BMCR 2007.10.15

Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets

, , Ritual texts for the afterlife : Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets. London/New York: Routledge, 2007. x, 246 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 0415415500. £18.99 (pb).

This book is addressed both to students of ancient religions and to others who are interested in Greek beliefs in the afterlife. It is a collective publication and interpretation of the gold tablets and appears a few years after similar works by A. Bernabé and A.J. Jiménez San Cristóbal (in Spanish) and G. Pugliese Carratelli (in Italian), both published in 2001,1 and after Bernabé’s critical edition (equipped with a large and well-informed apparatus which to some extent stands in for a commentary) in the second issue of the second volume of his Poetae epici Graeci.

The design of the book is complex but well balanced. The display of all the gold tablets (ch. 1) is followed by a chapter by Fritz Graf (hereafter G.) on the history of scholarship on the tablets based on the opposition between a ‘maximalist’ approach to Orphism and a ‘minimalist’ one. There ensue two chapters by Sarah I. Johnston (hereafter J.), devoted respectively to the myth of Dionysus and to the eschatology behind the tablets (with many detailed interpretations of the texts), and a chapter by G. on the Dionysiac mystery cults. Lastly, there is a chapter by them both on Orpheus and Orphic poetry.

A generous range of subject-matter is covered, the argument is detailed and thorough, the authors’ scholarship enables them to tackle a variety of issues: as one would have expected from two well-known scholars, each of whom has already discussed many aspects of Greek religion and mystery cults. On the whole, G. seems to be at his best at exploiting epigraphic texts and archaeological evidence, J. at exploring myths and explaining puzzling sentences. G. is the author of Eleusis und die orphische Dichtung Athens (1974) and Nordionische Kulte (1985), and J. of Restless Dead. Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece (1999); both have absorbed and continued the work of their great “teacher and friend” Walter Burkert, to whom the book is dedicated and who appears quietly smiling on their right in a photo taken by M.L. West (p. iv).

The Greek text by G. depends primarily on Bernabé’s edition but offers some novelties.

1) There are three new texts (no. 28, 33, and *39).

No. 33, a gold disk from Pella published as SEG 49 (1999), no. 703, records only a proper name ( Epigenês), and no. *39, a fragment of gold foil of unknown origin and date in the Museum of Manisa published by Hasan Malay in 1994, is probably a magical amulet (the only clear link with the mystery tablets is phylakes on line 4). However, the two hexameters of no. 28, a leaf found 1904 in clandestine excavations in a tomb near the Neolithic settlement at the Magoula Mati (Thessaly), but firstly (and thoroughly) published by R. Parker and M. Stamatopoulou in Arch. Eph. 2004 (publ. 2007), 1-32, are very interesting both for their language and the connection between Demeter and the Mountain Mother: pempe me pros mystô thiasous, echô orgia […] / Dêmêtros Chthonias telê kai Mêtros Orei[as. But it is a pity that at the end of l. 1 G. accepts the supplement [ Bacchou ], devised but rejected by the first editors. Parker and Stamatopoulou rightly remark that “satisfactory continuity with line 2 is almost impossible if a divine name is supplemented”. They look with favour on Bouraselis’ [ idousa ] (with echô as auxiliary: “I have seen”), but, in my opinion, a smoother reading, which would avoid both te in third position and the periphrastic use of echô, is echô orgia [semna] / Dêmêtros chthonias telesai kai Mêtros oreias (“I am able to celebrate the rituals of Demeter chthonia and of the Mountain Mother”). In any case, there seems to be nothing Orphic here, nor Bacchic either.

