Wednesday, 23 May 2018

The authoress of the Odyssey

In the 1890s Samuel Butler argued that the Odyssey was composed by a young unmarried girl living in Trapani, western Sicily, in the 11th century BCE.

The basic idea is that the character of Nausicaa, in Odyssey books 6 to 8, is an authorial self-insertion. Nausicaa is a woman, young, single, and doesn’t live in mainland Greece or Ionia. Therefore the author of the Odyssey must be all those things too. (Demodocus the blind bard represents Homer, boring the author’s socks off with his interminable recitations of the Iliad.)

Trapani, Sicily (Source: Google Streetview)

Butler first presented the idea in a lecture on 30 January 1892, at the Working Men’s College in London; then in a series of magazine articles and pamphlets (1892a-e, 1893); and a few years later in a book, The authoress of the Odyssey (1897).

The reception of Butler’s idea

Butler’s argument has had great longevity, and at the same time, has persuaded almost no one. Butler himself predicted that he’d encounter an entrenched opposition (‘How can I expect Homeric scholars to tolerate theories so subversive’, etc., 1897: 3). He imagined he’d find academics insisting that epic poets must have been men. A much more serious problem is that he starts with a complete absence of evidence, and concludes something incredibly specific.

And, in regard to Trapani, something impossible. Butler was infuriated when he was told that Trapani didn’t exist when the Odyssey was composed. He insisted that his argument proved the archaeologists wrong, so their ‘views must be reconsidered’ (1893: 13)! Just to be clear: Greeks didn’t start to colonise Sicily until the late 700s BCE, and they never held western Sicily. The west belonged to the non-Greek Elymi until Roman times.

Still, the idea gets trotted out every generation or so. First by the classicist Benjamin Farrington (1929); then in one of Robert Graves’ less-known novels, Homer’s daughter (1955); then by Andrew Dalby (2006). Its longevity probably owes a lot to Butler’s translations of Homer, which were the first English translations of Homer to use a modern prose style. Plus, Butler has celebrity status: he’s still famous for his classic satirical novel Erewhon (1872). Dalby’s version, too, has become better known than you might expect, thanks to his very successful publicity campaign.

Excursus: the authoress of the ‘Rediscovering Homer’ and ‘Andrew Dalby’ articles on Wikipedia
Dalby and his book Rediscovering Homer (2006) both have substantial Wikipedia articles devoted to them. At the time of writing Dalby’s is the only non-fiction book about Homer to have a Wikipedia article. So you might imagine this indicates that Dalby and his book have had a major impact.

And that would be wrong. Dalby is a prolific Wikipedia-editor. He created the book article himself. It’s strictly self-promotion. Outside the ‘Rediscovering Homer’ article, Wikipedia has fifteen citations of the book -- but fourteen of them were inserted by Dalby (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14, between May 2006 and May 2007; no. 15 is someone else’s doing, and dates to 2010).

So these articles and citations don’t in any way indicate acceptance of Butler’s (or Dalby’s) ideas. Look to the reviews instead. Here’s what they say about Dalby: ‘inventive’ but ‘weak’ and unproveable (Kelly); ‘speculations ... inadequate argument and dicey assertions’ (Lateiner); ‘lively’ but ‘thinly grounded’ (Lentini, Classical Bulletin 82.2 [2006]: 221-3); ‘enjoyable’ but ‘unconvincing’ (Loney).

But wait, there’s more. The ‘Andrew Dalby’ article is self-promotion too. For that one, Dalby tried to be sneaky: he used a sockpuppet account called ‘Charles David Douglas’ to create it. The entire Wikipedia career of ‘Charles David Douglas’ lasted just over two hours, and in the surrounding five days Dalby’s main account edited most of the articles that ‘Douglas’ worked on, 1 2 3 4, including the ‘Andrew Dalby’ article, ten minutes after ‘Douglas’ created it; ‘Douglas’ displayed an intimate knowledge of Dalby’s employment history in the 1970s and 1980s, his unpublished essays, and even ‘informal’ work; and more than half the article was (and still is) publicity for Dalby’s books.

Incidentally, Wikipedia does have policies on conflicts of interest, spam, and sockpuppet accounts which look like they ought to prohibit all of this (links are to 2006-2007 versions of the policies). Not very effective policies, maybe?

Even setting Butler aside, gender in the Odyssey continues to be a hot topic. For lots of reasons. In the 1990s, literary criticism was popping with ideas about the topic, and that excitement hasn’t quite worn off yet. In 2017 Emily Wilson published a new high-profile translation of the Odyssey, its first translation into English by a woman (not the first into any modern language: a French one by Anne Dacier appeared in 1716). Also in 2017, Mary Beard’s Women & power: a manifesto opened by citing Odyssey book 1 as a classic example of women’s speech being suppressed.
I want to start very near the beginning of the tradition of Western literature, and its first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’; telling her that her voice was not to be heard in public. I’m thinking of a moment immortalised at the start of Homer’s Odyssey ... Penelope ... [finds a bard] singing about the difficulties the Greek heroes are having in reaching home. She isn’t amused, and front of everyone she asks him to choose another, happier number. At which point young Telemachus intervenes: ‘Mother,’ he says, ‘go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff ... speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.’ And off she goes, back upstairs.
-- Beard 2017: 1
(= London review of books, March 2014)
Some people will want to make excuses for the Odyssey, arguing that its misogyny is a product of its time. While true, that doesn’t mean the misogyny isn’t there. Whether or not that damages the quality of the Odyssey is in the eye of the reader.

Mt Sunday (foreground right), upper Rangitata River valley, a stone’s throw from ‘Erewhon Station’. Butler spent the first part of the 1860s farming sheep here, and the opening section of Erewhon is based on it. More recently, Mt Sunday served as the set for Edoras in The Lord of the Rings films. (Source: Wikimedia.org)

Butler on Penelope

Excuses or no excuses, Butler’s Authoress of the Odyssey makes a weird contrast with this Penelope scene. Because the core of Butler’s argument is that the epic has a firmly and exclusively feminine sensibility.
What, let me ask, is the most unerring test of female authorship? Surely a preponderance of female interest ... Hence if in any work the women are found to be well and sympathetically drawn, while the men are mechanical and by comparison perfunctorily treated, it is, I imagine, safe to infer that the writer is a woman.
-- Butler 1897: 105
‘The Odyssey takes more interest in women than the Iliad, therefore the Odyssey was written by a woman.’ No, that doesn’t make a lick of sense. Can he really have meant to say something that daft? Yes, yes he did. Here’s the next page.
Men seem unable to draw women at all without either laughing at them or caricaturing them ... I doubt whether any writer in the whole range of literature (excepting, I suppose, Shakespeare) has succeeded in drawing a full length, life-sized, serious portrait of a member of the sex opposite to one’s own.
-- Butler 1897: 106
Make no mistake: even though this is halfway through the book, it’s the foundation for the whole thing. His argument is this: in any literary work the characters, physical settings, and interests necessarily represent people, settings, and interests in the author’s everyday life. Nausicaa may be Butler’s motivation, but this is his rationale.

Butler in 1858, two years before he laid claim to farmland in inland Canterbury. (Source: Wikimedia.org)
Let’s imagine his logic somehow worked, and follow up his line of thought. If the Odyssey really had ‘a preponderance of female interest’, with women ‘well and sympathetically drawn’, you’d assume the poet would be keenly interested in exploring what it is that makes Penelope tick. For example: after the incident with Penelope and Telemachus, you’d expect the narrator to track Penelope a bit, maybe follow her upstairs to her private quarters, maybe spend some time describing how she copes with her plight, and her efforts to keep peace with the army of violent suitors inside her house.

