Writing wishes. Back to the future with the papyri

By Ezra la Roi

Affiliated PhD Researcher@EVWRIT

Emails, cards and letters

We might not realize, but we consciously adapted our communication practices to the pandemic. When you write an email to someone during the pandemic, whether it is a close contact or not, it is normal (socially speaking) that the email starts with the wish that it finds them in good health (read between the lines: given the pandemic). In 2020 or 2021, when matters were much worse, such formulations were conventionally more elaborate such as I hope that you nor your loved ones are hit hard by the pandemic or I hope you’re very well and I’m sending you and your family my best wishes. Such wishes are of course not entirely new, as wishing someone well is common practice in letters or cards to friends and family. In fact, in our daily life we use wishes quite frequently and for a great variety of reasons, e.g. Happy birthday! Merry Christmas! Have fun! Good luck! Bless you! or I wish I could. Given the important social function of such wishes, we may therefore hypothesize (with the so-called uniformitarian hypothesis or principle) that the Greek papyri from Egypt could show similar wish structures to fulfill these social functions (cf. Vandorpe on indexing dimensions of happiness in Hellenistic Egypt).

At first glance, we find wishes in the papyri that are remarkably similar to those that we tend to use. Take for example the frequent use of health wishes that we find in the papyri, for example with the so-called wish optative εἴη μὲν ὑγίεια “may there be health”, ἐρρῶσθαι ὑμᾶς εἴη “may it be that you are well” or εἴη μέν μοι ὑγιαίνοντα X “I wish that X is well” or its countless variations, e.g. the performative “I wish that you are well” ἐρρῶσθαί σε/σε ὑγιαίνειν εὔχομαι or descriptive alternatives καλῶς ἂν ἔχοι εἰ ἔρρωσαι or εἰ ἔρρωσαι, εὖ ἂν ἔχοι “it would be good if you are well”. However, when you dig deeper, you inevitably find that there is much more to say about wishes in the papyri, not only about how they are used but also where they are used. Wishes are, for example, not confined to letters but occur in many other text types that we can distinguish in the papyri, such as petitions, wills, contracts, oaths or declarations. Their wide distribution underlines the importance ascribed to them by those who entrusted their communication to papyri. What was it about wishes then that made the use of wishes so popular and ostensibly still does?

When to wish and why

In general, wishes were used in many different communicative contexts. A first indication of where and why wishes are used in the papyri can be glanced from which wishes are most frequent. The most frequent wish usage with the wish optative is for example to substantiate a form of declaration or oath. In the following declaration Epimachus declares that he did not collect tax or will be in a position to do so:

I swear by Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Imperator that I have levied no contributions for any purpose whatever in the said village and that henceforward I shall not become headman of a village; otherwise let me be liable to the consequences of the oath. [ἢ ἔνοχος εἴην τῷ ὅρκ(ῳ)] (p.oxy.2.239=TM 20508, https://papyri.info/apis/upenn.apis.12)

Performative wish expressions also occur very frequently and especially to either wish the addressee well (at both the start and the end of letters, e.g. P.Oslo 2 60= TM 28905, https://papyri.info/ddbdp/p.oslo;2;60) or to signal a person’s wish to lease:

I wish to lease from you [βούλομαι μισθώσασθαι παρὰ σοῦ] the retailing of perfumes and spices, desiring a fourth part of the half share allotted to you in the division of Themistes, exclusive of markets and festivals, for the present second year only at a total rent of forty-five drachmae of silver, which I will pay monthly in equal instalments if you agree to give the lease. (P.Fay. 93=TM 10936, https://papyri.info/ddbdp/p.fay;;93)

Less often one finds a wish optative as a greeting such as Χαίροις Ἥρων. “Greetings, Heron.” (sb.14.12176=TM 27526, https://papyri.info/ddbdp/sb;14;12176). This specific usage of the wish optative is actually an innovation of papyri from the Roman period, as these greetings were before just expressed by the bare imperative χαίρε or the independent (so-called insubordinate) use of the infinitive χαίρειν. Another more infrequent pattern is when the wish occurs mid-sentence (i.e. parenthetically) to qualify an undesirable outcome of a contractual agreement:

and if—which heaven forbid [ὃ [μὴ ε]ἴ̣η]—a separation takes place, I will restore it as stated above, and in answer to the formal question I have given my consent. (P.Oxy. 10 1273 = TM 21791, https://papyri.info/ddbdp/p.oxy;10;1273)

Wishes thus can mitigate the communicative message as well as perform socially desirable actions in a wide range of text types from the papyri.

If only I could

Another sign that wishes serve important social functions is that they can reveal communicative norms. In the following private letter Epagathos assures his sister that he is doing what is expected of him, to keep her as informed as possible. He conveys this message more indirectly though. By means of the counterfactual wish that he wished but could not send her more, he indirectly signals that his effort to keep the communication going may be expected socially. In other words, this counterfactual wish reveals a communicative norm which resembles the Gricean maxim of quantity of communication in general: be as informative as possible and necessary. After all, he is asking her to display the same socially expected behaviour (δήλωσόν μοι περὶ ὧν ἔπεμψά σοι).

δήλωσόν μοι περὶ ὧν ἔπεμψά σοι. ἤθελον καὶ πέμψε(<πέμψαι) σοί τι ἄλλο, καὶ οὐδεὶς λαμβάνε[ι] ὅ̣[πω]ς σοι κομισθῇ.(BGU 2 384=TM 28132, https://papyri.info/ddbdp/bgu;2;384)
Inform me about that which I have sent you. I would have wanted to send you something else as well, but nobody is taking it with them to bring to you.

Similarly, counterfactual wishes can be used to indicate someone’s commitment, for example to a loved one far away.

ὤφελον εἰ ἐδυ̣νάμε̣θα πετᾶ̣σ̣θαι καὶ ἐλ̣θεῖν καὶ προσκυνῆσαί σε (P. Giss. 1 17, 10-12=TM 19419, https://papyri.info/ddbdp/p.giss.apoll;;13 )
Would that we were able to fly and come and embrace you

Putting the pieces of the puzzle together

Even though important, wishes are of course just one of the ingredients of the communicative behavior that we find in the papyri. One of the main strengths of the EVWRIT project is that it seeks to go beyond the linguistic ingredients that produce the social cocktail of communication; matters of formatting, handwriting, orthography or vocabulary could all have significant but yet not well understood social potential. With the expected arrival of the EVWRIT database, we will be able to grasp the social correlations between the medium (in all its dimensions) and the message of papyrological texts. Looking back at wishes and how they reveal sudden changes in communication practice, I think that we could stress yet another important dimension, the diachronic one. As briefly mentioned above, wish structures became more widespread and versatile in the papyrological evidence. It therefore stands to reason that they could show evidence of social change as well, for example when wishes focus less on cursing or start evoking different deities in Post-Classical papyri than wishes in Classical Greek texts do. Also, due to the prominence of these health wishes, choosing to vary your health wish became socially significant in Post-Classical Greek texts (cf. Nachtergaele), much like the health wishes in the pandemic. Such social time travel also reveals significant differences with the present. For example, each involved person signing a collective letter/postcard was not standard in the papyri (cf. Bentein). Nowadays, however, we all have to sign birthday cards to show our involvement. Or think of the curious Dutch custom to congratulate those close to the birthday person with that person’s birthday. Thus, the paradoxical lesson that we could learn from the papyri, much like the movie Back to the future, would be that time travel to the past helps us understand the present just as travelling back to the present will help us understand the past.