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Ravenous Sheep and Wayward Shepherds, Stolen Corpses, and Wandering Wombs: A Look at some of the (Extra)Ordinary Documentary Papyri at the Rylands Library

Ancient documentary papryi are difficult to read, but with careful attention they often reveal our common humanity.

Ancient papyri are typically divided by specialists into two categories: literary and documentary. The texts grouped in the former have left an incalculable legacy in the West that is immediately recognisable. One need only think of the epic poems of Homer and the works of Aristotle, or the vast number of religious texts transmitted via papyri in Egypt and elsewhere. The immediate value of the latter (tax receipts, accounts and administrative records, judicial hearings, etc.), however, is not always obvious to the modern reader, and its impact often less apparent. There are reasons for this imbalance, including the fact that many documentary papyri often contain dense and technical language that make them difficult to understand and translate across the centuries. Because of this hurdle, these materials often struggle to “speak from the living page,” to quote classicist John Matthews.[1] Matthews’ apropos comment contains the critique and challenge for the historian, and hints at the task at hand: it is for each generation to find our common humanity from the objects of history and to keep in our collective consciousness the fullest expression of this humanity. History has the power to shape us, to teach empathy, to reveal possibility and potential.

For this reason (and I am sure there are others), documentary papyri are vital to the historian, and with some sensitivity and a critical eye, these works can reveal the daily lives of people in ways that the ideals and agendas presented in ancient literature often do not. Herein lies the reason for writing this blogpost. While recently sifting through the vast numbers of documentary papyri housed in the Rylands, I was repeatedly struck by just how much of the human experience shines through seemingly dull and dusty two thousand year-old scraps of writing, and I thought it worthwhile taking a short tour through our archives to draw attention to some of the (extra)ordinary papyri that have survived the accidents of history, allowing a small but fascinating window into a world that is sometimes not so very different from our own. 

Ravenous Sheep and Wayward Shepherds

It is not surprising that agrarian-based societies often produced literature idealising the shepherd as an exemplary figure, or even imbued them with divine or mythological qualities. One need only think of Pan, Orpheus, Apollo, or Endymion in the Greek tradition; Jewish and Christian examples include Moses, David, and of course Jesus as the ‘Good Shepherd.’ When combing through the documents of history produced outside the imaginary worlds of literature, however, an entirely different picture emerges, one that stands in stark contrast to the figures named above. The University of Manchester Special Collections holds at least ten petitions and other legal documents originating from the agricultural hub of Euhemeria in ancient Egypt (Qasr el Banat) that portray historical shepherds often in tension with broader civil society, as unable or unwilling to control their herds of livestock, and as a result are frequently subjected to penalty. A petition written in 34 BCE to the local authorities against a certain shepherd named Harmiusis (P. Ryl. 69), for example, asks for compensation of lost revenue in grain sales because his sheep grazed on 15 artabae of grain (=407 dry litres). This same Harmiusis reappears a few years later in a dated receipt acknowledging that he paid for damages caused by his sheep on another occasion (P. Ryl. 73).

Image of P. Ryl. 73, a petition against a shepherd written in Greek on a vertical strip of papyrus
Greek P. Ryl. 69: petition against a shepherd

Harmiusis is not the only repeat offender from the area. In P. Ryl. 143 and 147 we find another shepherd named Seras whose sheep grazed down 20 artabae of chickling seed and 12 artabae of barley. One may be tempted to excuse these incidents as accidents; it is entirely possible, but in another petition (P. Ryl. 138), this one to the local police chief, we read that the sheep of a certain shepherd named Orsenouphis mowed down an entire olive grove consisting of two hundred young trees, and, apparently, under the cover of darkness, Orsenouphis stole tools and money from the petitioner’s farmstead. Rural life, as it turns out, was not so idyllic, and indeed, we can find numerous other examples of petitioners seeking compensation for the damages caused by ravenous sheep and wayward shepherds in our collections (see P. Ryl. 126, 131, 132, 149, and 152). Ramsay MacMullen in his well-known book Roman Social Relations: 50 BC to AD 284, writes the following about shepherds, confirming our suspicions:

