Two pages of lost ancient text the “Orphic Rhapsodies” found in Sinai palimpsest

I learned today via the Austrian Academy of Sciences (@oeaw) of a very exciting discovery indeed at the monastery of Mount Sinai in Egypt.  There is a rather good article about it at the OEAW site here, with photographs.

A previously lost Greek classical text in hexameters has been found in a palimpsest, as the under-text on two sheets.   The material is about the childhood of the god Dionysus.  The discoverer believes that it is a portion of the Sacred Discourses in 24 Rhapsodies.

This work will be familiar to few.  The Hieroi Logoi was a compilation of Orphic poems known in late antiquity.  It gave a theogony: an account of the origin of the gods, especially Dionysus.  The neo-platonist Damascius is the first to mention these ῥαψῳδίαι Ὀρφικαί in his work De principiis 123, where he describes the book as συνήθης Ὀρφική θεολογία, i.e. “the standard orphic theogony” (Job) or “the current [form of] the Orphic theology” (Ahbel-Rappe).[1]  The work is hard to date.  It has been dated to the Hellenistic period (2nd c. BC – 1st c. AD), which seems to be the mainstream opinion.  But it has also been dated to the 4-5th c. AD, on the basis that the myth of the dismemberment of Dionysus was then added to existing Orphic material under the influence of Christian theology.[2]

The work was previously known entirely from quotations in later writers, either neo-Platonist or Christian.  These were collected and published by Otto Kern as Orphicorum fragmenta, Berlin (1922) (online here).  James R. Van Kollenburg has a neopagan website, hellenicgods.org, and usefully he has gathered or provided English translations of many of the fragments here.

The new discovery gives for the first time a substantial chunk of the original text.

The ancient manuscript of the Hieroi Logoi from which these sheets come was written in Egypt in the 5-6th century AD.  But in the 10th century it was recycled, the pages erased and turned into blank parchment.  A text of more use to the owners, an Arabic text of the lives of the Palestinian saints, was written on the pages at the monastery of Mar Saba.  (I have not seen any information on which text precisely this is).  The new volume was originally some 300 pages.  It migrated to Sinai, where it was reduced to fragments by the removal of leaves, sold to European libraries.  The remains now have the shelfmark Ms. Sin. ar. NF 66.  The relevant leaves are f. 2v + frg. 7v + frg. 8r, and presumably their reverse.

There is an obvious question here.  Do other pages of the Hieroi Logoi also exist, under the text of the other leaves of the Arabic volume, now in European libraries?  Does anybody know which leaves are where?  Is anybody going to shine a multi-spectral imaging scanner on them?

After all, if the monks got a pile of blank parchment from breaking up the old book, it is possible that more than two sheets got used to make the Arabic manuscript.

Returning to the discovery: here is an image from the OEAW site of part of the palimpsest, taken under multi-spectral imaging:

Multi-spectral imaging photo with false colour, showing the Arabic over-text and (in red) the Greek undertext of the Orphic Rhapsodies. Via the OEAW site.

The discovery has been published, although I have not seen the article: Giulia Rossetto, “Fragments from the Orphic Rhapsodies? Hitherto Unknown Hexameters in the Palimpsest Sin. ar. NF 66”, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 219 (2021), 34-60.  Dr Rossetto has an Academia.edu page here, which gives the following summary:

The palimpsest manuscript Sin. ar. NF 66 is one of the treasures of the Monastery of Saint Catherine located in the Sinai Peninsula. Nowadays it consists of a few fragmentary parchment sheets, but originally it was a larger codex of ca. 300 folia. Some of these leaves have been purloined from the Sinai and are now kept in Cambridge, Leipzig, and Saint Petersburg, while others have been lost. The codex contained the Lives of Palestinian monastic Saints in Arabic translation and was copied at the Monastery of Mar Saba near Jerusalem in the first quarter of the 10th century. It was later brought, under unknown circumstances, to the Sinai. All preserved folia are palimpsests, with scriptiones inferiores in Greek and Christian Palestinian Aramaic. This article focuses on one of the Greek erased texts – a previously unknown classical text in hexameters of mythological content – and offers its editio princeps. Based on an analysis of codicological and palaeographical features, combined with that of linguistic and stylistic elements, it will be suggested that the Sinai hexameters might originate from the Hieroi Logoi in 24 Rhapsodies, i.e. the longest lost Orphic poem we know of.

