Did he really? Could any scholar…? Apparently he did. Angelo Mai and the Editio Princeps of the Vatican Mythographers

The “Vatican Mythographers” is a set of three ancient texts about pagan mythology, all originally published by Angelo Mai from Vatican manuscripts in 1831.[1]   His edition has been reprinted since, and translated into English and French, but no critical edition has ever appeared.

A paper appeared by Kathleen Elliot and J. P. Elder in 1947, in preparation for such an edition, which however never appeared.[2]  This contains the following curious remarks:

… his transcriptions are frequently incorrect, a fact which will surprise no one acquainted with this industrious prefect’s habits. His text is further vitiated we speak from at least scholastic purity – by his frequent euphemistic changes: “. . . illud non celabo, me videlicet complura mythographorum horum vocabula, quae, ut fit in ethnica mythologia, pudicis auribus ingratiora accidissent, euphemismis commutavisse . . .” (Mai, praef. xvi). Whether a “rem habuit” is actually less salacious than a “concubuit” or whether a “complexus” is more delicate than a “compressus” is doubtless a matter of secular taste.

This seems very odd behaviour.  So I retrieved Mai’s preface, and section IX is as follows.

IX.  Atque ego quidem in exscribendo, distin­guendo, plurimisque mendis purgando tam copiosos fabularum libros, non modicum laborem pertuli: scho­lia tamen mea nulla propemodum addidi, ne molem voluminis nimis augerem: cuius rei gratia minutis et­iam typis usus sum, quominus chartam innumeram lectoribus meis obiicerem: quos etiam illud non ce­labo, me videlicet complura mythographarum ho­rum vocabula, quae, ut fit in ethnica mytholo­gia, pudicis auribus ingratiora accidissent, euphemismis commutavisse “utcumque ferent ea fata mi­nores.” Auctorum apud hos mythographos appel­latorum syllabum scripsi: latinitatis tamen nova vo­cabula,quae sparsim videbam, philologis ac lexico­graphis colligenda permisi: a quibus etiam scholio­rum ad hos mythographos apparatum subinde con­cinnandum auguror. Interim laetari licet, quod his a me codicibus editis, tres insignes mythographos Hyginum, Placidum, et Leontium, adquisivisse videmur.

And indeed I endured not a little labour in copying, dividing, and cleaning up many errors such copious books of fables: but I added almost no notes, to avoid increasing too greatly the bulk of the volume: for the sake of which I also used small typefaces, to avoid throwing uncountable paper at my readers, from whom I will not conceal that, I have in fact exchanged for euphemisms many words of these mythographers which, as happens in pagan mythology, fall unpleasantly upon modest ears, “however those who come later may consider the deed.” (Aen. 6, 822). I have written an index of each author named in these mythographers; however I have left it to the philologists and lexicographers to collect the new words of Latin, which I saw occasionally: by whom I also predict that an apparatus of notes for these mythographers will be furnished hereafter. In the meantime, let us be happy that from these codices published by me, we seem to have acquired the three distinguished mythographers Hyginus, Placidus, and Leontius.

This is hard to credit.  A Latin text intended for schoolboys might be bowdlerised, but hardly a scholarly edition intended for research libraries!  What on earth was Mai thinking?  How extraordinary.  And his quotation from the Aeneid tells us that he knew that subsequent scholars would curse him.

Is it possible that he was ordered to do this?  That the Vatican press could not issue obscene works?  We can only guess.

Elliot does identify the manuscripts used by Mai, which the latter had left obscure.  For the first mythographer, this is Vat. reg. lat. 1401, online here.  So it would be possible to collate the two from home, and to discover precisely what Mai did to the text.

Here on folio 14v, the bottom of column 1 and the start of column 2, is the chunk that I quoted earlier today:

It’s interesting to compare this with Mai’s Latin text (p.34), and my translation:

89.  De ortu Panis. Post mortem Ulixis Mercurius cum uxore eius Penelope concubuit. Quae sibi juxta oppidum Tegeum peperit filium, Pan nomine.  Unde et Tegeeus dicitur.

89.  On the Origin of Pan. After the death of Ulysses, Hermes lay with his wife Penelope, who gave birth to a son near the town of Tegea, named Pan.  From which he is called “the Tegean”.

Bode corrected “Tegeum” to “Tegeam”, correctly.  But there’s nothing amiss here at least.

Searching for the “rem habuit” referred to by Elliot, it appears to be in chapter 94,

94. Neptuni et Erycis. Cum animadvertisset Neptunus Venerem spatiantem in litore siculi maris, cum ea rem habuit: ex quo gravida facta filium peperit, quem nominavit Erycem.

94.  Of Neptune and Eryx.  When Neptune had noticed Venus lying spread out on the beach of the Sicilian sea, he had an affair with her: and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, whom she named Eryx.

