fragments of the original Greek text of De Resurrectione still exist.  But the complete text is preserved in Old Slavonic (or “Old Slavic” as our American friends seem to want to call it).  This, like most Old Slavonic texts, has never been published.  In fact, before the fall of the Soviet Union, it was simply impossible to access the manuscripts anyway.  A complete Italian translation exists, but this was made directly from a random manuscript.  This is a hard area in which to work.

The article itself is an example of hard, painstaking, grinding labour.  It is the product of assembling copies of all the manuscripts in every archive in Eastern Europe –  nineteen -, and collating the lot in order to produce a stemma.  It must have taken him ages.  Just locating manuscripts alone involved wading through bad catalogues.  Most people in the past just wimped out and worked from whatever manuscript they were able to locate, just as people did back with classical texts at the renaissance.  There was nothing else you could do.  So in one article he has opened up the whole field.  Nobody will ever thank him, I fear.  But this paper will form the basis for all subsequent work on the Old Slavonic text of Methodius.  It is simply excellent stuff.

Likewise he sits down and addresses the fundamental question: how should Old Slavonic texts be published?  He reviews past work, and produces a list of bullet points with the principles to be followed.  This is fundamental stuff, and ought to be very influential.

There is more.  Reward comes to the selfless scholar who buries himself in such a dry task.  Dr Morozov’s reward is to make discoveries.  First he has found some substantial portions of the text which are missing from most manuscripts of the text.  Even better, he has discovered a fragments of a lost work of Methodius, mentioned by Jerome but lost since antiquity!  He gives a diplomatic transcription of the short section of De Pythonissa, which I think was headed “On the demise of magic” in his manuscript.  Sadly he does not give a translation, and not even Google Translate can handle Old Slavonic.  He has also discovered an Old Slavonic translation of the Symposium of Methodius, the only work preserved in Greek, but not previously known in Old Slavonic.  This is likely to clarify the text in some particulars.

Dr Morozov’s findings run to 40 pages.   They promise very well for his forthcoming edition of the work.  I hope that it will be accompanied by a translation in French.

Magical stuff in a neglected field!  More please!


Did the priests of Isis have a cross marked on their foreheads?

In the museums of the world there are a number of Roman sculptures of a head, with particular characteristics.  The person depicted is completely bald, lacking even eyebrows.  Deeply incised upon the head, usually on the right but sometimes elsewhere, is a cross-shaped or X-shaped mark.  In some cases the mark is shaped like the Greek letter “tau”, or is just a single line.  The style of the sculpture makes them early, sometimes even belonging to the Republican period.  Prior to 1900 such busts were often identified as portraits of P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus, the conqueror of Carthage.

Here’s an example from Paris:

Paris, BNF 15-57. Bust of “Scipio”.  Gasparini, fig. 13.4a.
X-shaped mark on head of Paris, BNF 15-57 bust of “Scipio”. Gasparini, fig. 13.4e.

More than a century ago, in 1905, fifteen such busts were listed and discussed in a tightly argued article by Walter Dennison.[1] He concluded that these busts had nothing to do with Scipio. Instead he argued that they represent portraits of a group of people: the priests of Isis.

The Romans did not shave their heads, although they might do so under certain circumstances, as we might.  But literary sources and frescoes show that the Roman priests of Isis were distinguished by their shaven heads.  The cult of Isis in the Roman world was in some ways a fake version of Egyptian religion.  It was an export version, tailored for the foreign market.  Ancient Egyptian priests of all deities had shaved their heads, as Herodotus records (book II, c. 36, here):

Everywhere else, priests of the gods wear their hair long; in Egypt, they are shaven.

The Roman priests of Isis retained this custom, unlike other Roman priests, as literary sources record.  So the collection of busts, of different people, all shaven, can be identified with certainty as images of priests of Isis.

Once this identification is accepted, then we are immediately struck by the presence of a mark on the front of the head in all these busts.  Usually it is an X-shape; sometimes a “tau” shape; sometimes just a straight line.  Usually it is on the right, but sometimes on the left, or on the eyebrow-line.  But the predominant impression is of a X-shaped mark, on the right.

Literary sources also tell us that Roman priests were often marked on the head with a tattoo.  So we have a bunch of portrait busts, all of priests of Isis, all with a characteristic mark, a few with a variant of the X-shape.

For these reasons Dennison concluded that this portrait type – shaved headed with an X mark – was the ancient stereotype for priests of Isis.  Although no ancient source refers to any such stereotype, we may reasonably conclude that this is merely a gap in our sources.