Nope. We don’t get any glimpse of Penelope’s inner life until she talks about it in book 19. Even there, many readers doubt she means anything she says. After the incident in book 1, the narrator stays by Telemachus’ side until near the end of book 4; book 2 focuses entirely on Telemachus, the suitors, and the male population of Ithaca, and the motivations driving each of them. (Men are ‘perfunctorily treated’? Hah!) Penelope only reappears briefly at the end of book 4. When we’re told about the problems caused by the suitors, it’s Telemachus talking to Nestor or Menelaus, or Eumaeus talking to the disguised Odysseus.

Butler’s argument also revolves around how he thinks the ideal Victorian lady -- personified as Nausicaa -- ought to feel about the world. At page 107 he invites his reader to ask any single woman that ‘he’ knows whether they like having men about the house. Chapter 4 is about the poet’s ‘jealousy for the honour and dignity of women’. Chapters 5 and 6 argue that the poet has ‘whitewashed’ Penelope out of feminine sympathy, and that in reality Penelope was ‘scandalous’, ‘an artful heartless flirt’. At page 136 he states, ‘The authoress of the Odyssey is never severe about theft’, with the assumption that that’s a feminine perspective. Chapter 7 is about ‘Further indications that the writer is a woman -- young -- headstrong -- and unmarried.’

Butler argues his point with a classic case of victim-blaming. If Penelope really wanted to get rid of the suitors, he says, ‘[o]ne would have thought all she had to do was to bolt the doors as soon as the suitors had left for the night’ (page 126). Or again: ‘The reader will have noted that on this occasion the suitors seem to have been in the house after nightfall’ (page 129).
A man ... would not have made the suitors a band of lovers at all. He would have seen at once that this was out of the question, and would have made them mere marauders, who overawed Penelope by their threats ...
-- Butler 1897: 128
The weird thing is that the suitors are mere marauders. Very very obviously so. They try to assassinate Telemachus. They threaten violence constantly. They commit actual violence throughout books 17 and 18. They force unwilling people into a fist-fight, with promises of torture and mutilation for the loser. They’re brutal monsters.

But no. For Butler, the suitors are romantic lovers: their morals are imperfect, but their love is pure.

And Penelope is leading them on. Butler doesn’t use the word ‘slut’, but if he did, it would be completely in place. He’s an archetypal ‘nice guy’. If Penelope had been able to keep out the suitors with a bolted door, Butler would be the first to complain that she was ghosting her former lovers.

I find it gobsmacking that a noted feminist writer has characterised Butler’s book as ‘[t]he most elegant, ingenious, imaginative and imagination-respecting of feminist gestures’ (Brophy 1985: 814). It’s worrying to see any critic regarding him as a ‘careful reader’ (Kendal 2016: 1). The Odyssey has loads of misogyny, as Mary Beard points out -- but maybe not quite as much as Butler has.

Penelope’s perspective, and that of the slaughtered maids: Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, from a trailer for the 2013 stage production by the Nightwood Theatre, Toronto. (Source: YouTube)

Penelope’s perspective

In the real Odyssey, we only get occasional fragmentary glimpses of what it is that drives the women of the poem. Often that’s exactly the point: we’re not supposed to see what makes Penelope tick. People tell stories about her, they describe her, they interpret her: everything is from someone else’s viewpoint.
‘A night will come when a hateful marriage meets me,’ (says Penelope,)
‘my end, when Zeus takes away my joy.
But ... this isn’t how suitors do things -- it never has been --
when they want to court a noble woman, a wealthy man’s
daughter, and compete with one another.
They bring oxen and fat sheep,
as a feast for the girl’s family. They give fine gifts.
They don’t devour someone else’s livelihood for free!’
    So she spoke. And long-suffering noble Odysseus laughed
because she coaxed gifts out of them, and she charmed their hearts
with soft words while her mind intended something quite different.
-- Odyssey 19.274-283
Penelope flatly declares that she’s going to give in and marry one of the suitors. Is it really a trick? Can we be sure? If we can, it isn‘t because of anything she says. It’s only because Odysseus is there to explain that she didn’t really mean what she said.

So this is a little more involved than your everyday misogyny: it’s essential to her character. In the Odyssey there’s no such thing as Penelope’s perspective, only perspectives on her. Entire books have been written about how there is no inner psychology there, and how her character is created by what other characters think about her motives, and by her role in the plot. (It’s a pity some of those books are notoriously difficult to read: the underlying idea is really solid.)

If Butler had really been a careful reader, he might have argued that this characterisation of Penelope, with her character as a kind of blind spot in the story, shows a more powerful insight into gender relations than any supposed whitewashing could. (More powerful than any of his actual arguments, anyway.)

When the poet keeps Penelope’s inner life obscure, it isn’t easy to tell if it’s because the poet is being misogynistic -- a creature of his time, if you prefer --, or because the whole point of Penelope is that her inner life is inscrutable.

It’s a bit of both. Take the ‘soul-summoning’ scene in book 11: Agamemnon’s ghost advises Odysseus as follows. (a) You must never under any circumstances trust Penelope; (b) Penelope is a really good egg and she’ll always stand by you; and (c) you must never ever trust Penelope ever. Mixed messages much?
‘Never be nice to your wife!
Don’t tell her everything you know.
Say some things, keep some hidden.
But your wife won’t kill you, Odysseus ...
Still ... arrive in your home country secretly, not openly.
Because there’s no trusting women these days.’
-- Odyssey 11.441-456
What a testimony to the Odyssey’s ‘female interest’; what a great benchmark for virtue. ‘Your wife is so virtuous that she isn’t actually going to murder you.’ Well ... yay, I guess? Here we’ve got someone telling us how to think about Penelope, while at the same time stressing that women are scary.

Agamemnon’s words, and other similar passages, tend to suggest the obscurity of Penelope’s inner life isn’t just an insight into the feminine condition in a patriarchal society: it’s also a refusal to engage with the feminine condition.

I don’t think that says anything about the author, though. That would be the same kind of fallacy as when Butler insists that the epic is transparent and the author’s identity is plainly visible through it. Butler’s argument says a lot more about Butler than it does about Homer.
He seems to have rewritten an ancient epic as a Victorian novel ... Along with other Victorians, he is skeptical of Homer worship, but he resents the German classical scholars who deny the great poet his identity. His ‘authoress,’ an inventive restoration of that identity, has the appearance of an exotic, but she is very much at home in the Victorian tradition. ... Butler regenerates a classic as the offspring of a modern temperament: the artist as a young Victorian lady.
-- Booth 1985: 865-867
Butler’s modern critics seem to sway between regarding him as a crackpot (Whitmarsh 2002 -- but maybe I’m interpreting Whitmarsh uncharitably) and an iconoclast (Beard 2007). I think Booth, above, is closer to the mark: Butler wasn’t just an iconoclast, he was a Victorian gentleman’s image of what an iconoclast ought to look like.

That’s not to say he didn’t mean his argument seriously. His dedication to it over several years strongly suggests he was entirely serious. But that doesn’t mean we have to go re-writing the history of Sicily at the drop of Butler’s stovepipe hat.

References

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Ancient Greeks climbing Mount Olympus

Why didn’t ancient Greeks just climb up Mount Olympus and notice that there were no gods pottering around up there?

Mount Olympus as seen from the Dion Archaeological Park, Greece

This is a pretty common question on Q&A websites. The answers are usually wrong. Here’s a selection (all sic):
Quora, Jan. 2017:
Why didn't the Greeks climb Mt Olympus (Mytikas) and see that there weren't any Gods up there?
Answers: ‘it’s a really hard mountain to climb’; ‘hubris’; ‘some did climb Mt Olympus and felt the presence of the gods’; ‘they were afraid to climb it’.

Quora, August 2016:
Did the ancient greeks ever scale to the summit of Mount Olympus?
Answers: ‘a really difficult mountain to climb’; first climbed in 1913; ‘would be kind of taboo’; there were actually three Mount Olympuses, ‘one in sparta, one in thay and one outside athens’.

