Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.10.54

Radcliffe G. Edmonds III (ed.), The "Orphic" Gold Tablets and Greek Religion: Further Along the Path.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2010.  Pp. x, 385.  ISBN 9780521518314.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Alexis Pinchard, CNRS (UMR 7528), France (


Edmonds has produced a coherent volume of six previously published and five new papers about what were once called “Orphic” gold tablets, authored by both prominent and less established scholars (Alberto Bernabé, Hans Dieter Betz, Claude Calame, Thomas M. Dousa, Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, Chistopher A. Faraone, Fritz Graf, Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui, Ana I. Jiménez Cristóbal, Dirk Obbink, Christoph Riedweg, Yannis Z. Tzifopoulos). These inscribed tablets, which have been discovered since 1879 in graves throughout South Italy, Crete, and Thessaly, have no parallel in the manuscript tradition, and they are now essential sources for the knowledge of Greek religion, especially concerning personal eschatology and mystery cults. Edmonds has added in this volume a new critical edition and original translations of the Greek texts of every known gold leaf (part I), along with a synoptic description of the graves in which each tablet has been discovered. What follows is a useful history of scholarship, a list of the principal editions and a concordance with other reference editions. The whole book is endowed with an index nominum (English words), an index locorum and an exhaustive bibliography (800 references). Papers previously published in other languages are translated into English, and all papers have been updated in order to make cross-references possible as well as to correlate with the reference system of Edmonds’ new edition.

The papers faithfully reflect the broad diversity of the problems, views, and methods that the study of the gold tablets have raised. They are organized according to a polemical — but still argumentative — dialogue concerning the question of whether the tablets are really Orphic or not, and, more fundamentally, whether Orphism really was a unified religious and literary tradition or not. Orpheo-skeptics (Edmonds) coexist along with Pan-Orphists (Bernabé, Graf); advocates for an Orphic epic hieros logos as archetype for the tablets text (Riedweg) are placed side- by-side with those who emphasize the autonomous characteristics of the ritual dionysiaca (Calame). The reader is invited to draw his or her own conclusions.

Compared with the recent editions of gold tablets by F. Graf, S. I. Johnston and A. Bernabé,1 Edmonds’ work does not introduce new texts (the tablet from Lesbos, mentioned in GJ 28, is still missing). But Edmonds sometimes suggests important new readings. A positive and negative critical apparatus allows the reader to evaluate these interpretations. For example, concerning B1.11 = GJ 2 = OF 476, Edmonds proposes to read καὶ τότ’ ἔπειτα [τέλη σὺ μεθ’] ἡρώεσσιν ἀνάξει[ς] instead of the generally accepted καὶ τότ’ ἔπειτ’ ἄ[λλοισι σὺ μεθ’] ἡρώεσσιν ἀνάξει[ς], which is based on parallel formulae in Homeric epics and hymns. Actually, one may interpret the verb ἀνάξει[ς] as a future from ἀνάσσω, “to rule”, or from ανάγω, “to celebrate”. Edmonds’ reading draws an interesting correlation with D1 and D5 (GJ 26a and 28 = OF 485 and 493a) where there is an allusion to some τέλη for the initiate. But, quite inconsistently, following here the Greek text as established by Bernabé, he translates D1 as “And you will go beneath the earth, having celebrated rites just as the other blessed ones”, instead of “And below the earth there are ready for you the same prizes [or rites] as for the other blessed ones”.2 However, it should be noted that the idea that there are rites even in the afterlife, which constitute the archetype of the terrestrial initiation ritual and the community in which the deceased become happy, is evidenced elsewhere in texts related to Greek mystery religion (e.g. Ps.-Plato, Axiochos 37d).

Only the new essays are discussed below.

