We all get so many emails. Some go directly in the ‘rubbish bin’; some only require a few words in response; others will give rise to many follow-up emails. There is one type of professional email, however, that always makes me smile: an email from a former student. It is always nice to have some news from someone who has left the university. And then, increasingly, there are emails from former students who are becoming friends and colleagues. Last week, I received such an email from a former student who now is pursuing her graduate studies. She told me that she had come across the translation of a papyrus, which she thought would be of interest to me. For sure it was! I had seen mentions of that papyrus, but never looked at it in detail, and that email was just what I needed to pursue my research further.
The papyrus in question comes from Oxyrhynchus (Egypt) and dates to 178 CE. We know this because of a reference to the 18th year of the rule of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus. The author of the papyrus (or a scribe) writes to a local official to report a terrible accident:
To Theon the strategos, from Gaius Papirius Maximus. Yesterday, the 26 [of X month], the irrigator of the vineyard I possess near the village of Chusis, in the Hermopolis nome, in my absence, climbed onto a date-palm in my property in order to cover it (ocheia); he fell and died while nobody was present. And today, when I went to my property, I found him lying there by the palm tree, his body damaged by dogs. For that reason, I present my report, expecting the appropriate procedures to take place so that his body may receive a funeral. In the year 18 of the rule of the Emperors Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius Commodus. C.Pap.Gr. 2.1. [The Greek text of this papyrus is available here].
This is a very rich document, but what interests me most here is the reference to the ‘covering’ of the date palm. Other translators have called this ‘pollination’. While this translation is not incorrect, it may lead to the impression that the ancients knew about pollination – this is not the case. Today, we know that the date palm is dioecious (I have written on dioecious plants here). This means that female and male sexual organs are found on different individuals (or ‘trees’ for you and me). For the female tree to carry fruits to maturity, it must come into contact with pollen from the male tree.
The Greeks and Romans observed that some palm trees – which they called ‘female’ – matured their fruits when its spathes got in contact with those of other palm trees – which they called ‘male’. This is in fact an empirical observation of pollination, but the ancients did not have a full theory of pollination, that is, they did not know that the same process actually happens in all plants, be they dioecious or not.
The word that is actually used in the papyrus is ocheia, which is the term that usually refers to the covering of a female animal (for instance a sow) by a male animal. The irrigator who tragically died in this story must have climbed atop a palm tree, most probably a male one, in order to bring its spathes in contact with those of another tree. As palm trees can be extremely high, this was a very perilous enterprise. Why did this worker even attempt this in a deserted garden will remain a mystery.