Stack Exchange, June 2016:
Did the ancient Greeks ever climb Mt. Olympus?
Answers: one correct answer, but also plenty of ‘it’s impossible to ascertain for sure’; ‘people didn’t climb mountains until the 19th century’; ‘Olympus was first climbed in 1913’.

The Straight Dope, February 2009:
Why did the Ancient Greeks not ever climb Mount Olympus?
Answers: ‘it would be blasphemy’; anyone who did climb ‘probably would have "seen" [the gods]. A sceptic's account would have been ignored’; they probably did and ‘concluded theiy were in the wrong place’.

Wikipedia:
‘The home of the Greek gods [was] on the Mytikas peak’; ‘in all regions settled by Greek tribes, the highest local elevation tended to be ... named [Olympus]’; ‘Ancient Greeks likely never tried to climb the two main peaks’.
Mt Olympus’ highest peaks:
  1. Mitikas (2918 m)
  2. Skolio (2911 m)
  3. Stefani (2909 m)
  4. Skala (2866 m)
  5. Agios Antonios (2817 m)
The answers that focus on the idea of gods as ‘metaphors’, or a distinction between the divine and visible worlds, are the best ones here. They’re a pretty good take on the topic.

But even they miss a reasonably important point. And that is that we know, perfectly well, that ancient Greeks did climb up Mount Olympus. Plutarch (2nd century) and St Augustine (4th-5th century) report on annual pilgrimages up the mountain. Ceramic plates have been found dotted around the various plateaus and passes at the top, similar to ones found at Dion, a small city to the northeast which was the home of the ancient sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos (Zeus the Highest). The clearest evidence comes from the Agios Antonios peak, where burned sacrifices were offered to Zeus and various other religious offerings deposited. Agios Antonios is somewhat separated to the south of the highest cluster of peaks, running Skolio-Skala-Mitikas-Stefani in a curve from southwest to northeast.

(Wikipedia does report the archaeological finds on Agios Antonios, to be fair. But the article takes the additional leap that the Agios Antonios finds somehow imply that the ancients didn’t climb up the higher peaks -- and that obviously makes no sense at all.)

The weather station on Agios Antonios, where remnants of ancient sacrifices to Zeus were found in 1961. (Source: MountOlympusSummits.com)

The textual evidence comes from ancient discussions of the fact that cloud cover is often lower than high mountain peaks. One ancient interpretation of this was that clouds and wind are confined to lower altitudes: and this leads to some factoids about mountain-tops. Here’s Plutarch:
For people who have placed ash on top of some mountains, or have left it behind after sacrifices there, have when investigating many years later found that it was still lying as they left it. ... Plutarch reports that letters, too, remained from one ascent of the priests to the next on Olympus, in Macedonia.
-- Plutarch fr. 191 Sandbach, reported by Philoponus, On Aristotle’s Meteorologica i.82
And Augustine:
In that air [at high altitudes] they say that clouds to not gather and no stormy weather exists. Indeed where there is no wind, as on the peak of Mount Olympus, which is said to rise above the area of this humid air, we are told, certain letters are regularly made in the dust and are a year later found whole and unmarred by those who climb that mountain for their solemn memorials.
Where Augustine’s Latin has ‘letters’ (litteras), Plutarch’s Greek has grammata, which can mean either ‘letters’ or ‘writings’. ‘Writings’ is the correct interpretation -- we’re not talking about letters scrawled into the ashes, like Augustine thought! -- and indeed the archaeological finds on Agios Antonios do include some inscriptions, including two dedications to ‘Olympian Zeus’.

The distinction Augustine is making between different types of air is a standard feature of ancient cosmology. As sea level is thick, humid aēr; higher up is the clear, fiery aithēr. (These are the Greek terms.) These were regarded as distinct layers or spheres surrounding the earth, with the fieriest layer of aithēr in the neighbourhood of heavenly bodies like the sun. Augustine mentions in a few other places that rain doesn’t fall on the summit of Olympus, and in one place he attributes it to ‘one of the pagan poets’. The setting on Olympus, and Augustine’s misunderstanding of grammata, both suggest that the story originates in a Greek source. The most likely ‘pagan poet’ is Homer, Odyssey 6.41-46, which reports that Olympus
is not shaken by winds, nor ever wet by rain,
and snow does not come near, but pure cloudless aithrē (= aithēr)
is spread out, and a white brightness plays on it.
The story is fairly likely to have come to Plutarch and Augustine from a commentary on Homer: maybe the 1st century BCE scholar Didymus.

The peaks of Mt Olympus, rendered in Google Earth looking from the west, with slopes exaggerated by a factor of 1.5. Notice the walking tracks up gentle slopes from the south-west (there are more tracks on the other sides).

The main archaeological evidence was discovered in 1961, when the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki was building a meteorological observatory on Agios Antonios. Excavators found a thick layer of ash, with ancient ceramic vessels, inscriptions dedicated to ‘Olympian Zeus’, and coins. Most of the evidence on that spot appears to date to the 300s CE, when Christianity was well established in the Roman empire, and not long before pagan religion was banned by emperor Theodosius. One older coin has also been found, from the 200s BCE, which may or may not suggest a long-standing tradition.

Now, there are some half truths among the answers above. For example it’s true that, as Wikipedia reports, the first recorded climb of Mitikas was in July-August 1913. But even Wikipedia emphasises that that’s just the first recorded climb. But it does at least appear to be true that no modern-style mountaineers had been up Mitikas before that date.

However, there are also outright falsehoods. Here are some corrections:
  • Mt Olympus is not a hard climb. It is free of snow for five months of the year, it is not high enough for oxygen deprivation to be a concern, temperatures are normally above freezing in summer, and Agios Antonios in particular is a basic walk for someone who’s moderately fit. A return trip can in principle be done in a single day from the trailhead. People even do organised runs up the mountain. Mitikas and Stefani are more challenging, in that they actually involve some climbing.
  • There is no evidence to suggest any taboo or blasphemy.
  • There is no evidence to suggest that people who did climb to the top believed they had seen or ‘felt’ the gods there. (It’s not impossible, but we have no testimony on the subject.)
  • It’s true that there are several Mt Olympuses, but they’re not relevant to the question, and they aren’t generally the ‘highest local elevations’. The Olympus near Athens, out of Anavyssos, is under 500 m high; the one just outside Sparta is only about 150 m. (Not even a very significant hillock, by Greek standards!)
  • There is no evidence to suggest that it was specifically Mitikas that was regarded as the home of the gods.
The 16th century chapel on Profitis Elias (source: YouTube)

On that last point -- whether one peak in particular was especially sacred to Zeus -- even Agios Antonios isn’t the strongest candidate. That honour should probably go to the northernmost prominence, Profitis Elias (2803 m).

First: Elias, the Greek form of Elijah, supplanted Zeus in many parts of the Greek world, and is strongly associated with mountain-tops. Several peaks that were called ‘Olympus’ in antiquity are now named for Elias.

Second: the archaeological evidence mentioned above comes from Agios Antonios, the main southern peak, but the urban sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos was on the northeast side of the mountain, in the city of Dion. From Dion, Profitis Elias is the nearest (14 km) and most prominent peak. Physical remains of the sanctuary of Zeus at Dion were discovered in 2003, and included a nearly complete cult statue of Zeus enthroned. (Dion itself is named after Zeus: oblique forms of ‘Zeus’ take the stem Di(w)-, e.g. Dios ‘belonging to Zeus’.)

Third: in the mid-1500s, St Dionysius of Olympus built a chapel dedicated to Elias on Profitis Elias, which is still standing. Reportedly the chapel was built on the site of an older ruin. I’m guessing that report comes from records kept by the Monastery of Agios Dionysios, on the north-eastern slope of the mountain. We don’t know how old the ruin was, unfortunately, and it seems unlikely that anyone will ever find out: no one’s going to go digging up a 16th century chapel of intense interest to a nearby monastery, and the highest-altitude chapel in Greece to boot. But even without physical remains being dug up, there’s a fairly strong suggestion of a long-standing religious significance to the site.

Sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos, Dion (source: Wikipedia)

Just as an interesting end-note: we have on record an ancient measurement of the height of Mt Olympus, and it’s intriguingly accurate. Plutarch quotes an inscription at Pythion, on the west slope of the mountain, which stated that one Xeinagoras, son of Eumelus, measured the height of the mountain as follows:
The sacred height over Apollo’s Pythion
    of Olympus’ peak, in vertical measure,
is ten full stadia, and in addition
    a plethron less four feet in size.
Eumelus’ son placed a measure of the distance,
    Xeinagoras. Farewell, lord, and grant your blessings.
We’ve got no idea what methodology Xeinagoras used, but the measurement isn’t too shabby. A plethron is 100 feet, and a stadion is 600 feet, so this comes out to exactly 10.16 stadia. The length of a stadion is not exact, but usually ranged between 181.3 and 192.25 m (figures quoted by the New Pauly); conversion to Roman measurements allowed greater precision, which made the stadion between 184.4 and 185.1 m. Taking the mean of those two figures, 184.75 m, Xeinagoras’ measurement comes out as 1877 m over the elevation of Pythion. Pythion is at about 700 m, so this gives a total of 2577 m for the summit of Olympus. It’s definitely not perfect -- 341 m short of the elevation of Mitikas, 226 m short of Profitis Elias -- but not half bad considering that Xeinagoras probably didn’t even have access to Roman surveying techniques, let alone modern ones.

Further reading

Monday, 16 April 2018

Why are there no Romans named ‘Quartus’?

Quintus, Sextus, and Decimus were common Roman personal names, or praenomina. They come from numbers: they mean ‘fifth’, ‘sixth’, and ‘tenth’.

But only some numbers are represented. Why don’t we see Romans named ‘Primus’, ‘Secundus’, ‘Tertius’, or ‘Quartus’? Or for that matter ‘Septimus’, ‘Octavus’, or ‘Nonus’?

Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. (Sorry, too late for a spoiler alert.) Gaiman bucks Roman custom and has the princes of a royal family named for Latin ordinal numbers from ‘first’ to ‘seventh’. Here they appear as ghosts in the 2007 film based on the novel: left to right are Quintus, Tertius, Primus, Septimus, Secundus, Quartus, and Sextus. Septimus, in the middle, is one of the main antagonists in the story.

Today’s post isn’t really a debunking of a popular myth. An unpopular myth, maybe. I’m posting it because it’s something I just learned this morning, and it shocked me. It’s one of those things that’s staring you in the face all the time when you’re reading about the Greco-Roman world. So when I found out the true explanation, I felt a little bit betrayed -- as though it was something I ought to have known all along.

I guess it’s hard to find the time to get around to thinking about why Romans had names that meant ‘fifth’, ‘sixth’, and ‘tenth’. If you do think about it, you’re likely to make the same assumption that I did: that children were named for the order in which they were born. The 1st son would be Primus, the 2nd Secundus, the 3rd Tertius, and so on.

But that isn’t the case. If it were, we’d see corresponding names for the first to fourth children. And they just don’t exist. We do find Primus, Secundus, Tertius, and Quartus as regular cognomina -- official nicknames -- but not as personal names, and not at an early period. They start to pop up in the imperial period, and they’re not in Rome: they appear in Celtic contexts, which tends to suggest contamination from Celtic naming customs (Petersen 1962: 349 n. 6).

What’s the solution, then? Should we assume that the first four sons would get ‘real’ names, like Marcus, Titus, Publius, and so on? And when the parents got to their fifth child, suddenly they’d be all like ‘Hey let’s start using numbers now.’

Nope. The scholarly consensus is that these names originally came from the names of the months in which they were born.

If that surprises you, you’re not alone. I was startled too. It was originally suggested by the 1st century BCE scholar Varro, and it appears he was dead right. The standard modern discussion is 56 years old, Petersen 1962, but Petersen’s argument hasn’t been superceded. If anything the argument has been strengthened by parallels that have been found in other ancient Italian languages.

There are a couple of complications. First: Quintus and Sextus don’t sound like month names. However, prior to the lives of Julius Caesar and the emperor Augustus, the Romans had different names for the 7th and 8th months of the year: Quintilis (‘fifth-ilis’) and Sextilis (‘sixth-ilis’). (see this previous post from March for more details, and for discussion of why the months’ names don’t match up to their position in the year.)

Second: it’s not just the number-months. March, May and June aren’t named for Latin numbers, but children born in those months got names related to the months anyway: not Martus, but Marcus; Maius is a rare name, but it exists; and June gave Iunius both as a praenomen and as a gentilician (family) name.

And third, there’s a semi-regular pattern of praenomina ending in -us with corresponding family names ending in -ius: hence Marcus ≈ Marcius. This helps fill in the gaps with some of the numbers. We don’t see Octavus as a praenomen, but we do see Octavius; Iunius is rare as a praenomen, but common as a family name; Maius appears both as a praenomen and a family name.

Month praenomen gentilician name
Martius (March) Marcus Marcius
Aprilis (April) -- --
Maius (May) Maius Maius
Iunius (June) Iunius (very rare) Iunius
Quintilis (July) Quintus Quinctius
Sextilis (August) Sextus Sextius
September Septimus (rare, archaic) Septimius
October -- Octavius
November -- Nonius
December Decimus Decius (Roman),
Decimius (Samnite)

Varro, who first came up with this explanation, was bothered a bit by the lack of any names corresponding to April. But not enough to prevent him from proposing it anyway, and not enough to put off modern proponents. (The fact that the name ‘April’ appears to come from Etruscan may have a lot to do with this gap in the table. Maybe one of the other traditional Roman praenomina, like Gaius and Publius and Titus, was related to an older Latin name for April? Who knows.)

The Cambridge Latin Course, volume 1, stage 11. I think the appearance of ‘Quartus Tullius’ here is an unintentional error. In the story he has a brother, Marcus, and Marcus at least was a real historical person: he served three terms as a duumvir in Pompeii. (The lesson? Even professional classicists can jump to conclusions.)

What are the arguments in favour of Varro’s theory? Well, first is the fact that the number-based praenomina start with Quintus and end with Decimus, and this constraint corresponds tidily to the fact that month-names also start at ‘fifth’ (Quintilis) and end at ‘ten’ (December).

Second is the fact that we find some related names in two ancient Italic languages related to Latin, Oscan and Faliscan, in ways that suggest they’re also related to month names.

Oscan was spoken by the ancient Samnites, in the Appenine mountains south of Rome, and we have a Samnite family named Decimius attested in Roman sources. In Rome itself the corresponding name was ‘Decius’. In a study of the ancient Samnites, E. T. Salmon (1967: 53) cites the Oscan names Mamerkis ≈ Marcus, Sepis ≈ Septimus, and Dekis ≈ Decimus, and states that Mamerkis is actually formed from the Oscan name for the month of March. I haven’t been able to confirm the last point, but it’s certainly true that Mamerkis is related to the god Mars, who was called Mamertis in Oscan.

Petersen cites some parallels from Faliscan and Oscan too. Marcius only appears as a family name in Rome, but Petersen points to an example of Marcius as a praenomen in a Faliscan inscription (1962: 352 n. 16).

And most strikingly of all, he cites an Oscan family name Sehsimbriis. This is transparently based on an alternate formation for the name of the month of August. In republican-era Latin, August was called Sextilis (‘sixth-ilis’); Sehsimbriis must reflect an Oscan formation which would correspond to Latin *Seximber.
Note, a day later: I’m no longer too sure of this. If Sehsimbriis did correspond to *Seximber, it’d be an artificial formation, based on analogy with September, November, etc.: the Latin for ‘six’ is sex, not *sexem/sexim. A strict formation ought to be just *Sexiber. (Or in Oscan maybe something like *Sehsikbri-: sehsik- appears to be the Oscan for ‘six’.)

