27 April 2013

The Curse of Artemisia

He was her man, and he done her wrong!

That's more or less what a woman named Artemisia, daughter of Amasis, said to her erstwhile lover, and so she made a curse.  She didn't exactly sing it and there wasn't any jazz band in the land, but the sentiment is one that resonates through the ages:
This story has no moral,
This story has no end,
This story just goes to show
That there ain't no good in men,
He was her man, And he done her wrong.
The Artemisia of the curse left one of the earliest surviving Greek documents written on papyrus, dated to the middle of the 4th century BCE, probably written even before the arrival of Alexander the Great in Egypt (332 BCE).  It comes from the Ionian community in Memphis -- that is, from the Greeks who originally lived in central coastal Anatolia and who settled at that time in a merchant colony on the Nile just south of modern Cairo. 

The Curse of Artemisia Papyrus (P. Vindob. G 1)

Who is Artemisia?

The woman is named after the famous female ruler of Caria who, Herodotus tells us in his Histories , personally commanded five ships at the naval battle of Salamis in 480 BCE.  She was a Persian ally and fought audaciously, to put it mildly.  But the Persians lost and their king, who had watched the battle, is supposed to have said, "My men have become women and my women, men."  So when Amasis named his daughter after this queen, he was making quite a statement.  Curiously, however, Amasis himself bore the name of the last native pharaoh (died 526 BCE) who ruled Egypt just before it was conquered and incorporated into the Persian Empire. It may be that our Artemisia was the child of a mixed Ionian-Egyptian family.  We know nothing else about her ... except, of course, that she wrote this text.

And that her man had done her wrong.  He fathered a daughter on her but when the little girl died, he refused to pay for the funeral and her burial goods.  A proper burial is everywhere  important but nowhere more so than in Egypt.  So Artemisia cursed him bitterly: 
O lord [Sarapis] and the gods who sit with [Sarapis], Artemisia the daughter of Amasis [appeals] to you against the father of her daughter, who has deprived her of her funeral rights and burial.  So ... he has not treated me and his children rightly, indeed he has treated me and his children wrongly....
She begs the god to deny this man, tit for tat, the solace of being buried by his children in turn, and for good measure that he fails to bury his own parents.  She then curses the man who mistreated her roundly: may he and what is his be destroyed evilly on land and on sea by [Serapis] and the gods who sit in the House of [Serapis].  To ensure that the god hears her plea, she sensibly deposits the papyrus in the god's house, the Serapeum which existed at Memphis (and where it was found almost two millennia later), along with a final angry demand: While the appeal lies here, may the father of the young girl receive no favours at all from the gods

Neglecting the Curse of Artemisia

Discovered in 1826, this papyrus should have been received with jubilation by the scholarly community.  After all, it was one of the first Greek papyri ever to come to light and it is, to this day, still one of the oldest papyri bearing Greek writing.  Far from being acclaimed, however, it was entirely neglected until 1899 when it was republished in Palaeography of Greek Papyri.  It was then damned with no praise, the scholar noting that the letters of the script were a bit clumsy and imitate those of stone inscriptions (for example, the theta with middle dot). Rather crude, in fact.  Clearly, the papyrus was not up to snuff:   
[It] is not the work of a professional scribe, but the writing of an uneducated woman who uses uncial letters [i.e., written entirely in capital letters] because she can form no others.  Artemisia used letters like those employed in inscriptions for the same reason that an illiterate person always uses capitals, because such letters were commonly before her eyes in public places, while she had probably seldom seen a book.

For professors entirely accustomed to studying the literary texts written by the 1-2% of the Greek writing elite -- the poets, philosophers, politicians, historians, and buddy scholars -- the mostly anonymous lower social classes for all intents and purposes remained unknown ... and unwanted.  Who cared about the ideas, thoughts, hopes and fears of artisans, shopkeepers, merchants, homemakers and whores, farmers, soldiers and sailors?  Oracles, dreams, magic spells and curses alike were  low-brow, barbaric, disgusting!  Only a few of these people were able to write anything better than scrawls.*  

