More on the Homeromanteion

Yesterday I mentioned the Homeromanteion.  This work consists of an introduction, followed by a list of oracular extracts from Homer.  Using three 6-sided dice, you can get a random extract.

The work is extant in three papyri, P.Bon. 3, P.Oxy. 3831, and PGM VII.  One of these, P.London 1, 121 is a six foot long roll.  It is mentioned in this excellent British Library Manuscripts blog post post, by Federica Micucci, which also gives this image of the end of it.  The three numerals are at the start of each line.

The end of the translation given in Betz, Greek Magical Papyri, PGM VII, is as follows:

The left-most numbers are modern, as we can see.

I should have liked to give the instructions at the start of the work, but these were only preserved in P.Oxy. 3831.  There is a translation apparently by P.J. Parsons, in the original publication in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol. 56 (1989), p.44-48, but this does not seem to be online.  The BL blog gives an extract:

First, you must know the days on which to use the Oracle; second, you must pray and speak the incantation of the god and pray inwardly for what you want; third, you must take the dice and throw it three times.

There is an excellent article by Raquel Martin-Hernandez – whose Academia.edu site contains a great deal of material about sortilege, the art of divining using dice – on using Homer for divination, with special reference to the Homeromanteion. It may be found here.

Similar methods could be used with biblical texts, of course; and so they duly were.  Both Augustine and Jerome refer to these, according to Martin-Hernandez, who gives two interesting footnotes:

[4] Augustine, Epist. 55.20.37. Jerome, Epistula ad Paulinum Nolanum 53, 7 (CSEL 54, 453). See Klingshirn 2002: 82-84.

[5] The use of the Bible for divination was not only conducted by secular people, but also by members of the clergy on the light of Canon 16 of the council of Vannes, dated to the 462 and 468 CE: aliquanti clerici student auguriis et sub nomine confictae religionis quas sanctorum sortes vocant…hoc quicumque clericus detectus fuerit vel consulere vel docere ab ecclesia habeatur extraneus. “Some clergy are devoted to the interpretation of signs, and under the label of what pretends to be religion, what they call Saints’ Lots…any cleric found either to have consulted or expounded this should be considered estranged from the church” (Concilia Galliae, A. 314-A. 506 [CCSL 148:156]). Text provided by Klingshirn 2005: 100. For the use of the Bible for divination see Klingshirn 2005.

In the decay of the church in the late 4th century, it is perhaps unsurprising that such superstitions should take hold.

They are not really very different from opening the bible at random; a practice not unknown even today.

A Roman rock-crystal icosahedron (20-sided dice) in the Louvre

Here’s a pretty image that floats around the web:

It’s ancient, and an icosahedron – a 20-sided dice.[1] The Musée du Louvre twitter account (@MuseeLouvre) posted further images of what is plainly the same item (click to enlarge).

The inventory number seems to be MNC882.[2]  It is a pity that the Louvre is not as advanced as the British Museum in placing its collections online.

The Louvre account tells us that it is 1cm high, rock crystal – “en cristal de roche” – and Roman empire period.

Each face has a Latin letter on it, and also the corresponding Roman numeral.  The ten lateral faces bear the letters A to K, and the numerals 1 to 10.  The upper five triangles bear the letters L to P and the numbers 11 to 15.  The lower five triangles bear the letters Q to V, and the numbers 16-20.[3]

The inscriptions on the Louvre rock-crystal icosahedron.

This item is by no means unique.  A considerable number of polyhedral dice have been recovered from all over the Roman empire.  The majority are inscribed with Greek or Latin numbers or letters.

One unique example was an icosahedron – 20 sided dice – found in Egypt, which had the name of a different Egyptian god on each side.[4]

What were these things used for?  Obviously they were intended to be thrown, and to give a random result.  But what then?

One often-heard explanation is that they were used in conjunction with divination handbooks.  There is a 2nd/3rd century Greek oracle book, the Homeromanteion, preserved in three papyri, which refers to throwing lots to obtain a number, which can be used to look up ready-prepared oracle questions and answers.[5]  It is amusing to discover a website that allows the reader to throw the three dice and looks up the answer!  It’s at http://www.homeromanteion.com/.

 Likewise an inscription at Olympus gives another such a set of prophecies, one per letter/number of the Greek alphabet.  (There is an online version of it here.)  The Metropolitan Museum in New York has an icosahedron from Egypt, either Ptolemaic or Roman, with Greek numbers (online here).

But of course we cannot know for sure precisely what our dice was used for.

For those who wish to know more about ancient dice, there is a wonderful bibliography in this forum thread “Random Facets from the History of Dice” at boardgamegeek.com (!)

  1. [1]Strictly we should say “die”, plural “dice” in English, but I have never ever heard anybody refer to a single die as anything but “throw the dice”.
  2. [2]Listed at a website called Réunion des Musées Nationaux here, giving the date only as “Roman Empire”.  This seems to be the source of our original photograph.
  3. [3]This description and illustration from Minas-Nerpel; another transcription appears in F. N. David, Games, Gods, and Gambling: A History of Probability and Statistical Ideas, (1998) p.12.  Google Books Preview.
  4. [4]Martina Minas-Nerpel, “A demotic inscribed icosahedron from Dakleh oasis”, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 93 (2007), 137-148.  Online at https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/160449173.pdf.
  5. [5]More information here.