Here’s the manuscript image, from folio 15r:

The “sicula maris” is clear enough, but the next two words are very abbreviated.  The horizontal stroke above the “a” of “ea” is clearly “eam”.  The backwards “c” is “con” or “com”, the “p” with a squiggle above it is “prae”. So I think they read “eam conpresset,” “he lay with her.”  Not what Mai printed.

It’s very strange.  Someone needs to do this work here, and compare the text and the manuscripts, line by line.

But not me!

Update (20 April 2024):  Apparently it has been done!  A kind commenter tells me of the existence of two critical editions:

Anyway, there are at least two modern editions of the first text that comply with current critical standards:
– P. Kulcsár, Mythographi Vaticani I et II (1987, Corpus Christianorum SL 91C)
– N. Zorzetti & J. Berlioz, Premier Mythographe du Vatican (1995, Les Belles Lettres #328)
Both read “eam compressit” (pp. 40 and 57 respectively).

Thank you!

  1. [1]Angelo Mai, Classicorum auctorum e Vaticanis codicibus editorum Tomus III. Rome, 1831.  Online here.
  2. [2]Kathleen Elliot and J. P. Elder, “A Critical Edition of the Vatican Mythographers,” in: Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 78 (1947), pp. 189-207. JSTOR.

The unfaithful Penelope – two variants in Greek myth

Greek mythology was not static.  The stories contained within it could be modified by any poet at their pleasure.  Most of the legends exist in various forms, some of which turn it inside out altogether.  The source of this profusion is probably the need of entertainers to earn a living combined with the Greek fondness for novelty.

In the Odyssey, Penelope is faithful to Odysseus despite being pestered by countless suitors for ten years.  She is a type of chastity.  Yet even this legend has been  ruthlessly tampered with.  I thought that it might be interesting to see how it developed

A couple of sources suggest that Penelope was seduced by one or another of the suitors.  According to Pausanias (book 8, 12.5), her grave was shown in Mantinea, and the locals claimed that Odysseus banished her for infidelity after his return.  In ps.Apollodorus’ epitome (7, 38) we get the names of two of the suitors, and also a version in which she gave birth to Pan, the goat-headed god, at Mantinea.

Pausanias, book 8, 12.5: … and on the right of the road is a high mound of earth. It is said to be the grave of Penelope, but the account of her in the poem called Thesprotis is not in agreement with this saying.  For in it the poet says that when Odysseus returned from Troy he had a son Ptoliporthes by Penelope. But the Mantinean story about Penelope says that Odysseus convicted her of bringing paramours to his home, and being cast out by him she went away at first to Lacedaemon, but afterwards she removed from Sparta to Mantineia, where she died.

Apollodorus, Epitome 7.38:  …. When Telegonus learned from Circe that he was a son of Ulysses, he sailed in search of him. And having come to the island of Ithaca, he drove away some of the cattle, and when Ulysses defended them, Telegonus wounded him with the spear he had in his hands, which was barbed with the spine of a sting-ray, and Ulysses died of the wound. But when Telegonus recognized him, he bitterly lamented, and conveyed the corpse and Penelope to Circe, and there he married Penelope. And Circe sent them both away to the Islands of the Blest.  But some say that Penelope was seduced by Antinous and sent away by Ulysses to her father Icarius, and that when she came to Mantinea in Arcadia she bore Pan to Hermes.  However others say that she met her end at the hands of Ulysses himself on account of Amphinomus, for they allege that she was seduced by him.

The legend about Mantinea perhaps derives from the presence of a grave of Penelope there, recorded by Pausanias in the 2nd century AD.  Visitors would naturally enquire how it comes to be here, and the legend was perhaps manufactured to account for it.

On the other hand the legend that makes Penelope the mother of Pan by Hermes is recorded in Herodotus as common knowledge.  Indeed some rather scrappy bits of scholia suggest that it was probably present already in Pindar, in a hymn to Pan of which the relevant portion is now lost.[1]  After Herodotus it appears in quite a number of sources.[2]  Here are a few:

Herodotus 2.145.4:  Now the Dionysus who was called the son of Semele, daughter of Cadmus, was about sixteen hundred years before my time, and Heracles son of Alcmene about nine hundred years; and Pan the son of Penelope (for according to the Greeks Penelope and Hermes were the parents of Pan) was about eight hundred years before me, and thus of a later date than the Trojan war.

Theocritus, Palatine Anthology book 15, 21.1-2[3]:  21.  The Pipe of Theocritus.  The bed-fellow of nobody and mother of the farfighter [Telemachus] gave birth to the swift director of the nurse [Pan] of him whose place a stone took [Zeus]….

