I was delighted when Jessica Hughes, Lecturer in Classical Studies at The Open University and editor of Practitioners’ Voices in Classical Reception Studies wanted to publish an essay about the process of researching and writing Rufius. Read ‘Writing Rufius’ in issue 7. Below is an excerpt about my inspiration for Rufius.
Inspiration for Rufius
The idea, or rather a seed of an idea, was ignited by days spent poring over a Gnostic Christian manuscript, commonly referred to as the Pistis Sophia, in the British Library in 2004 – which resulted in a voice and the images of the characters whose handwriting scribed the Coptic (Egyptian written with Greek letters) . Whilst procrastinating, I had made a random search of the British Library catalogue when I should have been researching another novel, The Hostess Detective. The search results came up with a manuscript called the Askew Codex MS 5114. This ignited my curiosity. I contacted the curator of the manuscript, Dr Nersessian and requested access to the book. He asked me why. As I knew nothing about the book, I said I was doing research on ‘Gnostic Christian Goddesses’ (the key words I used in the search).
I became fascinated by several sentences in the manuscript which scholars had failed to translate. With a Coptic dictionary compiled by one of the translators and a splattering of undergraduate ancient Greek, I undertook to make my own translation of these sentences. My BA was in Linguistics and I could see that the sentences did not present the expected syntax and that the groups of vowels were often repetitive. The Moscow Library of Foreign Literature was also undertaking a translation of the Askew Codex into Russian and we made contact. By this point I’d come up with the theory that the ‘sentences’ which often proceeded rituals, led by a resurrected Jesus on the Mount of Olives preaching to his disciples, were a form of Christian mantra along the lines of Hindu or Buddhist mantra – and that these groups of sounds had no semantic meaning, but were repeated in order to take the devotees into a trancelike state, or prevent the mind from ‘thinking.’ Dr Nersessian agreed that the mantra idea was plausible.
If these ‘untranslatable sentences’ were early Christian mantra, I wondered which people held this book sacred – how did they use this mantra, and for what end? The writings in the manuscript have been attributed by scholars to early Christian Gnostic groups – suggestions include the Valentinians, the Ophites and, the Sethians, to name a few. Fiction benefits from simplification and so I decided on the Ophites (called the ‘Snake People’ in the novel). I set out to recreate the Ophite group. In fiction, unlike history, one aims at delivering an emotional truth, or a truth that historical speculation alone cannot reach – I wanted to ‘show’ the emotional and experiential spiritual relationship of a group who held these writings sacred; it mattered less which group I chose. The Moscow Library of Foreign Literature invited me to present a paper on how I would do this, which prompted longer hours with the manuscript to ponder how these ‘mantra’ might have been incorporated into ritual practice.
It was after a long day in the Oriental Reading Room in 2004 that I had a vision: the novel, its atmosphere, its urgency and required pace, its main two characters – in a snapshot. Guessing at the pronunciation of Greek letters – αοι αοι αοι (aoi aoi aoi) – I repeated them in the fashion my experience of Buddhist and Hindu meditation had taught me. All of a sudden, I was no longer in the British Library reading room, but in an ancient scriptorium: scrolls were stacked on shelves and between rows of writing desks, and a fat man in a toga rushed towards me with a scroll in his hand saying, ‘take the book and run’. An atmosphere of urgency and impending doom – and smoke filled the scriptorium. He was shouting at a youth in a tunic, who replied: ‘I’m not leaving you’. Love filled the space between them.
Then I was back in the Oriental Reading room with a sensation like jetlag, as if I had travelled a vast distance. My imagination brought something back with me – the voice of Rufius. Read More
Thanks to The Open University and to Jess for making the editorial process such fun. Jessica’s own research is fascinating – you can follow her tweets about art, religion, myth, votives and Italy on Twitter – @jesshughes61