2) Despite his broad intended readership G. has decided to retain the exact spelling of words as they appear on the tablets in order to document the degree of literacy possessed by these local writers (so, for example, even ala is not changed into alla“but” at 5.4). The procedure may be scholarly, but actually this looks like a ‘diplomatic’ edition, that is one that could not admit any textual alteration. But G. is obviously forced to accept various corrections to produce an overall intelligible meaning. On the other hand, G.’s textual choices appear on the whole very well judged. Especially welcome is the restoration of the (nearly) transmitted reading at l. 8 of the first Pelinna tablet (no. 26a) kapimenei s’ hypo gên tele(a) hassaper olbioi alloi (“and below the earth there are ready for you the same prizes as for the other blessed ones”), a good hexameter with an ellipse of oral character wrongly altered by Pugliese Carratelli and Bernabé. But it is not at all clear what is to be understood on the end of 1.9, where instead of the corrupted oroeentos, given as the reading of the tablet (more precisely, it is Lazzarini’s reading), is printed a linguistically impossible orfêentos (Sacco’s reading). In the apparatus G. mentions only Ebert’s (correct) alteration orphnêntos“murky”. Perhaps there is just a typographical error. In my view, at l. 1 of the same Hipponion leaf one should reject Burkert’s (1975) correction of the transmitted TODEERION into tode ergon“this is the work (of Memory)”, accepted by Bernabé but not confirmed by the kindred Petelia tablet. There after tode appears the trace of a letter partially abraded (not recorded in G.’s transcription): this was not an epsilon, or an iota (Pugliese Carratelli), but rather, in my view, a delta ( d[ôron with Marcovich?). Anyway, no matter what the exact reading of the model which the tablets (of the group I A Pugliese Carratelli) rely upon, it seems clear that the scribe who wrote the Hipponion leaf meant to write, as it was recognized in the editio princeps, tode êrion (“this mound”).2 At 5.4b G. prints keraunon, but in the apparatus he refers to keraunôi. Lastly, the reading Gas êmi matêr at 18.3, accepted by G. after Bernabé, is impossible (one should expect a variation of the formula attested in the other Cretan leaves “I am a son/a daughter of Earth and starry Sky”: perhaps, as Tzifopoulos has suggested, Ga emoi matêr“Earth is my mother”).

3) With similar strictness G. adopts a numbering which depends on a geographical order (and a chronological one inside each area). This time his choice is profitable, as there is no other convincing arrangement of the texts (it would be dubious to place the Pelinna and Timpone Grande tablets in any other category). The reader could be bewildered, however, to find the leaves from Hipponion (no. 1), Petelia (no. 2), Entella (no. 8) and Pharsalus (no. 25), which had been exhibited as a compact group by all former editors, scattered among different pieces of evidence. A good compromise might be to group the tablets I A by themselves at the beginning of the corpus and to adopt a geographical order for all the rest.

J.’s translation is of exemplary clarity and precision, and often elegant too. Euboleus is odd for Eubouleus at 5.2 and 6.2 ( o is marked as long in the Greek text, as equivalent to ou). “To die” at the end of 2.12 before “to die” at the beginning of 2.13 is a slip. At 3.3 the rendering “you who have suffered the painful thing” is perhaps too much forced into one clear-cut meaning: as it seems from the asyndetic juxtaposition of this sentence to the following “You have become a god instead of a mortal”, to pathêma could refer to the mystes’ experience of becoming a god rather than to his or her dying. At 16.1 I do not understand “I (masculine) am parched with thirst” before “I am a daughter” at l. 3 ( auos can have both three and two endings). On 2.11 we will touch below.

