IN the year 1778 a number of boxes were discovered in Egypt. They were filled with papyri — that is, with rolls of ancient reed paper inscribed with writing. Nobody was interested in the discovery, and only one survived, this being written in Greek. The rest were burned, because, it is said, they smelled good.
During the nineteenth century more of these papyri were unearthed, and first the scholars and then the dealers became interested. The workmen too showed their interest by digging ruthlessly on their own, and destroying an immense amount of what remained. But gradually the discovery of papyri has become a science, and many have been preserved and deciphered. That they have survived is a miracle, the best finds coming from the Fayum valley, which was elaborately irrigated in classical times. When the irrigation broke down in the decay of the third and fourth centuries after Christ, the villages were promptly deserted, and the papyri survived untouched in a climate as dry as that of Northern Arizona, with its intact remains of the cliff dwellers’ civilization.
The bulk of our papyri came from ancient rubbish heaps, which of course are now covered over with dirt. Others were occasionally buried lovingly with their owners; yet others have been found in a sort of papier-mâché used for masking the faces of mummies, and for some strange reason the mummies of crocodiles were particularly fruitful of good papyri.
These manuscripts begin about 300 B. C., the first we have being a marriage contract of 311; and they last until well on into the Christian era, though vellum books begin to replace them in the fourth century after Christ. As civilization became more theological it also diminished, and vellum became scarcer. But the output of theological works did not diminish; and in the consequent paper shortage we find many papyri and much vellum being used as palimpsests: that is, the original writing has been washed out, and the material written on all over again. But the underlying writing can usually be read, and is generally the more interesting of the two.
Taken in bulk, these documents give a strange and modern impression of what was the richest country in the ancient world. It was under a Greek civil service. Herodotus, in the fifth century B. C., had already been there as a tourist; and, beginning with a treaty port, the Greeks had been peacefully penetrating Egypt until, after the death of Alexander the Great in B. C. 323, his general Ptolemy settled down there as king. His successors improved on this by becoming gods in their own lifetimes, being dependent largely on the revenues collected by their Greek officials. These soon made a governing caste not unlike that in modern India, except that they did not return to their native land on retirement and were also much more literary. Alexandria became the centre of a rather conservative and moneyed Greek culture, which enjoyed the stylistic complications of literature and would have worshiped Mr. T. S. Eliot while it deciphered.
Because of the security of the country this culture lasted far longer than in European Greece; indeed it was only ended by the Arabs in the middle of the seventh century. It is vividly illuminated by the papyri, both public and private. We have public-works contracts, business agreements, marriage and divorce agreements, letters from schoolboys and fathers of schoolboys, letters from soldiers, prospective hosts (in the third person), lovers, and many others. We hear of dance orchestras being engaged, also of wet nurses and mouse catchers, of perfumery businesses and lubricating oil for water wheels.
There are, lastly, the literary papyri, the most important of all from the textual point of view; they have done great service in upsetting the complacence of scholars, for they suggest that the mediæval manuscripts are not as corrupt as was thought and that editors cannot emend at random, for fear of being caught napping by the next fragment that turns up. But the state of a text is not everything, and much more important is the discovery of long-lost works. There are the Logia or Sayings of Christ, which include the words ‘Raise the stone and thou shalt find me, cleave the wood and there am I.’ There are also many secular discoveries, among them the Alexandrian mimes (which are really variety sketches), an epitome of some lost books of Livy, the poems of Bacchylides, Aristotle’s famous Constitution of Athens, and lastly new poems of Alcæus and Sappho.
In 1898 we had only two poems of Sappho which were anything like complete; and, after discovering a third, Grenfell and Hunt could then write in a preface: ‘It is not very likely that we shall find another poem of Sappho.’ But thanks to the discoveries of Grenfell and Hunt at Oxyrhynchus in 1903, we now have five, besides many interesting fragments.
One of the new poems, which I have translated, is reproduced on the following page. It describes Hector’s return to Troy with his new bride, and was perhaps written for Sappho’s class. After the death of her rich husband she apparently conducted a course for girls and young women who wanted to take a more professional part in singing ritual processions and marriage feasts, and probably ‘ Andromache’s Wedding ’ was written for a specific performance at one of these last.
As a rule Sappho wrote in an easy style not very far removed from the ordinary usage of Lesbos; but this poem has a few reminiscences of Homeric epic which have led some scholars to doubt its authenticity. But if it is not the work of Sappho, it is evidently the work of someone very close to her, some admirer or pupil; and the poem is beautiful enough in the original to be of Sappho’s own composing. It is written in a light dancing metre; the two breaks in the English text correspond to places where the Greek text has become illegible for a few lines. As a poem it is quick and visualized; if Keats’s ‘ Ode on a Grecian Urn ’ shows a procession remembered upon the tranquil urn, Sappho shows the procession as it went, full of music and moving, and until 1903 quite happy without benefit of a posterity which it could not imagine and did not need.