Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.12.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.12.10

Christopher A. Faraone, Dirk Obbink (ed.), The Getty Hexameters: Poetry, Magic, and Mystery in Ancient Selinous.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013.  Pp. xv, 215.  ISBN 9780199664108.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Richard L. Gordon, Max-Weber-Kolleg, Erfurt (


In 1981 the J. Paul Getty Museum in Pacific Palisades was given a bundle of six fragments of a lead tablet inscribed with hexameters, plausibly thought to have been found at the site of ancient Selinus in Sicily. The donor had acquired them from the same dealer who had handled the well-known Lex sacra1 and other texts from the same site. Whereas the Lex sacra was published more than twenty years ago, and the minor texts in 2004,2 the editio princeps of the hexameter text, which had been entrusted to David Jordan and Roy Kotansky, did not appear until early 2011.3 During this time, however, transcriptions of the text were made, and seminars held, so that the cognoscenti were familiar with the contents long before then – indeed, one of the contributors to this volume, Richard Janko, speaks of having worked on it himself intermittently for twenty years. Meanwhile Christopher Faraone (Chicago) suggested to Kenneth Lapatin, then assistant curator, that an international seminar should be arranged at the Getty Villa to view and discuss the tablets, which duly took place in November 2010, i.e. before the appearance of the editio princeps. The present volume contains the revised versions of most of the presentations at that meeting, together with a “simple, unadorned, and rather conservative” Greek text and English translation, unsigned but apparently a joint effort by the two editors – Obbink is after all a well-known papyrologist (pp.10-13). The result is a stimulating discussion of a range of possible interpretations of the text that compensates for the virtually complete absence of commentary from the editio princeps. It may be that the hexameters remain in the last analysis opaque, but the contributors have done their best to provide plausible contexts and performative scenarios, each of which will no doubt in future have its supporters.

It may be as well to provide first a brief account of the text, based on the editors’ version and translation, clumsy though it sometimes is. It consists of some 50 hexameter lines, of which reasonable sense can be made of 32. Some 20 continuous lines are visible on the obverse of a set of four fragments that clearly fit together (referred to here as ‘Side A, column i’), 20 more on a second set of two fragments, which likewise fit together (referred to as ‘Side A, col. ii’). 8 poorly preserved lines are inscribed on the reverse of the set of four, which is thereafter blank (Side B, col. i). An uncertain, but probably small, number of lines at the beginning and end of all the fragments is lost. As reconstructed, the text consists of an introduction, in which an I-narrator, whose identity may have been revealed in the first lost line(s), announces that he is uttering effective incantations (οὐκ ἀτέλεστ’ ἐπ̣[α]ε̣ίδω̣). If written on lead and hidden in a ‘house of stone’,4 these words will offer effective protection, by land and by sea. There follows an address to Paiêôn, defined as “you who send averting charms (ἀλέξιμα φάρμακα) in every direction [or: averting of everything]” (l.6), who has uttered “immortal verses [or: words]” (ἔπε’ ἀθάνατα) for mortals. These ‘words’ turn out to be a cryptic narrative, an historiola, describing how a child leads a she-goat, attendant of Demeter, with full udder “by force” (ἀνάγκη[ι]) from a dark mountain (ll.8-13). Apart from the introduction of Hekate of the Roadside, who shrieks barbarian utterances in a terrifying voice (ll.13f.), the remainder of the lines towards the end of Side A col. i give no coherent sense. The beginnings and endings of all the lines in col. ii require supplementation. A verse referring to “averting charms” has been restored to begin with a second reference to Paiêôn (l.23); he seems to be requested to help an army (?) and ships against deadly dangers, and possibly livestock and craftsmen (ll.25-28). The word πόλει can read in l.31. After another probable invocation of [Paiêôn] (l.32), there follow some virtually unintelligible lines mingling fragments of what in Imperial times were recognised as Ephesia grammata with isolated words that occur in the cryptic narrative (ll.33-42). The last lines, on the back of the set of four conjoining fragments (Side B), seem to refer, inter alios, to Herakles (Διὸς υἱός[---- ] (l.46), possibly Asklêpios or Artemis (…/ υἱω]νός τε Διὀς, l.47), and Phoibos Apollo (ibid.), followed by yet another appeal to [Paiêôn], identified by his ἀλέξιμα φάρμακα (ll.49f.).4