But what the Artemisia papyrus demonstrates is that there was very little difference between literary and non-literary scripts in the 4th century BCE -- and certainly not in the Greek colony of Memphis on the Nile. In other words, Greek handwriting, both for literature and more ephemeral documents, was all originally in 'epigraphic' form, which resembled the lettering on monumental inscriptions: 
In the beginnings of writing on papyrus it cannot be doubted that, in formally and carefully written [manuscripts], the shapes of the letters were nearly identical with those in contemporaneous use in inscriptions; and the greater or less occurrence of epigraphic forms, in a [manuscript] written, not by an uneducated person (as in the case of the Artemisia papyrus), but by a trained scribe, may be taken as evidence for a relatively early date.
 If, at this early date, trained scribes wrote in much the same way as Artemisia, it may be concluded that she could write tolerably well and must have been educated to better than a basic level.  The fact that one of the first Greeks in Egypt to put pen (or stylus) to papyrus was a woman obviously rankled with gentlemen scholars.  It made the curse seem even worse.  Much better to ignore it.  

For some it seems, There ain't no good in women.

Many more scrawls and scratches coming up, with new posts planned on graffiti at Dura Europos.

* Greek literary culture was largely oral up to the fourth century BCE, but reading became widespread at least a century earlier. Up to 10% of the Athenian population was able to read (and write), and this figure was no doubt more than double among the male citizens.  In pharaonic Egypt -- probably the most literate society of its time-- an estimated 1-5% of the population was literate. However, generalisations covering the whole country, even within any one period, mask differences between urban and rural populations. This may seriously underestimate the proportion of the population able to read and write in towns; the estimate of literacy for some Egyptian urban populations may have reached ca. 15%: see Digital Egypt for Universities, UCL.

Sources: My thanks to the blog of Brice C. Jones for recently highlighting the Curse of Artemisia. Other sources include W. M. Brashear, 'Out of the Closet: Recent Corpora of Magical Texts', Classical Philology 91 (Oct., 1996), 372-383; (J. Rowlandson & R. S. Bagnall, eds.) Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook, CUP, 1998, No. 37;  A. Mugridge, Writing and Writers in Antiquity: Two "Spectra" in Greek Handwriting, American Studies in Papyrology (Ann Arbor 2010) 573–580


The papyrus fragment (35.5 x 8.5 cm). P. Vindob. G 1. Photograph: World Digital Library


  1. Sent to me by email:

    "Dear Judith,

    Many thanks for sending me a link to your excellent blog post. It is an exciting little piece, isn't it?

    Just a couple points of clarification. You say that Kenyon "republished" the papyrus in his Palaeography of Greek Papyri, but he did not "republish" the papyrus; he merely described it. Also, while it is true that this papyrus is among the earliest extant papyri from Egypt, we can assume that writing on papyrus was much more prevalent than the scant evidence suggests, not least because the native Egyptians had been writing on papyrus for centuries. So Artemisia may not have been "one of the first Greeks in Egypt to put pen (or stylus) to papyrus."

    In any case, these are trivial observations. Thank you for an interesting post; I have now updated my own blog post with a link to yours.

    With best wishes,
    Brice Jones"

  2. And a quick update via Brice Jones' blog today. Reviewing *Hellenistic Bookhands* (G. Cavallo & H. Machler, Berlin 2008, http://bricecjones.weebly.com/1/post/2013/04/book-review-hellenistic-bookhands.html) he wrote:

    There is also an interesting question as to why archaic or “epigraphical” features dropped out of use beginning in the 3rd century and almost altogether disappeared by the 2nd. According to the authors, the reasons are two. First, Rosalind Thomas demonstrates that orality played a higher role in Athens prior to the fourth century BCE, and that before this time “evidence did not have to be presented in court in writing until the fourth century” .... Given that there was a reluctance to take to writing when it came to everyday affairs, the style of handwriting in the 6th-4th centuries remained static. Second, the foundation of the royal library in Alexandria in the 4th century BCE generated an unprecedented interest in bookrolls, and the vast amount of copying forced scribes to develop styles of handwriting that would allow for much more speed in the copying process. Thus, the development of cursive writing is emblematic of an increase in book production beginning in the 4th century BCE.


Blog Archive