In his own paper, Edmonds sharply criticizes both Bernabé and Jiménez’s assertion that each of the gold tablets is similarly Orphic and Riedweg’s reconstruction of an Orphic didactic hieros logos in which Orpheus would narrate his personal katabasis eis Aidou. Edmonds aims to show that the existence of such a unified sacred scripture, derived from an original source, is an unnecessary hypothesis because the gold leaf texts might constitute mere responses excerpted from hexametric oracles about the personal afterlife. One may admit that these oracles were thought to have been revealed by Orpheus, but Orpheus is only one of the possible voices of oracular authority, whose paradigm is to be found in the Trophonius oracle at Lebadeia, where Mnemosyne’s spring guarantees the attainment of sacred knowledge. By attacking the unity of the “Orphic” eschatological corpus, Edmonds casts doubt on Orphism as a unified religious movement: there was no Orphic community as defined by the access to a single secret hieros logos, and the gold tablets do not preserve traces of an initiatory ritual that happened during the life of the deceased. But even if Edmonds is right in refuting a unified Orphic scripture resembling the Christian Bible (but today, who wants that?), is he right to conclude that Orphism, even if it is a modern construction, has absolutely no reality? This extreme nominalism overlooks the spiritual dimension of Orphism: to connect the substantial immortality of an individual with the internalization of epic heroism and with poetic kleos, as we see in the gold leaves (see Obbink and Jáuregui below), is not a general attitude in Greek religion. It would not be absurd to label this attitude “Orphic”, even retrospectively. Moreover, the obvious diversity of the gold leaf texts might not be the proof that our grouping of the gold leaves is a mere artifact, but rather the sign of a living tradition that deals with something deeply important in human life, i.e., the consciousness of the permanent eventuality of death and the consequent hope. Orphism would thus be positively affirmed as a unity and would no longer be defined by what it is not, i.e., not a polis-sponsored religion.

Dousa’s paper is the first serious published study about the possible connection between the gold tablets and neighboring Egypt, famous for its old afterlife rituals and its funerary texts since Zuntz mentioned this hypothesis in 1971.3 Dousa wonders whether the common motifs in the B tablets and in the Egyptian Book of the Dead (a tree close to a pool of water, the critical dialogue with the guardians of the Netherworld) are due to an influence of the Egyptian religion in Greece or to a spontaneous convergence. He concludes that, if any influence took place, the Orphics at least re-organized the motifs and gave a new meaning to old patterns, as Diodorus already suggested in antiquity. Although such a pioneering approach is absolutely necessary, other important comparative perspectives for analysis of the gold tablets, which would deal with other cultures and test methodologically more refined hypotheses, are missing in this volume. To compare isolated motifs, as Dousa does, might obscure the fact that the main difference between the gold tablets and Egyptian sources is concerned not with the place or the nature of the netherworldly tree or spring, but the roles played by Memory as an immortalizing power and the nature of immortality itself, which, in Orphism, marks a divergence from terrestrial existence. In Greece (see Obbink below), initiatory Memory draws parallels with poetic memory, which establishes an imperishable glory, so that the claim to a divine origin is not a “kratophanic” assertion similar to what we see in Egypt (p. 156), but rather the realization of the eternal essence of the soul. Egyptian texts, as presented by Dousa, do not reflect on the poetic tradition and its import on the nature of the individual soul. Finally, in the case of textual similarities, the methodological binary convergence/influence is not sufficient. A common inheritance ought to be considered, especially if one attempts a comparison with Iran and India.4 A similar view and wording about immortality could be found in this direction.

According to Jáuregui, the heroic soul of the Orphic initiate derives its main features from the epic terrestrial hero, but these features are transformed in the realm of afterlife. The epic tale was changed into a soteriological program, so that the personal immortality obtained in the world beyond by remembering the divine origin itself reflects the imperishable kleos granted by the professional memory of the epic rhapsodes. This is proven by the stylistic similarities between the claim of the poetic hero to belong to a superior genos and, in the gold tablets, the claim of the deceased’s soul to its genos ouranion, i.e., its essential nature transcending every temporal incarnation. In accordance with this ontological shift, the social elitism of the Homeric epic has been changed into a spiritual elitism, but the words remain generally the same. Such an inheritance ensures the unity of the various types of Orphic gold tablets. The stylistic conservatism of the itinerant initiators may have been an excellent strategy to legitimate their radical novelty at the theological level. But does Jáuregui furnish the best interpretation of the undeniable correspondences he brings out? May we not understand both of these kinds of genos and immortality as being related through a structural difference rather by any historical process? In the larger context of the Indo-European poetic inheritance, as it is evidenced in Vedic culture, we could recognize that the heroic kleos worked from the beginning as a symbol of a more substantial immortality granted by special rituals and mental exercises.

