Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Potter’s Oracle

The “Potter’s Oracle” illustrates the Egyptian’s strong xenophobic feelings of the second century BC throughout its text.  It is a document that is rife with allegory, alliteration, and imagery focusing on the downtrodden and destructive state of Egypt, and pointing the blame at the Typhonians[1].  It is through this viewpoint that the oracle brings out the themes of national resistance to foreign domination to the forefront.

In the oracle, there is a reference made to “the river will flow without enough water”[2].  It can be surmised that this river would be the Nile, the life-blood of Egypt without which the Egyptians would not be able to live.  It says that the land will be inflamed against nature because of the lack of water.  This could be understood as a prediction that the Nile will have a period of drought or that it’s annual flooding will not be as substantial as usual.  The Potter, however, links this event to the fact that the Typhonians[3] are in power and that their impurity is the cause of this disaster. 

The reference to girdlewearers in the Potters oracle was explained by O’Connell to be translated from the Greek word zonophoroi.  She said that this word has caused problems among scholars, but that it has been translated to refer specifically to Assyrians, Persians and Greeks.  This is due to the fact that the daggers worn in the girdle by people such as the Persians of this time were quite peculiar to the Egyptians as they did not have them.  Because of the invasions that were ongoing into Egypt by these countries at this time, eventually the term ‘girdlewearer’ became synonymous with Sethian and Typhonian for a xenophobic hatred of those that would try to posses Egypt, including the Greeks[4].

The social aspect of life in Egypt at this time is not pleasant either.  The Potter tells of how the farmers are not able to plant all of their crops, and that of the crops that do grow, they are either taxed or stolen due to the people of Egypt starving[5].  Further to the crop problems, the Potter goes on to say that there will be civil unrest causing brother to kill brother, husbands to kill wives, and that these will continue until Hephaistos returns to the city and the girdlewearers destroy themselves. 

When the oracle makes reference to Agathos Daimon abandoning the “city that is to be built” and entering Memphis, it states that this will be at the end of the evils during autumn[6].  The city that is to be built is Alexandria, a foreign capital and as such would stand for all things not of Egypt that a true Egyptian would find loathsome and undesirable in their xenophobic state.  Further, the religious icons and statues would have been transferred to Alexandria from the other capital centres, such as Memphis, when it was built.  This is done by invaders to symbolise the removal of power from that city and people and thus make the conquered feel as though they have lost their divine protection[7].  Usually these were the statues and objects that were used in some of the ritualistic acts of worshipping the patron god, and his image in the form of the statues represented his contact with his people. 

Alexandria is also to be brought back down to its original low state of a fishing village from that of the capital according to the line “the city by the sea will become a drying place for fishermen because Agathos Daimon and Knephis will have gone to Memphis”[8].  According to an explanation by O’Connell, Alexandria was founded on the fishing village of Rhacotis and the statement that Alexandria will go back to being just the fishing village is symbolic of it loosing its importance[9].  This is significant in that Alexandria was a capital founded by foreigners, and it losing its importance would be seen as Egypt gaining control of itself again with the old capital of Memphis.  Further, Agathos Daimon was the patron spirit of Alexandria from the time that Alexander himself was examining the future city site.  At this time, a great snake came and was killed.  This snake evidently impressed Alexander enough that he set up a hero shrine to it in Alexandria and named it Agathos Daimon, and there were many small harmless snakes that were kept by the local people in honour of this great snake[10].  Thus, the statement in the oracle that Agathos Daimon would leave Alexandria and go to Memphis is symbolic of the people of Egypt taking the god of the foreigners back to their capital, just as the Typhonians had take the Egyptian gods to Alexandria as was previously stated. 

There can be seen some similarities between the writing of the “Potter’s Oracle” and the events of the Maccabean revolt.  The Maccabeans were opposed to the Roman rule over Jerusalem and revolted in kind.  Eventually, they were able to retake the temple and forced Antiochus to rescind the religious reforms that he had placed on non-Hellenistic religions.  Both the Maccabean people and the Egyptians were not happy to be ruled over by foreigners, and it might be surmised that just as the Maccabeans revolted, the Egyptians used the “Potter’s Oracle” as a propaganda against the Typhonians rule, hoping that it would lead to Egypt reclaiming itself from the girdlewearers. 


Kerkeslager, A.  (1998).  The Apology of the Potter: A Translation of the Potter’s Oracle.  ‘Jerusalem Studies in Egyptology’, p. 67-79

O’Connell, B.  (1983).  The Potter’s Oracle.  ‘Ancient Society Resources for Teachers’, 13:5, p. 151-160.

Rainer Papyrus, Potter’s Oracle.  HST225 Alexander and the Hellenistic Age Lecture notes, Lecture 23, Macquarie University

[1] Rainer Papyrus, Lecture 23 notes
[2] Ibid
[3] Typhonians is a reference to the foreign rules of Egypt, possibly the Greeks as stated by Kerkeslager, p. 68
[4] O’Connell Potter’s Oracle, p. 155
[5] Rainer Papyrus, Lecture 23 notes
[6] Ibid
[7] O’Connell Potter’s Oracle, p. 156
[8] Rainer Papyrus, Lecture 23 notes
[9] O’Connell Potter’s Oracle, p. 156
[10] Lecture 23 notes citing Pseudo-Callisthenes 32.10-13

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