BMCR 2005.04.66

Myths of the Underworld Journey: Plato, Aristophanes, and the ‘Orphic’ Gold Tablets

, Myths of the underworld journey Plato, Aristophanes, and the "Orphic" gold tablets. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xi, 276 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521834341 $75.00.

As any teacher of Classical Mythology can attest, an easy tactic in dealing with a certain family of classical myths — quasi initiatory and katabatic stories — is to label them as Orphic. Along this axis, one might, for example, readily group the Orpheus episodes in Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Vergil’s Georgics with Bacchic initiatory ritual, or the mystery language and motifs in Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus with certain Pythagorean ideas evident also in Parmenides and Empedocles. Scholars of myth have, however, been increasingly uncomfortable with this schematisation of quasi initiatory and katabatic traditions. The faults of this schema, derived from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century efforts of scholars oriented by the practices of Religionsgeschichte toward this body of literature, are perhaps best evidenced in Albert Dietrich’s view that positioned such stories within a trajectory that would ultimately culminate in early Christian apocryphal thought.1 Such efforts, Radcliffe Edmonds argues, constitute an oversimplification of the vast array of materials that pass for “Orphic” and mistakenly retroject specifically Protestant Christian notions of religion onto traditional tales that on further analysis cannot support them.

To contest these kinds of misreadings and to offer a corrective to their stubborn persistence in modern scholarship, Edmonds proposes by way of examination of a set of texts — the “Orphic” gold lamellae and the katabatic myths in Aristophanes’ Frogs and Plato’s Phaedo — to either scrap the label “Orphic” or radically redefine it (13-18; 221; 228). To set up his analysis, Edmonds boils his definition of myth down to “the telling of a traditional tale” (13) and proposes a model of myth-narrative analysis for the underworld journey that consists of identifying (a) the obstacles and (b) the solutions to those obstacles put forth in the myths along with (c) the results of the solutions (21-24).2 While all these myths operate according to a specific pattern of action, the underworld journey, the meaning of these myths is not to be derived from their employment of this pattern. In other words, they are not to be regarded as simply myths with an eschatological teaching. In fact, Edmonds argues, the meaning of the set of underworld-journey myths he examines revolves around the articulation of “boundaries between … groups of people” (24), a differentiation resident in the basic polarity between das Diesseitige and das Jenseitige, between the living and the dead. This differentiation of the two realms and exploration in particular of the realm of the dead “in which normal conditions do not apply” (24) in turn allow the myths to create a parallel reality expressive of the wishes and desires of those who create such myths.

In his longest chapter, chapter 2, Edmonds begins his analysis with the “Orphic” Gold Tablets found in graves scattered across centuries (the fifth to the second B.C.) and locales (from Crete to Thurii and from Thessaly to Sicily and Rome). In these tablets, the basic concern of the deceased, membership in a privileged group of souls in the netherworld, is arrived at through overcoming the obstacle of forgetfulness. This obstacle is represented either by two sources of water — one of memory, one presumably of forgetfulness — or by an inquiry from the powers of the underworld. The solution to the problem is to drink from the correct water source and/or to identify oneself correctly to the powers of the underworld, as a child of the gods or as ritually pure. The result is a privileged status among souls in the afterlife.

To make further inroads in his inquiry of the Gold Tablets, Edmonds uses a model proposed by J. Z. Smith that distinguishes between the “locative” and “utopian” in religious practices. According to this model, locative religion is that of the polis and its social structures and reinforces the demands and structures of its society; utopian religion, conversely, “focuses on escape from the oppressive order of the present world, a relocation from the fixed place within the locative order to ‘no-place’, a space or time beyond the ordinary world” (228-229).3 Since the majority of tablets appear to be for women, Edmonds reasons that the deceased’s disfranchisement from the social structures of the ancient polis places her in a marginal status that seeks redress through walking on what Marcel Detienne refers to as a chemin de déviance which refigures her marginality as a locus of privilege acquired through some degree of participation in cults outside the normal complex of polis religion (45).

At this point, perhaps the most interesting in the book, problems emerge. It is certainly the case that in the archaic period in Greece female burials are marked with monuments and celebratory epigrams with far less frequency than male burials, and one way of explaining this dearth of monumental marking for women is their relative marginality in Greek society. Edmonds (103ff.) takes it as suggestive that the majority of the burials are for women, who do not derive benefit from what Sourvinou-Inwood asserts of the grave monument as “an articulation of the deceased’s social persona and preservation of his memory through the grave monument.”4 Problematically, this particular statement of Sourvinou-Inwood applies to the archaic period, while at the end of the fifth century and with greater frequency in the fourth, the increasing domesticity of sepulchral inscriptions allows for more incidents of monumental burial for women. To take but one relevant example, Thessaly (which nicely corresponds to the five Gold Tablets with Thessalian provenience treated by Edmonds) has yielded a total of 25 sepulchral epigrams from the archaic period to the end of the fourth century B.C.5 Eleven of those are from the archaic and classical periods, down to 400; fourteen are from the fourth century. It is interesting to note that only one of the archaic and classical epigrams is for a dead female, while four of the fourteen from the fourth century (the gender of only thirteen can be accurately determined) are for females. The difference in the ratio represents an over 300% increase in monumental burials for women in Thessaly from the archaic/classical period to the fourth century, the latter being just that period to which the Thessalian Gold Tablets are assigned. (More strikingly put, the real sea-change in burial practices occurs in the mid-fifth century as a result of a relaxation of pressures brought about initially by legislation restricting the types of monuments people could use. The one classical-period Thessalian sepulchral epigram for a woman ( CEG 119) may date to after that sea-change, which makes this point even more remarkable.) The locative-utopian chemin de déviance model for explaining what’s going on with the Gold Tablets may thus require some fine-tuning.

