Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.06.18 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.06.18

Edward Jenner, The Gold Leaves: (Being an Account and Translation from the Ancient Greek of the so-called ‘Orphic’ Gold Tablets).   Pokeno:  Atuanui Press, 2014.  Pp. 160.  ISBN 9780992245375.  $35.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui, Universidad Complutense de Madrid (


The Orphic gold tablets have generated much bibliography in the last decade. The comprehensive recent works of Bernabé/Jiménez and Graf/Johnston, as well as the collection of studies edited by Edmonds, include thorough editions and translations of all the tablets, and tackle the main problems which they pose.1 E. Jenner’s book has little to add to this scholarship. However, on the tablets are inscribed poetic texts that, due to the lack of external references to them in ancient literature, their comparatively recent discovery, and their esoteric content, have seldom reached a wider public.2 Such is the audience targeted by this book, written by a poet and classicist whose earlier work includes translations of Ibycus and Sappho.

The 100-page-long introduction may also be of use to undergraduates seeking a quick initiation into the main issues around the tablets. Archeological findings, discussion of the gender of the deceased, and Egyptian parallels are included, but the bulk of the discussion, unsurprisingly, concerns Dionysus and Orpheus. It is well known that scholarship on the tablets oscillates between two poles; on the one hand, a unitarian interpretation that they all belong to the same religious movement (i. e. Orphism), and, on the other, an “Orpheoskeptic” analysis that each tablet needs to be considered as an independent document that may be affiliated to different kinds of mystic cults. Jenner skillfully navigates between these extremes: he mainly relies on the classifications and texts of Zuntz and Edmonds, but he accepts the label “Orphic-Bacchic” and considers the Zagreus myth a plausible key to interpreting the Thurii tablets. He also underlines some interesting facts that have not been given much attention in earlier scholarship: for example, the fact that the Pelinna tablets were both found in the same grave, in which a woman had been buried with a bronze urn containing the cremated remains of a child, points to the possibility that the smaller tablet was engraved for the child—each of them would have used an almost identical tablet. Another interesting novelty is the hypothesis that the Great Antrum at Baiae (Naples), close to Cumae, might provide a possible topographical basis for the descriptions of two springs on the tablets.

The real contribution of the book, however, is the translation of the tablets into poetic language. Scholarly translations have hitherto been literal in order to reflect the precise meaning of the Greek texts. Without losing exactness, Jenner attempts to convey to a modern readership the aesthetic effects that these poetic lines might have generated in an ancient audience. For instance, the cypress described in some tablets as λευκά is “white” for Bernabé/Jiménez and Graf/Johnston, and “glowing white” for Edmonds. Jenner rightly emphasizes its shining effect, translating “with its luminous sheen”. His translations are clear and straightforward; only occasionally are his choices debatable: for instance, line 3 of his tablet from Thurii 3 (Orph. Fragm. 487 Bernabé: χαῖρε παθὼν τὸ πάθημα τὸ δ’ οὔπω πρόσθ’{ε} ἐπεπόνθεις) is translated by Bernabé/Jiménez as “hail, after having had an experience such as you never had before”; by Graf/Johnston as “greetings, you who have suffered the painful things; you have never endured this before”; and by Edmonds as “hail, you having experienced the experience you had not experienced before.” Jenner’s lighter translation, “welcome! After an ordeal you have never been through before” sacrifices the wordplay of pathos/pathein for a lighter and more rhythmic English line.

As the last example shows, the tone of the translations is purposefully neutral and avoids grand effects. Hexameters are generally translated as verses of twelve syllables, with the intention of reproducing their unmarked regularity.3 Does this neutrality bring us closer to the (funeral and/or initiatory) ritual performances where these texts were probably uttered? Scholarly tradition has usually followed ancient sources in supposing that the mysteries involved an “extraordinary experience” (Burkert), being an imagistic rather than doctrinal religion (Bowden). We tend to imagine that the verbal expressions of such unique experiences would have had great intensity. However, one should not forget that users may have had little knowledge of the precise meaning of the words uttered, and lengthy texts, poetic though they are, may have been mumbled in a litany-like way rather than declaimed. An enlightening, if unusual, comparandum has recently emerged: a 2014 police recording of the oath of allegiance to the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta (geographic coincidence is purely coincidental) shows an initiatory ritual which includes expressions such as “I am the child of the sun and the moon” which are recited in a hushed and monotonous voice.4 Any profound thoughts that may have inspired the composers of the text are far from the minds of the initiands—whose experiences, deep though they may be, scarcely depend on the words they utter. The metrical carelessness of the engravers is consistent with an un-declaimed recitation, which Jenner skillfully reflects.

Jenner also notes the relevance of the changes from verse to prose, and mirrors them in his translations. However, since he enthusiastically endorses Zuntz’s explanation that this is meant to emphasize the prosaic elements, just as “in the canon of the Mass in the Roman Catholic Church, where everything else may be set to music but not the words of Jesus instituting the Eucharist”, this is a good place to say that Zuntz’s comparison is plainly wrong.5

The textual choices which affect the translations tend to be those of Edmonds, e.g. line 11 of the Petelia tablet: [τέλη σὺ μεθ’] ἡρώεσσιν ἀνάξει[ς], taking the verb from ἀνάγω instead of ἀνάσσω. One of the most famous loci disputati is the “king” (βασιλει) of the Hipponion tablet, line 13. Jenner follows Janko’s proposal βασιλῆες: “and the rulers of the underworld will pity you.” Yet he admits (p. 136), “I am not at all sure of this line…we would expect the singular to be feminine: the chthonian Queen (Persephone) has more to do with the souls of the initiates in this mystery religion”. Strangely, he does not mention here Bernabé’s suggestion βασιλεί‹αι›, which would meet his expectation (supplements are, however, doubtful because the inscriber left a blank space at the end of that line).

For a volume of this kind, the publication should have been better presented: for example, only two Greek texts are provided (Thurii 1 and Hipponion), and the latter is on the front page and the translation at the back (pp. 119–20) instead of face to face as one would expect from a bilingual text; in the introduction, references within the text are combined with footnotes and final references, a rather unexpected format. However, the book will serve an important purpose in generating wider interest in the tablets from a general public interested in ancient poetry and religion.


1.   A. Bernabé and A. I. Jiménez San Cristóbal, Instructions for the Netherworld, Leiden 2008; F. Graf and S. I. Johnston, Ritual Texts for the Afterlife, London 2013; R. G. Edmonds (ed.), The 'Orphic' Gold Tablets and Greek Religion: Further Along the Path, Cambridge 2013; specifically on the Cretan tablets, G. Tzifopoulos, Paradise Earned, Washington 2012.
2.   In 2013 the best-selling novelist Tom Harper published The Orpheus Descent, which makes the tablets the key of an archaeological/mystical thriller.
3.   The poetic criteria of translation are not explained in the book but in the New Zealand online journal Ka mate ka ora 11, March 2012, 44–50.
4.   Video in: Milano
5.   The Eucharist can be sung in the Catholic liturgy: cf. Missale Romanum, Editio typica tertia, 2002, Appendix I, with the partitures.

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