Capitoline Museum, Rome. Inv. MC 562. Bust of “Scipio”, really a priest of Isis, with a “tau” shaped mark. The drilled eyes indicate a date later than 150 AD.  From here.

Dennison’s article is a fine piece of work, especially for 1905, and his conclusion has been almost universally accepted for over a century.

But it is now a very old article, and it is certainly time to revisit it.  In 2019 there appeared a two volume collection of articles on the Graeco-Roman cult of Isis – V. Gasparini, and R. Veymiers (edd.), Individuals and Materials in the Greco-Roman Cults of Isis: Agents, Images, and Practices, 2 vols, Brill (2019).  This included a rather diffuse paper by F. Queyrel and R. Veymiers, “De « Scipion l’Africain » aux « prêtres isiaques » : à propos des portraits au crâne rasé avec cicatrice(s)” (“From ‘Scipio’ to ‘priests of Isis’: some shaven-headed portraits with scar(s)”), 384-412, which addressed Dennison’s paper, and disagreed with it.  It includes some excellent modern colour photographs of a range of the portrait busts.  (There is a Google Books preview available online here).

Queyrel and Veymiers discuss the very same portrait busts, and whether the priests of Isis did indeed have such a mark on their heads.  They think not.

So let’s evaluate some of the key points.

Firstly, there is no doubt whatever that the priests of Isis were distinguished in the Roman world by their shaved heads.  It is a standard literary trope, and also there are painted depictions, although I won’t pursue that here.  In the Gasparini volume, an article by L. Beaurin[2] gives on p.311 f. a detailed list of the literary references.  Here are a couple of examples, taken from two of the more detailed sources on the cult.

Plutarch writes (De Iside et Osiride, c. 4, here):

It is true that most people are unaware of this very ordinary and minor matter: the reason why the priests remove their hair and wear linen garments. Some persons do not care at all to have any knowledge about such things, while others say that the priests, because they revere the sheep, abstain from using its wool, as well as its flesh; and that they shave their heads as a sign of mourning, and that they wear their linen garments because of the colour which the flax displays when in bloom, and which is like to the heavenly azure which enfolds the universe. But for all this there is only one true reason, which is to be found in the words of Plato: “for the Impure to touch the Pure is contrary to divine ordinance.” No surplus left over from food and no excrementitious matter is pure and clean; and it is from forms of surplus that wool, fur, hair, and nails originate and grow. So it would be ridiculous that these persons in their holy living should remove their own hair by shaving and making their bodies smooth all over, and then should put on and wear the hair of domestic animals. …

Firmicus Maternus (De errore profanum religione c.2):

The following is the gist of the cult of Isis. Buried in their shrines they keep an image of Osiris, over which they mourn in anniversary lamentations, wherein they shave their heads so that the ugliness of their disfigured polls may show their grief for the pitiful lot of their king. Also they beat their breasts, tear their upper arms, and break open the scars of old wounds, so that the anniversary lamentations may ever renew in their hearts the memory of the death effected by gruesome and pitiable murder. And after performing these rites on set days, next they feign that they are questing for the remains of the mutilated corpse, and rejoice on finding them as if their sorrows were lulled. 4. O wretched mortals, soon to perish!…[

We should note that the other details of the cult given by Firmicus Maternus here may not be accurate.  I am told that Robert Turcan reports that the author is drawing upon Seneca, de beata vita. But Seneca is in fact mixing in details from the cult of Cybele and others.[3]

Dennison gives a short list of authors, which is worth reproducing: Apuleius Metamorphoses book XI, 10 and end; Juvenal (book VI, line 535); Martial (book XII, poem xxix, line 19); Minucius Felix (c. 22:1); Lactantius (Inst. I, 21, 20); Ambrose (Letters 58, 3, to Sabinus); “Spartianus” in the Augustan History (Life of Pescennius Niger, c. 6); and Prudentius (Contra Symmachum, 1, ll.622-631), but Beaurin gives many more.  Indeed a reference to shaven-headed priests of Isis seems to become a regular part of the anonymous late antique poems against paganism.  It appears in the Carmen ad quendam senatorem (21-23, 32) and Carmen contra paganos (98-99).

Chiaramonti Museum, Priest of Isis, with X-shaped mark.  From here, via twitter here.  Dennison no. 4.  “From the Antonine period”.

But the marks on the head are not documented for Isis, and this is where Queyrel and Veymiers raise objections.

Dennison approaches this question step-by-step.  He shows that branding the forehead was a feature of pagan priests.  But he is not really able to link it to Isis exclusively.  Queyrel and Veymiers rightly point out that there is actually no evidence specifically linking these marks either to Egypt or Isis; other than inferring it from the series of busts.  They then investigate this collection of portrait busts.

