BMCR 2006.11.20

Response: Janko on Kouremenos, Parássoglou, and Tsantsanoglou on Janko on Kouremenos, Parássoglou, and Tsantsanoglou, The Derveni Papyrus

Response to 2006.11.02

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I am most grateful to Professors Kouremenos, Parássoglou and Tsantsanoglou for replying to my review. I must beg to differ from them on many points, on some of which I may not have expressed myself clearly enough. I shall do so briefly.

In saying that the Derveni papyrus is the most important fifth-century text to appear since the Renaissance, I am not being hyperbolic, but perfectly serious. It is more significant than Bacchylides, the new Simonides, lost dramas, or the Strasbourg Empedocles, since we already had quantities of choral lyric, elegy, drama and Empedocles. A piece by an unknown Presocratic author, who uses allegory and etymology to explicate rituals and an Orphic text at a date long before scholars thought Orphic texts existed, is a truly extraordinary find, even if it were shown not to derive from the milieux of Anaxagoras and Socrates. The editors are right, however, that I was imprecise in suggesting that the commentary on the Orphic poem is a ‘digression’; it is, rather, an example of the point that the Derveni author is seeking to prove, viz. that taking such things literally is an obstacle to true faith. True faith, in that author’s view, is unquestionably a version of Anaxagorean physics, as Walter Burkert and David Sider argued long before I did and as Gabor Betegh has done since.1 If the editors do not recognize this, they are in a minority of those who have studied the question in depth.

The fundamental reason why their edition is so unsatisfactory is that it does not provide even the most essential service to the reader, viz. to indicate clearly and succinctly which letters are certain and which are not, and to explain the system that is used for marking such letters. The Leiden convention of 1931, to which all responsible papyrologists adhere, states that dots are placed under ‘letters about the reading of which there is a genuine doubt, or letters which are so mutilated that without the context they might be read in more than one way’.2 As I have shown, their edition does not follow this system. Moreover, editors of Herculaneum papyri have refined the Leiden convention to suit the crumbling state of carbonized papyri, in which old copies or photographs normally supply more information than is now visible. The editors of the Derveni papyrus have not applied this system either. Mysteriously, they have still not explained why, in the diplomatic transcript, some dots have letters over them (with no description of the traces), while the other dotted letters are just dots (or indeed why, at col. 18,1, omega is dotted in the diplomatic transcript but not on the opposite page). From their silence I can only infer that my interpretation of their system was indeed correct, viz. that the former letters are securely attested in early sources but are now uncertain. To claim that ‘a glance at the papyrological apparatus and at the available images will enable a reader to add or remove as many sublinear dots as she or he thinks proper’ is to negate the very purpose of editing a text. Since the papyrological apparatus is based on the diplomatic transcript, it is hard to consult at a glance, while the reader will need to flip to the back of the volume, turn it sideways and use a magnifying glass to consult the images. It takes me half a day to establish what readings are intended in each column. Incidentally, the calculations of the numbers of missing letters are not reliable, and since the dots are not grouped they are hard to count.

The editors state that the papyrus has not deteriorated since it was encased in glass. If so, it would be unique among all the carbonized papyri that I have ever seen or heard of, including those from Petra which were found more recently. If ‘a minimal fraying at the edges has occurred in a few fragments’, as the editors say, this is degeneration, which is a natural process. The traces crucial for further restoration of the text lie precisely at such edges. Mysteriously, the editors have still not explained why so many letters printed without dots either in the 1982 publication3 or communicated by them to Alberto Bernabé4 are now dotted. Their failure to explain seems to confirm that the papyrus has deteriorated, even though they claim that it has not. Only the complete publication of the relevant evidence, i.e. the old photographs and transcripts, could reassure me about its state.

Contrary to what the editors suggest, I find the lack of an apparatus criticus less fundamental than the problem of the dots. However, when a text has a history (as this one does, with a duration of 44 years), it is standard practice to provide an apparatus. An edition which, for whatever reason, omits to discuss many of the proposals that have been advanced cannot easily serve as a usable basis for further scholarship. Indeed, every philologist has had the experience of finding proposals in an apparatus that, in the light of further study, turn out to be superior to what is printed in the text. There is a general desire that this papyrus have such an apparatus,5 and the editors are kind enough to call mine ‘invaluable’. Readers should not have to hunt through a long commentary for such information.

It is not surprising to learn that it was Fackelmann himself who did not record the order in which he removed the fragments, since I have seen the same situation in another papyrus that he treated in the same way, viz. P. Herc. 1087. But one can largely reconstruct what he did by considering the shapes and numbering of the fragments, and by tabulating the widths of the fragments, circumferences and columns, which the editors do not do.

Making a scale model of their reconstruction has shown me that, when compared with the rest of the roll, its opening columns exhibit unexplained increases in the widths of the circumferences and columns, as well as decreases in the widths of the kolleseis. This is worrying. Indeed, one can be absolutely certain that the editors’ restoration of col. 2 is erroneous. They have juxtaposed pieces from the same side of the roll, which is physically impossible, since it contradicts the principle of hemicylinders or ‘sezioni’: fragment G7 cannot be placed between G8 and G15, because only a fragment from the F series can stand here to complete the circumference.6

Also, they have placed a ‘sottoposto’, D2a, at a different height in the roll from its location in fragment D2, which is physically impossible.7 It belongs in col. 18,15, where their supplement is demonstrably incorrect, because D2a fills part of the lacuna. In my ‘Interim Text’ of 2002 I had already made sense of this line, clarifying the text of 1982. If the editors took account of my recent work but rejected it throughout, as they claim to have done, they were certainly ill advised on this occasion, since the image proves that the fibres match. Nor are they alone in having to try to combine the fragments without seeing the pattern of the fibres on the back; the same is true of all carbonized papyri. However, they are right that none of the unplaced fragments is as wide as half a column; the exact proportion is 33% (12 out of 36 letters).

