Friday, October 18, 2019


Marco Antonio Santamaría (ed.), The Derveni Papyrus: Unearthing Ancient Mysteries. Papyrologica Lugduno-Batava, 36. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2019. Pp. viii, 173. ISBN 9789004384842. €116,00.

Reviewed by Matthieu Réal, Cornell University (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of this review.]

Although the times of Boccaccio, Salutati, and Bracciolini are long gone, we are still sometimes blessed with epoch-making discoveries that change the face of our field. The discovery of the Derveni papyrus (henceforth DP) in 1962 is certainly one of these. Found among the residues of a funeral pyre within a tomb near the Derveni Pass (north of Thessaloniki), the carbonized papyrus scroll preserves significant portions of a fifth-fourth century BCE "commentary" on an Orphic hexametric poem. On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of its discovery, leading experts gathered at the University of Salamanca for an international conference on the DP. This important volume collects eight of the papers delivered at the conference as well as two additional contributions from Ferella and Edmonds. The papers are arranged thematically in five parts.

Part one addresses the conservation and restoration of the papyrus and consists of one paper by Roger T. Macfarlane and Gianluca Del Mastro. After a survey of some other cases of carbonized papyri and a brief history of the conservation of the DP, the authors discuss multispectral imaging (MSI), a technique that was used on the DP in April 2006. The comparison between a photograph and the digital image of the same section of the papyrus (Figure 1.2, p. 14) vividly captures the enhanced legibility that this new technology provides. The article ends with a description of the current state of conservation of the papyrus and recommendations for future conservators and users. Given that this is the first examination of the material history of the DP, the data compiled by the contributors is particularly precious.

The next section of the book comprises two papers dedicated to the first six columns of the DP. The editorial history of these seriously damaged columns, though fairly recent, is already intricate. Valeria Piano's contribution helps the reader to navigate the many editorial problems connected with the first part of the text. The core of her paper is an edition of lines 4–9 of col. III with an apparatus, translation and comments. This portion of the text has been used as a starting point to explore the Derveni author's (henceforth DA) conception of the daimons which, according to Piano, shows "points of contact with the idea of retributive justice that characterizes the more sophisticated and complex Platonic doctrine", as well as with earlier Greek thought. Piano's text is based upon a careful examination (whose full results are forthcoming) 1 of the papyrological and paleographical evidence. The reconstruction of lines 4–9 in col. III is, overall, convincing. The translation of lines 5–6, however, is a bit tendentious. Given that the text printed here reads [εἰσὶν] δὲ δ]αίμονες οἳ κατὰ [γῆς ο]ὐδέκοτ̣[(ε)….]ρ̣ο̣υ̣σι [?, the translation "[there are] daimons under the earth who never [withdraw (or delay) ?…]" – which presupposes the existence of a category of chthonic daimons – is unwarranted. Only if ΟΙ is interpreted as οἱ, a possibility that Piano's 2016 text2 (accepted in the new Loeb edition3) admitted, can the pericope "under the earth" be taken attributively with δαίμονες. Given her new text, a more accurate translation would thus be "[there are] daimons who never [withdraw (or delay) ?] under the earth…"

The daimonological conception of the DA is also the subject of the next paper. On the wave of many recent studies devoted to the relationship between the DA and early Stoicism, Carlos Megino proposes daimonology as another possible parallel. He uncovers many similarities between the DA's conception of the daimons and that of the Stoics, but also some significant differences. He concludes that the DA is not a Stoic, but rather that his cultural milieu is the same as that in which the early Stoics will later participate. The author handles the two bodies of evidence with due caution and presents his argument in a nuanced way. A solitary exception is his use of the scholium to Pindar's Olympian 2.104, which in fact reports Chrysippus' interpretation of Pindar's opinions rather than Chrysippus' own beliefs: to prove that the two coincide, Megino would require further argumentation.

