Symposium on the Derveni Papyrus : Introduction. Testing Our Tools: Open Questions on the Derveni Papyrus

The Derveni Papyrus [1] should never have reached us. This text, the oldest European book in our possession, was meant to accompany forever the cremated body buried in Derveni Tomb A. It is our great luck that this roll, with its extraordinary text, did not burn thoroughly but awaited its accidental discovery, during public works, in an uninhabited area about 10 km from Thessaloniki; the tomb is located near the ruins of a small ancient town called Lete, although not in Lete’s cemetery but in a graveyard about 2 km away. The carbonized papyrus was discovered on the slabs covering Tomb A, along with other remains from the cremation of the deceased. [2] We owe to the mastery of Petros Themelis, who was supervising the excavation, and to the skills of the Austrian conservator Anton Fackelmann the rescue of this rare (for a modern audience) piece of ancient thought.
There is no need to repeat here in detail the history of this extraordinary discovery, of the process of conservation, and of the edition of the text. [3] A first, unauthorized, transcription of the P.Derv. text appeared in 1982 in the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (ZPE), and was followed by R. Janko’s “Interim text.” [4] In his contribution to the current volume, Burkert, whose uninterrupted interest in the papyrus over a period of more than forty-five years has opened most paths of research on the subject, offers for the first time the “true story” about the anonymous publication. The editio princeps, by Kouremenos, Parássoglou, and Tsantsanoglou (KPT), appeared in 2006. It presents 26 columns of text and 113 unplaced fragments, precious photographs of the papyrus, a translation, and a commentary. The digital version of the text is available at the Center for Hellenic Studies (CHS) Derveni Papyrus site (http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.eresource:CHS_Derveni_Papyrus).
More progress has been made since the appearance of the editio princeps. Janko has published several articles offering new arrangements of the first columns and new readings, which are discussed in this volume, mainly by Tsant-sanoglou, Bernabé, and Ferrari, who provides an important critical overview of the initial reconstitution and other papyrological issues relevant to the edition of the papyrus, as well as new arrangements of the first columns. [5] Bernabé, who published a critical edition and commentary on the papyrus in 2007, [6] presents in his paper important new readings and discusses new proposals from Janko and Ferrari that affect the first six columns.
Papers in this volume address a wide range of open questions. Graf, Bernabé, Tsantsanoglou, and Tzifopoulos focus mainly on ritual, whereas Burkert, Calame, Sistakou, and Rusten revisit the problem of authorship, authorial procedures, and literary strategies. Bernabé and Graf offer a new and detailed analysis of possible contexts relative to the magoi. Tsantsanoglou revisits the question of Persian influences on the theological system of the P.Derv. author, suggesting a possible affinity between Nous and Ahura Mazdā (pp. 16–17). New arrangements and readings presented by Ferrari, namely for columns IV and VI, bring into the discussion new elements about the relation of the P.Derv. text to Persian religion, on the one hand, and to Democritus, on the other. Tzifopoulos provides a most instructive parallelism between Bacchic-Orphic epistomia and the P.Derv. papyrus roll as entaphia objects. Furthermore, in Rusten’s and Tzifopoulos’s papers we find an interesting overview of the “semantics” of burials with books: can a papyrus included amid grave goods be considered a valid proof regarding the religious faith of the deceased? Tsantsanoglou considers the book to be an equivalent of Orphic gold leaves, a more intellectual kind of authoritative passport to the underworld. Johnston shifts the meaning of Ἅιδου δεινά from “horrors of Hades” to “miseries inflicted on the living by the dead” and studies related oracular practices. Calame shows in his paper that by attributing a quasi-oracular process to the poem, the P.Derv. author conforms to the traditions concerning the prophetic qualities of the voice of the immortalized Orpheus, who reveals by signs the supreme sacred truth ([μεγ]άλα̣ ἱερ[ολογ]-ε̣ῖ̣ται, VII 8). Using Hippolytus’ prayer (Euripides Hippolytus 73–87) as a departure point, Hunter examines poetry as coded speech for the few and analyzes related poetological ideas in the scholia. Burkert puts in perspective the interest in souls manifested by the author and shows that it is perfectly compatible with Presocratic philosophy, and especially with what we know about Democritus. [7]
Dating the Derveni Papyrus is a complex issue. It contains a multilayered text: a description of a ritual, verses of a poem of Orpheus, and exegesis by the author. As Burkert, Calame, and Tzifopoulos stress in this volume, one must keep in mind three different chronological issues: the date of the poem of Orpheus (always conjectural; sixth century, according to Burkert); the date of the exegesis (possibly end of fifth century); and the date of the papyrus roll itself (mid-fourth century [8] ). Up to now there was no certainty about the original number of papyrus rolls containing the P.Derv. text. Tsantsanoglou’s hypothesis that the work comprised at least three rolls is confirmed in his present article by an important new discovery: “the papyrus seems to provide column numbering…if our column V is numbered 35 and the numbering started from column I, the preceding roll should contain thirty columns…two more columns are missing from the beginning of the preserved roll” (pp. 14–15).