The editors still repudiate all emendations to the papyrus and stand by their translations. For the sake of brevity and courtesy I did not comment on many of the grammatical impossibilities in their supplements, e.g. col. 19,11-12. In defending what is by their own admission a conservative text, and in my view often an untenable one, they have to invoke a tellingly large number of rare grammatical constructions for so short a treatise. I will explain only those passages that have been misunderstood.

Col. 8,9-10: the editors supply [οὕτω] δ’ ἔχοντα and [ἐπικρα]τεῖ, translating ‘in this word order the prevailing meaning is not that Zeus hears his father but that he takes power from him’. But ἐπικρατεῖ with no expressed subject cannot be translated ‘the prevailing meaning is’. It is better to put ‘but since (the words) run this way, one must understand not that Zeus takes his father’s power, but that he takes strength from him’, i.e. [χρὴ δ’ ὥ]δ’ ἔχοντα οὐκ ἀκούειν τὸν ζᾶ[να ὅπως] κρα]τεῖ [τοῦ πατρ]ός, αλλὰ τὴν ἀλκὴν λαμβά[νει παρ’ αὐτο]ῦ. (This is now accepted by David Sider.8) It is not correct that this construction requires the negative μή.

Col. 12,3-10: how can the editors so confidently exclude the possibility that the Orphic poem contained the phrase εὐρὺν ὄλυμπον, especially since this appears, as they note, in Quintus of Smyrna?

Col. 15,7-10: the editors translate: Orpheus ‘means something like “from that time is the beginning, from which this magistracy reigns”. It has (already) been related that Mind, striking the ἐόντα to one another and setting them apart towards the present transformative stage, [created] from different things not different things but diversified ones’. But λέγει τι, without τοιοῦτο, cannot be translated ‘means something like’, introducing quoted speech; the editors can cite no parallel. I propose to repunctuate, divide one word and fill the lacunae differently: Orpheus ‘means that ( [ὅ]τι) (Mind’s) rule has existed since he became king. But his ( ἡ δὲ instead of ἥδε) rule is explained because ( ἐ[πεὶ] instead of Ν[οῦς]), by thrusting the things that exist against each other, he caused them to stand apart and created ( τ’ ἐ[πόησε instead of τε [πρὸς, which is too short) the present transmutation, not different things from different ones, but different ones from the same’ ( ἑτε[ρ’ ἐκ τῶν αὐτῶν instead of ἑτε[ροῖα ποεῖν). This surely makes better sense. It may be confirmed if, as appears likely from the images, fragment I66 belongs in the middles of lines 8-10; the letters on it are so placed that they exactly match my supplements.

Col. 16,10: the editors did indeed introduce a new supplement here. Regrettably, I found it less convincing than the old one and therefore overlooked it.

Col. 17,3-4: the editors find it hard to believe that the treatise says ‘why (Zeus) was called “Air” has been revealed earlier’. Yet they accept that its author thinks Air is Zeus. If so, by what law of logic can Zeus not be Air?

Col. 21,13: the editors translate ὠνομάσθη δὲ γενέσθαι as ‘but the term “being born” was used for them’. This cannot be extracted from the Greek, which can only mean ‘he was named to have been born’ (and technical usages in Plato’s Theaetetus are not plausible parallels for this text). The editors should have accepted that the papyrus has ὠνομάσθη by mistake for ἐνομίσθη.

Col. 24,6: as at col. 15,7, the editors think the Derveni author can suddenly launch into quoted speech without an introductory ὅτι or τὸ. As he cannot, emendation is essential; their comma will not suffice.

Col. 25,1: when I wrote ‘a superlative is needed instead of a comparative’, I exchanged the two terms in error. The editors understood this and easily corrected my misstatement. I still feel that a comparative is necessary.

To conclude, I am obliged to the editors for giving me occasion to explain my judgements further, and for discussing some of the many questions about the papyrus that their edition has left unanswered.


1. G. Betegh ‘shows that these views form a tight cluster with those of Anaxagoras, Diogenes, and Archelaus’ (D. Sider, review of G. Betegh, The Derveni Papyrus, Classical Philology 101 (2006), 165-71, at 170).

2. E. G. Turner, Greek Papyri (Oxford: Clarendon Press), 1968, 70 and 187.

3. ‘Der orphische Papyrus von Derveni’, ZPE 47 (1982), after p. 300. This item is missing from the editors’ bibliography.

4. ‘La Théogonie orphique du papyrus de Derveni’, Kernos 15 (2002), 1-38; Poetae epici graeci II. Orphicorum et Orphicis similium testimonia et fragmenta (Munich and Leipzig: Saur), 2004.

5. See e.g. W. Allen, ‘Religious Syncretism: the New Gods of Greek Tragedy’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 102 (2004), 143 n. 126; D. Sider (above, n.1), 168.

6. See D. Obbink, Philodemus, On Piety Part 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press), 1996, 37-53, esp. Fig. 2 on p. 43, and my Philodemus, On Poems Book 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press), 2000, 94-6, with Fig. 2 on p. 105.

7. I thank Apostolos Pierris for this observation.

8. D. Sider (above, n. 1), 168.