I always try to choose a text that is unusual because I feel that most teaching focuses on historical texts or texts which are readily found in translation when teaching social history, and often students aren't fully aware of the true breadth and scale of the textual material which has survived. I know that I wasn't. So last night I led a discussion on a curious text called Cyranides.
Cyranides is a Greek Hermetic text (that is the knowledge it contains was attributed to Hermes Trismegistos, the Hellenistic incarnation of the Egyptian god Thoth) which is two parts medical, three parts magical, and filled with Greek folk traditions. The two writers whose works were drawn on to compose the surviving text claim that they saw the original text inscribed on an iron stele written in an Eastern language. This is a fake claim to imbue their texts with added authority, and fits into a common topos which you see more frequently in the Byzantine period. A study of the Greek text reveals metrical poems and acrostics,1 all signs that the text was originally composed in Greek. While a German translation was published in the 1970s, I had thought that there was no English translation. I was partially correct. There is no English translation of the Greek text of Cyranides, but there is a 1685 English translation of the Latin translation that was made in Constantinople in 1168.
It was from this translation that I set the reading: the translation of a translation of a text which claimed to be a translation.
This English translation can be found freely online thanks to the Google Books digitisation project. The Latin text was published in 1942 by L. Delatte in Textes latins et vieux français relatif aux Cyranides, but I haven't viewed it for myself. The 1685 translation is curious in that neither the translator nor the printer's name is included. The then owner of the Latin text was also unnamed on the title page. A close reading of the introduction shows that the only people named as owning the book were already dead, including Landgavess Eleonore of Hesse whose books can now be found in the Palatine Library at Heidelberg. The translator also points out he was using a rare printed copy of the Latin from 1638 Germany, whose editor and printer did not feature on the text he used.
So why all the secrecy?
This was acknowledged by the English translator to be a book on magic, and his introduction included a defence of magic with references to the Bible. Add to this the fact that two years before its publication two women were executed and another woman that year was condemned in Devon for witchcraft, this was a dangerous book to own. The translator was protecting himself and the owner of the Latin text by keeping this work anonymous.
I made some rudimentary comparisons between the English translation and the Greek text. The English references the edifice of Solomon as the original setting of the engraved iron stele while the Greek text makes no references to Solomon at all. The English translation is given in four books, while the Greek is in six books. Some of the numbers describing the size of the and dimensions of the site where the work was found also don't match, but overall I was quite surprised by how similar at first glance the content of these texts are. Perhaps the reason for this was that the Latin translation is older than the surviving Greek manuscripts we have.2
Book one of Cyranides was separated into 24 chapters, each devoted to a letter of the Greek alphabet, featuring a plant, a bird, a fish (loosely interpreted, it could include turtles and seals), and a stone. One of the passages I had people read was the text for letter ε. This passage made references to the medical use of of rocket which was also a little magical. It described the use of rocket in the prevention of lust and male erections which followed a tradition similar to that used in a Pseudo Gelenic text (Kühn's edition of Galen vol. 14 p. 543). This tradition is unusual as rocket was normally seen as an aphrodisiac, as the text of Cyranides described some compounds under the subheading "For an Erection". The ancient herbalist Dioscorides recorded rocket's effects in this department (Materia Medica 2.140.1) while Pliny refers to it as such on three separate occasions (Natural History 10.84.182; 19.54.154; and 20.49.126). It was also noted in the agricultural writer Columella (book 10 lines108-9) and a Virgilian text (Virgiliana Appendix lines 83-4). While Cyranides' text describing measures of rocket seeds and other ingredients reads like a medical text, similar compounds can be found in Greek magical papyri (Supplementum Magicum vol. 2: 76 ["To fuck a lot"] and 83 ["To copulate a lot"]), so Cyranides blurs the line between magic and medicine. Rocket appears to have been the Viagra of its day.
The bird used for this chapter was the nightingale, and the text explains how parts of it could be used to create to magically form wakefulness, even to cause death. This might have been a kind of sympathetic magic, as Pliny describes how once a year a nightingale would sing for fifteen days and nights continually (Natural History 10.43.81).
This passage also described the creation of amulets in the form of magical stones to make the wearer "amiable to all men, and known, and eloquent; and not only to men, but devils and wild beasts will fly from you." What is fantastic about these directions, is that museum collections today possess stones which appear to have followed this directions. While the text states the stone used must be "euanthes", an argument has been made that this stone should be identified as lapis lazuli.3 While there are a number of lapis lazuli amulets of this type (see the Campbell Bonner Magical Gems Database for a list of some of these), the colour blue seems more important. The amulet had to be engraved with Aphrodite tying up her hair.
This pale blue chalcedony amulet from the French National Library also follows the description provided in Cyranides. It has been suggested that the blue colour was more important in practice than the stone itself.4 This might be because part of Aphrodite's secret magical was an anagram of the Greek word for sapphire which could be used to refer to any blue stone. This name was also engraved on the stone, although the text of Cyranides did not demand this to be done.
As for the eloquence, Cyranides also stated that the tongue of a nightingale (along with some rocket root) be enclosed under the stone, so this was likely what was thought to make the wearer eloquent.
While today we immediate think of Aphrodite as the goddess of love, one of her other early attributes was the "mother of wild beasts" (see the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite lines 68-74), so featuring her on amulet to protect against wild animals is in keeping with Aphrodite's identity. Other amulets which made wild animals and demons flee the wearer while making them popular are described in various ancient texts similar in nature to this.
As a student I was always taught that we should always use the latest translations and the most recent research to ensure that our own research was current. These are very important points that we need to ensure. But sometimes I wonder whether we need to realise for our own research and in our training of students that sometimes old books can also provide us with a wealth of information which can enrich our arguments. Sure, this book uses old spellings, bizarre capitalisation, and some archaic phrases, but without coming across it in my google research results I would have been completely unaware of the Latin translation of Cyranides which some scholars state requires further investigation. Sometimes old books and translations take us places we never expect to go.
1 M. West, 1982. 'Magnus and Marcellinus: Unnoticed acrostics in the Cyranides," Classical Quarterly vol. 32, pp. 480-1.
2 D. Jordan, 2005. 'Notes on Verses in "Cyranides," Book I', Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, vol. 154, p. 117.
3 M. Waegeman, 1992. 'ΑΡΩΡΙΦΡΑΣΙΣ. Aphrodite's Magical Name,' L'Antiquité Classique, vol. 61, pp. 237ff.
4 C. Faraone, 2011. 'Text, Image and Medium: the Evolution of Graeco-Roman Magical Gemstones,' in C Entwhistle and N. Adams, 'Gems of Heaven': Recent Research on Engraved Gemstones in Late Antiquity c. AD 200-600, British Museum.