The contents of the surviving roll present a particular thematic and structural division, which makes this work a unicum among what we possess of the literary production of the period. Naturally, one of the main efforts of scholars was and is to classify this highly particular text. The first six columns (three are badly damaged by fire, as they were written on what became the outer part of the roll) refer to propitiatory rituals aimed at appeasing souls. Column VII forms the transition to the other thematic unit, in which the author adduces verses of a poem of Orpheus and offers an interpretation, in the form of what most scholars call by anachronism a “commentary.” Orpheus’s name appears clearly in the papyrus—twice in column XVIII—and also is conjectured in column VII.
Our understanding of the text is progressing steadily. New and important points arise as a result of the reconstruction of column I presented by Bernabé and Ferrari in this volume: a religious authority (probably Orpheus) constructs a ritual whose meaning is revealed by semeia. The central addressees here are the Erinyes. Erinyes/Eumenides are of utmost importance in the P.Derv. text: they are mentioned in all surviving columns related to ritual, except column V. The exegesis of the chthonic ritual is of a most peculiar kind compared to what we know. Supernatural entities receive well-known traditional names—daimones, Erinyes, Eumenides—but as description and explanation of the ritual merge, the relation of those entities to souls is not clear. It is as if the author describes the ritual acts only to subordinate them to his hermeneia, and this is extremely rare in the period under consideration. For instance, when he says that Eumenides are souls (VI 9), it is not clear if he is voicing his own opinion or that of a larger group, religious/spiritual or intellectual or both. As Tsantsanoglou puts it, the author corrects the popular concept of Erinyes—as avengers only of perjury and homicide—by upgrading their jurisdiction from social to cosmic. The ritual acts described are sacrifice, libation, incantation, singing, prayer. Bernabé’s reading, ὀ̣[ρ]ν̣ί̣θ̣[ε]ιομ...[χρὴ λύειν instead of καίειν, in column VI, line 11 (“liberate a bird” instead of “burn a bird”) removes a major difficulty regarding the classification of the ritual as Orphic, given that Orphics do not sacrifice living beings. While stressing, as Henrichs did in 1984, that ritual acts themselves seem “native,” Johnston believes that the P.Derv. author’s ritual definitions are mostly innovations. In fact, there is nothing to allow us to define ritual space and time, as Sistakou stresses in her paper.
Furthermore, the absence of gods in this first part, especially the infernal ones, is a paradox which Bernabé explains as a rationalizing effort, probably linked to the monistic tendency of the author, to suppress multiple gods as addressees of the ritual (one can as well think of the unspeakable orgia related to the death of Dionysus and compare the reluctance of Herodotus to recount such myths). Nevertheless, following Martín-Hernández, Bernabé considers that the myth of the titanic crime against Dionysos is “the very ground of the ritual” and that ποινὴν̣ ἀποδιδόντες in column VI 5 refers to the ritual atonement of this act.
Who then are the performers of ritual in the Derveni Papyrus? The author, the magoi, the mystai? Is the author referring to a specific occasion, or is he giving a general overview of ritual practices suiting his complex arguments? We can say for sure that the author pictures two types of officiants—mystai and magoi—linked in an interesting manner, which makes the magoi the prototype of the action of the mystai. Mystai, says the author, address to the Eumenides a preliminary sacrifice in the manner of the magoi. Column VI, the best-preserved one in the first part, contains eight lines presenting the magoi as “able” (ἐπ̣[ωιδὴ δ]ὲ̣ μάγων δύν[α]ται) to “push away” or “make change” (depending on the translation chosen for μεθιστάν̣αι), by their incantations, the daimones who are “enemies” of souls or “avengers.” Janko’s new rearrangements of columns II and III have produced another mention of the magoi in column III (accepted by Tsantsanoglou), where they are quoted as the authority asserting that the daimones who observe the honors of the gods are their servants. In both cases, column III and column VI, the magoi appear as prestigious authorities in religious matters, as Bernabé and Graf show in their papers.
Who the magi are is one of the major zetemata in P.Derv. scholarship: Persian priests or Greek sorcerers? According to Graf, who evokes possible Eastern con-texts, the Derveni magi are religious specialists claiming the Persian title for themselves. “It might be that after the Persian conquest of Lydia in 547 BCE … enterprising Persian μάγοι began to serve the needs of Greeks and even adapted their ritual repertoire to Greek demands for mystery cults” (p. 83). An overview of divergent opinions (Persian magoi, Orphic priests, charlatans?) can be found in Bernabé’s paper, where he opts finally, as Calame and Bierl do, for Orphic officiants, “orpheotelestai”; this term is attested outside “Orphic” literature in Greece, thus representing probably the “external,” sometimes hostile perspective found in historians of religion, for instance, while “magos” could be used within Orphic circles positively for the same type of officiant. Tsantsanoglou maintains his position: the P.Derv. text refers to Persian magoi. Important information on this topic has appeared following a new arrangement by Ferrari and an ingenious supplement by Piano: the word Πέρσαι appears in column V, line 11. Furthermore, by a rearrangement of column VI, Ferrari replaces ψυχαί (souls), in line 1, with ἀρτάδας (the Greek “transliteration” of artavan, the Persian word for “the Just, the Heroes”), thus adding one more Persian reference to the debate—which is nevertheless still open, as other contributions in this volume show.
