BMCR 2004.12.29

Orphicorum et Orphicis similium testimonia et fragmenta. Poetae Epici Graeci. Pars II. Fasc. 1. Bibliotheca Teubneriana

, , Poetarum epicorum Graecorum : testimonia et fragmenta. Bibliotheca scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana,. München/Leipzig: Teubner, 1987-2007. 2 volumes in 4 ; 21 cm.. ISBN 3322003523 €112.00.

B’s new edition of the Orphic fragments will undoubtedly be the standard edition of these difficult materials for the foreseeable future. The last edition of the Orphica was Kern’s edition of 1922,1 and B’s edition represents an advance in almost every respect over his distinguished predecessor. Although B’s selection, arrangement, and contextualization of the fragments are in some respects open to question, his updating of the materials and his superb coverage of the scholarship will make this edition the starting point for future researches into Orphism.

This volume is only the first volume of the three that will make up part II of B’s collection of the fragments of Greek epic; the remaining two volumes of part II are due out in the next two years. Part I, covering the epic cycle, came out in 1987, and part II will assemble all of the fragments of Orphic poetry as well as the material that seems similar to it. B includes four types of evidence: literary fragments (actual lines of Orphic poetry), indirect fragments (paraphrases of or allusions to Orphic poetry), testimonia (references to particular poems or Orphica in general), and vestigia (texts that bear traces of Orphic influence). In each of his sections, B includes both literary and indirect fragments (F) along with the testimonia (T) and vestigia (V), unlike Kern, who separated testimonia from fragmenta and relegated vestigia mostly to notes.

This first volume of Orphica contains evidence for the Orphic theogonies, the myths of Demeter and Persephone, the nature of the world, and the fate of the soul. The next two volumes will include evidence about Orphic rites, including the gold tablets (of which B has just done an edition2); Hymns and Epigrams; Katabases; Astrological, Magical, Divinatory and related materials; and Testimonia about other poets similar to Orpheus (Linus, Musaeus, etc.). The final volume will presumably contain the Indices verborum, fontium, auctorum, et operum, as well as a Concordatio numerorum to help navigate between Kern’s edition and B’s replacement.3

B gives priority to the theogonies (ffr. 1-378), with categories for the evidence for the Derveni, the Eudemian, the Hellanican/Hieronyman, and Rhapsodic theogonies, as well as a miscellany of theogonic material not easily attributed. Indeed, the bulk of the volume (frr. 90-359, pp. 97-309) is taken up with the fragments assigned to the work known as the Hieroi Logoi in 24 Rhapsodies, a collection that seems to have been the form in which the Neoplatonists knew the Orphica. B prefers West’s date of the 1st century BCE to Brisson’s more plausible date of the 1st or 2nd century CE. B, however, rejects West’s attempts to trace the fragments of the Rhapsodies to their sources in previous Orphic theogonies.4 He nevertheless tries to reconstruct a single, coherent story line for each theogony and to group the fragments within his reconstructed tale.

This volume also includes the Orphica about Demeter and Persephone (fr. 379-402). Kern (p. 116) had distinguished four sources: 1) an ancient poem which Euripides followed in his Helen chorus (1301ff); 2) a Sicilian poem found on the gold tablet C from Thurii; 3) an Orphic recension of the Homeric Hymn found in P. Berol. 44; and 4) a more recent poem with which Pausanias and Clement of Alexandria were familiar. B rejects the first two categories since he finds nothing particularly Orphic about the Euripides passage, and the gold tablet, whatever it may be, is not a description of the descent of Persephone. B therefore presents fragments of a poem or poems that could possibly be from the same mythic tale as the fragments preserved on P. Berol. 44.

