18.12.16

The Derveni Papyrus, The Earliest Surviving European Manuscript

The Derveni papyrus is a most interesting new document of  Greek literature. It is perhaps the only papyrus to have been found on Greek soil, and is, if not the oldest Greek papyrus ever found, no doubt the oldest literary papyrus, dated roughly between 340 and 320 B.C. 



Its name derives from the site where it was discovered, some six miles north of Thessaloniki, in whose Archaeological Museum it is now preserved. It was found among the remnants of a funeral pyre in one of the tombs in the area, which has also yielded extremely rich artifacts, primarily items of metalware. After the exacting job of unrolling and separating the layers of the charred papyrus roll, and then of joining the numerous fragments  together again, 26 columns of text were recovered, all with their bottom parts missing, as they had perished on the pyre.

The book, composed near the end of the 5th century B.C., contains the eschatological teaching of a mantis; the content is divided between religious instructions on sacrifices to gods and souls, and allegorical commentary on a theogonical  poem ascribed to Orpheus. 
Roman mosaic depicting Orpheus surrounded by animals. ( Giovanni Dall’Orto/Wikimedia Commons )

The author’s outlook is philosophical, displaying, in particular, a physical system close to those of Anaxagoras, the Atomists, and Diogenes of Apollonia. His allegorical method of interpretation is especially interesting, frequently reminiscent of Socrates’ playful mental and etymological  acrobatics as seen in Plato’s Cratylus. The identification of the author is a matter of  dispute among scholars. Names like Euthyphron of Prospalta, Diagoras  of Melos, and Stesimbrotus of Thasos have been proposed with varying degrees of likelihood.
-K. Tsantsanoglou


The roll was found on 15 January 1962 at a site in Derveni, Macedonia, northern Greece, on the road from Thessaloniki to Kavala. The site is a nobleman's grave in a necropolis that was part of a rich cemetery belonging to the ancient city of Lete. It is the oldest surviving manuscript in the Western tradition and one of the very few surviving papyri, probably the oldest literary papyrus found in Greece. Archaeologists recovered the top parts of the charred papyrus scroll from ashes atop the slabs of the tomb, since the bottom parts had burned from the funeral pyre, joined all the fragments together, thus forming 26 columns of text. It survived in the humid Greek soil, which is unfavorable to the conservation of papyri, because it was carbonized (hence dried) in the nobleman’s funeral pyre. The papyrus is kept in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki.
Diagoras of Melos in the painting ‘The School of Athens.’ Some scholars believe that Diagoras of Melos was the writer of the Derveni Papyrus. ( Public Domain )
The text is a commentary on a hexameter poem ascribed to Orpheus. Fragments of the poem are quoted. The poem begins with the words "Close the doors, you uninitiated", a famous admonition to secrecy, recounted by Plato. The theogony described in the poem has Nyx (Night) give birth to Heaven (Uranus), who becomes the first king. Cronus follows and takes the kingship from Uranus, but he is likewise succeeded by Zeus.

Zeus, having "heard oracles from his father", goes to the sanctuary of Night, who tells him "all the oracles which afterwards he was to put into effect." Upon hearing them, Zeus "swallowed the phallus [of the king Uranus] who first had ejaculated the brilliance of heaven.

The text was not officially published for forty-four years after its discovery (though three partial editions were published). A team of experts was assembled in autumn 2005 led by A. L. Pierris of the Institute for Philosophical studies and Dirk Obbink, director of the Oxyrhynchus papyrus project at the University of Oxford, with the help of modern multispectral imaging techniques by Roger Macfarlane and Gene Ware of Brigham Young University to attempt a better approach to the edition of a difficult text. Meanwhile, the papyrus has been published by scholars from Thessaloniki, which provides a complete text of the papyrus based on autopsy of the fragments, with photographs and translation. More work clearly remains to be done.



The oldest 'book' of Europe - UNESCO Memory of The World Register
On December 12, 2015, the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki held the official event to celebrate the registration of the Derveni Papyrus in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.
The Derveni papyrus fragments as displayed in the archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, along with the UNESCO dedication in the middle of the panel.

According to UNESCO "The Derveni Papyrus is of immense importance not only for the study of Greek religion and philosophy, which is the basis for the western philosophical thought, but also because it serves as a proof of the early dating of the Orphic poems offering a distinctive version of Presocratic philosophers. The text of the Papyrus, which is the first book of western tradition, has a global significance, since it reflects universal human values: the need to explain the world, the desire to belong to a human society with known rules and the agony to confront the end of life."