Is the author himself a ritual practitioner? Is he, as some believe, a magos, Greek or Persian? Opinions are divided and wildly divergent: is he an atheist, an Orphic, an anti-Orphic, an orpheotelest? Or a mantis? Or an enlightened intellectual who mocks, partly at least, divinatory practices (this last hypothesisis based mainly on col. V)? [9] Trying to define better the author’s profession as well as his philosophical and religious position, even if the authorship remains an open question, continues to be a most interesting exercise. The fact that the P.Derv. author explains ritual doesn’t necessarily make a telestes out of him, as the editors stated in their introduction to the editio princeps (KPT, 52). Our proceedings reopen the question of the authorship. Burkert and Tsantsanoglou revisit the question and discuss possible candidates: the latter sides with Kahn, considering Euthyphro a good candidate. Comparing the views about souls in the Derveni Papyrus with the scraps of information we have about Democritus’ interest in souls, Burkert plays with the idea of Democritus’ authorship, but dismisses it finally because the Nous in the Derveni Papyrus is more Anaxagorean than Democritean. Burkert concludes by dismissing as well any ritual competence of the P.Derv. author by denying that he or his group is the subject of parimen in column V (which he takes for an infinitive): “he is writing on tà eónta” and is “an interesting writer among those earlier, pre-Platonic thinkers of Greece” (p. 112). Most scholars in this volume believe, however, that the author is a ritual practitioner.
Unfortunately, the fragmentary state of the document deprives us of a fully structured text and does not always allow for proper connections between agents, actions, and concepts. Nevertheless we can say for sure that justice is a central theme. In column IV, for instance, Erinyes are Dike’s epikouroi; this is the same column where we find the famous quotation of Heraclitus about Sun having to face the Erinyes if he does not respect his own limits. In this Heraclitean quotation the Erinyes act as guardians of cosmic equilibrium, as assistants of Dike.
Most scholars believe that after he has quoted the authority of Heraclitus on the relation between the Erinyes and Justice, the author refers in the following column (V) to his own mantic craft while addressing a critique to those who do not believe in the horrors of Hades and in signs such as those transmitted by dreams: “On behalf of those persons we go to the oracle to ask if it is permitted not to believe....” Column V (together with col. XX) is crucial in the scholarly debate on the profession and beliefs of the author. Janko, for instance, challenges the opinio communis by arguing that the author is an atheist (possibly Diagoras of Melos), and that in column V [10] he is attacking those who believe in the horrors of Hades.
On the meaning of Ἅιδου δεινά, Johnston introduces important clarifications by examining the possible associations between the horrors of Hades and divination and by showing that the author refers not to punishments experienced during the afterlife but to miseries inflicted upon the living by the dead, a theme consistent with the previous ones (the theme of appeasement). Souls can ask the living, via dreams and oracles, to take care of neglected duties, such as funerary rites and the like. As to the author being a mantis, Johnston admits the possibility of understanding parimen (V 4) as a first-person plural referring not to the author and his fellow practitioners specifically but to the general practice of the divinatory effort “wasted” by the attitude of the nonbelievers (p. 91).
It seems difficult to reach an agreement on the question of whether the P.Derv. author is a ritual practitioner. A closer look at column XX might help. Up to now, scholarly analysis of this column has focused mostly on the possibility of a different authorial voice in the text marked by paragraphoi (after lines 10 and 13) and on the critique of private initiations expressed in those lines. In this volume, Rusten’s paper confirms his 1985 analysis (extensively explained on pp. 127–132), whereas Graf is opposed to the idea of these paragraphoi marking a quotation of a different author: “these paragraphoi…function as marginal signs to catch the attention of a reader who was browsing through the text” (p. 74).
Column XX also contains another very important theme. Interrupting his lesson on gods and the universe, our author criticizes the way religious acts are performed in both public and private spheres. In doing so, not only does he “normalize” the scandalous incest stories that follow, as Graf underlines, but he also analyzes laconically the very mechanics of oral performance and its reception: [11] οὐ γὰρ οἷόν τε ἀκοῦσαι ὁμοῦ καὶ μαθεῖν τὰ λ̣εγόμενα, “one cannot hear and understand at the same time the legomena” (XX 3). This extraordinary information expresses a fundamental authorial principle operating throughout the P.Derv. text, a principle which gives the very raison d’être of the whole exegesis. By criticizing the formality of performance in ritual, uttering words without exegesis, the author brings to the forefront the very moment—mystic or not—of the hymnos performance and its mimetic enchantment, much criticized by the intellectuals. The author criticizes the oral reception of Orpheus’ poem during solemn occasions. In the second part of column XX (lines 4–12), private initiations—which should respond better to specific needs, as described by Adeimantos in his ironic discourse on magoi and agyrtai (Republic 364b–365a)—are characterized as equally inefficient. If we follow the P.Derv. author, exegesis should be part of the ritual as initiation should be part of the mathesis.
