BMCR 2007.10.35

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

, , Ritual texts for the afterlife : Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets. London and New York: Routledge, 2007. x, 246 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 0415415500. $34.95 (pb).

This study of the enigmatic gold tablets, by two experts in the field of Greek religion in general and of these tablets in particular, provides an accessible introduction to these difficult texts, as well as an excellent overview of the religious contexts in which they were produced. As the title indicates, Graf and Johnston locate these tablets, which have been labeled as everything from Orphic to Dionysiac to Pythagorean, within the ritual practice of Bacchic mystery cults, although they maintain a connection with the mythical poet Orpheus and the rites attributed to him. Their edition makes accessible for the first time in English translation all of the currently published gold tablets, and their commentary is the only monograph devoted to the tablets in English.1 In addition to the texts and translations, the volume includes an excellent history of the scholarship, a chapter on the myth of Dionysos Zagreus that the authors imagine underlies the tablets, a chapter examining the eschatology of the tablets, a survey of Dionysiac Mystery Cults, and finally a chapter exploring what can be known about Orpheus, his poetry, and sacred texts in general within the Greek religious tradition. An appendix provides the texts and translations of some other pieces of evidence that seem to arise from similar contexts (the Olbia bone tablets, some other Olbian inscriptions, the Gurob papyrus, and the edict of Ptolemy concerning Dionysiac ritualists). Typographical or other production errors are few and trivial, and the book contains six images that add greatly to the arguments. Despite a few problems of interpretation (some serious), this study will be valuable, not only to those encountering these mysterious tablets for the first time, but also for experts in the field. Most important is the authors’ articulation and employment of a model of bricolage to explain the complex processes of transmission and alteration within the Greek mythic and religious tradition that produced the tablets. While Levi-Strauss’ model of the rag-bag tinker who puts together new things from the scraps of old has been around for decades, it has never been applied as usefully and broadly as Graf and Johnston do in their study. Their use of the bricolage model produces some of the best insights and explanations in the study — not just of the tablets, but of Greek religion in general. Indeed, the main flaws in their work come in places where they fall short of applying the model as thoroughly as they might.

The texts and translations comprise the first chapter. Each text is presented along with a brief summary of the archaeological context (if any) in which it was found, as well as information about previous publications. Critical apparatus is kept to a minimum. Although several editions of the gold tablets have appeared in recent years, the authors make two useful choices that differentiate this edition from its predecessors.2 Rather than attempting to correct these often messy and problematic texts to produce a standardized Attic Greek, the authors (hereafter GJ) choose to render the texts in the peculiar forms that appear on the tablets themselves. As they note, “One needs to retain the exact spelling of words as they appear on the tablets in order to understand the degree of literacy possessed by these local writers, and to judge the editorial decisions of modern editors.” (p. 1) Not only have some of the editorial decisions been founded on dubious assumptions that need to be re-evaluated, but the unstandardized texts allow the reader to get a better sense of the local variation between the texts. This choice shifts the focus onto the sort of writers who might have been inscribing them, the entrepreneurs of the sacred, as GJ term them, who engage in bricolage for their local clientele. GJ also organize the texts by geographical region, rather than by any sort of content-based system, rejecting both Zuntz’s division between A and B tablets and the attempts of recent scholars such as Bernabé and Riedweg to reconstruct a single text from which all the tablets derive.3 Although this produces yet another set of numbering for the tablets, this choice again illuminates the local variations among this group of texts found in regions from Magna Graecia to Crete to Macedonia. Of course, the grouping by geography instead of by content means that tablets with very short texts (only a name or the word ‘mystes’) are included alongside the longer texts that provide the vivid details of the underworld that first drew attention to these tablets.