The Center for Hellenic Studies made the Greek text of the papyrus available, as it was published in 2006, © Olschki, Firenze. (K. Tsantsanoglou and G.M. Parássoglou Edition)

Symposium on the Derveni Papyrus

The Digital Edition of the Derveni Papyrus

Derveni Papyrus : Col. II  G 8, G 7, G 15, G 6, G 5, H 7 
Derveni Papyrus : Col. III F 9, F 8, G 11, G 5a, F 7
Derveni Papyrus : Col. IV F 7, G 13, G 4, H 46, F 15, H 8
Derveni Papyrus : Col. V G 12, G 1, H 2, F 5a, F 12, F 13, F 11, G 10, G 3
Derveni Papyrus : Col. VI G 3, H 18, E 1, G 14, G 2, H 28, F3a, I 70
Derveni Papyrus : Col. VII F 5, I 59, C 1, H 65, H 64, F 3, I 85, F 6
Derveni Papyrus : Col. VIII C 2, I 33, H 44, F 4, F 2, C 7
Derveni Papyrus : Col. IX C 7, H 36, F 16, I 54, F 1, H 61, I 34, I 9, C 5, H 53, E 6
Derveni Papyrus : Col. X E 6, C 6, H 25, I 2, E 5, C4
Derveni Papyrus : Col. XI C 4, I 5, E 4, C 3
Derveni Papyrus : Col. XII C 3, E 3, I 58, C 12, H 51, E 2
Derveni Papyrus : Col. XIII E 2, I 26, C 11, H 49, E 12, C 10
Derveni Papyrus : Col. XIV C 10, H 34, E 11, I 63, C 9, H 52
Derveni Papyrus : Col. XV C 9, H 52, E 10, C 8, H 56, E 7
Derveni Papyrus : Col. XVI E 7, I 41a, B 6, H 55, E 8, I 41, B 5, H 35
Derveni Papyrus : Col. XVII B 5, H 35, E 9, I 30, B 4, H 3, E 13, I 39, B 3
Derveni Papyrus : Col. XVIII B 3, B 4a, H 42, D 1, D 2a, I 37, B 2, H 30, D 2
Derveni Papyrus : Col. XIX D 2, I 40, B 1, H 31, D 3, B 7, H 39
Derveni Papyrus : Col. XX D 4, I 64, B 8, H 43, D 5, I 61, B 9, H 50

Source/Photo/Bibliography
Betegh, G. (2004). The Derveni Papyrus: Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation. Cambridge University Press.
K. Tsantsanoglou
G.M. Parássoglou
Ideas Roadshow. (2013). The Derveni Papyrus - A conversation with Richard Janko. 
Janko, R. (n.d.). Reconstructing (Again)the Opening of the Derveni Papyrus. 
Bernabé, Alberto, "The Derveni theogony: many questions and some answers", HSCPh 103, 99-133.
Gábor Betegh, 2004. The Derveni Papyrus: Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation (Cambridge University Press). A preliminary reading, critical edition and translation. ISBN 0-521-80108-7. ([1])
Richard Janko's Review of Betegh 2004
Richard Janko. “The Physicist as Hierophant: Aristophanes, Socrates and the Authorship of the Derveni Papyrus,” Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik 118, 1997, pp. 61–94.
Janko, Richard, “The Derveni Papyrus (Diagoras of Melos, Apopyrgizontes Logoi?): a New Translation,” Classical Philology 96, 2001, pp. 1–32 .
Janko, Richard, “The Derveni Papyrus: An Interim Text,” Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik 141, 2002, pp. 1–62.
Laks, André, “Between Religion and Philosophy: The Function of Allegory in the Derveni Papyrus”, Phronesis 42, 1997, pp. 121–142.
André Laks and Glenn W. Most, editors, 1997. Studies on the Derveni Papyrus (Oxford University Press).(books.google.)
Most, Glenn W., “The Fire Next Time. Cosmology, Allegories, and Salvation in the Derveni Papyrus”, Journal of Hellenic Studies 117, 1997, pp. 117–135.
K. Tsantsanoglou, G.M. Parássoglou, T. Kouremenos (editors), 2006. "The Derveni Papyrus" (Leo. S. Olschki Editore, Florence [series Studi e testi per il "Corpus dei papiri filosofici greci e latini, vol. 13]). ISBN 88-222-5567-4.
Richard Janko's Review of Tsantsanoglou, Parássoglou, & Kouremenos 2006;Tsantsanoglou, Parássoglou, & Kouremenos' Response to Janko; Janko's Response
Muellner, L., Nagy, G., Papadopoulou, I. (2015). The Derveni Papyrus: An Interdisciplinary Research Project. http://chs.harvard.edu
Pearse, R. (2006). The Derveni Papyrus (PDerveni). 
Pearse, R. (2012). An Online Version of the Derveni Papyrus. 
UPI (2006). ‘Oldest’ Papyrus is Finally Decoded. 

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