Leprosy in Ancient Myth? Marginalia from Bernard Knox on Hesiod

Recently I ordered a used copy of Merkelbach’s and West’s Fragmenta Hesiodea online. When I received the book in the mail, I discovered that it had once belonged to the late Hellenist Bernard Knox.

Inside the Front Cover
Inside the Front Cover

This was exciting and interesting in a way only a classicist or a bibliophile could understand completely. There is something about making inter-generational connections this way that is both humbling and attractive. In a morbid way, it made me wonder if people would still be acquiring used books some day after my passing…

For those of us who love them, books are a private and intense connection. A friend of mine from graduate school was so intense about this connection that he refused to ever give books as a gift. He quipped that books were as intimate as underwear—would you give undergarments just to anyone?

And marginal notes can be both embarrassing and illuminating. I write all over my books and I shudder to think of anyone making sense of my scribblings or forming any judgment based on them. I should start writing in pencil.

Apart from such musings, the book has marginal notes I can only assume come from the man himself. They are in a light, fine pencil. Where he writes Greek, his letters have the fine clarity of someone long accustomed to writing Greek in a school setting. Most of his markings are mere lines showing interest or surprise. What is interesting about the passage is often unclear, but one section made me laugh out loud.



Fragment 133

“Dread flowed from the sore over their heads,
Their skin turned white all over, and their hair was streaming
From their heads as their noble scalps were stripped bald.”

P. Oxy. 2488A, ed. Lobel

[ ]δε̣.ο̣[
[ ]ἀπείρονα γαῖαν
καὶ γάρ σφιν κεφαλῆισι κατὰ κνύος αἰνὸν ἔχευεν·
ἀλφὸς γὰρ χρόα πάντα κατέσχ<εθ>εν, αἱ δέ νυ χαῖται
ἔρρεον ἐκ κεφαλέων, ψίλωτο δὲ καλὰ κάρηνα.

This passage seems to describe a plague and may be part of the madness afflicted by Hera on the daughters of Proitos (relieved by the seer Melampous). Knox’s identification of this as leprosy is striking because (1) I cannot tell if he is serious and (2) it is one of the only English words written in the whole text.

I cannot judge whether or not this is a joke because I don’t know anything about leprosy or sexually transmitted diseases in the ancient world. Anyone?

13 thoughts on “Leprosy in Ancient Myth? Marginalia from Bernard Knox on Hesiod

  1. We get a lot of donations at my library from retiring and/or deceased professors and it does make you really wonder about your own collections. I guess I should be thankful (?) that my career has allowed me to not acquire so many books, since I always tell myself I can just borrow them, but I do sometimes miss the joy of book buying/collecting.

  2. Leprosy is not a sexually transmitted disease. It is attested in antiquity (e.g., the New Testament). Also, I don’t get the joke. Leprosy is not very funny.

    1. See, I know nothing about Leprosy. I knew it was in the New Testament, but I have not ever seen any mention in Greek literature.

      I didn’t think it was possibly a joke because leprosy is funny, but because the mention of leprosy seemed out of place and sudden in the Hesiodic fragments.

    2. There is an article in Brill’s New Pauly. It can be confused with other skin diseases, so we don’t know what the biblical leprosy really was. According to Wikipedia there is DNA evidence from antiquity.

  3. Actually, it almost sounds like radiation sickness, but that seems more than a little unlikely! (Okay, how about totally impossible?) It could be describing leprosy, or it could just be the poet’s idea of “what sounds really, really awful?” It does sound a lot like the descriptions one hears of leprosy in various literature, from what little I recall. (But that’s very, very little, I have to admit…)

    It’s quite something to have gotten a used book that once belonged to someone like that, though. Whenever I’ve bought used books, they end up having belonged to libraries or untraceable people who either left no indication of themselves or took random/annoying notes. (So far, most of the annoying ones have been in pencil, but not all of them…)

    1. Radiation sickness? That’s a nice suggestion…but we might get the Ancient Aliens people going if we talk about that.

      I might look up a little more about leprosy to find out, but, for the most part, I was/am most interested in thinking about what was going on in someone else’s brain!

  4. I stumbled on your post today after doing an internet search on Bernard M. W. Knox. My curiosity about Prof Knox was aroused after finding a letter he sent my father in 1996 regarding their brief service together as officers in the 8th AF, 94th Bomb Group, 334th Service Squad, 312th Service Group at Bury St Edmunds, England in 1943.

    And as coincidence would have it, the Catholic Church’s designated OT reading for today, from Numbers 12:1-15, mentions the white skin of leprosy.

    “So the anger of the Lord was aroused against them, and he departed. And when the cloud departed from above the tabernacle, suddenly Miriam became leprous, as white as snow.” Numbers 12:9-10 New King James Version

    And as a retired public health nurse, I can tell you leprosy is a mycobacterium (as is tuberculosis), that’s transmitted by aerosolized nasal or respiratory droplets (same as TB), and treated with medication similar to that used for TB.

  5. That is indeed Bernard’s handwriting 🎉. I took his Euripides grad seminar as a Yale undergrad, and still have his scribbles on my seminar paper. We will not see his like again. %%robert

    1. Thank you for confirming that this isn’t a forgery! It must have been quite an experience to have him as a teacher.

      And thank you as well for the generous comments on twitter.

      1. AS we used to say, but not in Bernard’s presence, “all the way with Bernard The K.”

  6. I am about to take delivery of a crowd-funded book with precisely this theme, Second-Hand Stories by Josh Spero A classics graduate who has investigated the lives of the people who used to own his books.

    On a personal level I ordered a s/h copy of Letters from Cambridge by A.S.F Gow (Theocritus editor) – letters written to his pupils who were serving in the forces 1939 -1944. Tucked into the book was an original letter to ‘Peter’ with a hand written note at the end by Gow.

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