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The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri

The Literary Tebtunis Papyri

There are 54 literary and subliterary texts among the Tebtunis papyri. With one exception (P. Tebt. 686), all texts are written in Greek. Two thirds of them date to the Roman period, the remainder to the Ptolemaic period. The collection contains texts that have come down to us through the medieval manuscript tradition (Homer, Demosthenes) as well some fragments of texts that were lost, such as parts of Sophocles' satyr play Inachus.

The author most represented among the Tebtunis papyri -- not surprisingly because he was the most popular author of Graeco-Roman Egypt -- is Homer. Twelve fragments preserve parts of the Iliad; the remaining three contain lines of the Odyssey. The most impressive of these papyri is P.Tebt. 265 (second century AD), a portion of the second book of the Iliad. It is written in beautiful large round uncial letters. Another papyrus preserving fragments of Iliad Book II, is P. Tebt. 426 . For other fragments of Homer in the collection see P. Tebt. 427, 266, 428, 429, 430, 431, 432, 898, and 900.

Among the other known authors and works represented in the Tebtunis papyri, we find Xenophon (P. Tebt. 682), Pindar (P. Tebt. 684), and Euripides (P. Tebt. 901). The first two of these were copied by experienced scribes. The Euripides fragment, in which the first line of the Bacchae is repeated four times. was a school exercise.

Examples of lost works of known authors, from which papyrology draws much of its fame among classical philologists, are also to be found among the Tebtunis papyri. The collection contains a fragment of Dictys Cretensi Ephemeris Belli Troiani (P. Tebt. 268), a work known only in its Latin translation before the discovery of this Greek text.

Dictys is supposed to have kept a diary (in Phoenician characters) during the Trojan War. This work was said to have been discovered again during the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero (54-68 AD) and transliterated into Greek. The Tebtunis papyrus is not much later than this. The better known Latin translation was made in the fourth century AD.

Another important piece in the collection consists of seven fragments with parts of what is almost certainly Sophocles' Inachus (P. Tebt. 692); the fragments date to the second century BC. The Tebtunis piece is one of two extant papyri that preserve portions of this play. The fragments came from the cartonnage of a human mummy, which explains the remains of plaster and paint still visible on one of the fragments.

The Tebtunis papyri also include a number of medical and astrological texts. These texts may once have formed part of the library of the temple of Soknebtunis. The medical fragments include works with ophthalmological and other medical prescriptions (P. Tebt. 273 and 677), as well as an illustrated herbal detailing the medicinal properties of each plant (P. Tebt. 679). Examples of other fragments of medical works are P. Tebt. 676, 678, and possibly 689.

The astrological texts include a work in which the effects of planetary positions are described (P. Tebt. 276) and a treatise which details the connection between the heavenly bodies and various trades (P. Tebt. 277).

Among the subliterary pieces is an amulet against fever (P. Tebt. 275). It contains a magical word repeated with successive omission of the first and last letters so as to form an inverted triangle (cf. the ABACADABRA) and a prayer (unfortunately somewhat damaged) for protection against fever:

Unwearied Kok Kouk Koul, save Thais whom Tar... bore from every fever, whether it be tertian or quartan or daily or on alternate days, or by night..., since I am ..., Kok Kouk Koul.