The first essay in Eliot Weinberger’s collection The Ghosts of Birds is about The Life of Adam and Eve, a group of pseudepigraphical writings hitherto unfamiliar to me that exists in Greek, Latin, Slavonic, Armenian, Georgian, and Coptic versions (Wikipedia: “They differ greatly in length and wording, but for the most part are derived from a single source that has not survived”). I was struck by this bit:

An angel guides Seth’s hand as he writes, and what he writes is called achiliacae, defined in the text itself as “writing without the teaching of words.” Generations see the stelae, but no one can read them until long after the Flood, when an angel appears to Solomon and gives him the knowledge of this indecipherable language.

Of course I googled the mysterious word in italics, and found a slightly longer explanation in Brian Murdoch’s The Apocryphal Adam and Eve in Medieval Europe: Vernacular Translations and Adaptations of the Vita Adae et Evae:

Some versions take the story further down to the reading of the tablets by Solomon (again with angelic or archangelic assistance), who names the letters achiliacae, a word the form of which varies very considerably, and for which different interpretations are offered in the text itself, ranging from ‘without lips’ to ‘without books’.

Gustav Hölscher, in Kanonisch und Apokryph: Ein Kapitel aus der Geschichte des alttestamentlichen Kanons (A. Deichert, 1905), p. 51, provides a few of those variant forms and a learned guess:

Die rätselhafte Schrift heißt hier literae achiliacae (oder achilicae, achylicae, vgl. auch archilaykas [altenglisch]), was ich als γράμματα ἀχειλι[α]κά (d.h. mit Lippen unaussprechbar) deuten möchte.

Truly one of the more obscure and useless cruxes (or, if you like, cruces) I have run across.

And speaking of difficult words, in reading Samuil Lurie’s excellent biography of Pisarev (see this post for an appreciation of Lurie) I’ve run across one no dictionary will explain to me: “Лекций он записывал бисерным почерком в красивеньких, украшенных декалькоманиею тетрадочках с розовыми клакспапирчиками” [He took notes on lectures in a minute script in pretty little notebooks decorated with decalcomania and little pink klakspapir]. It clearly represents a German Klackspapier ‘blob-paper,’ but such a word does not seem to exist in German. Any ideas what it might be?


  1. SFReader says

    Kleckspapier – blotter paper. Klecks is origin of Russian клякса (‘blot’)

  2. Stu Clayton says

    There is no “Kleckspapier” word in German, unless you make it up. Blotting paper is Löschpapier.

  3. Perhaps this is one of those compounds that don’t exist in the language of their parts, like cran(e)berry.

    For what it’s worth, both Klecks and Klacks mean ‘blob, dab’, though the former also means ‘blot, stain’ and the second ‘something unimportant or easy’, per Wiktionary.

  4. SFReader says

    Kleckspapier apparently existed in one of the varieties of German back in 19th century. At least that’s what Fasmer says

  5. SFReader says

    Google Books search revealed following:

    Johann Leonhard Frisch – 1725
    Kleck-Papier, Schmier-Papier, Sudel-Papier, e’ n.brouillon. Kleck-Papier dieKlecke auszu machen, brouillard.

    Nouveau Dictionnaire des passagers françois-allemand et …
    Kleck-Papier, Schmier-Papier, …

    A compleat Vocabulary English and German
    Kleckpapier, waste-paper; s, Löschpapier.

    Teutsch-englisches Lexicon. 2. U. Verb. Aufl
    Christian Ludwig – 1745
    Sudel-papier oder kleck-papier (das) maculatures, waste papers, blotted papers.

  6. Very interesting, I’m glad I asked!

  7. Greg Pandatshang says

    By the way, it’s interesting that a variety of medieval Christian texts, both heretical scriptures and variants of orthodox documents, pop up in Old Church Slavonic with some regularity. The Slavonic Josephus (containing a bunch of interpolated mentions of Jesus, where the familiar version has exactly two, each of which has attracted intensive attention) and the Ascension of Isaiah come to mind. The latter appears in two main versions, each in fragments in Latin and then one in a larger chunk in Slavonic and the other in its entirety in Ge’ez (there’s also a heavily reworked Greek version, the Greek Legend). I can’t quite picture what the social milieu was in middle ages that produced a demand from OCS readers for Christian texts that seem irrelevant and/or off-the-wall heretical to us, but evidently there was such a demand. I’m not really sure when and where there were significant numbers of OCS-only literates, or at least unwilling to read their heretical texts in Greek or Latin. Could this be linked to the Bogomil church of pre-Islamic Bosnia?

  8. Well, Greek haeresis means “choice”, “system of principles” etc. I was just reading in Sloterdijk [Nach Gott] that the problem of “heresy” in days of yore, as seen by the Catholic church, was not merely that certain opinions were “wrong”, but that they were not those dictated by that church. This was before the days of scientific controversy. Right and wrong were determined by fiat, not experiment and discussion.

    So the “demand from OCS readers for Christian texts that seem irrelevant and/or off-the-wall heretical to us” can be seen as due to curiosity, and resistance to being told what to think and believe. “… seem irrelevant and off-the-wall heretical to us” is a rather old-fashioned dogmatic way to look at the matter.