In his chapter on the Frogs, Edmonds argues that, far from participating in some sort of mystic-initiatory-katabatic mythic complex, which makes the comedy incoherent as an integral work, Dionysus’ descent is just what the comedy says it is: an attempt to retrieve a good poet from the realm of the dead “to save Athens from its dearth of cultural life” (121-122). When one turns to what happens during Dionysus’ descent using the obstacle-solution-result model of analysis, one finds that it narrates something similar: an attempt to save Athens. Dionysus’ obstacle, getting across the Acherousian marsh in Charon’s skiff, is solved when Dionysus gets the hang of rowing, leading to the positive outcome of gaining an entrée into the netherworld’s polis, Athens’ doppelgänger in this play. This “redefine[s] the models of acceptable behavior in Athenian society” (137) and, in light of the enfranchisement of slaves who fought (rowed) at Arginousae, defines “who is worthy to be counted among the members of the Athenian polis in its time of trial” (155). Aristophanes’ use of the katabatic myth, then, is not directed toward the creation of a chemin de déviance; rather, Aristophanes grasps for the parallel reality offered by the netherworld to articulate a vision for Athens in which the city can be saved from its perils.

In his chapter on Plato, Edmonds shows how the philosopher in the Phaedo in some sense combines both Aristophanes’ surrealism and the Gold Tablets’ chemin de déviance tactic. The obstacle in the Phaedo is the body’s imprisonment of the soul, and it emerges that it is the philosopher alone who is able to negotiate this obstacle by transcending the limitations imposed on the soul by the body through the use of reason’s ascent to τὸ ἀιδές, employing a well-known play on Ἅιδου. The philosopher in this scenario is transformed into a performer of heroic deeds, just as Socrates is compared elsewhere in the dialogue to Odysseus and Theseus, two katabatai par excellence from the mythic tradition; and the result of his successful negotiation of the obstacle results in being ensconced in the Isles of the Blessed, here removed by Plato to the realm of the ether. Plato’s use of the descent-myth in the Phaedo, therefore, while acknowledging the marginality of the philosopher, also argues, through his placement in the netherworld, for a central role for the philosopher in the cultural and civic life of Athens.

What, then, of the underlying question of the use and definition of the term “Orphic”? Edmonds has set up Myths of the Underworld Journey in such a way as to lead the reader to believe that he’ll answer whether the term ought to be used at all and, if so, what definition it should be given: “The definitions of ‘Orphism’ as a sect with an exclusive set of eschatological ideas … must be replaced by a definition that takes into account the ways in which the ‘Orphic’ sources make use of the common stock of traditional material” (221). This remains a tantalising prospect, and one that Edmonds never reckons with square-on. For one thing, there is a persistent confusion between ways of looking at “Orphic” texts and the definition of “Orphism”.6 For another, the conclusion remains vague: we get a series of intimations about what Edmonds might be saying, but nothing solid emerges. For instance, we learn that he thinks “Orphic” texts “seem” to share “the appeal to an authority outside the mainstream” and represent a chemin de déviance that relies on “a source of authority that contradicts the mainstream tradition” (228). This in itself is troublingly vague. What, then, are we to make of the maddening multiplicity of nostos-myths for … just one Iliadic hero, like Menelaus, or of Euripides’ manipulation of the Iphigenia myth? If “Orphism is [sic; does he mean “should be”?] defined by the way it handles the mythic tradition rather than by the particular elements of that tradition it employs,” (228) what degree of variance within the mainstream tradition is permissible, and how do we know when a particular telling has transgressed those bounds? And looking back at the set of myths Edmonds analyses, where are the katabases to be located in relation to “Orphism”? Surely, while “Aristophanes presents a locative view of Athens” (229), his grasp for the netherworld in the Frogs is still an appeal to a certain type of authority outside the mainstream tradition, and his story a radical retelling of a katabasis; and surely, while Plato manages to reintegrate the marginal philosopher into the life of the polis (locative), the philosopher still remains just that, marginal, in no way more approved than the marginalised women buried with Gold Tablets are approved by the gods of the underworld. Do the lamellae offer a more “Orphic” take on the material? While Edmonds’ analysis of all of these texts provides solid, interesting, and helpful insights into them and their manipulation of the tradition, in the final analysis the book leaves this most critical question unaddressed: just what is Orphism, and where can its influence be detected?


1. In Nekyia: Beiträge zur Erklärung der neuentdeckten Petrusapokalypse (Leipzig: Teubner, 1893).

2. This is a slight modification of the model proposed by A.J. Greimas, Semantique structurale: recherche et méthode (Paris: Presses Universitaires, 1986).

3. This distinction is articulated in J. Z. Smith, “Hellenistic Religions,” in The Encyclopedia Britannica (1974), 8.750.

4. “Reading” Greek Death (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 180.

5. In Peter Allan Hansen, Carmina Epigraphica Graeca, 2 vols. (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1983-1989), nn. 116-126, 637-650.

6. On p. 231, Edmonds writes: “An exploration of the theogonies attributed to Orpheus might produce a particularly interesting analysis of the ways in which these myths reorder the world order by rejecting or transforming traditional patterns and motifs in other cosmogonies in the tradition. Such a definition of Orphism, moreover, would apply not only to the countercultural religious groups of the classical period but also to the later traditions that appealed to the ancient wisdom of Orpheus to validate their ideas” (italics mine).