J.’s fresh look at the myth of Dionysus (ch. 3: pp. 66-93) starts with the well known passage in Olympiodorus ( In Phd. 1.3, p. 41 Westerink) about men’s origin from the soot of the vapors that arose from the incinerated Titans. She rightly takes it, like Bernabé3, as a relatively early piece of evidence (at all events, older than Pindar and Plato) in spite of recent attempts to make it a very late (Neoplatonic) invention.4 One readily understands her attempt to follow the articulations of the myth by comparing them with other cults and cultic contexts such as the Athenian Anthesteria. She rightly intends, in examining a cultic aition, to go beyond so hazy a matrix as a collective unconscious ingrained in the Greek culture. On the contrary, she attempts to outline the modus operandi of a given bricoleur (a word J. likes) who uses the traditions known to him to create narrative devices capable of reflecting new religious perspectives: hence, according to J., the bricoleur‘s decision to bring Dionysus into the sphere of deities who were eschatologically important (first of all his ‘new’ mother Persephone), to insert him as Zeus manqué into a dynastic chain, to invent a situation which could explain why the human condition is so deeply flawed, and finally to link anthropogony to eschatology and, more specifically, to the question of posthumous happiness or misery. A controversial point is the relationship between the Orphic bricoleur and the traditions about Dionysus’ rebirth thanks to Rhea, Demeter or Apollo. Rhea is mentioned as the agent of Dionysus’s new life by Philodemus ( On Piety, p. 16 and 47 Gomperz), who quotes Euphorion (fr. 53 De Cuenca), Demeter by Diod. Sic. 3.62.8, Apollo only by Neoplatonic writers. Hence there is no firm basis for asserting that the Orphic bricoleur, if he is to be placed with J. in the second half of the sixth century B.C., was affected by these or similar accounts (such accounts could themselves have been promoted by his invention of the new Dionysus, son of Persephone). That in Bacchylides (fr. 42) Rhea revives Pelops after his father has killed him and cut him up into a cauldron does not prove anything beyond the sharing of a kindred mythical pattern.

In the fourth chapter (pp. 94-136) J. herself tackles the major interpretative problems related to the texts (or groups of texts) paying close attention to the free transmission of formulae and clauses and to the scribal practice of abbreviation depending both on the expense of the gold and on the fluidity of competing beliefs. She makes a sound distinction between tablets which function as mnemonic devices and proxies (that is, short statements intended to speak on behalf of the soul). Her survey of geography in the next world is apt, as is that of the different kinds of souls engaged in underworld journeys. Even if J. is well aware of the distinction between ‘geographic’ and ‘purity’ tablets, we lack here — a major flaw of the book — a close investigation of the great difference which divides the two textual typologies. This makes it very doubtful that the ‘geographic’ tablets belong to an Orphic milieu. Unlike the other tablets, these pieces of evidence do not contain any reference to Dionysus,5 to Persephone, to the dead person becoming a god, or to the need for purity, but are centred on the dialogue with the chthonic watchmen, the miraculous water and the power of Mnemosyne. No matter if the ‘geographic’ texts are to be traced back, as Pugliese Carratelli suggested,6 to a Pythagorean background, comparison with the other tablets cannot but highlight the religious and cultural divergences which do not find any proper treatment in this book (it might be added that such divergences were not adequately faced even by Burkert in his 1987 Ancient Mystery cults and that Burkert himself tended to water them down in his 1999 Da Omero ai magi. La tradizione orientale nella cultura greca).7 A Pythagorean framework would have been very useful in tackling a particular issue, that is why in two ‘geographic’ tablets, the one from Petelia (no. 2 = 476 Bernabé) and another from Crete (no. 18 = 484a Bernabé), the spring to be avoided is placed at the left side of Hades’ house, not the right, as in all the other lamellae that mention one or two springs. J.’s explanation is rather weak and resorts to separate reasons. In the case of no. 2, she supposes that for this scribe Mnemosyne’s spring was not placed on the same path as the first spring, but on a different one (this may be right, but the reason for the novelty should be explained). In the case of no. 18, she imagines, at risk of tautology, that “the orpheotelestes who sold the tablet innovated purposefully, arguing to his client that his was the correct knowledge” (p. 111). Surely more convincing is Battezzato’s8 explanation. He points out that in the Pythagorean pairs of contrasting elements, as well as in a remark on embryology at Parmen. 28 B 17 D.-K., male and female clash as right and left (cf. Arist. fr. 200 R.), and that the Petelia tablet combines the spring on the left side with the feminine auê (l. 8). He argues that right and left are to be taken as variants depending on the gender of the dead person.