So there we have it: some of the most common praenomina in Latin, Marcus, Quintus, Sextus, and Decimus, come from month names. If your name is Mark, you’re named after the month of March. The idea must surely be that in the earliest times, the names would have corresponded to the month in which the boy was born.

There are some caveats and provisos, mind. First, customs changed over time. The practice of naming children directly for months was long gone by the historical period. And in the imperial era, some number-based names were formed by analogy with the traditional names: as a result we start to see some innovations like Decimius as a praenomen, as in the name of the poet Decimius Magnus Ausonius.

Second, women’s names are different. Men’s names followed a regular pattern of praenomen plus gentilician name; women’s names were much less regulated. And among women we do see Prima, Secunda, Tertia, and Quarta as personal names alongside Quinta. So however exactly the month-name custom worked originally, it didn’t work the same way for women’s names. It could be that for women these names did originally indicate order of birth.

And third: we do see some other number-names popping up as gentilician names which do not correspond to month names. These names seem to come from non-Roman contexts. For example, the Roman name Pomponius is based on a non-Roman word for ‘five’. ‘Five’ in proto-Italic was *kwenkwe. Latin preserved /kw/ sounds relatively faithfully, and so ended up with the form quinque ‘five’. But in many languages, /kw/ transformed into /p/: so in Oscan the word for ‘five’ was pumperias or pompe. This or a related language must have provided the gentilician name Pomponius, basically an Oscan equivalent of Quinctius. In the same way proto-Italic *kwetwōr ‘four’ ended up as quattuor in Latin, but pettiur or pitora in Oscan: a form related to these must be the origin of the Roman gentilician name Petronius.

Reference

  • Petersen, Hans 1962. ‘The numeral praenomina of the Romans.Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 93: 347-354.
  • Salmon, E. T. 1967. Samnium and the Samnites. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Christian scribes interfering with ancient texts?

Are texts like Herodotus’ Histories and Petronius’ Satyrica the same as when the authors wrote them? Or have they been irreparably messed around with by the dozens of scribes who copied them and re-copied them over the centuries?

How likely is it that mediaeval scribes with a Christianising agenda haven’t meddled with ancient texts?
Modern readers of ancient literature often don’t spare a moment to think about the many steps separating modern editions from the ancient ones. When they do, though, sometimes they’ll begin to have serious doubts about how well they match the originals. They may even completely lose trust in the textual tradition.

Passages like the following don’t exactly inspire confidence.
At this time came Jesus, a wise man. If indeed it is right to call him a man: for he was a wonder-worker, a teacher of people who delight in receiving the truth, and he attracted many Jews, but also many of the Greek (world). This man was the Messiah [Christos].

And when he was accused by the leading men amongst us, Pilate sentenced him to crucifixion. Even then, those who had loved him at the beginning did not stop doing so. For he appeared to them on the third day, alive again. The divine prophets had announced these things and countless other marvels concerning him. And even now the tribe named after him, of the Christians, have not yet disappeared.
-- Josephus(?), Antiquities of the Jews 18.63-64 (§3.3)
This passage appears in manuscripts of the 1st century historian Josephus. But it’s basically impossible to accept that Josephus really wrote it. He was a romanised Jew, and definitely no Christian. The passage is so notorious that it has its own nickname: the ‘Testimonium Flavianum’. (‘Flavius’ is the Roman name that Josephus acquired when he defected to the Romans.)

It’s nearly certain that a Christian scribe or scribes interfered with the text of Josephus at this point. Origen knew book 18 of the Antiquities, and he flatly states that Josephus did not accept Jesus’ messiahship. That was in the 200s. By the 300s, though, the damage had been done: Eusebius quotes the corrupt passage in full, three times, as an example of a non-Christian Jew accepting Jesus’ divinity.
Note. Origen on Josephus: Against Celsus 1.47 (referring to Ant. 20.200, but also with knowledge of book 18); Comm. Matthew 10.17 (referring to Ant. 20.200). Eusebius on Josephus: Demonstratio evangelica 124b-c (3.5); Ecclesiastical history 1.11; Theophany 250 ed. Gressmann. Later witnesses to Josephus also quote or paraphrase the Testimonium.

There’s room for disagreement over the extent of the scribal misdeeds here -- some scholars think it’s a complete fabrication, maybe even forged by Eusebius himself; others think that maybe only the bits in bold have been tampered with -- but there’s no doubt that tampering did happen.

The Testimonium Flavianum as it appears in cod. Ambrosianus F 128, 11th century. (source: Roger Viklund’s blog)

When we look at this, shouldn’t we just give up all hope of ever reading the texts that ancient writers actually wrote? Shouldn’t we take it for granted that ancient texts are riddled with forgeries? -- and that the Christian church, which transmitted ancient texts through the mediaeval period -- well, Latin texts, anyway -- sanitised everything it could, and destroyed anything it couldn’t?

Well, I have good news and bad news. First, the bad news. We know that there are loads and loads of ancient forgeries -- that is, ‘forgeries’ in the sense that we can be sure they weren’t really written by the author that they’re linked to. We know that Euclid didn’t write large chunks of the Elements, that Simonides didn’t write the famous epigram about the Spartan dead at Thermopylae, that Euripides didn’t write the Rhesus, that Seneca didn’t write the Octavia, and that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John didn’t write the Christian gospels of those names.

This is called ‘upward attribution’. When people don’t know who the real author of a book is, they very often end up assigning it to a famous name. You can see the same process in recent stuff too. When people assign spurious quotations to Albert Einstein, or any Japanese animé to Hayao Miyazaki, or the ‘Windows 95 song’ to Weird Al Yankovic, that’s upward attribution. It’s not usually a deliberate deception. It’s a natural consequence of a group of people having an interest in a book, but imperfect information about it. Errors can often go viral in that situation.

And now, the good news. Authorial attributions may sometimes be doubtful or wrong, but the texts themselves are comparatively robust. Did you notice, when I introduced the Testimonium above, I said ‘passages like the following’? That was intentionally misleading. In fact there is nothing like the Testimonium. As an example of religiously-motivated tampering, which has completely displaced the original text, it is unique.

We know of other examples of Christian interference, but none where that interference was anything like as successful as it was in the case of the Testimonium, and hardly any of a comparable size. (If Christian scribes had really censored and re-written ancient texts that way, how would we ever have got the bawdy humour of Aristophanes or Petronius? And no, Sappho isn’t a counter-example. Ancient moralists sometimes took issue with her sexual reputation, both pagan and Christian, but no one took a decision to destroy her poems. There was still an edition of her poems in use in Egyptian schools as late as the 7th century. Sappho wasn’t lost because she was a woman or because of her sexuality: she was lost because she was a lyric poet, and all early lyric poets ended up being lost.)

Critical edition of Herodotus, with the apparatus showing the omission of Histories 1.199 in three of the twelve manuscripts that the modern editor used for this edition. (Herodoti Historiae, ed. C. Hude, Oxford, 1908)

The biggest parallel I’m aware of is in Herodotus. Some manuscripts leave out a chapter, Histories 1.199, that describes sacred prostitution at the temple of Ishtar in Babylon. But I’d better repeat: some manuscripts. The bowdleriser’s limited success only goes to show how unrealistic it was for a misbehaving scribe to expect to taint the entire manuscript tradition.

You see, scribes were on the whole a conscientious lot. Sure, there were exceptions, like the assholes who tampered with Josephus and Herodotus. But there was no Mediterranean-wide conspiracy. Dishonesty and ulterior motives have always existed, but scribes in different places and times acted independently of one another. The ulterior motives that drove scribes in one generation, or in one place, had no guarantee of persisting into the next.