Graf deals at length with the relation of legomena to initiation and opts for a religious entrepreneur interested in physics. I think, however, that the exegesis allows a different perspective about the profile of the author and his audience. A secret circle of gignōskontes and a restricted audience interested primarily in physics seem to me a plausible option. The key passage is not only column XX but the interpretation Air = Zeus in column XXIII (2–7); the two loci, read together, reveal the nature of what is mystic and what the interests of the gignōskontes might be. These theories are mystical, and they belong to the field of knowledge of the physiologoi, of the Peri physeos literature. In column XXIII mystic knowledge attached to theogony and ritual is physics, which might mean that the author is trying to initiate his audience into the theories of his time while preserving the prestige of the poetic lexis.
This brings us to the second thematic unit of the P.Derv. text. Its first part describes a ritual space with no time or place, using the present of the ritual repetition (a dramatic present, as Sistakou underlines). In column VII the authorial voice continues in its role of teaching and explaining the deeper sense, this time of Orpheus’s poem. [12] Bernabé insists upon the symmetry between the two parts of the P.Derv. text: description and explanation are interwoven. No specific association is mentioned between drômena and legomena, however. No certainty about the ritual occasion can be established. Graf considers that the poem was the legomena in some Bacchic ritual, but not the exegesis, which was meant to follow initiation (p. 70).
Pleading for the necessity of the onomatōn lusis, the author develops an exegesis “word by word,” on a poetry that he qualifies as “strange” and “enigmatic,” commenting upon the intentions of Orpheus, who expresses “great things” in a coded language (ainigma, ainizomai; studied in detail in this volume by Bierl). Twenty columns, better preserved than the first six, deal with the exegesis of verses quoted from the Orphic poem. These verses recount a version or an episode of the theogonic myth of succession focused on Zeus’ power and predominance, whereas their exegesis deals mainly with the theme of violence and aims at underplaying it. The tendency is monistic; the world of today is Zeus’ creation. The narrative stops abruptly at column XXVI with the theme of incest. It is possible, as Bernabé says, that the missing part, consumed by the funerary pyre, referred to the most mystic theme—Dionysos, the Titans, and the birth of Persephone—according to the principle of symmetry between the two parts (especially if ποινὴν̣ ἀποδιδόντες in col. VI is an elliptic reference to the Titans’ crime).
Combining theology with physics, the author reveals the hidden correspondence between the Orphic lexis and the history of the universe. From column IX on, divine succession becomes a process of onomatothesia representing the evolution of the different cosmic phases, following the principles of what we call Presocratic physics in an eclectic blend that resists classification even today. The author unravels the ainos (in fact, what we translate as “allegorizing” is ainizomai in the text): [13] there is no violence and no succession in divine genealogy. The different stages of the cosmogony receive distinct divine names, but there is only one god and one, evolving, universe. The Heraclitean image about the sun exceeding its limits in column IV, for instance, is probably meant to announce the primordial state of excessive heat referred to later in the text (col. IX and following). According to the P.Derv. exegetic vocabulary, where names carry hidden meanings, this cosmic phase corresponds to the divine name of “Kronos” and is prior to our universe, which receives the name “Zeus,” and owes its stability to the fact that Sun/heat is under control (cols. XIV–XV).
Physics attached to poetics alters radically the “signifié” of gods’ names and their “biography”: for instance, Kronos is νοῦς and κρούω, the Nous who makes the particles collide in a cosmos subdued by excessive heat (col. XIV). Zeus is the creator of the nun metastasis because he symbolically represents control over excessive heat, thus allowing the universe to take its stable form—to become, as Hesiod says about Gaia, ἕδος ἀσφαλὲς αἰεί. Words can be pronounced, says the author, but they will not be understood just because they are spoken. It is this very point about mere utterance versus exegesis of sacred or mystic meanings related to physics which seems to me decisive as regards the “professional” profile of the author, who insists upon the importance of manthanein, of comprehending tradition and science, both mystic, both demanding knowledge and teaching. [14]
In column XXIII the author comments upon Okeanos, which is not a river, despite the expression εὐρὺ ῥέοντα, which has other meanings than “flow.” According to the author the expression signifies “he who has great force.” So Okeanos, continues the author, is not a river but rather a mystic name for air. [15] Furthermore, in the same column, the expression ἐν τοῖς λεγομέν[ο]ις καὶ νομι-ζομένοις ῥήμασι in line 8 can be read as a formula that does not mean only “everyday and conventional language” (KPT translation), as both words are technical terms relating to poetry and ritual. In modern terms we would formulate the meaning as follows: Orpheus uses the “traditional religious language,” which is part of the civic religious conventions. In other words, we can say that the rhemata he uses are legomena and nomizomena; he does not opt for a neoteric arrangement such as the Parmenidean poem Peri physeos. While choosing the traditional conventions familiar to all, Orpheus intends to dissimulate the truth in the form of poetic ainigmata. The P.Derv. author respects these legomena kai nomizomena, but in Socratic language these would be the “ugly lies” of the great poets (Republic 377e).