Some sort of complex phylactery, then, but problems abound, and not simply because so much of the text is lacunate. What are the best – or rather, least implausible – scenarios, the most telling comparanda? Thanks to the TLG, a rough date seems fairly easy to establish: Jan Bremmer, basing himself on the lexis of Side A col.i, argues that the text we have is the original version of a protective incantation and must have been written in Selinus between c.430 and 409 BC, the date of the Carthaginian siege (which he wrongly believes ‘destroyed’ the city). The author, “an erudite and sophisticated man”, shows considerable knowledge of epic and sub-epic language, but the most interesting words (e.g. μελαναυγής [l.8], τετραβάμων [10], νασμός [l.11], ἐκκλάζω [l.14]), as well as the form εἰνοδία instead of ἐνοδία with Hekate, are those that seem to show knowledge of Attic tragedy, especially Euripides. Indeed, Bremmer believes that the first and third of those words, which occur not far from one another in the goat-narrative, imply knowledge of Hecuba 152, probably written in the 420s.

In his contribution, one of the longest and most ambitious in the volume, Janko, while agreeing about the probable familiarity with later fifth-century Attic tragedy and the text’s general character as an incantation against ‘poisoning’, i.e. illness caused by witchcraft, distinguishes between the surviving text, which the absence of η and ω and the use of ⩘ for ε show was written in the region of Selinus, and a hypothetical prior text, which he thinks was written in a script that lacked a graph for the aspirate (i.e. an East Ionic script) by a speaker of Doric using post-Homeric epic forms.6 The colporteurs of this prior text, which may have been as early as the late VI cent. BC, and been ascribed to a name known to us, such as Musaeus or Epimenides, will have been itinerant manteis, who may themselves have introduced changes to the original text, whether they knew it in written or in oral form. The likely parallel here is the Orphic gold leaves. Evidently on the analogy of the Lex sacra, which was available for (public) inspection, he imagines priests at Selinus reciting the paean for the public good but also making the text accessible to private individuals. Janko’s main contribution, however, is the provisional text, with extensive linguistic commentary, of this hypothetical archetype, which makes use of the various versions of the Ephesia grammata recently recovered from fragmentary texts discovered in Epizephyrian Locris, Himera and Selinus itself. Dissemination among private individuals in the area might help to explain the presence of odd words from the historiola in these versions. Janko promises to discuss the complex issues raised by this proposed ‘archetype’ in a future volume.7

None of the other contributors comments explicitly on the hypothesis of an archetype. They offer instead three possible contextualisations. Taking his cue from the four second-person appeals to Paiêôn, Ian Rutherford argues that he guarantees the authority of the protective incantations, precisely because, since Homer and Hesiod, he has been the healing instance par excellence. We should perhaps think of the hexameters as an actual paean: Aristoxenos frg. 117 Wehrli attests to the existence of healing paeans, though none happens to survive. Another possibility is that the technique of the historiola, which is a major feature of rhizotomic healing rituals, has been spliced with the paean to create a sui generis textual form. In one of his two contributions, Chris Faraone adopts rather the model of the ‘Philinna’ papyrus, one of the earliest known texts containing iatromagical (rhizotomic) recipes for healing, 8 and asks whether the disjointedness of the Getty text might not best be explained by thinking of it as a collection of protective incantations put together on the agglutinative principle to increase their authority. The other editor, Dirk Obbink, is the only contributor to defend the suggestion by Kotansky and Jordan, which they made no attempt to justify, that the hexameters are the legomena of a mystery-cult for Demeter and Korê. Taking the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and the analogous, but very fragmentary, Orphic hymn as his main parallels for ‘telestic song’, he lists a number of features that accord with our hexametrical text, including invocation, myth in the form of an historiola, unintelligible or magical words, aetiology, request for aid, and instructions for the performance of rituals. The goat-narrative is read as the paradigm for a divine epiphany, which shall ensure relief from the speaker’s woes; the goat itself may even be a sacrificial victim. At a conference in Heidelberg in September 2014, W.D. Furley made a similar case, in favour of the idea that the hexameters belong to a private initiatory ritual associated with Dionysiac-Orphic mysteries.

