Galen analogized godly man to Hermes herm

herm of Demothenes, but similar to those of Hermes

Humans have long heroically aspired to connect levels of knowledge from molecules to man to cosmology.  In the second century, Galen produced a huge corpus of scholarly work ranging from detailed material concerns about medicinal substances to highly abstract cosmological reasoning.  Holding together all that knowledge wasn’t a clear Galenic theoretical consilience.[1]  Although obscured within enlightened scholarship, Galen’s appreciation for poetic form seems to have structured his wide-ranging knowledge.[2]  In one fascinating and sophisticated passage, Galen conceptualizes and moralizes a classical fable about a Hermes statue to connect material to spirit.

Galen recites the fable about the Hermes statue in an expository work on dispositions.  This book survives only in an Arabic translation.[3]  The book generally concerns behavioral effects of a tripartite soul’s governance.  Galen explicitly disavows philosophical-linguistic precision in the analysis:

I have shown there {in another of Galen’s books} that man possesses something that is responsible for thought, something else that is responsible for anger and a third thing that is responsible for desire.  It makes no difference how I refer to these three things in this book, whether as separate souls, as part of the one human soul or as three different faculties of the same essence.  I shall, in fact, in this book, call that which is responsible for thought “the rational soul” and “the cogitative soul,” whether it be a separate soul, a part or a faculty; I shall call that which is responsible for anger “the passionate soul” or “the animal soul” and that which is responsible for desire “the appetitive soul” or “the vegetative soul”. [4]

The best disposition results from the rational soul instructing the passionate soul to subdue the appetitive soul.  To be good, a man should form his soul to have that order.

Although a man’s soul is tripartite, the essence of a man, according to Galen, is the rational soul.  Galen argues that the body is only an instrument.  If a man’s hands and feet are cut off, he is still a man.  So too, according to Galen, if he is stripped of other bodily members and even deprived of his whole body.  Taking the argument further, Galen argues that the man remains even if he sheds his passionate and appetitive souls:

If, being freed from these two souls at the same time as you are freed from the body, you are able to be intelligent and understanding, as clever philosophers claim for man’s state after death, you must know that your way of life after your release from the body will be like that of the angels.  Even if you are not convinced that the intelligence that is in you does not die, you should, nevertheless, in no way slacken your efforts, as long as you live, to make your way of life like that of the angels. [5]

In the above Galenic text preserved in Arabic under monotheistic Islam, the word “angels” surely represents the word “gods” in the original Greek.  Gods, according to Galen, despise worldly pleasures and do not need to eat and drink.  While not staking a position on immortality of the (human, rational) soul, Galen urges humans in earthly life to imitate gods by restricting themselves “to what is absolutely necessary for the life of the body.”[6]

In this exhortative context, Galen invokes the fable about the Hermes statue.  Galen places a tendentious dichotomy immediately before the fable:

You have a choice between honoring your soul by making it like the angels {gods} and treating it contemptuously by making it like the brute beasts.[7]

Galen introduces the fable with the generic attribution “It is said….”[8]  Here is what is said:

two men simultaneously went to a seller of idols and bargained with him for the same idol representing Hermes.  One of them intended to set it up in a temple, in honour of Hermes, and the other intended to erect it over a tomb, in remembrance of a dead man.  They could not come to an agreement about buying it that day and so they postponed the business until the next.  The seller of idols dreamt that night that the idol said to him: “O excellent man, I am now something that you have made.  I have taken on a likeness that is attributed to a star, and I am now no longer called ‘a stone’ as I used to be, but I am called ‘Hermes’.  You must choose now whether to make me a memorial to something that does not decay or to something that has already decayed.[9]

Galen provides his own epimythium immediately following the fable:

This is what I say to those who seek to investigate their own souls; their decision, however, is greater than in the case of an idol, since no-one else has any jurisdiction over them, for they are free and masters of their will.  It is right that someone who is in this situation should place his soul in the highest rank of honour; there is no honour greater than that of imitating God, so far as is possible for a human being.  This is achieved by despising worldly pleasures and preferring the Beautiful.

The fable itself is nearly identical to a fable attributed to Aesop and included in an early Greek fable collection.[10]  In the Galenic text in Arabic under Islam, the word “star” surely represents “god” in the original non-Christian Greek; the word “idol” surely a less monotheistically freighted word such as “statue”; and “seller of idols” probably referred without opprobrium to a figurative sculptor working commercially.  Moreover, in ancient Greek hermes means both the god Hermes and a herm, a sculpture with a torso or head attached atop a lengthwise-standing rectangular base.  Use of the ancient Greek homonym hermes (stone/god) adds wit and poignancy to the phrase “I am now no longer called ‘a stone’ {herm} as I used to be, but I am called ‘Hermes’.”[11] Galen’s prefatory dichotomy and his epimythium make clear the right choice for the sculptor: sell the stone statue to the man who wants to make it part of a temple of the god Hermes.

Galen makes broad conceptual use of the fable about the Hermes statue.  The speaking Hermes statue is a piece of stone, but also more than a stone.  It is like a rational soul in a physical human body.  The choice for the deployment of the statue is more than a choice among different uses of a stone memorial, for the stone itself speaks.[12]  In the fable preserved in Greek, the Hermes herm declares to its sculptor:

Well, my fate hangs in the balance: it is up to you whether I will become a dead man or a god! [13]

Galen explicitly relates that choice to a man’s choice in ordering his tripartite soul to be like a “brute breast” or a god.  The brute beast, the dead man, and the decaying human body in a tomb figure a person with a badly ordered soul.  Placing oneself in a godly temple means ordering one’s soul to become like a statue consecrated to Hermes, with one’s rational soul imitating the god Hermes associated with the material statue.  The idea is like the Christian claim that a Christian’s body is a temple of the holy spirit.[14]  Centuries of philosophical battle have created opposing fronts of materialism and dualism.  For Galen, no such battles occur within what today would be called a fable of conventional pagan idolatry.

Galen had little regard for poetic innovation.  Galen favored among poets the classical poet-dramatists Euripides and Aristophanes.  Galen produced a dictionary of words from Old Comedy and forty-eight large books on words from classical prose works.  Galen’s lexicons were intended clarify the meaning and use of words, including technical terms.[15]  Hellenistic poetry, in contrast, Galen scarcely mentioned across all his work.  He seems to have implicitly ridiculed Hellenistic love elegy.  Galen valued poetic form as an existing feature of the world.  He valued little inspired poets stretching words into new, unclear uses.[16]

In his deployment of the Hermes fable, Galen implicitly challenged the poetic legacy of the pioneering and celebrated Alexandrian scholar-poet Philitas of Cos.  Philitas compiled a book of “unruly tongues”: anomalous meanings, words from the margins, and exotic lore.[17]  That project worked at an opposite scholarly pole from Galen’s massive work on lexicons and Galen’s concern to avoid ambiguity in language.  Philitas had a reputation as a scholar so engrossed in his work that he would forget to eat and drink.  A Greek rhetorician and grammarian writing about the time of Galen exploited Philitas’ enduring reputation for abstruse learning and emaciation to tease another:

Ulpian, you always refuse to take your share of food until you’ve learned whether the word for that dish is ancient.  Like Philitas of Cos, therefore, . . . you risk withering away some day.  For he became utterly emaciated through these studies and died, as the epigram in front of his memorial makes clear:
“Stranger, I am Philitas. The deceiving word caused my death,
and the evening’s thoughts extended deep into the night.” [18]

