Fleecing a Discipline

Mycenaean Miscellany

Mike Sampson’s new article on the provenance of P.Sapph.Obbink (‘the newest Sappho’, containing the Brothers Poem) is a magnificent bit of detective work, which, like all developments in this case, leads in some ways to more questions than answers. This is an attempt to explore some of those questions, and tease out the implications of the new answers. Ultimately, I think there is now enough evidence to suggest that Dirk Obbink himself was the papyrus’ owner, and its public announcement a marketing ploy to raise its prestige and asking price.

After Sampson, along with Anna Uhlig, published a piece on Eidolon about P.Sapph.Obbink and its provenance issues, he was contacted by Ute Wartenberg Kagan, a papyrologist and former Executive Director of the American Numismatic Society, who shared with him a Christie’s brochure advertising P.Sapph.Obbink for private sale. This had (remarkably) not been seen by any scholar (as far as Sampson…

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Of Jon Snow and Aeneas I Sing…


This text was discovered inside the hollow of a golden branch. On top was written, Pius Aeneas hoc scripsit (“Pious Aeneas wrote this”). On a separate document was a message written by one P.V.M. that said, carmen tam horribile est ut cum inhumata turba vagari malim.” (“This poem is so terrible that I prefer to wander with the unburied masses”).  It is thought that after Aeneas encountered Marcellus in the underworld, he received poetry lessons from Vergil himself. From a close reading of this text, we can also infer that Aeneas met the disembodied soul of George R.R. Martin and saw a performance of Game of Thrones

P. Aeneas (?), Maior Pietate Sum, Edited by Dani Bostick

Per campum magno gemitu fremit discordia vulgi.
Corpora caesa inter fluit foedum sanguinis flumen
Nunc Rex Noctis et Albi Euntes glomerantur ut aves,
Nunc amita et coniunx, volat…

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The Feanoriad

An excellent retelling of the tale of Feanor, from the Silmarillion, in the style of the Iliad.

The Cottage Of Pen And Play

(A Homeric retelling of The Fall of the Noldor)

Sing, O Nienna, of the wrath of Finwe’s son
Feanor, the deadly wrath that brought upon the
Noldor countless woes and sent many fair princes
of the Eldalie down to the Halls of Mandos from
that day when first far-seeing Manwe and mighty
Feanor parted in strife.

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On St George and his day


The last time I gave much thought to St George, I think, was in Afghanistan. I was researching Bamiyan, and visited a valley, Darre-ye Azhdaha, a few miles to the west of Bamiyan town. At its mouth there is now a housing development for refugees returned from Iran; but if you follow the narrow, steep-sided valley further up, it’s blocked by a high volcanic ridge associated with some interesting folklore.

According to tradition, the ridge is a dragon (azhdaha) slain by Hazrat-e Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, and a figure of special importance to the predominantly Shi’i population of Bamiyan. A crevice running along the top of the ridge was made by the sweep of Ali’s sword, reddish mineral deposits around it are the dragon’s blood, the sound of subterranean water the dying creature’s groans, and the milky mineral waters that flow out from the end of…

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Beren and Lúthien, a centenary publication

John Garth

In a wood filled with a cloud of white flowers, a soldier walked in the spring of 1917 with his wife, and she sang and danced for him. To that battle-worn lieutenant, J R R Tolkien, Edith’s dance was an unforgettable glimpse of unearthly joy in the midst of sorrow and horror. It inspired the story he saw as the ‘kernel’ of his mythology. A century on, in 2017 the love story of Beren and Lúthien will finally appear as a book in its own right.

beren-and-luthien-coverPotentially a landmark among Tolkien’s many posthumous publications, it will appear in May from HarperCollins in the UK and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US with a cover and illustrations by Alan Lee. I am astonished and delighted, not least because its editor, Christopher Tolkien, is now approaching his 92nd birthday.