The find is part of the Sinai Palimpsests project (website here).  Let us hope they make many more splendid discoveries!

Share
  1. [1]An English translation exists: Sara Ahbel-Rappe, Damascius’ Problems and Solutions Concerning First Principles, Oxford University Press (2010) ISBN: 978-0-19-515029-2.  This description is found on p.415, chapter 123.1.
  2. [2]Most of this information I take from Marek Job, “The rule of Dionysus in the light of the Orphic theogony (Hieroi Logoi in 24 Rhapsodies)”, in: Filip Doroszewski, Dariusz Karłowicz (eds), Dionysus and Politics: Constructing Authority in the Graeco-Roman World, London (2021), chapter 10, p. 161-176.

It was twenty years ago today: 20 years of Rob Bradshaw and “Theology on the Web”

A tweet by the excellent Rob Bradshaw alerts me to the fact that he has been plugging away and uploading scholarly material to the web for twenty years now, at a range of sites run by himself, including BiblicalStudies.org.uk, EarlyChurch.org.uk, and many others.  The hub site is https://theologyontheweb.org.uk/. The material available is now in excess of 45,000 articles and books.

His own email newsletter (here) gives a list of sites and subjects, too long to quote.  It includes all sorts of very useful material, including the isssues of Religion in Communist Lands published by Keston College during the Cold War, which most of us will never have seen.

It is something to have achieved this, by ceaseless labour.  Well done, Mr Bradshaw.  You are a hero!

Share

Ambrosiaster’s Dubia: Is there a translation of fragments of a commentary on Matthew?

I received an email this afternoon on a very obscure text, which led me to do a little bibliographical work.

I wonder if you might know whether anyone has published an English translation of the short fragment from a Latin Commentary on Matthew (on 24.19-44) published independently by Mercati (G. Mercati, Varia sacra: “Anonymi Chiliastae in Matthaeum 24 fragmenta”, (Studi e Testi 11), Roma 1903, 3-45) and Turner (C. H. Turner, “An Exegetical Fragment of the Third Century,” JTS 5 (1904) 218-241) and attributed variously to Victorinus (Turner) and Ambrosiaster (Souter).

This text is CPL 186, I find. I don’t know of any English translation, but of course one might exist somewhere. An Italian edition and translation by A. Pollastri appeared in 2014 (book dealer site here), available for a trim 40 euros:

Ambrosiaster, Frammenti esegetici su Matteo. Il Vangelo di Matteo (Mt 24,20-42). Le tre misure (Mt 13,33). L’apostolo Pietro (Mt 26,51-53-72-75), introduzione, testo, traduzione e commento a cura di A. Pollastri, (Biblioteca Patristica, 50) Bologna 2014.

An upcoming volume of uncertain contents from Brill Brepols is this (via here), which I thought contained Pollastri’s text, but which instead I learn contains information on the manuscripts and text tradition:

Ambrosiaster, Dubia, Commentarius in Matthaeum (CPL 186), De tribus mensuris (CPL 187), De Petro (CPL 188), cur. A. Pollastri, dans: E. Colombi, et al. (éds.), Traditio Patrum: Scriptores Italiae, Turnhout (à paraître).

It’s August.  Go and do summer things!

 

Share

The “Sortes Astrampsychi” or “The lots of Astrampsychus” – an ancient fortune-telling manual

In the last few posts we’ve been looking at surviving 20-sided dice from antiquity.  From Pausanias we learn that dice, or knuckle-bones – astragalli – were used for oracles; throw the dice, pick the god’s answer from a list.  We do not have any testimony on how these particular dice, with 20-sides, were used, but it seems likely that they also were used for fortune-telling in this way.

Lists of questions and oracular answers were not always engraved in stone, although we’ve seen examples from Lycia that are.  Among the surviving texts from antiquity is a curious book, the “Sortes Astrampsychi” – the Lots of Astrampsychus – which was used for fortune-telling.

The book gives a list of questions, and then a set of 10 answers for each question.  The user chose his question.  He thought of a number between one and ten – or perhaps he used dice.  He then looked up that answer for that question.

In order to mystify the user, the answers have been mixed up together, and a look-up table prefixed.  The author also introduced a bunch of “answers” that match no question, again to confuse and mystify.

The preface explains how to use the book.  It begins:

From Astrampsychus the Egyptian to King Ptolemy concerning the foretelling of different questions.

And here are the questions.