As a result, when scribes spotted problems in a text they were copying, they very often took pains to correct them. It’d be going a little far to say that the system was self-correcting, but the system did overall aim at faithful reproduction and restoration. That’s why Herodotus’ bowdleriser didn’t get away with it. In Josephus’ case, the forger got luckier -- but also bear in mind that there we aren’t talking about a mediaeval forger, but an ancient one, probably earlier than the 300s.

Nearly all transmission errors that we see in mediaeval copies of ancient texts are accidental. Where we do see damage caused by a scribe’s deliberate action, it’s normally because the scribe is trying to fix it, but botching the job. Most ‘deliberate’ errors are caused by scribes spotting a problem, trying to correct it, but not getting it quite right; or else spotting something that looks like a problem but is actually correct.

Here’s an example of a Christian scribe ‘correcting’ something that looked like a mistake, when it was actually right. Maybe, once you know the details, you’ll agree with me that the scribe was conscientious.

Petronius’ bawdy Satyrica (1st century CE) is a novel about the hapless Encolpius, his love-slave Giton, and friend Ascyltos, and their misadventures in the Greek parts of southern Italy. At one point they attend a party where many of the guests can barely speak Latin. The language jokes make this an exceptionally difficult text, especially for mediaeval scribes who normally didn’t know any Greek. According to the sole surviving manuscript, a character says
aut ego non me novi, aut non deridebis, licet barbam auream habeas. Sathana tibi irata sit, curabo ...

‘Either I don’t know who I am, or you won’t get the last laugh, even if you have a golden beard! I’ll make sure Satan is angry at you ...’
-- Petronius, Satyrica 58
Now, Satan clearly doesn’t belong in a 1st century novel written by a Roman aristocrat. Petronius probably never even heard of Satan. He must originally have written Athana, not Sathana: the Greek goddess Athena, but with her name in the Doric dialect. The episode is set near Naples, and there was more than one temple of Athena nearby: one on the cape south-west of Sorrento, and another in Paestum a little further south.

The scribe who introduced the error had a source text that didn’t look like the one I printed above. The manuscript he was copying from would have looked more like this:
...LICETBARBAMAVREAMHABEASATHANATIBIIRATASIT ...
Latin manuscripts usually don’t have word breaks or punctuation. Now, our scribe knew perfectly well that ATHANA wasn’t a Latin word or name. But he didn’t know Greek, and he certainly didn’t know Doric! So he didn’t realise it was a deliberate solecism: he very reasonably inferred it was a copying error. He imagined that Petronius had originally written HABEASSATHANA, with a name that was very familiar to the scribe and which happens to work very nicely in the context: ‘Satan’. At some point, he guessed, another scribe had accidentally missed out the second S. And so he added it back in.

Critical edition of the Petronius passage, with the apparatus showing editorial repairs to the manuscript readings. Notice also the obeluses or ‘daggers of despair’ on the following line, indicating a place where the text is so corrupt that it can’t be restored with confidence -- not because of scribal malevolence, but once again because there’s too much Greek (ἀλογίας and maybe more), and the scribe couldn’t understand it. (Petronii Arbitri Cena Trimalchionis, ed. Martin S. Smith, Oxford, 1975)

This is what actual Christianising interference usually looks like. It’s an error, but it arises out of the scribe’s conscientiousness, as an attempt to restore the text, not erase it. This kind of thing is much more typical than the intentional damage that we see in Josephus, anyway!

In a sense, Antiquities 18.63-64 is a precious treasure: it’s one of the very, very few cases of deliberate forgery that was so comprehensively done that we actually can’t be confident in restoring the correct text. Irreparable textual forgery is a real rarity! Texts that have been attributed to the wrong authors are common; textual mistakes are very common. But malicious textual inaccuracies -- not so much.

Where we have multiple manuscript traditions, they’ll normally provide enough evidence for a modern editor to fix malicious alterations. The entire process of modern textual criticism is devoted to teasing out transmission errors and forgeries, and repairing them. When even that isn’t enough, when it just isn’t possible to restore the original text -- as with the Testimonium Flavianum -- any responsible critical edition will highlight that fact very transparently. Because that’s the entire point of critical editions.

Further reading

  • Olson, K. A. 1999. ‘Eusebius and the Testimonium Flavianum.Catholic Biblical Quarterly 61.2: 305-322.
  • Reynolds, L. D.; Wilson, N. G. 1991 [1968]. Scribes and scholars: a guide to the transmission of Greek & Latin literature, 3rd edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Easter and paganism. Part 2

Timeline of some key moments in the history of Easter and western Easter customs

The Easter Rabbit; the hot cross bun; and the Easter egg. One of these three things has a reasonable chance of having a pagan origin. A chance, mind. Let’s find out which one ...

Claim #4. The Easter Rabbit is pagan

Bunnies are a leftover from the pagan festival of Eostre, a great northern goddess whose symbol was a rabbit or hare.
-- Heather McDougall, The Guardian, 3 April 2010
Remember that passage from Bede, last week? That sentence that is the sum total of all testimony in the world that exists about Eostre? Did you notice the bit where he said that rabbits are sacred to Eostre? No? Three guesses why Bede might have forgotten to mention that.

Robert Downey Jr is ... Iron Rabbit!

If you guessed that it’s because Bede is unreliable, biased, and trying to cover up the pagan origins of the rabbit, then full marks for scepticism. However, you also get -100 for mistreatment of evidence. (1) Bede explicitly talks about a festival in honour of a pagan goddess, so he’s not exactly trying hard to cover up pagan links. (2) We have no reason even to try to draw links between Eostre and rabbits. The Easter Rabbit is first attested in 1682 in Germany; Bede’s report on Eostre comes from 950 years earlier in northern England.

Some studies have tried to link the Easter Rabbit to rabbit imagery from all over history. But it won’t do to treat the history of the Easter Rabbit and the history of rabbit imagery in general as the same thing. No matter how many images of hares are found in 12th century Devon churches or in ancient art, if there’s no reason to infer a connection to Easter, they’re not evidence for a connection! If anyone wants to say the Easter Rabbit is based on images in 6th century Chinese temples, we might as well say Santa and his reindeer are based on the domestication of white-tailed deer by the Olmecs. Nuh-uh. Trace a link, then we’ll talk.

We don’t know much about how the Easter Rabbit came about, but we can be pretty confident that it was originally German. So whatever precursors you may find, you also need to find a link connecting them to early modern Germany. Even more of a problem for the ‘Easter-is-pagan’ mythbusters is that it probably didn’t start out as a rabbit, but as any old critter depending on which part of Germany you’re in.

The earliest appearance of the Easter Rabbit comes from a 1682 discussion of Easter egg traditions in central Germany: Georg Franck von Franckenau (1682: 6) tells us that the eggs were called di Hasen-Eier because of a folktale that der Oster-Hase hid the eggs in the grass and bushes to be found by children.
Note: some recent internet sources claim an earlier German appearance in 1572. That’s an error. The 1572 claim originates from a March 2016 article in The Conversation. The author, Katie Edwards at Sheffield University, cites no source, and when I asked her for help in tracking it down she didn’t reply. My conclusion is that it was a typo for ‘1682’, the correct date of the Franck von Franckenau reference, with the ‘6’ and the ‘8’ mistyped.

An old study by Charles Billson tries to draw earlier links in England, but the evidence there isn’t nearly as close to the modern tradition: he cites evidence of a tradition of hunting and eating a hare at Easter in southern and central England going back to 1620 (Billson 1892: 442) and perhaps as early as 1574 (443). Unlike the German situation, though, that custom has no connection to Easter eggs.

The evidence trail ends with Franck von Franckenau. Going back beyond that involves a trolley-trip to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Jacob Grimm is responsible for the speculation that rabbits might be linked to ‘Ostara’; but it’s just that, a speculation, and a tenuous one at that, given that Ostara herself is conjectural. Some mythbusters like to draw links to rabbit symbolism from antiquity, but that’s just fantasy: there’s a 1400-year gap between ancient testimony on rabbits and Franck von Franckenau’s report, and none of the ancient evidence has anything to do with Germany.