Anyone who sketches his mental picture of country life from Vergil’s Eclogues must plainly re-do its outlines to match real truth. The shepherd was not his own man but hired to guard someone else’s flocks, or a slave: and that someone else might be removed from him by an immense distance, physically, as an absentee landlord, socially, by a wealth that spread its possessions across whole ranges of hills, and administratively, by the interposition of bailiffs, overseers, and lessees. Rustic swains had indeed nothing to sing about. (3)

If we set aside the image of the bucolic countryside, it is perhaps unsurprising to find the shepherds of ancient Egypt at odds and in competition with their neighbours. Geographically the region received almost no annual rain; the land that was available had to be irrigated by the Nile, placing a premium on growing crops; this, combined with the tenuous social status of the shepherd as someone occupying the geographical – and sometimes social – margins of society led to civil infractions and run-ins with the law and caused duress with other agrarians.

Even though these papyri are roughly two thousand years old, they highlight a certain timelessness of the human condition: the anxious struggle over land, natural resources, and the clashes within society over how to manage them. It is this struggle that still speaks to us today. Even though most of us now live in dense population centres seemingly disconnected from the realities of rural life, our interest in these themes is precisely why television shows such as Yellowstone, for example, a show about cowboy troubadours bound by pledge, seemingly impervious to death and living on the margins of contested land, are incredibly popular.

Before moving on with an image of the shepherd as entirely mischievous, there is one final (extra)ordinary document worth mentioning here: although very fragmentary, in P. Ryl. 703 we find what appears to be an oath signed by a group of shepherds who list themselves by name, swear to prevent their flocks from straying, and promise “not to deceive anyone…when questioned.”

Stolen Corpses

P. Ryl. 65 (67 BCE), simply titled ‘Judicial Sentence’ by its editors, is a fascinating glimpse into the world of ancient guilds and mortuary workers, all set within the multilingual judicial court system of Oxyrhynchus, just before the beginning of Roman rule in ancient Egypt. This particular legal document reveals that a guild of mortuary workers (nekrotaphoi in Greek; the original editors translated this word as “grave-diggers”) had established an agreement amongst themselves to share in their labours associated with the burial of the dead. The judicial sentence goes on to state, however, that some guild members named Petosiris, Paris, “and their supporter” had stolen corpses, presumably to increase their share and income. The accused were found guilty and required to pay a fine in copper.

Greek P. Ryl. 65, a papyrus in 2 parts containing a judicial sentence about stolen corpses written in Greek
Greek P. Ryl. 65: a judicial sentence about stolen corpses

The immediacy of this ancient document to a modern reader is quickly apparent as it captures perfectly the vulnerability of both the dead and the family members who entrust their deceased loved ones to be cared for by others. There are, however, other fascinating features in this record worth unpacking, particularly the statement that “all the mortuary workers belonging to the association [i.e. guild] had made an Egyptian contract…”. Let us start with the fact that P. Ryl 65 is one of the oldest documents discovered attesting to mortuary workers (nekrotaphoi) as a distinct labour group that formed a guild. From the establishment of this new guild we can surmise that in the years preceding the Roman rule of Egypt cultural norms pertaining to death and burial were in flux. Perhaps this was because rituals associated with death and dying were becoming less of a familial enterprise and therefore required a new professional class within which its members were stealing corpses in competition for business (see also P. Ryl. 95, a papyrus that mentions burial taxes). It was during this same period that mummification had become more affordable and therefore more popular among certain social classes, all of which would have contributed to the development of this new class of workers. Death was becoming commodified.

Finally, the fact that the mortuary workers mentioned in P. Ryl 65 signed a specifically “Egyptian” contract is another way of stating that the contract was written in Demotic, the language of the day that succeeded Hieratic. The judicial sentence was, however, written in Greek, as you can see from the photograph. This multi-lingual record indicates a highly developed and adept legal system and capable of dealing with documents written in multiple languages, a necessary component for the organisation of any complex multi-cultural society in which people wandered between various social circles, even the dead!

Wandering Wombs (and their Remedies)

The philosophical anthropology of the ancient Greco-Roman world profoundly impacted medical practices in ways that may seem completely foreign in the 21st century. Take, for example, P. Ryl. 531, the earliest extant collection of Greek medical recipes from the ancient world, written on a papyrus scroll. From the photograph below we can see three columns of recipes have been preserved. (Two more columns on the back of the scroll include a recipe for contraceptives.) Verbal and visual separators between the recipes are still visible and aid the reader in separating one recipe from another (a matter of life or death, perhaps!). This particular collection pertains primarily to female illness (although there is an addendum for testicles below), and scholars typically note that a number of recipes included in it are similar but perhaps not dependent on Hippocrates’ Diseases of Women II.