Galen urged rational control of the appetitive soul.  He did not intend that a person with a well-governed soul would be the butt of thin jokes and die from starvation.[19]  Galen’s invocation of the fable about the Hermes statue contrasts with an early Hellenistic epigram about a statue honoring Philitas:

Hecataeus made this bronze like Philitas in every way,
accurate down to the tips of his toes
in size and frame alike describing this investigator
on a human scale. He included nothing from the physique of heroes.
No, with the straightedge of truth and all his skill he cast
the old man full of cares.
He seems about to speak — how fully his features are elaborated! —
alive, though of bronze, this old man:
I stand here dedicated by Ptolemy, god and king at once,
for the sake of the Muses, the Coan man. [20]

In this epigram, men become like gods through being a great political leader (Ptolemy), or through a great political leader’s recognizing a great poet (Philitas) for the sake of other gods.  Galen the scholar-physician did not celebrate such persons.  Unlike the Hermes herm, the statue of Philitas is full-length and accurately depicts the deceased man.  Galen, in contrast, instructed persons on how to reform themselves to become like a god in soul rather than in physique.  Both the statues of Hermes and Philitas speak.  Statues coming alive and speaking was a well-established literary convention in Hellenistic epigrams.  In the Hermes fable, the statue spoke in a dream.[21]  Galen didn’t admire the Hermes fable as inspired poetic imagination.  He valued it as an ancient popular poetic form for instructing readers in the connection between universal human nature and a godly man’s soul.

*  *  *  *  *

Related posts:


[1] Singer (1997), p. 526, noted that Mario Vergetti described:

a clear discrepancy {in the Galenic corpus} between the anatomical-physiological model of a body functioning perfectly and in accordance with its divine nature, and the humoral-pathological model of a body composed of a mixture of elements and continually susceptible to illness.

Id.  inquired:

do the different kinds of Galenic text entail different – conflicting or incommensurable – physical theories, or are they to be explained as manifestations of a single underlying theory, the differences arising from context?

Id., p. 541, tentatively concluded that, with respect to levels of analysis, Galen exhibits “constant, inquisitive inconclusiveness.”

[2] The importance of rhetoric and poetry in scientifically styled works, e.g. E. O. Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge and The Social Conquest of Earth, is greatly under-appreciated.

[3] Hunayn ibn Ishaq translated the book into Arabic before 842.  Stern (1956) comprehensively describes the Arabic sources.  Mattock (1972) is an English translation.  In Arabic transliteration the book is known as Kitab al-akhlaq, in Greek Περὶ ἠθω̑ν, transliterated, Peri Ethon; in Latin, De Moribus or De Indole Animae (Sachau’s translation of al-Biruni’s attribution); and in English, On Traits of Character, The Ethics or On Ethics, or On Dispositions.  Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, HP p. 189, records an Arabic translations of Galen: “‘On Morals,’ in four chapters, describing different moral defects, their causes, symptoms and ways to counteract them.”  This description probably refers to Peri Ethon, which is in four chapters.

[4] Galen, Peri Ethon, trans. Mattock (1972) p. 237.  The other book is Galen’s The Views of Hippocrates and Plato.

[5] Id. p. 248.   The word “angels” is probably an Islamic replacement for the underlying Greek term “gods.”  The eleventh-century Muslim scholar Al-Biruni noted, “We have already mentioned that they {Greeks} called the angels gods.”  He also recorded and noted:

Johannes Grammaticus says in his refutation of Proclus : “The Greeks gave the name of gods to the visible bodies in heaven, as many barbarians do. Afterwards, when they came to philosophise on the abstract ideas of the world of thought, they called these by the name of gods.”

Hence we must necessarily infer that being deified means something like the state of angels, according to our notions.

Trans. Sachau (1910) vol. 1, pp. 95, 36.  See in subsequent quote above an example of the replacement of “god” with “star” in the Arabic translation of the Greek.

[6] Id. p. 248-9.

[7] Id. p. 249 (including previous two quotes).

[8] Galen often explicitly marks verbatim quotation.  He frequently does so with the phrase kata lexin (in these words).  Totelin (2012), p. 310.  “kata lexin” is a plausible Greek source phrase for “it is said” above.

[9] Galen, Peri Ethon, trans. Mattock (1972) p. 249.  Al-Biruni’s Indica quotes the fable from Galen, but doesn’t include Galen’s epimythium.  See trans. Sachau (1910) v. I, pp. 123-4.   In Galen, metaphor is “conspicuously associated with linguistic, scientific, communicative, and moral failure,” yet Galen frequently uses metaphors. von Staden (1995) pp. 500, 504-5, 517.  Peri Ethon includes many metaphors, including unusual animal metaphors for a tripartite soul’s functioning.  Galen favored historical linguistic study and “traditional, ordinary, literal usage.”  Id. p. 516.  The Hermes herm as a metaphor for the soul and man has the Galenic merit of being derived from traditional, popular moral teaching (Aesop).

[10] Laura Gibb’s wonderful Aesopica website provides the fable, entitled “Hermes, the Sculptor and His Dream,” in English translation (in conjunction with Gibbs (2002)) and in Greek and Latin source texts.  Babrius, the earliest source text (Greek), is dated between the third century BGC and the third century GC.   Galen’s use of the fable suggests that it has classical-era origins, or earlier.  Honoring statues of Hermes is a motif that appears in four other fables attributed to Aesop:  Hermes and the Statues, Hermes and the Dog, The Statue of Hermes and the Treasure, and The Man and the Statue of Hermes.  The Aesop fable The Donkey Who Carried the God concerns an unidentified carved image of a god.

[11] In On Sophisms in Diction (De sophism), Galen explicitly itemized and deplored homonymies as one of seven sources of “lexical and sentential ambiguity.”  von Staden (1994) p. 514.   Just as for metaphors, Galen seems willing to use a homonym if it is associated with traditional, popular language.   The statue’s homonymic statement isn’t in Babrius’ transmission of the Aesop fable.  It may well be a Galenic insertion serving Galen’s implicit thrust against innovative Hellenistic epigram and elegy.  Id., p. 515, notes in Galen “a dense texture of historical intertextuality — an intertextuality which often, though far from always, is strongly agonal.”

[12] Walzer (1954), p. 250, in a remarkably tendentious reading of Galen’s Hermes fable, declares:

The hand of a philosopher, of the Porch or the Academy, is also to be noticed in a small but significant detail in the fable as reported by Galen. The idol of Hermes is to be a ‘memorial’ of the god: its function is to remind people of his existence.  In no other way can image worship be maintained and defended in an enlightened age.  The image has no longer any magical powers, but human nature is too weak to do without this symbolic representation of the divine if it is not to forget about it.

Moreover, id., pp. 243-4, misreads al-Biruni’s quotation of Galen amid al-Biruni’s discussion of Greek and Hindu idolatry:

It interested him {al-Biruni} that the figure of Hermes was to be a memorial of the deceased man or a memorial of a god, and nothing else but a memorial, and for this reason alone he quoted Galen.

Al-Biruni would have been sympathetic with Walzer’s apparent intellectual bias, but al-Biruni treated the texts less tendentiously.