Cicero, De natura deorum 3.56[4]:  The first Mercury has the Sky for father and the Day for mother; he is represented in a state of sexual excitation traditionally said to be due to passion inspired by the sight of Proserpine. Another is the son of Valens and Phoronis; this is the subterranean Mercury identified with Trophonius. The third, the son of the third Jove and of Maia, the legends make the father of Pan by Penelope. The fourth has Nile for father; the Egyptians deem it sinful to pronounce his name. The fifth, worshipped by the people of Pheneus, is said to have killed Argus and consequently to have fled in exile to Egypt, where he gave the Egyptians their laws and letters. His Egyptian name is Theuth, which is also the name in the Egyptian calendar for the first month of year.

Mythographici Vaticani 1, 89[5]: After the death of Ulysses, Hermes lay with his wife Penelope, who gave birth to a son near the town of Tegea, named Pan.  From which he is called “the Tegean”.

Berne Scholia on the Georgics, book 1[6], on verses 17-18:

v. 17. “Pan.” Pindar writes that Pan was born from Apollo and Penelope on Mount Lycaeus, others from Aether and Oenone. … Maenala: a mountain of Arcadia.

v. 18. “O Tegean”, comes from Tegea, a town in Arcadia, because after the death of Ulysses, Mercury lay with his wife Penelope, and she became pregnant, and on Mount Maenalus near the town of Tegea, she gave birth to Pan, and therefore he was called ‘Tegean’. ‘Tegeus’ = three-armed, ‘Tegeaeus’ = the first paean.

A still more extreme version of the story discards Hermes / Mercury, and says that Penelope slept with all the suitors (πᾶν), and Pan (Πάν) was the result.  This appears in two unconnected sources.

Lycophon, Alexandra, 722:  For he [Odysseus] shall come, he shall come to Rheithron’s sheltering haven and the cliffs of Neriton. And he shall behold all his house utterly overthrown from its foundation by lewd wife-stealers. And the vixen, primly coquetting, will make empty his halls, pouring forth the pour wight’s wealth in banqueting. And he himself, poor parasite, shall see trouble beyond what he endured at the Scaean gates; he shall endure to bear with submissive back sullen threats from his own slaves and to be punished with jeers; shall endure, too, to submit to buffeting of fists and hurling of potsherds.

John Tzetzes in his Scholia on Lycophron 722:  “Kassoreuousa” means prostituting. “Bassara” is the bacchant, the prostitute, and “koilanei” means to empty, to spend. “Bassara” primarily signifies the bacchant – from this, the contemptible and prostitute woman is called “bassara”. “Bassara” is the bulb, the swelling, a kind of fox, and the bacchant, now “bassara” is the prostitute. He is referring to Penelope.

772 “Semnos” is an adverb meaning disgracefully.

772 And Duris in his work about Agathokles says that Penelope was gluttonous and had intercourse with all the suitors and gave birth to the goat-legged Pan, whom they consider a god (FHG II 479 42). He speaks nonsense about Pan; for Pan is the son of Hermes and another Penelope. And another Pan is the son of Zeus and Hybris.

Servius, Commentary on the Aeneid book 2 v. 44[7]:   Homer made his wanderings after the Trojan war known to all. Another story is told about this too. For when he had returned to Ithaca after his wanderings, it is said that he found Pan in his house, who is said to have been born of Penelope and all her suitors, as the very name Pan seems to make clear: although others say that he was born of Mercury, who, changed into a goat, had lain with Penelope. But Ulysses, after seeing the misshapen boy, is said to have gone back to wandering.

The first of these attributes this story to Duris of Samos, who wrote a history ending in 281 BC, and was apparently noted for jazzing up his narrative rather than strict accuracy.

It’s a useful reminder that legendary material is not fixed.  No doubt every single reader of these variant versions knew full well that Penelope was the famously chaste wife of Odysseus.  The other versions are derivative, no doubt in the interest of seeking notoriety or commercial interest.

It is rather delightful to find that so much of this material is online, if you look, and available in English translation.  In particular who would have imagined that Tzetzes’ scholia on Lycophron would be online in English!  Truly we are fortunate.

