Coptic Magical Papyri on the Road: Letters, Archives and Communication in Late Antiquity

A conference report by guest author Markéta Preininger

Rodney Ast and Loreleï Vanderheyden of the SFB sub-project A02 “Antique Letters as a Means of Communication” organized a hybrid conference in Heidelberg on the 8th and 9th of November 2021 on the topic of letters, archives, and communication in Late Antiquity. As Rodney Ast remarked in his introduction to the conference, there has been an increasing focus in recent years on the appreciation of texts as physical products of communities organized around the cultures of writing. Materiality and text culture was thus the main focus of this conference on letters.

Jean-Luc Fournet was the keynote speaker at the conference; he spoke about the private letters of Graeco-Roman Egypt, emphasizing their uniqueness in giving us a rare glimpse into daily life of ancient people. According to Fournet, it is a genre par excellence deficient and elliptical – for instance, letters and their answers are rarely found together – the reciprocal nature of letters was often not preserved, and we usually only have half of a conversation. Furthermore, it is a genre resistant to historical analysis: papyrus letters rarely mention the great contemporary events that might interest historians – the Justinianic Plague, or the Persian and Arab conquests. Modern researchers might expect letters to convey intimacy and authenticity; a letter is a mirror of the soul, as we read in Demetrius, the Athenian orator (De elocutione 227; 4th-3rd century BC). Yet, as we see in Julius Victor’s Ars Rhetorica 27 (4th century CE) and Pseudo-Libanius’ Epistolary Styles (4th-6th century CE)  the norms of ancient letter writing left little room for originality and improvisation in composing a letter, and so we rarely see real examples of authentic or spontaneous feelings. Fortunately, not every letter-writer respected these recommendations and offered us a glimpse into daily life; a nice example of this is P. Oxy. I 119, a grumpy letter from a second- or third-century CE boy to his father complaining about not being taken to Alexandria.

Markéta Preininger of the project spoke about the JesusAbgar letters written in Coptic – the texts of several of them are published in Kyprianos. These were letters exchanged between Abgar, the king of Edessa, asking Jesus for healing, and Jesus granting him the healing in his response. This tradition has been known since the 4th century, and was relatively well-known throughout the Christian world (the textual tradition is attested in Greek, Coptic, Syriac, Persian, Arabic or Slavonic). Preininger highlighted what differentiates them from typical letters – for instance, they were never sent, do not have an address, and they are attested also on different materials than letters (e.g., wooden tablet or wall inscription), which tend to be written on papyri and ostraca. Furthemore, at least two of them have distinctly “magical” features – such as the “quickly” formula or magical signs – and include the name of the beneficiary, who should be healed by the amulet. Like “typical” letters, the Jesus-Abgar letters contain the name of the sender and addressee and a greeting formula. 

Sebastian Richter spoke about P.Col. inv. 600 aka “P. Budge”, from the 7th century, minutes from a court hearing in Apollonopolis Magna written in Coptic. Thekla and her son Mena dispute in their letters – whose original is not attested – with Tsoker, the father of Mena and ex-husband of Thekla about property. This text is a rich source for family relations and legal disputes. A re-edition of this papyrus is in preparation by Sebastian Richter. Those interested in hearing more about Sebastian Richter’s work can listen to the podcast we recorded with him last year concerning alchemical texts. 

A copy of the letter from Jesus to Abgar, stored in Vienna.

Sofía Tollaras Tovar spoke on the formats of official correspondence in Late Antique Egypt. P. Monts. Roca inv. 14 (4th century), a roll, is a Coptic copy of a letter sent by Athasius, the Patriarch of Alexandria, to Dracontius  in 353 CE). Dracontius was a monk chosen to be bishop – but he did not want to accept the responsibility – and the letter is an attempt to convince him to accept the role. Tollaras Towar noticed that some Greek loanwords – but not all – were highlighted by the scribe by the use of distinctive letterforms. As she pointed out, the use of a roll, which was at this point being replaced by the codex for copying literary texts, is typical of patriarchal correspondence, and perhaps an archaising feature. The archive of Apa Sabinos of Antinoopolis was at the center of Maria Jesus Albarran’s talk. The archive consists of Greek and Coptic papyri.