B also includes fragments of other poems, attributed to Orpheus but possibly written by Pythagorean authors, that seem to have put forth images of the world — the Net, the Robe, the Sphere, the Mixing Bowl, and the Lyre (which Kern does not include). For the fragments that pertain to the nature of the soul, B does not try, as West did, to attribute them to particular works. Although scholars such as Festugière and Alderink have claimed that the transmigration of souls is Pythagorean and not necessarily Orphic, B argues, following Casadio, that reincarnation is a doctrine common to Pythagoreans and Orphics and is central to Orphism.5 Therefore, B includes Platonic testimonies to the immortality of the soul, even when the idea is not attributed to Orpheus or Musaeus. He also includes fragments that attest to a belief that the soul goes through the cosmic cycle of elements, returning to the aither. The last sections of the volume include fragments from various authors whose ideas about the soul seem similar to the Orphic ones: Pindar, Empedokles, Heraclitus, Euripides, Plato, and various inscriptions, including the bone tablets from Olbia.

This collection is a much-needed replacement for Kern and is superior to its predecessor in almost every way. Since Kern’s 1922 edition, many new texts pertaining to Orphica have been uncovered, the most significant of which is undoubtedly the Derveni papyrus. Barring some new spectacular discovery of comparable nature, I imagine that B’s edition will remain the standard for the next century, as Kern was for the last century, and Abel for the one previous.

Scholars doing research into Orphism would do well to start with B’s superb bibliography, which provides comprehensive coverage of scholarship on the Orphica from the nineteenth century through the present for each section in the three volumes. It contains not only the standard, best known works of scholarship, but many that are less well known, particularly from Spanish and Italian scholarship that does not often make it into the bibliographies of Anglo-American scholars (some of this material can indeed be difficult or even impossible to find in the academic library system in the United States).

B’s exhaustive knowledge of the secondary scholarship is further displayed in the critical apparatus, since B provides for each fragment not only an apparatus of textual criticism but, below that, an apparatus of the interpretive scholarship on the literary, religious, and philosophic aspects of the material. These notes are often supplemented by iconographic parallels supplied by R. Olmos. The copious notes highlighting the scholarly arguments back and forth about a single line give a sense of the massive debates that have raged over Orphism in the last two centuries. One can also see the impact of the Derveni papyrus on Orphic studies from the huge explosion of commentary on the text in the last 40 years, despite the continuing absence of an official publication.

The format of the apparatus, although it follows the standard Teubner model, at times becomes problematic because of the sheer volume of B’s notes. For example, for fragment 1, the introductory material covers pp. 1-2, with the text itself on p. 2. The apparatus listing the 28 sources for this line starts on p. 2 and runs through p. 7. Below this, on pp. 2-3, is an apparatus of parallels, while below that is the apparatus that notes critical interpretive comments, which extends from pp. 2-7 as well. Above these two or three apparatuses runs the introduction to the next set of fragments from the Derveni papyrus, pp. 2-12. From page 2 to 3, four sets of texts run on: the introduction to the Derveni papyrus, the sources for fragment 1, the parallels for fragment 1, and apparatus criticus for fragment 1. Not only is this arrangement confusing to the reader, but it appears to have baffled the editors at some point as well, since, when three of the four rows continue on to page 4, something has dropped out of the bottom row. This apparatus breaks on p. 3 in the middle of a citation from B himself and resumes on p. 4 with some page numbers that must be from a different citation. It is impossible to know what has dropped out in between. This formatting makes the volume difficult to use, and the situation is not eased by the abbreviations necessary to cram all this information into the apparatus. Nevertheless, despite their obscurity to the uninitiate, B’s apparati provide a wealth of scholarly information to those who can apprehend their mysteries.

B’s comprehensive coverage of the scholarship brings out the controversies that have raged in the last centuries over what qualifies as Orphic and how it should be interpreted, which in turn raises questions about B’s own selection of fragments to include and his arrangement and presentation of the fragments within the edition. Despite his presentation of varying scholarly views, B himself has very firm ideas about the nature of Orphism, and these shape what he chooses to include, how he categorizes the evidence, and how much of the original context of the fragment he preserves. Such choices are naturally not in the foreground of any edition of fragments, but it is important to note how these choices affect the shape of the edition as a whole.6