In fact Queyrel and Veymiers devote quite a lot of space to the busts and their history.  What they do not do, unfortunately, is offer a list, in the way that Dennison did, with notes against each.  This makes it very hard to follow their argument.  At one point they suggest (p.397-8) that many – nearly all? – of a list of busts given in another paper are actually modern copies of the BNF 15-57 bust at the head of this article.  If so, obviously they can be ignored.  Does that mean that all of the busts, except for that one, are modern?  They do not say.  It is frustrating to attempt to tease this information out of their article. In the next section of their article they write as if this is merely material that Dennison disregards, so at this moment I have no idea.

They make a further point which is interesting but not conclusive.  Busts of Scipio Africanus were worth more to art dealers than random heads of an unknown bald person.  Once any bald bust with a scar was identified as Scipio, the temptation to add such a scar to any bald head might be considerable.  At least one of the heads labelled as “Scipio” had the hair removed and an inscription added.  How many of the genuine heads, they ask, had such a scar originally?  And how many were added in the 18th century, to improve the saleability of the item?  Faking antiquities of famous men was rather a cottage industry after the renaissance, as we learn from Anthony Grafton’s The forgers and the critics.  Many of these busts do indeed have portions which are plainly restored.

But it is an impossible question to answer, unless some forensic investigation can be done, as surely it could be.  At the moment it is just speculation, until hard evidence of alterations to specified busts for this purpose exists.  We can only argue from what we know, not what may be the case.  What we know – I think – is that there is a corpus of heads which are shaven and have distinctive X-shaped marks.

At one point Queyrel and Veymiers go badly wrong.  They dismiss Dennison’s appeal to a passage in Tertullian.  Dennison wrote, “the mark upon the head is a cult sign and has a religious significance.  significance. There is abundant evidence that in period priests of foreign religions were branded, at least one priesthood the branding was done in frontibus.”  As part of his argument he draws particular attention to Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum 40, which he gives as follows:

“They are the wiles of the devil,” says Tertullian, of idolatry thus imitates the holy [the devil] baptizes his believers, thus celebrates a rite of consecrating bread image of the resurrection, and rewards sword; et si adhuc memini, Mithra signat illic in frontibus milites suos.”

Of course this explicitly names Mithras, and Dennison has to argue that Tertullian is mingling rites from various cults, and the reference may be a mistake for Isis. Queyrel and Veymiers pooh-pooh this, and state simply that, whatever Tertullian is talking about, it is not Isis.  On the face of it, they are right.  The text is clear.

But in fact the text is almost certainly corrupt at this point.  Queyrel and Veymiers relied – naturally enough – on the very old Sources Chrétiennes 46 (1957) edition by Refoulé.  But the early volumes of that great series were really translations with an existing text, rather than the monuments of scholarship that we know today.  That edition is not that good.  In his own 1942 CSEL70 edition, p.51, Emil Kroymann placed the word “Mithras” in brackets, suggesting that the word was a gloss, an above-the-line comment which has made its way into the text. (Dennison in 1905 had no access to this, of course).  Yet Refoulé does not even signal the variants for this part of the text, not even that many manuscripts give “Mithrae”, the genitive.

If we look at Greenslade’s translation, the most modern, we find this:

40. I shall be asked next, Who interprets the meaning of those passages which make for heresy? The devil, of course, whose business it is to pervert truth, who apes even the divine sacraments in the idol-mysteries. Some he baptizes–his own believers, his own faithful. He promises the removal of sins by his washing, and, if my memory serves, in this rite seals his soldiers on their foreheads. He celebrates the oblation of bread, brings on a representation of the resurrection, and buys a wreath at the point of the sword. Why, he actually restricts his High Priest to one marriage. He has his virgins, he has his continents. If we turn over the religious legislation of Numa Pompilius, if we look at his priestly functions and his badges and his privileges, the sacrificial ministrations and instruments and vessels, the niceties of vows and expiations, will it not be evident that the devil has imitated the scrupulosity of the Jewish Law? If he was so eager to copy and express in the affairs of idolatry the very things by which the sacraments of Christ are administered, we may be sure that he has had an equal longing and an equal ability to adapt the literature of sacred history and the Christian religion to his profane and emulous faith with the same ingenuity, sentence by sentence, word by word, parable by parable. We must not doubt, therefore, that the spiritual wickednesses from which heresy comes were sent by the devil, or that heresy is not far from idolatry, since both are of the same author and handiwork. Either they invent another God against the Creator or, if they confess one Creator, their teaching about him is false. Every falsehood about God is a kind of idolatry.