[13] Aesop, “Hermes, the Sculptor and His Dream,” Greek text of Babrius, trans. Gibbs (2002).

[14] 1 Corinthian 6:19.

[15] De Lacy (1966) p. 265.  Galen’s newly recovered work, On the Avoidance of Grief, sec. 20, 23b-28, indicates the importance that Galen attached to these lexicons.  Trans. Rothschild & Thompson (2011).  Galen’s concern for linguistic clarity is also apparent in Galen’s On Fallacies, trans. Edlow (1977).

[16] Totelin (2012), pp. 312-3, observes:

the verse recipe (elegiac couplets) for Theriac by Andromachus the Elder, which Galen transmits in Antidotes, is so unclear that it warrants a rendition into prose (by Andromachus the Younger) and into ‘simpler’ verse (by Damocrates). According to modern standards, the poetry of Andromachus is more beautiful, and for that reason it has been studied more, but it is Damocrates’ plain Iambic poetry that appealed to Galen. … Galen tends to appreciate poetry less for its beauty than for its utility: Damocrates’ poetry is more useful for didactic purposes than that of Andromachus and therefore more praiseworthy.

[17] Bing (2003) provides detailed discussion and the characterization of this work.

[18] Id. pp. 331-3, quoting Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, 9.401d-e.  See id. pp. 331-3 for further discussion of the “emaciated professor.”

[19] Cameron (1995) App. B. discusses thin-person jokes, which were common in ancient comedy. Bing (2003), p. 333, points out that the specific figure of the emaciated professor seems to have emerged in early Hellenistic elegy and epigram.

[20] Id. pp. 331-2, quoting an epigram of Posidippus on a statue of Philitas of Cos (“the Coan man”), from the newly discovered Milan Papyrus, P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309 (ancient Greek source text, translations into modern languages).  Speaking, seemingly alive statues are a motif in Hellenistic epigram.  See, e.g. the Andriantopoiika section of the Milan Papyrus.

[21] Galen personally reported receiving in a dream instruction from Asclepius.  Oberhelman (1983) p. 37 observes:

Dreams are fully incorporated into Galen’s medical science and play an active role in his treatment of illnesses. They also proved to be of crucial importance for him personally throughout his life and career.

The Aesop epigram that Babrius transmits also has Hermes speaking to the sculptor in a dream, but Hermes speaks more extensively in Galen’s version.


Bing, Peter. 2003. “The Unruly Tongue: Philitas of Cos as Scholar and Poet.”  Classical Philology. 98 (4): 330-348.

Cameron, Alan. 1995. Callimachus and his critics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

De Lacy, Phillip. 1966.  “Galen and the Greek Poets.” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies.  7(3): 259-266.

Edlow, Robert Blair. 1977. Galen on language and ambiguity: an English translation of Galen’s “De captionibus (On fallacies)” with introduction, text, and commentary. Leiden: Brill.

Gibbs, Laura. 2002. Aesop’s Fables: A new translation. Oxford University Press (World’s Classics): Oxford.

HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294Online transcription.

Mattock, J.N. 1972.  “A Translation of the Arabic Epitome of Galen’s Book Peri Ethon.” Stern, Samuel M., and Richard Walzer.  Islamic philosophy and the classical tradition: essays presented by his friends and pupils to Richard Walzer on his 70th birthday. Oxford: Cassirer.

Oberhelman, Steven M. 1983. “Galen, On Diagnosis from Dreams.”  Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. 38 (1): 36-47.

Rothschild, Clare K, and Trevor W. Thompson. 2011. “Galen: ‘On the Avoidance of Grief.’” Early Christianity, vol. 2, pp. 110–129.

Sachau, Eduard. 1910. Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Bīrūnī. Alberuni’s India. An account of the religion, philosophy, literature, geography, chronology, astronomy, customs, laws and astrology of India about A.D. 1030. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.

Singer, P. N. 1997. “Levels of Explanation in Galen.” Classical Quarterly. 47 (2): 525-542.

Stern, S. M. 1956. “Some Fragments of Galen’s on Dispositions (Περὶ ἠθω̑ν) in Arabic.”  Classical Quarterly. 6 (2): 91-101.

Totelin, Laurence M.V. 2012. “And to end on a poetic note: Galen’s authorial strategies in the pharmacological books.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A. 43 (2): 307-315.

von Staden, Heinrich. 1995. “Science as text, science as history: Galen on metaphor.” Pp. 499-518 in Ph.J. van der Eijk, H.F.J. Horstmanshoff & P.H. Schrijvers, eds.  Ancient medicine in its social and cultural context.  Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Walzer, R. 1954. “A Diatribe of Galen.” The Harvard Theological Review. 47 (4): 243-254.

al-Biruni treats Hindu idolatry like ancient Greco-Roman idolatry

By the early eleventh century, Greco-Roman thought was much more respected and eagerly studied in the Islamic world than was Hindu thought.  One obstacle to Muslims engaging with Hindus was Muslims’ perception that Hindus worshiped idols.   In his monumental work on India, early-eleventh-century Muslim scholar al-Biruni described Hindu idolatry as similar to Greco-Roman idolatry.  Greco-Roman idolatry caused little intellectual and religious concern to Muslims.  In al-Biruni’s view, Hindu idolatry likewise should cause little intellectual and religious concern to Muslims.

While both Christians and Muslims were adept at recasting ancient Greeks as proto-coreligionists, al-Biruni showed more respect for the fullness of truth. Al-Biruni described ancient Greek belief in “the First Cause,” which can be analogized to belief in the one God of Islam.  Al-Biruni declared that Plato wrote:

God is in the single number; there are no gods in the plural number.[1]

Nonetheless, al-Biruni also reported that the ancient Greeks believed in spirits that ruled the world in various ways: “they called them gods, built temples in their names and offered them sacrifices.”  According to al-Biruni, Galen, who was the leading medical authority in the ancient Islamic world, described Asclepius and Dionysos as divine beings.  Al-Biruni also transmitted Galen’s story of a stone statue of Hermes.  That stone statue spoke to its maker in a dream and declared, “Now I am no longer a stone.”  Al-Biruni also noted that the ancient Greeks used the word apotheosis “which has a bad sound in the ears of Muslims.”[2]  Greco-Roman non-Christian religion had largely vanished by the time of the coming of Islam.  Greco-Roman idolatry was thus easy for Muslims to ignore.  Al-Biruni, in contrast, described many Greco-Roman beliefs and practices that would offend Muslim beliefs.

Sol Invictus, an idol of the late Roman Empire

Hindu beliefs and practices, in al-Biruni’s view, were much like those of the ancient Greeks.  Al-Biruni described Hindus as recognizing seven classes of spiritual beings who continually quarrel and fight.   They occasionally had intercourse with human beings.  Al-Biruni observed:

If you compare these {Hindu} traditions with those of the Greek regarding their own religion, you will cease to find the Hindu system strange.  We have already mentioned that they called the angels gods.  Now consider their stories about Zeus, and you will understand the truth of our remark. … {Zeus} married certain women one after the other, doing violence to them and not marrying them, among them Europa, the daughter of Phoenix, who was taken from him by Asterios, king of Crete.  [3]

Those stories attribute to Zeus “anthropomorphisms and traits of animal life.”  Moreover, according to al-Biruni, “Brahman {apparently meaning a Hindu god} is described in the same way as Zeus by Aratos {Aratus}.”[4]  Al-Biruni’s accounts of Hindu gods and Greeks gods aren’t coherent.  But al-Biruni’s primary point is that both Hinduism and ancient Greek religion fall short of Islam in similar ways.