The second chapter sketches the history of the scholarship on these tablets, which were first uncovered in the nineteenth century. GJ provide a clear and insightful overview of the debates over these tablets and their place in the larger question of Orphism. As they note, the tablets quickly became embroiled in the ‘culture wars’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in which the role of institutional religion in the modern state was argued in part in terms of the historical origins of Christianity in relation to the paganism of Greco-Roman culture.4 They deftly trace the debates from the controversy of Creuzer and Lobeck in the early nineteenth century, before the discovery of the tablets, through the first studies of Comparetti, Dieterich, Rohde, and Harrison to the maximalist positions of Maas, Loisy, Boulanger, Macchioro, Lagrange, and Guthrie. While Linforth’s critique demolished the most egregious maximalist fantasies in the mid-twentieth century, new discoveries of gold tablets, starting with the publication of the Hipponion tablet in 1975, prompted new theories about the nature and interrelation of the tablets. GJ point out that, although no modern scholar “would call the Orphic movement a religion or claim that early Christianity depended on Orphism,”(p. 65) scholarly consensus today tends toward the unified view of the tablets first put forth by Comparetti. They comment, “It is difficult not to be impressed by Comparetti’s achievement. With only six tablets at his disposal, one of which he did not understand and three of which were basically identical, he nevertheless shaped interpretation of the Gold Tablets in a decisive way.” (p. 55) Comparetti’s achievement might be rated less positively, however, since his interpretation from this limited data set shaped the interpretation in a way that distorted the tablets. Although GJ actually reject some of Comparetti’s crucial ideas, they nevertheless adopt the synthetic Zagreus myth that Comparetti put forth as the underpinning of all the tablets, an interpretation that had profound repercussions not just for the tablets but for the understanding of Orphism and its relation to Christianity.

This myth of the Titans’ murder of Dionysos Zagreus and the generation of mankind from the Titanic ashes is the subject of the next chapter, unfortunately the most flawed of the entire book. GJ begin by quoting the sixth century CE Neoplatonist Olympiodorus, who is the only source to provide a version of the myth that includes both the Titans’ murder of Dionysos and the creation of humans from their ashes. Since that version still does not include other elements crucial to the interpretation of the tablets, they provide a version, synthesized from a wide variety of sources, that also includes the ideas that humans are stained by this Titanic crime and need to expiate this crime through rituals in honor of Dionysos and Persephone. The argument that this synthetic myth was created, with all of its component parts, in the sixth century BCE is not only problematic in its interpretation of certain of the individual pieces of evidence, but it also seems to fly in the face of the model of bricolage that is articulated so well in this very chapter (esp. pp. 70-1). While they do a nice job of explaining how a bricoleur in the sixth century BCE might have formed each part of this Zagreus myth from extant traditions, providing a good list of these themes and motifs on pp. 90-1, they never explain why one should imagine a single act of bricolage, by a single bricoleur, at a single point in time, rather than a series of acts of bricolage, by a number of bricoleurs, over the whole span of time from which the evidence derives — from the sixth century BCE to the sixth century CE. Especially if one accepts their cogently articulated argument for bricolage as the fundamental process by which Greek myths and religious ideas were transmitted and reformulated in the tradition, it is a more plausible and economical hypothesis to see each of the pieces of evidence we have for these various mythic elements (the Titans’ murder of Dionysos, the anthropogony from the remains of the Titans, the need for purification from ancestral crimes, etc.) as the product of a particular act of bricolage that combined these elements with others from the mythic tradition in a peculiar way for individualized reasons. GJ even discuss how variations of certain parts of the tale, such as whether Apollo or Demeter/Rhea picked up the pieces of the slain Dionysos, might have been created at different times and in different contexts, but they assume that certain essential pieces must have been put together at the sixth century BCE origin point — Dionysos, who as the son of Persephone and Zeus is linked to both the underworld and the throne of heaven, is slain by the Titans who become the ancestors of mankind and pass on the guilt. The crucial links between anthropogony and eschatology, as well as the sixth century BCE date for this singular act of bricolage, seem to rest almost entirely upon the flawed interpretation of a Pindar fragment (133) preserved in Plato’s Meno that refers to the recompense ( ποινή) Persephone receives from some mortals for the ancient grief ( πένθος). This grief is imagined to be the loss of her son, Dionysos, rather than the better known story of her abduction and marriage to Hades, and this allusion is understood to imply the entirety of the synthesized Zagreus myth.5 The assumption of a single date for the bricolage removes a historical dimension from the otherwise excellent study of the themes and elements in the tale, limiting the analysis to a single context to motivate the choice and combination of themes and ideas.6