Greenslade adds (p.60 n.98) “I think Kroymann is right in removing the word Mithra, before signat (seals), from the text as a gloss. The grammatical and logical subject throughout the sentence is the devil.”

Greenslade is right.  So unless Tertullian’s mind wandered – unlikely – then we must treat “Mithras” as no part of the text.  This means that Dennison’s suggestion, that this in fact refers to Isis, is therefore entirely possible.

So where does all this leave us?

I feel that it leaves Dennison’s conclusion where it was.  The priests of Isis were distinguished by shaven heads, and they also had an X-shaped mark on their heads, as doubtless other priests did.  But the existence of the marks depends entirely on whether those busts are ancient – our sole evidence – and unfortunately Queyrel and Veymiers do not make it clear whether they dispute this.  So we must proceed on the basis that there is a collection of genuine busts, as Dennison believed.  We cannot state, as Queyrel and Veymiers do, that “les prêtres isiaques n’affichaient pas leur adhésion religieuse via leurs cicatrices” (the priests of Isis did not show their religious affiliation by their scars).

Dennison’s article has largely stood the test of time.  The same cannot be said for the photographs in his article.  These can never have been very good.  After scanning by JSTOR, they are frankly rubbish.  Nor does the internet help very much – it is still very difficult to find photographs of monuments online.  So I thought that we might end with a few examples that I did find online.  It might help future searchers!

Priest of Isis, with cross-shaped mark. Formerly though to be a bust of Scipio.  From here.  No idea where this is.

Here’s another:

Priest of Isis, with X-shaped mark on right temple. 1st century AD. Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas; anonymous loan; object number 36.1997.  From Wikimedia Commons.

For the moment, we have to say that the priests did have an X-shaped mark on their heads, based on the collection of busts of Isis.  This is deduction, not data.  But that would seem to be the state of opinion.

  1. [1]Walter Dennison, “A new head of the so-called Scipio type: an attempt at its identification”, American Journal of Archaeology 9 (1905), 11-43. JSTOR.
  2. [2]“L’apparence des isiaques : la réalité des stéréotypes littéraires”, p.283-321.
  3. [3]So Queyrel and Veymiers, 407; but see other papers in the volume that note how closely the cult of Isis and that of the Magna Mater were sometimes aligned.

From my diary

While under lockdown I have not been able to progress any of my projects very much.  I suspect the background strain is affecting us all.  Everyone is on edge, I notice.  But I am certainly more fortunate than most.

After a break, I have started to nibble again at my translation of John the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas.  It’s really not very pleasant going.  Every sentence offers a problem.  But all it really requires is time and effort.  At least I have done something.

Today I saw that someone had posted online that a vision of St Michael was recorded at St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall in 495 AD.  I started to look into this, out of curiosity.  It’s a bit of a puzzle.

After quite a bit of searching, the literature search seems to come down to a 5 page booklet published by G. Doble – who else? – in the early 1930s, titled “Miracles at St Michael’s Mount”.  It must always have been very rare, and I could only find 3 copies listed in COPAC. [Update – the item is on here, but does not in fact contain anything about the early legend].

Today I wrote to one university library who had it.  The staff cannot have been busy, since the students are at home and the institution is not teaching.  So I was quickly informed that they only deal with members of the university (!).  So I shall try to find a member of that university to ask for me.

The legend is probably bogus, and perhaps copied from a similar legend about Mount Gargano in Italy in 492(ish), but it appears widely online.  If I can check the Doble publication then I will then write a post about it.

Meanwhile here is a photograph of St Michael’s Mount which I found online.

St Michael’s Mount, the causeway flooded.

Some newspaper stories in 2010 claimed that the Nazi foreign minister, Ribbentrop, was a regular visitor to the area during the 1930s, and that a remark about intending to take over the castle and live there when Germany ruled the world did not endear him to his British hosts.[1]  This tells us that he only visited the area in the summer time.

I have fond memories of my only visit to the area.  In summer 2012, while staying at a house party in St Ives, I visited St Michael’s Mount, during a massive rainstorm.  Indeed it had rained in the area every day for a  month.  The tide was in, so we had to take one of the little ferry boats.  We were pretty much the only customers.  On reaching the island we walked up to the castle and took the tour, somewhat hastened by the fact that standing on the battlements was simply a way to get soaked.  The castle itself is very small.  Down by the harbour there was a large modern tourist block, with restaurant, which was almost empty and a very welcome sight.  After lunch the rain stopped.  The tide had gone down and the boat trip was much shorter.  For most of the way we walked back to my car.  When we reached the hotel, one and all went to our rooms and took a hot shower and had a change of clothes.  It was a memorable trip.

