Thursday, December 6, 2012

Bryn Mawr versus Peter Habermehl

Excerpts from Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.01.34
(emphasis and italics mine)

P. Habermehl, Perpetua und der Ägypter oder Bilder des Bösen im frühen afrikanischen Christentum. 2nd edition. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004.

It does not discuss in detail the much debated problem of the original language (Latin or Greek) of the Passio, but accepts the Latin priority. However, it seems that the Greek translation was sometimes based on a better text than the existing Latin version. That is why both versions always have to be taken into account.

Before he starts his discussion, H gives a 'Lesetext' (pp. 8-35) without apparatus criticus, which is basically the text of Van Beek (1936). In itself such a choice is justified, but H seems to have overlooked the recent insight that the Greek version sometimes offers better readings than our most important manuscript A. For example, it is now clear that the name of the predecessor of Perpetua's interrogatorHilarianus must have been Minicius Opimiamus(c. 6.3), as the garbled form of the Greek translation still suggests, and not, as H prints,Minucius Timinianus;similarly, the name of one of the men met by Saturus in heaven was Iucundus not Iocundus

After a discussion of early Christianity in North Africa and the plausible observation that we probably had to do with a local persecution in Perpetua's case (37-43), H gives a short survey of the development of the Christian idea of martyrdom (44-51), which ends with Ignatius.

Having set the scene, H now turns to Perpetua's diary (52-73). He briefly sketches her arrest, baptism, interrogation, and makes a persuasive case for the recent conversion of Perpetua because of the absence of her husband in her report: presumably, the latter had not followed his wife in her new faith. Christianity had caused a rift in many a family, and this is also demonstrated by Perpetua's relationship with her father, from whom she becomes increasingly estranged, as H well shows.We see here a development that we can also witness in modern suicide cells, where members also shut themselves off from their immediate relations.

The analysis by H of Perpetua's visions (74-115) is not always satisfactory. This is partly due to the order in which he discusses them. As I have argued elsewhere,we have to read the visions in the order that Perpetua gives them, as they show her growing self-confidence and willingness to die. Moreover, we have to look at Perpetua's environment for the explanation of the, often, obscure motifs of her visions. H has a certain tendency to look to modern psychology for help, but Freud and Jung do not replace knowledge of Perpetua's own world.

These objections do not prevent H from regularly making good observations. Thus he persuasively associates the staircase to heaven that Perpetua ascends with the oriental Jenseitsbrüecke. However, there is no proof whatsoever that the weapons on the staircase symbolize her 'Angst vor den Schmerzen der Passion' (87). Curiously, H nowhere reflects upon his methodology and seems to think that such psychological explanations are self-evident -- which is not the case.

H pays much attention to the change of Perpetua into a man (122-144), a motif that has understandably attracted the attention of many a modern commentator. H reasonably argues that with this metamorphosis Perpetua creates a new 'männliches Ich'. Yet there are no indications for this interpretation in the text and parallels from the contemporary Christian world are lacking. Less convincing is the additional attempt to recognize themes of initiation in the metamorphosis. Admittedly, travesty and sexual metamorphosis are attested for Greek myths and rituals of initiation, but the motif had long ceased to be productive and nothing in the context suggests influence from myths of initiation.

Next, H analyses the figure of the Egyptian, the opponent of Perpetua in her last vision (145-188). Louis Robert has well explained the presence of the Egyptian from the prominence of Egyptian athletes during the Empire. H calls this a 'pragmatische Erklärung', but concedes only that it may have been present somewhere in the background. The 'real' explanation he looks for in Tertullian's usage of Egypt as a symbol for superstition and evil, for which he adduces a number of interesting texts, as he does for the black colour of the Egyptian. Methodologically, however, H seems to me to go here into the wrong direction: he concentrates on the Egyptian only and neglects the other protagonist of the scene, the lanista. Admittedly, he persuasively argues that Perpetua was not familiar with the technical vocabulary of the fights in the amphitheatre; the Greek translator was clearly much better at home in that area. Yet the stress on superstition is not supported by the context. Neither does the text contain any indication that the Egyptian is also Perpetua's father (184),which is one more example of H's misguided trust in modern psychoanalysis. With Robert, it seems more convincing to see the whole scene as a memory of a real pankration, which Perpetua must have attended or have heard about. The colour of the Egyptian well fitted Christian ideas about the Devil, who is also elsewhere depicted by Perpetua as her most dangerous opponent (3.3, 10.14, 20.1).

It is more problematic to what extent we can trust the description of the deaths of Perpetua and her fellow martyrs. The vividness of the editor's description suggests an eyewitness, but his literary skill should not deceive us, as there are several improbabilities in his report. Most of these are mentioned by H, but he does not firmly stress the fact that the description of the deaths is, in all likelihood, fiction: his doubts are mostly expressed in the notes.

The first improbability is the employment of a cow to kill off Perpetua and Felicitas. We have a number of African mosaics with scenes of such fights, but a cow is never amongst the animals displayed on them.

Second, H rightly doubts whether the spectators would have really protested againstthe fact that Perpetua and Felicitas were led into the amphitheatre dressed only in nets, and he also rightly doubts whether the spectators could have seen milk dripping from Perpetua's breasts.

Third, and most importantly, H draws attention to the fact that Perpetua's covering of her womanhood is modeled on Euripides' description of Polyxena's death in his Hecuba (568-70), which was highly popular in Roman times. myBlog

But he should have also pointed out that Perpetua even outdoes Polyxena by also asking for a combto readjust her hair (!).

In short, the conclusion seems inescapable that the editor did not give a trustworthy account of the deaths of Perpetua and her fellow martyrs but wanted to please his readers with a description that catered to the taste of the times for violence and pornography. This conclusion is supported by the fact that the Acta (I.9.3-4 Amat) gives a much more matter of fact report of these deaths.

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