  1. [1]J. A. Haldane, “Pindar and Pan: frs. 95–100 Snell,” Phoenix 22 (1968), 18–31.
  2. [2]Haldane note 20 gives a list.
  3. [3]Loeb ed., “Greek Anthology” vol.5, p.125.
  4. [4]Mercurius unus Caelo patre Die matre natus, cuius obscenius excitata natura traditur quod aspectu Proserpinae commotus sit, alter Valentis et Phoronidis filius is qui sub terris habetur idem Trophonius, tertius Iove tertio natus et Maia, ex quo et Penelopa Pana natum ferunt, quartus Nilo patre, quem Aegyptii nefas habent nominare, quintus quem colunt Pheneatae, qui Argum dicitur interemisse ob eamque causam Aegyptum profugisse atque Aegyptiis leges et litteras tradidisse: hunc Aegyptii Theyt appellant, eodemque nomine anni primus mensis apud eos vocatur.
  5. [5]George Bode, Scriptores Rerum Mythicarum Latini Tres Romae Nuper Reperti, 2 vols. (Celle, 1834), p.30: Post mortem Ulixis Mercurius cum uxore eius Penelope concubuit. quae sibi juxta oppidum Tegeam peperit filium, Pan nomine.  Unde et Tegeeus dicitur.
  6. [6]Translation by me. v. 17. Pan. Pana Pindarus ex Apolline et Penelopa in Lycaeo monte editum scribit, alii ex Aether et Oenone. Si, siquidem. Maenala, mons Arcadiae.  v. 18. O Tegeaee, dirivativum a Tegeo oppido Arcadiae, quia post mortem Ulixis Mercurius cum uxore eius concubuit Penelopa et gravidam fecit et in monte Maenalo iuxta oppidum Tegeum parturiit Pana ideoque dixit ‘Tegeaeum’.  ‘Tegeum’ tribrachus, ‘Tegeaeus’ paeon primus. 
  7. [7]Translation by me.  Huius post Iliense bellum errores Homerus notos omnibus fecit. De hoc quoque alia fabula narratur. Nam cum Ithacam post errores fuisset reversus, invenisse Pana fertur in penatibus suis, qui dicitur ex Penelope et procis omnibus natus, sicut ipsum nomen Pan videtur declarare: quamquam alii hunc de Mercurio, qui in hircum mutatus cum Penelope concubuerat, natum ferunt. Sed Ulixes posteaquam deformem puerum vidit, fugisse dicitur in errores.

ChatGPT going haywire today in Eutychius

This afternoon I have been working on the end of Eutychius, chapter one, where we encounter the story of Joseph and his less-than-amazing family problems.  As before I have interleaved the sentences: Italian first, my original translation second, and then the output from ChatGPT.

But today it’s not working at all.  Today ChatGPT is generating hallucinations, not just once, but many times.  Here’s one:

S’abbatté sulla Siria una grave carestia. Giacobbe disse quindi ai suoi figli: “Andate in Egitto a comprare del grano” (148). I fratelli di Giuseppe andarono in Egitto.

A severe famine struck Syria.  Jacob then said to his sons, “Go to Egypt and buy grain.”(148)  Joseph’s brothers went to Egypt.

A severe famine spread over the whole country of Syria. Jacob said to his sons, “Why do you just keep looking at each other?” He continued, “I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die.”  Then ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain from Egypt.

Um… what?

In other cases it took direct speech and turned it into indirect speech, sometimes omitting material.

Today I have a little time, so I was going to do some work.  But no.  Basically I can’t get anything done today.  The output from ChatGPT translation is switching around madly.

Yesterday I heard of the term “temperature”, used for one of the parameters to AI generated text.  Like so much about AI, the name is intended to obfusticate.  Many of the “explanations” are likewise intended to conceal.  This one is a bit better:

A temperature of 0 means roughly that the model will always select the highest probability word. A higher temperature means that the model might select a word with slightly lower probability, leading to more variation, randomness and creativity.

and here’s another:

TEMPERATURE is the variable in AI systems that determines how predictable or not it is.

HIGH temperature will cause it to be more creative.

LOW temperature will cause it to be more predictable.

High temperature ALSO can cause it to output complete nonsense if the temperature is too high.

Essentially it’s a parameter to say “how closely do you want to follow the data in the database, and how much randomness do you want?”

None of us need “tools” that aren’t there when you need them and vary randomly in output.


From my diary

I’m working away on revising the translation of Eutychius.  I am glad to say that I am really finding very few outright mistakes, which is encouraging.  I am most of the way through a revised version of chapter 1, and once this is complete then I will update the combined file, and change the version number.  I added a box of version numbers and changes to the back of the file for just this reason.

The death of a close family member last year has involved me in endless work to sort out the estate.  It’s going quite well.  The last six weeks have been spent attempting to get one set of forms done, which – after a journey to get signatures yesterday – I finally managed to get in the post today.  The forms are so old-fashioned that they even required me to pay by cheque.  I actually had to obtain a physical cheque-book in order to do so.  The whole business could and should be possible with a single form on the web.  Anyway with luck I have guessed all the answers correctly, and that bit of business will now happen, and be done and done with.  Other parts of the settlement will require yet more work, which I would guess will drain my time and energy for much of this year.

Eutychius is, therefore, a bit of sanity in all this nonsense.