Looking at my “to do” list, I find that I have 29 items relating to photographs of monuments of Mithras.  These I need to process into my “Roman cult of Mithras” pages.

But at this time of plague it’s important not to get drained, so I won’t push myself too hard.  Now back to the sofa!

  1. [1]“How Hitler’s foreign minister planned to retire in Cornwall after Nazi conquest of Britain”, Daily Mail, 4th October 2010.  Online here.

Sometimes we need boundaries

If you write a blog, you will get correspondence.  Some of it will be useful.  A gentleman wrote to me only yesterday, sending an image for a Mithraic monument where I previously had none.

But some of it is less welcome.  I used to get cases where young people would write, asking me to do their homework.  Luckily this hasn’t happened for a while.  This may be because the schools no longer teach classics, of course.

An email arrived today, from someone employed by John Wiley and Sons, a major publisher.  They’d found a image file on the web, from my blog.  Might they have permission to use it in some publication?

My name is __________. I’m working as a permissions specialist for John Wiley & Sons, a leading educational publisher. My responsibility is to clear rights for content to be used in new Wiley products.
We would like to use your figure in a forthcoming Wiley title …. by …..

The sender had an Indian name.

My first reaction was that this was a form email.  My next was to wonder what on earth the picture was?  I clicked, and it turned out to be a page from a manuscript.  Obviously not my work, then.  A bit more searching found the article – the sender had not bothered to do this – and I quickly found the manuscript library, and a link to it.  Then I saw that I had not linked to the particular page for that image, but would have to click through and scroll a bit.  The site did not work with mobile – I was lying on the sofa at the time – so I would have to go up to my study and turn on my computer etc etc.

At this point, I rebelled a bit.  I try to be a good guy, but why should I have to do all this?  This is my life.  Why should I donate it to a stranger who themselves was making not the slightest effort.

The sender had done nothing – absolutely nothing. Their manager had given them the url of the image.  All they had done was to paste the url of the image into a form email, go to my home page to find the contact form, and send that boilerplate to me.  They had made no effort to find the post to which it belongs, or to discover whether the image was mine or not.  They must have taken 30 seconds, if that – although no doubt they spent longer at the keyboard.

Writing to me, a reasonable person would have actually written to me, not just pasted boilerplate.  They would have asked about the image, and, if unable to find the source, would have asked.  That is what you or I would have done.  They would have shown respect for my time.  But this person did not.  They evidently did not care about the job enough to lift a finger.  What less could they have done, than they did?

This brought to mind a memory of days gone by, when I was freelancing.  Sometimes the clients had Indian staff, either locally or offshore.  Companies liked to recruit them in place of people like me, even if they had poor English.  We always assumed that they were paid a pittance – although it would be a fortune back in India.

A rare few of these gentry were good.  But most were not.  So many did nothing at all.  They would require instruction in painstaking detail for each and every task.  They would never show initiative.  They would do as little as possible.  If pressed they would play the language card and allow their accents to thicken until you couldn’t understand them.  Recruited on price, they were taking a job from someone here who deserved it, and, by doing nothing, they added to the burden on everyone else.  They were paid little, and worth less.

Clearly I was dealing with one of these.  So I abandoned my reply email – I had started to draft it – and decided not to reply.  It’s not my image, it’s not my problem.  Why should I do that work for someone who will probably not even say “thank you”?

I did feel a bit guilty.  I thought “Do unto others as you would have them do to you”.

But then, I wouldn’t do this to a stranger.  If I write, asking for help, I would always show that I had done the most I could. I would make clear that I wasn’t trying to steal their time in order to save my own.  Is that unreasonable?

I think not.  We must all draw a line somewhere.


Aldama’s “Repertorium pseudochrysostomicum” is now online!

A couple of weeks ago the Persée site announced that they had added the “Documents, études et répertoires de l’Institut de Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes” to their collection.  The IRHT is the centre of manuscript studies, so this is big news.  The collection may be found here.

This is full of good things for those interested in medieval manuscripts.  It also contains the volumes of the Codices Chrysostomici Graeci – listing the enormous number of Chrysostom manuscripts.

But the highlight is number 10, the Repertorium Pseudochrysostomicum (1965) by Aldama, listing all a large proportion of the works falsely attributed to John Chrysostom.  There are hundreds of them, and this is the key tool to use.  Nobody ever had access to it, of course.  It’s the sort of book that is locked up in manuscript rooms, themselves accessible only with a letter of recommendation.

Well done the IRHT!  This is excellent news.