Paradoxical History of Balsam #4


With wonderful serendipity, Alin Suciu’s impeccable blog on Patristics, Apocrypha, Coptic Literature and manuscripts has published the second of two guest-posts from Anthony Alcock.


Alcock has translated a fascinating text known as the ‘Mysteries of the Greek Alphabet‘ and as it happened, the picture which Alin chose to head the second post is that you see above ~ a very fine example of the difference between mere ‘illustration’ of a text, and an image which embodies textual meaning in and of itself.


If you happen to be interested in the three-way connection between  image-alphabet-moralia, and between hieroglyphics and what are known as ‘speaking images’ then I do recommend  Alcock’s translation as adjunct to those studies.  As I’ve indicated so briefly in these posts, mystical and religious implications are constant in the older ideas about balsam.


To whet your appetite before you move to read Alcock’s paper, here’s a little from one of those posts and from the second part of the translation – each offered separately as pdfs that can be downloaded via Alin’s site.


Note also how, in the second passage quoted below, the text assumes that seeds are rightly to be placed at the top of a plant –  and this is also the default position for flowers and seeds in the Vms’ botanical imagery. Default position – but the original makers of the Vms’ images were active and intelligent agents, and plainly not scribes-by-rote as the internal evidence shows the fifteenth-century copyists were.

….  made it possible for Egyptians to ‘economize’ the writing …  [a custom which]..  was extended in the Ptolemaic period (when the Pharaohs were of non-Egyptian origin), where subtle modifications of words and names were used by Egyptian intellectuals to convey multiple messages, e.g. the phrase mj r’ ‘like Re (sun god) could be written using the sign for ‘cat’ (mj) with the sun disk on its head, producing the message that the sun god could also be perceived as a feline creature.


Iôta is the plant. The foundations themselves are at the top – are the seeds in it,

each one being plentiful.

And God then said in the same voice: Let the earth bring forth fruit-bearing trees, with

seeds in them, like the letter kappa.

(Notes – DO’D.)

Four, not five elements formed the Coptic vision of the world.


But from the Egyptian town of Lycopolis, both  Origen (an eminent Christian thinker) and a noted Manichean teacher had come, so such habits of thought might reasonably be common to both, despite their holding different opinions about the number of basic elements.


Moralisation of the alphabet is also seen in such Greco-Syrian works as John Climacus’ Scala Paradisi and I have read an account of a  high Byzantine official who abandoned his position, his home and possessions in order to live as an ascetic in Egypt. When visited by representatives of the Emperor (so the story goes) and aked why he preferred to live among illiterate monks, he replied that it was here he could learn ‘The alphabet of the saints’.  I wonder if this is what he meant?


Since you probably want now to go and look at Alin’s site, I’ll leave the rest of the Balsam post till next time.




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