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Greek literature in the crocodile temple

Since I spent part of the past week working on a new (Greek) literary fragment from the dossier of the priests of Soknebtunis, I thought that I would devote this post to some brief remarks concerning the Greek reading interests of the Tebtunis clerics. Even a cursory examination of the evidence indicates that John Tait’s assessment—“not cut off from Greek culture, but their concern with it was curiously limited” (in J. Johnson, ed., Life in a Multi-Cultural Society, p. 310)—cannot stand. As Peter van Minnen has noted on a “macro” (i.e., regional) level (“Boorish or Bookish,” JJP 1998, p. 169), Egyptian priests’ interests extended beyond the medical and scientific texts that we might expect them to have in their libraries, papyri like the pulmonary handbook edited by Isabella Andorlini and the illustrated herbal discussed by Ann Hanson. If we consider only the contents of my own collection at Berkeley, we find the priests engaging with Homer (an example), the Hesiodic Catalogue, a grammatical text (apparently), probably Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, and possibly Euripides’ Phoenissae. With the exception of the Xenophon, which also may have been part of a “deluxe” edition, these texts are suggestive of a Greek school environment: Homer functioning as the backbone of the system, of course; the Phoenissae being, in Raffaella Cribiore’s words, the “grammarian’s choice” (cf. Y. L. Too, ed., Education in Greek and Roman Antiquity, 241ff.); and the Catalogue having appeal at higher levels of instruction for its mythological and heroic genealogies. (In fact Cribiore, not aware of its temple context, has already indicated that the Berkeley Catalogue may have had a pedagogical use; see Gymnastics of the Mind, p. 198, n. 57.) Looking beyond Berkeley we find, e.g., P.Tebt. Tait 38, an Iliad fragment that is likely to have been a product of the classroom, and Giovanna Menci has broached a school context for PSI Il. 21. (Menci goes on to reject this context in her edition, based in part on her understanding of the text’s provenance. I have argued elsewhere [in G. Bastianini & A. Casanova, eds., 100 anni di istituzioni fiorentine per la papirologia, pp. 67ff.] that this text should be assigned to the Tebtunis temple.)

That the Tebtunis priests were learning Greek should not be a source of wonder (except, perhaps, in certain Egyptological quarters), but how they appear to have been doing it merits our attention: I cannot help but think of paideia, of the techniques and texts that served to form and bind “Hellenic” elites across the Roman East. At present I am still developing my arguments, but it is certain that the priests do not constitute a special case; i.e., they should be scrutinized in the same manner as these other bodies—groups both displaced and actively cultivated by the ruling power—in the imperial East. Or to put it another way: Understanding the Second Sophistic is critical for unraveling the social and cultural phenomena of the late Egyptian temple.

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