Despite this fundamental problem, much of their analysis of the themes and motifs, as well as of the process of bricolage, is excellent, and they make some intriguing points along the way. GJ argue, for example, that the popular explanation of the death and rebirth of Dionysos as symbolic of adolescent initiation is problematic, given the absence of actual adolescent initiation from the historical periods in which these texts were composed.7 Rather, the rationale for the motifs of Dionysos’ enthronement, murder, and rebirth stems from the themes of perverted sacrifice and an innovative extension of the succession myth, where Dionysos is recognized as the successor to Zeus without actually ever removing Zeus from his place as ruler of the cosmos. So too, in contrast to earlier scholars who saw the Orphic anthropogony as a mark of Orphism’s superior teleological view of the world — an ordered creation by an intelligent creator culminating in the creation (and fall and redemption) of mankind, GJ argue that the anthropogony from the Titans’ remains presents a world in which the appearance of humanity is an unpleasant accident.8

The next chapter explores the eschatological background of the gold tablets, rejecting any attempt “to reconstruct a single, complete and coherent eschatological system out of the statements on the tablets” (p. 96), but seeking to identify the important elements in the tablets and their relation to contemporary eschatological systems. Again, the insistence that the single Zagreus myth, rather than a variety of mythic visions, underpins the entire eschatology of all the tablets seems to contradict this effort, but the analysis is nevertheless excellent in most respects, with detailed analyses of the types of tablets and the visions of the underworld they present. GJ differentiate (pp. 94-5) between tablets that function as mnemonic devices for the soul, reminding her of what to do and say, and those that serve as proxies, actually providing the words on behalf of the soul. The brief texts of the proxies provide less material for comparison and analysis, so most of the chapter focuses on the mnemonics, which paint an often vivid picture of underworld geography. The analysis of the features such as the white cypress, the water of Memory, and the guards is detailed and informative, but the tripartite schema of bad, good, and “good-plus” souls, each of whom receive different treatments in the afterlife, troubles the whole analysis of the underworld geography. GJ assume that the instructions to bear right on one tablet (tablet 3 = A4 = OF 487) imply that the soul in all the tablets must choose whether to go left or right around the Halls of Hades when she reaches the underworld. The soul then encounters the white cypress and its spring but must go further along to the correct spring. The uninitiated but good soul will go right but stop at the first spring, while the bad soul will (for some unspecified reason) choose to go left at the Halls of Hades. GJ imagine a chronological development from older bipartite schemas for the afterlife (themselves developed out of the originary Homeric vision of one dreary afterlife for everyone), in which bipartite schemas with ethical or ritual criteria were combined into this tripartite schema. Unfortunately, this tripartite schema has no basis in the tablet texts themselves. None of the texts provides any opportunity for a choice of paths before the cypress, nor does any of them provide any indication of an ethical division between good and bad.9 Pindar (Olympian 2) and Plato’s Republic do indeed have this kind of tripartite schema, but the postulated chronological development breaks down at all levels. Not only does Homer have more complex divisions (between very bad, ordinary, and privileged) and Plato (in, e.g., the Gorgias) have a simple bipartite division between (ethically) good and bad, but the postulated chronological development once again contradicts the bricolage model, where the bricoleur would choose, on the basis of his current agenda, between simple, bipartite, tripartite or even more complex divisions on the basis of criteria that could be ethical, ritual, or based on some other value system.10 Moreover, although the shorter tablets with no choice of spring have a bipartite schema, they appear to be later than the longer tablets with two springs and the postulated tripartite schema. The tablets have a variety of ways by which the privileged dead (with a tablet) are separated from the ordinary dead, but the distinction is always between the tablet holder and others, not between good-plus, good, and bad.

Given the authors’ assumption that the myth of Titanic anthropogony and guilt underpins all the tablets, it is surprising to note that they reject several of the crucial pieces of evidence in the tablets that were used, from Comparetti onward, to argue for the very existence of such a tale. While Comparetti understood the reference to death by lightning in the tablets from Thurii and the claims to come ‘of your happy race’ (in Thurii) or to be the ‘child of Earth and starry Heaven’ (in other tablets) as claims that the tablet holders saw themselves as (descendants of the) Titans, GJ reject those identifications, rightly pointing out that it would make little sense for the deceased to try to win favor with Persephone by claiming descent from her child’s murderers (pp. 115, 124, 126). In this chapter, they argue effectively for understanding these crucial identity claims by the tablet holders as claims to heroic or near divine status, but then suggest unconvincingly (p. 127) that the underlying myth of Titanic anthropogony would not vitiate the claim but emphasize the contrast between the heroic tablet holder and the evil Titans. However, without the lightning or “child of Earth and starry Heaven” formula indicating the presence of Titans in the tablets, there is no reason to find any reference to Titans at all, and the rationale for imagining the Titanic anthropogony in the bricoleur’s mix is entirely removed.