It’s probably a wild goose chase anyway. Different animals appear in the folklore of Easter-egg-delivery in different parts of Germany. The best-known is the Easter Fox, attested in northern Germany into the early 1900s, and the only rabbit alternative to have its own Wikipedia article. However, the Easter Stork is still a regular Easter visitor in Franconia (that is, in Thüringen and northern Bavaria). There are reports of several other birds too: the Easter Cuckoo in Switzerland, the Easter Chicken in the Tirol, and the Easter Rooster in Schleswig-Holstein.
Note: on the Easter Cuckoo, etc., see Newall 1971: 326-327, with bibliography. I haven’t dug into Newall’s sources, but they don’t fill me with confidence. One of them sounds like an arts and crafts book (it’s called Wir farben Eier, ‘Let’s paint eggs!’); the other two are encyclopaedias, not dedicated studies, and probably don’t cite any sources themselves. There are loads of more recent books with the same claims, but they’re just repeating Newall -- usually without citing her.

This strongly implies that the Easter Rabbit’s rabbit-ness wasn’t integral to its role. I’m inclined to conclude that its true ancestor wasn’t a made-up rabbit god, or a conjectural dawn goddess, but rather any smallish animal or bird found in German-speaking lands. We’re looking for an Easter Critter, not an Easter Rabbit. And the search for the Easter Critter’s origin belongs much more to the realm of folklore than to religious history.



Claim #5. Hot cross buns are pagan

No, they just aren’t. Hot cross buns originated in 18th century England. They are Christian in origin. There is no reason to think otherwise, and no remotely sensible reason to suspect any link to any pagan practice. You’d think the fact that they’re marked with a cross, the archetypal Christian symbol, ought to be a bit of a giveaway.

The earliest attestation of them is a well-known rhyme that appears in a Poor Robin’s almanack of 1733:
Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs
With one or two a penny hot cross buns.
Wikipedia reports a half-baked 19th century idea that hot cross buns come from ancient Greece. The source cited is a 1912 issue of The New York Times, but it originally comes from an 1876 book -- and even the author of that book doesn’t endorse the idea.
Note: the NYT and the 1876 book report that the idea was based on linking ‘bun’ to the Greek word boun. Well, it’s true that boun is a Greek word. But it means ‘cow’. Moreover, it’s an oblique form: the proper ‘dictionary form’ is bous. Any student in my 1st-year Greek class would know better, and they’ve only been learning Greek for three weeks. This idea is in turn based on drawing a link between ‘bun’, a word dating to the 13th century, and an obscure explanation of bous found in the ancient grammarian Hesychius, referring to a kind of sacred cake ‘resembling a cow’. That’s a colossal stretch, and if you read the original source for that link, published in 1774, you’ll see that the man who came up with the idea was pretty seriously bonkers: his central idea was that all mythology everywhere in the world was derived from the Hebrew bible. Be that as it may: bous meaning ‘cow’ is super-common, bous meaning ‘cow cake’ is ... not. The OED isn’t confident about the etymology of ‘bun’, but suspects it comes from French.

For an idea that has literally not a shred of evidence for it, the ‘ancient Greek hot cross buns’ thing has become weirdly widespread. This snippet appeared in a number of American local newspapers in March-April 1949, and some of its falsehoods still get trotted out now and then:
The ancient Greeks, not Christians, deserve credit for baking the first buns marked with crosses. To the Greeks, the crosses cut in the bread symbolized the four quarters of the moon; and they ate the buns to honor their goddess of nocturnal light. The custom was centuries old when the Christian church adopted it, translating the meaning of the cross into their own terms, and distributing the buns after mass on Easter Sunday.
-- Battle Creek (Michigan) Enquirer, 24 March 1949, page 19
This is so crammed with falsehoods that it takes longer to point them out than the article does to say them. We have no evidence of ancient Greek buns with crosses; nothing to link those non-existent crosses to the quarters of the moon; nothing to link the non-existent cross buns to any night goddess; the Christian church never ‘adopted’ the custom (hot cross buns have always been solidly commercial); they’re traditionally associated with Good Friday, not Easter Sunday; and they developed in Protestant England, and the Anglican church doesn’t call its services ‘mass’. Holy crazy nutballs, Batman.

When people claim that hot cross buns are ancient, they usually gloss over the ‘cross’ bit -- the feature that is the exact point of them. The exception is when people suggest that the cross on the bun is based on the quadrae of Roman loaves. There, at least, there is a visual resemblance.

But quadrae weren’t a religious symbol. They were simply to make the loaf a pull-apart. And, judging from the loaves that turned up in the ruins of Herculaneum, Roman loaves more often had octavae. More importantly, once again there’s nothing to link ancient Roman bread to 18th century England. It relies on ignoring a 1700 year gap in the evidence. So: nuts to the idea of ancient hot cross buns.

Left: Roman bread with octavae, carbonised in the eruption of Mt Vesuvius. Right: a modern pull-apart loaf with quadrae. Neither of these is a hot cross bun.

The only halfway sensible candidate for a precursor to the modern hot cross bun is the St Albans bun or Alban bun. St Albans buns have the cross incised, rather than piped. The modern story goes that they were invented by a Hertfordshire monk, Thomas Rocliff or Rocliffe, at St Albans Abbey in 1361.

That isn’t a pagan origin, of course. But I’ve investigated it anyway. Regrettably, the St Albans story doesn’t hold water either.

I’ve been in touch with cathedral staff and a local historian in St Albans, and the earliest evidence anyone had was an 1862 article in a local newspaper, the Herts Advertiser. The St Albans bun does go back a little bit further than that: its earliest appearance is in an advertising flyer for a London baker, dating to 1851.
On the approach of Good Friday, 1851, G. Collier, 66 Wardour Street, Soho, advertised:
‘Superior Hot+Buns.’
... G. Collier then gives the following account of the origin of his buns. On Good Friday, 1361, Thomas Rocliff, a monk of St. Albans Abbey, caused a quantity of small, sweet, spiced cakes to be made and one of these was to be given to each poor person who came to the Abbey on Good Friday, in addition to the usual basin of soup. This so pleased the people that it ultimately grew into a general custom all over the country, but nowhere did they produce such good cakes as the monks of St. Albans, who kept the Recipe of Father Rocliff secret. A curious old work ... well-known to learned Antiquaries, called ‘Ye Boke of St. Albans,’ mentions not only the historical fact but gives, in Latin, the ingredients of the cakes. Having been ‘favoured with a translation of this Recipe,’ G. Collier undertakes to treat the Public to a very superior article called in the aforesaid ancient record ‘panis parvus dulciarius impressum cum signo crucis, a small, sweet cake stamped with the sign of the cross.’ ... (Handbill, dated 1851, in my possession, A. R. W.)
-- Wright 1936: i.70
This flyer is the basis for the 1862 local newspaper piece, and also for an 1859 magazine column written by a German expatriate living in London who visited Collier’s bakery (Anon. 1859: 550). Both of them copy the Thomas Rocliff story from Collier’s flyer closely, with only minor changes.

Collier claims the recipe comes from The Book of St Albans. This is a real book, dating to 1486. But the claim is spurious:
  1. The Book is in English, not Latin.
  2. It’s a treatise on hawking, hunting, and heraldry, not a collection of recipes or local anecdotes.
  3. It doesn’t mention Thomas Rocliff or bun recipes. There’s an interesting collection of medicinal recipes for hawk ailments, but ... somehow that’s just not the same. And, for the record, there are also no references to Rocliff, buns, or crosses marked into food items, in other chronicles of the time that might loosely be called a ‘book of St Albans’ -- at least not in Thomas Walsingham’s St Albans Chronicle (ca. 1422) or the Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani (early 1390s).
  4. Panis impressum is bad Latin. A 15th century aristocrat, like the author of The Book of St Albans, would know better ... but a 19th century baker spinning a tall tale might not.
The natural conclusion is that Collier invented St Albans buns out of thin air, around 1850, to make his own buns sound a bit special. The mainstream hot cross bun is the real original.

