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

tl;dr version: interesting analysis of a fragment of Julius Africanus’ Kestoi published in 1931; Middleton analyzes the full fragment in its context to argue that it plays on Hellenistic editorial practices as well as the conventions of Greek magic.

maybe advanced undergrads could read this, but the material is pretty erudite. No explicit theoretical background is invoked.

stakes: a new way of thinking about an intriguing text, with (unexplored) implications for who in the ancient world read this stuff and why

The two-column papyrus fragment Middleton looks at here (P. Oxy 412), part of which is included in the collection of Greek magical papyri known as PGM, is from a larger (lost) work by Julius Africanus known as the Kestoi. Analyzing something from a little-known work by restoring its context in an even-lesser-known work looks like addressing a very specialized audience indeed, but the argument is clear and interesting, if focused in an under-trafficed corner of the field.

The text of the Africanus fragment presents 40-odd lines of hexameter poetry in its first column, with prose commentary following in the second. The poetry purports to come from Odyssey 11, where Odysseus recounts his encounter with the shades of the dead, but it includes some Iliadic lines and some entirely invented ones, which reference Egyptian rather than Greek gods. Only this first part of the papyrus fragment is included in PGM.

Middleton turns first to the prose commentary section of the fragment, arguing that Africanus references/plays upon/inverts the practices of Hellenistic textual scholarship. In particular she shows how Africanus alters the practice of athetesis, which marked out (while preserving) specific lines of Homeric text as spurious. Her conclusion is that Africanus, in direct opposition to the practices of this tradition of scholarship, instead presents a shifting, permeable and dynamic text rather than a rigidly defined one where authentic text and later additions are starkly distinguished. Africanus includes lines athetized by the Homeric scholar Aristarchus, but excludes without comment lines included in other editions, in addtion to the wholesale interpolation of obviously anachronistic Egyptian material.

Once she has shown how Africanus references Hellenistic scholarly practice, Middleton goes on to discuss the contemporary practice of using lines of Homer in magical incantations. The material presented here is fascinating, and while I knew of the practice I was still enchanted (not literally) by the examples she included.

While she argues that the fragment brings into conversation these two very different ways of thinking about the Homeric text, Middleton does not attempt to answer the obvious question of why or to what effect Africanus would do such a thing. My assumption (which perhaps comes out of my ignorance) is that the audience for Hellenistic scholarship on Homer would have been quite different from the audience for instructions on using Homer in magical incantations. Is Africanus really supposed to be addressing the latter audience playing on conventions known only to the former? Or is he parodying both? For whom?

Even without the (ultimately unknowable) answers to these questions, though, I’m glad to have learned that the fragment exists and something about its general context.