What are the implications of such a distinction between exoteric hermeneia, like that of the Ephesian rhapsode in Plato’s Ion, and esoteric exegesis for the “few” gignōskontes? In order to reconsider the question on a new basis, we should not just oppose public celebrations and private or public initiations. Rusten in this volume formulates nicely the paradox; public and private initiations are both unsatisfactory: “The reader is left to wonder, is there any way to be initiated successfully?” (p. 129). I think that the Derveni Papyrus, namely its column XXIII, contains a possible answer, while offering a new perspective for understanding the relation between mystic and nonmystic in poetic performances.
At this point a comparison of the P.Derv. hermeneutic practices with the Hellenistic commentaries on Homer proves useful, but not for the reasons usually evoked. Let’s recall the controversy on the edition of Homer between Alexandria and Pergamon, between Crates and Aristarchus. [16] Most important in this regard is the Okeanos theme, on which I will focus once again for the purposes of the present argument, taking the example of Iliad XIV 246 and 246a: the double-verse variant was adopted by Crates but not by Aristarchos (265). Behind this apparently trivial philological matter lie fundamentally different cosmological conceptions. This will not surprise us if we pay due attention to the fact that the cosmos’s poetic “geography” is divine and that for the polloi Okeanos is a river encircling the earth. For Crates thought the earth was spherical, and this was the criterion of authenticity for the plus verses, conveying the image of water on the surface the earth. The editorial vision of Crates reflects an Orphic phase in the evolution of the Homeric tradition, as Nagy shows (267).
It seems to me that the Derveni Papyrus offers another way of understanding the deep roots of such a controversy, a kind of precious missing link in the long chain where poetry, science, and philosophy evolve in close dialogue. The key locus is column XXIII, lines 1–7:
The verse is composed as to be misleading; it is unclear to the many, but quite clear to those who have correct understanding, that “Oceanus” is the air and that air is Zeus. Therefore it was not another Zeus who contrived Zeus, but the same one contrived for himself “great might.” But the ignorant ones think that Oceanus is a river, because he adds “wide-flowing. He, however, indicates his own opinion in everyday and conventional language [KPT translation of legomena kai nomizomena].
These lines show the mystical nature of the Peri physeos exegesis, or, as Bierl puts it, the “two-tier riddling”: the Orphic verse is obscure but not secret, [17] whereas the hermeneia (what we call “commentary”) is for the few. The moment where Okeanos is equated with Air/Zeus belongs to the sphere of knowledge not open to everybody, as this phrasing is in itself “a hidden meaning.” Science here is not exoteric. We are reminded of the Hippocratic law (section 5): “Sacred things are to be shown to sacred persons: to the profane this is not permitted before they are initiated to the orgia epistemes.” [18] We can also recall Socrates in the Phaedrus defending oral speech against writing: [λόγον] ... ὃς μετ᾽ ἐπιστήμης γράφεται ἐν τῇ τοῦ μανθάνοντος ψυχῇ, δυνατὸς μὲν ἀμῦναι ἑαυτῷ, ἐπιστήμων δὲ λέγειν τε καὶ σιγᾶν πρὸς οὓς δεῖ: “the word, which is written with episteme in the soul of the learner, which is able to defend itself and knows precisely to whom it should speak, and before whom to be silent.” “Pay without learning,” “hear without understanding”: the author’s criticism is radical. He seems to deplore recitations of poetry and rituals which are dissociated from places and occasions of a specific kind of knowledge. We cannot say if the P.Derv. author describes a phase synchronic with himself or if he refers, through a historic perspective, to restricted circles of the past, who practiced ritual, poetry, and “philosophy” in a way attested in testimonia about Pythagoras’ teaching.
We can now revisit briefly the much-debated issue of the generic classification of the work contained in the papyrus, an open question relevant as well to the professional profile of the author. Although difficult to classify, is this text as unusual as it is claimed to be? Further progress on this subject could be made, though only if we suspended for a moment anachronisms, such as the term “commentary,” and tried to reconstruct a synchronic model of similar practices using terminology internal to our ancient sources.
As we saw, both parts of the P.Derv. treatise, drômena and legomena, including the author’s exegesis, link in a clearly didactic manner both traditional poetry and eschatological ritual with the theme of justice. Following this thread, we can spot decisive clues about “genre” in column V. The P.Derv. author’s critical stance in this column suggests that the Ἅιδου δεινά must have been a subject of vivid debate in that period and that the controversy must have been far-reaching, as δεινά coming from chthonic forces were traditionally considered to be crucial for the survival of the polis (cult of the ancestors, plagues, famines, etc.). As Johnston shows, sometimes the advice of an oracle was needed in order to remove the miseries that the dead were supposed to inflict upon the living, with Oedipus as the most famous literary example. Burkert offers important insights on the issue of “genre” with his article on Democritus’ interest in ghosts, souls, and afterlife. Protagoras and Democritus are said to have written treatises about Hades, but we have only indirect and scanty information about them. In a totally different setting, Aristophanes’ Frogs mirrors, in a superbly comic way, contemporary interests in otherworldly matters.