12 Will I sail safely?
13 Is it a time to consult the oracle?
14 Will I serve in the army?
15 Will I have a share in the business?
16 Will I advance in office?
17 Will I go out of town?
18 Is it to my advantage to enter into an agreement?
19 Will I be successful?
20 Will I purchase what is offered?
21 Will I marry and will it be to my advantage?
22 Can I be harmed in the business affair?
23 Will I move from this place?
24 Is my wife having a baby?
25 Will I be able to borrow money?
26 Will I pay back what I owe?
27 Will the traveler return?
28 Will I soon give an accounting?
29 Am I safe from prosecution?
30 Will I rear the baby?
31 Will I be harmed in the business affair?
32 Will I be freed from servitude?
33 Will I inherit from my father?
34 Will I inherit from my mother?
35 Will I be an official in this matter?
36 Will I find the fugitive?
37 Will I have a good end?
38 Will I inherit from a friend?
39 Will I be an agoranomos?1
40 Will I find what I have lost?
41 Will I be a teacher?
41 Will I survive the sickness?
43 Will I open a workshop?
44 Will I have a long life?
45 Will I obtain the petition?
46 Will I come to terms with my masters?
47 Will I beget children?
48 Will I inherit from my parents?
49 Will I get the dowry?
50 Will I retain possession of my property?
51 Will I argue my case?
52 Will I inherit from my wife?
53 Will I be safe if informed against?
54 Will the one who is sick survive?
55 Will I get the woman I desire?
56 Will I be released from detention?
57 Will I sell my cargo?
58 If I lend money will I not lose it?
59 Is my wife going to miscarry?
60 Will I be an oikonomos?
61 Will I take a lease and will it benefit me?
62 Will I have an inheritance from someone?
63 Will I defeat my opponent in the trial?
64 Am I going to see a death?
65 Will I be a general?
66 Will I be made a cleric?
67 Will I get the call to office?
68 Will I have hope of trust?
69 Will I win if I put down a deposit for an appeal?
70 Am I going to marry my girlfriend?
71 Will I get my deposit back?
72 Will I get provisions?
73 Will I remain where I’m going?
74 Am I going to be sold?
75 Will I get some benefit from my friend?
76 Is it granted to me to have dealings with another?
77 Will I be restored to my place?
78 Will I get an escort?
79 Will I get the money?
80 Is the traveler alive?
81 Will I profit from the undertaking?
82 Are my belongings going to be sold at auction?
83 Will I find a way to sell?
84 Will I buy the thing I have in mind?
85 Will I be prosperous?
86 Will I be banished?
87 Will I be an ambassador?
88 Will I be a senator?
89 Will the fugitive escape my detection?
90 Will I be estranged from my wife?
91 Have I been poisoned?
92 Will I get a bequest?
93 Will I finish what I undertake?
94 Will I be able to see my homeland?
95 Will I become a decemvir?3
96 Will I get free from my lot?
97 Will my wife stay with me?
98 Will I remain an elder?
99 Will I buy land or a house?
100 Will I be caught as an adulterer presently?
101 Will I become a bishop?
102 Will I be estranged from my girlfriend?
103 Will the one who is detained be set free?

And here are the first 10 answers:

1 You won’t have hope of trust.
2 You won’t get the call to office just now.
3 You’ll be made a cleric, but late.
4 You’ll be a general, you’ll thrive, and you’ll be distinguished.
5 You’re going to see a death and to rejoice presently.
6 You’ll have satisfaction. You’ll win. Do battle.
7 You’ll have an inheritance with another trial.
8 If you take a lease, you’ll suffer a great loss.
9 You’ll be an oikonomos and you’ll be envied by someone.
10 She’ll miscarry with peril, but she’ll be safe.

The numbers are in the original.  The preface makes clear that some numbers are in black, and some in red.

The Sortes Astrampsychi as it reached us has been Christianised.  The text contains references to clergy and bishops.  This is what we would expect, as tastes changed in late antiquity.  The vendors of these kinds of books found it expedient to modify their wares for their changed audience.  Suggestions that the customer ask some pagan deity were turned into “Ask Noah” or “Ask Gabriel”, etc.  More explicit material was omitted also.

The work is in truth anonymous.  The name “Astrampsychus” is bogus, as is the dedication to Ptolemy, and an attribution to Pythagoras and use by Alexander the Great.  The name is a nod to the reputation of the Egyptians as magicians, and is used for other anonymous magical works as well.  The text perhaps originates in the 2nd century AD.

