Libraries are “points of care of the soul.” This is a curious phrase, full of content, and that we like. It is originated on the label that allegedly existed in the “Sacred Library” of the temple and tomb of Pharaoh Ramses. But perhaps what is really behind the famous phrase is a historical misunderstanding.

A Greek philosopher and historian, Hecataeus of Abdera,  fourth century BC, visited, like many other people, Egypt, in this moment now ruled by Grecomacaedlonian pharaohs,  precisely by Ptolemy Soter.

He visited Thebes and the Valley of the Kings and the Ramesseum, temple and tomb of Ramses. His book  Aegyptiaca or On the Egyptians  (Egyptian Curiosities), a kind of guidebook currently not preserved, but we  have the transcript that  Diodorus Siculus (Diodorus of Sicily) made two half-century after.

Diodorus also visited Egypt and Thebes. Interestingly he described the Ramesseum like really he visited it, but in reality is surprisingly using the description  that Hecataeus had made.

In any case, although it is a bit long, I transcribe the part of the story that interests us and that the philologist s Luciano Cánfora includes  in his interesting little book about  the Library of Alexandria entitled The vanished library:

“Here is Hecataeus’s account:

The three passages led into a colonnaded hall, built on the plan of the Odeon and sixty yards in length. The room was filled with wooden statues of litigants, their eyes turned towards the judges whose figures were carved along one wall. There were thirty  of these judges, and they had no hands. The supreme judge was placed in the middle. Truth hung about his neck, his eyes  were shut, and scrolls lay piled around him on the floor. I was told that the bearing of these figures was intended to show that judges must not take gifts and that the supreme judge should have eyes only for the truth.

Moving on, we entered covered walk which gave access to chambers of every kind, decorated  with reliefs showing a wealth of choice foods. Coloured bas-reliefs surrounded us as we advanced; one showed the king offering to the divinities the  gold and silver that flowed into his treasury each year from all the mines of Egypt. The total sum, thirty-two million minae of silver, was indicated below the bas-relief. There then followed the sacred library, above which were written the words: THE PLACE OF THE CURE OF THE SOUL. There followed images of all the Egyptian divinities, to each of which the king was offering some suitable gift, as if he wished to show Osiris and the lesser gods that he had lived in piety and justice towards men and gods all his life.

There was also a sumptuously built hall, the wall of which was contiguous  with this library. Here there was a large table with twenty triclinia or couches, and statues of Zeus, Hera, and –once again- the king.It seems that the king’s body had been buried here. All around the hall, they said, was a remarkable series of chambers, with splendid images of all the sacred animals  of Egypt. By climbing up through these chambers, one might have reached the entrance of the tomb. This was on the roof of the building. There, too, a gold circle was to be seen, three hundred and sixty-five cubits long and one cubit high. Images for each day of the year were set out around this circle, one for every cubit: the rising and setting of the stars were  recorded for each day, together with the signs with which those astral movements furnished the Egyptian astrologers. This frieze, the said, had been plundered by Cambyses when he made himself master of Egipt.” (Translated by Martin Ryle (University of California Press), pag. 8 ss)

However, despite many archaeologists , who have excavated the area and the temple,  have been especially interested in locating the famous library, this or  some archaeological remains of it have  never appeared. No doubt because the library, conceived as a single space or great room for reading and storing books,  never existed. The Greek word βιβλιοθήκη (composed of βιβλίον, biblion, book and θήκη Theke "box, deposit) Bibliotheke actually designates the shelf or cabinet to contain the books,  that would surely attached or embedded in the wall of one of rooms that describes in a somewhat confusing Hecataeus (he gives the impression that speaking from hearsay and not due to a direct view).

Moreover, the sacred books, whose existence is also attested in other temples, there would be not hundreds of rolls or volumes but a few.

In the great complex described by Hecataeus would be the body of Ramses, if it is not hidden better elsewhere safe from grave robbers, irreparable misfortune for an Egyptian. Now the Pharaoh's body or soma is animated by the Ka, spirit or life force. In the same way that the body of the deceased must be served, so must be its Ka or spirit.

And this is where Cánfora  disrupts all the traditional interpretation of the famous phrase "this is the place of soul care" ψυχῆς ἰατρείον, psykhes iatreion (from ψυχῆς ,psyche, soul,  and ἰατρείον , medical care) because according to the famous Hellenist, the phrase does not refer to the room-library that does not exist, but to the Ka care room.

Also reproduce his words in that book, Pg 164-165:

The Ka is the “vital forcé” – the soul, one might say –of the sovereign, a force with which the gods, and a few chosen mortals, are endowed.  In Egyptian religious thought, its task was to preserve the pharaoh alive after his death (see P. Kaplóny, sub voce Ka of Lexikon der Aegyptologie, 111, 1980, column 276).

Egyptian funerary mausolea generally contain a place set apart for it, closely connected with the sancta sanctorum. In the Ramesseum, the dwelling-place of the Ka was probably in the hall with the triclinia. This can be inferred from the much-discussed inscription psyches iatreion. Iatreion means (see Thesaurus Graecae Linguae) officinal medici, locus ubi medicus artem suam exercet (the workshop of a physican, the place where a physician practices his art”), and if psyche   is a translation of Ka, then we may well conclude that the phrase psyches iatreion denotes, precisely, the dwelling or (better) the workshop, where the Ka resides and where it operates

If, moreover, the wall with the bookshelves in the Ramesseum opened into the hall with triclinia, then  the inscription psyches iatreion should be taken to designate not the shelf below, but the room the visitor was about to enter: the hall with the triclinia, which was the officina or workshop ot the Ka. The soul referred to is Rameses’Ka. Scholars have been mistaken in taking the inscription as an allusion to the benefit the human soul can derive from reading of good books, an anachronistic interpretation consistent with their belief that the Ramesseum contained a library with the inscription psyches iatreion.

In the dwelling of the Ka (Maspero called it the maison de l’ame, the house of the soul), there were usually a statue representing the dead king. Diodorus, who tells us that such a statue was indeed found in the hall with the triclinia, was not speaking at random when he added: “It seems that the king’s body han been buried here”.

It is vanished so the certainly valuable, but  wrong, origin of a famous phrase that has had  remarkably successful because certainly books and libraries are the necessary food for the spirit. Since then philological accuracy Cánfora not prevent further using a certainly pleasant and inviting sentence  for all those who love books and booksellers, libraries and librarians,  who are often most women in the office.

As evidence of the suggestive and evocative power of the phrase, I  transcribe a small piece of article that the writer Rosa Montero published in El País, 7 June 2011 in his column, titled Thank you. She   modifies intelligently the original sentence to give the sense that she wants to express:

In the middle of the Madrid Book Fair, while I sign  in the booth again and again,  I  think  only booksellers. In those special people who dedicate their lives to something that certainly is not going to make them millionaires, and work  during  endless hours reading, watching, recommending, inflaming the will of his parishioners. The good bookseller knows his regular readers  with fine love , he offers appropriate readings, he is creating generations of readers, accompanies the children of clients in their literary growth. In many areas the library is the only center of cultural revitalization, a role that no one has them in mind. Bookstores are nests of dreams and booksellers are medical doctors of the soul. No predictors booksellers, only we would read best sellers. For all this, thanks. Thank you very much.

Place of Care of the Soul: ψυχῆς ἰατρείον (psychés iatreíon)

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