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The lex sacra from Ptolemais Revisited.

Maryline G. Parca

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The first-century BCE lex sacra from Ptolemais (SB I 3451 = LSS 119 = CGRN 144), the single extant example of Greek purity regulations from Egypt, is significant because of the distinct ways in which it conforms to, departs from, and expands upon purity rules known from across the ancient Greek world.  This paper will discuss the fourteen-line long text with particular attention to the pollution stemming from miscarriage, delivery and nursing, and child exposure.  I plan to articulate an argument in support of restoring a reference to a forty-day postpartum exclusion at the end of line 11 (Bingen 1993) and to discuss the significance of the stipulation in line 14 that the female worshipper, once her purity restored, bring a spray of myrtle to the shrine.  This last ritual requirement guides my arguably speculative suggestion that the unnamed deity in the text could be evidence for the success of the Demeter cult in Upper Egypt.

While death, illness, and sexual activity stand as primary concerns in the inscription from Ptolemais just as they do in the corpus of leges sacrae (Cole 1992, 2004; Parker 1983), this text articulates an explicit distinction between the length of the purificatory intermissions required of men (lines 3-8) and women (lines 10-14) before they can reenter the sanctuary.  Lines 5–8 detail pollutions men incur through contact with women, some indirectly (e.g., by living under the same roof as a woman who miscarried, or who gave birth and is nursing, or who gave birth and exposed the newborn) and one directly, through intercourse. Only two periods of interdiction are preserved: 14 days after a birth that resulted in exposure and 2 days after sexual intercourse.  Lines 10-14 specify the periods of ritual exclusion prescribed for women.  First comes miscarriage (line 10), with a waiting period of 40 days.  Next come childbirth and nursing (number of exclusion days missing), then exposure (days missing), menstruation (7-day restriction) and sexual intercourse (2 days)—the last pollution defined as having a male source only in this and another lex sacra of Hellenistic date.

With respect to the exclusion due to the combined pollution of delivery and nursing (line 11), I show that Bingen’s supplement of the number forty is not unreasonable if one adduces more than the traditional customs he invoked (Bingen 1993). I argue that this particular combination, otherwise unattested in the leges sacrae, is a more expansive expression of the 40-day ritual separation following delivery mentioned by Censorinus as it acknowledges explicitly the perilous transitional period during which the child adjusted to life outside the womb and the mother recovered from delivery (Dean-Jones 1994). And the feast on “the fortieth day of the little one” mentioned in a private letter of Roman date (P.Fay. 113.14 [100 CE]) affords concrete corroboration of the practice among Greeks in Egypt (Perpillou-Thomas 1993; Montserrat 1996).

The sanctuary mentioned in the first line of the inscription is that of an unspecified god. Scholars have hypothesized that since Ptolemais was founded as a Greek city, the deity may have been Asclepios (Bernand 1992, Rowlandson 1998), an identification the text itself does not support (Plaumann 1910).  I propose that the unnamed deity could be female and ‘Greek,’ a possibility supported by the mention of myrtle in line 14.  Sacred to Aphrodite, myrtle appears as a ritual plant in various cults and figures prominently in the Mysteries of Demeter, ceremonies in which initiates carried a sprig of myrtle as a pledge of safety in death and of return to life (Seyrig 1944, Maxwell-Stuart 1972, Clinton 1974). The requirement that women in Ptolemais reenter the shrine myrtle in hand indicates that miscarriage, childbirth, breastfeeding, menstruation and intercourse defiled them in ways that a lapse of time alone could not fully repair and that, not unlike initiates, their reproductive bodies caused them repeatedly to be at the interstices between life and decay. 

Session/Panel Title

Greek Religion

Session/Paper Number

73.5

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