In fact the Sortes might be called a “folk book”.  Like jokes, that pass down the years and mutate and change, the basic concept travels down the years and is modified for use in many circumstances.  Other fortune-telling books draw on it, and so we have a trail of material which appears in various forms in very many languages right down to compilations made in the present day.

Two versions of the text have reached us.  The first, known as the ecdosis prior is contained in only one manuscript from the 13th century, the Ambrosianus A 45 sup., ff. 59r, 64v-94v (known as “A”).  The other, the ecdosis altera, is found in at least 8 papyri from the 3rd to the 5th cent. (5 of them from Oxyrrhynchus) and 11 manuscripts from the 14th to 16th cent.  Both versions display christianising influence.

I was able to find online one of the papyri at Berlin: P. 21358 here, 3rd century AD, found in Luxor, and containing some of the “answers” material.

Berlin Papyrus 21358, recto. Sortes Astrampsychi.

Let me end with a little bibliography of this curious item.

The two versions have been edited by Gerald M. Browne and Randall Stewart for the Teubner series in two volumes (Bryn Mawr review here).  The old 1863 Hercher edition of the text is here.

There is also a useful article on the transmission of the text: Randall Stewart, “The textual transmission of the Sortes Astrampsychi“, in Illinois Classical Studies 20 (1995), 135-147 (JSTOR).  From this I learn that there is endless scholarship on this work, although it must be pretty much unknown other than to specialists.

There is a complete English translation by Randall Stewart and Kenneth Morrell in William Hansen, Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature, Indiana University Press (1998), 285-326.  This is based on the second version, omitting some of the more obvious “Christian” interpolations.  A German translation also exists: Kai Brodersen, Astrampsychos: Das Pythagoras-Orakel, Darmstadt (2006).

Share

A pair of Italian leaves of the 16-17th century, a prospect of Rome, and the Baths of Constantine

A correspondent writes to tell us all about an item sold at Sothebys on 12 April 2016, in its sale of the “European Decorative Arts From Caramoor Center For Music And The Arts”.  Lot 168 (online here) is “A pair of Italian leaves with scenes of Venus in her chariot and a sacrifice. 16/17th century.”  The right hand leaf gives a panorama of Rome.

I’ve added a couple of bits of text to allow people to orient themselves.

Lot 168. A PAIR OF ITALIAN LEAVES WITH SCENES OF VENUS IN HER CHARIOT AND A SACRIFICE 16th/17th century. Sothebys, 12 April 2016. European Decorative Arts From Caramoor Center For Music And The Arts.

At the top of the picture is Old St Peter’s basilica.  The road leads down to the Castell Sant Angelo.  The Colosseum and Pantheon are clearly visible.  On the left are two triumphal arches, rather out of place, which I suspect are intended for the forum.

Other items will be familiar to those who read my post, Early 16th century maps of Rome and the Baths of Constantine.  The two horses rearing are the Dioscuri, who still stand on the Quirinal hill, although today they face the Quirinal palace, rather than the city.  The reclining figure behind it is the river god now in the Capitoline Museum, thought to have come from the Baths of Constantine.

To the left are two rotundas.  These are mysterious, but as my other post showed, seem to have been in the area of the Baths of Constantine.  To the left of them is a roofless building with a ruined vault at the end, which resembles some of the depictions of the Baths of Constantine in my post.

Every depiction is useful, so it is nice to have another!

Share

The Confession and Martyrdom of Cyprian of Antioch – translated by Anthony Alcock

Anthony Alcock is continuing his series of translations of Coptic texts.  He has sent in a translation of a hagiographical text, the Confession and Martyrdom of Cyprian of Antioch, and provided a short introduction.  The text is translated from manuscript.

The story is known to 4th century authors but is purely fictional, and perhaps based on earlier pagan stories including Lucian.  The saint is also known as Cyprian the Magician, and he is described as a pagan magician who converts to Christ.  The Wikipedia article on Cyprian and Justina is here.  It has been suggested that the text may have inspired the modern legend of Faust, the man who sold his soul to the devil.  A blog article here gives some interesting information about the text and its transmission in Greek from L. Radermacher, Griechische Quellen Zur Faustsage. Der Zauberer Cyprianus. Die Erzählung Des Helladius. Theophilus. (Anthemius.), 1927.  Unfortunately I have no time to go into any of this now.