In the next chapter, GJ provide an excellent survey of the evidence for Dionysiac Mystery cults that might provide context for the production of the gold tablets. Noting the problems of evidence, they nevertheless show how the model of bricoleurs, itinerant entrepreneurs of the sacred who adapt their products to the needs of their clientele, helps make sense of the chronologically and geographically diverse material. Their arguments for the ritual nature of the tablets are cogent and careful, stressing local variation and the impact of individual professionals, but the warning that “not every initiation had to be performed by a professional,” (p. 161) opens up the possibility that those buried with the tablets may never have gone through an initiation but that they (or a relative) simply purchased the tablet from an entrepreneur of the sacred — the connection between the tablets and ritual may not be as clear as their arguments suggest. They conclude, “not much in the ritual of Bacchic mystery cults can be traced back to the Gold Tablets, although both the cults and the tablets go back to a pre-Hellenistic, presumably archaic date.” (p. 157) Nevertheless, their discussions of the nature of mystery cults and purification, as well as some of the more important pieces of evidence, are valuable in and of themselves, not just as context for the tablets, and they illustrate the value of the bricolage model for grappling with this evidence.

The final chapter continues the exploration of the religious context of these tablets, examining the evidence for Orpheus and for the different kinds of sacred writings in the ancient Greek world. Orpheus was less well known for his tragic wedding with Eurydice, so familiar to later audiences from Vergil and Ovid, than for roles such as Argonaut or foreign singer in Greek lands, and the authors analyze the evidence for Orpheus as a magician and founder of rituals, as well as a poet. Their discussion of hieroi logoi not only draws the contrast with the idea of sacred scriptures familiar from the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also shows the connection between hieroi logoi and religious movements supplemental to mainstream polis religion.11 “Marketing the supplemental is a tricky business,” (p. 179) but the authors show how writing in general and even the specific technology of inscribing special words on gold leaf gave the entrepreneurs of the sacred ways of claiming extraordinary authority for their wares and themselves. A written text provides a link between the authority of the ancients and the current moment, especially when reactivated by the performance of a religious specialist, and the contrast between the ordinary version of a myth or rite and the special version known only to a few would add cachet to the product.

Ultimately, it is GJ’s articulation of this vision of the way Greek religion operated that is the most valuable contribution this book makes, beyond even their analyses of the texts and contexts of the tablets themselves. GJ outline a dynamic model of Greek myth and religion, “a situation where the practices and beliefs are crafted, and then periodically recrafted as they spread throughout the Greek world, by individuals who had particular, conscious aims in mind — and who worked under limits imposed by the circumstances of marketing the supplemental.” (p. 184) The authors apply this model of bricolage to bring a number of valuable insights to the study of the tablets and their contexts, and their analysis goes astray only when they do not apply their model thoroughly enough. The choice to present the unstandardized texts, with all their local variations, highlights the varied nature of the different tablets, and their analyses of the tablets’ contents often accentuate the variety of the tablets as well. Despite the interpretive flaws resulting from the assumption that the Zagreus myth underpins all the tablets, Graf and Johnston have put together an exciting study, one that will illuminate the shadowy darkness, not just for the initiate, but also for the uninitiated venturing for the first time into the world of the Bacchic gold tablets.

[Another review of this book appears at BMCR 2007.10.15.]


1. Zuntz’s 1971 edition provided no translation, so Guthrie’s 1952 translation of the synthesized versions of the tablets remained the only available translation. Recently there have been several publications devoted to the tablets, and the Spanish monograph by Bernabé and Jiménez will appear soon in English translation. My own chapter on the tablets in Edmonds 2004 does not contain the texts and translations, nor does it constitute a full and systematic study of the tablets, although I grapple with many of the same questions. (Zuntz, Günther, (1971). Persephone: Three Essays on Religion and Thought in Magna Graecia; Guthrie, W.K.C., (1952). Orpheus and Greek Religion; Bernabé, Alberto and Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal, (2001). Instrucciones para el Más Allá: Las laminillas órficas de oro; Edmonds, R. (2004). Myths of the Underworld Journey: Plato, Aristophanes, and the ‘Orphic’ Gold Tablets.)