Obbink’s article would agree with such a synchronic perspective. The recitation or the inscription of the gold tablet texts, by recapitulating Homeric formulae, constituted a ritual act that made the addressee worthy of heroic cult status. As Obbink recognizes, the soteriological content of the gold leaves should not be separated from their poetic form. The stylistic similarity between the gold leaves and Homeric epic does not simply reveal ideological appropriation obscured by literary continuity, but rather the religious function of the leaves. Obbink refers to certain odes by Pindar in which the poet compares his poetry with an immortalizing libation to the Heroes; similarly, the water of Memory in the gold tablets could be understood as an allegory of the power through which poetic speech brings life to an individual soul. Thus Orphism may be seen as a religious practice that results from reflection on the ritual value of a Pan-Hellenic poetic tradition, rather than a special tradition with new theological and stylistic features.

Faraone reminds us that the prosaic synthema “Bull, you jumped in the milk” (A group) reflects Dionysiac religion as reconstructed from other early evidence. By uttering this statement, the initiate re-enacts the sudden motion of the god from life to death and back, as it is told in the Homeric episode of Lycurgus: the foam of the sea there had a milky aspect. It deals with a personal internalization of Dionysus’ mythology, leading to an identification with Dionysus himself. Thus Dionysus would not only have been the mystic goal, but also the dynamic paradigm of every initiatic process.5 We might add that the means of salvation, necessarily at hand, does not stand outside its goal because salvation is not a matter of conquest through magic. In a way, every human being is already redeemed. As implied by another tablet family (group B, with Mnemosyne), salvation is granted by the recollection of the true nature of soul. To conclude, this book recaps 130 years of philological and theoretical research concerning the gold tablets. As a whole, it is an essential tool for the scholars interested in Classics and ancient religions. By raising difficult questions and exciting hypotheses, it brings us further along the path of Orphic studies.


1.   See A. Bernabé Pajarès, Poetae epici graeci. Testimonia et fragmenta. Pars II, fas. 2, Leipzig, 2005 (here abbreviated here OF), and Fritz Graf and Sarah Iles Johnston, Ritual Texts for the Afterlife. Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold tablets, London and New York, 2007 (here abbrievated GJ).
2.   As GJ do, op. cit., p. 39.
3.   See Zuntz, Persephone: Three Essays on Religion and Thought in Magna Graecia, Oxford, 1971, p. 370- 371.
4.   See Mendoza, J. : “Un itinerario hacio el más allá. Laminillas órficas de oro y Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa 1.46- 50”, in Orfeo y la tradición órfica. Un reecuentro, vol. II, A. Bernabé et F. Cassadesús (ed.), Madrid, 2008, p. 933-961; see also A. Pinchard, Les langues de sagesse dans la Grèce et l’Inde anciennes, Genève, 2009, p. 534-544. But comparison with Iran doesn’t prevent to maintain some connection between Egypt and Orphism: in an unpublished talk (“The ‘Orphic’ Gold tablets: Near Eastern and Egyptian resonances”, in 2006 at the Association of the Ancient Historians Annual Meeting at Stanford University), P.S. Horky argues that Egypt, while under the rule of the Achaemenid kings, might have constituted the intermediary through which Iran indirectly influenced Orphic eschatology.
5.   A. Pinchard (op. cit., p. 461 and 469) had already proposed the same interpretation, but he is not cited here.

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