What did Greek pilgrims call themselves? An ampulla from Sardis suggests an answer

As followers of my research (and blog and tweets) will know, I’m currently working on a book project that examines the economics of pilgrimage in late antiquity. One form of economic activity related to pilgrimage was the production, exchange, and movement of pilgrimage souvenirs. In the process of researching, cataloging, and mapping such souvenirs, I came across one with an inscription that I think provides some insight into how Greek-speaking pilgrims referred to themselves and how they used their souvenirs. I provide here some preliminary thoughts before more formal publication.

First, perhaps, a few words about why it is difficulty to know what pilgrims called themselves in late antiquity. One of the peculiarities of studying pilgrimage in the late Roman and early Byzantine periods is that when using words like “pilgrim” and “pilgrimage” we are anachronistically using terms that describe an identity and ritual that did not have specific terminology in late antiquity. The Latin peregrinus, from which the English word pilgrim descends, can describe a religiously motivated traveller, but it can also describe other sorts of travelers or wanderers. In addition, it is not clear that pilgrims would have used peregrinus to describe themselves (Maraval 2002:63-64).

The lack of clarity concering what pilgrims would have called themselves is not entirely due to a lack of sources surviving from antiquity. There are three first-person narratives of travek to the Holy Land from the late antique period. There are others sources as well, like Theodosius’ text and the Breviarius, but they are very short and don’t provide much information about the journey or the pilgrim — although they have some useful details about the holy sites. There are also some third person narratives, like Jerome’s Encomium of Paula, but they also don’t tell us what pilgrims called themselves. Jerome occasionally uses the word peregrinus, but it’s not specific to Paula or pilgrims, and it’s not clear that Jerome uses the word to refer to religiously motivated travel, in the way English speakers use the word “pilgrim” today. The most famous of the first-person narratives is that of Egeria. She traveled from western Europe to the Holy Land in 381-3 and is the most specific about what she is up to. She famously describes herself as traveling “for the sake of prayer” gratia orationis (13.2, 17.1) in a narrative epistle written from Constantinople to her “sisters” back home. A slightly earlier text, by an anonymous traveller from Bordeaux, from the 330s, has left us a detailed itinerary for travel from Europe to Palestine and back, with important details about Jewish and Christian (and a few other) holy places. However, he leaves the reader to infer what his purpose was. He nowhere gives himself a title like peregrinus. The richly detailed narrative written by the Piacenza Pilgrim about 570, likewise, does not use the term peregrinus nor does he describe his journey as a peregrinatio, pilgrimage, although it is clear his motivation is to see and experience the holy land with all of his senses (for discussion, see Johnson, DOP 70, 2016).

Another peculiarity of pilgrimage narratives is that they survive exclusively in Latin, even though other literary sources and material culture (such as pilgrimage souvenirs with Greek inscriptions) indicate that Greek-speaking pilgrims travelled to the Holy Land as well. Thus, with the question of what Greek pilgrims called themselves we would seem to be at a double loss — the surviving first-person narratives are in Latin, and the Latin word peregrinus doesn’t exclusively mean “pilgrim.” The problem of what Greek pilgrims called themselves has been explored in a short essay by Cyril Mango (1995:1-3), who pointed out the interesting fact that Greek pilgrims in the early modern period adopted the term hadji from the Ottomans — using it to describe Christians traveling to the Holy Land — before dropping it for the more acceptably Greek proskynetes. Mango also points out that the Greek word for stranger or traveller, xenos, (pl: xenoi) had much the same problem that the Latin peregrinus had — that it could describe any traveller, not necessarily a “pilgrim.” He notes a 12th century Greek source that describes pilgrims by by the cumbersome phrase “those who travel in foreign parts [xeniteuon, a verbal form of xenos] for the sake of Christ” which suggests that even by the later middle ages, xenos did not uniquely signal “pilgrim.” So, how did “those who travel(ed) in foreign parts for the sake of Christ” refer to themselves when they did not want to use such a cumbersome phrase?

An ampulla excavated at Sardis in 1994-95 suggests one answer. The image below, from Greenwalt and Rautman’s 1998 publication (AJA 102:465-505, fig. 13) is of an ampulla of the Asia Minor type, a form often associated with Ephesus and usually dated to the 6th-7th centuries (Examples in Vikan 2010:34-36).