2. Bernabé and Jiménez (2001). Instrucciones para el Más Allá: Las laminillas órficas de oro; Bernabé, A. (2004). Poetae Epici Graeci II: Orphicorum Graecorum testimonia et fragmenta; Riedweg, Christoph, (1998). “Initiation – Tod – Unterwelt: Beobachtungen zur Kommunikationssituation und narrativen Technik der orphisch-bakchischen Goldblättchen,” in Ansichten griechischer Rituale: Geburtstags-Symposium für Walter Burkert, pp. 359-398; Pugliese Carratelli, Giovanni, (1993, rev. ed. 2001). Lamine d’oro ‘Orfiche’.

3. Zuntz 1971; Bernabé and Jiménez 2001; Riedweg 1998.

4. “One way to break the power of the Church was to historicize Christianity: far from being the divinely revealed religion, much (or, according to some people, all) of its ritual and theological content had pre-Christian roots and derived from Greek and Roman paganism” (p. 58).

5. The interpretation stems primarily from Rose 1936 and 1943, but see Edmonds 1999 and forthcoming, as well as Holzhausen. Rose, H. J. (1936). Ancient Grief: A Study of Pindar, Fragment 133 (Bergk), 127 (Bowra). Greek Poetry and Life: Essays presented to Gilbert Murray: 79-96; Rose, H. J. (1943). “The Grief of Persephone.” Harvard Theological Review 36: 247-250; Edmonds, R. (1999). “Tearing apart the Zagreus myth: a few disparaging remarks on orphism and original sin.” Classical Antiquity 18(1): 1-24; Edmonds, R. (forthcoming). “Persephone and ποινή : Recompense for the Powers of the Underworld in the ‘Orphic’ Gold Tablets and Pindar fr. 133,” in Graf, Fritz, ed., A Gold Tablets Conference (forthcoming); Holzhausen, Jens, (2004). “Pindar und die Orphik zu frg. 133 Snell/Maehler,” Hermes 132: 20-36.

6. For example, because the murder of Dionysos is understood as a corrupted sacrifice, the evidence in which Dionysos is cut up and cooked is given priority over the indications that, in some versions, he was torn up. While the theme of corrupted sacrifice is undoubtedly important in some versions, other versions seem to have omitted this theme entirely, focusing on other aspects of the story, such as the movement from unity to multiplicity, that were important to the particular bricoleur who composed the version. Again, GJ’s selection of a single meaning seems to contradict their bricolage model.

7. “To argue that the bricoleur purposefully introduced an initiatory theme into the story he was creating requires us to presume that he could conceptualize and recreate, in approximately the same manner as we do, an adolescent initiatory pattern that at the time existed only in traces in various other myths, and also that he could discern a phenomenological similarity between that initiatory pattern and the sort of initiation associated with mystery rites. This seems unlikely.” (p. 82)

8. Pp. 88-90, cp. Nilsson 1935, pp. 224-5, “The Orphic myth of the creation of man has become an anthropogony in the full sense of the word, intrinsically and logically connected with the theogony as its final event. Beginning with Chaos and ending the creation of man the cosmogony is rounded off into a systematic whole which has not only a mythical but also a religious meaning. Its final aim is not to relate tales of the world and of the gods, but to explain the composite nature of man and his fate.” (Nilsson, Martin, (1935). “Early Orphism and Kindred Movements,” Harvard Theological Review XXVIII: 181-230.) cp., also Guthrie 1952: 84.

9. GJ suggest (p. 101) that holding off until the second spring might be proof of the virtue of sophrosyne, but that would only differentiate the good and good-plus in their schema, not the good from the bad.

10. Cp. Edmonds 2004 for an attempt to examine this kind of variation not just in the tablets but in Plato and Aristophanes as well.

11. Henrichs suggests secrecy and marginality as characteristic of religious movements that made use of hieroi logoi, but the authors point out that some religious phenomena, like the Thesmophoria, are secret but not marginal, whereas others, like the Bendis festivals in Athens, are marginal but not secret. (Henrichs, Albert, (2003). “Hieroi Logoi” and “Hierai Bibloi”: The (Un)Written Margins of the Sacred in Ancient Greece. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 101: 207-266.)