A few other places may be mentioned where I would disagree. At p. 114 both the idea that “the initiate will ‘rule among the other heroes'” and the following statement that in all the ‘geographic’ lamellae “the initiate has become at least a junior member of the divine group” seem to me ill founded. As a well attested Homeric usage indicates (cf. Il. 4.61 = 18.366 su de pasi met’ athanatoisin anasseis, 14.94, 23.471, Od. 7.23) the clause meth’êrôessin anaxeis must mean “you will rule over the other heroes”, not “among” them.9 The tangle of different outlooks can be seen at an extreme on p. 120: “The tablets tell us that the soul travels down a ‘sacred road’ that other ‘initiates and bacchoi‘ have traveled before (no. 1.15-16) to the ‘holy meadows and groves of Persephone’ (no. 3.6) where it will ‘rule among the other heroes’ (no. 2.11)”. Here two different textual typologies are merged together and an atypical trait like the idea of ruling over the other heroes — apparently, a homage paid to a woman of outstanding prestige — is taken as a standard feature, not only of the group I A, but of all the tablets (J.’s argument is usually much more lucid). Finally, it is very questionable to claim that the cypress could have a funerary meaning “given that the cypress has funerary associations in some strands of ancient thought” (pp. 108-9). Actually, except in the Roman world (suffice it to quote Verg. Aen. 6.216 feralis ante cupressos), there is no proof that the cypress, though used for coffins, was connected in ancient Greece to funeral rites or to the nether world.10 The underworld on the contrary appears to be full of trees as poplars and willows. In fact, as F. Olck expounded with plenty of examples in his entry Cypresse (1901) in R.E. 4, in Greece the cypress was mainly a Symbol des Lebens. On p. 160 G. says more correctly that “the cypress was a tree that humans used to honour the gods”: this is one of the very few disagreements I noticed between the two authors. Whereas in the leaves of group I A the spring of the cypress is to be avoided, it is precisely from this spring that the thirsty dead must drink in the Cretan lamellae (I B Pugliese Carratelli). It is in these leaves a true tree of life, as it appears in an aramaic hodayot from Qumran (1QH26, 5). This more simple and elemental geography is one of the features that can lead us to deny, with Zuntz, that the Cretan tablets were, as J. and others believe, an abbreviated version of the model of the group I A. Actually, if the Cretan leaves were such an abridgement, one should admit that their model had seriously misunderstood the negative connotation of the spring near the cypress.

In the fifth chapter (pp. 137-164) G. considers with fine methodological balance the thorny question of the relationship between text and ritual (in other words, the tablets as ritual texts or liturgical scripts). He rightly asks about the small local communities which could have reworked with significant variations both the ritual modes and the arrangement of the texts. Especially interesting, and partly new, is G.’s comparison with the Gurôb papyrus, which seems to reflect the practices of a Greek-speaking cult group in Ptolemaic Egypt. A point where one might disagree is instead his interpretation, in Zuntz’s footsteps,11 of the acclamations alternating with sentences in hexameters in the Timpone Grande and Pelinna tablets as unmetrical (rhythmical prose). We only have to read aloud a line like 3.5 chaire chaire dexian hodoiporôn to feel that it is not prose, but a faultless iambo-trochaic sequence (a catalectic trochaic trimeter or an acephalous iambic trimeter, cf. Hephaest. Ench. 6.2), that is a colon known to us since Archil. fr. 197 W.2 G. himself (p. 138 and 207 n. 3) seems on the point of admitting the metrical nature of 26a.6 = 26b.5 oinon echeis eudaimona timên“You have wine as your fortunate honor”, but he interprets it as “two choriambics followed by a spondee, or as the end of a hexameter”. It is clearly a double adonaeus, which is attested for example in the Bacchic cry axie taure axie taure in the anonymous hymn which according to Plutarch was sung by the women of Elis ( Carm. pop. 871.6-7 PMG).12