Two papers on politeness in letters were presented at the conference. Yasmine Amory discussed the material aspects of politeness in letters from late antiquity. Amory for instance proposed an example of a letter claiming it will not use a traditional letter formula and thus disrespecting the addressee. Also, Amory showed examples of letters on ostraca containing apologies that the letters are not written on papyri – showing that using papyri was considered the proper material for letters, and thus polite. Furthemore, writing the letter, or at least signing it, with one’s own hand was also viewed as a mark of respect for the addressee. At the very end of the first day (that is before the lovely conference dinner), Anne Boud’hors focused on the development of politeness formulae based on the Greek skullein (σκύλλειν, meaning to trouble, annoy; σκύλλεσθαι meaning to take the trouble) and skulmos (σκυλμός, originally meaning annoyance, vexation), especially in Coptic documents, in which it was often connected to a difficult journey, and hence the reluctance to travel; these phrases often mark the speaker’s acknowledgement that they are requesting something which may bother the recipient – “we ask you to take the trouble to come to us”, for example.  

On the second day of the conference, Jacques van der Vliet – who was also a guest on our podcast – introduced us to the archive of the saint bishop Pisentius (ca. 620-625 CE) that he is currently editing. The provenance of the archive (consisting mostly of letters) is the Monastery of Epiphanius; nowadays, the archive is dispersed in collections around the world. The most substantial is P. Pesynthios Louvre consists of ca. 70 papyri, the Renate’s Dekker – “Dataset 4” – published in Episcopal Networks and Authority in Late Antique Egypt – consists of ca. 100 documents linked to Pesynthios and his entourage. The language is literary Sahidic Coptic, the material is often recycled papyri. Interestingly, Greek is lacking, and appears only on the re-used documents (mainly in relation with accounting and taxation documents and canon law). The addressee was primarily the bishop himself (but almost no letters that he sent remain), the senders were church officials and civil dignitaries and “clients” – people who sought out his help. The letters mostly dealt with crises, either public (administrative) or personal (family and social relations) – but, spiritual issues are rarely discussed. In van der Vliet’s talk, as in some of the other talks, it was highlighted that major historical events are – surprisingly – not discussed in letters and that the letters have a formalized rhetorical means of negotiating the relationship between the two parties. So, the miaphysite diocese of Coptos was run from a distance, via networks of letters. Another archive was presented by Frederick Krueger, namely the Coptic letters on ostraca of the monk and co-abbot Andrew of Hermonthis from the Monastery of Apa Ezekiel in Deir es-Saqiya (archaeologically dated to the 5th or 6th century, the letters dated to the second half of the 6th century), recently published by Krueger. These letters are mainly orders for delivery addressed to other monks, to send him various goods (tools, papyrus, food etc.) – again pointing towards the existence of a monastic network, as van der Vliet also suggested. Occasionally, Andrew complains in the letters about the goods not being delivered.

Official Letter from the Governor Qurra ibn Sharik to Basilius (P.Lond. IV 1359, TM 19817).

Vincent Walter introduced us to letters written on paper which he is editing for his PhD thesis. 227 surviving Coptic letters were written on paper, with only a fraction published so far. Surprisingly, only 46 out of the 109 which were complete enough for examination had an external address – most had the address on verso, as is usual in earlier letters; some had an address on the recto). Walter’s paper focused on the typology of the addresses. Naïm Vanthieghem and Lajos Berkes presented on the “Materiality, layout, and style of the Qurra-letters”, a group of texts produced by the Umayyad governor of Egypt, Qurra ibn Sharik (r. 709-715). These letters are a vital piece of evidence for the administration of Umayyad empire, for the relationship between the Muslim goveror and his Christian subjects. Vanthieghem discussed Arabic letters from the corpus, and Berkes the Greek ones – which are more numerous than the Arabic ones. The letters are written in elegant Greek cursive, representing high-standard letters of the early 8th century in their language and material aspects.

Lastly, Gustavo Riva spoke about the research platforms “Ancient Letters Research Environment” (ALRE) which he has produced to enable study of ancient letters (so far papyrus letters in Greek and Coptic). FileMaker was used to produce the database, and information drawn from Trismegistos and papyri.info was used to initially populate the database – similarly to our project. The eXist DB web app with XQuery is used to create the database and the data is in the TEI-XML format. The ALRE database will include metadata on the papyri, as well as an image of it, a map with relevant locations related to each text (including relations between places), as well a text edition and details on the hands. A particular focus is also placed on figuring out distances that the letters travelled to get to their addressee. The database will launch in 2023.

Many thanks especially to Loreleï Vanderheyden, Rodney Ast, and to the staff of the Internationales Wissenschaftsforum Heidelberg (IWH) for organising this conference and accommodating us!


This article was originally published on January 12, 2022 on the website of the project “The Coptic Magical Papyri: Vernacular Religion in Late Roman and Early Islamic Egypt” of the University of Würzburg. A special thanks to Markéta Preininger for her report!


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