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  • Illusions and Vanishing Acts: Homeric Recension, Athetesis, and Magic in P. Oxy 412 (PGM XXIII)
  • Francesca Middleton (bio)

For more than eighty years, following its initial discovery and publication, P. Oxy 412 has been included in collections of the so-called Greek magical papyri (Papyri Graecae magicae = PGM)1 and suffered from the association. The fragment itself consists of two columns. The first constitutes forty-three lines of Homeric hexameter which reproduce a highly edited passage of Odyssey 11, including interpolations of both Iliadic lines and original composition, notably a ritual invocation to call on the dead. The second column adds twenty-five lines of prose commentary. As a whole, the papyrus purports to be part of Julius Africanus’s Kestoi, an encyclopedic work of the mid-third century CE that covered a great variety of different topics.2 These topics included magic and ritual paraphernalia,3 but also many other technical subjects such as “architecture, medicine, veterinary science, engineering, pharmacology, agriculture, military tactics and weaponry, metrology, and dyes,”4 suggesting that the fragment need not be approached solely from the perspective of magic.

Even when considering P. Oxy 412 in the context of the Kestoi, scholars have only recently shifted focus from the first part of the papyrus, indeed the only part included in the PGM collection. Despite Jean-René Vieillefond’s (1970) contextualization of the papyrus within the extant Kestoi fragments,5 before Martin Wallraff et al.’s carefully compiled edition of the Kestoi in 2012 the most recent edition of the papyrus was by Terence DuQuesne (1991), who focused almost exclusively on its supposed display of Egyptian mysticism. Francis C. R. Thee’s (1984) study of the Kestoi fragments equally focuses on the issue of magic and, in a rare and significant literary treatment of the papyrus, Ahuvia Kahane (1997, 322) states conclusively: “The ‘logic of magic’ is at the heart of P. Oxy. 412. What most voces [magicae] are to language [sc. senseless utterances which signify sounds rather than concepts], P. Oxy. 412 is to epic.”

Beyond the recent textual work of Jürgen Hammerstaedt (2009) and the contextualizing perspective of Wallraff et al. (2012), I contend that [End Page 139] the relationship between P. Oxy 412 and Homeric epic is more sophisticated than earlier approaches have suggested. It deserves detailed attention not only from scholars interested in Africanus’s Kestoi and ancient magic but also from those interested in ancient conceptions of Homer and textual-literary criticism. In the first section of this paper, I explore how the (pseudo-)scholarly frame that Africanus appends to his version of Odyssey 11 frames this and the standard Odyssey text as competing, parallel recensions of the same Homeric story. I argue that by inverting, revising, and extending the ‘rules’ of Hellenistic textual criticism, Africa-nus plays with the idea of what his text should be seen to represent, of what any text of the Odyssey should be seen to represent, and so restructures the reader’s sense of epic textuality. The use of ‘magic’ to highlight this is particularly pertinent, as I discuss in the subsequent section, since this context allows Africanus to establish a further tension between the inherited Hellenistic approach of textual delimitation and the freer, more fluid approach to Homeric textual material found in contemporary ritual practice. Rather than a passive response to Homer’s changing position in the third century CE, therefore, I ultimately claim that P. Oxy 412 as a fragment of the Kestoi uses the changed position of Homer to both propose and demonstrate the impact of such a perspective on the very notion of what it means to read Homeric epic at that time.

Edition as Illusion

In the second column of P. Oxy 412, Africanus’s subject matter shifts from a retelling of Odyssey 11.34–51 to something of an editorial commentary on that same passage. Although this part of the papyrus generally receives little discussion, it in fact provides a crucial framework for the text as a whole, guiding a reader’s interpretation of the preceding verse passage. For now that he has reproduced a version that diverges greatly from the standard post-Hellenistic text of the Odyssey...


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