  9. David Marjanović says

    Much of the demand may simply have been a demand for more information, because the Bible contains a lot of loose ends. Most of the apocryphous gospels try to fill such gaps.

  10. So Joseph Smith had a precedent.

  11. David Marjanović says

    I don’t think the others wanted to get rich and powerful, at least not to such an extent… in any case they didn’t end up rich or powerful.

  12. So Joseph Smith had a precedent.

    And modern fanfic authors (among which I may now number myself) are a postdecent (very post-decent many of them are, too).

  13. Greg Pandatshang says

    Well, regarding irrelevancy, of course I don’t think documents like this are irrelevant. I think they’re interesting. But you try approaching the average Christian with a really cool new version of Josephus and see how much relevance they think that has to their faith.

    Regarding heresy, I don’t really have a dog in the race of what the true Christianity is, so all I mean is that these texts contain ideas that are different from what we learned in Sunday school. Also different from the Orthodox doctrine of the middle ages.

  14. It was a remarkable revelation to me when I realized how much ancient writing would, if it were produced today, be considered fan fiction. Achilles only being vulnerable on his heel? That’s from fan fiction.

  15. Nah, it’s canon. But the Odyssey might be fanfic, although it’s become certainly fanon if not canon by this point. “The wandering of Ulixes son of Laertes” is definitely fanfic.

  16. David Marjanović says

    Merugud Uilix maicc Leirtis!

    But you try approaching the average Christian with a really cool new version of Josephus and see how much relevance they think that has to their faith.

    The average Christian as well as the 95th percentile has of course no idea that Josephus exists at all.

  17. Lars (the original one) says

    44 different takes on what the Odyssey is. (Zachary Mason: The Lost Books of the Odyssey: A Novel)

    I really like the author’s style, some of the good aspects of Gene Wolfe and a few drops of Vance but mainly good prose and ideas. I can’t read more than two chapters in a stretch, got to put down the book and think then.

  18. Merugud Uilix maicc Leirtis!

    Available here; Kuno Meyer’s introduction is fun: “Thus too, the name of our hero in B. always preserves the correct Irish form Uilix (so, e.g. in Tog. Tr. 2250); while St. makes it Iuliux, the scribe connecting it no doubt with the Roman Julius.”

  19. Incidentally, if anyone else is curious about “Merugud,” eDIL has it s.v. merugad, “also merachad o, m. (vn. of meraigid) wander- ing; going astray.”

  20. There’s an interesting paragraph about the Irish text here, beginning “A similar unapologetic subordination,” if the Google Books link works for anyone but me.

  21. David Marjanović says

    The preceding paragraph casually mentions that there’s an eighth-century Irish version of the Gospel of Thomas. Then it implies that the original is a “prose narrative”, which would make it completely different from the Coptic list of sayings that more recently became famous.

  22. Asteropaios wounds Achilles on his arm in battle (book XXI), making the story of the heel actually contradictory to canon.

  23. Greg Pandatshang says

    The so-called Irish Gospel of Thomas is not a translation of the Gospel of Thomas but of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which is entirely different:

  24. Christian Kaatmann says

    I know the word “klekspapir” from my grandmother (born 1883) who must kave learnt it in school back home in North Schleswig. All schools in that area and era were German (Danish education was closed down). She spoke a Danish/Schleswig dialect like the rest of us, and “klekspapir” would be a German loan in our language. The word has later been superseeded by a loan from standard Danish “klatpapir”. I suppose today’s school children would know neither of them

  25. Lars (the original one) says

    In Copenhagen it was trækpapir, and when I grew up there were sheets of it to be found in households for its other useful applications (absorbing spills off fabric to mitigate staining, for instance). People still used fountain pens too, but better models that rarely blotted, and mainly to be fancy when signing checks.

    The ODS has klakpapir too (noted as ‘now hardly usable’ in 1928), and unlike the two others it’s not only blotting paper, but unrefined paper for scribbles and drafts as well.

  26. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is some truly bad fan fiction. It tells the story of what a monster a young child with omnipotent powers would be like, while still expecting Jesus to be considered the hero. I suspect that the fact that it ever got any traction at all was strongly influenced by confusion with the much more interesting Sayings Gospel of Thomas.

    I actually once saw part of a movie on television based on the Infancy Gospel. Googling points me to A Child Called Jesus, a 1987 Italian television production, which was dubbed into English. It memorably portrays the most famous incident from the Infancy Gospel, in which Jesus gives life to clay birds.

  27. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is some truly bad fan fiction. It tells the story of what a monster a young child with omnipotent powers would be like

    So that’s where Jerome Bixby got the idea for “It’s a Good Life”!

  28. David Marjanović says

    There are several infancy gospels. I just didn’t know there’s one named after Thomas. The Protevangelium of John is the most infamous one…

  29. There may be cultural differences. I have heard about the Infancy Gospel of Thomas far more frequently than the Protevangelium of James (not John).

  30. David Marjanović says

    Where was I getting John from? The first five Google pages all say James.

  31. Probably the subliminal influence of John Cowan.

  32. David Marjanović says

    What I thought I remembered was a Protevangelium nach Johannes, so that’s unlikely.


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