In their sixth and last chapter (pp. 165-184) G. and J. together rehearse the main aspects of Orphic poetry and of its mythical founder (Orpheus the Argonaut, the foreigner, the singer, the magician, the initiator, Orpheus and Eurydice); they thus enhance the wide-ranging performative function of these texts. A detail which should perhaps to be investigated in more depth is how and why a character like Orpheus, originally felt as opposed to Dionysus (who instigated his death in Aeschylus’ Bassarides, cf. TrGF III, pp. 138-39 Radt), was gradually attracted in the Dionysian sphere and was exploited in the reform of old Dionysiac cults and beliefs.

Lastly, an appendix of “additional Bacchic texts” (pp. 185-190) contains the Olbia bone tablets (no. 94a-c Dubois), the inscriptions from Olbia no. 92 e 95 Dubois13, and the translation of col. i of P.Gurôb 1 and the edict of Ptolemy IV Philopator preserved in P.Berlin 11774. One could usefully have added Posidippus’ epigrams 43, 44, 60, and 118 A.-B., a very interesting witness to Dionysiac cults in Macedonia, and the contemporary epitaph (anon. 148 FGE) for Philicus of Corcyra, who was both a poet and a priest of Dionysus.14

Much remains to be done in order to understand both the mystery leaves and some elusive figures like Dionysus, Orpheus, Mnemosyne. This is despite the enormous body of research accumulated since the first edition of the Petelia tablet in 1836; it is partly because we nearly always have difficult paths to negotiate, with pieces of evidence as plentiful for the Neoplatonic period as they are deficient and controversial for earlier times. Much investigation is also needed into the origin (probably not Orphic) of the models of the Hipponion, Petelia, Entella, Pharsalus tablets and of the Cretan lamellae. None the less, G. and J. have achieved a work teeming with good ideas, clear, and well structured. It only remains to wish their book a wide circulation.

[Another review of this book appears at BMCR 2007.10.35.]


1. See A. Bernabé-A.J. Jiménez San Cristóbal, Instrucciones para el más allá. Las laminillas órficas de oro, Ediciones Clásicas, Madrid 2001, and G. Pugliese Carratelli, Le lamine d’oro orfiche. Istruzioni per il viaggio oltremondano degli iniziati greci, Adelphi, Milano 2001.

2. See G. Pugliese Carratelli, “Un sepolcro di Hipponion e un nuovo testo orfico”, La Parola del Passato 29 (1975), 108-26. But Pugliese himself changed his mind in his 2001 edition suggesting the improbable tode hieron“è sacro questo (dettato)”.

3. A. Bernabé, “Autour du mythe orphique sur Dionysos et les Titans. Quelques notes critiques”, in D. Accorinti- A. Chuvin (edd.), Des Géants à Dionysos. Mélanges offerts à F. Vian, Dell’Orso, Alessandria 2003, 25-39.

4. See R. Seaford, “Immortality, Salvations, and the Elements”, HSCPh 90 (1986), 1-26 (4-9), and R. Edmonds, “Tearing Apart the Zagreus Myth: A Few Disparaging Remarks on Orphism and Original Sin”, Class. Ant. 18 (1999), 35-73.