Such objects are usually interpreted as pilgrimage souvenirs that could be used to hold holy oil or other materials from a saint’s shrine or similar holy place. The iconography is singular for such an object. One side of the ampulla, the lower one in the image, features John the Baptist and an incised inscription that reads, ΑΓΙΕ ΙΟΑΝΝΗ ΒΑ(ΠΤΙϹΤΑ), a vocative invocation that can be awkwardly translated as “O Holy John [the] Ba[ptist]!” The other side, the upper image in the photo, is the more interesting for our purposes. It depicts the Virgin and Child and has an incised Greek inscription that Greenwalt and Rautman read as ΒΟΕΙΘΕ Τ(Ο)ΥϹ ΞΕΝ(Ο)ΥϹ “Help the Travellers!” which may, given that it is inscribed on a probable pilgrimage souvenir be better translated as “Help the Pilgrims!” If that it the case, then the ampulla presents epigraphic evidence for what pilgrims called themselves. The vessel is only 7.3 cm. tall. So, it could have easily been worn to work its protective powers as an amulet (on that topic, see Cline 2019 on my CV). It’s also worth noting that both inscriptions are incised and are not part of the mold that produced the image on the ampulla. Perhaps the creator of the object could incise the “Help the travellers/pilgrims” inscription for pilgrims and travelers in need of aid, while others might prefer to ask the Virgin for something else.

A note on objects in Orhan Pamuk’s “A Strangeness in my Mind”

My research dealing with objects related to pilgrimage, magic, and late antique piety has shaped how I read fiction.  In my last post, I commented on the role of objects, in particular Frank Frink’s creation of American art, in the book and film adaptation of Man in the High Castle.  This week, I finished reading Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind, which follows Mevlut from his Turkish village to Istanbul in a saga stretching from the 1960s into the 2000s.  The tale is told by a cast of first person narrators and occasionally an omniscient third person.  The entries for each narrator are short, typically one to three paragraphs, and occasionally a few pages.  Through their collective eyes, we see the sympathetic protagonist Mevlut arrive in Istanbul as an adolescent, build a squatter’s home in Istanbul with his father and other relatives, begin selling yogurt in the day and boza at night, try to finish school and fail, do his army service, court an older sister through letters when he believes he is courting the younger one, elope with the older sister, realize his mistake, marry the older sister anyway, start a family and raise two daughters, sell rice and chicken from a food cart, lose his cart, oversee a kebab restaurant, lose his job when he fails to report an employee scam, open a boza shop with his childhood friend, see the shop closed because of forces beyond his control, work as a parking lot attendant, quit after his wife dies in a home abortion, begin working with the same childhood friend as an electrical inspector, lose that job after the same friend is murdered, marry his childhood friend’s widow (who is also the younger sister of his wife whom he thought he was writing letters to years ago), see his daughters married, and see his childhood squatter’s home purchased for a large sum of money and turned into a high-rise apartment, in one of which he and his (second) wife will live before relocating to be further from their extended family.  As should be obvious, the story of the humble Mevlut is epic in length and scale.

A constant if Mevlut’s life is his love for the streets of Istanbul and his constant desire to walk the streets selling boza, a mildly alcoholic drink make from cereals.  Pamuk’s descriptions of the objects associated with Mevlut’s making and selling of boza, as well as his food cart, the furnishings of his squatter’s house and his later apartments, and other objects and spaces are where the book really shines, and such details unify an intentionally fractured narrative and not-enterirely-honest narrators.  Pamuk has focused on the relationship between memory, narrative, and everyday objects in other works — most notably Museum of Innocence, which has small museum in Istanbul where objects from the book are displayed, and perhaps my favorite Pamuk work, The New Life, which vividly describes nostalgia for the commercial objects of one’s childhood and lost cityscapes.

The pole that Mevlut uses to carry yogurt and boza trays across his back is introduced early in the book, and through all the vicissitudes of Mevlut’s life, this object is a constant presence, even as friends, a spouse, his childhood home, and daughters are all lost or change.  His journey with the pole and the objects it carries becomes a meditation for Mevlut until he can finally realize the continuity between his inner life and the streets and public life of the city.

Other, minor objects receive just enough mention to evoke their presence and make their significance to the story felt.  The glasses that are constantly being washed at the boza shop are tangible and their presence — demanding filling and washing.  Mevlut’s food cart provides a livelihood for his family and his family surrounds it with their efforts to make his (not very profitable) enterprise a success.  The cart was an object around which the family gathered, chained safely to a tree at night in the courtyard.  When it is stolen, Mevlut cannot choose another, even when a replacement is offered to him.

I cannot hope to do justice to the range of objects and material spaces that operate in the story, and obviously there are other aspects of the book that are worthy of praise and comment.  However, in this short note, I want to point out that the humble objects associated with Mevlut’s work and the way those everyday objects can summon connections to his family and Istanbul that have stuck with me after finishing the book.  I can still see Mevlut’s cart chained up to a tree and see the cups that his wife and sister in law washed in the back of the boza shop.  I can still see the swept-dirt floor and table of the house his father built.  Such objects and spaces render sensible the imagined lives and voices of his story.

