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 walking 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!

Update 22 April 2024: A kind commenter pointed out that “spatiantem” should be “walking” – fixed! 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.