Al-Biruni emphasized the importance of elite beliefs.  The Greek scholars and Greek philosophers that Muslim scholars translated and studied were Greek elites.  Al-Biruni directed attention away from popular Indian practices, towards learned Hindu thinking:

The educated among the Hindus abhor anthropomorphisms of this kind, but the crowd and the members of the single sects use them most extensively. They go even beyond all we have hitherto mentioned, so as to speak of wife, son, daughter, of the rendering pregnant and other physical processes, all in connection with God. They are even so little pious, that, when speaking of these things, they do not even abstain from silly and unbecoming language. However, nobody minds these classes and their theories, though they be numerous. The main and most essential point of the Hindu world of thought is that which the Brahmans think and believe, for they are specially trained for preserving and maintaining their religion. [5]

Indian elite texts described in detail the construction of idols.  In al-Biruni’s view, these texts illustrate “how the crowd is kept in thraldom by all kinds of priestly tricks and deceits.”  Al-Biruni reported that these elite tactics had great effects:

When the ignorant crowd get a piece of good luck by accident or something at which they had aimed, and when with this some of the preconcerted tricks of the priests are brought into connection, the darkness in which they live increases vastly, not their intelligence.  They will rush to those figures of idols, maltreating their own figures before them by shedding their own blood and mutilating their own bodies.[6]

Such idol-worship al-Biruni excused more than condemned.  It indicated common, ignorant persons being exploited.

Al-Biruni saw economic exploitation of idols and idol-worshiping as preferable to some other alternatives.  When Islamic warriors invaded Sicily in the mid-seventh century, they captured “golden idols adorned with crowns and diamonds.”  The (Muslim) Caliph didn’t destroy the idols.  He ordered the idols to be sent to India to be sold there.  Al-Biruni approvingly observed:

for he thought it best to sell them as objects costing sums of so-and-so many denars, not having the slightest scruple on account of their being objects of abominable idolatry, but simply considering the matter from a political, not from a religious point of view. [7]

Similarly, when Muslims conquered the Indian city Multan about 712, they didn’t destroy Multan’s main Hindu idol, which attracted many visitors and much money.  Instead, the Muslims took a share of ongoing revenue from the idol.   About 986, an Ismaili army seized control of Multan in battle among Muslim forces.  The new, Ismaili ruler of Multan destroyed the idol.  Al-Biruni described this new ruler as “the usurper” and approvingly noted that “the blessed Prince Mahmud swept away their rule.”[8]  Al-Biruni seemed to regard economically exploiting an idol to be preferable to destroying it.

Al-Biruni favored ignoring idols intellectually.  Al-Biruni reported ancient Greek devotion to more than one god and ancient Greek use of idols as mediators and embodiments of gods.  Such practices encompassed Plato and Galen, Greco-Roman thinkers highly respected in the Islamic world.[9]  Al-Biruni’s solution to this troubling strand of Greco-Roman thought was Aristotle’s wisdom, taken from legends of Alexander the Great.   According to these legends, Alexander the Great sought help from Aristotle in addressing a Brahman’s criticism of Greek idolatry.  Aristotle reportedly answered the Brahman for Alexander:

If you maintain that some Greeks have fabled that the idols speak, that the people offer to them and think them to be spiritual beings, of all this we have no knowledge, and we cannot give a sentence on a subject we do not know.

“I don’t know” is truly a classic legal defense.  Al-Biruni warmly approved this Aristotelian wisdom:

In these words he {Aristotle} rises high above the class of fools and uneducated people, and he indicates by them that he does not occupy himself with such things.[10]

Al-Biruni wanted Muslim scholars to treat concerns about Hindu idolatry according to Aristotle’s wisdom, and to study Hindu thought as seriously as they studied Greco-Roman thought.

*  *  *  *  *

Related posts:


[1] Al-Biruni, Indica, trans. Sachau (1910) p. 35.

[2] Id. pp. 34, 35, 124, 36.

[3] Id. pp. 91, 95, 96.

[4] Id. pp. 95, 97.

[5] Id. p. 39.

[6] Id. pp. 122, 123.

[7] Id. p. 124.  Lavish, pre-Islamic venerating of statues is important for understanding Byzantine iconoclasm.

[8] Id. pp. 116-7.  Muhammad ibn al-Qasim was the initial Muslim conqueror of Multan.  According to al-Biruni:

he thought it best to have the idol where it was, but he hung a piece of cow’s-flesh on its neck by way of mockery.

Id. Hanging cow-flesh on a Hindu idol probably would have destroyed its revenue-generating potential in attracting Hindu pilgrims.  Elsewhere al-Biruni noted:

they {Hindus} never desire that a thing which once has been polluted should be purified and thus recovered, as, under ordinary circumstances, if anybody or anything has become unclean, he or it would strive to regain the state of purity.

Id. p 20.  The claim about hanging cow-flesh on the idol may have been a fiction intended to assuage Muslim concern about economically exploiting the idol rather than destroying it.  The ravaging of India by Mahmud of Gazna (“blessed Prince Mahmud”) seems to have generally appalled al-Biruni.  For more on the temple of Multan, see Friedmann (1972).

[9] Al-Biruni, Indica, trans. Sachau (1910) pp. 123-4.  Al-Biruni quotes loosely from Plato’s Laws (Bk. 4) and closely from the surviving Arabic translation of Galen’s De Moribus (Ethics), which al-Biruni calls De Indole Animae.

[10] Trans. Sachau (1910) p. 124.  A Hebrew text written in fourteenth century France — one of the many, different, surviving manuscripts of the Alexander legends — has the Brahman King Dindimus write to Alexander:

We, the Brahmans, do not slaughter sheep and oxen for the glory and honor of the gods. We do not build temples in order to place images and idols of silver and gold in them. We do not do as you do.

Trans. Bonfils & Kazis (1962) p. 140.  Similar to the wisdom that al-Biruni records from Aristotle is part of a fourth-century saying of the desert monk Abba Sopatras:

Do not get involved in discussions about the image.  Although this is not heresy, there is too much ignorance and liking for dispute between the two parties in this matter. It is impossible for a creature to understand the truth of it.

Trans. Ehrman & Jacobs (2004) p. 306.


Bonfils, Immanuel ben Jacob, and Israel Joseph Kazis. 1962. The book of the gests of Alexander of Macedon: a mediaeval Hebrew version of the Alexander romance. Cambridge, Mass: Mediaeval Academy of America.

Ehrman, Bart D., and Andrew S. Jacobs. 2004. Christianity in late antiquity, 300-450 C.E.: a reader. New York: Oxford University Press.

Friedmann, Yohanan. 1972. “The temple of Multan: a note on early Muslim attitudes to idolatry.” Israel Oriental Studies, 2, 176-182

Sachau, Eduard. 1910. Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Bīrūnī. Alberuni’s India. An account of the religion, philosophy, literature, geography, chronology, astronomy, customs, laws and astrology of India about A.D. 1030. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.

visual poetry: a Hellenistic “coronis” epigram

Ancient Greek epigrams typically have a speaking object directly addressing the viewer/reader.  For example, an epigram engraved on a memorial stone at Thermopylae commemorated a Spartan army that fought there to the last man against an invading Persian army.  The epigram declares:

Stranger, go tell the Spartans
That we lie here
True, even to the death
To our Spartan way of life.