5. At 1.16 bakchoi does not necessarily refer to the Dionysiac sphere. Immediately after the first publication of the Hipponion leaf M.L. West, “Zum neuen Goldblättchen aus Hipponion”, ZPE 18 (1975), 229-236 (234-35), quoted some passages, like Aesch. fr. 341 R. and Eur. F 477 K., where bakchos is linked to Apollo. More recently V. Di Benedetto (ed.), Euripide. Le Baccanti, Rizzoli, Milano 2004, 28 and 299-300 has signalled the non-Dionysiac use of words based on bakch- in Eur. fr. 472.15 K. (= 1.15 Cozzoli), Hec. 1076, HF 1119 and 1122, Ph. 21 and 1489, Or. 338, 411, and 835, Ba. 126, Strab. 10.3.10. Another reason to doubt that bacchoi has a specific Dionysiac meaning in the Hipponion tablet is its coupling with mystai ( mystai kai bacchoi). If, as it seems, mystai are the initiated in generic terms, the bacchoi cannot be the followers of Dionysus; they must be individuals capable of attaining a true ecstatic experience as well as accepting a given mystery cult (see M.L. West, The Orphic Poems, Oxford 1983, 159 n. 68: “those who attain true ecstasy, of a higher initiatory grade”).

6. On p. 19 of his 2001 edition he wrote: “Nel silenzio dei testi ‘mnemosynii’ sullo stato finale degli eletti si avverte una religiosa discrezione che accentua il divario tra il primo e il secondo gruppo: dettata da una profonda pietas, essa si addice ad una comunità quale la pitagorica, che nel simbolo del tripode delfico impresso sugli stateri di Crotone dembra aver voluto significare il suo rispetto per quella teologia pitica che ammoniva a non confondere lo stato di mortale con l’essenza degli Immortali”. Pugliese’s contribution to the Orphism and the gold leaves is nearly ignored by G. in his valuable survey “A history of scholarship on the tablets” (pp. 50-65), nor does he mention the papers collected in G. Pugliese Carratelli, Tra Cadmo e Orfeo. Contributi alla storia civile e religiosa dei Greci d’Occidente, Il Mulino, Bologna 1990.

7. More attention is paid to this issue by R.G. Edmonds in the second chapter of his recent book Myths of the Underworld Journey. Plato, Aristophanes, and the Orphic Gold Tablets, University Press, Cambridge 2004.

8. See L. Battezzato, “Le vie dell’Ade e le vie di Parmenide. Filologia, filosofia e presenze femminili nelle lamine d’oro ‘orfiche'”, SemRom 8 (2005), 67-99 (71-81).

9. See V. Di Benedetto, “Fra Hipponion e Petelia”, La Parola del Passato 59 (2004), 293-308 (299-301).

10. O. Gruppe, Griechische Mythologie und Religionsgeschichte, I-II, Beck, München 1906, 789-90, to whom J. refers on p. 203, quoted only some scanty late evidence.

11. See G. Zuntz, Persephone. Three Essays on Religion and Thought in Magna Graecia, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1971, 341-42.

12. Another question to be decided is whether we should accept, as G. does, the reading eudaimona of 26a or, with Pugliese Carratelli, the vocative eudaimon of 26b: in this second case we would have a no less plausible lyric sequence (4da = alcm).

13. However, I do not see how no. 95 could be called ‘Bacchic’. It reflects a mystery cult of Boreikoi thiasitai between the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. for a ‘Borean’ Apollo. He is certainly akin to the god of whom Pindar says ( Py. 10.29-36) that he is delighted with the songs and sacrifices of donkeys offered him by the Hyperboreans, the fabulous people to whom Perseus arrives along a “marvellous path”. On this graffito see ch. 9.7 of my forthcoming book La fonte del cipresso bianco, UTET, Torino.

14. See M.W. Dickie, “The Dionysiac Mysteries of Pella”, ZPE 109 (1995), 81-6 and “Poets as Initiates in the Mysteries: Euphorion, Philicus and Posidippus”, Antike und Abendland 44 (1998), 49-77, L. Rossi, “Il testamento di Posidippo e le laminette auree di Pella”, ZPE 112 (1996), 59-65, and M. Fantuzzi, “Mescolare il ludicro al serio: la poetica del corcirese Filico e l’edonismo dei Feaci ( SH 980)”, in G. Lozza-S. Martinelli Tempesta (edd.), L’epigramma greco. Problemi e prospettive, Cisalpino, Milano 2007, 53-68.