Wednesday, April 29, 2015


Ioanna Papadopoulou, Leonard Muellner (ed.), Poetry as Initiation: The Center for Hellenic Studies Symposium on the Derveni Papyrus. Hellenic Studies, 63. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, trustees for Harvard University, 2014. Pp. xxiv, 272. ISBN 9780674726765. $24.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Marco Antonio Santamaría Álvarez, Universidad de Salamanca (

Version at BMCR home site


The volume under review gathers twelve papers that were read in a Symposium on the Derveni Papyrus (P.Derv.) held at The Center of Hellenic Studies in Washington in 2008. A foreword, an introduction and an article by Franco Ferrari have been added. It is the first volume on the P.Derv. after the publication of its editio princeps in 2006 and includes very important new ideas regarding both the text itself and its interpretation.

After a brief foreword by Leonard Muellner on the nature of the volume (vii-viii), Ioanna Papadopoulou presents a survey on the open questions in the study of the papyrus, such as the ritual, the identity of the magoi and the personality of the Derveni commentator (henceforth DC). She finds meaningful parallels between him and Socrates, who in the Republic discusses many Homeric and Hesiodic verses on gods, daimones, death and the underworld. Socrates tries to discover their hidden meaning, not evident to the general public, but he does not employ allegory.

Kyriakos Tsantsanoglou offers crucial new evidence and ideas about relevant aspects of the P.Derv., such as the text of the first columns, the identity of the author, the aim of the book and its length. He assesses some of Janko's proposals for col. 4 and 5 and offers new readings integrating these suggestions. Heraclitus' famous quotation in col. 4.7 would begin: ἥλι̣[ος, ἀλλ]ὰ̣ οὐ κατὰ φ̣ύσιν…: "The sun, but not in its actual innate dimensions, is a human foot in width". Unfortunately, Tsantsanoglou does not consider any of Ferrari's textual proposals. He adheres to Kahn's proposal that the DC may be Euthyphro and highlights some affinities between him and Antisthenes. He suggests that the book was a vade mecum for prospective initiates, probably in the Athenian mysteries of Phlya, where Orphic hymns were read as part of the legomena. He offers ground-breaking information: there are traces of page numbering in six columns, above the first line. Column 5 has the number 35, so the papyrus we possess must have been preceded by another roll, which may have dealt with the ethics of the mystic way of life. Tsantsanoglou thinks that the magoi in col. 6 are Persian priests and suggests that Ahura Mazda, "Lord Wisdom", may have inspired the DC's concept of noûs as a divine cosmic Mind.

Alberto Bernabé's paper is a thorough study of the rites described in the first six columns and their interpretation by the author. He accepts some of Ferrari's proposals and suggests new ones, such as κλ̣ε̣[ισθὲν in col. 2.8 (instead of Ferrari's κά̣ε̣[ται) as an apposition to ὀρ̣ν̣ίθ̣ε̣ιόν τι, which would allude to the release of a little bird to ensure the liberation of the soul, as in col. 6.10. His main thesis is that the rite described in these columns is a telete or funerary ceremony, performed by Orphic officiants, the magoi. Bernabé acutely highlights that the identification of the Eumenides with souls is a particular view of the DC (making him a Rohde avant la lettre), not a mainstream belief. He also sketches out the complex demonological theory of the DC and emphasizes his moral interpretation of the ritual.

Franco Ferrari offers a concise overview of his crucial textual re-arrangement and interpretation of the six first columns, published in 2010 and 2011. He explains why he has changed some scraps from col. II to col. I and how the collocation of two new scraps in col. IV allows one to recognize an allusion to Democritus, who, according to the DC, altered the principles of traditional belief and cult claiming that the unhappy events in human life do not happen on the decision of gods, but by chance, that is, through the random movements of atoms. In line 11 he reads Π]έ̣ρ̣σ̣α̣ι̣ before θύο̣υ̣[σι, a possible reference to sacrifices made to the sun by the Persians. In line 14 he sees the remnants of Heraclitus' fr. 52 DK, which describes time as a playing child. Many images of his adjoining of the scraps make his proposal very clear. In col. 6.1 he proposes τ̣ὰ̣[ς ἀ]ρ̣τά̣δ̣α̣[ς as the object of μ[ειλ]ί̣σ̣σ̣ο̣υσι. They would be the artavan, ancestors or heroes among the Persians, mentioned in some Greek sources as ἀρτάδες or ἀρταῖοι. A problem that arises is that, if the ἀρτάδες are considered ancestors by the Persians and Hesychius defines them as οἱ δίκαιοι, why are they to be appeased?

Fritz Graf focuses on the personality and milieu of the author, whose compassion for those who undergo initiation without understanding its meaning in col. 20 prompts Graf's interpretation of the DC as a religious entrepreneur who initiates for a fee and seeks clients by advertising his speciality: the physical allegory of a ritual text. The text could also be used to remember what was learned in the initiation, and this may explain its funerary use: the bearer was probably an initiate. For Graf, the magoi are Greek priests, given that libations of water and sacrificial cakes were common in Greece, but absent in Persian rituals. They may have adopted the title of the Persian priests because of its prestige, just as in Rome the haruspices were originally Etruscan, but the title was later used by itinerant diviners of Roman origin.

Sarah Iles Johnston tackles the issue of divination in col. 5. The DC alludes to the consultation of oracles by common people, instead of himself or other practitioners. The information received from these oracles or from dreams is wasted because people either do not understand it or do not believe in it. He would be the ideal person to explain its meaning. Regarding col. 6, Johnston holds that the daimones impede the soul's passage into the Underworld. Through prayers, sacrifices and incantations, the magoi can change these daimones into benign beings, probably the Eumenides quoted next. The identification of the daimones and of the Eumenides with souls is an innovation of the DC. He talks about rituals because, as a ritual expert, he wants to explain the meaning of his techniques and the nature of the creatures that are the object of his actions.