Fragment of papyrus with Greek writing
Greek P. 531: collection of Greek medical recipes

The text of interest to us reads as follows:

In case of hysterical suffocation, take dried otters’ kidneys, as much as can be held in three fingers, and serve in sweet-smelling wine. This is also helpful in the case of pains in the testicles and is an enema for the womb.

If, together with choking, coughing supervenes, take equal quantities of red arsenic and unfired sulphur, also four of five almonds; cleanse them and mix well and then give (give to the patient) in sweet-smelling wine.

P. Ryl. 531

To what medical condition does ‘hysterical suffocation’ refer? This a symptom that ancient Greeks and Romans believed was caused by a ‘wandering womb’ (a term derived from the Greek word ‘hystera’, meaning uterus), the premise being that the womb was considered to be an autonomous self-governing type of animal or living thing, that it was “desirous of childbearing.” Medical problems emerge, however,   

whenever it is fruitless for a long time beyond its due season, being distressed it carries on with difficulty and by wandering in every direction throughout the body, by fencing off the passages of breath, and by not allowing the body to catch its breath, it throws it (i.e. the body) into the extremes of helplessness and provokes all other kinds of diseases.

Plato, Timaeus, 91b-e

In other words, in an effort to satisfy its desire for bearing children, the womb was believed to move within the female body presumably in search of sperm, and in doing so would produce different types of ailments depending on its location. 

The idea governing this philosophical anthropology – that a human being could be comprised of different living things that may compete with one other – was not limited to female anatomy. Male genitalia were also considered to be a sort of living animal that attempted to rule over the body according to its own logic. Unlike the womb, however, which would attack the body in which it was housed, male genitalia had a “stinging desire” for the other (Timaeus, 91b) and did not possess the same ability to attack or cause ailments to the body to which it was attached.

One might recognise this ancient description of the effort required to control male sexual desire, as it has remained a common trope even to this day (see for example the Seinfeld episode, “The Nose Job”). The idea of a ‘wandering womb,’ however, seems to have been forgotten over the centuries and today sounds completely incomprehensible to us, although we must note that the idea that hysteria as a specifically female malady continued prominently into the twentieth century with frequently horrible consequences for women.

Before we allow ourselves the congratulatory conceit of modern science, it is worth considering whether perhaps there is something of this ancient idea of the ‘wandering womb’ that we can still recognise in contemporary society: despite our tremendous advances in medicine, we still struggle to articulate through metaphor and scientific inquiry the relationship between “womb” and its host, and that childbirth has always been and continues to be a dangerous undertaking.

Why dried otters’ kidneys and sweet-smelling wine? We can only speculate. We do know that dried otters’ kidneys were considered an acceptable replacement for beaver castoreum, which was used in medical recipes designed to treat nervous disorders and various aches and pains. Not only does castoreum contain salicylic acid (i.e. the active ingredient in aspirin), it was also used as a perfume, which may provide another clue for its inclusion here; that is, the womb was sensitive to scents. Note that Aretaeus (2nd c. CE), a physician from Cappadocia, writes in On the Causes and Signs of Acute Diseases (book one) that the womb “delights also in fragrant smells, and advances towards them; and it has an aversion to fetid smells, and flees from them.” And so, whether dried otters’ kidneys were considered fragrant or fetid, their inclusion with sweet-smelling wine may have been based on olfactory considerations that was designed to guide the womb back into place using different scents and fumigations. Needless to say, it was less than scientific.

These few papyri mentioned in the above writing are but a handful of the many unique objects housed at the Rylands. They encapsulate a smorgasbord of life in ancient Egypt. Although stealing corpses, mowing down young olive groves, wandering wombs, and curing testicular pain with sweet-smelling wine might seem to belong to a far-distant past, the human experiences that led to them (competition for resources, the need to care for the dead, looking after our bodies) remain very close to life today, and with careful attention these ancient bits and pieces of papyri have the capacity to reveal our common humanity.  

[1] John Matthews, The Journey of Theophanes: Travel, Business, and Daily Life in the Roman East (New Haven: YUP, 2006), vii.

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