Here is the translation of the Coptic texts:

Thank you, Dr Alcock.

Share

Some memories of Steven Ring, Syriacist Extraordinaire

Yesterday I learned by accident of the death of Steven Ring, one of the first enthusiasts online to promote Syriac studies.  He died on March 28th 2021 of cancer.  He had been ill for the previous four years, during which time he undertook and completed a PhD at SOAS.

I’m not sure when I first met Steven online, for it was very long ago.  My email box tells me that we were already well-known to each other in 2006, when I was working on the works of Severus Sebokht and trying to get microfilms from the Bibliothèque Nationale Francais. We swapped war-stories of archives; of who would allow this, or would obstruct that.  We wrote hopefully of how user photography might become something other than a pipe-dream.

But we had come across each other earlier, possibly as early as 2000.  In those days his website “Scholar’s corner: Syriac and Aramaic New Testament studies” – now vanished – was at http://www.srr.axbridge.org.uk/syriac_home.html and this is archived in the Wayback Machine at Archive.org.  A 2006 snapshot is here.

In those days he was an electrical engineer, working for the IEEE, and using his work email address to swap information about Syriac manuscripts.  They were fun, and always to the point.  He was very interested in original language Syriac and Aramaic original material.  One of his emails tells me that he had no interest in the English translations, although this was a bit of an overstatement.

Naturally he made a wide circle of friends and contacts, both among the scholars of our time, and also in the native Syriac community, from Syria out as far as India.  I remember when we first met, in December 2006.  Erica C. D. Hunter ran a short but intensive course on Syriac language at SOAS in London on 4 Saturdays, once a month.  A fair number of people with jobs turned up.  (I must have had lots more energy in those days, to do it after a week in a hotel!)  We stayed in regular touch thereafter.  I helped him to get a reader’s card for the Bodleian in Oxford, which was nearer to his base in Bristol.

He could be somewhat eccentric.  He was an autodidact, and some of his views were distinctly out of the mainstream.  He believed, for instance, that the gospels were originally written in Aramaic.  It was likewise perhaps inevitable that he would adopt Covid-scepticism.  But these quirks did not mar him, or distract from his genuine interest in every area of Syriac studies.  He was a Christian.

Steven Ring, visiting Oxford in 2010.

The last time that I met him in person was on Saturday 10th August, 2013.  We met in the reader admissions at the British Library in London – both of our cards were out of date – and we went up to the Oriental manuscripts room to look at BL Additional 12150.  This is one of the manuscripts from the Nitrian desert, and was written in 411 AD (!)  It had a modern binding, and the librarian handed this 16-century-old item over with barely a glance.  I’d asked him along to help with reading the Syriac.  I was mainly interested in chapter titles and running headers and the like.

It was impossible to mistake his genuine enthusiasm and determination to do scholarship.  He was very much a layman, as I am, but the kind of supporter that every discipline needs.  I was pained to hear from him, while we sat in the cafe having lunch, that some nameless academic at a conference had told him “Remember that you’re only here on sufferance”.  I can  imagine that his enthusiasm could draw such a response from someone for whom academia had become just a job.  This set-down seemed to discourage him, and it gave him a distaste for what he was doing.  I noticed that his pace of work palled for two or three years.  He had also left the IEEE in this time, and attempted to start his own business, although I’m not sure that it was very successful.  Fortunately his 2013 encounter with the British Library manuscripts seems to have reinvigorated him, and he decided that he would do a doctorate.   His long-term enthusiasm for the Diatessaron was poured into his thesis.

Steven Ring – Facebook portrait photo

A few years later I learned that he was unwell, but it did not seem likely to be fatal.  He proceeded with his PhD.  He was still posting about Covid on Facebook in February.

On April 3 2021 this notice appeared on Steven’s facebook page:

To all Steven Ring’s friends, colleagues and associates

It is with great sadness that I write to inform you of his recent passing on the 29th of March.

He had battled cancer for over four years, but had deteriorated rapidly in recent months. He’s now at rest and with the Lord.

Amazingly, in his last few weeks he was able to not only finish his PhD studies, pass his Viva, and be awarded his degree. He also managed to publish much of the last 23 years of his research online (via ResearchGate), so that others might carry on from where he left-off.

We will provide details of his funeral arrangements in due course for those wishing to attend his memorial service remotely.