In principle I suppose it’s theoretically possible there’s a unique variant of the Book somewhere that includes a Latin bun recipe among the English hawk medicines. But given that it’s a printed book, not a manuscript with scribal variations; given the lack of any testimony earlier than 1851, and a cluster of sources in the decade after that date; and given the other problems ... well, it’s not looking good.

66 Wardour St, Soho: the birthplace of the St Albans bun. Any Londoners want to pop into that bar and see if they’re still on sale? Not exactly my kind of scene, but apparently their cocktails are delicious. (source: Google Streetview)

And now I can never ever visit St Albans, for fear of being stoned with St Albans buns. I regret that, as I’ve never visited. Such is life.

By the way, the German expat who tried Collier’s buns in 1859 was distinctly unimpressed:
Ich habe die Kreuzküchlein (Crossbuns) des Verfassers dieser Anzeige versucht, und muß gestehen, sie haben mir keine sondeliche Achtung für die Kochtalente des Bruders Rocliffe eingeflößt.

I have tried the cross buns of the author of this advertisement, and must confess they have not instilled in me any particular respect for Brother Rocliffe’s cooking talent.

Claim #6. Easter eggs are pagan

New Atheists will be glad to hear that there’s at least a plausible case for Easter eggs having a pre-Christian origin. But it’s still just an argument from likelihood, not from any direct evidence. Once again, Grimm suggests a link to Eostre; once again, it’s speculation on top of conjecture. Some people have suspected a connection with ‘cosmic eggs’ in Indian, Egyptian, and/or Greek Orphic mystical thought. Again, though, there’s a huge gap in the evidence: a gap of over 1000 years, and no geographical continuity. They’re very separate places, and very separate times.

Easter eggs in ancient Mesopotamia. This sub-myth comes from a really severe case of mangled misreadings.
The Christian custom of Easter eggs, specifically, started among the early Christians of Mesopotamia, who stained eggs with red colouring ‘in memory of the blood of Christ, shed at His crucifixion’.
-- Wikipedia, ‘Easter egg
The Wikipedia article has lots of citations, but each and every one of them is ultimately derived from a single source: a 1694 book by Thomas Hyde called De ludis orientalibus (‘On eastern games’). Here’s what Hyde says, translated:
Among the Turks this game is called Yumúrda ojúni, that is, ‘egg-play’ or ‘game of eggs’. Among Mesopotamian Christians it is customarily played from Easter time for 40 days. Consequently that time of year, when the game begins and carries on, in the easterners’ calendar is called in Turkish Kizil Yumúrda, and in Persian something that means the same, Beida surch, that is, ‘red-egg’. In the Turkish calendar you will find this period in the month of Adâr or March. For in this period, Christian children buy themselves as many eggs as they can, and make them red in colour, in memory of the blood shed by the crucified Saviour at that time...

This game is not preserved in central England, but seems to be hinted at in the proverbial phrase ‘an Egge at Easter’, and in northern England ‘an Egge at Paese’, that is, ‘an egg at Easter’. For when Easter returns each year, there also returns permission to eat eggs, and this was the reason for the Festival of Eggs. For neither papists nor eastern Christians eat eggs during the 40 days (of Lent), until the Easter festival arrives; and then they begin. This was also once the case at the University of Oxford...
-- Hyde 1694: 237-9
There’s no solid reason to disbelieve Hyde: the phrases are authentic Turkish and Persian, at least -- aside from the fact that bydh srkh بيضه سرخ apparently means ‘red testicles’ nowadays, not ‘red egg’. (I can’t answer for whether that’s modern slang based on a more innocent 17th century phrase, though.)

The point is that Hyde is the earliest available evidence for ‘Mesopotamian’ Easter eggs.

The Wikipedia article goes on to mention that Easter eggs were recognised in Catholic liturgy by 1610, and then claims -- on the basis of Hyde’s book, 84 years later than that -- that Easter eggs made their way from Persia to Greek churches, then Russia, and only then western Europe. The argument is that Easter eggs were thoroughly integrated into western Christian traditions 84 years before anyone connected them to the Near Eastern traditions they supposedly came from!

Steaming. Hot. Nonsense. How did this mix-up happen? I suspect the name ‘Mesopotamia’ is at the root of it: maybe people see it and assume that it automatically means ancient Mesopotamia. It doesn’t. Hyde’s story is about 17th century Christians, not ancient Akkadians, Achaemenid Persians, Parthians, or anything of the kind. The Turkish and Persian egg games he describes are definitely interesting in their own right, but they have no implications for the origins of Easter eggs. Because western Easter eggs go back a lot earlier than Hyde.

Easter eggs and the phoenix. Another effort to find Easter eggs in antiquity relates to early Christian use of the mythical phoenix bird as a paradigm of resurrection. True, resurrection and rebirth must be the idea behind the Easter egg, and are also what the phoenix represented for ancient Christians. But drawing any other link between them is an error.

Phoenix symbolism appears in a number of early Christian texts, starting already in the late 1st century: First Clement 25; Tertullian, On the resurrection of the flesh 13; Origen, Against Celsus 4.98; Cyril, Catechetical lectures 18.8. The phoenix also appears in Christian pictorial art starting in the 3rd century, often perched among palm leaves (Greek phoinix also means ‘palm leaf’). The textual sources cite the phoenix’s resurrection as a model for the resurrection of Jesus’ followers, or of Jesus himself. All nicely symbolic, right?

Just one small problem. The phoenix doesn’t hatch out of an egg. In all these reports, it builds a tomb or a nest for itself, dies there, and starts anew as a worm in the rotting flesh of the old phoenix. No eggs in sight.

So Easter eggs have nothing to do with Christian phoenix symbolism -- or if they do, it’s purely conjectural. To get actual testimony on phoenix eggs, you need to go all the way back to Herodotus (Histories 2.73) -- and Herodotus is a few centuries too early to have much to say about Christian allegory!

Easter eggs in mediaeval Europe. Actual documentation for Easter eggs goes back to mediaeval Christian sources, with an especially rich crop in the 1200s: see here, under ‘Ovum’. Some of them are formulas used for egg blessings. One French source from 1399 uses ‘Easter eggs’ (Eufs de Pasques) as a proverbial phrase. So we’re looking at a European origin, with the custom developing throughout the 10th to 13th centuries.

Mediaevalist scholars normally conclude that the custom of Easter eggs has its roots in the prohibition of eggs during Lent. Once Lent was finished, nutritious eggs suddenly came back on the menu. They were blessed for the occasion, and so Easter eggs became a thing.
The true origin of Easter eggs is ... the prohibited use of eggs during Lent. Indeed, Adolph Franz, the learned historian in ecclesiastical blessings of the Middle Ages, says that he has never discovered, in the sacramentaries or rituals anterior to the 10th Century, any special form for blessing the eggs.
-- Gougaud 1925: 185
If we’re going to look for early evidence on Easter eggs, it’s probably best to listen to the mediaevalists, because they’re the experts. And because that’s as early as the evidence goes.

The cross-cultural case. The main argument in favour of pagan origins for Easter eggs has always been, and always will be, that egg-decorating is a widespread custom, stretching over many different cultures and many millennia. That gives reasonable grounds to suspect that there is some genuine influence from pre-Christian customs. It’s just that we can’t document that influence.

Does that amount to pagan origins? Well, it can. But it’s a matter of emphasis. If you want, you can emphasise the documented development of the custom in mediaeval Europe; or, if you prefer, you can emphasise the cross-cultural universality of painted eggs.

But that’s a long, long way from saying that Easter eggs are plundered or plagiarised from some particular source.

References