Part three of the volume treats the Orphic poem quoted and commented upon by the DA. Similarities between Hesiod's Theogony and the Derveni theogony have been observed often, but Antonio Santamaría is the first to systematically collect and analyze each parallel. He demonstrates that Hesiod's Theogony is a model that the Orphic poet follows, though at times he innovates upon it significantly. Sometimes Santamaría goes a little too far in interpreting the evidence: for instance, the presence of ἔθελεν in OF 18.24 hardly implies that Zeus' incest is more the result of a deliberate plan than it is of mere sexual impulse, especially in light of the Homeric parallel in Iliad 6.165, which Santamaría indicates as a close precedent of the Orphic line. That being said, the author provides us with a scrupulous and valuable study.

In the next paper, Chiara Ferella argues that the debated term μουνογενές, one of Parmenides' attributes of what-is (DK 8,4 modified according to Simplicius' text) is an echo of the Orphic line quoted by the DA at col. XVI.6 (αὐτὸς δ᾽ ἄρα μοῦ̣νος ἔγεντο). On the basis of this parallel, she favors the interpretation of μουνογενές as a compound from the verb γίγνεσθαι (rather than from the noun γένος) and argues that the word means "being the only one", in the sense that, like the Orphic Zeus-μοῦνος, Parmenides' what-is is "all-embracing". This paper provides yet another plausible illustration of the relationship between the Orphic poem and pre-Socratic philosophy, not to mention a great amount of material for experts on Parmenides to debate.

The next portion of the volume is devoted to the DA's exegesis of the Orphic poem. What is the commentator's agenda and the meaning of his cosmogony? How well does his interpretation capture the spirit of the Orphic poem? And, consequently, how much can his interpretative solutions and exegetical techniques illuminate our understanding of the poem? These are some of the essential and difficult questions raised in the following three essays. In his thought-provoking contribution, Radcliffe G. Edmonds III directly tackles the contested issues of the DP's authorship and aim. He argues that its author is a "ritual practitioner in the age of Euripides" who aspires to win over clientele in the competitive marketplace of the time. He contrasts this work with the later Orphic Theogony associated with Hieronymus. Edmonds paints a lively portrait of the agonistic milieu of the fifth century and is right in pointing out that the DA's exegetical techniques, especially his use of allegory, fit that context well. At the same time, one may wonder whether his argument is sufficient to conclude that the DA's main aim is to show off his skills. The DA's employment of a running commentary to convey the exegesis is particularly troubling in this regard. As far as we know, this format is a unicum for the time; but it later became one of the principal means by which scholastic and systematic exegesis of texts was carried out—which is precisely what Edmonds claims the DA is not doing.

As the previous paper showed, one of the DA's most notable exegetical techniques is the use of allegory to interpret the poem. The DA, in fact, believes that Orpheus concealed "lawful things" through the use of riddling poetry. To assume hidden meanings under the literal text was a common way of defending traditional poetry from the attacks of its critics, and this might very well explain the DA's attempts to allegorize the Orphic poem. Sofia Ranzato, in her paper, however, further complicates this picture by adding that the DA might have intended the Orphic poem to be, like Parmenides' and Empedocles' works, a case in which the poet intentionally uses riddling language and a mythological framework to communicate his untraditional vision of the world.

A reconstruction of the cosmogony by which the commentator interprets the Orphic text completes the fourth part of the volume. Alberto Bernabé analyzes the DA's proposal step by step, along with each theogonic episode that emerges from the quoted bits of the Orphic poem. Although the overall result is, as the author himself notes, necessarily debatable, his analysis stands out for its efficacy, clarity, and concision.

The fifth and last part of the volume addresses questions related to the last columns of the DP. Among these is the much-discussed col. XX, to which Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal devotes her paper. In this section of the text, the DA apparently interrupts his exegesis to comment upon different ways in which sacred rites convey, or rather fail to convey, knowledge. Col. XX thus offers interesting if enigmatic information, which is frequently adopted to reconstruct the context and meaning of these rites. In her in-depth analysis of the text, the author maintains that the DA is a priest who, rather than interpreting the ritual in eschatological terms, offers "a physical exegesis for the rites and for the Orphic poem, in light of philosophy". She also considers the connections of col. XX with the initial columns of the papyrus and claims that, both in content and argumentative technique, col. XX perfectly matches the DP's overall textual context.