Although, as B points out, he does not have the editor’s usual problem of deciding between false and true fragments of Orpheus (since the Orphica are all pseudepigraphic), there are still various criteria that could be used for selecting the fragments, ranging from accepting only those texts sealed with the name of Orpheus to including anything that has ever been considered Orphic by any commentator, ancient or modern. Although the profusion of scholarly apparatus might lead one to suppose that B has taken the latter extreme, he in fact has selected his texts carefully, excluding some previously considered Orphic and including others not considered Orphic. For example, B rejects as not Orphic Plato Sophist 242c (Kern OF 18) and the chorus (1301ff.) from Euripides’ Helen, which Kern (p. 116) saw as preserving the traces of an ancient Orphic Demeter poem. On the other hand, B includes references to the birth of Dionysos from Semele and evidence that seems to assimilate Dionysos to Osiris, which are usually judged to be from non-Orphic traditions.

B’s principles of selection are directly linked to his definition of the essence of Orphism, as he has defined it in other works.7 B sees Orphism as a religion with a unifying kernel of doctrines: the immortality of the soul and its transmigration from body to body as it expiates the stain of original sin. These doctrines are founded upon a narrative of the origin of the world and the human race that explains the nature and fate of the soul. B’s definition of Orphism deliberately takes a middle ground between the extremes of the Panorphists of the early twentieth century like Macchioro, who believed in an organized Orphic religion, and the skeptics like Wilamowitz and Linforth, who rejected any coherent idea of Orphism.8 Indeed, for good and ill, B’s approach is very much like Guthrie’s in his Orpheus and Greek Religion: erudite, nuanced, and at least 50 years out of date.9 Both Guthrie’s and B’s view of Orphism are dependent on a model of Greek religion that presumes coherent religious sects, even if they insist on the variety of dogmas within them. Christianity with its various sects is the explicit point of comparison for both B and Guthrie: a religion that for all its variation still holds to certain fundamental principles concerning creation, salvation, and eschatology.10 The underlying assumption is that any religion must have essential tenets regarding these things and that the task is to try to identify them. B insists that Orphism must have a nucleus of doctrine by which the ancient sources could judge whether to label something Orphic or not.11 However, scholars from Lobeck to Linforth to West have argued otherwise, and I would suggest that that the evidence is better explained if “Orphic” is taken as a label that could be (but was not necessarily) applied to religious material that seemed extra-ordinary, unusual in either a positive or negative sense. The choice of the label is thus dependent on the ancient source using it and the context in which that source chooses to use it.

B’s definition of Orphism in terms of a nucleus of doctrines means that material not explicitly labeled as Orphic is included on the basis of its relevance to those doctrines. Thus, since the myth of the Titans’ dismemberment of Dionysos Zagreus is presumed to be connected to the idea of mankind generated from the Titans’ ashes and stained with their crime, any evidence that relates to the dismemberment is included in B’s collection, along with any testimony to the name of Zagreus, even though most of this evidence, particularly from before the Neoplatonists, is not associated with Orpheus or the Orphica in the texts.12 On the other hand, B does not include all the evidence from classical literature that attests to the birth of Dionysos from Semele, although he argues, contra West and others, that the birth from Semele was part of the Orphic story, a regular sequel to the death of Dionysos, son of Persephone, at the hands of the Titans. The births from Semele and Zeus’ thigh, while they may have appeared in Orphic sources, are not directly relevant to the ideas of man’s original sin and redemption, so evidence for the story need not be included by B unless there are other reasons to label it Orphic.

B’s presuppositions about Orphism also shape the way he arranges the fragments within the categories of his edition. The first section, Carmina Theogonica, is subtitled Hieroi Logoi, effectively equating the Orphic sacred writings with theogonic narrative. As a result, many things are categorized in the theogonies that might well have come from other types of poems, for example, the Hymn to Zeus (31F) or even the tale of the dismemberment of Dionysos. B, of course, is not the first to assume that the Hieros Logos in 24 Rhapsodies, the collection of Orphica that seems to have been the source known to the Neoplatonic commentators, is a coherent theogonic narrative woven together from earlier Orphic sources.13 But the Rhapsodies might have been a much more heterogeneous collection of materials, more like the Sibylline Oracles than the Pentateuch or the Odyssey. The assumption that the theogonies must have been complete tales from the creation of the cosmos through the creation of mankind is, however, crucial to seeing them as the sacred texts of Orphism. Only by making the generation of mankind stained by the sin of the Titans the culminating point of the creation narrative can the theogony provide a sacred text that sets out the unifying kernel of doctrines that B sees as central to Orphism. Consequently, if evidence from early writers such as Plato, Pindar, or Euripides attests to or otherwise illuminates an essential element, it is placed in the theogony section, rather than in the section at the end of the volume for these authors.

