At first glance it might just look like a small papyrus with a few letters on it, but a closer look soon reveals a beautiful hand-writing, a medium-sized uncial (that is a script in capital letters) typical of ancient literary texts. It is a section of the Odyssey I have been looking at today! The Tebtunis papyrus in question contains parts of five lines of Book XII, 136-139 and 142 – incidentally, the scribe skipped two lines.
These are the lines in which Circe warns Odysseus that his future adventures in his journey home to Ithaca will be full of dangers, but that there are ways to make it through.
Here is a translation of the passage referred to in our papyrus:
- ‘These their honored mother [the nymph Neaera], when she had borne and reared them [her daughters Lampetia and Phaetusa],
- Sent to the isle Thrinacria to dwell afar, and keep the flocks of their father [Helios] and his sleek cattle.
- If you leave these unharmed and heed your homeward way,
- Verily you might yet reach Ithaca, though in evil plight.
- But if you harm them, then I foretell ruin
- For your ship and for your comrades. Even though you might escape yourself,
- You will return home late and in evil case, after losing all your comrades.
- So she spoke, and presently came golden-throned Dawn.’
- Most interestingly, the same hand-writing is to be found in another papyrus from the Tebtunis collection, already published, containing lines 428-440 of Odyssey Book XI (P.Tebt. II 431). The two papyri clearly belonged to the same manuscript, and can be dated to the late first or early second century CE, demonstrating the circulation of Homeric poems in a village of the Roman empire.