Divine Intervention: Invocations of Deities in Personal Correspondence from Graeco-Roman Egypt

Mallory Matsumoto


While the study of religion in Graeco-Roman Egypt has focused largely on cultic practices and trends in the society as a whole, some research has already begun to take interest in local and even personal expressions of religious practices. One valuable source of insight into popular religion on the individual level comes from examination of the invocation of specific deities by name in personal correspondence, which can allow the scholar access to the religious practices and beliefs of the writer. Researchers have already noted a tendency among the inhabitants of Graeco- Roman Egypt to appeal to the gods of the community in which they composed their letter, rather than those of their hometown. Many studies that address this phenomenon have focused on manifestations of Hellenistic and Roman influence on the indigenous religious tradition and seek to better understand patterns of religious behavior that characterized the civilization of Graeco-Roman Egypt as a whole. However, relatively little research has addressed the significance of these expressions of religiosity in illustrating the role that religious belief and affiliation played in the self-identification process of individuals in Graeco-Roman Egypt. Based on the appeals made to specific gods that occur in 113 in private letters composed on papyri and ostraca between the third century B.C. and the mid-fourth century A.D., the inclination to call upon local gods suggests that personal loyalty to a particular deity was not an essential part of an individual’s self-identity, but rather a fluid condition that changed with location and circumstance. Thus, rather than indicating a personal relationship with a certain deity, these invocations often alluded to the author’s affiliation with the broader religious tradition represented by that god, an association that did in fact contribute to the writer’s process of self-identification.


Personal correspondence, religion, self-identity

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