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.
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.
“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
[ ]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?