Lesley Ring

Sadly I only saw this a few days ago.  I was shocked, for I had no idea that his life was in danger.  I suspect that he was in his late 50s, but I don’t know his exact age.

On the hugoye-list here on March 31 Erica Hunter posted this obituary:

Dear Hugoye members,

it is with great sadness that I announce the recent death (on March 28th) of Steven Ring who often contributed to this group under the pseudonym: Estephanos Anglishiya.

Steven was a doctoral student in the Dept. of History, Religions and Philosophies, but had originally completed an M.A. in Electronics and Communications Engineering at the University of Birmingham in 1981.

Syriac Christianity was a life-long passion and after initial studies in Syriac, in 2016 he embarked on a doctoral programme at SOAS under the supervision of Dr. Erica C. D. Hunter.

His thesis, “The post fifth-century use and dissemination of the Syriac Diatessaron with new perspectives on its origins”, created important new understanding re its transmission which he showed continued up to the ninth century, particularly in the East Syriac tradition.

Examined by Emeritus Prof. Nicholas Sims-Williams FBA and Emeritus Prof. John Healey FBA, the thesis was awarded the degree of PhD, just a couple of days before he died.

Steven was a prodigious scholar who had already authored several articles and was planning to write volumes more. He will be sorely missed.

Dr. Erica C D Hunter
Senior Lecturer in Eastern Christianity, Emerita
SOAS

Rest in peace, old friend, and rise in glory.

Share

The “hugoye-list” for Syriac Studies -now at groups.io

Syriac Studies online has long relied on the Hugoye-list, at Yahoo Groups, formerly at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/hugoye-list/.  But this closed in 2018.  This evening I was looking for the new location, and Google really was not that helpful.

In fact the new location was announced on Twitter by @bethmardutho here:

Important announcement: for 20 years, we have hosted an email listserv on Yahoo Groups. As of this month, we are transitioning to a new listserv format. You can find our new home at: https://groups.io/g/hugoye-list

We’ve made this decision because the Yahoo groups format has become increasingly unreliable. Some messages aren’t getting through to the list at all, and we’ve always had some difficulty with some email addresses not being added.

The groups.io format allowed us to automatically transfer our whole member list and the database of messages (over 4600+ threads!).

If you aren’t already a member of the listserv, and you’d like to join, just send an email to: hugoye-list+subscribe@groups.io.

Note: as a transition period, we will keep the old Yahoo group open through the end of 2018, but all messages will be automatically moderated. Then, at the end of the year, we will shut down the yahoo group completely.

So that’s that.  Find the new group here:

https://groups.io/g/hugoye-list

Share

Throwing dice to generate oracles in Roman times

My last post here looked at some examples of Roman 20-sided dice with numerals on them, almost certainly used to create oracles, to discover the future.  There is some literary evidence of this sort of practice, and I want to review it here.

In Pausanias’ Description of Greece 7.25.10, written in the 2nd century AD, we have an account of how a temple would use a random number generator, plus a list of oracular replies, to allow an enquiry of the god.  Here is the passage, which I take from F. Graf, “Rolling the dice for an answer” in S. I. Johnston & P. T. Struck, Mantikê: Studies in Ancient Divination, Brill (2005), p.51-97; p.62.  Graf rightly observes that this approach cannot have been all that common, because Pausanias has to explain the procedure:

When one descends from Bura [in Achaea] towards the sea, there is the Buraikos river and a not large image of Herakles in a grotto; he too is called Buraikos, and he offers an oracle from a list (pinax) and from astragaloi. Whoever intends to consult the divinity, prays in front of the image, and after the prayer, he takes up four astragaloi (plenty of them are lying around Herakles) and rolls them on the table. For any combination of the astragaloi, the inscription in the list gives an easily accessible explanation of the combination.

astragali are literally knucklebones, perhaps with numbers inscribed on the sides, but no doubt dice could be and were used in the same way.  The astragalos was thrown, and a number from 1 to 6 produced.  Graf adds:

This description contains the two main elements that make this type of oracle function: astragaloi, and a list of answers.

Pausanias’ list is lost, but in the Anatolian inscriptions, we possess an entire set of them; we just have to add the several astragaloi that were thrown, the combination of which led to the answer.