The literary conceit is to charge someone unaware of the battle with the momentous task of conveying the news, while the existence of the memorial itself testifies to both the news’ importance and reception.

By the Hellenistic period, epigram had become a highly refined literary form.  Epigrams never to be engraved in stone were written to circulate in books among the literary elite.  Epigrams such as those about Myron’s Cow and Medea intricately interrelated visual and verbal effects.[1]  Beneath an often playful surface, epigrams were allusive, self-reflective, conscious of epigrammatic predecessors, and communicatively complex.  Consider, for example, this epigrammatic representation of cleverly interpreting a non-verbal epigram:

Let me see whose death this stele reports.  But I see
  no writing engraved anywhere on the stone,
just nine dice, tossed, of which the first four
  bear witness to the throw called Alexander,
the next four the ephebe throw, the bloom of youthful maturity,
  and this one shows the lowest throw, the Chian.
Do they announce: "A man who proudly ruled with the sceptre
  and was in the bloom of youth came to naught"?
No, that's not it, but I think that now I shoot my arrow
  straight at the target, like a Cretan bowman.
The dead man was a Chian, he had acquired the name
  of Alexander, and he died in ephebic youth.
How well someone has said with voiceless dice that the young man
  died through recklessness, his life stacked and lost. [2]

As this epigram explains, the straight-forward interpretation is not it.  The details tell and ring poetically.

An obscure book curse appears to be a highly literary Hellenistic epigram.  At the end of a relatively unimportant third-century papyrus roll appears the text:

I am the coronis, guardian of letters.
The reed pen wrote me, the right hand and knee.
If you should lend me to someone, take another in exchange.
If you should erase me, I will slander you to Euripides.
Keep off! [3]

Medieval and early modern book curses typically are formulaic and not highly literary.[4]  With a speaking object engaged in direct address, this Hellenistic-era book curse belongs to the more creative genre of epigram.  The existing literature on Hellenistic epigram seems to have overlooked it.  Yet it has considerable literary merit.

This Hellenstic epigram includes subtle visual poetry.  The epigram is obviously multi-voiced.  The coronis, a textual symbol that marks the separation or end of major sections in ancient Greek papyri, speaks “I am the coronis.”  But the book roll is the reference in the line, “If you should lend me to someone, take another in exchange.”  The best literary division of the voices is to have the coronis as a separating voice speaking the first and last lines.[5]  That’s visual poetry that parallels the coronis’ visual work of separating.  That work is expressed verbally, in the context of poetic dynamism, as guarding and “keep off.”

The reference to Euripides has considerable literary weight.  The book roll contains a copy of books three and four of the Iliad.  Homer was the most celebrated poet in the Hellenistic world.  Euripides in the Hellenistic era was popularly known through solo actors, probably including celebrity pantomimes, performing dramatic highlights from his tragic plays.[6]  To the literary elite, that popularization of Euripides was probably equated to destroying Euripides’ literary value.  Threatening to “slander you to Euripides” for erasing Homer’s Iliad might well be a literary allusion and response to the post-classical shift in the popular marketplace for poetry.[7]

The epigram has other noteworthy literary features.  A book owner might lend a valued book to a friend as a special favor.  The phrase “take another in exchange” places lending a book in a context like that, common in the ancient world, of exchanging political hostages to secure an agreement among hostile powers.  “The reed pen wrote me, the right hand and knee” figures the scribe through metonymy expanding from the reed pen to the scribe’s right hand and knee to the scribe’s whole person.  That representation suggests a dedicated, professional scribe.

The person who inscribed the epigram and the copy of the Iliad wasn’t doing elite literary work.  The catalog entry for the manuscript describes the script as “rough, ugly uncial.”  Moreover, within the text,“mistakes in orthography and copying are common.”[8]  Just above the epigram, which is written on a separate sheet at the end of the roll, the writer apparently wrote three coronides, which increase in figural complexity from left to right.[9]   Moreover, this literary text is written on the back (verso) of a bureaucratic papyrus — a tax-assessment document.  Compared to parchment, which was also in use in the third century, papyrus is relatively cheap.  This epigram has been preserved in a low-value copy.

This epigram almost surely originated in an earlier, elite literary parchment.  The epigram refers to erasing the text.  Relatively few rewritten papyrus rolls have been found.  Erasing the back side of a papyrus roll that contains on the front side a bureaucrat text is completely improbable.  A reference to erasing the text would make sense within an expensive, original-use parchment roll.  The epigram’s high literary sophistication points to an elite literary audience.  A luxurious copy of the Iliad for a literary patron is probably the original context for this epigram.

*  *  *  *  *

Update: general information on marking the end of books in the ancient world.  Here’s another coronis epigram:

I, the coronis, announcing the final lap, the most trustworthy guardian of the enclosure of written sheets, proclaim that Meleager has brought his labour to an end, having gathered all the works from all lyric poets into one collection and having wrapped them into this roll. And that from flowers he has twined together one poetic wreath worthy of remembrance from Diolces. And, curled in coils like the back of a snake, I am sitting here enthroned beside the conclusion of his learned work.

Palatine Anthology, 12.257, trans. p. 16-17 n.35, in Schironi, Francesca. 2010. To mega biblion: book-ends, end-titles, and coronides in papyri with hexametric poetry. Durham, N. C.: American Society of Papyrologists (via Roger Pearse).

Related posts:


[1] On Myron’s Cow, see Squire (2010).  Asterius of Amasea, a late-fourth-century Christian bishop, provides an insightful example and perspective on ecphrasis.

[2] Antipater of Sidon 32 GP (=AP 7.427, trans. Gutzwiller), quoted in Meyer (2007) pp. 207-8.

[3]  From Papyrus 136, held in The British Library.  The text in Papyrus 136 appears to have a rectilinear arrangement of eight lines with the last word on an additional line.   See Drogin (1983) p. 56, Plate 17 (image of papyrus sheet). Trans. Haines-Eitzen (2000) pp. 109-10, which also provides the Greek.  The arrangement of the Greek text above is my interpretation of the sense of the original text.  See subsequent discussion above.    Drogin (1983) pp. 55, 57 provides alternative translations.

[4] See examples in Drogin (1983).

[5] Haines-Eitzen (2000) p. 110 gives the coronis only the first line.  Drogin (1983) p. 57 gives the “colophon” the first two lines.

[6] Hall (2002) pp. 13-8.

[7] Book 3 of the Iliad pits Paris and Menelaus in man-to-man combat.  Aristotle’s Poetics associates tragedy and epic, describes tragedy as superior to epic, and names Euripides as the greatest of tragic poets.  The above epigram may also be alluding to these literary-critical references.

[8] To find the catalog entry, search the British Library’s Catalog of Archives and Manuscripts using the terms “papyrus 136 Iliad tax” (without quotes).

[9] Drogin (1983) p. 56, Plate 17, provides a photo of the relevant papyrus section.


Drogin, Marc. 1983. Anathema!: medieval scribes and the history of book curses. Totowa, N.J.: Allanheld, Osmun.