I have also drafted a post on the origins of the Easter bunny.  If you do a search in Google Books, and the Library of Congress Newspaper Archive, you find very quickly that the phrase “Easter bunny” does not appear before 1900.  (Although the first references are clearly referring to earlier use).  The Easter bunny seems to be a stripped-down, streamlined, and industrialised version of the German Osterhase legend, brought into existence by the mass production of chocolate bunnies in Pennsylvania.  But you will have to wait until I can revise the draft and post it.

Many people will be aware that every year, on every Christian holiday, there is a chorus of screaming that “Easter” (or whatever) “is pagan.”  These absurd claims are repeated by lazy journalists.  It has got very bad in the last few years.  Anti-Christian malice is not absent, but some educated atheists have got fed up with this nonsense and are starting to campaign against it.

But there is another group also posting the same material, but from a very different perspective.  These people rarely reveal their affiliation, but say things like “Easter isn’t in the bible” and so “therefore Easter is pagan.”  They pose as Christians.  But invariably they turn out to be promoting Jewish observances.  This suggests that they are weird American cultists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hebrew Roots, Seventh Day Adventists, and other groups derived more or less directly from Herbert W. Armstrong’s “World Wide Church of God”.  They are not Jews, and they often appeal to the bible, despite the clear condemnation of such teaching in Galatians 3.  They often pretend to be Messianic Jews, although they are not.  I don’t quite know how best to address such folk, yet something ought to be done.  Many of them on social media seem to be “bots”, posting at the direction of another.  I had always thought such groups basically harmless, but the rage and spirit of deceit that I find online suggests something about their real origins.

While reading such stuff, I was reminded of one of the “Hebrew Roots” figures, a strange man named Michael Rood, who used to dress up as an ancient Hebrew priest, and who is responsible for some of the odder claims.  I have collected a certain amount of material about him.  But I am not clear that I am the best person to document this weird penumbra to American religion.  So I won’t write a blog post.  One has to draw the line somewhere!

In the last few days I have noticed that several Christian groups in England seem to be facing a coordinated campaign to destroy them.  May I ask Christian readers to pray for God’s grace, and for those attacked?

The attacks employ what is now a well-known methodology, of creating a scandal, using the media to holler it at the top of their voices, while smearing as many people as possible, regardless of whoever was alleged to be the original wrongdoer.  Once the moral reputation of the group is destroyed, demands are made for the existing leadership to resign, and that their replacement should be drawn from those supporting the attackers.  These in turn have no power to resist the demands to endorse fingerprint vices, and pay huge “compensation.”  In this way the group is effectively destroyed, or at the very least financially ruined.  The Catholic Church has been subjected to this process repeatedly, in order to seize its property and authority.  Usually the allegation is of child abuse, but in fact any accusation will do.  The sincerity of such awful allegations may be judged from the Rotherham scandal, in which the same people happily connived at appalling child abuse by Muslim gangs.  This demonstrated that the “abuse” claims are not the point.  These people care nothing for the supposed abuse.  It’s just a pretext for a power grab.  Likewise it is noticeable that it is only unpopular groups that seem to have problems of this sort.  British institutions are stuffed full of every kind of deviant, yet not one of them is up to mischief?  I think not.

No criminal accusations have been deployed against the British groups. But those campaigning are trying to smear as many Christian groups as they can.

Among the groups attacked in the last few months is the UCCF.  This is an inoffensive umbrella organisation for Christian Unions at British universities.  It has always been hated for its loyalty to the gospel.  The pretext deployed here is that UCCF only recruited young people for a few years and then encouraged them to resign, which – we are solemnly told, is a “breach of employment legislation”.  I would imagine that every youth organisation must do this, unless it wishes to be staffed by old people (!), so the claim is frivolous.  It’s a power-play, no more, of the kind above.  But experienced senior staff have resigned, which is troubling.

I myself owe a great deal to UCCF.  Please would you pray that God will defend them?  Those attacking hope to destroy Christian student work in the UK.

This summer the Oxford Patristics Conference will take place, as it does every four years.  This is critically important to anyone intending to pursue a career in patristics.  Unfortunately the cost to attend is now so great that I cannot afford to do so.  But I hope to be in Oxford for a few hours on one day – probably the 7th August -, and perhaps I will meet one or two people while I am there!


Eutychius, Annals, now combined into a single file

It took me five years to turn Pirone’s Italian translation of Eutychius’ Annals into English, using Google Translate.  That process created 102 blog posts.

People complained that they couldn’t find the bits that they wanted.  A kind correspondent wrote and emailed me a zip file of those posts, in 102 word documents.

So I’ve done it.  I’ve combined them, straightened the formatting somewhat, and added them to the Eutychius home page.  It’s here.  There’s a .docx and a .pdf.