The monuments referred to by Graf are the main subject of his excellent if rather dense paper.  They is a set of 17 “large and impressive” inscriptions on stone blocks, about six-foot tall and two-foot wide, in Lycia.  The ruins of Termessos contain a number of these texts.  The inscriptions consist of lists of answers, arranged in ascending order.  Graf gives one example.  The enquirer asks about a voyage that he is intending.  The priest throws the astragalos 5 times.  Here is one of the possible results:

Three “chians” and a six and the fifth a four: Sail wherever you wish; you will return full of joy, for you have found and accomplished everything that you are cherishing in your mind. Cypris likes you, the daughter of Zeus who likes to smile.

The “chios” is the technical term for throwing a “1” with an astragalos, so the text means that, if you throw three ones, a six, and a four, then this answer is the one.

Graf’s paper includes an appendix with a translation of the main text preserved on these inscriptions.  There are various resources around the web on astragalomancy.

So these two sources indicate the approach: throw the dice, or knucklebones, and look up the result in the tables of answers.  A table, perhaps of stone, with the knucklebones on it sat in front of the stones with the answers.

A further literary source for this is a scholion on Pindar, Pythian Odes, poem 4, line 337.[1]  Mopsus is “drawing lots” to find out the “will of heaven”.  Here is the text of the ode, for context:

But, when the flower of the seamen came down to the shore of Iolcus, Jason numbered them and praised them, every one; and, to aid him, Mopsus, after inquiring the will of heaven by noting the flight of birds and by drawing lots (κλάροισιν), right gladly gave the host the signal to set forth.

The scholia are at Perseus here.  As with Pausanias, this refers to a “holy table” in the temple, on which the astragali lay, ready to be used.  Graf again helpfully gives a translation of the key bits:

a. …καὶ ἐν τοῖς ἱεροῖς ἀστράγαλοι κεῖνται, οἷς διαμαντεύονται βάλλοντες αὐτούς.

there are astragaloi in the sanctuaries with which they take oracles by throwing them

b. κλάροισιν: ἰστέον ὅτι κλήροις τοπρὶν ἐμαντεύοντο, καὶ ἦσαν ἐπὶ τῶν ἱερῶν τραπεζῶν ἀστράγαλοι, οἷς ῥίπτοντες ἐμαντεύοντο.

… “there were astragaloi on the sacred tables with which they used to take oracles by throwing them”;

So this confirms the picture that we have already formed.

The inscriptions from Lycia make clear that several throws of the dice or knucklebones are combined in order to get the god’s answer.  The 20-sided Roman dice in the last post would look much more impressive than a few knucklebones, while providing the same function.  The large size and impressive appearance of these dice may be important.  Divination is a form of charlatanry, aimed at convincing the client of something that the diviner knows that he does not know.  So it is important for the diviner to appear impressive.  In the same way the use of 20-sided dice in modern Dungeons and Dragons is not just for convenience; the same end could be produced by several 6-sided ordinary dice. But using these unusual dice does give an air of something special and different.

This is not just my imagination.  The divination process could indeed be deliberately dressed up to be more complex than it needed to be, as is clear from the way that another ancient oracle handbook, the Sortes Astrampyschi is structured.  There the name of a deity is associated with the outcome, but by an unnecessarily complex series of dice throws.

Impressive-seeming objects from Egypt, used to communicate with the gods, immediately reminds us of the magical papyri.  It may be asked whether there is any connection.

A collection of papyrus books, some in demotic, some in Greek, containing magic spells and rituals was uncovered somehow at Luxor in the 1820s and passed into the hands of an Armenian adventurer calling himself Jean d’Anastasi.  No doubt the books came from the tomb of some Graeco-Egyptian priest.  Egypt was famous in antiquity for its magicians.  The existence of dice, also in both languages, combined with our literary testimony above, suggests that the 20-sided dice were not made for games of chance, but rather for use as tools in  ancient magical procedures, such as divination.

We do not possess any oracle book that expects the use of one or more 20-sided dice.  But we have seen at the Anatolian temple an example where the oracles needed to combine one or more dice to get a wider range of results.  Twenty-sided dice are another way to achieve the same end.

Other books of divination using lots or random numbers also exist.  In his 1913 book, Greek divination; a study of its methods and principles, (online here) W. Halliday discusses a great number of them, running into the middle ages.  I won’t go into any of these here.

It is interesting to reflect that these oracular books, and these 20-sided dice, may have been part of the professional equipment of a temple, or possibly the toolkit of an ancient magician.

Share
  1. [1]In the Loeb this is p.218-9 – find it at Loebolus here.