Can we then imagine possible settings for such debates or treatises? The fact is that we do not even need to try very hard: the Republic of Plato offers a remarkable literary paradeigma of an extensive “treatise in the treatise” on Ἅιδου δεινά, which presents some “ingredients” shared with the Derveni Papyrus. Placed in its wider context within the same dialogue, the famous “critique of poetry” is in fact a detailed discussion of Homeric verses principally referring to gods, daimones, and heroes, and to death, lamentation, and the underworld. The “author” is Socrates himself. The time has come, I think, to reconsider the statement about an un-Platonic P.Derv. author, and consequently the relation between the Platonic dialogues and the Derveni text: the P.Derv. author can be “un-Platonic,” but he is not “un-Socratic.” The parallels prove interesting if we keep firmly in mind the distinction between what we moderns mean by “Platonic” and what Plato stages as clearly “Socratic.”
In books II and III of the Republic, Socrates promotes his idea about happiness in death by reciting and commenting on Homeric verses related to the μῦθοι περὶ τῶν ἐν Ἅιδου. The main Socratic message is that Hades is not a dreadful place and that death should not be a source of lamentation and despair for the living. Books II, III, and X are part of an apparently crucial debate on the religious impact of traditional poetry and on how Greeks perceived the afterlife. The fact that these “books” belong to a famous Platonic dialogue [19] should not impede us from experimentally classifying them as a kind of subgenre in the same category as Protagoras’, Democritus’, and the P.Derv. author’s treatises on the horrors of Hades.
What Socrates does here is to criticize the ritual representations of traditional poetry during public festivals of the polis, rejecting as false the canonical image of Hades as staged in ritual enactments of traditional poetry or any other type of recitation or storytelling. Hence my first point: The terrors of Hades are not only ghosts, empousai, and all other forms of everyday superstition. The main target of Socrates is the canonical poetic image of the underworld endorsed by the civic religious authorities and by the average Athenian, as pictured in Aristophanes’ Clouds.
I do not intend to minimize the differences between Platonic and Dervenian approaches. Derveni scholarship quite frequently uses material from Plato in a fragmentary way (especially Republic 364b–365a, about magoi and agyrtai), albeit always in agreement with the verdict of an un-Platonic P.Derv. author. In this volume Tsantsanoglou, Bernabé, Graf, Rusten, and Tzifopoulos offer interesting thoughts on the topic, either stressing divergences, like the difference in attitude towards ritual, or highlighting convergences, such as the moralizing tendencies of both thinkers. But as I have already said, going a step further and experimenting with a more systematic approach [20] might really deepen our understanding of the work and its context. As we all know, the Republic is about justice. If we take a closer look at the thematic structure of the dialogue, however, it becomes clear that death and the underworld frame the discussion in a decisive way. The myths on Hades are present from the very first scene. Furthermore, the Republic ends in a similar setting, a Socratic Nekyia (distinguished expressis verbis from the Odyssean one by Socrates: “I will not recite the Alkinou apologous” [614b]), a story meant to correct traditional poetry’s image of Hades. In the meantime the “deina Aidou” (386b) theme doesn’t disappear: it forms the nuclear theme of “the Platonic critique of poetry” in books II and III.
The very first scene of the Republic is focused on the theme of the old man close to death, represented here by Kephalos. He is the one who mentions the myths of Hades and relates them to Justice as part of an important and controversial subject in people’s lives:
εὖ γὰρ ἴσθι, ἔφη, ὦ Σώκρατες, ὅτι, ἐπειδάν τις ἐγγὺς ᾖ τοῦ οἴεσθαι τελευτήσειν, εἰσέρχεται αὐτῷ δέος καὶ φροντὶς περὶ ὧν ἔμπροσθεν οὐκ εἰσῄει. οἵ τε γὰρ λεγόμενοι μῦθοι περὶ τῶν ἐν Ἅιδου, ὡς τὸν ἐνθάδε ἀδικήσαντα δεῖ ἐκεῖ διδόναι δίκην, καταγελώμενοι τέως, τότε δὴ στρέφουσιν αὐτοῦ τὴν ψυχὴν μὴ ἀληθεῖς ὦσιν: καὶ αὐτός—ἤτοι ὑπὸ τῆς τοῦ γήρως ἀσθενείας ἢ καὶ ὥσπερ ἤδη ἐγγυτέρω ὢν τῶν ἐκεῖ μᾶλλόν τι καθορᾷ αὐτά—ὑποψίας δ᾽ οὖν καὶ δείματος μεστὸς γίγνεται καὶ ἀναλογίζεται ἤδη καὶ σκοπεῖ εἴ τινά τι ἠδίκησεν. ὁ μὲν οὖν εὑρίσκων ἑαυτοῦ ἐν τῷ βίῳ πολλὰ ἀδικήματα καὶ ἐκ τῶν ὕπνων, ὥσπερ οἱ παῖδες, θαμὰ ἐγειρόμενος δειμαίνει.