Eutychius – or Said ibn Bitriq – was the 10th century Melkite – Greek Orthodox – “Patriarch of Alexandria”.  The real patriarch was, of course, a Copt.  So he had a little congregation of Greeks, and had time for literature.  His “Annals” are based on Byzantine Chronicles.  But because he wrote in Arabic, he had access to Arabic translations of lost Sassanid Persian chronicles.  He incorporates extracts into his work, which by itself would give it value.

As with all these Arabic Chronicles, it is divided into two halves.  The first runs from the Creation of the World to the reign of Heraclius.  The second part covers the Muslim period.

I hope it’s useful.  It’s a totally unfinished piece of work, but I don’t know that I will ever do more.  So… may it be useful as it is.


An English translation of Asterius of Cappadocia, Homily 16 (On the Easter Vigil)

A twitter post alerts me to the release of the first English translation of Homily 16 by Asterius of Cappadocia (CPG 2815, no.16).  It is one of a collection of 31 homilies which is listed in the CPG, under the title Commentarii in Psalmos, which seems odd.  A translation of an extract from homily 11 is here.

The translation is by Nathan Porter, who has kindly made it available on Academia.edu here.  He suggests that it was delivered in the 330s.   His tweet included this lovely image:

Note that this is NOT the later author Asterius of Amasea, whose works begin in the CPG with 3260.


Easter: A translation error in Bede, De Ratione Temporum

The word “Easter” is used only in English for the Christian commemoration of the death and resurrection of Christ.  In most languages the word is passover (pasch), or some version of it.  This is indeed what Easter is, the Christian version of passover.  That’s why it moves: Jesus was Jewish, and lived in Judaea, and the events of his life are based around the Jewish lunar calendar, which gives passover as the full moon after the equinox.  Jesus died on passover and rose on the Sunday after, so Easter is in principle the Sunday after passover.  The Julian calendar was not in use in Judaea, unfortunately.  None of this is known to the general public, and in the anglophone world it is widely assumed that every language calls it Easter.

Where does the English word “Easter” come from?  Our information on this comes from a single source, Bede De ratione temporum, (CPL 2320) on the reckoning of time, dated 723 AD.  Chapter 15 of this contains a list of the Anglosaxon months, which is full of interest and reads as follows:

Antiqui autem Anglorum populi (neque enim mibi congruum videtur, aliarum gentium annalem obser­vantiam dicere, ct mese reticere) juxta cursum lunae suos menses computavere; unde et a luna Hebraeorum et Graecorum more nomen accipiunt. Si quidem apud eos luna mona, mensis monath appellatur. Primusque eorum mensis, quem Latini Januarium vocant, dici­tur Giuli. Deinde Februarius Solmonath, Martius Hredmonath, Aprilis Eosturmonath, Maius Thrimylchi, Junius Lida, Julius similiter Lida, Augustus Weodmonath, September Halegmonath, October Winterfylleth, November Blodmonath, December Giuli, eodem quo Januarius nomine, vocatur. Incip­iebant autem annum ab octavo Calendarum Janua­riarum die, ubi nunc natale Domini celebramus. Et ipsam noctem nunc nobis sacrosanctam, tunc gentili vocabulo Modranicht, id est, matrum noctem, ap­pellabant, ob causam; ut suspicamur, ceremoniarum quas in ea pervigiles agebant. Et quotiescunque communis esset annus, ternos menses lunares singulis anni temporibus dabant. Cum vero embolismus, hoc est, XIII mensium lunarium annus occurreret, superfluum mensem aestati apponebant, ita ut tunc tres menses simul Lida nomine vocarentur, et ob id annus ille Thrilidi cognominabatur, habens IV menses gestatis, ternos ut semper temporum caete­rorum. Item principaliter annum totum in duo tempora, hyemis, videlicet, et aestatis dispartiebant, sex illos menses quibus longiores noctibus dies sunt aestati tribuendo, sex reliquos hyemi. Unde et men­sem quo hyemalia tempora incipiebant Winterfylleth appellabant, composito nomine ab hyeme et plenilunio, quia videlicet a plenilunio ejusdem mensis hyems sortiretur initium. Nec ab re est si et caetera mensium eorum quid significent nomina interpretari curemus. Menses Giuli a conversione solis in auctum dici, quia unus eorum praecedit, alius subsequitur, nomina accipiunt. Solmonath dici potest mensis placentarum, quas in eo diis suis offerebant; Hredmonath a dea illorum Hreda, cui in illo sacrificabant, nominatur; Eosturmonath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a dea illorum quae Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant, nomen habuit, a cujus nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquae observationis voca­bulo gaudia novae solemnitalis vocantes. Trimilchi dicebatur, quod tribus vicibus in eo per diem pecora mulgebantur. Talis enim erat quondam ubertas Bri­tanniae, vel Germaniae, de qua in Britanniam natio intravit Anglorum. Lida dicitur blandus, sive naviga­bilis, quod in utroque mense et blanda sit serenitas aurarum, et navigari soleant aequora. Weodmonath mensis zizaniorum , quod ea tempestate maxime abundent. Halegmonath mensis Sacrorum. Winterfylleth potest dici composito novo nomine hyeme-plenilunium. Blotmonath mensis immolationum, quia in ea pecora quae occisuri erant diis suis vove­rent. Gratias tibi, bone Jesu, qui hos, ab his vanis avertens, tibi sacrificia laudis offerre donasti.