The Power of Objects and Art in “The Man in the High Castle”

So,  I’ve been thinking of reviving this blog for some time, but I’ve been struggle with exactly what to write about here.  As some readers may know, my current research relates to Roman and early Christian pilgrimage, and specifically the role of objects and space in the shaping pilgrimage experience. Over the past few years, I’ve also been reading works of fiction in which objects come to exert powerful forces on the characters and narrative.  I’ve decided to dedicate at least a few entries to my thoughts on some of these works of fiction, all of which have served to stimulate my thoughts about the power of objects and space in late antique religion.

My first essay is inspired partly  Bill Carahers’s blog and his discussion of the role of objects in Philip K. Dick’s novels, as well as by the Amazon series based on “Man in the High Castle.” After watching the Amazon series, I decided to read Dick’s novel of the same name.  The Amazon series diverges from the original book in many ways, which is to be expected, but I found one point of divergence to be particularly enlightening as to the role of art and objects in the book vs. the adaptation, the function of the art that Frank Frink produces.

Viewers of the Amazon series will recall the bendy-heart-shaped necklace that Frink produces for Juiana, which she takes to Rocky Mountains and back to San Francisco before it eventually ends up on the desk of Mr. Tagomi, the Japanese Trade Minister.  Tagomi seems to recognize something of its merits, declaring that the pendant has great “wu”  and meditating on the pendant at his desk.  In the series, the production of new American art appears to be outlawed, and only American art of the past can be bought and sold — as happens at Mr. Childan’s store.  The implication is that Japanese authorities recognize the power of art as a potentially subversive force and have thus banned the creation of new American art.  Frink’s creation, and Juliana’s and Tagomi’s possession of it, is therefore illegal, and perhaps an act of resistance.

The book describes Frink’s creation of a similar object, along with others.  Ed McCarthy assists Frink with his creations, and (unlike in the series) Robert Childan agrees to sell their creations at his store on consignment.  As in the series, a Japanese man recognizes the great “wu” of Frink’s creations.  However, it is not Tagomi who recognizes it here, but Paul Kasoura, an attorney who (along with his wife) is an aficionado of Americana.  Kasoura’s and Childan’s relationship is similar in the book and the movie — with Childan trying to ingratiate himself with a powerful Japanese couple by presenting them with American art.  In the book, however, Childan takes a risk and gives Kasoura one of Fink’s consignment pieces as a gift, thinking that perhaps the Japanese collector will like it, even though Childan himself doesn’t seem to think much of it.  Childan only sees the new American art’s merits when Kasoura perceives it, describing the appearance of new, American, art and marveling at its existence.  Kasoura’s pronouncement that new American art exists is met with incredulity (at first) by Childan and by Kasoura’s Japanese colleagues.

The impossibility of American art is a revealing divergence between the book and series.  In the series, such art is illegal because Japanese authorities recognize its power.  In the book, it is not that American art is illegal, it is simply inconceivable.  Dick’s descriptions of Childan’s and Kasoura’s dawning recognition of what they are seeing in Frink’s work are evocative of how one learns to “see” art and recognize the power of objects to shape and transform.  Soon after this recognition, Childan begins to believe in a new, authentic American material culture and (it seems) in the idea of America as well.

The appearance and recognition of Frink’s new American art builds along the same time-line as Juliana’s journey towards her apparently anticlimatic meeting with the Man in the High Castle [Hawthorne Abendson], who consults the I Ching to discover that the book (yes, here it is a book, not films) he has written about the Allies winning the war is true — although this would seem not be so, as Germans and Japanese have divided up much of the world.   As he and Juliana say regarding the Oracle’s response:

Raising his head, Hawthorne [the man in the high castle] scrutinized her. He had now an almost savage expression. “It means, does it, that my book is true?”

“Yes,” she said.
With anger he said, “Germany and Japan lost the war?”


The book ends rather abruptly after the meeting of Juliana and the Man in the High Castle.  The reader is left to wonder in what way Germany’s and Japan’s loss is “true.”  One possibility is a multi-verse, a idea borne out more fully in the series than the book.  However, the role of Frink’s art in the book suggest other possibilities, such as the re-appearance and re-emergence of an authentic America in the midst of occupation.  Frink’s art suggests that the story of allied struggle against Japanese imperialism and European Nazism is not over.  Rather, America lives and that, is spite of appearances, Germany and Japan may have already lost the war.