B’s assumptions about Orphism do not, of course, skew his selection and arrangement of the fragments more than Kern’s assumptions did in his edition. Indeed, B is generally more nuanced and carefully balanced in his treatment than Kern on all of these issues. There is really only one respect in which B’s edition is not superior to Kern’s, and that is in B’s decision to limit the amount of context he includes with the fragments. On the one hand, B’s first volume is already longer than Kern’s edition, so he has reason to be wary about wasting space. So too, the critical apparatus he provides cannot be grudged the space it takes. On the other hand, B’s decision to pare down Kern’s overly generous (as he sees it14) provision of context raises the question of the importance of a text’s context in determining its meaning. A similar problem occurs with the PreSocratic philosophers, most of whose surviving texts, like the Orphica, are preserved only in late authors who have marked agendas of their own and an obvious penchant for twisting the texts to suit their own meanings. Nevertheless, a sense of the context can help circumscribe the possible original meaning of the text, and an understanding of the context helps the reader better understand the agenda of the author using the quotation, making it easier to read past the author’s bias. B’s decision to remove any context he does not think essential hampers a reader’s ability to judge independently what the sense of the fragment may have been.

B tries to remove what he sees as interpretive accretions to the original mythic material because he assumes that there is an original and authentic core of meaning to these myths, namely, the central doctrines of Orphic religion. For example, B leaves in the mythic elements of Demeter/Rhea as Dionysos’ mother and Dionysos’ death at the hands of the Earth-born, but the physical allegory of Dionysos as the vine is athetized from the fragments that recount the myth of the dismemberment, such as Diodorus Siculus 3.62 (= 59Fiii) and Cornutus Nat. deor. 30 (= 59Fiv). Such athetization neglects the possibility (or rather probability) that such authors chose to tell a tale of dismemberment and rebirth, rather than another tale of Dionysos, and chose Demeter or Rhea from among the various mothers of Dionysos found in the tradition precisely because of the allegorical significance of both the mother and the dismemberment. There is no pristine myth with original and authentic meaning to be uncovered by stripping away accretions; rather there are a variety of particular tellings in which common elements from the mythic tradition (Dionysos, Demeter, Persephone, Semele, Titans, Bacchantes, dismemberment, rebirth, etc.) were combined in different ways to suit the tellers’ purposes.

B also breaks up longer testimonies into separate fragments so that they fit into the order of events in the theogony he has set up. Thus, for example, Damascius’ summary of the theogony of Hellanicus or Hieronymus (Kern OF54) is split up among 69F, 75F-80F, and 86F. Moreover, pieces of Athenagoras’ summary (Kern OF57-58) are also included in 75F, 76F, 79F, 80F, as well as 81F-85F and 87F-89F. Such dismemberment of a unified piece of evidence puts the emphasis on the reconstructed elements of the theogony rather than on the text itself and makes it harder to figure out the source’s treatment of the material.

In sum, then, B’s edition of the Orphic fragments is a monumental work of scholarship, an edition of high quality with exceptional bibliographic resources. Anyone working on Orphism or the myriad aspects of ancient religions linked with it should eagerly await the arrival of the next two volumes. Despite the ways in which B’s selection, arrangement, and contextualization of the fragments are biased by his definition of Orphism, he nevertheless provides an invaluable resource even for those who differ with his ideas. This collection of texts, with its vast annotations of the scholarly debates, will serve as the basis for the next generation of Orphic scholarship and will provide the materials for scholars to make further progress on the questions of Orphism.