We are fortunate to have an excellent English translation of this long volume (1988, p.53-4) by Faith Wallis in the Liverpool University Press series “Translated Texts for Historians.”  Here is the corresponding passage.

In olden time the English people – for it did not seem ¢tting to me that I should speak of other nations’ observance of the year and yet be silent about my own nation’s – calculated their months according to the course of the Moon. Hence, after the manner of the Greeks and the Romans, [the months] take their name from the Moon, for the Moon is called “mona” and the month “monath”.

The first month, which the Latins call January, is “Giuli”; February is called “Solmonath”; March “Hrethmonath”; April, “Eosturmonath”; May, “Thrimilchi”; June, “Litha”; July, also “Litha”; August, “Weodmonath”; September, “Halegmonath”; October, “Winterfilleth”; November, “Blodmonath”; December, “Giuli”, the same name by which January is called. They began the year on the 8th kalends of January [25 December], when we celebrate the birth of the Lord. That very night, which we hold so sacred, they used to call by the heathen word “Modranecht”, that is, ‘‘mother’s night’’, because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night.

Whenever it was a common year, they gave three lunar months to each season. When an embolismic year occurred (that is, one of 13 lunar months) they assigned the extra month to summer, so that three months together bore the name ‘‘Litha’’; hence they called [the embolismic] year ‘‘Thrilithi’’. It had four summer months, with the usual three for the other seasons. But originally, they divided the year as a whole into two seasons, summer and winter, assigning the six months in which the days are longer than the nights to summer, and the other six to winter. Hence they called the month in which the winter season began ‘‘Winterfilleth’’, a name made up from ‘‘winter’’ and ‘‘full Moon’’, because winter began on the full Moon of that month.

Nor is it irrelevant if we take the trouble to translate the names of the other months. The months of Giuli derive their name from the day when the Sun turns back [and begins] to increase, because one of [these months] precedes [this day] and the other follows. Solmonath can be called ‘‘month of cakes’’, which they offered to their gods in that month. Hrethmonath is named for their goddess Hretha, to whom they sacrificed at this time. Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated ‘‘Paschal month’’, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance. Thrimilchi was so called because in that month the cattle were milked three times a day; such, at one time, was the fertility of Britain or Germany, from whence the English nation came to Britain. Litha means ‘‘gentle’’ or ‘‘navigable’’, because in both these months the calm breezes are gentle, and they were wont to sail upon the smooth sea. Weodmonath means ‘‘month of tares’’, for they are very plentiful then. Halegmonath means ‘‘month of sacred rites’’. Winterfilleth can be called by the invented composite name ‘‘winter-full’’. Blodmonath is ‘‘month of immolations’’, for then the cattle which were to be slaughtered were consecrated to their gods. Good Jesu, thanks be to thee, who hast turned us away from these vanities and given us [grace] to offer to thee the sacrifice of praise.

Interesting stuff, but clearly belonging to a time past even in Bede’s day.

All the same there appears to be an error in the Eosturmonath translation, where the translator has split the sentence in two and in the process introduced a confusion.

Eosturmonath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a dea illorum quae Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant, nomen habuit, a cujus nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquae observationis voca­bulo gaudia novae solemnitalis vocantes.

Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated ‘‘Paschal month’’, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.

Parsing this word by word:

et cui in illo festa celebrabant – and for whom, in that (month), feasts they used to celebrate.

nomen habuit, a cujus nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant – (Eosturmonath) has a name, by which name now the paschal season they designate

consueto antiquae observationis voca­bulo, gaudia novae solemnitalis vocantes –  of the accustomed ancient observance by the name, the joys of the new rite calling

The translator has treated “cuius”, “of whom/which” as referring back to “dea … Eostre”.  Well it could.  “cuius” could refer to either a feminine or a neuter noun.  But the curious position of the “nomen  habuit” – “it has a name”  – seems designed solely to avoid this.  The whole bit about Eostre is put between “Eosturmonath” and “nomen habuit”, precisely to keep it out of the way of the rest of the sentence.  So I suggest that “cuius” should be understood to refer to “nomen”, i.e. to the season, not the goddess.