Walter Burkert highlights the DC's insistence on the importance of knowledge. He is proud of his and condemns the ignorance of others, causing their non-belief (col. 5). In col. 6 he seems to approve of the rituals because they imply knowledge about souls. His doctrine on souls does not make the DC an Orphic, a priest, or a magos, since it presents a deep affinity with Democritus' idea that the air is full of souls. Like Democritus, the DC has integrated traditional beliefs and rites into a physical system. He is a pre-Platonic thinker who writes on tà eónta in the wake of Anaxagoras, Diogenes of Apollonia and Democritus. Burkert also reports "the true story" of the anonymous publication of the P.Derv. in ZPE in 1982. Since private copies of the text had been circulating in the hands of some scholars since the late 70's, he suggested to R. Merkelbach that he publish it, even without authorization, in view of sharing it with the whole scientific community.

The main topic of Jeffrey Rusten's contribution is the DC's method, which is based on the equivalence of concepts, usually verbs, and on the identification of names of gods with abstract substantives, sometimes through etymology. A key procedure is the decontextualization of the words of the poem, as he states in col. 13.5-6. The P.Derv. prefigures the form of commentary that would become usual in Alexandrian scholarship and onwards. Rusten includes an interesting appendix on the use of paragraphos in the P.Derv. to introduce quotations of other authors or statements about the interpretative method (13.5-6, 23.7). He vindicates his attractive idea that col. 20.1-10 is a quotation of another author, whose end is marked by a paragraphos in 20.11. The different authorship is also noticeable in the style of the passage, where we find the first-person singular and well-structured sentences.

Yannis Z. Tzifopoulos draws an accurate comparison between the funeral use of the P.Derv. and the Orphic epistomia or golden tablets. He ingeniously compares the use of the verb ἔκθορε in col. 13.4 (from the poem) and of ἔθορε in the Pelinna tablets as indicating a (re)birth in a rapid movement. He reprints the fascinating discussion that followed Kapsomenos' archeological report on the P.Derv. in 1964 in the American Society of Papyrologists.

Claude Calame's paper deals with the Derveni Papyrus's position between orality and literacy. When the DC calls the Orphic poem "enigmatic", he is treating it as an oracular text whose true meaning has to be interpreted. The physical and theological interpretation of the poem can only be that of an Orpheotelest.

Anton Bierl's contribution is about the hermeneutical strategies of the DC and his personality. According to this interpretation, he must be a reformed Orphic with philosophical knowledge, who writes for a circle of Orphics. In his analysis, he fragments the poem into a kind of textual σπαραγμός to distort its syntax and sense. Through his bizarre interpretations, he proposes new and thought-provoking riddles or συνθήματα.

Evina Sistakou claims that the P.Derv. has a polyphonic quality, since the DC uses a variety of voices: omniscient (he utters the philosophical truth of the poem), exegetical (he is interested in textual and linguistic analysis) and didactic (as initiator and instructor he devises implicit addressees, the uninitiated, to whom he imposes his personal view on Orphism). The nature and genre of the text is not easy to determine because of its multidimensional and even transgeneric nature, combining theogony with philosophy and theology.

David Sider focuses on the Orphic poem commented upon in the papyrus, of which he offers the text, a translation and a systematic commentary of every fragment. His new readings are remarkable, such as [μεγασθεν]έος in OF 3, ˪Νὺξ˩ and ἐκτελέεσ]θ̣αι in OF 6.4 and Δι]ὸς νοῦς in OF 18.1. He understands (correctly, in my view) Πρωτογόνου in OF 12 as the name of the primeval god Protogonos-Phanes, the "venerable" (αἰδοῖον) availed by Zeus in OF 8. For him, the name should be written as Πρωτογόνος and understood as "first-generating", not as "First-born". He offers enlightening parallels to and sensible insights on controversial words or phrases.

Richard Hunter studies the passage in E. Hipp. 73-87 in which Hippolytus offers Artemis a garland. Although it is the only contribution not related to the Derveni Papyrus, it perfectly falls under the title Poetry as Initiation. Hunter quotes long scholia in which the garland, the meadow, the bees, and other elements of the verses are interpreted allegorically as allusions to poetry. He observes in the passage a dichotomy between the minority of connoisseurs and the mass of ignoramuses, which has affinities with the language of the mysteries and of the aristocratic symposium. These circles fostered a tradition of codified texts only understandable for a select few: the pure or the good in a religious, intellectual or political sense. For this reason, the metaphorical and allegorical readings flourished within the mysteries, as the Derveni Papyrus exemplifies.

The production of the book is attractive and careful, although there are some typos, especially in the Greek texts: ἀνομοὶως (xxii), αὐτ]οἷ̣ ̣ς̣ (29), ἐμ]ποδῶν (34), Ἡρ̣άκλ̣ε̣ιτοσ (61), μ̣[έγεθου]ς̣ for μ̣[έγεθο]ς (61), ὁμαδόν (71), ἅς for ἃς (71), λήναι (84), πραγμάτα (96), Platanica(99), ὥ[̣ ς for ὡ̣[ς (145), orpheoteléstes (179), δάρκρυα (228), χρσησμῳδίαι (229), ἢ for ἣ (231), κάπ̣[πινων (232), τελεέσθαι (239).

Overall, the volume is a new milestone in the study of the P.Derv. and will no doubt be used fruitfully by researchers of this challenging document.

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