Haines-Eitzen, Kim. 2000. Guardians of letters: literacy, power, and the transmitters of early Christian literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hall, Edith. 2002.  “The Singing Actors of Antiquity.” Pp. 3-38 in Easterling, Patricia E., and Edith Hall. 2002. Greek and Roman actors: aspects of an ancient profession. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Meyer, Doris. 2007. “The Act of Reading and the Act of Writing in Hellenistic Epigram.” Pp. 187-210 in Peter Bing & Jon Steffen Bruss (edd.). Brill’s Companion to Hellenistic Epigram Down to Philip. Leiden: Brill, 2007 (Brill’s Companions in Classical Studies).

Squire Michael. 2010. “Making Myron’s cow moo? Ecphrastic epigram and the poetics of simulation.”  American Journal of Philology. 131 (4): 589-634.

Asterius of Amasea’s Euphemia ekphrasis

Asterius of Amasea, a late-fourth-century Christian bishop with oratorical training, began a speech thus:

The other day, gentlemen, I had the great Demosthenes in my hand — that {oration} of Demosthenes in which he assails Aeschines with bitter words. I spent a long time with the text, and as my spirit was burdened, I needed the distraction of some walk, so that my soul could recover a bit from her labour.[1]

Asterius walked through the marketplace, readily imagined as filled with vendors noisily asserting the value of their products, and on to a temple, where he prayed.   Near to the temple on a portico wall he saw a painting that “overtook me completely.”  The painting seemed almost alive, like a masterpiece of Euphranor from fourth-century democratic Athens, or like a painting of other ancient masters.[2]  The painting represented the martyrdom of the virgin Euphemia.[3]  It marked the place of her tomb.  Euphemia was annually honored at that place with a festival and public speeches.  Asterius’ speech then proceeds to a verbally artistic description of the painting.  Asterius’ speech, with its framing narrative and attention to a painting described as seeming almost alive, follows a well-established rhetorical model of ekphrasis.

In the midst of his ekphrasis, Asterius praises painting with reference to a garlanded ekphrastic epigram.  In the first century BGC, Timomachus painted the Colchian woman Medea at the moment preceding her decision to kill her children.  Julius Caesar purchased this painting and placed it in the Roman temple of Venus Genetrix.   A couplet by Antipater of Thessalonica, who probably resided in Rome near the end of the first century BGC, described Timomachus’ painting:

This is a sketch of Medea.  Observe how she lifts one eye in anger,
and softens the other with pity for her children.[4]

Asterius describes a painting showing:

the drama of that woman of Colchis, how she is going to kill her children with the sword, her face divided between pity and anger — one of her eyes looking with wrath, the other revealing the mother in fear and sorrow.

Asterius is probably referring to Timomachus’ celebrated painting.  An extensive scholarly study of Timomachus’ Medea and ekphrastic epigram noted of Antipater’s epigram:

The rather awkward description of the eyes {of Medea}, one lifted in anger and one drooping with compassion, is not repeated in other epigrams and would seem to reflect the interpretation of the viewer/poet based on his knowledge and understanding of the Medea figure.[5]

Asterius could not himself have seen Timomachus’ painting, which burned in 80 GC.  Antipater’s epigram on Timomachus’ Medea circulated widely and was included in the Greek Anthology.  Asterius’ unusual description of Timomachus’ painting probably came from Antipater’s ekphrastic epigram.

Asterius’ homily on the rich man and Lazarus sets up the narrative arc for Asterius’ Euphemia ekphrasis.   Expounding upon the description of the rich man “clothed in purple and fine linen,” Asterius condemns the wearing of clothes decorated with pictorial designs:

having found some idle and extravagant style of weaving, which by the twining of the warp and the woof, produces the effect of a picture, and imprints upon their robes the forms of all creatures, they artfully produce, both for themselves and for their wives and children, clothing beflowered and wrought with ten thousand objects. … When, therefore, they dress themselves and appear in public, they look like pictured walls in the eyes of those that meet them. And perhaps even the children surround them, smiling to one another and pointing out with the finger the picture on the garment; and walk along after them, following them for a long time. On these garments are lions and leopards; bears and bulls and dogs; woods and rocks and hunters; and all attempts to imitate nature by painting.[6]

Painting imitating nature evokes the contest of deception between the ancient Greek painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius.  As Asterius observed, a painting that imitates nature could also bring to life teaching about the courage and holiness of the martyr Euphemia.  Emphasizing luxury, vanity, and complacency, not epistemological concerns about imitation, Asterius vehemently rejected depictions of Gospel text on garments:

such rich men and women as are more pious, have gathered up the gospel history and turned it over to the weavers; I mean Christ himself with all the disciples, and each of the miracles, as recorded in the Gospel. You may see the wedding of Galilee, and the water-pots; the paralytic carrying his bed on his shoulders; the blind man being healed with the clay; the woman with the bloody issue, taking hold of the border of the garment; the sinful woman falling at the feet of Jesus; Lazarus returning to life from the grave. In doing this they consider that they are acting piously and are clad in garments pleasing to God. But if they take my advice let them sell those clothes and honor the living image of God. Do not picture Christ on your garments. It is enough that he once suffered the humiliation of dwelling in a human body which of his own accord he assumed for our sakes. So, not upon your robes but upon your soul carry about his image.

Do not portray the paralytic on your garments, but seek out him that lies sick. Do not tell continually the story of the woman with the bloody issue, but have pity on the straitened widow. Do not contemplate the sinful woman kneeling before the Lord, but, with contrition for your own faults, shed copious tears. Do not sketch Lazarus rising from the dead, but see to it that you attain to the resurrection of the just. Do not carry the blind man about on your clothing, but by your good deeds comfort the living, who has been deprived of sight. Do not paint to life the baskets of fragments that remained, but feed the hungry. Do not carry upon your mantles the water-pots which were filled in Cana of Galilee, but give the thirsty drink.

During the Second Council at Nicea in 787, which met to address Christians’ use of images, Asterius’ homily on the rich man and Lazarus was put forward as an argument against images.  Asterius’ Euphemia ekphrasis was then read into the record in support of images.  The Second Council at Nicea’s arguments about Asterius’ position on images communicatively parallel Demosthenes and Aischines’ agon introducing the narrative frame for the Euphemia ekphrasis.  Given Asterius’ explicit praise for painting in the Euphemia ekphrasis, Asterius could have easily anticipated that wearisome verbal development.

At its end, the Euphemia ekphrasis suspends representations.   In a poignant but conventional gesture, Asterius responds with tears to the depiction of an executioner knocking out all of Euphemia’s teeth.   But his ekphrasis continues through his tears: Asterius goes on to describe Euphemia alone, in prison, dressed in grey clothes, praying, with a Christian cross inscribed above her head.  Then the execution:

the painter lit a tremendous fire, with red colour giving life to the flame from all sides.  He put her in the middle with her hands stretched towards heaven.  No burden is manifested by her face; on the contrary, she looks rejoicing because she moves towards the bodiless, blessed life.

At this point, the Euphemia ekphrasis ends with deliberate choices to halt painting and speech:

Here the painter stayed his hand and I my speech.  It is time for you, if you want, to complete the description, so that you can see with precision whether our explanation was not failing.