This would mean that the TTH should read “now they designate the paschal season by its name”.

This means that – unsurprisingly – the word “Easter” comes from “Eosturmonath”, not directly from “Eostre”.  According to Bede, the name Eostre gave rise to the season Eosturmonth (April) which in turn was used by the Christian English to mean the Christian festival of pasch.

So “Easter” is merely a worn down form of “Eosturmonath”.


From my diary

I have started work on a revised translation of the Annals of the Arabic Christian writer Eutychius.  My approach is  to get the Italian text, get my existing translation, and get a translation from ChatGPT 3.5, and interleave them, sentence by sentence.  I’ve had to make some modifications to the somewhat crude tool that I use to interleave.

I had rather hoped to do a whole chapter at a time, but ChatGPT 3.5 does not support more than a certain amount of text.  This is annoying in a way, because fiddling with interleaving takes time away from translating.

I must say that I am glad to discover relatively few mistakes in my first translation.  There are some, but it could be far worse.  ChatGPT tends to produce smoother English, so often I have gone with their rendering.

On the other hand ChatGPT has a definite tendency to paraphrase.  It’s not bad; but I keep an eye on it.

I’ve done around 14 sections of chapter 1 – there are 18 chapters, or something like that – without too much trouble.  But now ChatGPT is fighting me.

I started work on sections 15-17.  When I interleaved, I found that the text produced by ChatGPT was around half the size of that from the Italian or my original translation.  Mysteriously it had simply truncated text, right in the middle of the passage.  It really fought me.  I had to paste in each section by itself.  This has not happened before, and reflects the deep instability of AI.

Once I had done this, I started work.  But I am troubled to find that the AI output “feels” different.  It’s quite close to my own translation. Is it possible that it is basically just giving me my original translation back?  How can I tell?

The text and my original translation have footnote numbers, embedded in brackets like this (32).  Previously ChatGPT included these.  Now it strips them out.

None of this feels good.  I was very happy with what it was producing originally.  Now it feels like it is fighting me.

AI is not a fit technology.  Any technology that gives different results when you use it at different times is not a fit technology.

These things are only tools.  You need to know that your tool works, and will serve you when you have time to work.  Imagine if your saw would only cut wood at certain times of the day?  If the width and fineness of the saw cut varied depending on unknown factors?  If your saw silently changed it’s depth of cut?

You would quickly get rid of it, if only out of sheer frustration.

I shall have to see how I go with this.  It’s a very wonky technology.  The secretiveness about how it works does not help.  Nor does the fact that people want to force you to buy stuff to use it.  I hate the commercial web that we have today.  All the same, it does make things possible that would not have been possible before.


From My Diary

When you finish a project, there are always two competing feelings.  The first is to rush into something else, another project of the same kind.  But looking around my desktop, I do seem to have caught up.

The only folder left is to the translation of Eutychius “Annals.”  This 10th century Arabic Christian chronicle is one that I turned into English, from the Italian translation by Bartolomeo Pirone, chunk by chunk, on this blog.  I remember that Google Translate was giving erratic results for numerals.  I always intended to go through it and make sure it was correct, and gather it all up.  I ought to do this.  I do get a modest number of enquiries about it.  I could use ChatGPT as well.

Or I could look at Bar Hebraeus, “Book of the Dynasties”, for which there is an 18th century German translation and nothing else.  That would be useful too.

The other feeling you get is lassitude and disinterest.  You’re tired.  You need a break.  Often it is wisest to let the adrenaline dissolve, and just relax a bit.

This morning I had a couple of emails that distracted me nicely from Eutychius.

The first related to a 2019 post on how to download LIDAR datasets for the English coast from a frankly dreadful official site.  This attracts a reasonable amount of attention, precisely because everyone is baffled.  The email advised me that the detailed instructions no longer worked, because the website had changed.  And so it had.

So I’ve spent an hour, going through the website and updating my tutorial.  It is still possible to download the datasets, thankfully.

The other was a request for some material about the Mithraeum of Santa Prisca, from a 2010 post.  Once I found out what was wanted, it was a simple matter to find it on my disk, in the “Mithras\Santa Prisca” folder, and email it over.

Which leaves me back, to consider what to do next.  We’ll see!


The “Life” of St Mewan / S. Mevennus / Saint-Méen (BHL 5944) – now online in English

I’ve now completed a draft translation of the medieval “Saint’s Life” of St Mewan, a Welsh saint whose legend is mainly set in Brittany.  St Mewan seems to belong to the early 7th century, but the Life dates to the 10-11th century.  Only one manuscript contains the full text, which is preserved in a manuscript written after 1544 (!), so very late indeed.

Here are the files:

The files are also at Archive.org here.  As usual, this material is public domain.  Do whatever you like with it, personal, educational or commercial.