1. Kern, Otto, Orphicorum Fragmenta, Weidmann: Berlin, 1922.

2. Bernabé, Alberto and Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristobal, Instrucciones para el Más Allá: Las laminillas órficas de oro, Ediciones Clásicas, S. A., Madrid, 2001.

3. B has set forth his plans for all three volumes in Bernabé, Alberto, “Nuovi frammenti orfici e una nova edizione degli orfika,” in Tortorelli Ghidini, Marisa, Alfreda Storchi Marino, and Amedeo Visconti, eds., Tra Orfeo e Pitagora: Origini e incontri di culture nell’antichità, Bibliopolis: Naples, 2000, pp. 43-80.

4. West, M. L., The Orphic Poems, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983, and Brisson’s review in Brisson, Luc, “Les théogonies orphiques et le papyrus de Derveni,” Revue de l’Histoire des Religions, CCII (1985), pp. 389-420.

5. Festugière, A. J., “Comptes rendus bibliographiques: Guthrie (W.K.C.) Orpheus and Greek Religion,” Revue des études grecques (1936), pp. 306-310; Alderink, Larry J. Creation and Salvation in Ancient Orphism, American Classical Studies 8, Scholars Press, 1981, pp. 56-59; Casadio, Giovanni, “La metempsicosi tra Orfeo e Pitagora,” in Borgeaud, ed. Orphisme et Orphée: En l’honneur de Jean Rudhardt, Recherches et Rencontres 3: Geneva, 1991, pp. 119-155.

6. He indeed discusses many of these choices — briefly in the praefatio, pp. vii-xi, but at greater length in Bernabé 2000.

7. E.g., Bernabé, Alberto, “Orphisme et Présocratiques: bilan et perspectives d’un dialogue complexe,” in Qu’est-ce que la Philosophie Présocratique, edd. Laks & Louget, Lille 2002, 205-247, esp. pp. 208-9; Bernabé, A., “Orfeotelestas, charlatanes, intérpretes: transmisores de la palabra órfica,” in M. del C. Bosch-M.A. Fornes, Homenatge a Miquel Dolç, Palma De Mallorca 1997, 37-41, esp. p 39; Bernabé Pajares, Alberto, “Naciementos y muertes de Dioniso en los mitos órficos,” in En los límites de Dioniso, C. Sánchez Fernández & P. Cabrera Bonet, ed., Murcia 1998, pp. 29-39, esp. p. 38.

8. Bernabé 2002, “Orphisme et Présocratiques,” p. 205-206.

9. Guthrie, W.K.C., Orpheus and Greek Religion, 2nd ed. London: Methuen, 1952 (1st ed. 1935).

10. E.g., Bernabé, A., “La Palabra de Orfeo: Religion y magia,” in Estética y religión, ed. A. Vega & J.A. Rodriguez Tous & R. Bouso, 1998, 157-172, p. 172; Guthrie, W.K.C., Orpheus and Greek Religion, 2nd ed. London: Methuen, 1952 (1st ed. 1935), pp. 200-202, 268-271.

11. Bernabé 1997, p. 38.

12. I have argued against this fabrication of a doctrine of original sin in “Tearing Apart the Zagreus Myth: A Few Disparaging Remarks on Orphism and Original Sin,” Classical Antiquity 18.1 (1999), pp. 35-73. I find unconvincing B’s responses in Bernabé, Alberto, “La toile de Pénélope: a-t-il existé un mythe orphique sur Dionysos et les Titans?,” Revue de l’histoire des religions 219.4 (2002), pp. 401-433, and Bernabé, Alberto, “Autour du mythe orphique sur Dionysos et les Titans. Quelque notes critiques,” in Des Géants à Dionysos. Mélanges offerts à F. Vian, ed. D. Accorinti & P. Chuvin, Alessandria, 2003, pp. 25-39.

13. West 1983 provides the most recent comprehensive treatment on this assumption, but the idea was not new even for Kern.

14. “Non mi interesso di quei frammenti contenuti nei commentari neoplatonici che non offrono nessuna informazione per la ricostruzione del poema orfico. Il Kern è stato troppo generoso, a mio avviso, nella inclusione di questi commenti,” Bernabé 2000, p. 74.