“For let me tell you, Socrates,” he said, “that whenever someone gets close to thinking he will die, fear and worry come upon him about things which didn’t occur to him before. The stories told about what goes on in Hades, how the wrongdoer here must suffer punishment there, which he earlier laughed at, now torment his soul in case they are true. Furthermore, either through the feebleness of old age, or because he is indeed now nearer to the beyond as it where, and so perceives it somewhat more clearly, he himself becomes filled with suspicion and fear and now begins to reckon up and consider if there is anyone he has wronged in any way. What is more, the one who finds he has committed many injustices in his life and, like children is frequently woken by his dreams, is afraid and lives in fear of the worst.” [21]
Of particular interest to the reader of the Derveni Papyrus is the fact that Kephalos mentions explicitly the existence of a frequently ironic attitude towards this kind of myth (I [333e]), as the P.Derv. author does in column V. Later on, Socrates will come back to this important issue in the section featuring his close reading of poetry, even if Kephalos is not there, having left a klēronomos logōn (331d–e) to replace him in the discussion. Let’s add to this Graf’s comments on old Axiochus (p. 85), tormented by the fear of postmortem punishments and receiving comfort from Socrates, who tells a story he himself has heard from an ἀνὴρ μάγος.
Leaving for another occasion a closer look at Socrates’ poetic quotations, I would like to refer briefly to two more fundamental themes in the Republic, which allow a closer comparison between Socrates’ “treatise” on Poetry, gods, and the terrors of Hades and the P.Derv. treatise, making the latter less “unusual” than generally claimed. First, let me recall that theogonic myths are part of the debate in books II and III: Socrates’ critical attitude to poetry focuses on theology, namely on gods and heroes in performance. He shows that mimesis as impersonation results in bringing gods on the scene who do not resemble what divine beings really are, says Socrates (ἀνομοὶως). [22] Reenacting in performance their epic presence and uttering what is supposed to be their own words is taken at face value by the polloi. As in the Derveni Papyrus, gods cannot be subjected to human faults and passions.
Even if their solutions diverge, Socrates and the P.Derv. author share a concern about poetic language not conveying the truth and about the need to handle in one way or another its provocative—literal—content. Nevertheless, even Socrates gives a last chance to the “ugly lies” of Homer and Hesiod on the megista.
οὐδ’ ἂν εἰ ἦν ἀληθῆ ᾤμην δεῖν ῥᾳδίως οὕτως λέγεσθαι πρὸς ἄφρονάς τε καὶ νέους, ἀλλὰ μάλιστα μὲν σιγᾶσθαι, εἰ δὲ ἀνάγκη τις ἦν λέγειν, δι’ ἀπορρήτων ἀκούειν ὡς ὀλιγίστους, θυσαμένους οὐ χοῖρον ἀλλά τι μέγα καὶ ἄπορον θῦμα, ὅπως ὅτι ἐλαχίστοις συνέβη ἀκοῦσαι.
“I would not think they should be told to fools and youngsters in this lighthearted way, but should be kept strictly quiet. And if there were any need to tell the story, then as few as possible should hear it in secret, after sacrificing not a pig, but some huge victim, so hard to get hold of that as few as possible hear the story.”
(Republic 378a)
Public performances of traditional poetry open to “all publics” should not be allowed, as the deeper meaning of such ceremonies is unaccessible to aphronas and neous, who accept literal meaning at face value. The violent myth of succession is for the ears of the oligistoi and demands a mystic setting and a costly sacrifice. Socrates asserts that for this type of legomenon a special ritual occasion should be created and a special public should be allowed to attend. The P.Derv. text could be the description of such an alternative setting.
If we use ancient categories and terms, the P.Derv. author’s “commentary” can be said to belong to the discourses peri physeos. Even if this field of interest is not characteristic of Plato’s Socrates, the Okeanos theme offers one more important connection with the Platonic dialogues. The way the P.Derv. author builds his argument—somewhere between theogonic poetry and physics—doesn’t differ much from the procedures used by Socrates when he interweaves physics with Homeric and Orphic verses about Okeanos and Tethys in the Theaetetus (180d): “We have on the one hand a tradition that derives from the ancient ones, who hid their meaning by way of poetry—a tradition that says that the genesis of all things, Okeanos and Tethys, happen to be flowing streams [rheumata] and that nothing is static.” In the Cratylus (402d), Hermogenes asks Socrates to explain his etymology of the name Tethys after having commented on the famous Iliadic verse XIV 201 and 302 about Okeanos and Tethys, fathers of gods. Socrates answers: “Well, this name comes very close to saying what it is. It is a mystical name [epikekrummenon] of a spring since that which is strained and filtered sounds like a spring, and the name Tethys is composed by these two words” (translations: G. Nagy). [23]
Understanding divine names and their physical explanation is the second level of access to the meaning of the poetic hierologein. Plato in the Theaetetus stages a Socratic discourse interweaving poetry and physics, by detecting Heraclitean principles in the deeper meaning of the poetic divine names that relate to the concept of fluidity. The method differs, but some important topics are common: the P.Derv. author could be Socrates’ interlocutor, but we cannot locate him in time and space, any more than we can locate the rituals and the poetic performance he describes. His work, though, contributes greatly in testing the tools modern scholarship has used up to now to reconstruct ancient Greek religious and intellectual life.