Completing the description implies imagining a “bodiless, blessed life” like that towards which the “courageous and holy” Euphemia moves.  In a similar way, the original textual ending to Mark’s Gospel implied readers moving beyond terror, amazement, silence, and fear to build the church.[7]  Fourth-century homilies on martyrs emphasized that homage corresponds to imitation.[8]  The Euphemia ekphrasis, like the original ending to Mark’s Gospel, points to imaginative completion and inspired action.  That’s different from compelling arguments, such as those that wearied Asterius at the beginning of the narrative frame, or a call to imitation, which was the usual form in recounting martyrdom.

*  *  *  *  *

Related work:


[1] Trans. Leemans et al (2003) p. 174.  All the references to Asterius’ speech are from that translation.  Castelli (2000) seems to me a worse quality translation.  For example, Castelli’s translation omits any mention of the painter Euphranor, even though that painter is explicitly mentioned in the Greek source.  Nonetheless, with the exception of the reference to Euphranor, all the points above are consistent with Castelli’s translation.  Demosthenes and Aeschines were prominent orators in fourth-century BGC Athens.

[2] Coulson (1972) argues convincingly that Euphranor was an Athenian painter who probably flourished about 360 BGC.  Thus Asterius’ reference to Domesthenes and Aeschines matches the historical time and place of his reference to Euphranor.

[3] Euphemia was from Chalcedon, a city close to Byzantium.  She was executed for her Christian faith in 303 GC as part of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians.  See Castelli (2000) p. 464.  Asterius was from Amasea, in the middle of the Black Sea region of present-day northern Turkey.

[4] See my post on media in epigrams on Timomachus’ Medea.  Asterius compares that painting’s mixture of emotions to Euphemia’s mixture of docility and courageous determination. Leemans et al (2003) translates the emotions as “shame and firmness”; Castelli (2000), “modesty and courage”.   The conflicting emotions concern a willingness to be led (which in antiquity was associated with femininity) and a determination not to compromise or betray her Christian faith despite an authoritative order to do so.

[5] Gutzwiller (2004) p. 364.

[6] Trans. Pearse (2003).  The subsequent quote is also from that source.

[7] See Mark 16:8, which manuscript evidence suggests was the original conclusion to that Gospel.  Asterius’ Euphemia ekphrasis is consistent with such a form for the Gospel.

[8] Driver (2005) p. 254.


Castelli, Elizabeth A. 2000. “Asterius of Amasea: Ekphrasis on the Holy Martyr Euphemia.” Ch. 39 in Valantasis, Richard. 2000. Religions of late antiquity in practice. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Coulson, William D. E. 1972. “The Nature of Pliny’s Remarks on Euphranor”. Classical Journal. 67 (4): 323-326.

Driver, Lisa D Maugans. 2005. “The Cult of Martyrs in Asterius of Amaseia’s Vision of the Christian City”. Church History. 74 (2): 236.

Gutzwiller, Kathryn.  2004.  “Seeing Thought: Timomachus’ Medea and Ecphrastic Epigram.” American Journal of Philology 124, pp. 339-386.

Leemans, Johan, Wendy Mayer, Pauline Allen, and Boudewijn Dehandschutter. 2003. ‘Let us die that we may live’ Greek homilies on Christian Martyrs from Asia Minor. London: Routledge.

Pearse, Roger. 2003.  Asterius of Amasea, Sermons (1904), trans. Anderson and Goodspeed.

Mark Cuban on the value of professional basketball

With technological possibilities expanding rapidly, Mark Cuban offers an important lesson on business fundamentals.  He keeps his eye on what creates value for fans of professional basketball:

I can’t think of a bigger mistake then trying to integrate smartphones just because you can. The last thing I want is someone looking down at their phone to see a replay. The last thing I want is someone thinking that its a good idea to disconnect from the unique elements of a game to look at replays or update their fantasy standings or concentrate on trying to predict what will happen next in the game. There is a huge value to everyone collectively holding their breath during a replay, or responding to a great play or a missed call and then spontaneously reacting to what they see. You lose that if people are looking down at their handhelds. The fan experience is about looking up, not looking down. If you let them look down, they might as well stay at home, the screen is always going to be better there.

Fan value in professional basketball is not primarily about winning.  Cuban points out that it’s mainly about simultaneous, inclusive, emotional relations — the experience of a great wedding.  More generally, personal value involves subtle sensory effects, such as the accessibility of a good, the form of a text, and coloring.  Thinking carefully about value creation is a key business fundamental.

Mark Cuban, the owner of the NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks and a highly successful businessperson, writes his own blog.  It’s well worth reading for keen insight into technology and business.

word and image in the Book of the Dead

About 4400 years ago, Unas, the last Egyptian pharaoh in the 5th dynasty, was buried within a pyramid with written inscriptions on the walls of the burial chamber.  Subsequent pharaohs were buried similarly.  The texts on the walls of the pyramids’ burial chambers are a corpus of spells to aid the pharaoh in the afterlife.  These pyramid texts were not illustrated.  After a few centuries, texts began to be written on the inside surfaces of wooden coffins that contained non-royal persons.  These coffin texts seldom had any illustrations.  After another roughly six centuries, funerary texts began to written on papyrus rolls buried with the deceased.  The funerary texts written on papyrus, called the Book of the Dead, have a well-differentiated textual corpus from the earlier pyramid texts and coffin texts.  In addition, Book of the Dead rolls usually include illustrations.  Book of the Dead rolls have been found that include text only in a brief opening, with the rest of the work consisting only of illustrations.[1]

The inclusion of illustrations in ancient Egyptian funerary texts is plausibly associated with broadening of demand for the texts.  The change in media from burial chamber walls (pyramid texts) to coffins (coffin texts) to papyrus (Book of the Dead) reduced requirements for site-specific work and fostered increased division of labor and mass production of texts.[2]  The supply of scribal skills was probably constrained by the complicated representational language and well-established scribal guilds.  Illustrators, in contrast, probably were less organized and had less formal training.  Hence the supply of illustrators could increase more rapidly and more propitiously than the supply of scribes.  Popular demand favors production of images.  That sensory effect is likely to be greater in a largely illiterate society such as ancient Egypt.  Illustrated funerary texts were thus probably a market-driven development in ancient Egypt.

The relation between word and image in the Book of the Dead is highly fluid.  Consider, for example, the text images above and below from the papyrus of Ani, a Book of the Dead from Thebes about 1275 BGC.[3]  The illustrations in the text above are irregularly positioned and do not have bounding boxes.  The three illustrations in the top left portion of text below have regular bounding boxes.  The right portion of the text contains top-and-bottom nearly identical images that actually differ in subtle ways (the most obvious difference is the left-most white figure’s hairstyle).  Most surprising is the right-most figure’s hand gesture that breaks into the column of text.  Having an illustrated figure gesture into the space of the text is common in European medieval illuminated manuscripts.

*  *  *  *  *


[1] Taylor, John H (2010).  Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the dead.  Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.  See p. 268.

[2] In some instances, different sections of a Book of the Dead were written by different scribes.  Scribes might work on separate pieces of papyrus that would later be joined together.  Scribes produced texts with spaces left for illustrations (vignettes).  Scribes also left blank spaces for filling in the name of the person who purchased/acquired a particular text.  Id.  pp. 36, 268-9, 286.