The final contribution of the volume is by Marisa Tortorelli Ghidini who analyzes the epithet Οὐρανία attributed to Aphrodite in col. XXI, 5. According to her, Aphrodite is called Urania because she is mythologically related to the Uranus Euphronides of column XIV,6, as opposed to the Hesiodic Uranus. The DA only comments upon the meaning of the theonym Aphrodite, which he interprets etymologically as a binding principle (ἀφροδισιάζειν). Nevertheless, the epithet Urania may have a cosmogonic meaning too. The author notes that the theonym Uranus is associated, both in the papyrus and elsewhere, with the semantic field of ὁρίζω, the verb indicating division/separation. She then concludes that Aphrodite Urania might have been intended by the DA as the principle that binds while "respecting the natural limits of things" and hence "transforms the union into a new differentiation". This is an intriguing but rather speculative reading.

A particularly welcome complete bibliography on the DP5 and indexes end the volume.

Overall, this book is well-conceived and nicely edited (with few typos). It certainly represents a step forward in the challenging task of unearthing the many mysteries that surround the Derveni Papyrus.

Table of Contents

Introduction, Marco Antonio Santamaría

Part 1: Conservation and Restoration
1. Problems Pertaining to the Restoration, Conservation, and Reproduction of the Derveni Papyrus, Roger T. Macfarlane and Gianluca Del Mastro

Part 2: Reconstruction and Interpretation of the First Six Columns
2. Some Textual Issues on Column III (ed. Piano), Valeria Piano
3. Daimons in the Derveni Papyrus and in Early Stoicism, Carlos Megino Rodríguez

Part 3: The Orphic Poem
4. The Orphic Poem of the Derveni Papyrus and Hesiod's Theogony, Marco Antonio Santamaría
5. Ζεὺς μοῦνος and Parmenides' What-is, Chiara Ferella

Part 4: The interpretation of the Poem: Exegesis and Cosmogony
6. Misleading and Unclear to the Many: Allegory in the Derveni Papyrus and the Orphic Theogony of Hieronymus, Radcliffe G. Edmonds III
7. The Sage Speaks in Riddles: Notes on Col. VII of the Derveni Papyrus, Sofia Ranzato
8. The Commentary of the Derveni Papyrus: Pre-Socratic Cosmogonies at Work, Alberto Bernabé

Part 5: The Last Columns
9. Rites and Officiants in Col. XX of the Derveni Papyrus, Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal
10. Aphrodite Urania and Uranus Euphronides in the Derveni Papyrus: A Semantic Genealogy, Marisa Tortorelli Ghidini

Bibliography of the Derveni Papyrus (1997–2018)
Index locorum
Index Nominum et Rerum Notabiliorum
Index Verborum Graecorum


1.   Valeria Piano. Forthcoming.L'inizio del papiro di Derveni: il rotolo e il testo, Studi e testi per il Corpus dei papiri filosofici greci e latini, vol. XVII, Firenze.
2.   Valeria Piano. 2016. "P.Derveni III–IV: una riconsiderazione del testo", ZPE 197, 5–16.
3.   André Laks, Glenn W. Most. 2016. Early Greek Philosophy. Volume VII: Later Ionian and Athenian Thinkers. Part 1 (London and Cambridge MA), 378–435.
4.   μητρὸς ἑῆς ἔθελεν μιχθήμεναι ἐν φιλότητι.
5.   The bibliography updates Maria Serena Funghi, Bibliography of the Derveni Papyrus, in André Laks and Glenn. W. Most (eds.), Studies on the Derveni Papyrus (Oxford, 1997), 175–185.

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