- Ioanna Papadopoulou. Université Libre de Bruxelles, Center for Hellenic Studies

Ioanna Papadopoulou. Université Libre de Bruxelles
[ back ] 1. Henceforth P.Derv.
[ back ] 2. See the photos in the article by Tzifopoulos in this volume, pp. 140–141.
[ back ] 3. See the introduction in Th. Kouremenos, G. Parássoglou, and K. Tsantsanoglou, eds., The Derveni Papyrus, Edited with Introduction and Commentary (Studi e testi per il “Corpus dei papiri filosofici greci e latini” 13) (Florence, 2006). This is the editio princeps, hereafter cited as KPT.
[ back ] 4. ZPE 141 (2002): 1–62.
[ back ] 5. See F. Ferrari, “Frustoli erranti: Per una ricostruzione delle colonne 1–3 del Papiro di Derveni,” in Papiri filosofici: Miscellanea di studi VI, ed. M. S. Funghi (Florence, 2011) 39–54. To help readers keep apace with new material, the CHS–iMouseion Derveni Papyrus Project has developed a digital text of the papyrus which features the Ferrari 2012 edition of the first six columns in a “multiversion” structure, enabling comparison with the KPT edition.
[ back ] 6. Musaeus · Linus · Epimenides · Papyrus Derveni · Indices (Poetae epici Graeci: Testimonia et fragmenta, part II, fasc. 3) (Berlin, 2007).
[ back ] 7. We are particularly indebted to Walter Burkert and to Kyriakos Tsantsanoglou, who, not being able to attend the conference, each accepted our invitation to give a video performance of his paper; these are available on the CHS website together with transcripts and handouts (in Classics@, Issue 5).
[ back ] 8. KPT, 9.
[ back ] 9. If we side with Janko (ZPE 166 [2008]).
[ back ] 10. Following his new reading of lines 5–6 (ZPE 166 [2008]: 50).
[ back ] 11. If we admit that a poem is meant here, as Graf suggests.
[ back ] 12. There is no doubt about the existence of Orpheus’ name in the P.Derv.; as mentioned above, it is clearly discernible twice in col. XVIII.
[ back ] 13. On ainos in Greek literature, G. Nagy, “Mythe et prose en Grèce archaïque,” in Métamorphoses du mythe en Grèce ancienne, ed. C. Calame (Geneva, 1988) 229–242.
[ back ] 14. Burkert is the only author in the volume who states clearly that “our author is not…a priest” (p. 112).
[ back ] 15. Following the lines about Achelôos and reflecting the ancient debate about primeval waters—on which Sider adduces interesting quotations.
[ back ] 16. On what follows I rely on the more lengthy analysis made by G. Nagy in Homer the Classic (Washington, DC, 2010) ch. 2. Relevant page numbers will appear in parentheses.
[ back ] 17. See R. Martin’s arguments on the public character of Orphic poetry, in “Rhapsodizing Orpheus,” Kernos 14 (2001): 23–33.
[ back ] 18. M. L. West, “Hocus-pocus in East and West,” in Studies on the Derveni Papyrus, ed. A. Laks and G. Most (Princeton, 1997), 89.
[ back ] 19. Non obstat the debate about the authenticity of book X.
[ back ] 20. Such an approach would show that Homer is already referred to as a theologian in the Platonic works, pace Tzifopoulos in this volume.
[ back ] 21. Translation by Chris Emlyn-Jones and William Preddy, Plato, Republic, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA, 2013).
[ back ] 22. G. Nagy, Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond (Washington, DC, 1996) 39–86. I. Papadopoulou, “Poètes et (philo)sophoi: Pour une archéologie de la mimesis,” Revue de philosophie ancienne 24.1 (2006): 3–16.
[ back ] 23. On the Derveni Papyrus and Socrates’ analysis of the Homeric and Orphic verses on Okeanos, see G. Nagy, Homer the Classic (Washington, DC, 2009) 253ff.; see also G. Nagy, “Comments on OF 22,” in Tracing Orpheus, ed. M. Herrero de Jáuregui et al. (Berlin, 2011) 49–53. On a possible connection between the Derveni Papyrus and the Cratylus: T. Baxter, The Cratylus: Plato’s Critique of Naming (Leiden, 1992) 130–139. See recently, P. S. Horky, Plato and Pythagoreanism (Oxford, 2013) 125–174.

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