[3] Ani was a Theban royal scribe — “Accounting Scribe for the Divine Offerings of all the gods. Overseer of the Granaries and of the Lords of the Tawer.” Id. pp. 310, 36.

fuck communication economics

Recent scholarship on fuck jurisprudence has been downloaded 28,305 times from SSRN.   This scholarship ranks fifteenth among SSRN’s all-time most downloaded papers.  That’s an impressive achievement.

As an ambitious spare-time scholar, I thought of this achievement when I heard someone on the metro say, “He has no fucking idea!”  What about fuck communication economics?

Fucking in “no fucking idea” functions semantically as an intensifier.  Fuck is also a common ejaculation: fuck!   Fuck and its derivative forms are verbally performed in a variety of positions: verb, noun, adjective, adverb, e.g. “he got fucked over,” “I don’t give a flying fuck,” “she’s a fucking idiot,” “that’s a fucking beautiful dog.”  In communication, fuck has achieved astonishing penetration and has been highly generative.

Fuck’s communication market success occurred despite considerable irregularity.   The scholarly literature has analyzed well this irregularity:

[fuck] exhibits syntactic irregularity (e.g., the word’s noncompliance with the English reflexivization rule in allowing the object pronoun you instead of yourself in the common imprecation “Fuck you!” — cf. “Punish yourself!” or “Abuse yourself!” vs. *“Punish you!” or *“Abuse you!”); if one analyzes the common imprecation not as an imperative (with the underlying subject you) but rather as a speech act, the word exhibits pragmatic irregularity (e.g., the word’s inability to co-occur with hereby when used as a speech act verb of condemning or cursing — cf. “I hereby condemn you” and “I hereby curse you” vs *“I hereby fuck you”).[1]

Words that are irregular tend to have shorter communication industry lifetimes.  Fuck, however, has had a long history.  Some etymological evidence indicates that fuck predates the development of the English language.  Fuck appeared in an Italian-English dictionary in 1598.[2]  Many communication goods have come and gone while fuck has endured.

To better grasp fuck’s valued attributes, imagine that the word leeniddle replaced fuck.  If you fully believe that languages are fundamentally arbitrary social constructions, then words have no essential significance, and a leeniddle is as good as a fuck.  In that imagined alternate universe, the person on the metro would have said, “He has no leeniddling idea!”  If you think that’s plausible, you have no fucking common sense of the real world.

The phonological form of fuck supports its use.  The initial f blows air through lips pressed to teeth.  The short, low u echoes dread.  This efficiently monosyllabic word then ends with a harsh, explosive k.  Four-letter words have a characteristic linguistic and sensory form.  Fuck has a superb design for obscenity.

horse's ass


[1] Noguchi, Rei R. 1996.  “On the historical longevity of one four-letter word: the interplay of phonology and semantics.” Maledicta 12: 29-43, at. p. 30. The phrases that have a preceding asterisk in the above quote are phrases that a competent English speaker would not normally produce.

[2] Read, Allen Walker.  1934.  “An Obscenity Symbol.” American Speech 9: 264-79, at p. 268.

formal characteristics of obscene words

Some words are perceived as shocking and in proper circumstances cause persons to turn away.  For the purposes of the following analysis, those words will be called obscene.[1]  Obscene words in English have common phonological characteristics:

  1. the form CV(C)C, where C is a consonant and V a vowel (four-letter words)
  2. the outer consonants usually are produced “by an abrupt stoppage of air in the vocal tract followed by an abrupt release,” e.g. k, t, p (hard consonants)
  3. the medial consonant usually is sonorant like l,m,n
  4. the vowel usually is short and pronounced with the tongue relatively close to the mouth’s roof, i.e. a close or high vowel [2]

These characteristics make short, violent-sounding words.  Such words are efficient and communicatively propitious for ejaculative, shocking use.  Insightful scholarship explains these characteristics through word survival under selection for these characteristics:

it seems unlikely that speakers consciously create obscene words to fit some abstract phonological form for obscene words.  This kind of competence simply does not exist.  Nor is it likely (or at least demonstrable) that obscene words, which are in some ways akin to onomatopoeic words, originate from some natural connection between meaning and sound.  It does seem highly plausible, however, that given a set of semantically related words vying for survival,those words having some match between sound and sense have an added edge in the struggle {to endure}, other things being equal.[3]

That general process also describes the evolution of biological organisms.

*  *  *  *  *


[1] U.S. administrative and case law has distinguished between obscenity and indecency.  All seven words at the center of the U.S. Supreme Court case Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation (1978) include two or more of the above characteristics for the word or prominent components of the word.  Adjudicating indecency is a challenging and often challenged task.  Vagueness of indecency standards is a a central concern.  See, e.g. Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations (2009) and U.S. Supreme Court, certiorari granted, June 27, 2011, 10-1293, FCC v. Fox.

[2] Noguchi, Rei R. 1996. “On the historical longevity of one four-letter word: the interplay of phonology and semantics.” Maledicta 12: 29-43, at p. 34.

[3] Id. p. 41.

users transforming content forms

Blogger’s new dynamic views transforms the organization of blog posts. Blogs usually have scrolling posts with web-paged post groups.  If that description seems complicated, you probably have taken for granted the conventional form of a blog.  Blogger dynamic views dissolves that convention and reshapes a blog into a flipcard checkerboard and four other views (change the view via the dropdown tab on the top right).   Each different view differs in the arrangement of blog posts and in the flow from one post to another post.

Each Blogger dynamic view replaces the author’s customized presentation.  That replacement concerns authors.  One direction for dynamic views would be to give authors more control over the layout of each dynamic view.  But that’s probably not the direction in which dynamic views points.  With Blogger dynamic views, Google is pushing forward users’ options for blogs’ bindings.

What makes a book is its binding.  Digital content has much greater possibilities for bindings than those for books.  For different users and in different circumstances, different bindings can be more useful and more enjoyable.  Authors should embrace those possibilities.

If you find the text of purplemotes tedious and frustrating, you are welcomed to view just its photos — here’s an apparently ad hoc assortment and here’s the collection of flowers.

*  *  *  *  *

The photo above shows Justin Michael Finnegan‘s book sculpture entitled Frustration (2009).  Finnegan is dyslexic.  His work was on display at the Smithsonian in the exhibit, Revealing Culture.

voice and video calling

Skype’s recent filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) states that, in the last three months of 2010, video-enabled calls accounted for 42% of Skype’s within network communication minutes.  In October, 2009, Skype described video calls as accounting for “more than a third” of its total communication minutes.  Given that description, Skype’s video call share probably has risen over the past year.

Other Skype actions are consistent with the increasing importance of video communication.  Skype recently acquired Qik.  Qik offers live video calls from mobile phones as well as a wide range of options for video sharing.  In January, 2011, Skype officially launched a group video calling feature.  This paid service allows a social video call among up to nine persons at a time.   Group video calling requires more expensive product development than rebranding “speaker phone” as “social mode”, but it serves a similar need.  In addition to these developments, Skype reportedly is negotiating with Facebook to establish a video-calling partnership.

The sensory form of communication offer a propitious field for service innovation.  Mobile network operators are slowly integrating voice and data communications under LTE mobile networking technology.   Will they finally produce a show-and-tell communicator?  How about a Twitter-like service using photos?  Like Skype’s SEC filing, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s Order in the Matter of Preserving the Open Internet (adopted Dec. 21, 2010) refers to “voice and video telephony”.   Expect communication services of different sensory forms to gain importance in the future.