Two other major contributions are dedicated to specific issues. Sarah Johnston takes on the historiola alone. She thinks that the central focus, albeit entirely implicit, is upon the action of milking. The image of ‘milk’ of course resonates in Orphic-Bacchic contexts; just as in those symbola it is the idea of milk as a component of salvation, i.e. a ‘conceptual metaphor’, that is crucial. She has found analogies in Egyptian historiolae about gazelles and their milk. This Egyptian motif, perhaps mediated through Carthaginian channels, has been adapted experimentally to the Greek bestiary and mythic conventions. Whatever we think of this suggestion (it was criticized by Furley at Heidelberg), she has rightly picked on the historiola as a major crux. For one obvious possibility, a deliberately enigmatic (enigma is a feature of many historiolae) reworking of the Amaltheia/aegis/protection theme, is surely excluded by the express statement that the goat with her heavy udder is being taken from the (otherwise unknown) “garden of Demeter”. The second narrower focus is Alberto Bernabé’s reworking into English of an earlier paper in Spanish on the phesia grammata.9 He believes that they are a corruption for ‘magical’ ends of the historiola and are to be identified as Orphic – indeed he included them among his Orphic fragments in 2005.10 The weaknesses of this argument are well brought out by Radcliffe Edmonds in his contribution; but, if Furley’s arguments gain acceptance, an Orphic connection can perhaps not be excluded entirely.

The volume thus provides an indispensable critical adjunct to the editio princeps. I have a few criticisms, however. The images provided are totally inadequate. For this the Press is to blame, since the original photos were excellent. The editors must bear responsibility for the facts that the volume, like the editio princeps, contains no explicit account of the problems attending the reconstruction, that internal references to the three blocks of text are not standardised and that the captions to the images are unhelpful to bizarre.


1.   M.H. Jameson, D.R. Jordan, and R.D. Kotansky, A lex sacra from Selinous. GRBS Monographs, 3 (Durham NC, 1993).
2.   See SEG 54: 939-941.
3.   R.D. Kotansky and D.R. Jordan, ‘Ritual hexameters in the Getty Museum: Preliminary edition’, ZPE 178 (2011) 54-62.
4.   W. Burkert, ‘Genagelter Zauber. Zu den Ephesia Grammata’, ZPE 183 (2012) 109f. has made the highly implausible suggestion that we should read ἁλοῖ, ‘(whoever) nails … up’ in place of λᾶος, ‘of stone’.
5.   On p.13 of the translation, ”…with your bow …and of the Hydra” has mistakenly been printed twice, as ll. 471 and 48. The latter is correct.
6.   L. Bettarini, ‘Testo e lingua nei documenti con ἐφέσια γράμματα’, ZPE 183 (2012) 111-128 (126f.) prefers West Ionic script.
7.   The title is announced as: R.M.C. Janko, Hexametric Incantations against Witchcraft in the Getty Museum: An integrated restoration with apparatus criticus.
8.   K. Preisendanz, Papyri Graecae Magicae, ed. A. Henrichs (Stuttgart, 1973-74) no. XX. On early collections, see C.A. Faraone, ‘Handbooks and Anthologies: The collection of Greek and Egyptian incantations in Late Hellenistic Egypt’, Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 2.2 (2000) 195-214.
9.   A. Bernabé, ‘Las ephesia grammata. Genesis de una fórmula mágica’, MHNH 3, 5-28.
10.   A. Bernabé, Poetae Epici Graeci, 2.2: Orphicorum et Orphicis similium testimonia et fragmenta (Munich and Leipzig 2005) frg. 830.

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