Grim Anecdote – Publishing a Coptic magical text in the 1930’s

Elizabeth Margaret Stefanski (1195-1948) was an Egyptologist and Copticist who studied and worked at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute.  Her earliest known work is an extensive bibliography of ancient literary references to Megiddo, 599v_apiscompiled in collaboration with her colleague and friend Ruth C. Wilkins in 1927.  During the 1930s, Stefanski began to publish the results of her work on Egyptian materials in the collections of the Oriental Institute Museum.  Her first published work was an edition of hieratic funerary texts on mummy linen in the Oriental Institute Museum; publications of this sort of text were uncommon enough then (and indeed still are) to warrant special notice.   Following a suggestion from W.F. Edgerton, Stefanski’s first Coptic publication was an edition of a Coptic magical text, also from the collection of the Oriental Institute Museum.  The nature of the magical text – a spell designed to cause impotence – made its edition a somewhat delicate matter.  Stefanski’s translation of the spell, while technically just permissible, is a discreet rendering of a text with explicit descriptions of sexual activity and allusions to potential homosexual activity and bestiality that might have otherwise proven unacceptably frank to the editors of American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures.

Elizabeth Stefanski is known for her editions of a number of Egyptian and Coptic texts, and primarily for her work on the Coptic ostraca excavated during the clearance of the remains of the town of Jeme at the temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu. Like many of her Oriental Institute colleagues, Elizabeth Stefanski spent much of World War II working for the U.S. military, where she put her experience in deciphering ancient languages to work a cryptographer for the Army Signal Corps.




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