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Mythen, die unter die Haut gehen—zur literarischen Form der Tätowierelegie (PBrux. inv. e 8934 und PSorb. inv. 2254)

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image of Mnemosyne

In the tattoo elegy, written on a papyrus from the second century BC, a speaker threatens to tattoo pictures of mythical sinners and their punishment on someone's skin. I try to show that this alludes to the ancient practice of tattooing a text which describes the offences of a criminal on his body. At the same time, the possible erotic context of the poem suggests that it modifies the mainly elegiac topos of leaving marks (notae in Latin) on the skin of the beloved (part 1).

In the following parts I concentrate on the two most important literary forms the tattoo elegy combines, namely ecphrasis and catalogue. The poet stresses the catalogue form on different levels of content as well as of form (part 2). The combination of both forms is already prepared for in archaic poetry (part 3). The speaker exploits the uncertainty whether the description only tells what is represented in the pictures or whether it becomes a narrative expansion without a visible equivalent. This uncertainty is inherent in every ecphrasis, but in this special case, where the production of the picture is connected with the pain of the tattooing, it reaches a new degree of intensity.

Affiliations: 1: Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität, Institut für Klassische Philologie Grüneburgplatz 1, 60323 Frankfurt, Germany;, Email:


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