J R R Tolkien’s experiences and development as a writer in 1914–18 are traced in detail…

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Beren and Lúthien

Too Many Books and Never Enough

Beren and Luthien coverHarperCollins will announce today the latest Tolkien title edited by Christopher Tolkien, Beren and Lúthien, to be illustrated with drawings and paintings by Alan Lee and published on 4 May 2017. An American edition will be published simultaneously by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. As we write this on the 18th, Amazon UK list only a Kindle edition. Price and physical details have not been announced, but the upper dust-jacket is pictured at left; nor is there word yet of a deluxe edition.

To quote HarperCollins’ press release (thanks to David Brawn at HarperCollins for sending this and the cover art), Christopher Tolkien ‘has attemped to extract the story of Beren and Lúthien from the comprehensive work in which it was embedded; but that story was itself changing as it developed new associations within the larger history. To show something of the process whereby this legend of Middle-earth evolved over the…

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When the spade you call a spade’s no spade



My least snappy title by a distance. Apologies, and apologies also for a blog inspired by a pun so obscure that I’ve seen it attributed to two Oxford Classicists separately. Actually it was really inspired by Claire Webster, to whom thanks.

“To call a spado a spado” is a joke that Claire heard Tom Braun, a Classicist at Merton College, make, but I can claim an earlier outing. A former student of my college, Brasenose, recalls attending lectures in the 1950’s on the Roman satirist Juvenal, delivered by J.G. Griffith of Jesus College. Juvenal does not pull his punches, and Griffith, clearly a don of the old school, “felt inhibited” discussing his poetry “when lady students were present.” When the last of the women undergraduates eventually left the group, he remarked with relief, “At last: now I can call a spado a spado.”

Not a very edifying scene…

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“Two Ears, One Mouth”: Hunting a Proverb from Zeno to Paul’s Mom


On using twitter and the internet to trace the history of a cherished proverb; or, on the birth of a t-shirt.

Last fall, I noticed the Paul Holdengraber‘s 7-word autobiography from brainpickings.org.: “Mother always said: Two Ears, One mouth.” The phrase bounced around in my head a bit–it has that aphoristic perfection of brevity and familiarity. So, I reached out to Paul over twitter and told him it sounded like something from a Greek philosopher like Heraclitus.

Proverbs have a special place in language and society cross-culturally–they strike a promise of insight that demands  contemplation or explanation. They also have an air of authority and antiquity, even when they actually possess neither. And, unlike longer, less anonymized forms of language, they are repeated, borrowed, and stolen without end.

My late father was a great aphorist–perhaps missing him is part of why Paul’s tweet stuck with me. Most of…

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The long road behind (personal story)


(If you’re going to read this, please read the whole thing before drawing your conclusions, some passages in this will make you angry, I accept and understand that, but context matters. Please note that I’m not my old self anymore, my old self is dead. )

I have a swallow (you know, the bird.) tattooed on my arm, this is an excellent conversation-starter these days, a lot of people have a tattoo, or multiple, and everyone likes talking about them, their meaning, and all things surrounding them.

Usually, the question is soon asked: “So, do you have any more tattoos?”. 4/5 years ago, I would’ve said: “Yeah!” and would’ve shown them, but these days, I’m too ashamed. (And not because I’ve put on a lot of weight and am ashamed of my body.).
I just say: “No, but I plan on getting more.”.

The reason for this is simple, I…

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Fairytale Genetics

Will Pooley

So by now you’ve seen the story doing the rounds online about how fairytales are much older than researchers thought, as proved by ‘phylogenetic analyses’.

Us humanities scholars should be darn grateful we have those scientists to save us from our misconceptions!

Or not.

This isn’t the first time that folklorists have found their subject matter making a big splash in the international news.

Let’s be clear about this point: folklorists are THE experts on oral narratives, such as fairy tales. They have developed tools and methods for studying this material, but the clickbait stories about ‘myth’ and ‘fairy tales’ often ignore this expertise, preferring dramatic accounts of undiscovered materials.

Um, no, 500 ‘new’ fairytales were not ‘discovered‘ in Germany in 2012. For a start, the materials in question had actually been published before. And this is without taking into account the point that these tales are…

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